Crafts apprenticeship and transmission of knowledge in Bronze Age flint working – investigated through experimental flintknapping
PD Dr. Berit Valentin Eriksen
During the late Stone Age, the art of flint knapping reached an exceptionally high level in Denmark. A few, very skilled, artisans produced one-of-a-kind masterpieces in flint. Their skill has never seen the like and has never been surpassed. Few hundred years later the situation had changed, and bronze tools were becoming increasingly important. Dynamic technological analyses of lithic inventories from Early Bronze Age settlement sites (1100–1500 calBC) evidence that there still were flint knapping specialists around, but these people were craftsmen – not masters. They made everyday tools – not prestige objects. This research project employs experimental lithic technology to address the socio-technological implications of the introduction of metallurgy within the field of cognitive archaeology.
Museum exhibits all over the world testify to the fact that flint working may be referred to as the oldest known craft in the world. It certainly extends back at least one million years. Then, only some five thousand years ago, metallurgy was invented, and the technology of tool production made a quantum leap forward. The introduction of metallurgy may well have been the singularly most significant technological innovation in the history of tool production. Even in Denmark where high quality flint is abundant and almost omnipresent and metal ores are altogether absent, metallurgy rapidly became the cutting-edge technology. It may have taken a little longer in this area, and flint craftsmanship might have survived quite a while by comparison to other (i.e. metal producing) areas; but, inevitably, the flint knapping craft also became obsolete here.
This leaves a number of very interesting questions open:
- What happened during the first millennia of presumed decline and fall of flint technology following the introduction of metallurgy? For how long did flint tools and flint knapping maintain a general importance in everyday life?
- What happened to flint knapping specialists? For how long did they persist in refining their technological skills, manifest in the magnificent pressure flaked artefacts of the Earliest Bronze Age?
- Do we find evidence of rivalry, co-operation, or perhaps even identity between flint knappers and metal workers?
- What were the socio-economic costs? Were they outweighed by technological benefits and spin-offs (including the use of copper-tipped flint knapping tools)?
- And finally: which status did flint craftsmanship denote in the complex society of the Bronze Age by comparison to earlier times?
Answers to these questions are not readily available but may be approached through advanced lithic studies operating within the framework of cognitive archaeology.
An important premise for the success of this approach is the simple fact that flint knapping is a skill that must be acquired, and which cannot be exercised successfully without a certain amount of knowledge, experience, and ability. It was state of the art for a million or more years of tool production, but the knowledge and know-how, even the simplest trick of the trade, never got genetically hardwired, and it never became instinct. It was always transferred the hard way: by teaching and learning, by trial and error. When the knowledge was no longer transferred, the skill was lost.
In order to address the socio-technological implications of the introduction of metallurgy the present project address questions pertaining to technological skills, the degree of specialization in the flint knapping craft in the early metal-using societies, as well as questions pertaining to the transmission of technological knowledge.
To this effect, experimental flint knapping is employed as a heuristic device – the purpose of which first and foremost is to act as an eye-opener and help explore issues related to the socio-technological context of flint knapping. Thus, only a few specific variables were fixed in the experiment situation. These are based on the archaeological observations pertaining to raw material selected for tool production, typological characteristics of the artefacts (i.e., Early Bronze Age asymmetrical sickles) replicated, and the basic chaîne opératoire of the production process. Within this experimental set-up, the flint knappers were able to use their own favourite flint knapping tools. They were allowed a free workflow (i.e., no forced routines, and no breaks imposed for the sake of documentation), and they were also allowed a rather free choice of flint knapping techniques and methods.
An initial series of experiments were carried out at the Lejre Experimental Centre in the summers of 2005-7, with the invaluable help of several highly competent flint knappers. Three issues were addressed during these experiments:
(1) Raw Material Quality
Bronze Age flint knappers worked a variety of lithic raw materials, but as regards the formal tools and especially the asymmetrical sickles, the past craftsmen usually had some preferences. The raw material selected for the experiments has the advantage of being easily available today, and similar (perhaps even identical) to a variety that was very often used, and sometimes even preferred, in Early Bronze Age sickle production.
The experiments clearly showed, that once you get to know this raw material it works very well, especially with bifacial flaking. It is brittle, and it also has flaws such as chalk/limestone inclusions, sometimes even small crystals. These imperfections may account for many of the broken preforms found on Early Bronze Age production sites. In some cases, the rate of success may have been as low as one in three.
However, the rate of success is not necessarily a matter of skill versus raw material quality. It is also a question of how much time you are willing (able/allowed) to spend on a flawed piece of flint. During the flint knapping experiments, one knapper especially did a magnificent job on an exceedingly difficult nodule with severe internal cracks. But he persevered and finished the sickle. Other (highly experienced) flint knappers were more impatient and thereby forced to give up earlier due to fatal fractures. This enabled another interesting observation: the local flint knappers that were familiar with the Danish affluence of raw material were much more impatient, and much more wasteful, than the non-local flint knappers. Incidentally, none of the flint knappers had worked this specific raw material before.
(2) Skilled Production
Co-incidentally none of the flint knappers had any previous experience with the artefact type in question. The Early Bronze Age bifacial sickle type was new to all – leading on to the obvious question concerning the amount of skill needed to make a typical such sickle?
By comparison, for instance, to the manufacture of a Late Neolithic fishtail dagger, the making of an asymmetrical sickle is “a piece of cake” for a skilled flint knapper. The flint knappers who took part in the experiments had on average 10-15 years of flint knapping experience. Less (i.e., a few years of practise) will certainly do, but with this amount of experience one can rather consistently manufacture an efficient sickle in 2½ to 3 hours.
This corresponds well with the archaeological analysis indicating that as a rule the asymmetrical sickles were made by skilled craftsmen. In the context of the Early Bronze Age it is accordingly safe to call them flint knapping specialists.
(3) Acquiring the Skill
Until now the term “skill” has been used rather casually and almost synonymous with experience. Obviously, this is somewhat inadequate. Skill is also a matter of knowledge and ability, both of which have a motor as well as a mental aspect; and both of which may be passed on by teaching and learning. Accordingly, the final series of experiments focus on questions relating to learning processes in Early Bronze Age lithic craftsmanship.
The flint knappers (a master, a skilled craftsman, and a novice) participating in this series of experiments are quite different in the way they work – with respect to workflow, method, and technique. The expectation is that if it is possible tell the work of these flintknappers apart, and perhaps even see the influence the master flint knapper exerted on the skilled craftsman, in the debitage and finished products from the experiments, then it makes sense to move on to analyse the prehistoric inventories with these questions in mind. Here the challenge is to analyse and compare the sickles and debitage produced (at present totalling 16 sickles, 3 preforms, and c. 35 kilo of debitage [c. 5,000 pieces of flint]). Of course, the comparison also includes the footage of the working process. Preliminary results are promising but still “in the pipeline”.
Eriksen, B.V. 2007. Travelling craftsmen in Early Bronze Age Denmark – addressing the evidence of leftover lithics. In: B. Hårdh, K. Jennbert & D. Olausson (eds), On the Road. Studies in honour of Lars Larsson. Acta Archaeologica Lundensia, Series in 4°, No. 26. Lund, pp. 253-258.
Eriksen, B.V. 2008. Dynamic technological analysis of Bronze Age lithics. A tribute to an unconventional archaeologist. In: Z. Sulgostowska & A.J. Tomaszewski (eds), Man – Millennia – Environment. Studies in honour of Romuald Schild. Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Polish Academy of Sciences. Warsaw, pp. 301-306.
Eriksen, B.V. 2010. Flint working in the Danish Bronze Age – the decline and fall of a master craft. In: B.V. Eriksen (ed): Lithic technology in metal using societies. Jutland Archaeological Society Publications Vol. 67. Højbjerg, pp. 81-93.
Eriksen, B.V. 2011. Schwanengesang über das Steinhandwerk – Meister und die, die es nicht können – Die frühmetallzeitliche Steintechnologie Dänemarks. Archäologische Nachrichten aus Schleswig-Holstein, Heft 17, pp. 7-9.
Frieman, C.J. & B.V. Eriksen 2015. Introduction. Flint Daggers: A Historical, Typological and Methodological primer. In: C.J. Frieman & B.V. Eriksen (eds) Flint Daggers in Prehistoric Europe. Oxbow Books. Oxford, pp. 1-9.
Eriksen, B.V. 2018. Bronze Age flint-working at Bjerre, Thy. In: J.H. Bech, B.V. Eriksen & K. Kristiansen (eds), Bronze Age Settlement and Land-Use in Thy, Northwest Denmark, Vol. II. Jutland Archaeological Society Publications Vol. 102. Højbjerg, pp. 281-347.