I bet you have something that you would really dream about doing. I do, for me it’s going deep under water in a submarine. I know it’s not to everyone’s taste but I think it would be so very very exciting. Because of my interest in submarines I have spent some time reading about them and I was amazed to discover that the first record of underwater warfare was in ancient Greece nearly 2,500 years ago. I find it amazing that we can read about stuff that happened so long ago and there is written or picture evidence of what people did, thought and said.
So how do we go about discovering what life was like for people who lived in the stone age? A period that spans over 3 million years and ended over 6000 years ago. The answer is we have to guess. The people who do this guessing are called archaeologists. Take for example the footprints that were found in solidified mud in Denmark when the amazing bridge across the Great Belt was being built. Archaeologists are inclined to think that the footprints are around 5,000 years old. They are also sure that the coast was roughly the same as it is now. They have surmised that the footprints were made by stone age people who were fishing. They guess this as they have found evidence of other fishing activity nearby. Of course we’ll never know for sure but it’s fascinating to wonder isn’t it?
Mentioning Denmark brings something else to mind Sagnlandet Lejre. It’s a wonderful place. You probably have no idea what it is. Well let me tell you about it. Over 50 years ago Danish archaeologists were trying to work out what a stone age house might have looked like. We know that stone age people often set fire to their homes and rebuilt them. Why we don’t know but we can guess that perhaps it was a way of cleaning and starting afresh? On the face of it the burnt embers of a home that existed 6,000 years ago might not sound very helpful. But some clever Dankser (Danish for a Danish person) had the idea that if they built all sorts of different shaped homes using all sorts of construction techniques and then burnt them down they would be able to compare the burnt remains and start to build up and idea of what original stone age homes were like, Clever eh?
And it worked. This was the start of a modern times stone age community at Lejre. Each summer they arranged for volunteer families to come and live in the stone age settlement and experiment with techniques of hunting, cooking, fishing, cloth making and all the other things settled stone age people did. It proved to be a wonderful idea and the archaeologists started to learn loads of useful things. Many families came back year after year and amazingly the Lejre community is still running after all this time. I have been to Denmark many times as I have a daughter who lives there. Whenever I go in the summer I ALWAYS spend a day at Lejre. It’s a great place and over the years my grandchildren have had wonderful time grinding corn and baking bread, chopping out canoes from tree trunks, paddling the tree trunk canoes and much much more.
One time we arranged to go with some Danish friends. We put together a lovely picnic as it was going to be a beautiful day. There are always things to watch at Lejre and this day there was a flint knapper showing how flint tools were made by striking and flaking flint. I was gripped by his skill and also by how effective and robust the tools he made were. I spent a long time talking to him and when we had finished he made me a gift of a shard of flint. He warned me to be careful as it was very very sharp so I wrapped in in my handkerchief and moved on.
The volunteers who live in stone age style for six weeks in the summer at Lejre are very brave. Not only do they prepare their food and meat in very basic ways but they live an extremely primitive existence compared to today. In addition to this they have to put up with hundreds of visitors and tourists every day watching them and asking them the same questions over and over again. One of the things they have explored is how stone age people might arrange their society and how they might worship. Their experiments are complete guesswork but to a little extent the way they are living must have some influence on their ideas. The day we visited, we decided to picnic at the edge of the worship lake. I should explain that this lake has been put aside as a sort of religious spot. It is surrounded by trees and is very quiet. The lake is not deep and at some point, people have waded into the mud at the edge of the lake and put poles in. On top of the poles are skulls of the animals they catch to eat: deer, rabbit, boar and other animals. This makes the spot quite eerie. Imagine the quiet, broken only by the buzzing of dragonflies. As we sat eating our picnic, in the distance we heard chanting and then over the brow of the hill came the stone age volunteers, they were dressed in their habitual skins and woven cloths. Hair awry, dirty faces and arms, they slowly made their way down to the lake performing their idea of what stone age worship was like. We sat still holding our breath, me with some brockwurst in my hand. The ceremony was hypnotic and I suddenly found myself in another time watching the coming of age of a young stone age boy.
The boy was beside himself with excitement, today he would come of age. He would be considered an adult and along with that came the privilege and responsibility of manhood. He would be listened to; equally he would be expected to work, hunt and fight for the tribe. He already knew what his work would be. His father was a well respected tool maker. His flint knives and arrow heads were sought after by all the men of the tribe and even by men from neighbouring tribes. The boy had been learning the trade from his father since the moment he could walk. It took years of experience to make good tools. You had to recognise the best sorts of stone to use. You also need to be able to see which tools lay hidden in the stones. His father had taught him that in each piece of stone a tool lay hidden. An accomplished knapper could see the tool hidden in the stone and could with care and skill slowly unwrap the item from the outer layer of the stone. The unwrapping was slow and required both patience and also fine skill with the tools. He was proud of his father and was determined to do him honour by becoming equally skilled.
As the group made their way to edge of the lake the boy looked nervously at the poles in the water with the skulls mounted on them. Common sense told him that they were just skulls but his heart knew that inside each skull lived a spirit; the spirit of the animal that once possessed the skull. His heart also told him that if he displeased any of the spirits his future would be blighted. As the group stopped at the edge of the water the boy continued walking into the water visiting each pole in turn. At the base of each one in turn he left an offering. Perhaps a piece of meat, some fruit or a piece of flint he had worked into a blade or arrow head. With each step his fear heightened, he had been told stories about how a spirit if displeased would come SHRIEKING out of the skull in which it lived and drag it’s unfortunate victim down into the water and the mud to drown. Slowly the boy went from pole to pole until he had visited the last one. He nervously made his way back to the shore expecting to hear that awful shriek each step of the way. Imagine his relief when he reach the shore without mishap. Imagine his thrill when every person in the tribe raised their voices in cheers and hurrahs to welcome him into the tribe as an adult.
The boy’s father and his uncles hoisted him up into the air and danced with him back to the village. There, there was a sudden hush again. The boy stood bewildered as everyone made a circle with him in the middle. Then, smiling, his father stepped forward with something clutched in his hands. It was a soft leather pouch. Tied with cord made from a deer’s intestines. The boy took the pouch. Dropped to his knees and slowly opened the pouch. The others smiled to see his excitement and and hearing his sobs of pleasure as there, rolled in the leather was a set of flint knapping tools.
First the sturdy leather palm pad used to hold the flint against. It consisted of two pieces of thick boar hide. They had been seasoned and treated to make them very hard and his father had stitched them together with exquisite stitches. It was very sturdy. The boy knew it would last him for years and protect his hand from cuts and grazes as he worked the flint. Next was a beautiful hammer stone. This was a mysterious dark gray with beautiful milk white flecks. It was shaped like a slightly flattened egg. The purpose of the hammer stone was to take larger chunks off the stone being worked to reduce its size quickly but accurately. The boy could see from its shape that his father had chose it with great care. It had many different angles around it’s curves. The boy would be able to control the flakes he chipped from the flint with extreme accuracy. There was a flaking billet made from the thick part of a stag’s antler; his father had worked the faces so that they were rough and rounded. Ideal for striking and taking large flakes for detailed shaping. Nestled amongst the tools the two tynes (the pointed parts) from some wonderfully golden coloured antlers, probably a venerable old stag, he thought. These were use for pressure flaking, the process of making the sharp cutting edges which could chop through wood, skin animals and harvest fruit. Along side these was a beautiful round slice of sandstone. It was red and bright and looked just like the setting sun. This was the abrading stone, used to blunt the unwanted sharp edges of the flints he worked on to prevent cutting himself. There were tears in the boys eyes as he stood up and looked at his father. Suddenly the circle parter and his mother stepped into the circle and embraced him. After hugging him she stepped back and offered him one final gift. A beautifully worked leather holder with a thilong to go round his neck, As the boy took it he saw a polished piece of black wood poking out. As he pulled this out he revealed a small and perfectly worked flake blade attached to it. It was a knife of great beauty and he instantly knew it was the work of his father. As he held his gifts up all the tribe gave a great shout of joy and suddenly there was laughing and dancing and then came the feast. The boy was of course the guest of honour and was offered the choicest cut of the boar that had been killed and cooked earlier that day. He drew his knife and started to cut the meat …
As the images faded from my eyes I discovered that without knowing it I had unwrapped the flake of flint I had been given earlier and was using it to slice myself a piece of cold bratwurst sausage. The flint slipped through the meat like a scalpel and I marvelled that this extraordinary tool was as effective now in my hands as it had been in those of my ancestors millions of years ago.