Monday, 18 November 2019

Back to the stone age - by Lu Hersey

I love research. It saves me having to write anything and yet still feels like I'm working. And research can spark all kinds of ideas - even if you don't really need the information right now, you never know when you might use it in the future.

Which explains how I ended up on a flintknapping course for a day at Berrycroft Hub, in Oxfordshire. The family were mystified, but I told them being able to make a flint knife might be useful, come the revolution. My daughter remarked that come the revolution, we'd all still have kitchen knives. Obviously I ignored her.

My last bit of practical research was going on a Bronze Age dagger making course earlier this year at the same place. What I learned that day might not be much use in a post apocalyptic world without a handy supply of copper and tin, but it was very useful background for the book I was writing, set in the bronze age. Not that anyone in the book makes a bronze dagger, but if they'd suddenly needed to, I was prepared.

My current book (okay, current book idea) is set in the Mesolithic. So of course I wanted to find out how to knap flint in case my characters need to know. Anyway, just like the day spent bronze casting, it turned out to be a very interesting experience. Those stone age people were clever. Knapping flint is much harder that it looks.

Some archaeological artefacts we got to examine before attempting to make our own

The course is run by James Dilley, an experimental archaeologist and expert in ancient technology. James specialises in recreating objects from the past, and probably knows more about making polished stone hand axes and other stone age tools than anyone else in England. He even makes them for English Heritage documentary films, using stone age methods - with no 21st century short cuts.

Our main aim for the day was to make a flint hand axe. There are lots of examples of these in museums, as we've been making them for over a million years. James brought in several original artefacts for us to study and hold (you've no idea how exciting it is to hold a stone axe made 1.2 million years ago).  The fact people were making stone tools perfectly adequately during in all that time meant it had to be easy, right?

A hand axe made by an early hominid 1.2 million years ago

Wrong. Flint is hard and brittle. It often contains fossils and faults that mean the next whack of the stone at your flint rock might chip off a flake of flint, a shower of flint dust, or (in my case) half the axe by mistake. James demonstrated the art, chipping off flakes with amazing accuracy, and made a very passable stone hand axe in twenty minutes.

I ended up with half a badly formed hand axe and a bleeding thumb (accuracy using a stone to whack flint with is very important - a valuable lesson) over an entire afternoon - and that's after a morning of learning to handle flint well enough to make myself a flint hide scraper and a simple cutter. Looking at my broken hand axe and comparing it with a tool made by an early hominid over a million years ago, I have to admit the original was a whole lot better.

James and Harry the jackdaw examine my hand axe to see if it's salvageable

However, the stone age characters in my book will know all about the tools they make and use, and I'll try my best not to include nerdy passages of pure info dump about the process they used to make them. Practical research like this is invaluable - and really fun.

And possibly addictive. I've already booked on a course making containers from tree bark, just like Otzi the ice age hunter had with him when his body thawed out of the ice. And there's making prehistoric jewellery making one coming up that looks excellent...

All of which goes to explain why it takes me much longer to write a book than someone like Enid Blyton ever did. Okay, she might have written over 100 books, but I bet she couldn't make a flint hand axe.

Though sadly it seems, neither can I...

Lu Hersey


Joan Lennon said...

So, so cool!

Sue Purkiss said...

Brilliant! And your tutor’s got a daemon!

LuWrites said...

Thanks Joan - and I really want to nick his daemon, Sue - blooming love Harry the jackdaw!

Unknown said...

Looks like a lot of fun, Lu. I love the jackdaw too.

Penny Dolan said...

Such a great research time story, Lu!

Now wondering if one can "want to write a story" just so one has an excuse to do the reseach. Hmmm.

LuWrites said...

I think so, Penny. Maybe the prehistoric jewellery making one as at least you'll end up with a nice necklace even if you don't get round to writing the story... :)

Eugene said...

Great blog. Laughed out loud. Several times. 😁

Anne Booth said...

How brilliant!

LuWrites said...

Thanks Eugene - and yes, Anne - I'd really recommend trying it out. With gloves on maybe... :)