Thetford: Flint

John Bromley

Bridewell Museum Wall, Norwich

‘Flint’ is a short, blunt word and, indeed, before it is ‘worked’ the flint stone is solid and dense. Almost to fool us this belies its hidden properties. When skilfully ‘worked’ the material develops sharp edges and then has many uses. When looked at closely a lump of unworked flint can seem to have mysterious depths, a fluidity and a range of colours. Strangely, these properties are in direct contrast to the host rock, chalk, within which flint is found. Chalk can appear dull and bland, and instead of solidity has a crumbly texture. 

On my visit to Grimes Graves, – a pockmarked landscape of 91 acres with over 400 filled-in mine shafts – my imagination was challengedto visualise the site as one of the busiest locations for prehistoric flint production in the world. Perhaps a scratch of the surface could have turned up a worked flint and I would have been so delighted to think of the purposeful hands so long ago that made a piece of stone into something so useful.


The Landscape at Grimes Graves [Wikipedia/commons/7/7e/Geograph.org.uk]

The underground mines at the Grimes Graves site, Thetford, Norfolk date from over 5000 years ago. On my visit in 2015 it felt strange donning a yellow hard hat to climb 30 feet down a spiral ladder into the mining zone. It was stranger still, even awe-inspiring, to think that the miners worked deep underground often lying prone using reindeer antler picks to hack away at the rock faces in order to break out the boulders containing the valuable flint; their exertions only lit by crude oil lamps.  

John Hillaby (1978) records a weekend walk around the Gower peninsula, South Wales. When he comes to some deep-cut caves in cliffs he pauses to imagine the band of Upper Palaeolithic hunters who inhabited the area, perhaps on a seasonal basis, making their flint tools:

‘At the foot of the cliffs, within twenty yards of the dark mouth of a cave, three youths and half a dozen skin-clad women are squatting on their heels, busy at work knapping flints…. The sound could be that of a large but erratic clock. Tick-tick-tick tock. Tick-tick-tick tock, and at each explosive tockan elongated lump of flint is cracked open and put aside, ready for the flaking process.’

This is a highly skilled operation …. It consists of chipping off flakes or blade tools with the aid of a wedge of hard wood or bone gently driven in with a hammer made from the antler of a reindeer. By this technique the band is provided with a regular supply of skinning knives, skin piercers, scrapers, saw blades and stone chisels.’ (Pg. 96)


A friend sent me these photographs of two flint samples found in Norfolk. I think they complement what John Hillaby was imagining in the work of the prehistoric band. My friend, while knowledgeable is not a specialist, but he thinks the top flint is part of a broken blade only 2 mm. in thickness at the break, illustrating the delicacy that was achieved. The larger piece he thinks is a discarded flake, one of a number that would result from the process of working at a flint core. The colours, texture and undulated surfaces appeal to me. I would guess that many people who have found similar pieces of flint because of the complexity of the material may not understand them.

Flint articles at the Grimes Graves Visitor Centre

I always associate flint tool-making with Phil Harding one of the main presenters of ‘Time Team’. To me he was like everyone’s mate next door with his warm Wiltshire accent and cheeky laugh. It was an essential part of Sunday afternoons for me over its 18 years run on Channel 4. He really came into his own when the filmed excavation had a link to flint. With obvious delight he would chip away, entertaining onlookers as well as the TV viewers.Having learnt flint knapping from his uncle as a boy, Harding was clearly hooked as in later years he worked on five excavations at the Neolithic flint mines of Grimes Graves. 

Travelling around East Anglia, one sees many churches that have Flint embedded in their structures but the material is not finely worked or is spread amongst other stone materials as rubble. The main thing is that the Flint used in such buildings, and the Bridewell walls too, is recognised for the benefit of its properties – its incredible density and durability. Flint – valued and used extensively in previous centuries – does not have wide use in modern life. Flint is a material with hidden mysteries that also poses challenges. I am left to ponder: Who were the first humans to realise its potential and, – as human beings are driven to do – find uses for it? At least with the decline in the use of Flint I am gratified to think that it will be available to intrigue future generations too.


Inspired by:

John Hillaby (1978) Journey Through Love. Paladin

Notes:

Flint is defined as ‘a hard stone with a high level of silica found in nodules within chalk terrain’. This property of hardness combined with sharpness after an edge is broken led to it being used by prehistoric peoples to make very effective tools and weapons.

Other photograph credits: Ian Johnson; John and Margaret Bromley

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