Prizes! Flint scrapers.

This is the second post of a group of posts about the prize objects that I made earlier this year for a lucky Young Archaeologists’ Club Branch.

artefacts 03

I needed to make things which could be easily posted – small, and/or lightweight.   Having some nice, dark flint, I decided to include a couple of scrapers.

These would be the heaviest items in the selection.   The flint is dark, hard, glossy.   Broad, smooth surfaces on either side contrast with the rough, re-touched cutting edges.  They smell like sand, like salt spray on pebbles.   They clink and ring and chime.

They are sharp tools, ready to be used on an animal hide to scrape away fat, membrane, hair.   Large enough to be held and used in hand, and large enough to be hafted to a handle for extra pressure, direction and precision in use.

There is just enough evidence on each scraper to understand the large flake that they started off as.   Ripples betray the conchoidal fracture of the flint.   The remains of the bulb of percussion can be seen and felt on the ventral surface.   The flint came from chalk deposits in the south of England.

Scrapers are probably the commonest tool type in almost all periods of prehistory, and they are very varied.   They likely had many uses, but they are really important in hide working, which is why I knap so many of them.

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Open Farm Sunday!

Last weekend it was Open Farm Sunday.   On 8 June, farms across the UK opened their gates to visitors to learn about what life is like on the modern farm – what we grow, the animals we care for, the equipment we use, programmes for helping wildlife and lots more.   Open Farm Sunday is a great day out and this year was no exception in Wiltshire.

A group of farms on the Marlborough Downs are partners in the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area.   An Open Farm Sunday event is thrown by one of the farms in the partnership and this year was the turn of North Farm, West Overton.

The Nature Improvement Area is around 10,000 hectares of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Beauty.   The farmland includes a huge area of land scheduled for its archaeological significance.   The Avebury part of the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site nestles in its south-western corner.   There are Sites of Special Scientific Interest, County Wildlife Sites, important geological sites, public rights of way, Open Access land, and the Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve.   All told, it’s a wonderful part of the world.   The NIA partnership aims to ensure that the Downs are as biodiverse in the future as they have been in the past.

North Farm is at the very south of the NIA, tightly bound to the World Heritage Site and a very important archaeological landscape.   Farmer Gill Swanton is also an archaeologist and she and I have worked together for years on different projects.   Gill wanted to ensure that the archaeological heritage of farming in the area was represented to the visitors – after all, the land has been farmed for a good few thousand years.   While Gill put together a display about the fabulously well-preserved prehistoric landscape and its range of natural materials that attracted people to the area in the past, I took some objects for families to handle (as well as a whole pile of Yong Archaeologists’ Club subscription forms!).

Carrying on the early farming theme, Gill asked me to demonstrate an aspect of prehistoric domestic life.   She had a raw sheepskin in the freezer – last year one of her Wiltshire Horn shearlings had an accident and she kept the hide when the carcass was butchered.   So I decided to process the hide to show one of the ways that one of the most common archaeological artefacts found in the area – the flint scraper – would have been used.

This meant that I had to refurbish my toolset for the task.   I keep a very basic set of hide scraping tools – no more than hazel rods with flint scrapers fitted into the ends.   There are very few archaeological examples of hafted flint tools, and as far as I know none of them are scrapers.   Butler (2005, 2011:49) suggests that most scrapers would have been used in hand, but hide scraping needs a force and leverage which requires a handle.   There are ethnographic and historical examples to use as analogies, but for my day-to-day toolset I like to keep it simple and suit myself.

The fixings are no more than slots in the ends of the hazel rods, a “glue” made of a mix of beeswax, resin and bark tar, and sometimes a strip of rawhide.   One of the rods has just the slot, so that I can easily interchange scrapers, sharpen them or turn a scraper in the slot to use a different edge.   If I want to sharpen or re-shape the scrapers that are fixed with glue, I do it with the flint in place.   You can see one of the effects that this has in the photos above of the small scraper; only one third of the scraper was left for work, the rest was covered in glue and stuck in the handle slot.

To make a supple, soft, strong leather for clothing, raw animal hide needs to be cleaned up, stretched on a frame, and scraped down to remove all the unwanted layers.   The flint scraper needs to be sharp, but also evenly shaped – even the smallest point or spur of flint left around the working edge will score or slice the skin.   The working edge must be clear of the handle, but the fixing needs to be strong and enough of the stone must be available to make a good bind.

This is a lovely scraper to work hide with. The curve of the ventral surface (the underside of the scraper) helps to bite the edge into the hide layers and scrape downwards, removing the unwanted material.  All this now needs is a bit of glue.

This is a lovely scraper to work hide with. The curve of the ventral surface (the underside of the scraper) helps to bite the edge into the hide layers and scrape downwards, removing the unwanted material. All this now needs is a bit of glue.


Butler, C. (2005, 2011)  Prehistoric Flintwork   Stroud: The History Press

Axe heads in Three Ages

Later this Summer I shall be commissioning a group of facsimile Bronze Age tools – axe and adze heads, gouges and chisels.   I’ve done a little bit of copper alloy casting but can boast neither the skills nor the equipment to produce a suite of mid- to late-Bronze Age artefacts.   Not of high enough quality, anyway.   As well as thinking about exactly which tools I require, I shall also have to plan their hafting.   This has led me to look at some of the axes in my tool kit and our local Young Archaeologists’ Club handling box, because there is such a range of axe shapes and styles throughout prehistory and history.

One of the longest-lived tool types, hominids older than Homo sapiens were knapping stone chopping tools and axes.   Also known as bifaces, because they are knapped from both sides to make cutting edges and thus have two faces, stone hand axes are the characteristic object of deep human prehistory.   There are some fabulous examples in the Museum of London’s collections – take a look at this example from Richmond Lock, this from Yiewsley, and this from Swanscombe.   These date from hundreds of thousands of years ago.   My little review is by no means a comprehensive study of the development of the axe; I’m just curious about some of the observations prompted by looking at a group of axe heads.

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The Palaeolithic hand axe in my selection was knapped by Karl Lee a few years ago during a Young Archaeologists’ Club meeting.   Karl also knapped me the Neolithic axe head.   The Bronze Age axe head was cast by Neil Burridge, also for a Young Archaeologists’ Club activity.   I bought the steel axe head from a bric-a-brac shop in Marlborough many years ago.

A number of differences are immediately obvious.   Two of the objects are made of flint, two of metal.   The shapes are very different and they vary in size, colour and texture.   Something about the relative ages of these objects is suggested in the names I have used to label them.   Now consider those varied shapes, and the subtle difference between my description “hand axe” and “axe head” – how would you go about making use of these objects?

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“Palaeolithic hand axe”: an Old Stone Age tool made for use in the hand.   That is, no handle.   Odd when you think about it.   The sharp edge created by the opposing flake scars on each side goes all the way around the thin, oval-shaped tool.   Wouldn’t you be just as likely to cut your palm as the material that you were cutting with the axe?   Would you be more likely to cut down a tree, or cut your fingers off?  So…what else might you have had to make this tool work for you; and what do you do with an “axe” anyway?

There are plenty of things you can do and use to protect your hand, so let’s set to one side prehistoric leather production and focus on what we mean by the word “axe”.   There is no evidence that hand axes were hafted (although that hasn’t stopped some people trying!).   They are generally thought to have been used for a variety of tasks, especially butchery.   Thin, flat, oval-shaped hand axes, like this one, were perhaps not used as chopping tools at all – but were more like knives (Butler 2005, 2008:64).   They certainly do slice through flesh very well and I especially like this tool type for skinning.   Not tree felling.

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“Neolithic axe head”: a New Stone Age tool made for use in a handle.   Now it’s not that this axe head can’t be used in hand to cut through a range of materials; but I’m sure you would agree that it looks a lot more axe-y than the hand axe.   The opposing flake scars run all the way around the tool just like the hand axe, it’s certainly sharp enough all the way round for every edge to be used for something.   The main cutting edge, however, the bit, is at the broader end, whilst the narrower butt allows the axe head to be let into a wooden handle.

The narrower, longer Neolithic tool doesn’t feel so comfortable in hand, although I can slice with it.   It’s just not meant to work that way.   A few Neolithic axe heads have been found with their handles, like the one recovered from the beach at Port Talbot in 1970 (Savory 1971) and the Ehenside Tarn axe.  The glossy, dark flint of the hand axe contrasts strongly with the light grey.   The grey seems duller, less responsive to the sunlight – but then this axe head has not been ground and polished.   A characteristic of many (but not all) Neolithic axe heads is their silky-smooth, dazzling surface once the knapping traces have been ground away.

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“Bronze Age axe head”: a Bronze Age tool made for use in a handle.   For the first time we have a unique cutting edge – only the bit of this axe head is capable of cutting (although it’s not sharpened, this is used in the Archaeology Club handling collection).   It is the smallest axe head in this selection, almost but not quite symmetrical, and by far the thinnest overall.

Now there is a huge range of shapes, sizes and hafting methods for Bronze Age axe and adze heads.   I refer in the same breath to what in a modern age are distinct tool types (“axe”, “adze”) because it is entirely possible that many of the Bronze Age tools called axes were set horizontally – even used both ways, as either axe or adze, at different times.    You can see this in action in the toolset used to build Morgawr, the Bronze Age-type sewn plank boat recently built by the University of Exeter and National Maritime Museum (Van de Noort et al 2014).

This copper-alloy axe head is an example of an early Bronze Age Arreton type, with my punched decoration inspired by the Bush Barrow mace.   You can see the casting scar along its edge left by the two-piece mould.  The slight flanges – the raised sides – suggest that axe heads like this should be hafted in a “shoe”.   That is, not pushed through a hole in a handle, but slotted between two prongs which extend at an angle from the handle, like the example excavated from Palaeochannel 1 at Peterstone Great Wharf (Bell 2013), and bound up with maybe raw-hide or a leather strip.

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“Kent pattern axe”: a steel axe head made for use on a handle.   Hafting technology has changed again; now the axe head has a socket (the “eye”) into which a wooden handle fits.  The axe head has a broad and thin bit, rounded shoulders, lugs either side of the socket, and the butt is really a poll.   The poll has a flat surface that can be struck, to exert additional force, without too much risk of damaging the axe head – unlike the butts of the three previous examples.

Edit: whilst the poll can be struck, the primary purpose of this extra mass of metal behind the handle is to balance the weight of the blade in front of the handle.

The many regional variations of axe head shape common until the end of the nineteenth-century were often named by counties.   The Kent pattern itself included variations such as the Banbury Axe, Guildford Axe, Mahogony Axe, Manchester Axe, Norfolk Axe, Plymouth Axe, Suffolk Axe (Salaman 1975:58).   Although you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish between some of these.

And at last, a maker.   Had my first three axe heads been prehistoric, archaeological examples, I could not have told you who knapped or cast them.   But the Kent pattern axe head was forged by the Eagle Edge Tool Company, whose foundry was at Monmore Green, Wolverhampton.

stone, bronze, iron

stone, bronze, iron

These four axe heads are also stand-ins for the Three Age System – stone, bronze, iron – which has been used by archaeologists to divide [prehistoric] time in technological terms since the system was drawn together in Scandinavia in the nineteenth-century.   Is the Iron Age over?*

Bell, M. (2013)  The Bronze Age in the Severn Estuary  York: Council for British Archaeology

Butler, C. (2005, 2008)  Prehistoric Flintwork   Stroud: The History Press

Salamon, R.A. (1975)  Dictionary of Tools used in the woodworking and allied trades c.1700-1970   London: George Allen and Unwin

Savory, H.N. (1971)  “A Neolithic Stone Axe and Wooden Handle from Port Talbot”   The Antiquaries Journal 51/2:296-7

Van de Noort, R., Cumby, B., Blue, L., Harding, A., Hurcombe, L., Hansen, T. M., Wetherelt, A., Wittamore, J. and Wyke, A. (2014), Morgawr: an experimental Bronze Age-type sewn-plank craft based on the Ferriby boats. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12058

*not in my workshop…