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INTRODUCTION TO
FLINTKNAPPING


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What is Flintknapping?

Flintknapping is the art and science of making stone tools, think Arrowheads.   The word derives from the old English word meaning "to break".   Hence, if you take a break out of your work day, you're taking a nap.   In this case, the "k" was retained to distinguish breaking rock.   Flint is the material most used to make tools in England and Europe  -  hence the resulting English term is FLINTKNAPPING.   Each culture has it's own unique term to refer to flintknapping but this particular term has become the most accepted.

What Makes Flintknapping Possible?

A particular property of a certain class of stones is what makes flintknapping possible.   This property is technically called Conchoidal Fracturing.   The class of stones that possess this property are those that have the least amount of internal structure.   Therefore, the popular concept that flintknappers somehow read the internal structure of the stone they are working is completely false.   Instead the flintknapper is able to work because each time he/she hits the stone, the same reaction can be predicted based upon this property of conchoidal fracturing.   The best way to conceptualize this property is to first realize that at the molecular level obsidian, glass, and to a lesser degree chert and flint act like a liquid.   The core rock of these materials are thus like a puddle of water.   If you drop a rock down in a puddle of water  -  what occurs?   The quiet of the puddle is shattered while the rock drops straight down with circular ripples from the point of impact spreading across the puddle.   Meanwhile, a cone of disruption, a Hertzian Cone, follows the rock down into the water.   This is exactly what happens if you hit a flintknapping rock straight on.   If you hit a nodule hard enough straight on you'll simply shatter it, just like the peace of that puddle of water. Every time these materials are hit straight on you'll have the same reaction.   However, the idea of flintknapping is the Controlled Breakage of the material to make a shaped final product.   Hitting to shatter does not necessarily produce this desired affect.   Instead flintknapping can be pictured as being a process of skipping a rock across the puddle of flintknappable rock instead.   A skipped rock causes simply a dipple in the surface of the puddle with the resulting waves being pushed in the direction the rock was heading.   If you look at any successfully removed flake or spall from a flintknapping activity you'll notice a few specific features.   First, the flake has a "bulb" which can be directly related to that "dipple" from the skipped rock.   Next you'll notice a series of ripples perpendicular along the length of the flake which directly relate to the waves in our example.   This ability to control the direction and strength of these waves through your material is what thus makes Flintknapping possible.

Where Should You Hit Your Rock?

So you might ask how do you pick where and how to "skip" your rock on this puddle of flintknappable rock?   The flake will be coming off the bottom of the nodule, from within the puddle itself.   The place to hit the puddle is along the "edges" of the nodule.   These edges are the high sharp ridges you can see all over the nodule, not the rounded areas.   These are equivalent to the shores of the puddle.   The best shore is one where there is a gentle slope down to the puddle's edge (i.e. less than 90 degree slope) and not a cliff.   Place the nodule on your leg and look for a place where a sharp ridge edge lays against your leg and the slope up from that ridge is less than 90 degree.   This gives you a good clean "skipping" shot at the puddle's edge.   But where is the best spot to pick along this edge?   Think again to our water analogy  -  if you turn on a hose where the concrete is flat  -  what happens to the water?   It flows out in a semicircle without much forward motion except that due to the water pressure.   However, if there is a crack or depression the water will flow farther along that area.   The flow of the waves of percussion after a strike by a flintknapper does the same thing.   Remember the working side  (where the flake will come off)  is underneath the piece.   If you can find a ridge that intersects a good "skipping" edge  -  that is the best location to strike your nodule.   The ridge acts like a crack or low spot in the concrete as the waves flow over the outside of the flintknappable nodule.   If you look at the flakes that comes off of flintknapping activity, you'll notice on the dorsal  (back or outside)  side that there is one to several ridges and that the shape of the final flake follows these ridges.   If there is one strong central ridge  (which can be picked by the flintknapper)  the flake will always be longer than wide - these are often called blades.   As can be seen from these principles, the flintknapper is thus reading the outside and not the inside of the rock. The topography of the nodule guides the flintknapper as to where to strike and predicts what the result will be.

What is the Purpose of Breaking the Rock?

When the flintknapper comes to her/his work, there is always a basic goal in mind.   This goal may be simply reducing the material to make transportation or future work easier  -  this is often seen at quarry sites.   However, every flake that comes off during the process of flintknapping is potentially a tool and may be the intentional end of the flintknapping activity.   The edge of obsidian flakes are known to be sharper than surgical steel.   A small flake can perform a wide variety of tasks and further alteration is not even needed.   A very short period of flintknapping can produce an enormous amount of these type of tools.   If you want to make a more specialized tool, quite a bit more careful selection in flake removal is required.

How do you Make an Arrowhead?

The first step is the percussion  (hard hitting)  removal of flakes to produce a roughed out piece  -  a Preform.   If this is to become a Projectile Point  (Arrowhead or Spear Point), the preform will be roughly triangular and as thin as possible.   Every step of percussion will therefore be aimed toward thinning.   When the preform has reached the point where hitting might break the piece or is not being productive anymore  -  then it is time to shift to the second form of flintknapping  -  Pressure Flaking.   Pressure flaking is a process of pushing off flakes.   This is in contrast to the striking off of flakes through Percussion Flaking.   The work of pressure flaking has often been compared to "whittling" the stone.   The preform is placed horizontally across the leather covered palm of the hand  (crosswise to the line of the arm).   The tips of the fingers press this rock piece down firmly upon the palm, keeping it from shifting.   A sharpened tip of antler, copper, or other hard but soft material is then placed along the edge of the preform that is visible beyond the finger tips on the side toward the wrist.   The "pressure flaker" is not simply pushed down but is instead pressed forward with only a slight movement down.   This pushing is creating that dipple in the puddle of water with the movement forward pushing the waves forward across the piece.   The first flake removed creates a ridge of either side of the resulting depression scar.   The flintknapper then simply needs to move the pressure flaker over to the edge of the scar and line it up with this new ridge.   The first flake will not go very far on the surface of the worked piece but the second flake will go further and the next even further since they will have straight ridges to follow.   You need to set up a full set of these ridges before being able to successfully get the flakes to shape and thin the piece to its final form.   If the flakes don't go very far across the surface, your angle is too much down and not across.   Keep in mind aiming toward your index finger as you push.   If it takes too much effort to push a flake off, try putting the tip closer to the working edge of the piece.

How Do You Finish an Arrowhead?

The finished shape of your arrowhead is determined significantly by the material you are working as well as the vagaries of the flintknapping process.   However, there are many decisions you can make once you finally have your thin, flat, and triangular pressure flaked preform.   Notching this preform allows the easy attachment of this point to either a spear or arrow.   The motion of pressure flaking to produce a notch is directly up-and-down with little forward pressure.   After one flake is removed in this process, the piece is turned over and another is removed from the same spot.   The crucial aspect is not to dull or round the edge within the notch as this will stop the ability to continue to remove flakes.   These notches can be placed on the side, base, or corners of the piece.   There are a multitude of different possibilities.   Many of these can be related to certain cultures or periods of historical time.   There isn't quite such a strong relationship to use  -  i.e., a war arrowhead can't be associated with any particular finished style.

How do You Recognize Workable Material?

Look close at the surface of any raw nodule of flintknappable material and you'll notice semi-circular whirls on the surface.   These are caused by environmental light impacts that cause a cone of disruption with the disintegrated material being eroded out.   These whirls are most evident upon obsidian nodules and can be used as a clue to the internal nature of the rock.   Otherwise, the primary clue is simply a lack of structural appearance to the rock.   If you visibly see crystals in the material, these will stop the clean flow of percussion waves through the material.   Some materials like chert, flint, agate, and jasper can be improved by the application of heat.   This Heat Treatment melts the material slightly and regularizes what internal structure these materials possess.   The result makes the materials more glassy in appearance.   The rock makes the best teacher, break some and you'll learn quickly what works the best.

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