Saturday 23 March 2013

Flint Napping at the British Museum

Flint is a hard, sedimentary cryptocrystalline form of the mineral quartz, categorized as a variety of chert. It occurs chiefly as nodules and masses in sedimentary rocks, such as chalks and limestones. Inside the nodule, flint is usually dark grey, black, green, white, or brown in colour, and often has a glassy or waxy appearance. A thin layer on the outside of the nodules is usually different in colour, typically white and rough in texture.

Flint was used in the manufacture of tools during the Stone Age as it splits into thin, sharp splinters called flakes or blades (depending on the shape) when struck by another hard object (such as a hammerstone made of another material). This process is referred to as knapping.

My interest in the stone tools made by our ancestors was aroused by the BBC radio series A History of the World in 100 objects.  Once I'd heard, and been captivated by, the episode devoted to The Swimming Reindeer I became a devoted follower of the other ninety-nine objects chosen by the director of the British Museum from their collections.


Object No 3 Olduvai Hand Axe, the first great invention of early man, some 1.5 million years ago.
Found by Louis Leakey in Olduvai Gorge, Africa.

This hand axe made of green volcanic lava represents a tradition of tool-making which began about 1.6 million years ago. Smaller hand axes became common handheld tools used for cutting meat or woodworking. Produced with great skill by ancestors we would recognize as becoming human, this object shows that manufactured things, sometimes of distinctive quality, were starting to be important in the evolution of our behaviour.

Humans spread out of Africa

The makers of handaxes are the first humans to spread across Africa into Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Handaxes reflect the first great spread of humankind and the establishment of a way of life in which we recognize the beginnings of our human characteristics. No other humanly made object has ever been manufactured over such a long period and before the 20th century no other object has spread over such a wide geographical area.

(BBC A History of the World in 100 Objects) 

As part of the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum a flint napping course had been offered, it was an opportunity that I couldn't fail to grasp so last Saturday, after visiting the exhibition, and sustained by a bowl of pasta of mammoth-proportions, I joined a group of fellow-enthusiasts for the workshop.

It was led by Karl Lee of Primitive Technology UK  lovely chap with a great sense of humour, a good knowledge of archaeology and an obvious passion for his work. As he demonstrated the art of flint napping he described the materials, from the raw flint, to the stones, antlers and copper that are used to transform a lump of rock into a life-saving hand tool.    

The process of napping involves holding the flint in one hand and gently, but firmly, striking it with the stone or antler so that thin slivers of flint fracture and fall from the underside.

He made it look ridiculously easy.  

A sample of his work some of which I picked up and held in my hand and yes, I could imagine using one quickly to cut up a carcass.

Preferably the one in the bottom left of the picture.

Hand axes were made for use by men, women and children. In the harsh climate of the Ice Age it was essential that everyone assisted in the dismembering of the kill before larger, vicious predators arrived on the scene. 

It was the first modern technology, brought by our ancestors when they left Africa.

It was also used by our cousins, the Neanderthals who, far from being the savage beasts that many accounts portray them to have been, were pretty much like our own branch of the evolutionary tree, the homo sapiens. But more about the cousins in a later post. Suffice to say that I was pleased that Karl also shares my views on the Neanderthals. 

So, after the demonstration and instruction we were given a piece of flint from which to nap our own hand tools.

I am not a practical person.
I tried very hard to create a good flint tool but alas, I was caught napping and one hasty chip with my stone caused my formerly leaf-shaped tool to fracture. I was a little crest-fallen but Karl was reassuring, "Keep napping and you'll have a handy little tool that you could use to skin an animal."

Towards the end of the workshop Dr Jill Cook, mother of the Ice Age Art exhibition, arrived to see how we were doing. We were very enthusiastic, wonderful workshop given by a great teacher, let's have more such opportunities to learn and engage with such topics, please. Oh and also, may we have sleepovers at the British Museum for adults? It's not fair that only kids get to spend the night in the galleries.

While checking on Karl Lee's website for this post I discovered, to my delight, that he sells flint tools.

Of course, I'm planning to order this one.

Rather beautiful, isn't it?


  1. Oh, how fun and informative - lucky you! And that last one is too beautiful to be a tool.

    That reminds me - I was surprised and fascinated to learn that this curious material was a common building material in the Wiltshire area which we visited on an Ancient Britain tour a few years ago (see

    1. Indeed, it is also used extensively in Oxfordshire and Berkshire. There are many chalk hills round here, which is where flint is found, and so it has been used as a decorative feature in walls for a long time.
      "A brick and flint dwelling..."
      Much nicer than pebble-dash, which I can't resists picking-at, and rendering that requires painting often

  2. I attended a workshop given by a Native American flint knapper several years ago. When he finished, he asked the students (I was a chaperone for high school students) what they thought of the piece. None of them had insightful remarks. I said it was beautiful and brought out the life inside the flint. He said a prayer over the piece, blew the breath of life across it, and placed it in my hands, which he then clasped between his and blew upon them again. It is a very treasured piece in my life, something this man made with love and chose to share with me.

    1. What a wonderful story, thank you for sharing it with me.
      I would treasure such a piece of art...

  3. Hello Julia,

    Thank you for your lovely comments - I would like to link your blog from my site, I hope that's OK!

    Also, there's a certain cream-coloured handaxe that is pleading with me to be sent to a good home... if you email me an address, I'll arrange to have it delivered. Be a shame to let it go to someone else as you like it so much!


    1. Hello Karl, you are most welcome, and yes, please feel free to link to the post.

      It is very kind of you to offer to me the cream handaxe, I feel a little embarrassed by your generosity but will accept with very grateful thanks :-) It will be a lovely souvenir of a fascinating afternoon. Thank You


    2. No problem at all! - I'll put the link up today.

      All the best

  4. Hi Julia,

    Can you confirm it's OK for my social media guru/photographer to drop your handaxe off to you rather than posting it? She doesn't want to turn up unexpectedly/unannounced is all :)



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