Flints under the Spotlight

After escaping from the dark confines of the Portabello Stores I met up with Dr Ben Chan. He’s one of the post-docs working on the Stonehenge Riverside Project for Mike Parker-Pearson and spends the majority of his time sorting and studying the flints that came from the excavations. He’s part way through looking at the thousands of pieces of flint that came from the trenches around the henge, many from near Durrington Walls. Many are flakes and small pieces of waste from making tools, and fill find bag after find bag. Ben hopes to be able to study these to say what sorts of tools Neolithic people made at Stonehenge.

There are also some tools themselves such as the arrowheads Ben was studying this week. Each is an exquisite piece of a Neolithic person’s time fossilised for eternity, bearing the scars left behind during that person’s craft and labour to fashion arrowhead from a lump of natural flint. The individual would have turned the flint over and over in their hands again and again to get the right position to strike it with a hammer stone and slowly take off one flake after another until they had finally realised their idea of an arrowhead from the stone.

Ben can see differences in the work’man’ship between arrowheads, pointing out ones that were better made than others. Some have such fine edges and scars from where tiny flakes were delicately struck off that they were clearly made by someone with an experienced hand and eye.

An experienced flintworker carefully crafted this beautiful arrowhead.

Others are not so well completed and Ben speculates on whether these were made by people learning their craft.

The precision of flaking on this arrowhead suggests someone less proficient.

The tips of one or two of the arrowheads appear snapped off or ‘blunted’ which Ben suggests shows they were used and damaged on impact.

These moments of craft and use spinning out of time from thousands of years ago and become organised, stored and studied in our present. Dynamic, social, active events from prehistory become arranged into order in labelled bags – and occasionally weighed, measured and studied by eye. They have been taken from where they fell at the end of their dynamic prehistoric histories but only through their methodical study can any of their active past become known. The feeling I left with was of a modern-day craftsperson bringing life back to his very different prehistoric counterparts. Both are linked through these delicate objects, both handling the flints with exquisite skill and care, both needing skills honed through years of experience that manipulate the arrowhead with hands, eyes and brains. Each of them, the Neolithic maker and the 21st century archaeologist create the arrowhead in their own terms of reference.

You can see the photographs of Ben in the Flints Gallery

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About Bill Bevan

Bill Bevan is an archaeologist, writer, photographer and heritage interpreter.
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