stone age

Stone Age School visits

One of my favourite days that I run in schools is Stone Age. It does pose a number of questions such as how do I fit 2.4 years of history, remembering that humanity does predate the Stone Age. To make this understandable to children I do have to cut out a lot and focus on some very interesting but I feel unrepresentative chunks of human history.

Home Made string from brambles. My newest costume has no modern thread it is entirely home made.

When we come to the Stone Age we can divided prehistory into five time periods, these enable the children to have some framework in which they could develop their knowledge. So we have the Paelolithic, the Mesolithic, the Neolithic and the Bronze and Iron Ages. 95% of human history is in the Paelolithic and its to this age that essentials like string, clothes, storytelling, team work and picky eating were invented. If I could live anywhere in human history I would live in the tactless wastes of time that we call the Old Stone Age.

field walking flint tools stone age

My First Stone Age Flint Find

Right so I am a professional Historian. I lecture, I write and I research but the one thing that I have never done that I’ve always wanted to do is to find a flint tool from the Stone Age. One of the topics I teach workshops on in schools is Stone Age and I have a lovely collection of tools that have been donated and bought but they were not quite the same. What is worse is that children ask me where they can find flint tools and I tell them that they can find them field walking, that there are plenty of archaeological societies they can join that will help them.

This year I decided to get serious about finding my own flint tools so I got some books, joined some Facebook groups and spoke to some experts. I decided that my best luck would be in Cornwall. First I knew some farmers so getting permission to walk their fields would not be a problem and second Cornwall does not have natural flint deposits so any flint that you find there has been bought in. Third, I had stalked… not stalked a Facebook friend who lived near my parents who had found some amazing flints and no I wasn’t green with envy.

Off I went, finishing work on the Friday and driving six hours to South West Cornwall. The next day I was walking up and down fields staring at the ground. By lunch time I was in despair. I was pretty sure I was the only person in the world who would never find a flint tool despite doing hours of research. Despite going to a flint rich environment where Stone Age people not only lived but put up monuments they could not be bothered to leave flint tools for me. Professional failure stared me in the face, I would have to retrain as an accountant.

Then there it was. A piece of flint. Not a sliver or a tool but a lump and because it was flint I picked it up and knew instantly what it was. I have another example in my collection. It was a core. Cores are the flint that is left after you make a blade. I rubbed the dirt off the sides and saw the distinctive shape of the microliths that had been knapped off it sometime in the Mesolithic Stone Age. Sometime between 15,000 years ago and 5,000 years ago somebody had used this to create microliths. Rather than carry around a whole knife kit they had one core that they knapped when they needed a knife and threw it away when they had used it. I am a very romantic person and I felt that vertigo of time and a connection to someone who was very possibly one of my ancestors. That day I found two mircoliths and another core. I was excited to say the least and my imposter anxiety was buried in a nice deep grave.

The next day I went out again and was walking in a field just behind St Leven church. As a shuffled along in my vivo barefoot I heard a voice say, “Hello!” I turned and returned the greeting which was followed by the question, “Can I ask… what are you doing?” It was a walker and his wife. She was curious but he had clearly come to the conclusion I was a nutter. I pulled myself together, I was walking in a field staring at the ground in the hot sun wearing smart clothes and expensive boots. “Ah! yes Im a historian and I’m looking for flint…”


As sure as the foundations of the Earth…

In my work I teach a variety of topics. One of the most popular is Stone Age. When I start my day off I start off with the concept of Prehistory. This introduces the idea that there was something before writing and records. From this I explain to children born this century, in fact last decade, that there was a world before mirco-waves, mobile phones and even televisions. These things that are so ubiquitous in our own lives are only very recent inventions. In my own experience essays written in my first year at university were entirely hand written, the internet was never used for research despite being lauded as the next big thing. A subject I remained skeptical about until the the first years of the next century. These things make me think, what in our ancestors worlds was so ubiquitous and fundamental that they couldn’t imagine a world without it?

When we think about the Stone Age we are considering a period of history that covers a mind boggling six million years. If your mind doesn’t boggle imagining that about of time you are not doing it right. There were people who never imagined that the ice age would end, those who made their homes in Doggerland or on the mountains that would become the isle of scilly never imagined that the seas would one day displace their descendents. There were people who never imagined that the Neaderthals would become extinct or the mega fauna they relied upon for food and shelter would vanish from the Earth.

Prehistory comes to an end, in Britain, with the invasion of the Romans. The brutal conquest and the ‘civilisation’ of the Celts brought to an end a civilisation that covered Europe from modern Wales to Greece. In a blink of an eye certainties and attitudes and traditions came to an end. The Romans themselves believed Rome to be eternal and the sacking of Rome in the 5th century was a shocking event recorded in the literature of the time.

The term Dark Age is contested by modern historians but certainly there was a loss of knowledge, security and what I think we would describe as civilisation. The Anglo-Saxons were fascinated by the Roman ruins and no diplomatic mission was complete without a tour. The fantastic poem ‘The Ruin’ speaks to this fascination. In fact I would argue that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t believe they would ever equal the Romans and that they were living in the sun set of the world, which possibly accounts for some of the melancholy in their poetry.

From the Dark Ages though the Medieval period we come to Reniassance and the Age of Reason. These are ages of discovery but they are ages of certainties as well, who would have guessed the Hapsburg Empire would have vanished in the 20th century, who would have guessed that the British Empire, in the form we most readily associate with it, would endure for less than a hundred years?

We all live in a moment of time where subjectively speaking the powers that be are the foundations of the Earth. But objectively speaking they are ghosts that appear and disappear like the sparrow in the Anglo-Saxon story. Life, the bard says, is like a lighted hall of merriment and companionship. The sparrow flies in through one window out from the dark night and into the hall for a moment before flying out again though another window and again into the dark. The only certainty I can offer you is the uncertainty of certainty.


The Merry Maidens,Cornwall

I took this photograph in 2015. IMG_0837.JPG