`The Oldest British Industry': Continuity and Obsolescence in a Flintknapper's Sample Set

By Whittaker, John C. | Antiquity, June 2001 | Go to article overview

`The Oldest British Industry': Continuity and Obsolescence in a Flintknapper's Sample Set


Whittaker, John C., Antiquity


Introduction

In the closing years of the gunflint industry, Fred Snare of Brandon made sets of gunflints and related material for collectors. A set by Snare, now in the Museum of London, reflects consistent trends in obsolescent technologies, including a reduction in the range of normal products. However, by including imitations of prehistoric tools, Snare and other knappers expressed some of the meanings that late knappers attached to the craft, specifically a romanticized connection with prehistory, reflecting their attempts to survive as artisans by using both continuity and innovation.

The gunflint industry

The gunflint industry in Britain and France developed as flintlock firearms became important in the 16th century. It flourished in Brandon and other towns in southern Britain into the 19th century, until flintlocks were replaced by percussion locks after the early 1800s and modern cartridge firearms in the hater 1800s. An industry that supported a couple of hundred knappers and flint miners in Brandon during the Napoleonic Wars had declined to 70-100 in the 1830s and 1840s, then rapidly to 36 in 1878, 22 in 1907 and 7 in 1904 (Clarke 1935; Gould 1981; Skertchly 1879; Shaw 1981: 160). After World War II there were only about 5 remaining knappers, and after arms embargoes ended their trade to Africa in the 1960s, only Fred Avery remained as the last Brandon knapper. Avery died in 1996 (Ruhe 1996). As the gunflint industry faded away, along with it went a specialized set of tools, an esoteric vocabulary and a community of craftsmen and supporters.

The manufacturing process has been described in detail elsewhere (Skertchly 1879; Clarke 1935; Gould 1981) but a few basics are necessary to understand the specimens described below. Gunflint making was a true cottage industry, organized by individuals and small groups working in homes and workshops, with middlemen who bought flints at markets for export and to fill government contracts. Flint was mined locally by hand, dug from Cretaceous chalks using a distinctive single-ended pick. Labour was usually organized according to three main steps. The cracker or quarterer broke raw nodules into suitable sizes for making cores. The flaker worked the cores, systematically producing long flakes (`blades' in archaeological parlance). This was the most difficult step. The knapper segmented the blades, and trimmed the finished gunflints. The tools used were specialized iron hammers.

Gunflint manufacture was remarkably productive. A good flaker could make 10,000 flakes a day, keeping a couple of knappers busy. A good knapper produced 3000-4000 finished flints a day, and Brandon exported millions of flints yearly. For instance, in 1804 seven merchants were under contract to supply a total of almost 400,000 flints a month to the Board of Ordnance alone (Lotbiniere 1977).

By the 20th century, the traditional system had collapsed. In 1993 when I interviewed Fred Avery, he worked part-time at home, bought his flint from a chalk quarry, and performed all the steps in manufacture himself. He sold flints to museums and suppliers to black-powder firearm enthusiasts, with his largest market in the US. Already by the late 1800s and into the early 20th century, the gunflint industry was struggling. It is in this context that Fred Snare and other knappers began to make and sell sets of flints.

The flints

The Fred Snare set at the Museum of London includes gunflints, other normal products of the industry and some replica antiquities. It was acquired by B.F. Rawlins in the 1930s, and sold with a collection of other flint artefacts to the Museum in 1999. Mr Rawlins informed me that he did not buy directly from Snare at Brandon, but most likely from another collector advertising in Exchange and Mart. Similar sets are known (Mason 1978), but as far as I know, none has been documented by a modern archaeological knapper.

Fred Snare (1858-1934) was descended from at least several generations of knappers (Forrest 1983). …

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