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Picture of two Lower Paleolithic bifaces

Chipped stone tools were made by stone age peoples worldwide. Paleolithic tools were relatively simple, repeated small flakes being struck or pressed from a cobble or nucleus until the required shape was achieved. This is called knapping.

Freshly made Mesolithic chipped stone tools are very sharp, much sharper than the bronze or even iron blades that eventually replaced them. However they were brittle and easily damaged and could not be easily sharpened. Mesolithic stone tools were, perhaps, the first disposable mass-produced commodity. However, during Neolithic times highly polished blades were valuable tools which were routinely resharpened by careful flaking away from the cutting edge, by repolishing, or by a combination of both.

By the Neolithic in Europe the manufacture of chert and obsidian blades had become a highly skilled industry (see Tool stone).


Polished stone axes

Axe heads found at a 2700 BC Neolithic manufacture site in Switzerland, arranged in the various stages of production from left to right.
Click to see individual images.

During the Neolithic period, large axes were made from flint nodules by chipping a rough shape, a so-called "rough-out". Such products were traded across a wide area. The rough-outs were then polished to give the surface a fine finish to create the axe head. Polishing not only increased the final strength of the product but also meant that the head could penetrate wood more easily.

Such axe heads were needed in large numbers for forest clearance and the establishment of settlements and farmsteads, a characteristic of the Neolithic period. There were many sources of supply, including Grimes Graves in Suffolk, Cissbury in Sussex and Spiennes near Mons in Belgium to mention but a few. In Britain, there were numerous small quarries in downland areas where flint was removed for local use, for example.

Many other rocks were used to make stone axes, including the Langdale axe industry as well as numerous other sites such as Penmaenmawr and Tievebulliagh in Co Antrim, Ulster. In Langdale, there many outcrops of the greenstone were exploited, and knapped where the stone was extracted. The sites exhibit piles of waste flakes, as well as rejected rough-outs. Polishing improved the mechanical strength of the tools, so increasing their life and effectiveness. Many other tools were developed using the same techniques. Such products were traded across the country and abroad.

Modern uses

The invention of the flintlock gun mechanism in the sixteenth century produced a demand for specially shaped gunflints. The gunflint industry survived until the middle of the twentieth century in some places, including in the English town of Brandon[1]

For specialist purposes glass knives are still made and used today, particularly for cutting thin sections for electron microscopy in a technique known as microtomy. Freshly cut blades are always used since the sharpness of the edge is very great. These knives are made from high-quality manufactured glass, however, not from natural raw materials such as chert or obsidian. Surgical knives made from obsidian are still used in some delicate surgeries.

In fiction


  1. ^ Clarke, R (1935), The Flint-knapping Industry at Brandon, Antiquity, vol. IX

See also



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