The Zoologist/4th series, vol 3 (1899)/Issue 691/Early Man in Britain, Clarke

Early Man in Britain: Spurious Flint Implements  (1899) 
by William George Clarke (1877-1925)



By W.G. Clarke.

The making of spurious flint implements is an industry by no means confined to the last few years. Practically as soon as it was found that the evidences of man's handiwork from the river gravels of England had a marketable value, men skilled in flint-knapping began to make imitations of them, "Flint Jack" especially obtaining notoriety for the skill with which he imitated prehistoric weapons. At a meeting of the Norfolk and Norwich Archæologists' Society in 1861, Mr. Pengelly stated that he knew there were some clever people in the neighbourhood of Caistor who could make ancient flint knives. And when the Suffolk Institute of Archæology met at Thetford in 1866, one of the workmen excavating gravel told the members that if they but gave him a few days' notice prior to their next visit he could procure as many implements for them as they wished. Need one doubt that he looked for assistance to the skilled knappers at Brandon? The natives of East Anglia do not as a rule try to sell spurious bronze or iron weapons to the unsuspecting archæologist: they limit their operations to imitations of flint implements. Rusty horse-shoe nails have, however, been offered me as iron spear-heads; and an egg-spoon that had been buried about ten years relegated to the Lake-dwellers. But in these cases the false descriptions were made through ignorance, and not of deliberate purpose as is the case with many of those who sell spurious flint implements. The district is so noted, and is visited by so many archæologists in search of flint implements, that there are unrivalled opportunities of foisting off forged specimens as genuine antiques. The Brandon knappers, with their marvellous inherited skill and constant practice in making gunflints, turn out specimens of prehistoric arrow-heads and axes that might deceive even the elect. It is probable that this little Suffolk town turns out more modern imitations of ancient flint implements than does all the rest of England. One collector, to prevent deception, made it a condition of purchase that he should himself see the finding of the implements. This was all very well; but anyone that has tried it knows that this searching is a wearisome occupation, and the results are by no means always commensurate with the time employed. What did the knappers do then but manufacture their arrow-heads, and bury them overnight in certain marked spots. And how could the worthy antiquary have any suspicions when he saw the implements turned up before his eyes. Not long ago a certain landowner in Suffolk offered a premium for each flint implement found upon his estate. They came in units at longer or shorter intervals, until one of the men hit upon the happy expedient of buying the modern implements at a cheap rate and then selling them to his master, a course which he will doubtless pursue until that day when "comes the reck'ning, the dreadful reck'ning, and men smile no more."

Of late years there has been quite a revival in the manufacture of spurious implements in north-west Suffolk, and undoubtedly those turned out are beautiful specimens of the knapper's art. In fact they are too beautiful and perfect. Rarely indeed do we find an arrow-head, for instance, that was discarded or lost thousands of years ago, quite perfect. Either the point, the stem, or one of the barbs is damaged. But these modern implements are mathematically correct, with never a chip in the wrong place. The friction of the sand and the action of the atmosphere always causes a polish on the ancient implements, and to effect this on the modern implements, which are somewhat dull on being first chipped, they are buried for some weeks in hot sand, and care is taken when they are removed to leave some of this adhering. And when you express doubts as to the genuineness of the implements, the vendors triumphantly point out the soil which still adheres. Polishing with rags is also one of the methods of imparting an antiquated appearance to a spurious implement, and the process is more rapid than that of the hot sand.

There is more often than not a middleman between the knapper and the collector. He obtains the name of the latter from some scientific directory, and offers to send some implements on approval. Some of them may be genuine; a few are almost bound to be spurious. If asked to guarantee the latter as genuine, the middleman will not do so, but will guarantee that they came from a certain town or village, the Suffolk men working chiefly from Brandon, Lakenheath, Eriswell, and Mildenhall.

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Spurious Flint Arrow-heads.

From 5s. 6d. to half-a-crown is generally asked for these arrow-heads; but, should the archæologist know them to be forged, one shilling or even sixpence will be taken, which is by no means dear, when it is considered that oftentimes two or three hours' skilled labour is involved in their production. As many as ten varieties of spurious arrow-heads are made, the most common types being leaf-shaped and barbed, the latter forming an almost perfect equilateral triangle. The workmanship is, as a rule, extremely beautiful. Mr. Frank Norgate, of Bury St. Edmunds, has some splendid specimens which he himself made, A bluish-white coating to denote age is sometimes obtained by boiling the implement for weeks in a kettle, and then polishing on a polishing wheel, of course removing the distinctive character of the ridges. The greater proportion of these arrow-heads are made of French flint, yellow and semitransparent.

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Spurious Flint Axes: chipped ones of flint; unchipped, of plaster.

Scrapers are very rarely made. Genuine ones are so common in the district as to render imitations unprofitable. I have a spurious flint dagger in my possession, which would deceive none but the veriest novice. Chipped axes are, next to arrow-heads, the implements most frequently manufactured. As they command good prices and are somewhat difficult of detection, their disposal to enthusiastic and unsuspicious collectors is a remunerative calling. A spurious Neolithic axe of grey opaque flint, ground and polished, was offered to a friend of the writer by a Brandon workman. It was stated to have been found in a gravel pit at a depth of twenty feet! It is worthy of remembrance that gum is of material assistance in making a good polished surface. Lanceolate knives, partaking more of the character of the Danish specimens, are also most successfully worked.

The latest development of the spurious implement trade, however, is probably that by which ground and polished Neolithic axes are made of plaster. The seat of this industry is somewhat uncertain. The implements are remarkably well made of a plaster composition, cleverly coloured and coated with gum, and are difficult of detection if one is unsuspicious. A request to the would-be vendor to be allowed to cut the article in question will generally elicit an indignant denial, and thus open the eyes of the purchaser. These plaster axes have been offered for sale in the Suffolk villages of Eriswell, Brandon, and Lakenheath. Glass arrow-heads may also be purchased at Brandon; but few collectors would view these otherwise than as modern curiosities; and it is doubtful if (as has been suggested) collectors could be found who would purchase them as American weapons.

I am also informed, although without personal experience of the fact, that Paleolithic implements and weapons are made in Stoke Newington, and passed round among the labourers wherever excavations are going on. It is also stated that even the British Museum authorities have been deceived by some of these implements, so perfectly are they made. As specimens of a modern industry which is fast dying out, these spurious implements have a certain interest; but their value in furthering our knowledge of prehistoric man is of course nothing, and collectors would therefore do well to be on their guard.

The writer must express his indebtedness to Mr. F. N. Haward, of Chelmsford, for some of the foregoing information.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1925, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 95 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.