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Finds while geophysing – a flint blade from Swallowcliffe Down

While we were only conducting geophysical survey during the 2014 field season at Swallowcliffe Down, we did manage to find a single artefact; a small flint blade lying on the ground surface of Field B. While this particular kind of stone tool is not considered to be diagnostic of a specific period, it does indicate the potential for earlier occupations of the site to have taken place.

Small blade

The small blade recovered from Field B (photo by Frederick Foulds).

The presence of flint is ubiquitous within the chalk downloads of Wiltshire, occurring as nodules within the chalk bedrock. As a result, worked flint is commonly found throughout the area and Wiltshire has produced a wide range of flint artefacts, encompassing much of human and early hominin prehistory. Everything from Lower Palaeolithic Acheulian handaxes (750,000-300,000 years ago), to Neolithic (4, 000-2,500 BCE) and Bronze Age (2,500-800 BCE) flint blades have been discovered in this archaeologically rich region.

The site at Swallowcliffe Down is no different. The presence of flint in the area is provided by the abundant natural debris on the ground surface where it has eroded out or been cast up by agricultural processes. Therefore, it was no great surprise to find some evidence of prehistoric flintwork. However, given the amount of natural debris, we had to be certain that this was an actual humanly worked artefact. Fortunately, we have a number of different characteristics to look for when trying to determine if human hands created it.


Some of the characteristics that indicate worked flint (illustration by Frederick Foulds).

In the picture above, you can see some of these characteristics. Many of these are the result of the way that flint fractures, as well as the method of manufacture employed by the flintknapper who produced the tool. On one side we see scars, which is evidence of previous flakes or blades that were removed from the original flint nodule, or core, prior to this one. The other side is relatively smooth and would originally have been inside the core. However, it also displays evidence that this was worked by human hands. We can clearly see a striking platform, where the nodule was struck to remove this blade. There is also a bulb of percussion – a raised area caused by the application of force when the flint was struck. In this case, the bulb is small and diffuse, which shows that the blade was produced using a ‘soft hammer’ technique; possibly using an antler hammer, or a punch. We can also see ripple marks – undulcations in the surface of the flint that expand from the point of percussion and show the direction that the flaking energy took when the flake was removed.

Finally, we can tell that this flake is archaeologically meaningful due to its patination. This is the colouration of the flint surface. Flint is usually a black or grey colour when freshly knapped. However, chemical changes to the flint surface can occur in the ground that can change its colour. In this case, much of the flint in the Swallowcliffe area displays a white patina. As the blade retains this patina, and does not show the black or grey expected of a fresh break, we can be confident that the tool is a product of the past.

The blade itself is rather small and slightly wider than expected. The typical classification of a flint blade is a flake that is “twice as long as it is wide”. However, its shape and the characteristic crest that runs down its centre, coupled with the evidence that it was humanly worked, make us confident in classifying it as this particular tool type. Its small size may also allow us to narrow this definition to what is commonly referred to as a ‘bladelet’.

As already mentioned, this particular tool type is relatively undiagnostic and it is hard to place this artefact within a specific period. Despite this, there have been finds from the area around Swallowcliffe village that have been dated to the Mesolithic (10,000-5,500 years ago) and later periods. In addition, evidence of lithic materials from the earlier Upper Palaeolithic , when blades first appeared in increased frequencies, are generally sparse within Wiltshire. Therefore, we can limit our understanding of when this tool may have been created, although we are still left with a rather extensive period of time. Nevertheless, the fact that human occupation and use of the landscape around Swallowcliffe Down may extend beyond the Bronze and Iron Age is a very exciting prospect and one that we hope to be able to explore in further detail as the New Lights on Old Sites project continues.

If you are interested in lithic analysis and want to find out more, we can recommend the following basic texts:

Flintknapping: making and understanding stone tools by John C. Whittaker

The nature and subsequent uses of flint by John Lord

Prehistoric flint work by Chris Butler

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