Finding Flint Tools
It’s important to understand the geology of the area in which you are searching, so reading the literature is an essential first step. Many sites have been documented and some of them remain accessible today, especially gravel workings and ploughed fields.
Look in libraries and museums for local archaeological books, papers and maps and descriptions of local discoveries in the past. Even Victorian accounts can be a useful guide.
Search the literature and the internet for references to previous finds. If implements have been found before in a particular field or quarry, that could indicate some kind of camp or settlement and there may be other tools as well.
Getting this information is often quite difficult and may well take some persistence but it is the best indication you can get of a fruitful place to search in your area. Some important reference books are listed on the Books page here.
There are also many valuable online resources. One such invaluable website is ARCHI which gives a county by county and town by town list of more than 100,000 archaeological sites in th UK.
Where to look
Early humans tended to live near rivers. As well as providing drinking and cooking water, rivers also provided a simple means of navigation and also opportunities to trap animals who came to drink.
As a result, many artefacts ended up being swept into rivers, rolled along, and deposited along with other, unworked, flints into deposits known as river terrace gravels. Wherever such terrace gravels are exposed in fields or extracted for building use, there are often good places to search.
Most large rivers, such as the Thames and (ancient) Solent, have left terrace gravels on the sides of the valleys that they cut in historical times. Today those gravels are often dug for building purposes or exosed in fields.
Humans in Mesolithic and Neolithic times often re-used flints that they found lying on the surface, made flakes and left them behind when they moved on. So that you can find sites of habitation in ploughed fields.
It is, of course, essential to get permission in advance from the owners of the land or operators of the quarry.
Uniformity of design
It’s not uncommon to pick up an isolated flint and wonder whether it could have been useful for one purpose or another – as a spokeshave to smooth an arrow shaft, or as a borer to make holes. But if the design of the object is unique rather than a recognised pattern, it’s a little difficult to know whether it really is an artefact, even if it is uniformly patinated and seems to have facets struck on it. On the other hand, if you find two or three closely similar objects in the same area, it is much more likely you dealing with implements that are the product of a common industry or manufacturing technique, so watch out of generic similarities.
It is important to familiarise yourself with the most common tool designs of each era, so that you understand how the tools were manufactured. For instance, in the early stone age, it is common to find hand axes of so-called Acheulian design (name from St Acheul in France where such implements were first discovered and described). These are beautifully made and are artistic objects. Paradoxically, in Mesolithic times, hundreds of thousands of years later, the commonest tools are flint flakes and scrapers.
These appear to be much more crudely designed and made than the elegant early implements. In fact they are a technological advance, because by making flake tools instead of core tools, humans made much more efficient use of their flint - they got a dozen tools where before the only got one. And small flakes could be fitted into a wooden handle to make long knives, scythes and even saws for felling trees.
As with finding fossils of all kinds, it’s a question of “getting you eye in” so don’t give up too easily at the beginning. At first you may look despairingly around a field and see only ordinary flints. With practice, you may come to realise that the ordinary looking field is actually littered with implements, once you know what you’re looking for and how they appear in situ, and you will wonder why you couldn’t “see” them before.