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Danish flint daggers: Technology and society in late Neolithic and early Bronze Age Denmark

Hindsgavl

The Hindsgavl Type IV flint dagger

Finds of flint daggers from Late Neolithic and early Bronze Age Denmark represent what many archaeologists regard as the pinnacle of flint knapping technology in the Stone Age, surpassing the achievements of all other Stone Age cultures around the world. The daggers described as Type IV are a spectacular demonstration of the skill in stone working achieved by the people who made them. The outstanding example is the Hindsgavl dagger discovered on the island Fænø in the Little Belt in 1876. It, and other examples, have given the name the Dagger Period to the period from 2800-1800 BC.

Type IV daggers are characterized by their broad leaf-shaped blades, square base or ‘pommel’, and a pressure-flaked handle with a bead of stitching along its median ridge. They were created by striking a suitable piece of flint with a soft hammer of antler or hard wood to create an initial preform. The preform would be ground and polished to a smooth surface and a pressure tool would then be applied to remove flakes in a careful process that ended with the fully formed dagger. Evidence from experimental reconstruction and analysis of the originals suggest that metal tipped flaking tools would have been used to create the intricate stitching on the handle. Reconstruction suggests that each dagger would have taken twelve hours work to complete on average, not including any time spent in procuring the high quality flint required.

The concentration of finds in northern Jutland and south-eastern Denmark indicates that centres of production were closely related to sources of high quality flint. Neolithic mine shafts at places such as Bjerre in north Jutland, Limfjord, and in Scania demonstrate the demand for top quality Senonian flint in preference to the abundant surface flint that may be found throughout Denmark. Type IV daggers required flint that was homogenous and free of inclusions and cracks. Few production sites have been found and it is possible that the requirement for grinding and polishing meant that many production sites were on coastal sites with ready access to water. If this is the case erosion and incursion by the sea may explain why production sites have not been recovered from the archaeological record.

The technical skill and man hours required to make a Type IV dagger may suggest that production was a specialized activity, rather than the results of a ‘cottage industry’. Flint knapping is a difficult art to master and requires a deep level of practical experience and knowledge. Knappers cannot fully anticipate the quality of the raw material or fully envisage the precise steps required to take the blank to its fully finished form. A continual reassessment of the situation is required that demands a practical know-how and intuition gained through experience. Production of the Type IV dagger required several steps of varying levels of difficulty, some of which could only have been achieved by highly skilled craftsmen. While it is possible that manufacture from start to finish was the work of an individual the degree of technical complexity raises another possibility that production may have been carried out in a series of steps by a group of craftsmen whose individual skills determined the part they played in the production process. Whether this required an institutionalized apprenticeship is open to conjecture. Put simply, we do not know if this is the case. Regardless, it is tempting to think of groups of specialized flint knappers arranged on lineal lines or within a clan in which members passed through an apprenticeship and in which individual levels of ability and know-how determined to which stage in the production process an individual contributed.

The presence of the daggers in status graves of the period indicates that they were highly coveted items that held ideological value within the contemporary culture. Their production coincided with the introduction of Bronze Age metal daggers from the south and the flint daggers appear to be a conscious effort to reproduce the forms of highly prestigious bronze daggers from the Unetice cultures of Germany and Poland and the Bell Beaker culture of central Europe. Perhaps this was a response to a market demand from those who could not afford rare and expensive metal wares. Perhaps it was a conscious effort to create a niche market for stone goods against a background of declining demand as bronze began to replace stone. What seems more likely in the socially differentiated world of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age is that the craftsman, whether working as an individual or as part of a group, was subject to the control of a patron who sought to maintain their control over the production and distribution of ideological symbols of power.

A striking factor of the Danish flint daggers is the seemingly rapid development of a bifacial technology within a very short period of time. Few forerunners exist in Scandinavia for the advanced bifacial technique that typifies the flint daggers, while cultures to the south had modest bifacial technologies. Social demand, the necessary tools required, an abundance of suitable resources, and creative ingenuity appear to have led to the rapid and independent development of a technology that represents the height of Stone Age manufacture during the transition period from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.

American flint knapper D. C. Waldorf demonstrating how to make a Type IV dagger

 

Further Reading:

Apel, Jan. “Flint Daggers and Technical Knowledge. Production and Consumption during LN I.” In Form, Function and Context: Material Culture Studies in Scandinavian Archaeology, edited by Deborah S. Olausson and Helle VanKilde, 135-154. Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksell, 2000.

Olausson, Deborah. “Different Strokes for Different Folks: Possible Reasons for Variation in Quality of Knapping.” Lithic Technology 23, no. 2 (1998): 89-115.

Olausson, Deborah. “Craft Specialization as an Agent of Social Power in the South Scandinavian Neolithic.” In Man and Flint: Proceedings of the VIIth International Flint Symposium, edited by Romuald Schild and Zofia Sulgostowska. Polish Academy of Sciences, 1997.

Stafford, Michael. “In Search of Hindsgavl: Experiments in the Production of Neolithic Danish Flint Daggers.” Antiquity 72 (1998): 338-49.

Stafford, Michael. “The Parallel-Flaked Flint Daggers of Late Neolithic Denmark: An Experimental Perspective.” Journal of Archaeological Science 30 (2003): 1537-1550.

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