FLINT OR CHERT, EUROPEAN OR AMERICAN: THE REAL DIFFERENCES
When we hear the word “flint”, we generally apply it to any primarily limestone based calcareous hard stone, regardless of where we find. Of course, geologists tell us there is really no such thing as “true flint” to be found in North America. More correctly, we should generically refer to the stones described above as “chert”, no matter what color they are or from what source they occur. The true flints only come from Europe, especially France, and to a lesser degree England and Spain. Still, we use the terms flint and chert interchangeably, and no one here seems to get too upset about it beyond the professional geologists, archaeologists, and a few others. But there really are significant differences, beyond the purely semantic ones, and it doesn’t take a dedicated expert to quickly see them upon any close encounter.
For my own part, my recent trip to the south of France was a truly eye-opening experience in many regards—not the least of which were the varieties and amazing capabilities of the “true flints” of southern France. The French use the generic term Silex much in the same way we might use ‘flint’ or ‘chert’ to characterize a broad range of limestone based hard stones that occur throughout the many river valleys that cut their way through the limestone hills of the region. It is also ideal cave, rock shelter, and grotto forming terrain as well, and has been a magnet for early humans since the first IceAge times. (NOTE: See the two previous entries in this blog series for more on the caves and cave artists and how they relate to larger regional and thematic issues.) As one peruses the many high quality museums and other sites found in the region, it is easy to see why some of the earliest technological advances in stone and bone working took place in this game-rich environment. Truly, many of modern man’s seminal technological leaps, especially in the area of tool-making, can be directly attributed to the abundance and extremely high quality of the unique flints found in this region, along with the abundant Ice Age fauna that made a hunting and gathering lifestyle so attractive there.
During my visit I was able to examine many pieces of Paleolithic tools firsthand as well as to personally watch one acknowledged expert, Mr. Bernard Ginelli of Les Eyzies de Tayac work at his craft. Additionally, many of the region’s museums, particularly the National Museum of Prehistory, also in Les Eyzies, have produced excellent videos utilizing highly skilled knappers and other technologists demonstrating stone tool making, bone carving, animal processing, and other ancient skills. These videos are among the best I have seen anywhere and are often the highlight of the museum visit—at least beyond the exquisite flint tool collections, which are truly breath-taking in many instances. Any reader who has worked with “knapping” at any level, however, will know that this ancient art form is one that is best learned from direct observation or hands-on experience. Having said this, I would like to share some of my more direct observations based upon what I saw during my recent visit and what I have learned since my return while working on a few pieces of “real flint” I brought back with me.
IS THERE MUCH DIFFERENCE IN THE EUROPEAN FLINT
To this rather basic question I would simply answer: Yes, there is a readily discernible difference in working true flint and any chert I have encountered. (NOTE: I must say, however, that the nodular, dark grey cherts of the Indiana Hornstone varieties, particularly the Harrison Co. hornstone, comes the closest to true flint of anything I have worked with from this country.) From the first strike of a good antler billet, the sharp cracking sound of the French flint immediately tells us that this is a denser and harder stone than most any chert. While the knappers I watched, both in the videos and in person, used the same basic tool kit of various hammerstones, antler billets and flakers, they also added wooden punches in order to help with the removal of the critical long flakes that make the Paleolithic tool kits of the region perhaps the finest and most varied n the world. (NOTE: At the risk of upsetting some readers I will not use the more technical French terms, such as levallois and others, that some might prefer for the sake of more generally interested readers.)
An experienced knapper is immediately struck by the greater use of hammerstones by the French knappers and not just on the larger cores or pieces of flint they are fortunate to have to work with. Obviously, the more dense nature of the flint requires more percussion—both direct and indirect—than do American cherts. The use of heavy antler billets, however, is quite similar. These are also used in indirect percussion with stake-like wooden “punches”, but only after very exact striking platforms have been prepared. The preparation of edges for striking platforms and grinding for direct percussion is also more prevalent, no doubt due to the extremely hard flint and the need to remove any “soft” burr from the edge before attempting to remove a longer-running flake. However, this allows for the removal of the long-running blades that can be up to a foot in length by an inch or so wide, which are also quite thin. These blades formed the basis of the varied Upper Paleolithic toolkits and are the single biggest difference, both in knapping technique and in production value of the flint, which I observed throughout the many collections I studied in the region.
One of the more interesting attributes of our American cherts, of course, is the great varieties of colors that are found both naturally or obtained through direct heat-treating of the finer-grained cherts, such as Flint Ridge Ohio and other mid-western varieties of whitish grey stone. The color palette of the European Paleolithic knapper was less varied, and heat-treating, while still seen occasionally, was less utilized due to the existing brittleness of the flint, even the denser varieties. Those already familiar with European flints would easily recognize the widespread “amber” color strains found from France through England. Many gun flints were later produced of this source material because it was easily shaped with soft metal tools and is a good “sparker”, as we often say. It is certainly a strong component of the more ancient collections as well. However, many of the best and larger of the core-reduced Paleolithic blades seem to come from the darker varieties of browns and greys. These seem to have more density and yet were able to provide a sharp-flaked edge that could stand up to the more varied cutting and even stone engraving uses their prehistoric makers were looking for. Off-white through dark brown, and light grey through dark to almost black are found co-mingled in collections throughout the region, although apparently certain time-periods, perhaps even cultural groups, seemed to favor one particular color or source perhaps, over others.
It is the density of the European Flint that does, however, mark its greatest difference from the American Cherts we are all more familiar with seeing or working. The ability to produce and then maintain an extremely sharp edge across a long blade makes this material unique in all the world and a prime reason the Paleolithic peoples of Europe achieved such a high level of tool making expertise over a period covering at least 80,000 years. I have seen demonstrations using these flint blades to engrave other stones or easily cut, even saw, bone that would be virtually impossible to duplicate using any source material from North America with which I am familiar. The overall durability of the European flints is immediately apparent when a fine cutting edge is applied to any equally hard surface for the purpose of “leaving a mark” as we might say.
Knapping techniques, as mentioned above, are virtually the same. However, just as one might apply the same techniques to an obsidian core but simply “gear down” the force of the blow or the pressure, one must apply the same reasoning in reverse when working these harder flints. The preparation of edges through grinding with a fine-grained wheel fragment or other stone is an essential aspect of achieving good, long-running flakes regardless of what the knapper is attempting to achieve. The time to finish a piece is perhaps doubled in most respects. However, the quality and thinness that can be achieved is well worth the effort, and the occasional finger cut. I tried a quickly prepared edge from a flake on a deer tibia bone and was amazed at the ease with which a groove could be scored in the bone, immediately after I had tried the same procedure with a piece of chert from a common Ohio source. It was also apparent when I had begun to reduce a long flake for producing a unifaced end-scraper that I could have used a better selection of small, quartz hammerstones than what I normally keep and resort to only on more difficult pieces.
Watching a master knapper such as Bernard Ginelli at his craft and the size and variety of the tool kit he employed was quite an educational experience. He also did fine reproductions of hafted tools he had made along with bone reproductions of well-known atlatl weights and other Paleolithic pieces from the region that many readers would have seen in books at one time or another. It was a pleasure to watch him work creating a fine hand axe and then, when asked, to produce some excellent, thin core flakes several inches in length using the indirect percussion technique. Archaeologists have managed to find and reconstruct some of these entire cores piece-by-piece, and these can be viewed and marveled at in more than one of the region’s museum collections. The sheer volume, range, and quality of these flint collections can almost overwhelm the senses after a few days, but one has to keep in mind that the flintknappers were quite busy in this one fairly small region for over 100,000 years. I managed to pick up one worked piece of grey flint myself walking along a country road by looking in the first row of a plowed field one evening—quite an unexpected thrill. When one of my traveling companions asked how old it might be, I simply shrugged and said it could be 6,000 years old or 26,000 just as easily. Who could say?
The Dordogne region of France truly is one of the birthplaces of modern technology and a place where the capabilities of our early modern ancestors were put to the test in order to adapt to the rapidly changing Ice Age environments they repeatedly faced. That they possessed essentially the same brains and linguistic abilities as do we should not diminish the awe with which we should view their many singular achievements, without which we would never have arrived at the point we have today. It is a point at which the technological explosion they began in the fine-grained flints they came there to work with has led us to a place where that technological explosion has reached levels that now threaten our continued existence on this planet. Let us hope that we can find new adaptations in the manner in which our ancestors did that will allow us to move forward once more and bring the promise of our unique brains to future generations in the way these Ice Age stoneworkers once did.
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