Finding the New Rome
Voting for archaeology
Editor Simon Denison
Long reach of the flint knappers
Mike Pitts recalls the day he found an English gunflint on a South pacific island
As archaeological homes go, I suspect mine is thin on antiquities: I like beauty, not rubbish, and if I had money to buy a complete artefact, I'd exchange it for a modern work of art rather than undermine someone's cultural heritage. But I do have a little wedge of black flint, and it's one of the most precious things I own. To say its story connects a South Pacific island, an 1806 shipwreck, Phil Harding from Time Team and a Suffolk pub is only the beginning.
Perhaps because I grew up close to the South Downs, I've always liked flint, and no more than when freshly quarried. The ringing nodules caked in soft, damp chalk like great china hams, the cold rippled face of the broken stone and the steely smell and clickety-slide of flakes new-struck: it may not have the promise of good marble or the value of jade, but for sheer romance and sensuality it beats any rock on earth.
No surprise, then, that as a student I should find myself in Brandon, near the Suffolk-Norfolk border. There's a pub there, close both to the huge Neolithic mines of Grime's Graves and the Lingheath pits that supplied gunflints to army, navy and buccaneers, called The Flint Knappers. I imagined this a brewery conceit, until Phil Harding showed me there was more round the back than the Gents: to my astonished eyes, a complete knappers' workshop filled the yard. There were mounds of waste outside, and inside all the gear - wooden barrels, anvils, leather knee-pads and old tins full of gunflints. It was as if the men had just gone home, bent-kneed and spitting flint dust.
Years later Phil told me the pub had been improved, and the yard bulldozed without record. 'I was that jealous when I heard', said Phil. 'I mean you took all those things'. But I hadn't. My partner had wanted souvenirs, but somewhat priggishly, I had stopped her. This was a living workshop and, romance aside, it could be a living museum. The tools, the debris, the seats, everything could tell us so much about the way this poorly-recorded industry worked. But instead of doing something about it, I'd returned to my studies. Not only did I have no artefacts: now I had a burden of guilt.
As far as it's possible to get from The Flint Knappers, in the centre of the South Pacific, is a scatter of extraordinarily beautiful green islands in a sea of a brightness and variety of hues simply unknown in north Europe: the kingdom of Tonga. On a visit to the Post Office there one day (a journey involving a detour to pick mangoes and a spin in a dinghy) I found, on the dirt track, a gunflint.
Back in England I discovered that this was probably from a common musket. I couldn't prove it, but it seemed likely it had been made in East Anglia, perhaps even in a Brandon workshop. So what was it doing in Tonga?
In 1805 the Port au Prince, a 96-crew French warship captured by the British and then in private hands, sailed from Gravesend for a voyage of trading, whaling and thieving. On board was William Mariner, a boy whose adventures were later published as a sensational book. The ship was wrecked in Tonga, and most of the crew slaughtered. On board were barrels of gunflints, as valuable to the locals as to the sailors: Mariner noted that a Hawaii chief had 2,000 muskets 'procured at different times from American ships'.
Had my flint once sparked the musket of a British buccaneer, or been treasured by a Tongan native, and perhaps handed down through the years before being lost where I found it? Had it really travelled, by extremely circuitous route, from Suffolk to the south Pacific? Could it actually have been made in a Brandon workshop?
One thing I know: it did travel from Tonga back to England. I hadn't taken anything from the old workshop, but now I had a gunflint that carried an extraordinary tale. In its little way, it is the complete story of a unique industry.
Mike Pitts is an archaeologist and author. He is currently joint holder of the British Archaeological Press Award
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005