1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Flint (stone)

FLINT (a word common in Teutonic and Scandinavian languages, possibly cognate with the Gr. πλίνθος, a tile), in petrology, a dark grey or dark brown crypto-crystalline substance which has an almost vitreous lustre, and when pure appears structureless to the unaided eye. In the mass it is dark and opaque, but thin plates or the edges of splinters are pale yellow and translucent. Its hardness is greater than that of steel, so that a knife blade leaves a grey metallic streak when drawn across its surface. Its specific gravity is 2.6 or only a little less than that of crystalline quartz. It is brittle, and when hammered readily breaks up into a powder of angular grains. The fracture is perfectly conchoidal, so that blows with a hammer detach flakes which have convex, slightly undulating surfaces. At the point of impact a bulb of percussion, which is a somewhat elevated conical mark, is produced. This serves to distinguish flints which have been fashioned by human agencies from those which have been split merely by the action of frost and the weather. The bulb is evidence of a direct blow, probably intentionally made, and is a point of some importance to archaeologists investigating Palaeolithic implements. With skill and experience a mass of flint can be worked to any simple shape by well directed strokes, and further trimming can be effected with pressure by a pointed stone in a direction slightly across the edge of the weapon. The purest flints have the most perfect conchoidal fracture, and prehistoric man is known to have quarried or mined certain bands of flint which were specially suitable for his purposes.

Silica forms nearly the whole substance of flint; calcite and dolomite may occur in it in small amounts, and analysis has also detected minute quantities of volatile ingredients, organic compounds, &c., to which the dark colour is ascribed by some authorities. These are dispelled by heat and the flint becomes white and duller in lustre. Microscopic sections show that flint is very finely crystalline and consists of quartz or chalcedonic silica; colloidal or amorphous silica may also be present but cannot form any considerable part of the rock. Spicules of sponges and fragments of other organisms, such as molluscs, polyzoa, foraminifera and brachiopods, often occur in flint, and may be partly or wholly silicified with retention of their original structure. Nodules of flint when removed from the chalk which encloses them have a white dull rough surface, and exposure to the weather produces much the same appearance on broken flints. At first they acquire a bright and very smooth surface, but this is subsequently replaced by a dull crust, resembling white or yellowish porcelain. It has been suggested that this change is due to the removal of the colloidal silica in solution, leaving behind the fibres and grains of more crystalline structure. This process must be a very slow one as, from its chemical composition, flint is a material of great durability. Its great hardness also enables it to resist attrition. Hence on beaches and in rivers, such as those of the south-east of England, flint pebbles exist in vast numbers. Their surfaces often show minute crescentic or rounded cracks which are the edges of small conchoidal fractures produced by the impact of one pebble on another during storms or floods.

Flint occurs primarily as concretions, veins and tabular masses in the white chalk of such localities as the south of England (see Chalk). It is generally nodular, and forms rounded or highly irregular masses which may be several feet in diameter. Although the flint nodules often lie in bands which closely follow the bedding, they were not deposited simultaneously with the chalk; very often the flint bands cut across the beds of the limestone and may traverse them at right angles. Evidently the flint has accumulated along fissures, such as bedding planes, joints and other cracks, after the chalk had to some extent consolidated. The silica was derived from the tests of radiolaria and the spicular skeletons of sponges. It has passed into solution, filtered through the porous matrix, and has been again precipitated when the conditions were suitable. Its formation is consequently the result of “concretionary action.” Where the flints lie the chalk must have been dissolved away; we have in fact a kind of metasomatic replacement in which a siliceous rock has slowly replaced a calcareous one. The process has been very gradual and the organisms of the original chalk often have their outlines preserved in the flint. Shells may become completely silicified, or may have their cavities occupied by flint with every detail of the interior of the shell preserved in the outer surface of the cast. Objects of this kind are familiar to all collectors of fossils in chalk districts.

Chert is a coarser and less perfectly homogeneous substance of the same nature and composition as flint. It is grey, black or brown, and commonly occurs in limestone (e.g. the Carboniferous Limestone) in the same way as flint occurs in chalk. Some cherts contain tests of radiolaria, and correspond fairly closely to the siliceous radiolarian oozes which are gathering at the present day at the bottom of some of the deepest parts of the oceans. Brownish cherts are found in the English Greensand; these often contain remains of sponges.

The principal uses to which flint has been put are the fabrication of weapons in Palaeolithic and Neolithic times. Other materials have been employed where flint was not available, e.g. obsidian, chert, chalcedony, agate and quartzite, but to prehistoric man (see Flint Implements below) flint must have been of great value and served many of the uses to which steel is put at the present day. Flint gravels are widely employed for dressing walks and roads, and for rough-cast work in architecture. For road-mending flint, though very hard, is not regarded with favour, as it is brittle and pulverizes readily; binds badly, yielding a surface which breaks up with heavy traffic and in bad weather; and its fine sharp-edged chips do much damage to tires of motors and cycles. Seasoned flints from the land, having been long exposed to the atmosphere, are preferred to flints freshly dug from the chalk pits. Formerly flint and steel were everywhere employed for striking a light; and gun flints were required for fire-arms. A special industry in the shaping of gun flints long existed at Brandon in Suffolk. In 1870 about thirty men were employed. Since then the trade has become almost extinct as gun flints are in demand only in semi-savage countries where modern fire-arms are not obtainable. Powdered flint was formerly used in the manufacture of glass, and is still one of the ingredients of many of the finer varieties of pottery.  (J. S. F.)