Some notes on rock hunting

June 24, 2021

For the last week or so I’ve been trying to use my authoring UI to write posts. It’s been a good reason to get myself out of the house for some much-needed exercise. One of the first things I wanted out of this system was for it to be a kind of explorer’s notebook—a place to record things in a narrative, event-focused way (the way existing social media systems do) but to also be a durable note-taking space. Writing things down helps me to remember them, and it’s helpful to be able to record specifics, like the dimensions I used to throw a clay vessel or pictures of projects at a known scale.

My most recent interest is looking for flint and other knappable rocks. These are the materials that humans used to make the oldest tools that we’re able to find today. And they’re beautiful tools, representing both focused attention and the cumulative experiences of individuals and cultures. You could do worse, as ten-thousand-year flexes go, than to leave behind a perfect functional curved shape executed in the hardest, most brittle and most permanent material in your world.

So surely these materials are everywhere, right? It turns out not! The best sources of flint and similar lithics[1] are only in a few areas, but ancient people moved them great distances for use as tools. One cool implication of this is that, if you live in an area that doesn’t have them, the historically-appropriate way to get them is to use the trade networks provided by your culture to bring them from farther afield.

Where I live, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, there are no local sources of flint or chert, the two materials that are most commonly used. The closest sources are farther north, in Maine and Vermont. But there are several ways that usable chunks, or cobbles, end up in places where I could pick them up off the ground. The first way, and the most dramatic, is “being carried by glaciers.” Until around 11,000 years ago rivers of ice repeatedly scoured this area, until the climate warmed and they melted like so many crusty snow banks, leaving behind a bunch of detritus in which we live. The first humans who arrived here were the descendants and heirs of a long and slow migration that began in Africa and likely passed through Asia before crossing a land bridge into North America. The archaeological record indicates that they had refined material culture, including megalithic architecture, urban regional centers, and strong aesthetic traditions. These were the first people to deliberately move flint and chert around this area.

Another source of flint along the coastline is reportedly ships sailing from England, which used stones as ballast and dumped them when they arrived.

Finally, there are many ways that flint and chert are carried around in our own society: in gravel and other types of fill, in spoil from construction, and on eBay, to name a few.

And it’s the opportunity to fill my mind with these things that appeals to me about the search. Finding or not-finding lithics is secondary. My impression is that a human lifetime is an opportunity to participate in the immediate world—to be able to act on matter bodily—and also to interact, potentially long into the unseen future. with the accumulation of cognitive material that has accreted over tens of thousands of human generations and which will probably continue to accrete over many more[2].

I thought I was going to post pictures of a couple of interesting rocks I found. Instead I wrote this.

  1. I keep seeing “lithics” used in this context instead of “rocks” or “minerals.” ↩︎

  2. I think it’s fairly unlikely that the environmental catastrophe humans have triggered will spell the end of our species. It seems increasingly likely that billions of people will die in horrific conditions, a scale of human suffering that dwarfs the worst instances of deliberate slaughter. The archaeological record of civilizational collapse suggests that, should that occur, humanity will gradually lose much of its specialized knowledge. But as long as the earth has any climate zone habitable by humans, I suspect that humans will live there. ↩︎