Kings of the Stone Age

What were the Iphones and Balackberrys of 2008 BC? I met flint knapper Allan Course to find out

Allan Course’s heavy bag of axes and knives clacks loudly as he bends over and picks something out of a molehill.

“Here’s a piece of worked flint. Probably Neolithic.”

We are climbing Cissbury Hill in Sussex, a massive Iron Age Fort, and, before that, the oldest Stone Age flint mine in the UK. Allan tosses the shard away and heads on up towards the ancient excavations. As one of Britain’s top flint knappers, he’s got plenty more like that back at home.

Flint knapping, Course (below) explains as we trudge on, is how ancient Brits made tools until the end of the Neolithic Period, roughly 4,500 years ago. Skilfully sloughing slivers of flint with a hammerstone, or hammer-antler for finer work, you can create a knife sharper than a razor, an arrow that will penetrate 8 inches of flesh from 20 yards, or an axe that will fell a tree in a hour.

Allan Course for Weekend

A Partner in Watson Wyatt Management Consultants, 51 year-old Course spends weekdays jetting around Europe in a suit. His weekend outfit is a little different: leather jerkin, bow over one shoulder, stone knife in a goat-skin sheaf dangling from nettle-twine belt, plus large flint arrow-head medallion. At the foot of the Iron Age ramparts, when the 6 foot 4, shaggy-haired, Desperate Dan-jawed Course spins around, brandishing a large snail-shell, it’s easier to imagine him galavanting about with Robin Hood than shut up in a board room.

“This snail shouldn’t be here: no food!” He cries. “So why is it? Must have been dropped by a bird. My grandfather taught me to notice things like that. He gave me an interest in things around me, and, ultimately, tool-making.”

bowmanAllan grew up in a village on Dartmoor: “God’s own country down there, boy,” he says, West Country burr strengthening momentarily. His grandfather was the explosives man at the local china clay mines, with a sideline in purloining dynamite to blow things up for farmers. He’d take the young Allan on long marches across the moor, often finding Stone Age arrow heads and burial mounds. Course left Devon in 1971 to read maths and physics at King’s College London, taking his easygoing rural charm with him. In 1980 he tried knapping on a course, and was hooked.

At the top of Cissbury’s ramparts, on the edge of a collapsed flint mine, Allan displays some of his creations. The big axe, a large lozenge of knapped flint fixed into a wooden haft, is heftily pleasing to swing. It is unclear, surprisingly, what Stone Age axes were used for. Of 368 axe-heads found in the Thames by the British Museum, only 17 had been used as tools. Similarly, many arrow-heads and knives found are, although pretty, too finely-worked to actually use.

Archaeologists suggest that tools had religious importance, as they are often found in graves, or were used as bartering objects. They can’t know for certain. We can know, however, why Allan Course makes them:

“I like the association with one’s ancestors, getting an understanding of what was important to them. Then there’s the pleasure of just using my hands – creating something – and keeping the old traditions alive and bringing them to the public.”

By showing how to create stone tools, he helps archaeologists understand Neolithic life. We know, for example, that the battle at Carn Brea fort in Cornwall, from which 800 arrow-heads were found embedded in earth ramparts, was huge. Arrow-heads can be knocked off in no time, but only by a skilled knapper (Course can make 20 an hour). Creating the shafts, however, takes ages. The 800 arrows found represent a fraction of the amount actually used, so this was a massive, well-prepared battle, indicating large tribes and confrontational politics.

Back in the 21st Century Course stands atop the fort, resists the primeval urge to skewer a nearby terrier with an arrow from his mighty bow, and gives advice for fledgling knappers. “Just get a piece of flint and a hammerstone and try knocking them together. Wear gloves and goggles: the flint can be sharper that a razor. Do it outdoors and don’t breath in the dust – it’s silicon which can give you all sorts of nasty lung problems.”

One theory as to why so many Stone Age tools were unused is that knapping was a cross between a hobby and showing off, rather like building a kit car. Who’s to say men were different 4,500 years ago? Allan has a beautifully symmetrical, heavily worked piece of flint the shape of a razor clam. This is of no apparent practical use, and very difficult to make, yet several similar ones have been found in Neolithic digs. It’s suggested that these were purely to show off an itinerant knapper’s skill.

“Mine is a bit better, false modesty aside, that the one in the Ashmolean”, says Course

Britain in Neolithic times

Religion – Large monuments, treasure-stuffed burial mounds and artwork suggest that Neolithic man was a highly religious chap with a good grasp of astronomy. Silbury Hill, the huge manmade mound in Wiltshire, may have been the centre of a vast Salisbury Plane worship zone including Avebury and Stonehenge.

Art – Paintings were popular, and pots were decorated in two distinct styles, perhaps to differentiate between cooking utensils for the living and funerary totems for the dead.

Dangers – Bears, wolves and giant bulls prowled the Neolithic woods, but the real danger came from fellow humans armed with sharp stone knives, arrows and hefty axes.

Agriculture – Farming took off. Mass tree clearance, stone-walled fields, livestock domestication and crop cultivation helped to create the rural landscape as we see it.

Trade – Several large “causewayed camps” have been found in the UK. It’s thought these are where tribes would meet for trade, ceremony and courtship. Flint tools might have been used as currency.

Housing – People mostly lived in simple huts constructed from local material – usually hide and wood. At Skara Brae on treeless Orkney the local material was stone, and the Neolithic village’s remains can be visited today.

Population – There were an estimated 100,000 people in Britain.


Article printed 16th April 2005 in the Telegraph, all copyright theirs. Photos copyright Angus Watson 2005