I love flint. It is a unique stone with very unique properties. Most rocks have very limited use for humans, or at the most are simplycosmetic. Flagstone is used to line a porch or add decorative appeal to the outside of a house. Crushed gravel is used for roads. Cobbles create borders between flower gardens and the lawn. And yet, others are bulldozed away, used as wave breaks on fragile coastlines or even skipped across a pond. But in the end, these rocks simply sit there and exist. But not flint. It has personality. It can be flaked and chipped into razor-sharp cutting tools and knives. It can be fashioned into a projectile point, mounted to an arrow, and propelled from a powerful bow at over 90 miles-per-hour. And its keenly sharp edge can create ghastly wounds that will kill in seconds. Noother stone can match that.
Flint is, in many ways, a dynamic stone. It may look benign on the exterior, especially when covered in its protective, chalky cortex. However, this cortex hides a very different stone than what you first see. When you break open a piece, you will be greeted by a stone that is hundreds of millions of years old… and you are the first person to see it. The interior is usually a completely different color and texture than the outside (photo 1). It is often very smooth and sometimes waxy. It may have bands or swirls of different colors and sometimes even concentric rings that form “bull’s-eyes.” Hit it again and very thin flakes and slivers will shatter off the parent stone and fly away at very high speed. Pick up one of these slivers and very carefully feel the edge. It will be razor sharp.
This razor sharp edge was incredibly important to ancient people. For hundreds of thousands of years, flint was sought and traded by different groups around the world throughout prehistory. Sometimes this stone is found many hundreds of miles from its source, a fact that gives us an insight into how widespread and distant these ancient trade routes stretched and how important this stone really was. Having or not having flint could have meant the difference between life and death for ancient people.
Nowadays, the life and death need for this stone has disappeared. We have metal knives in our kitchens, metal axes and saws, metal drawknives and carving tools, and even complex multi-blade broadheads for our arrows. To the vast majority of modern society, flint and the flint knapping skill needed to craft it into the tools of our ancestors has been completely forgotten, a concept as distant to them as our ancient ancestors are to us. As modern society marches ever forward into a more complex (and more precarious) future, it would seem that the skill of making the stone tools of our ancestors is well on its way to being lost.
But this art is not dying. In fact, it has escaped the black hole of extinction and is being revived, passed on, and taught to others. Its resurrection has been the subject of books, instructional DVDs, and even video tutorials on the internet. Hundreds and possibly thousands of people around the country have begun learning the art of flint knapping.
To those unfamiliar with flint, it is very easy to view stone tools as inferior. Often the artifacts in museums or those we find in plowed fields have had a hard life, having been used and abused. Arrow and spear points have been shot and broken and knives have been heavily used and resharpened to the point of exhaustion. The edges are often dull. When these discarded tools are then found hundreds or even thousands of years later, it’s no wonder that we space age people look down on these artifacts with a skeptical eye. I used to suffer from this preconceived prejudice myself. It wasn’t until I began learning the art of flint knapping and feeling the razor-sharp edge of a flint flake that my perspective on these primitive points began to change.
First of all, flint knapping is not a dimwitted technology in which one rock is blindly smashed against another by a caveman dressed in ragged skins. It is a surprisingly complex skill that takes months and often years of practice to become proficient. Edges must be prepared very carefully. Flake removals must be planned and executed with precision or else the stone can be broken. And of course, the right tools must be used and used correctly. Like playing a guitar or painting a picture, there is always the ability to improve and one never stops learning. No person can truly master a craft that has no finish line.
Flint is most often found in earthy tones that mirror the soil from which it came. Grey, brown, tan, black, or any combination of these colors is most common (photo 2). However, sometimes it is much more colorful with red, white, pink, purple, yellow, and sometimes even green and blue being part of the color spectrum. Regardless of its color, I find all flint beautiful.
As stated earlier, flint also has personality. Some stone can be grainy
and tough. Others can be very brittle and unforgiving. Some can even
feel soft when it is fractured. Some flint can be laced with imperfections
or inclusions while other flint can be as pure as glass (photo
yet one of the most intriguing traits of flint is that if you don’t
like its personality, usually it can be changed! Many types of grainy
flint can be heat altered to make it flake easier and create sharper
edges. This heat-treating must be done carefully, however, slowly heating
and then cooling the stone. If the heating or cooling occurs too quickly
the flint will crack, and larger pieces will even explode. Flint has
been heat-treated for thousands of years, and when done successfully,
it is one of the most exciting aspects of flint knapping. This primitive
When I chip a piece of flint into an arrowhead, it is a journey into our ancient past. I get to relive the perspective that our ancestors did for eons. Everything seems to fade away. I enter an almost trance-like state of concentration where I am completely focused on the stone in my hand and what I need to do to shape it into my desired weapon. It is something as old as time itself, and yet it still creates a sense of contentment and well-being in this space-age man.
Our wooden homes will eventually fall apart and be reabsorbed into the earth. Our metal knives will rust away. Buildings and bridges will collapse, having fallen victim to the relentless assault of corrosion. But the stone tools I make, use, and eventually leave behind will persist in the earth for tens of thousands of years. And perhaps, many thousands of years into the future when flying cars are buzzing overhead and people travel to other planets for vacation, a young boy will feel the ancient pull of the forest and find one of the arrowheads I lost during a hunt. I hope he becomes as captivated by that stone point as I was when I first found mine. And maybe, just maybe, he will long to learn this ancient skill. And in doing so he will pick up the torch and pass it on to anyone interested enough to learn, further preserving this fascinating art of our ancestors (photo 4).
Primitive Archer Magazine
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