A while back we realised that the little projects we enjoy, of recreating tools and methods from times gone by, is a ‘thing’ with a name, Experimental Archaeology. Since then, I’ve been looking into the subject and have been very pleased to find that there are in fact a lot of people out there involved in similar activities – building cob ovens, using ancient food preserving techniques, growing sourdough cultures, firing pottery in pits (this year’s project, if we can) – making, doing and experimenting with whatever they are curious about.
I found a Facebook group on the subject, joined it and found there are people making pottery, early medieval roundhouses, long bows, medieval skiing gear, carding wool, making linen from scratch, constructing Viking boats, Otzi the Iceman’s shoes. You name it, someone is recreating it. How nice it would be to find something local. Dublin university runs a degree course in experimental archaeology, but that’s a bit far from Oxfordshire.
I kept looking and one day saw a post from a PhD student, Cory Cuthbertson, asking for participants for her study, ‘Identifying Cognitive and Linguistic Ability in the Archaeological Record: A Knapping Training Study Exploring Emulation, Imitation, and Teaching‘. She’s investigating the idea that stone tools could be able to teach us something of how language evolved.
Cory had asked for people with no previous stone-knapping experience to come along for two days, two hours each day, and be taught one of a variety of teaching methods – ‘an instructor that interacts normally with you, a silent instructor, watch a video to copy from, or simply have tools placed in front of you that the instructor made previously that you must copy without instruction’. As a thank you, we’d get our own stone knapping kits – a hammer stone, a piece of leather, safety glasses, gloves and a piece of flint to use at home. It sounded interesting and it was to be held in nearby Oxford, so I got in touch right away and the two of us booked up to take part. Cory told us that as porcelain has very similar fracturing qualities to flint, and she wanted to use pieces of the same size and weight, we’d be knapping pieces of porcelain that she had made and had fired.
On the day, we found ourselves with three other participants, all archaeology students, in the group with a silent instructor. Before we started, Cory spoke to us about what we’d be doing, gave us a demonstration and showed us a video of her knapping a piece of porcelain. The video also played for us to refer to as we worked on our porcelain pieces.
Thereafter, we got started and she went from person to person and signed/mimed her instructions – for example, on the strike angles we should use, or the sound of a good strike versus one that would be less effective. We were allowed to talk and to watch one another’s technique, but not discuss what we were doing. No one did talk and we all just concentrated on the task at hand. It was, as Douglas Coupland would say, kind of random. It was also fascinating and very enjoyable.
Cory had allowed for each participant to have seven tries with a new piece of porcelain each time and each ‘try’ session was approximately 10-15 minutes long. To learn more about the progress I made, I photographed each piece I worked on. The difference from the first try to the second but last – the last one broke in half just as I was getting into it – is interesting. The first try was an uneven oval and pretty rough looking.
My fourth piece also broke in half – everyone had at least one piece that broke in half – but I managed to make a piece resembling a cutting tool, and all in about 15 minutes.
By the sixth try, I’m beginning to get an idea of how and where to strike with the hammer stone and the shape has changed from an oval to something more resembling a Stone-Age axe.
An increasing number of the chips I hammered off were domed (called conchoidal fracturing), as you find in spoil heaps where flint has been worked in the past.
The pieces we made, although by no means professionally Stone-Age looking, weren’t too bad but what was a surprise was how much we managed to achieve in the 10-15 minutes allowed per try. It makes sense, though; as in other experiments we’ve done (preserving fruit and making vinegar), if it was that much of a faff then large numbers of people wouldn’t have been doing it in the first place. In order for people to thrive whilst using low technology, the most-used ancient methods needed to be straightforward and reasonably fast to carry out. Flint was widely and frequently used, so to be a competent member of your group would likely require a person to be a proficient flint-worker.
Once the sessions had finished, Cory told us all just what it is that she is looking for, which you can read about by going to the link at the end. All in all, the knapping sessions were very enjoyable indeed and we both felt that we learned a lot from them, as well as meeting some very pleasant and interesting people. The experience has certainly made us want to do more and we’ll be on the look out for opportunities.
Find out more about Cory’s work here – do look, it’s very interesting!