"It's cold blade, collecting on its surface,
the moment it is drawn, the vapors of the atmosphere;
It's immaculate texture, flashing light of bluish hue;
Its matchless edge, upon which histories and possibilities hang."
The ages of human time are named after the cutting edge technology of the day.
This story is a very old and very long one. It begins before the ages of metal, before even the ages of stone. It begins before Art and Time and before awareness perhaps. Our story begins the moment proto person picked up a stick to extend their reach. No record exists of this event, no tongue to pass the story on. And yet the idea implicit in this act survives. To be able to extend beyond the confines of this frail existence. To pluck the apple from the tree of knowledge. To pass forever from innocence. Here in one brief instant was Power. The power to defend in a world replete with creatures, all born armed and dangerous. The power to shape a world.
This was the age of wood, bone and horn and it is the beginning of our long journey as a technological species. For it is our technology that makes us human and sets us apart from the other creatures. Lots of species use found objects to manipulate their world. But a true tool is not merely a found object, it is a fabricated device. So it is not the adoption of found objects that sets us apart but rather the adaptation of those objects, that they might better suit our purpose. We are the makers of tools and it is the making that sets us apart. Perhaps more to the point we are the makers of edges.
The age of wood is not frequently reflected in the archeological record. It is an ephemeral material, decaying for the most part in a few brief lifetimes. Yet some tantalizing glimpses of this time remain even in the modern world.
The aboriginal boomerang for example, is in its most basic form, a bent and flattened throwing stick used as a hunting weapon, some forms of which are so cleverly designed that when expertly thrown, they can be made to return to the hand that released them. This was the first man made flying wing and it was invented in the stone age.
Many field games, viewed by some as a kind of ritualized warfare, use wooden implements. The cricket bat for instance with its diamond cross section is very sword like and seems ill suited to its ostensible purpose. Though its well suited to teaching young lads how stand , aim and swing at something.
The Irish caman is well suited to its purpose but still has a remarkable resemblance to war clubs as used by the northeast coast natives of America. The hero Cuchulin, played the great game at a time when it was played between town lands and upwards of a hundred people or more took to the field simultaneously. Now that's a game!
He got his name when he slew the hound of a man he was visiting by driving the ball down the animal's throat. In recompense, he elected to take the place of the dog in Culin's household and stood guard at the doorway for a number of years.
The most ill disguised of all, the boken of Japan, is a fully functional sword, its efficacy well demonstrated by the famous duel between Miyamoto Musashi and his rival Sasaki Kojiro. Musashi arrived late and by boat with a bokken carved from the boatman's oar. Kojiro despite sporting a famous long sword called the "drying pole" and a skill to match, was felled by a single strike from Musashi's boken.
In recent times interest has been growing in the Irish stick, blackthorn stick or bata. Its use, once ubiquitous, waned in the last century but as this picture shows it was considered an essential part of the gentleman's accoutrements up to the early 1900s.
Wood is an excellent material for sword making. It is light tough and resilient. It is easily worked and can even be hardened, somewhat. It only lacks a credible edge.
It is hardly surprising that someone finally got around to putting an edge on it. Especially as the edge was the one tool used to create it. The Maya made excellent swords of wood and obsidian and lines of flint have been found in Iroquois grave sites, as if they once belonged to wooden shafts which have since decayed.
Copper in the early days, considering its scarcity, would also have been used as an edge for the wood sword and in later times wood was used in the manufacture of copper and bronze swords by pressing it into clay to form the mold.
Necessity is the mother not the father of invention because women invented knives!
Knives were not invented during the "Man the hunter" phase of our evolution. They are much older than that. I thought 2 million years but it has recently been pushed back to 2 and a half million years. We didn't hunt in those days, we gathered and occasionally when the opportunity arose, we scavenged.The first knife may well have been a scraper used to remove fatty tissue from hide or something similar used to process food in some manner. And the wielder was likely a woman. Food processing and preparation is a big part of any antique culture and in almost all culture a large part of that preparation is left to the females. A female was the innovator when a few years ago monkeys in Japan started washing potatoes as a prelude to eating them. Women have mouths to feed and children to cloth especially when left holding the baby, so to speak.
Stone does yield a fine edge, razor sharp even. It would have been the cool tool material of its day. With these edges people shaped their world as never before and all the commonly used materials could be cut be with them. We don't usually think of stone as a material suitable for swords, it holds a great edge but is brittle and unsuitable for long pieces. Most stone blades were no more than 4 inches long, a few as long as 12 inches. Jade in particular is suited for larger pieces but at best is appropriate for short swords only.
Stone tools were made in a blistering array of shapes and sizes. These were dictated by the function of the tool and the methods of the maker. Most of these shapes are still familiar to us today. Modern knives, axe heads, chisels, etc have shapes almost identical to their stone age counterparts. Form followed function in those days too.
While most people could knock up a sharp edge, it seems likely that some specialization occurred. Pieces displaying astonishing skill have been found.
All the basic hand tools have counterparts in the stone age. Knives, saws, chisels, scrapers, drills, punches, awls, hammers, axes, adzes, picks, etc. Even disposable knives such as the Stanley have an equivalent in stone age microliths, tiny shards of stone with an inch or so of cutting edge.
A:-- A line of flakes is removed from one edge of the nodule using repeated blows of the hammer stone.
B:-- The opposite edge receives the same treatment.
C:-- The center is dressed.
D:-- The finished product.
Stone toolmakers exploited characteristics inherent in the materials they worked. They needed materials that could be cleaved or broken into predictable shapes. Materials of a suitable hardness, tenacity and homogeneity. Basalt, chalcedony, chert, diorite, flint, jade, jasper, obsidian, quartzite, rhyolite, etc.
Most of these materials, unlike jade which was ground or crushed, were shaped by a local application of force in such a manner as to fracture the material along a desired plane.This enabled the removal of a flake and when repeated revealed the required tool inside the material. The flakes generated in this process were also used, but the primary objective was core tool production. Fig 2.
A:-- The nodule is split.
B:-- The edge is dressed.
C:-- The top is dressed.
D:-- This is the top surface prior to dressing.
E:-- Top surface after dressing.
F:-- After strike platform is prepared a large single flake is struck off.
G:-- Finished piece.
Prepared nuclei yielded more edge per nodule and the quality of that edge was much improved. Fig 3.
A:-- The nodule is split.
B:-- A double row of flakes is removed from the nodule so as to leave a ridge between them, and a strike zone is prepared at one end.
C:-- The first blade is struck from the core using the ridge as a center line for the blade.
D:-- A new ridge is created as a result the removal of the first blade and the second blade is struck using this ridge as a center line.
E:-- Shows the core with both blades removed.
F:-- A third blade is about to be struck.
G:-- The process is repeated in a spiral fashion until the core becomes too small for further blade removal.
Nuclei were also prepared from which blade blanks could be struck concentrically in a single swipe, like peeling a banana. These "peelings" could be quickly retouched into a variety of different tools and yielded a lot of high quality edge per nodule.
All this was achieved with a remarkably simple tool kit. Hammer stones were found in stream beds and a good one would have been considered a treasure. Batons of wood were interposed between hammer and workpiece when accuracy was required. The strike, incorporated a pulling component which elongated the strike zone and facilitated long flake formation.
Non percussive methods called pressure flaking were also employed in which the point of an antler was pressed into and across the stone, inducing a flake to simply pop off. Such flaking was used to refine the final shape and impart a regular surface texture.
Notice the conchoidal fractures on this arrow point kindly provided by John Brown : Knife maker and Flintknapper. Most arrow points would not have been as refined as this example. As John is at pains to point out most native people would have expended more time on the maintenance and construction of their arrow shafts than the points themselves.
Apart from these simple tools only a suitable work surface was required. A rock or tree stump embedded in the ground or the left knee covered with a thick piece of hide could suffice.
Once in use stone tools were easy to resharpen. The edge could simply be redressed as required. After its size was reduced somewhat it might well be reworked into an entirely different tool. While percussive tools such as axes were ground to increase shock resistance the flaked edge is sharper and easier to maintain.
With stone edges people could live in places they had previously found inhospitable. Signs of stone age life can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Viewed in this context the European voyages of "discovery" were about 10,000 years too late and not nearly as impressive.
People have been making stone tools for about two and half million years and still do today in a very few places. However since the beginning of the metal ages it can no longer be considered cutting edge technology, at least until the advent of the computer chip, that little wafer of silicon buried deep in the heart of every modern personal computer and the stone tablet upon which even these words are written.
A long time ago a young man set out from northern Italy and headed for the mountains. He got caught in a blizzard and holed up in a hollow beyond the snow line. He had hoped to wait out the storm but an ice age was beginning and his body was not seen again for millennial. When the ice finally melted he was found to have been carrying, among other things, a copper axe head.
The first copper was probably in the form of nodules found in rivers like gold is today, or in spongy masses which could be cold hammered into the required shape. The problem of work hardening and its attendant brittleness was soon overcome by the discovery that heating and cooling rapidly annealed the material and the process of hammering resumed.
Furthermore the material could be heated to a liquid state and poured into a stone or clay mold to produce any and all shapes imaginable. Doubtless copper had a strong visual appeal to early people quite apart from its practical advantages. Copper is not as brittle as stone and is readily sharpened. One simply has to planish or burnish the edge into the desired shape which simultaneously sharpens and hardens it. It can be made thinner than stone and thus cuts soft materials more efficiently. When a tool has outlived its usefulness it can be recast. Copper, like gold and silver was probably first used only in jewelry at least until supplies increased. Unlike stone, copper was only abundant locally so smelting was a regional and specialized activity. As a result trade routes developed to move the stuff around, and cities grew up where these trade routes intersected. Commerce in copper for raw and finished goods increased. The wheel came into use at this time as a means of moving materials and trade goods. Strong centralized power structures developed and perhaps for the first time segments of the population were enslaved or disenfranchised. Women were one of these segments. For thousands of years, since the middle to late Bronze age, women were shut out of many aspects of life. Chuculin himself was trained by female warriors and among the pantheon of the Celt are many women of passionate and forthright demeanor however for the most part women are presented as pallid props to their male counterparts in the bulk of Western history from the late Bronze age onward. Hints of how it once may have been are seen in the graveyard of a tribe of women warriors buried in Eastern Europe, Georgia or one of these places in the Caucuses region. These Women were buried along with some fine swords knives and spear heads.. Found only a few years ago the site dates from the early Bronze age. When you disenfranchise a segment of a population you remove as much of their access to power as you can. The knife is a symbol of power, real or imagined. The Bronze age saw the advent of Law and the State. To keep it all together a distinct warrior class developed in many Bronze Age Cultures. Coupled with improved communications and transportation these Bronze age armies carved empires for themselves that stretched from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.