LEFT: bronze being cast to make a rapier ~ RIGHT: I am using traditional methods to split logs to make planks in the way that have been used to construct the bronze age trackway at Flag Fen

Brief History of Experimental Lithics

First Lithic Understanding

In the 18th century, most of the scientific community at the time believed that humans had been on the Earth for only around 6000 years, the age of the universe created by God, as described by Archbishop James Ussher's Creationist doctrine made in the early 1600s that pinpointed creation as beginning at 9:00 PM on October 23rd in 4004 BC. Archbishop Ussher's chronology also provided the following key dates for events in the Bible:

  • 4004 BC - Creation of the World
  • 2348 BC – Noah’s Flood
  • 1921 BC - God's conversation with Abraham
  • 4 BC - The birth of Jesus

In 1797 John Frere (1740 – 1807) was watching workman digging clay for bricks in a pit at the site of the Hoxne clay brick pit (near Diss), when he noticed the regularly shaped triangular flints which they were using to fill up potholes in the road. These were Acheulean handaxes found within the site of an interglacial lake (part of the Hoxnian interglacial ~ 375,000 to 425,000 years ago). Frere, who was an active member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, identified that those tools were located stratigraphically below the large bones of extinct animals (now thought to be elephants) and from a layer of gravel 12 feet below the surface, which suggested that people had inhabited the Earth much earlier than previously believed.

He described the flint tools on 22nd June 1797 as " ...weapons of war, fabricated by a people who had not the use of metals. They lay in great numbers at the depth of about twelve feet, in a stratified soil, which was dug into for the purpose of raising clay for bricks... The situation in which these weapons were found may tempt us to refer them to a very remote period indeed, even beyond that of the present world.." His report was then published alongside the drawing below, commissioned by the Society from the geologist and draughtsman Thomas Underwood.

However Frere's interpretation was too radical at the time and was ignored for over 60 years, until in 1859 when accidentally re-discovered by Sir John Evans, while he was waiting for some friends at the Society of Antiquaries and looking at one of the display cases. Evans was “absolutely horror-struck to see in it three or four implements precisely resembling those found at Abbeville and Amiens”. Evans researched the Archaeologia 13 and after finding Frere’s entry, Evans visited Hoxne. In a paper to the Royal Society on the 26th May 1859, Prestwick and Evans concluded that Frere’s conclusions were correct.

John Frere

(image provenance / © unknown)

in 2000 the plaque (below right) was erected in the local church commemorating Frere. It was sculpted by the Cardozo-Kinderslay Workshops at Cambridge (founded by David Kindersley) and incorporates a hand axe made by Phil Harding. In 2003 local artists Ben Platt-Mills and Ray Brooks created a 10 foot high oak carving called Hoxne Man, complete with spear and flint hand-axe and installed it in Brakey Wood, Hoxne.

(LEFT: © hoxne.net - pending approval ~ RIGHT: image provenance / © unknown)

Around 1830 the French archaeologist Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes (1788 – 1868), discovered flint tools in the gravels of the Somme valley, which in his view were human handiwork; but not until 1846 that he make public the important discovery of a worked flint implement with remains of elephant and rhinoceros in the gravels of Menchecourt. From 1825 Boucher was director of the customhouse at Abbeville, near the mouth of the Somme River and began devoting his time to archaeological searches in the Somme valley. In 1837 he discovered flint hand axes and other stone tools, some embedded with the bones of extinct mammals, that were later examined by Sir Joseph Prestwich (1812-1896), whose report on the matter was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society for 1859-1860.

Jacques Boucher

Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes
(Public Domain)

Sir Joseph Prestwich
(Public Domain)

In 1847 Boucher was the was the first to establish the existence of man in the Pleistocene or early Quaternary period in his published three volume work "Antiquites Celtiques Et Antediluviennes". However his work was largely dismissed as the figures in his book were badly shown and they included drawings of flints which showed no clear sign of workmanship.

Forgery for Profit

Today’s flintknappers are fully aware of concerns around confusing ancient and modern lithics and responsibly deal with this; however this was not always the case.

(Young) Flint Jack

(Public Domain)

Flint Jack” was the so called "Prince of Counterfeiters" - also known as Fossil Willy; Bones; Shirtless; Cockney Bill; the Old Antiquarian; Snake Billy; Skin & Grief, his real name was either Edward Simpson or Edward Smith. Born to a mariner in 1815, he claimed to originate from Sleights in Whitby, although many other locations were given for his birthplace. He was an infamous Victorian forger of stone tools, pottery, coins, stone celts, manuscripts, Roman armour, jet seals, necklaces, fossils and glass objects. Although much has been written about his adult life, it is often difficult to tell fact from fiction.

At the age of 14, it is believed that Simpson started to gain his knowledge of geology and archaeology while in service with a Mr Merry (or Dr Murry) and then later from the Whitby historian Dr. Young, who occasionally employed him during the 1830’s. He then possibly worked for Dr. Ripley for a further 6 years until around 1840. Victorian museums were keen to obtain ancient artefacts, which created a boom in the buying and selling of forgeries.

In 1843, Simpson saw the first British barbed flint arrow head he had ever seen and was asked by Mr.Dodgson if he could imitate it - Simpson said he would try. In 1844, he made his first "ancient" British Urn from the clay dug from the cliffs of Bridlington Bay and then later fired in the woods of Stainton-dale. In around 1845, Simpson set about the forging antiquities to maintain his addiction to alcohol.

Simpson used a steel hammer tool to make replica lithics then added to their appearance by using chemicals and used a lapidary tumbler to simulate patination and physical abrasion.

In 1859, Simpson was accused by Professor Tennant with the forgery of antiquities - Simpson confessed. Flint Jack gave a public demonstration of his skill at the Geological Society in London on 7th January 1862 which earned him sincere praise by Llewellyn Jewitt in the "Reliquary Quarterly Archaeological Journal and Review." In 1866 the Malton Messenger printed "Notice of the extraordinary life of Edward Simpson of Sleights. The notorious manufacturer of spurous antiquities who is universally known as Flint Jack".

After this, Simpson could no longer sell his replicas (or "dooplicates" as he referred to them) and in March 1867 he was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment (for theft of a barometer and a clock) at Bedford.

Mainly of his tools and replica “artefacts” can be found in the Cambridge Archaeology and Anthropology Museum and in the Yorkshire Museum and several books have been written about him - there even a song in his honour from the Monks of Doom (Californian alternative rock band formed in 1986).

(old) Flint Jack

(Public Domain)

Flint Jack
He's a master of his trade
Oh young Edward's twisted soul has finally come of age
And from a piece of flint
An arrowhead was shaped
The only thing as good as gold is something that's as good as old

Flint Jack, you've gone and spent it all on drink again
Oh the Prince of Fabricators!
Who knows where you've been and where you will rest?

Flint Jack
He's a master of his trade
Oh young Edward's twisted soul has finally come of age
And from a plate of tin
Was formed a Roman breastplate
The only thing as good as gold is something that's as good as old

Flint Jack, you've gone and spent it all on drink again
Oh the Prince of Fabricators!
Who knows where you've been and where you will rest?

Oh the Prince of Fabricators, never will you be saved
Oh the Prince of Fabricators where are you now?
'Cos this is your golden age
This is your golden age

Flint Jack
He's a master of his trade
Oh young Edward's twisted soul, never will it be saved
He's got a pack rat penchant for the precious things
And he will fool us yet
'Cos the only thing that's good as gold is something that's as good as old.

Flint Jack, you've gone and spent it all on drink again
Oh the Prince of Fabricators!
Who knows where you've been and where you will rest?


(1992 IRS Records )

(image provenance / © unknown)

American Lewis Erickson (the eldest of 6 children born to Norwegian parents Wisconsin in spring 1873) discovered a talent for removing flakes from old unfinished Native American arrowheads by biting on them, during a period of illness. Prehistoric stone lithics were plentiful around the village of Marshall, Dane county, Wisconsin, so Erickson had much raw material to work with. Erickson changed to using specially modified steel pincers to work on flint fish hooks and spears, using ancient lithics as guidance. With his younger brother, Erickson was constantly buying and selling genuine flint relics and this gave him the perfect opportunity to sell his fake ones, which were considered at the time to be of rare shape and perfect. Erickson never actually knapped the flint objects, but only reworked the edges of rejects and after smearing them with mud, the brothers sold around 1000 fakes to local collectors for between $2- $6 each. However a number of the collectors became suspicious and eventually Emil Sehanck (Deerfield, Wisconsin) and Theodore Kumlien (Milton, Wisconsin) visited the Erickson’s farm and found them making the spurious flint artefacts. The brothers were forced to refund the two men and later they issued the following statement to W. W. Gilman (Editor of The Archaeologist) "Dear Sir — I received your letter and I see that Mr. is not satisfied with the relics that I sold to him, but it is a fact that I never sold them to be genuine. I sold them for to be some of my curiosities and odd pieces of flint. Mr. imagined him- self what the pieces had been used for. I have only settled one case of this kind in full, but that man had a written claim against me, but I am willing to settle with Mr. in the same way as I have done to others if he will let me know. Besides, nothing was mentioned in your letter whether I was to get my relics back or not. Please write and let me know." Finally Lewis Erickson refunded (with interest) much of the profit he made to avoid public prosecution.

Forgery of flint tools continued into the 20th century and prompted The Morning Post of December 26, 1911 to devote a column to "Flint Implements", "The Flint Collector", "Flints which are not genuine" and "The means by which to distinguish genuine implements from false ones". We fear so long as a clever and dishonest ' flint-knapper' lives and makes good forgeries there will always be found simple folks to buy them.

Early Flint Tools - Man or Nature?

To further confuse modern reproductions and ancient artefacts, many flint objects that were once thought to have been the earliest stone tools, are now believed to be natural eoliths, produced by geological processes like glaciation. The term "eolith" (or dawn stone) was attributed to John Allen Browne in 1892. Eoliths were first found in the Kent plateau by an Ightham grocer and amateur archaeologist, Benjamin Harrison (1837-1921) in 1885. Harrison's discoveries were published by geologist Sir Joseph Prestwich in 1891 and they were generally accepted to have been early man-tools, dating from the Pliocene, more than 1.8m years ago. Five years later Dr H. P. Blackmore discovered a series of eoliths in Salisbury (England) and similar finds of eoliths came from the Red Crag beds of Ipswich, found by J. Reid Moir (1910) and in Belgium, found by A. Rutot and H. Klaatsch. These were also thought to be evidence of early human habitation of those areas and may have even help with the infamous hoax of Piltdown man.

Given that the mainstream Victorian scientific establishment had earlier rejected the concept that flint hand axes could have been made by early humans, the acceptance of eoliths as man-made is surprising. The French archaeologist and Director of the Institut de Pal Contologie Humaine, Paris - Marcellin Boule (1861-1942), published l'Anthropoidgie (Tome xvi., p. 257), against the archaeological status of eoliths in 1905 and later Samuel Hazzledine Warren confirmed the view of Boule after carrying out mechanical drum experiments on flints and publishing his results in "A Natural Eolith factory beneatch the Thanet sand".

The controversy over the origin of the eoliths continued for over 30 years, until further evidence was discovered that ended the debate. This included the discovery of genuine late-Pliocene tools in Africa (the Olduwan tools) and that fact that no hominid remains from the Pliocene period have ever been found in Europe. Further details and illustrations of the eoliths can be found in the paper "The Differences Between Natural and Human Flaking on Prehistoric Flint Implements" by Alfred S. Barnes.

Flint in early Experimental Archaeology

Possibly the first person to use flintknapping to help explain prehistory, was the Swedish Zoologist and Archaeologist Sven Nilsson (1787–1883). Nilsson manufactured gunflints and he considered the similarity in his flaking techniques and that of ancient flint tools.

He described his theory in his work, Skandinaviska Nordens Urinvanare, published in 1834, was later translated into English by John Lubbock under the title The primitive inhabitants of Scandinavia (1868). Nilsson described four stages of culture transition:

  1. Hunting and Fishing
  2. Pastoralism - domestication of livestock
  3. Agriculture
  4. Civilization
(Public Domain)

In 1919, Smithsonian archaeologist William Henry Holmes (1846 – 1933) published illustrated techniques on flintknapping. However he was not reporting from his own flintknapping experiments but from descriptions taken from other people who had observed native cultures or from "old men who had knowledge of the work in days preceding the coming of the gun."

The first scientific demonstration of percussion and pressure flaking was by Sir John Evans (1823-1908) at the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology (Norwich) in 1868, when he made flint scrapers and other tools. Sir Evans was a wealthy businessman which allowed him to pursue academic interests, such as geology and hydrology. A chance meeting with Sir Joseph Prestwich around 1855 developed into a close friendship based on their mutual interest in geology.

On a trip to see the gravel pits of the Somme around Abbeville (France) in 1859, the two men observed a flint axe in situ in Amiens, which they took as evidence that flint tools were created by early man. To understand more about the manufacture of flint tools, Evans started to reproduce stone tools in around 1860 and this eventually lead to his landmark publication in 1872 called ‘Prehistoric Stone implements Weapons, and Ornaments of Great Britain’.

Around 1893, Sir John Evans commented on the work of Flint Jack as being "course and less deceptive" than those of other forgers.

(Public Domain)

In 1934, Russian Dr Sergei Aristarkhovich Semenov (1898–1978) began experimentation into flint technologies and usewear analysis at the Institute of Leningrad, that resulted in the 1957 published work "Prehistoric Technology", although his worked was not since in the west until 1964. In the mid 1970s American Jeffery Flenniken gave flintknapping demonstrations at the Institute at Leningrad and afterwards worked with Semenov and one of his students Dr. Korokova. Flenniken"s visit had quite an effect on flintknapping experimentation in Russia. His experience was documented in National Geographic, Vol. 156, No.3, Sept 1979.

In June 1947, a flintknapping demonstration was performed by Leon Coutier (1895-1980), an archaeologist and former President of the Societe Prehistorique Francaise. This was filmed at the former Institute of Archaeology, Regent's Park, London (click on the Past Horizons links below) and shows his technique for making replicas of Palaeolithic tools and weapons, including hand-axes, scrapers, gravers and flint arrowheads, using a stone anvil, boxwood bars, boxwood hammers and punches (rather than hammerstones and antler hammers). One important discovery made by Coutier during his experiments was the practice of abrading.  Coutier found that abrading the platform was essential preparation, especially for material such as obsidian, to roughen the surface so the hammer did not slip or lose its intended trajectory.

Past Horizons - Part 1

Past Horizons - Part 2

In the 1960’s there was an increase in lithic experimentation through pioneers such as Don Crabtree (below left) known as the “Dean of American flintknappers” and François Bordes (below right).

(LEFT: image provenance / © unknown ~ RIGHT: © Department of Archaeology, Conservation and Historical Studies. University of Oslo)

Don Crabtree (1912 - 1980) will be remembered for "Crabtree's Law", which states that "the greater the degree of final finishing applied to a stone artifact, whether by flaking, grinding and/or polishing, the harder it is to conclude the lithic reduction process which produced the stone artifact." This Law points out that the final finishing state in the production of many types of stone artefacts actually removes visible and often important steps in the process of lithic reduction. He suggested that understanding the technological processes by which the stone tools were produced were important if archaeologists/flintknappers wanted to truly analyse the stone artefact, including techniques for tracing the distribution of material from their sources to the final location of discard.

François Bordes (1919 - 1981) was a French scientist, archaeologist and geologist and was a professor of prehistory and quaternary geology at the Science Faculty of Bordeaux. Bordes changed the approach of prehistoric lithic industries, by introducing scientific and statistical studies in the use of experimental flint knapping. He duplicated some 63 tool types and made over 100,000 stone tools in his life; he also concluded that there were four Neanderthal cultures based on stone tool assemblages. Bordes wrote many books which include the Old Stone Age and A Tale Of Two Caves and many articles under the "pen name" Francis Carsac.

Other Flint Experimental Archaeology

Dr Thomas Wilson Parry (1866-1945) was fascinated by Stone Age surgery and experimented by making neolithic trephining instruments. He published many paper and even wrote a humorous ballard (below) on the subject. He conducted around 50 experiments on human skulls of more and less recent deceased, using tools made of flint (flint-pointed bow drill and flint scraper), obsidian, slate, shell, glass and even shark's teeth.

This patient must now be trephined,
Let all the others go;
Tomorrow when the sun is up,
My magic I'll them show.

Two men the epileptic bore,
And laid him on a trunk;
And when the wretch was coming round,
He showed some signs of funk.

No questions they put to the man,
The doctor cleared his throat;
Then, bringing flints from out his hut,
Took off his hairy coat.

A crowd had gathered all around,
To watch the bloody deed;
Their curiosity was stirred,
To see his devil freed.

With sharp flint flake the surgeon made,
A cruciform incision;
The blood did spurt, the wound it hurt,
The crowd laughed in derision.

The two assistance pressed the flaps,
To stop the blood from running;
The Medicine-Man did scheme and plan,
He was so full of cunning.

( © Science & Society Picture Library - with kind permission)

He scrapped the pericarnium,
Until the skull was bare;
Then scratched the bone with a sharp stone,
It did not matter where.

He scraped that bone and scratched and scraped,
The scratched made a groove;
The groove a basin like ellipse,
The patient did not move.

The fact was this, when he came round,
So rotten did he feel;
He fainted when he found himself,
At the centre of such zeal.

The hollow soon became a hole,
'Twas all but through the bone;
His diploe you well might see,
But still he made no moan.

The inner table only now,
Protected his soft brain;
One final scrape and he did make,
That hole a window-pane.

The devil stirred within his skull,
And with a fearful yell;
Escaped from out its prison-house,
To seek its own in hell.

Parry identified four specific methods of trephining which he described in his published work " Trephination of the Living Human Skull in Prehistoric Times" in 1923. These were a combination of scraping, sawing and boring a number of close holes in a circle and took him between 15-30 minutes to complete, depening on the tool, method and skull age.

Ancientcraft trephining experiment

Do Experimental Lithics have a place in Academic Archaeology?

With today’s archaeology student learning about modern scientific approaches like chemical and spectrum analysis to understand the past in great detail, how does the replication of ancient stone tools help? Are simple ways of learning about how our ancestors lived any use to future archaeologists, or is it simply an impressive skill to educate the general public?

William Holmes (1894) was one of the first archaeologists to attempt a systematic analysis of lithic tools, but it was not until 1964, at the Lithic Technology Conference in France, archaeologists first began to demonstrate the value of flintknapping in lithic analysis. (For more information on early experimental lithics, click here)

Although a simple concept to understand, flintknapping is difficult to master, taking time and practice. It is done well by two types of individual; the artisan/hobbyist knappers who demonstrate their craft to the interested general public and the specialist archaeologists who use their skill and knowledge to discover more about how our ancestors lived.

Experimental lithics typically takes one of the following types:

  • Lithic Creation: The manufacturer of a lithic tool; the types of flake created and the waste/debitage material left behind
  • Functional Use of Lithics: The efficiency of the lithic tool and associated use-wear
  • Taphonomy of Lithics Sites: How an artefact/site changes and decays over a period of time, through different environmental and physical factors

Case Study 1: Exeter University - Solutrean Points

Following the discovery of a hoard of incomplete Solutrean points in France, a team from Exeter University (along with French and Portuguese archaeologists) attempted to learn more about the artefacts through lithic experimentation (Bradley, pers. comm., 2007). Solutrean technology was dominant in present-day France and Spain from around 21,000 to 17,000 years ago.

The hoard was examined to understand the manufacturing techniques, allowing the archaeologists to reproduce them under controlled conditions. It was realised the “overshot flake” technique was originally used and so the group learned how to make exact copies.

As each archaeologist used a slightly different knapping techniques (e.g. the sitting position; the way the flint was held, then struck and from the dorsal/ventral side), each small stage was recorded as an “action”. The “action” was described as all knapping performed between the archaeologist thinking about his next major strike on the flint.

By accurately recording information for each “action” it was possible to show in detail how a rough out was made into a finished solutrean point. This gave the archaeologists understanding of the thought process for early man who created the lithics during the last ice age and insight to how each tool was made e.g. what decisions where made at each stage and how problems in the flint where overcome.

Detailed information was recorded on the site about the where the artefacts (both solutrean points and debitage) were found. This was to show where the flint was mined, knapped into rough outs and then finally made into near complete lithic tools. The results showed that a small number of sites were used in the manufacturing process.

To understand how the knapping areas may have changed over the years, a taphonomic study was performed. The archaeologists knapped a solutrean point in a controlled area to plot how the debitage and flakes would lay on the ground. This was recorded and compared to the ancient knapping areas to see possible differences caused by geological changes.

Case Study 2: The functional efficiency of Acheulean handaxes

Reading University (Hosfield & Machin, 2005) conducted an experiment to determine whether Acheulean handaxes had been “over engineered” for their primary butchery purpose. Artisan flintknapper John Lord created 60 different Acheulean style handaxes which varied in shape and symmetry; these were then used by local butchers to see which was most effective (depending on their size, shape, thickness, angle, weight etc). 30 fallow deer were skinned and then butchered with the 60 modern handaxes.

Modern handaxes were used because ancient tools would likely to be blunt, being many thousands of years old and although could be re-touched this would obviously cause damage. The experiment needed a variety of different handaxes to test the most efficient style and it is unlikely that 60 ancient handaxes of perfect shape and size could be found. The experiment resulted in 18 hours of video footage which helped to determine efficiency of Acheulean handaxes.

The conclusion was that Acheulean handaxes may not have been simply over engineered, which would have wasted time and energy, but instead they were made because of the maker’/users characteristics e.g. “made-to-order” - some preferring smaller handaxes with rounded edges while others preferred larger handaxes with straighter edges.

Ancientcraft butchery experiments at York

The future of Experimental Lithics 

The future of experimental lithics according to some looks bleak, whilst others say that the technique is slowly being re-learnt. Some flintknappers have made suggestions on how it could be used in the future, such helping student archaeologists recognise genuine artefacts. Some Universities teach lithics and a few also teach experimental lithics; most of them are on personnel research though.

There are few flintknappers in Britain, but more in America, however experimental lithics is still performed by a small number of mainly hobbyists, rather than for academic research. One archaeologist even suggests that hobbyists should be discouraged as they may affect quarry resources.

Experimental lithics does occur in relevant places, like Grimes Graves and Creswell Crags which have regular flintknapping demonstrations to show the public what early man did with the material he worked so hard to get. It seems important for the public to glimpse their past and interpret what happened in it. A common reason for flintknapping is “Fascination in how early man made tools out of stone to sustain our future”.

Ancientcraft flintknapping


Reenactment is essentially performing a role in an event that may have occurred at an earlier time, especially battles.

Activities related to "reenactment" have a long history. In fact the Romans staged recreations of famous battles within their amphitheaters as a form of public spectacle.

Living History

Living History describes attempts to bring well researched history to life for the general public for educational purposes. Unlike reenactment, it does not necessarily aim to recreate a specific event in history. Instead Living history often involves demonstrating everyday activities such as cooking, cleaning, medical care, or particular skills and handicrafts.

Experimental Archaeology

Experimental archaeology use different methods, techniques and analyses to generate and test hypotheses, based upon archaeological source material. One of the main forms of experimental archaeology is the creation of copies of historical artefacts and structures using only historically accurate technologies (such as flintknapping).

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