Neolithic (c. 3000 BC)

Flint tools

stone arrowhead
: B. Howcroft

Several important points to do with the history and nature of technology can be made regarding flint and chert tools, more generally known as ‘lithics’. First, they represent in effect the earliest human technology, i.e. the earliest attempts by human beings to exploit natural resources for their own use, so they are of considerable importance. Indeed, some of the oldest tools in the world come from the so-called Oldovan culture, named after the Olduvai Gorge in the East African Rift Valley, where evidence of early humans or hominids was first found. They are mostly large fist-sized pebbles deliberately broken to form chopping tools or axes and are contemporary with some of the earliest human fossils dated from the rock layers in which they have been found at several million years old.

Second, just because lithic tools are so old - indeed ‘prehistoric’- is absolutely no reason to suppose that they are in some way primitive or simple or clumsily made. On the contrary, what strikes you at once if you look at them properly or, better, pick them up, is just how well they fit into your hand and immediately suggest to you what they might have been used for. What is more, if you spend a little more time examining them you will be frankly amazed at the skill and beauty that went into their workmanship. A Late-Neolithic leaf-shaped arrowhead, for example, is as sophisticated and exquisitely designed a piece of technology for its time as a Jumbo Jet or a computer is of ours: they are each responses to a specific cultural need at a specific time in history they are each designed to do a specific job, and they do it remarkably well. The large span of time between prehistory and now may well mean that their cultures and technologies are very distant from us in 2005 and unfamiliar, but they are no less of value for that.

Third, there are many different kinds of lithic tool, usually told by their different sizes, shapes and manner of working arrowheads, blades, scrapers, saws, knives, awls, etc., just as today a toolbox would contain hammers, screwdrivers, chisels, etc. Lithic tools were designed for a range of purposes: for hunting game, for drilling, for scraping animal hides, for cutting and slicing food, possibly too for ornamentation and for ritual. They were produced for basic practical purposes, as well as for decoration and for more ‘abstract’ or ‘symbolic’, possibly even, religious uses: just as jewellery and a crucifix would be today.

Fourth, there is more than one kind of flint, which you can usually tell from their different colours, shades, and degree of opacity, as well as from what is known as their patina. Over time, chemical action over the surface of the flint, especially if it is a freshly broken surface, due jointly to exposure to external agents in the air and soil such as oxygen, water and iron, alters its colour. This process is called patination and the surface colouring is called patina, and different flints characteristically produce different patinas. Flint, too, just like any other material, varies in quality, in toughness or in how sharp an edge it takes. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that one type of flint was better at a certain job than another and so deliberately selected in some cases again, just as today, one type of steel, say, is better for a kitchen knife, while another is better for a high-speed drill or a door-hinge. We in 21st century Europe have lost touch with flint or lithic technology, but there should be no doubt that in its way flint technology was every bit as complex and sophisticated as our iron-and-steel technology is today, producing a variety of objects for a variety of tasks using a variety of steels. Indeed, flint was not surprisingly regarded as an extremely valuable commodity in prehistoric times, and there is strong evidence that lumps or cores of flint were mined and traded up and down the country from their source regions, and were highly prized for their particular qualities. For example, south of the Thetford forest in Norfolk, itself very much a flint county, is a site known as "Grime's Graves": a huge complex of Neolithic flint-mining pits and galleries sunk into the ground to get at the best seams. It is important to realise that there are no local supplies of flint, amber or jet: it all had to be imported from somewhere else. Amber, a fossilised form of pine resin, comes from the coast where odd pieces are washed in from time to time by the sea. Jet as you will probably well know comes from the Whitby area, while virtually all of the flint comes either from Holderness or from the Wolds. In fact, there was probably quite a sophisticated trading network in these materials, as they were so highly prized. In some cases, completed tools were brought into a region from outside, presumably by skilled craftsmen, trading not only un-worked lumps of flint but finished tools as well. In other words, flint was more than the prime material for making tools and weapons in a very real sense, it was the main basis of prehistoric economy, of trade that is, until the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic added grain. For example, Yorkshire Wold flint can be recognised by its bluish-white colour, generally white patina and the fact that it is opaque to light, but as you will see flint brought in from other areas, such as Holderness, can be black, grey, brown, buff, amber or cream and even translucent. The only local material is chert, found on our local gritstone moors. Chert is a greyish rock with an obvious grain, much coarser than flint, but very similar in the way it breaks and can be worked. The best way to think about chert is - if you like - as a cheaper, local alternative to the more expensive, better quality flint; generally, chert tools are not as good, don't take as sharp or fine an edge, and are more brittle so probably didn’t last as long either but being worked from a local material, they would be easier and quicker to make, and more readily available.

A few words on lithic-working technology are necessary, in particular to explain the jargon or special vocabulary that goes with it. Flint and - to a lesser extent chert are siliceous rock: flint is a highly crystalline form of quartz or silica chemically and structurally very similar to glass and obsidian, usually found as large lumps or nodules or else as continuous seams embedded in chalk. Like glass and obsidian, flint is extremely tough and resilient - one reason why flint tools have survived so well down the ages. Yet, like glass, it is also extremely fragile to shock: easily broken into pieces with dangerously sharp edges, as anyone who has ever cut themselves on broken glass can testify. Flint is no different: flint, glass and obsidian all break in the same characteristic way. If you take an un-worked lump of flint, known as a core, and strike it hard with another stone on one edge, thin sharp-edged pieces known as flakes break off. The same edge can be struck repeatedly to remove several such flakes at a time. The edge that is struck is known as the striking platform and is often easy to make out on flint cores as a more or less flat surface from which several large flakes have been removed striking down the core. Also, as the flint core is struck, a high-speed shock wave travels through the tough crystalline structure of the flint like a miniature earthquake, causing a bulge to appear in its surface and ripples to radiate out from the point where it has been struck, very similar to what happens when a stone is dropped into a pond. This feature is referred to as the bulb of percussion. Flakes are usually of two kinds: long, narrow flakes, also known as blades, and shorter shell-shaped pieces, looking for all the world like tiny glass limpets. Indeed, the habit of shell-shaped bits to break off from glass, flint and obsidian if it is hit, dropped or chipped has given rise to the technical name for this kind of fracture: conchoidal, meaning shell-shaped. Naturally, like any other human activity, a lot of waste is created. Many of the flakes are the wrong size or shape to be of any use and are discarded on the spot. This is often how archaeologists can tell that there was in fact a flint-working or, as it is known - flint-knapping - site at the location: by the large number of waste flakes found in the immediate area. All this activity, striking flakes off a core, is known as primary working, as it forms the first or initial phase of the flint-working.

The next phase it to take the struck flakes, or the remaining core, and then work them or it again to produce finished tools. This requires a finer degree of workmanship and is called - for obvious reasons - secondary working. On flakes and smaller pieces, it is usually discernible as much smaller pieces chipped off one or more edges to sharpen them in a process known as pressure flaking. The primary working is percussive, i.e. the pieces are produced by impact, by a series of blows; the secondary working is initially also percussive in the same way as primary working, but this time increasingly smaller flakes are struck off the main flake to improve its shape and to set up one or more working edges on the tool. This is then followed by compressive flaking, i.e. producing a fine sharp edge by pressing a sharp piece of stone or bone against the edge of the flint to break off a succession of tiny pieces. Sculptors and woodcarvers for centuries have applied the same two sets of techniques - percussive and compressive - to shape stone or wood: first shaping the crude piece of stone or wood with a series of hammer or mallet blows on a chisel, and then refining what they have done with increasingly finer chisels pressed and pushed against the stone or wood by hand. The prehistoric flint-worker did things in much the same way. What this all means is that when you have a piece of worked prehistoric flint in front of you, a careful examination not only suggests to you what it was used for, but also how it was made. Look for the striking platform, the bulb and ripples of percussion, the primary working, the pressure-flaking or secondary working, and the finely worked edges. Finally, and to continue the parallels with modern technologies, many of the lithic tools we find must be lost, discarded or broken objects and you will see evidence of that in some of the examples. But not all: if a tool was especially valuable and could be retrieved and re-used, it would be - either because its design allowed it to be, or because the damaged tool could be re-worked, just as we can re-sharpen a saw or a chisel today rather than throw it away. In that and many other respects, prehistoric man was no different to us. Time, energy and skill spent in producing flint tools were precious and not to be wasted.

flakes and blades
A selection of flakes and blades

(Note the different sizes, shapes, and colours of the flint - greyer pieces are probably local chert)

stone blade
stone blade
stone blade
stone blade
A selection of blades
(each tool is a constructed from a single flake struck from a core, and then worked on one or both edges to sharpen it)


A selection of arrowheads
1st row: chisel-shaped, 3 leaf-shaped
2nd row: leaf-shaped
3rd row: barbed-and-tanged
4th row: barbed-and-tanged
5th row: barbed-and-tanged, 2 leaf-shaped, then barbed-and-tanged

The second arrowhead from the left in the third row is especially significant: it is clearly made of chert and not flint: it was therefore made locally and not - as the others may have been - brought in from outside the region.

leaf shaped arrowhead leaf shaped arrowhead
leaf-shaped arrowheads (2x)

Leaf-shaped arrowheads, so-called because of their resemblance to leaves surprisingly enough, are typical weapons of the Neolithic period. Here we have two particularly beautiful examples, both made to the same design but in different types of high quality opaque flint: the one is mushroom-grey, the other amber-brown. Note especially the rippled surfaces: these are the ripples of percussion, made when the core was struck to produce the primary flakes from which the arrowheads were subsequently fashioned. Note, too, the fine secondary working or pressure-flaking evident all the way down both sides, providing a long and sharp cutting edge. Finally, note that the second arrowhead has lost its working tip: this presumably happened in antiquity and is probably why the arrowhead was discarded as of no further use.

axe shaped arrowhead

axe-shaped/chisel-shaped arrowhead (1.5x)

This tool is a chisel-shaped arrowhead of dark mushroom-grey opaque flint with light cream flecks. Note in particular the two types of secondary working along its top cutting edge: first percussive, striking off shell-shaped or conchoidal flakes, and then pressure flaking to produce a fine serrated or notched cutting edge. Note, too, that this type of arrowhead has a single cutting edge running along the top, not down each side as with barbed-and-tanged arrowheads. This is because chisel-shaped arrowheads present a much wider cutting edge to the hunted target, rather than a piercing point. It is thought that they were designed to cut deep into the flesh of an animal, wound it and then fall free, enabling the hunter to retrieve and use the arrow again: a good example of prehistoric recycling. There are references of Egyptian Pharaohs using chisel-shaped arrowheads to hunt and kill ostriches. The arrows apparently could sever the head of an ostrich in one strike!

barbed and tanged arrowheads barbed and tanged arrowheads

barbed-and-tanged arrowheads (1.5x, 2x)

Barbed-and-tanged arrowheads, technically known as Sutton type 4, are typical of the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age period (circa 2000 B.C.), and are therefore later than leaf-shaped arrowheads. If you subscribe to the view that technology is a story of continuous progress, and flint-working technology should be no exception, then you will have to accept that the later barbed-and-tanged arrowheads of the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age are an improvement on the earlier leaf-shaped arrowheads of the Neolithic period. The barbs cut to either side of the tang or point were designed so that once the arrow had struck its victim, it stayed put, in much the same way as on a harpoon or fish-hook: the struggles of the wounded animal or bird would only serve to impale the arrow deeper. Both of the examples shown here are made of a high quality flint: the first is a mushroom-grey opaque flint, while the second is amber-coloured and translucent. Note how in each arrowhead one of the barbs has been broken, showing that the critical part of such an arrowhead was also its weakest part. The same is often true of its point. It is possible, too, that the points carried poison. These arrowheads use a point to pierce the animal’s skin rather than a wide edge as with the chisel-shaped arrowheads: this applies far more pressure and achieves more penetration, e.g. if the animal has a thicker skin, but the design unfortunately makes the arrowhead very fragile. Examples recovered frequently have the point or one or both of the tangs broken off - the arrowhead’s weakest point where the impact into the animal would be at its maximum. Once they were broken, these tools were too small or fine to be re-worked into a fresh arrowhead or a different tool altogether, and would have been discarded: it was quicker and easier for the Bronze Age flint-worker to make another one. The workmanship is of the highest standard with exceptionally fine secondary flaking on both sides of both cutting edges and both sides cut to exactly the same angle: in the first, more slender arrowhead to an angle of 20o, and to an angle of 30 o in the second arrowhead. This is no accident given the skill of the weapon-making technology of the period and must be part of its well-thought out design. In each case, this is the most efficient angle for both flight and embedding or cutting into the flesh of its target: the angles are different in each arrowhead because they would have been used to hunt and bring down different kinds of target animal or bird.

So, what does looking at flint tools teach us? A number of things. First, that prehistoric man was in many ways similar to us, with similar needs and aspirations. Second, that flint or generally lithic tools are not just crude pieces of stone thrown away in a careless moment, but are often delicately and skilfully shaped objects perfectly designed for the job they did. Third, that because of this, they give us a valuable and special insight into prehistoric life - telling us that people hunted a range of birds and animals, that they cut up meat for food, that they prepared skins and sinews for clothes, that they designed and wore jewellery and other ornaments. Fourth, this material is out there waiting for the careful and observant collector. What flint collectors have gathered in the past, even though it is considerable, can surely still only be a fraction of all the flint and other objects that were manufactured: after all, the period covered by flint or lithic tools itself stretches over several thousand years. Fifth, the sorts of prehistoric activity I have described took place many thousands of years ago on our doorstep, on what are now our local moors and riverbanks and in our local fields and pastures.