Prehistoric Flintwork by CHRIS BUTLER
In his Prehistoric Flintwork Chris Butler sets out to provide a basic guide to the types of flint artefacts and the technology which produced them, charting the changes in both technology and tools throughout prehistory.
After a brief introduction to the formation of flint, its sources, and the characteristics which made it important to prehistoric people, the author goes on to summarise how flint was worked and some of the terms used by archaeologists studying flint artefacts. In chapter 3 the most common flint tool types are considered, before a period by period review of flintwork as found in the Palaeolithic (chap. 4), the Mesolithic (chap. 5), the Early Neolithic (chap. 6), the Later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (chap. 8), and in later prehistory (chap. 9), with an intervening excursus on Neolithic flint axehead production (chap. 7). A final chapter looks at how prehistoric flintwork is analysed, followed by a glossary, bibliography and index.
As is made clear in the introduction, the author’s emphasis is on flintworking as represented by the archaeological record from southern England, with particular regard to examples taken from his own home patch of Sussex. This inevitably means that the book has an element of the Wessex=Britain syndrome, with little coverage given to regional variation or to flint alternatives, and it should perhaps have had a subtitle to indicate its somewhat parochial coverage. Nor does the author claim to cover technical aspects of flint-knapping and reduction strategies in any detail, restricting himself primarily to a typo-morphological and chronological description of tool-types.
The illustrations are mostly adequate for their purpose, only in a few cases being positively unhelpful, as with the polished barbed-and-tanged arrowhead (fig. 69,8) and the curve-backed (sic) point (fig. 29,12). There should, however, have been more detailed citation of the sources of the illustrations, and more specific indication of which illustrated artefacts come from which site.
These reservations accepted, it is a pleasure to be able to say that as an introductory text this is an attractive, well-produced, extensively illustrated and easy-to-read volume which performs its stated aim very effectively. The book sits well towards the top-quality end of Tempus products, and had the publisher been able to price it slightly lower then this could have become a best-seller among its intended audience of students, interested amateurs and teachers. It neatly complements another recently published title – The Joy of Flint by Clive Waddington (reviewed here by Phil Harding – August 2005) – which covers similar ground but with an emphasis on finds from north-east England, and they both effectively replace outdated predecessors such as the two Shire books on flintwork (Pitts 1980; Timms 1974) and the still very useful but now virtually unobtainable overview by Pierpoint (1981). Many people in the lithic studies field have intended, or should have been persuaded, to write a book like this one; now Chris Butler has done so he deserves our congratulations.
Nevertheless, there are some grounds on which the author’s approach can be questioned. For example, each of the chapters dealing with chronological phases is concluded with a brief summary of the flint assemblages from a few selected sites. In many cases it is not clear why particular sites should have been selected, nor are their assemblages described in sufficient detail or illustrated in such a way as to justify inclusion. Curiously, no sites are described at the end of the Palaeolithic chapter, even though the book has two (rather redundant) colour photographs (plates 9-10) of excavations at the now-famous Sussex site of Boxgrove, to which there is no reference in the bibliography other than the ghastly Fairweather Eden (Pitts and Roberts 1997). The irrelevant colour photograph of a Bronze Age round barrow (plate 25) is another curiousity.
A further reservation about the structure of the book is that so little attention is given to use-wear, refitting, replication and other aspects of flint analysis (pp. 199-201), and that there is inadequate referencing of the wealth of literature available on these aspects.
Specialists looking at this book are bound to be rather more critical of course, and there are certainly some points which would benefit from reworking if a second edition is planned. There is, for example, confused treatment of some of the tools described, such as mèches de foret, hollow scrapers, fabricators and rods. The description of a mèche de foret (pp. 110-112) incorrectly suggests there must be a point at both ends; the account of hollow scrapers would perplex anyone familiar with the well-known use of this term in an Irish context; and the conflation of fabricators and rods ignores previous attempts to specify their characteristics (e.g. Saville 1981, 10-11). Perhaps not surprisingly, given their enigmatic nature, the author also stumbles over Clactonian notches, which are listed as a feature of technological modes 1, 2, and 3 of the Palaeolithic (pp. 60-70).
Further nitpicking would include questioning the author’s usage and definition of some terms, such as debitage and patination, the reference to ovates at Grimes Graves (p. 170), to leaf-shaped arrowheads as hunting tools (p. 119), to laurel leaves as small tools (p. 130), and the unreferenced statement that burins outnumber scrapers on some Mesolithic sites (p. 108). Also the failure to reference certain important relevant works – such as Grimes (1932), Hart (2000), Manby (1974), Pitts (1996), Shepherd (1972) and Stafford (1999) to mention just a few – at the appropriate places in the text will raise some eyebrows.
In conclusion it can be noted that the book is generally well-edited and proof-read, with few typographic errors, but one amusing howler does occur in the bibliography, where the Sussex Archaeological Collections are consistently given as the Sussex Archaeological Collective – now there’s a thought!
Alan Saville National Museums of Scotland
Review Submitted: September 2005
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