On Friday afternoons I flake out with my archaeology professor, some of his friends, and any students interested in giving up two hours of their weekend. We hang out, relax, talk, and get down to the serious business of what’s known to everyone who’s anyone as flintknapping. Flintknapping is the process of creating flaked or chipped stone tools — projectile points, knives, scrapers, and awls. Those arrowheads in museum display cases — those are what I aspire to make. You start with a smooth, uniform rock, the glassier the better. Chert and obsidian work well. When you hit them with another rock at the right angle, you force the smooth rock to shatter in a conchoidal fracture (a phrase that I think is only used when talking about flintknapping — think of how a chunk of glass would break if you hit it). This process creates long flakeshaped rocks that you refine and sharpen until they’re ready for use.
As one of my friends put it, “You’re hitting rocks with other rocks to make sharp rocks.”
Talk about a hobby with a history: the earliest flaked stone tools date to 2.5 million years ago. For most of human history, stone tools have been the main technology of humankind. Only recently (archaeologically speaking) did metal tools become the norm in the Old World. Even then, stone tools were still a mainstay in the New World, and some parts of the Old World as well.
Flintknapping’s modern incarnation as a specialized hobby can be traced to a Californian American Indian, Ishi, who taught academics interviewing him how to use stone tools for survival. In recent years, archaeologists have increasingly used experiments with flintknapped tools to recreate prehistoric technology.
The basics of flintknapping are pretty easy to learn, but six months after starting, I’m still trying to get the hang of it. Hitting rocks with other rocks is harder than it sounds, especially for people such as me, who have problems with something called “accuracy.” And there are tricks to it that I haven’t mastered — the ones that don’t involve accuracy mostly require upper body strength, which is also something I lack. At one point last semester, after I’d managed to create a rather crude-but functional point, my professor turned to me and said, “Congratulations, you’re now the technological equivalent of a Neanderthal.” As I said, I’m still getting the hang of it.
One of the fun things about flintknapping is you have an automatic product. Two hours of sitting outside of the anthropology building, flaking chert, and I’ve made two arrowheads. I now have a toolbox under my bed filled with points in various stages of completion. Some are nothing more than mangled bits of dull rock, but they have sentimental value. I’ve never been very crafty, so being able to actually make something is a treat for me. And my distorted, inelegant tools illustrate my point: you don’t have to be strong or creative or talented to flintknap — you just have to be interested in history. That’s not to say I have no aspirations for my lithic experiments; eventually, I’m hoping to progress to Neolithic technology. But while I work my way up the evolutionary ladder, I get to spend my Friday afternoons playing with rocks and flaking out.
Beth Miller '10 is an Anthropology and English major from Iowa City, Iowa.