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Why flint knappers make better authenticators

Col. John F. Berner, Roswell, Georgia

Originally Published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol. 50. No.5, pg.118

Five years ago, I attended a meeting and listened to a 20-minute dissertation by a well-versed gen­tleman who touted the benefits of taking up flint knapping to understand how modern flint repro­ductions differ from ancient artifacts. This speaker had learned to knap and had attended many knap­ins throughout the country. Through this medium, he met many proficient knappers and watched them perform their skills. I might add that this gentleman personally owns a collection of flint artifacts numbering in the thousands.

The replication of ancient flint artifact styles was nearly a lost art until the early 1980’s when it was revived. Several colleges even taught courses to budding young archaeologists to help them understand what they find in the field and how to better interpret their discoveries. Over the past few years, I have attended many knap-ins and observed the work of some of the many knappers. I have also read a number of scholarly books on the subject and acquired video demonstrations by highly regarded modern knappers. I like the videos because the action can be paused, stopped and rewound to focus frame by frame to reveal a par­ticular technique as it is explained and demon­strated in detail.

Some of these exercises merely help you to understand how stone fractures and introduces some of the modern methods used to reduce a large cobble to render a biface and finally a fin­ished artifact reproduction. Unfortunately, many of the modern knappers only use ancient type tools for flint reduction. Most hew the flint with a stone hammerstone to remove the rind from cobbles and to expose fresh flint necessary for further work. From that point on, the majority of modern knap­pers often resort to billets of copper and copper pressure flakers set in nylon handles which allow them easier repointing of their modem reproduc­tions.

Ancient man did not have the advantage of mod­ern tools like copper billets, and consequently the results of the modern work will reflect a difference in the finished piece. The majority of accom­plished modem knappers agree that the final result is somewhat different, dependent upon the tool used. For example, copper billets will remove flint in a different manner than a soft hammer of antler or hardwood, and it takes a different kind of stroke to accomplish the result. Also an antler flaker will produce a different result than a copper pressure flaker often used by today’s replicator/reproduc­tionist.

How does all this relate to the title of this arti­cle? Public relations by a few accomplished knap­pers acclaim their prowess as authenticators seem­ingly convincing a segment of our collector public that “knappers have a greater understanding of how flint artifacts are produced; therefore they can identify ancient from modern more easily.” Perhaps: perhaps not. I have presented this 

hypothesis to a number of accomplished knappers and find that credible answers vary as much as might be expected from non-knapping students of flint projectiles. The reason is complex. Even the most experienced knapper will readily admit that he is an expert only on a few isolated types and does not consider himself the best on every imag­inable style. The expertise is generally limited to those few artifact types that are popular and requested by the buying public.

Today as I write this article, you may be amazed to learn the market for flint artifact collecting is presently endowed with more than sixty commer­cial authenticators! Yes, more than sixty authenti­cators are plying their skill for from $7.50 per examination to $30.00 and beyond, and only a couple of these elite groups are accomplished knappers. But who are the best authenticators? From my viewpoint, three of the best authentica­tors have never attempted to produce the first flint chip or artifact.

What does it take to recognize the difference between modern and ancient artifacts?  I think it take intuitiveness I think it requires an intensive study of typology. I think one must develop a lith­ic collection of every kind of quarry material that one expects to examine, becoming familiar with the difference between Paleo patination and Mississippian patination and all the nuances in between. One of the best authenticators of flint I have ever met will talk about the rhythm of the ancient knapping. What is that all about? Well, since I have not learned to recognize this charac­teristic in flints, I can’t explain it exactly, but I have a certain feel for it. Every proficient artist/sculptor says that they know in advance what the finished product will look like when it is com­pleted and how the product will work out of the stone. That I can understand. So by recognizing what ancient man was expecting from his tool-stone, modern man can recognize whether it was accomplished or not. You know that today most modern knappers choose to ignore the grain of the stone in favor of getting the most items per pound of chert.

Slabbing by diamond saws can solve this prob­lem. In ancient times, a supply of good toolstone was available for the taking.

Another factor is understanding modern use of low-grade toolstone and excessive heat-treating. Ancient man selected superior grades without con­cern for coloration. Modern man produces gaudy, colorful, flawless replicas because those sell best. And to support my hypothesis, I ask you, how many modern knappers resort to modern tools, heat-treating and slabbed flint to make their “repli­cas?” I think you will find that most do. So they really don’t do it in the ancient way, do they?

       Used by Permission of the Author”

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