Flint (SiO2 - Silicon Dixoide) is a bio-sedimentary material that was formed in the ocean millions of years ago. It is almost pure silica, containing less than 5% impurity in the form of Calcium Carbontate and other trace elements, such as sodium and potassium which are found in different proportions from different sites, thus allowing analysis to determine the source of flint tools. It is very fine crystalline grain gives flint a glassy character so that when struck it fractures conchoidally, which makes it perfect for knapping.

Scientists are still not totally sure how it was formed, but we can tell due to the faults in the flint and patterns that appear when flint is broken that the remains of sea creatures play a large role in the formation of flint.

It is likely that when an organism dies it sinks to the sea bed and begins to decay. At this point the high levels of silicon particles in the sea at that time would have stuck to the decaying remains, eventually sealing it in a cocoon of silicon. This nodule of soft silicon expanded and hardened, eventually forming layers of flint that we see today at the beach in chalk cliffs such as those at Dover.

Puzzling giant flint formations known as Paramoudra and flint circles are found around Europe but especially in Norfolk.

Flint quarry in Norfolk >>

flint quarry

Lithics

“Lith” means stone e.g. Megalith, Monolith, Microlith. A lithic is simply a stone tool instead of a stone monument. The main definition is a tool that has been made from raw stone material; this covers all periods from all places over the globe. The term “Lith” is also used within the stone tool categories, such as “microlith” which was a type of tool in the British Mesolithic (a category of tools that were very small flake struck off a core then retouch to make sharp cutting tools and points).

There are many different types of stone that can be used to make lithic tools, depending on where you are in the world. Britain has plenty of flint and Bio-sedimentary materials, whereas North America has igneous material. Different materials required different techniques to work them into effective tools. Some materials produce a sharp cutting edge naturally when flaked e.g. Obsidian and flint. Other materials have to be physically changed to make them useful e.g. some jaspers have to be heat treated to make them workable, as shown below:

Agate

Best heat treated before knapping

Andesite

Igneous rock, similar to basalt

Argillite

Sedimentary rock made of silica-rich clay

Basalt

Igneous rock- difficult to knapp

Chalcedony

Best heat treated- Silicious rock

Chert

Very similar to flint- sedimentary rock

Dacite

Igneous rock- similar to Andesite

Flint

Bio-sedimentary, made mostly of silica

Ignimbrite

Igneous rock- similar to obsidian

Jasper

Metamorphosed chert- improved by heat treating.

Novaculite

Metamorphic rock- requires heat treatment.

Obsidian

Natural volcanic glass- easy to knapp

Onyx

Mostly quartz- difficult to knapp

Opal

Hydrated silica- breaks easily

Petrified Wood

Silica- very easy to work

Porcelainite (Siliceous Shale)

Natural ceramic-difficult to pressure flake

Quartz

Pure silica- large crystals can be knapped

Quartzite

Metamorphosed sandstone- difficult to work

Rhyolite

Igneous rock- difficult to knapp

Silicified Coral

Fossilized coral- must be heat treated

Silicified Mudstone

Fine grained sedimentary rock made of silica rich clay

Silicified Shale

Fine grained sedimentary rock made of silica rich clay

Silicified Siltstone

Similar to Silicified Shale

Stone Technology Evolution - A brief history

"I don't know what weapons will be used to wage the 3rd World War,but I am sure sticks and stones will be used for the 4th.”
(Albert Einstein)

The Stone Age - first uses of Flint

The main divisions of the Stone Age are Palaeolithic ('old stone age'), lasting from approximately 2.5 million years ago to about 9000 BC, Mesolithic ('middle stone age') lasting about 4000 - 5000 years and finally Neolithic ('new stone age') for the next few thousand years until the introduction of bronze implements. Within these main divisions, particular cultures have been named, such as Acheulean, Clactonian, Mousterian and these names are used to describe flint tools that share their particular characteristics.

Advances in lithic technology can tell us many things about how prehistoric man’s brain developed as the environment changed around him and how different challenges meant he had to find different solutions. The evidence of this is how tools evolved from crude pebble choppers to intricate knives.

Palaeolithic:

The story the Lithics development began when first stone tools were used by Homo Habilis. The Olduwan culture dates from 2.5 - 1.5 million years ago.

Olduwan Culture

Olduwan Culture

Homo Habilis

Homo Habilis

(image provenance / © unknown)

These tools were minimally flaked pebble choppers that could only complete simple tasks and named Olduwan tools after the famous Olduvai Gorge in East Africa, investigated by Louis Leakey (1903-1972) and Mary Leakey (1913-1996). Archaeologists originally thought the Olduwan tools did not evolve, but as more sites have been discovered and analytic techniques improved, it appears the Olduwan was a highly effective technology that grew more complex over time, with the appearance of crude bifacial working, in which cores were flaked on both sides.

The next (British) tool culture was Clactonian used by Homo Erectus about 300,000 years ago. These again were simple chopping tools, but more advanced than Olduwan, with different tools for different purposes, although the handaxe (labelled 3) was a multipurpose tool and would remain so until the mid-Mesolithic, after which most tools had specific jobs.

Clactonian Culture

Clactonian Culture

Homo Erectus

Homo Erectus

(image provenance / © unknown)

Next came Acheulean, where the distinctive oval and pear-shaped handaxe appeared. The first handaxes were simple with only a few flakes taken off the raw material; any bifacial work on them was small. As development of the handaxe progressed, it turned into an efficient multipurpose tool which included advanced techniques, such as alternate flaking.

Three types of handaxe are Ovate (1), Cleavers (2) and Pointed (3). The ovate was fairly symmetrical; it had good cutting edges and was best at butchery. The Pick was pointed and not usually that symmetrical, but was good at digging and cutting. The heavy-duty cleaver was similar to an ovate except it had a butted end and a rounded top, so was a hybrid of a Biface/ovate and a pick

flint handaxes

A new tool culture emerged before the end of the lower Palaeolithic called Levalloisian or “tortoise” core because the upper flake resembles the shell of a tortoise. These were usually created by making a simple core that was struck to take off an inner flake - this created a flake tool that was similar to a handaxe. The Levalloisian technique extended to the start of the upper palaeolithic. It was a wasteful and difficult to master process.

Levalloisian
Levalloisian

(image provenance / © unknown)

Mousterian culture emerged in the middle Palaeolithic around 120,000 to 35,000 years ago. It was similar to Levalloisian, but instead of making a single flake from one core, many flakes came from one core. This was done was by striking the centre of a circular, disk-like platform until the core was exhausted of usable material. The flakes made were multi-purpose and were probably used for skinning or cutting meat.

flint flakes

(image provenance / © unknown)

Mousterian is important because it involves the concept of economy of material and thinking through the tool to be made by pre-forming the shape of the flake on the core flint before removal. After the Mousterian period, the cultures of stone tools did not really change because of new techniques, rather different jobs required new tools e.g. farmers needed new longer blade to cut crops.

Mesolithic:

Cultures of the Mesolithic period were mainly based on a food-gathering economy as the climate had improved. Hunting and fishing are indicated by the presence of microliths (small flints fashioned and mounted to form a composite tool such as a saw) and fish-spear barbs. Larger tools such as axes and maceheads were also made.

Neolithic:

Flint Mines:

Grimes Graves Grimes Graves

During this period there was wide-spread trade in flint and stone axes from flint mines such as Grimes Graves (pictures above) in Norfolk. Although around 70 possible neolithic flint mines have been identified in UK, only 14 are thought to be confirmed. These include:

  • Harrow Hill, Blackpatch, Church Hill, Cissbury, Long Down and Stoke Down in West Sussex
  • Durrington and Easton Down in Wiltshire
  • Martin’s Clump in Hampshire
  • Grimes Graves in Norfolk - the only Neolithic flint mine open to visitors
  • Den of Boddam and Skelmuir Hill in Grampian

Barbed and tanged flint arrowheads were also introduced around this time and continued in use on into the Early Bronze Age period, such as the one in the picture below I found during field-walking in 2008.

flint arrowhead find

References to flint/stone tools appear in the Old Testament, especially in circumcision rituals:

At that time Yahweh said to Joshua, "Make yourself flint knives and squat down and circumcise the people of Israel for a second time." So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the people of Israel on the hill of foreskins. (Joshua 5:2-3)

Flint was regarded as a hard, intractable material as seen in the expression ‘set his face like flint’ (Isaiah 50:7)

Roman & Medieval - Flint as a building material

After the end of prehistory, stone was no longer used for tools and materials like flint were used primarily for masonry. The Romans first used flint for building, mainly as the core of composite walls. Saxon and Norman churches also made use of coarse but unworked flint and this continued in the flint regions throughout the Middle Ages. A more sophisticated use of flint started at the beginning of the 14th Century in a process known as "flushwork". This is when knapping and squaring of flints produced flat surfaces which could be framed in limestone. Flushwork became highly fashionable in the late 15th century and it continued to be popular for about 100 years. During the 17th and 18th centuries, flint was generally replaced with brick.

Numerous churches, building and homes in UK have walls constructed of worked flint. One of the best places to see flint used this way is in the small town of Brandon (Suffolk).

The local pub is "The Flintknappers"

Many of the houses in Brandon are constructed of Flint

This modest building owned by BT has wonderful flint facade

Gunpowder & Flint

The use of Flint changed again, this time with the invention of the firearm. Flintlock is a general term for any hand-held firearm based on the flintlock mechanism. Introduced in the early 17th century, the flintlock rapidly replaced earlier firearm-ignition systems, such as the “Matchlock” and “Wheel lock”. It continued to be in common use for over two centuries, replaced by percussion cap and later, cartridge-based systems in the early-to-mid  19th century.

The “Snaphaunce” or “Snaplock”, it was the early form of a flintlock, first used in southern Germany around 1570’s. Flint is attached to a spring-loaded arm and when the trigger is pulled, a cover slides off the flash pan allowing the arm to snap forward striking the flint against a metal plate over the flash pan. Hopefully enough hot sparks are created to ignite the powder. This mechanism was much simpler and less expensive than another mechanism called the "Wheel Lock".

In 1608, Marin le Bourgeoys (ca. 1550–1634) from Lisieux in Normandy, was appointed to the Louvre gun shops in France. By combining improvements in prior fire-arm mechanisms, he created the first flintlock for King Louis XIII shortly after his accession to the throne in 1610. He replaced the separate steel and manually operated pan cover with a spring-loaded frizzen and also introduced an intermediate position between the released and full cock positions (known as the half cock position). So the flint was held away from the frizzen, but the trigger could not release the cock, preventing it from firing and making it much safer. Marin le Bourgeoys' design was very popular and was used in various forms throughout Europe by 1630 and was standard in firearm use until the 1840's, when it was finally replaced by percussion lock systems.

The flint scrapes off particles of iron as it contacts the striking surface and the friction rapidly ignites the iron to form Magnetite (Fe3O4) sparks, which lights the gunpowder, firing the ball from the barrel. Each flint would produce enough sparks for up to 50 shots.

 

(© Viken Nokhoudian - with kind permission)

Snaphaunce

Flintlock

Northern Arabs acquired the Snaphaunce and Flintlock technology in the late 1600's and often redesigned their long guns with a sharply curving butt, so that they could be easily tucked under an arm for single-handed firing from the back of a moving camel or horse. Swedish inventor Sven Åderman is credited with creating a rapid firing musket, that was first used in the Great Northern Wars of King Charles (Karl) XII of Sweden. For his efforts, Åderman was given the hunting estate of Halltorps by King Frederick I of Sweden in 1723.

In 1790 Philip Hayward received a musket flint army order for "100,000 flints of the best sort" and so was born the Brandon Gunflint Company. At the time of the Napoleonic Wars (around 1804) nine Brandon gunflint makers were commissioned by the Board of Ordnance to supply 360,000 flints a month to the gunsmiths working in the Gun Quarter area of Birmingham. These were for the famous Baker Rifle; a muzzle-loading flintlock, that has the distinction of being the longest service rifle in the British Army.

Baker Rifle >>

(© Susan Law - Pending Approval )

baker rifle

Brandon flintknappers prospered until just before the Battle of Waterloo (1815) when all the gunflints for the British Army were ordered from Brandon. In 1813, fourteen Brandon Flint Masters were supplying more than 1 million flints a month and employing around 160 knappers and diggers. In 1816 however, the order was nil which lead to the unemployment of many knappers.

masters of flint

A beautiful engraving (A.J Forrest "Masters of Flint") of a Brandon Flint shop in 1876, shows the flint master at work with his apprentice.

The apprenticeship lasted for seven years, but boys leaving schools generally looked for other jobs to avoid the killer dust.

In around 1868, the gunflint industry engaged around 36 men, but employed 10 less in 1878. Between 1880-1885 over twenty million gunflints were shipped from Brandon to Zanzibar (Africa), packed in old flour barrels (29,000 per barrel). At the end of the 19th century, Brandon was supplying about 4 million gunflints a year to Africa, China, Java, Sumatra, Malay and Latin America.

In central France, the towns of Meusnes, Noyers and Couffy also had thriving gun-flint industries, with 800 workers employed to make thirty million gunflints in 1794. French flints are easily distinguished by their honey-yellow or blonde colour.

>> 1930's Brandon Flintknappers (YouTube) <<

>> 1936 Brandon Flint mining & knapping (YouTube) <<

>> 1940's Brandon knapper Herbert Edwards (YouTube) <<

>> 1943 Pathé News showing Brandon knapper Vic Edwards <<

The flint mechanism was eventually replaced with the invention of the percussion cap and the later breech-loading cartridge. At the end of World War II there were around five knappers left at Brandon, however South Africa’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 1961 led to the imposition of a voluntary United Nations arms embargo in 1963 - this ended the flintknappers trade to Africa.

Fred Avery (right) remained as the last Brandon knapper until his death in 1996.

(© Collection Networks for Archaeology & Classics Teaching - Pending Approval)

Fred Avery


Other Modern Uses of Flint

Strike-a-Light: Another ancient use of flint was to make fire, by striking it against other materials to produce sparks. The hard flint edge shaves off a particle of metal that is heated by the friction and burns with oxygen. During the Neolithic the material used was iron pyrite, with specially prepared tinder such as Horse Hoof Fungus (Fomes fomentarius) - Ötzi was carrying four pieces of Fomes fomentarius fruit body that were chemically tested to show that he carried it for use as tinder. Later iron pyrite was replaced by Roman, Viking and Anglo-Saxon with iron "strike-a-lights".

Replica Roman "strike-a-lights" >>

(image provenance / © unknown)

strike-a-lights

Threshing sledge: Up until the 1950’s, Mediterranean farmers were using traditional threshing sledges (Cypriot name "dhoukani" or "Voukani" and Latin name "tribulum", from which comes the English word tribulation, often used in the King James Bible). A threshing sledge is a type of sled or sledge made of a heavy board or boards turned up at the front end and studded on the underside with 200-300 sharp bits of obsidian, flint or metal. Pulled by animals in circles over harvested cereal crops spread on a threshing floor, the device will separate the grain from its husks and break the straw into small bits, before the winnowing process using wooden forks. The flint for the sledge may have been knapped by an "Athkiakas" - derived from the Greek word athkiakopetra or athkiatchi meaning Chert. Threshing sledges appear on sandstone tablets from around 3500 BC and in cuneiform clay tablets from around 3000 BC and were used in the Middle East, Egypt and Europe.

Threshing sledge

(John H. Bishop Vincent - Public Domain)

thresing sledge
Threshing sledge

Potters Clay: John Astbury (1688 - 1743) of Shelton, was the first potter to add flint to clay to produce a whiter body to create the distinctive Astbury Ware. He allegedly masqueraded as an idiot in order to learn the craft from the potting brothers John Philip and David Elers, who had emigrated from Nürnberg (Netherlands) and had settled at Bradwell, Staffordshire. Around 1720, Astbury happening to notice an ostler (someone employed in a stable to take care of the horses) blowing powder from a red-hot flintstone pulverised into the eyes of a horse as a remedy, which gave him the idea of using calcined flint in pottery. It was prepared by pounding the flint into a dry state and then sift it through a fine mesh - this proved very harmful to the workmen. The effect on the flint grinders was expressed by a local engineer, Thomas Benson, when applying for a patent for a wet grinding process: 'Any person ever so healthful or strong working in that business cannot probably survive above two years, occasioned by the dust sucked into his body by the air he breathes'. By the mid-18th century, new machinery had been perfected for working the flint which was far more efficient. The flints were first doused with water to prevent the dust rising and then crushed to the consistency of sand by two giant millstones.

Ceramic Glaze Grinding: Flint pebbles have been used as the media in ball mills to grind glazes and other raw crushed materials for the ceramics industry since about 1870. A ball mill is a cylindrical device that rotates around a horizontal axis, partially filled with the material to be ground plus the grinding medium. It grinds the material into a very fine powder that is used in paints and pyrotechnics. The flint pebbles would be hand-selected to remove those with a high presence of iron (shown by a reddish colour). Blue-grey stones are ideal as they have a low content of chromophoric oxides and have less colouring contaminants.

>> Flintknapping <<


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