Fresh from the Trench: Week 2

At the beginning of the week, we started cutting back an old section on the western wall of the trench just north of the mortar mixer (southwest of trench). We excavated an area adjacent to Brian Hope-Taylor’s trench that marks the southwest of our trench. The area was partially overgrown near the old baulk and briefly was home to some trench stairs. On the way down to Brian Hope-Taylor’s upper pavement, we found two objects representing a few thousand years of material culture: medieval scissors and a prehistoric flint blade.

Dark grey flint blade.

Late Neolithic flint blade.

This flint is likely from the Late Neolithic due to its shape and the evidence along the edge and face that show how it was retouched. Flint is often found within chalk or limestone deposits, so where lakes and rivers once stood hundreds of millions of years ago that became sedimentary rock. Some scholars believe that human migration in search of resources may not just have been for flora and fauna, but also the presence of stone fit for tool-making. The chalk ridge in southeastern England once connected to northern France and exploring early humans might have sought out these areas as worthy sites to exploit. What some call the “Stone Age” can more specifically been divided into the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic, which mean Old, Middle, and New Stone Age respectively. The Neolithic in Britain spans roughly 4000-2500BC, and is marked by specific stone tool types, megalithic construction, and the advent of farming. Flint-knapping is the process of making tools out of flint or chert and involves a hammerstone striking off flakes to shape a usable blade or flattened point.

Flint is extremely sharp, even microscopically so, which has led to an interesting push by some medical professionals to switch to flint blades because of their sharpness and the lesser likelihood of spreading germs trapped on their surface (whereas a surgical steel scalpel under a microscope will have a visibly rounded edge, and imperfections on the surface could spread infection). Unfortunately, there is not really a major flint-knapping industry in place to produce medical grade blades; the community of contemporary skilled flint-knappers often include traditional indigenous craftsmen, experimental archaeologists, and re-enactors/living history interpreters.

In addition to cutting and scraping, flint creates sparks when struck by steel. This is perfect for starting campfires or for a particular generation of firearms known as flintlocks. In colonial American contexts such as southeastern Virginia in the 1770s, we can examine gun flints from the Revolutionary War and reasonably deduce which fighting faction used the flint in question: the British used grey flints and only squared half while rounding the other, the French used square orange flints which could be used in either direction, and the Americans used British-sourced flints but often cut in the French style.

For these reasons, flint is therefore one of the most influential stones in human history, and it often doesn’t really get its due!

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