[ Archaeology ]


Making and Understanding Stone Tools

By John C. Whittaker

The most detailed handbook on flintknapping currently available, and the only one written from the archaeological perspective of interpreting stone tools as well as making them.



33% website discount price


6 x 9 | 351 pp. | 238 illustrations, 2 charts

ISBN: 978-0-292-79083-4

Flintknapping is an ancient craft enjoying a resurgence of interest among both amateur and professional students of prehistoric cultures. In this new guide, John C. Whittaker offers the most detailed handbook on flintknapping currently available and the only one written from the archaeological perspective of interpreting stone tools as well as making them.

Flintknapping contains detailed, practical information on making stone tools. Whittaker starts at the beginner level and progresses to discussion of a wide range of techniques. He includes information on necessary tools and materials, as well as step-by-step instructions for making several basic stone tool types. Numerous diagrams allow the reader to visualize the flintknapping process, and drawings of many stone tools illustrate the discussions and serve as models for beginning knappers.

Written for a wide amateur and professional audience, Flintknapping will be essential for practicing knappers as well as for teachers of the history of technology, experimental archaeology, and stone tool analysis.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
    • Using This Book
    • Learning to Knap
  • 2. Flintknapping: Basic Principles
    • Flintknapping
    • Conchoidal Fracture
    • Properties of Material
    • Flakes and Cores
  • 3. A Brief History of Flintknapping
    • Prehistory of Stone Tools
    • Recent "Stone-Age" People
    • Modern Knapping
    • Further Readings
    • Other Resources: Finding Other Knappers
  • 4. Raw Materials
    • Stone Quality
    • Stone Materials
    • Heat-Treating
    • Collecting Material: Ethical and Practical Considerations
  • 5. Safety
    • Proper Technique
    • Eyes
    • Hands
    • Other Body Parts
    • Lungs
    • Waste Disposal
    • Benefits
  • 6. Hard-Hammer Percussion
    • Material and Equipment
    • Percussion-Flaking Principles: An Experiment
    • Percussion Flaking
    • Platforms
    • The Face of the Core
    • Terminations
    • Curvature
    • Starting a Core
    • Summary: Nine Essentials
    • Examples
  • 7. Pressure Flaking
    • Tools
    • Raw Material
    • First Principles
    • Working Position
    • Beginning
    • Platform Preparation
    • Thinning
    • Notching
    • Other Pressure-Flaking Techniques
    • Summary: Six Essentials
    • Application: Small Triangular Points from the Southwest
    • Pressure-Flaking Problems
    • Patterned Pressure Flaking
  • 8. Soft-Hammer Percussion and Bifaces
    • Definitions
    • Tools
    • Beginning
    • Soft-Hammer Principles and Results
    • Biface Thinning Flakes
    • Fracture Theories
    • The Blow Platforms
    • Biface Stages
    • Knapping Strategy and Other Considerations
    • Example: A Basic Biface
    • Biface Problems: Prehistoric Mistakes
    • Summary
  • 9. Blades and Fluting
    • Blades
    • Platforms
    • Holding
    • Punches
    • The Blow
    • Fluting
    • Example: Fluted Point
  • 10. Using Stone Tools
    • Stone vs. Steel
    • Edges and Cutting
    • Making a Projectile Foreshaft
    • Going On
  • 11. Archaeological Analysis of Stone Tools
    • Typology
    • Stone Tool Types and Change through Time
    • What People Did with Stones
    • Sources of Variation: Why Stone Tools Are Not All Alike
    • Analyzing Stone Tool Materials
    • Technology and What It Tells Us
    • Figuring Out Function
    • Questions of Style
    • Conclusions
  • Appendix: Resources for Knappers
  • References
  • Index

If I would study any old, lost art, I must make myself an artisan of it.
—F. H. Cushing (1895)

When I was a sophomore in college, I began to fulfill a lifelong ambition to learn how to make stone tools, and even received public recognition for my achievements. Public recognition took the form of being pointed out as the fool who just about cut off his finger trying to make an arrowhead, but that did not discourage me. What was more discouraging was the lack of useful written guides to the subject. Now there are a lot more people making stone tools, and a number of "how to" books that the ordinary reader can find. However, there has never been anything that I consider a really detailed and usable step-by-step guide to learning flintknapping, combined with some basic information on stone tools and how they can be studied. This book attempts to fill that gap.

Why learn such an obscure and obsolete art? I make stone tools first because I am an archaeologist who wants to understand how prehistoric people lived and worked, and second because it is a challenging and enjoyable craft. Making flaked stone tools, or "flintknapping," is the world's oldest documentable craft. It has been continually practiced for almost three million years, by the ancestors of all of us, from australopithecine "ape men" through Neanderthal cave dwellers, American Indians, African tribesmen, Bronze Age farmers of Europe and the Middle East to archaeologists, hobbyists, and a few isolated peoples today. Flaked stone was useful not just to stone-age people everywhere, but well into the industrial age in the form of a few specialized tools, of which gunflints for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century firearms are the best-known example.

I make stone tools partly for entertainment and partly for serious professional purposes of experimentation. I want to know what goes into making a stone knife, how you use it, what it is good for. To most people, arrowheads and the like carry an aura of prehistoric adventure, lost crafts, deadly weapons, and forgotten relationships with nature; stone tools are therefore almost irresistible to anyone with even a passing interest in the past. If you like prehistory, forgotten arts, or developing unusual skills, this is an exotic craft that will not become the overnight fad of everyone in town. At the same time, it requires no unusual strength or abilities to learn the basics. Anyone with normal intelligence and hand-eye coordination can make ordinary stone tools with a little practice. In most stone-age societies, knapping was probably a skill that everyone had.

Using this Book

This book is intended for that "everyone" who would like to try his or her hand at an ancient skill, for whatever reason. I have tried to write it on a middle level, aimed primarily at the two groups who should find it most useful: students of archaeology and prehistoric technology as well as interested nonarchaeologists. I hope it will be useful both to the serious prehistorian and the weekend hobbyist and everyone in between. I hope that a beginner can use this book to start learning flintknapping, and I have tried to include enough theoretical discussion and advanced material to interest those who have some experience and may want to skip the basics. At the same time, I have tried to avoid being too technical, and to relate everything to the practical problems of making and understanding stone tools.

Despite my efforts to avoid the jargon and stiffness that creeps into much scientific writing, a certain vocabulary is necessary. For words which are essential or in common use by knappers, I give explicit definitions and include these terms in the index so the definition can be found when needed. It is hard to describe actions and motions in words, so I rely heavily on pictures as well. There are a lot of headings so that particular topics can be easily found or skipped. The references in parentheses are authors listed in alphabetical order in the bibliography. Those who want more background, other opinions and techniques, more technical information, or archaeological examples can follow up these sources.

Learning to Knap

It might be useful to explain how I came to write a book about flintknapping. I almost can't remember not being interested in archaeology. From 1967 to 1969 my family lived in southern California, and in junior high school I found out about the Pacific Coast Archaeological Society, an excellent amateur group. My father, an ecologist, encouraged me to attend some weekend excavations. Sometime in this period my family took a trip to the White Mountains, where I found a very handsome obsidian projectile point. On the way back we stopped at an isolated gas station somewhere in the desert. The owner had a display of arrowheads in a glass case labeled "Some I found, some I made. Guess which." You mean, someone still knows how to make these! Ever since, I have wanted to make stone tools.

I didn't get anywhere with this for some years, but I continued to do archaeology and became an anthropology student at Cornell University. I found a couple of things in the library there that got me interested again: Mewhinney's A Manual for Neanderthals (1957) and Pond's account of the experiments of Halvor Skavlem (Pond 1930). I decided to actually try my hand at making stone tools. I couldn't find any good material around Ithaca, so I broke up some pop bottles. I was very proud of my first crude points {Figure 1.1), but a couple of months into my experiments I managed to drive a pressure flake through my leather glove and into my left index finger. When I pulled off the glove, there was a small cut, less than a quarter of an inch wide, with a glass flake sticking out of it. There was no pain or blood to speak of, but the finger didn't seem to work. The jovial surgeon who worked on my hand kept exclaiming, "I can't believe you severed both the sublimis and the profundis tendons with that one tiny cut!" The fame I achieved through this did not really make up for the two semesters I spent with my arm in a sling after the surgeon cut me open twice to take a bit of tendon out of my arm and put it in my finger. The accident was my own fault, of course; I was holding the point incorrectly while I flaked it. Now I know better, but my finger still won't completely straighten or clench into a tight fist, which may explain to you why I harp constantly on protecting yourself in the chapters to follow. Once you think you know what you are doing, go ahead and slice yourself if you want, but if you are going to take my advice about flaking, take my advice about safety too.

Anyway, I was back in action by the summer of 1973 and was accepted as a student at Pech de l'Azé IV, a collapsed Mousterian rockshelter in the Dordogne region of France being excavated by François Bordes. François Bordes in Europe and Don Crabtree in the United States are the two men most responsible for the development of flintknapping experimentation as an important part of archaeology. Bordes was a great knapper, but an explosive and temperamental man who was not much interested in teaching beginners. His attitude was encouraging but not actively helpful—when he was in a good mood, you could watch and ask questions as he knapped in the evening, but when things weren't going well, it was best to remain silent. Other knappers also visited Bordes that summer, including Mark Newcomer and Jacques Pelegrin. Between watching and talking to all these people and experimenting on the huge pile of broken flint left by Bordes, I did manage to learn a good deal, and became more interested.

I spent part of the next summer on a dig at Mucking in southern England. Fine flint was easy to find, and for the first time I had as much good material as I could use. I started making bifaces, but hadn't yet figured out how to thin them effectively (Figure 1.2). There followed a period of little progress until I became a graduate student at the University of Arizona.

There I teamed up with Harold Dibble, another new graduate student who was at the same elementary level in learning how to knap. We bought some obsidian from a rock shop, collected more near Flagstaff, and eventually took a trip to Texas, where we rented a U-Haul truck and brought back two tons of good chert. We knapped together a lot, argued and experimented, and with enough time and material at last reached a level of reasonable competence. We experimented with a device that made flakes mechanically so we could observe angles and forces, and in 1979 taught a course in experimental archaeology and knapping. This book actually had its genesis in what I learned from our experiments and attempts to teach knapping, especially a series of handouts that I made for the class.

As I was learning to knap, I was also becoming more involved in using stone tools to solve archaeological problems. The more I saw stone tools as sources of information about prehistoric people, the more I realized that to understand their place in past lives, I had to know how to make and use them myself.

I would like to point out a couple of morals from this autobiography. First and foremost, there is no substitute for experience, practice, and experimentation. I don't pretend that this book will teach you how to flintknap—you will teach yourself if you learn at all. I can save you some time and some trial-and-error suffering by pointing in the right direction and explaining what I think is important. Reading other books and examining stone tools will help too. Most important, practice and pay attention to what you do. Observe your own work carefully and think about what worked and what did not, and try different things.

Working with other people is also very valuable. At any level of skill, watching another knapper will give you ideas. If you can find someone more advanced to coach you, so much the better. Even two beginners working together will learn faster than either one of them alone.

Finding material to flake and time to flake it are likely to be your biggest obstacles. This brings us back to practice—it takes a lot of time and material to get good. I can't do anything about how busy you are, but I have tried to help with the problem of material by explaining things so that you can begin learning, and may even make fairly showy pieces, without having to go farther than your backyard and hardware store for material and equipment.

In using this book, if you are a relatively inexperienced knapper, I recommend quickly reading as much as possible, even though you will not remember it all. Then, as you begin to work and learn, flip back to relevant sections. More and more of it will make sense, explain what you are beginning to see, or lead you to try something new.

Whenever you can, examine the work of other knappers. The illustrations here and in other books are a start; museum collections, casts, and friends' work are even better. Once you know a little bit, examining a stone tool carefully can teach you almost as much as talking to its maker. This is in fact one of the reasons I enjoy knapping, and my point of view throughout the book. Stone tools are interesting partly because they speak to us of other people, other times.

The difference between my first hideous points (Figure 1.1) and those I make now (Figure 1.3) is striking, but the major development of my skill really took only about a year and was mostly self-taught. However, I continue to learn, and this is also part of the fun. Although I am now familiar with a wider range of techniques and tool forms than most prehistoric knappers would have been, my skills are far below those of many knappers, both past and current.

Figures 1.4 and 1.5 present a few examples of modern stone work, five pieces by well-known knappers of the great knapping revival of the 1970s. The two points in Figure 1.6 are contemporary pieces representing the attempt of some current knappers to take knapping beyond replication of prehistoric pieces to new levels of technical perfection and artistry. Let these inspire you—how far you go is up to you.

John C. Whittaker is an assistant professor of anthropology at Grinnell College.

"...very attractive to readers interested in ancient crafts, survival skills, or the history of technology.... far superior to anything currently available."
—James C. Woods, director, The Herrett Museum, College of Southern Idaho

"A mid-range user's guide to flintknapping is long overdue. There have been some admirable attempts to produce such a volume, but these have been targeted at specific, fairly narrow audiences. Not so with Flintknapping.... [Whittaker's] clear aim is to reach professional archaeologists as well as hobbyists. I believe he achieves this goal with incredible skill and humor.... I highly recommend this book to everyone interested in flintknapping."
—Plains Anthropologist