Notes on working with a flint axe for the first time

Suzi Richer, Richer Environmental

Picking it up for the first time felt awkward, but a lot of things feel awkward the first time. I think it was partly because my body had already been trained to use metal tools. Surely it would be the same? Well, as Mark had already told us, no, it’s totally different. But having said that, using knowledge from my everyday experiences and of how my body works best, combined with experimenting and observing others led to what I felt was a good technique. Others might disagree…

One of the flint axes 

The first weekend we went out to start collecting trees for reconstructing the 4500 year old Hatfield Trackway saw a bunch of about a dozen people – children and adults – walking out onto the moors with a wheelbarrow full of flint axes and an aura of excitement around them.

In some ways the experience probably hadn’t changed too much from when the first lot of trees would have been gathered (were the trees already fallen or had they been cut down?), in that there are still elements of the environment that would have been familiar to people even 4500 years ago. Pine trees and heather still grow on the sandy, dry, high patches that protrude above the bog. They will be more exposed now because of the historic drainage and peat-cutting, but this landscape of wet and dry land and the associated vegetation stretches back to the time when the original trackway was built. But today, with a wheelbarrow to manoeuvre we are not complaining that the sandy paths are perhaps a little higher and much more defined into straight lines.

Brian and Mark moving a chopped pine tree. Note the heather in the foreground and water in the background

But what was different? Us. For most of us we were using a flint axe for first time. We are not used to living and working in this landscape, or if we are, we have done so with metal or power tools. As I’m fumbling trying to make the axe hit the same spot on the trunk, the thought that pops into my head is about time. Now, everything is dictated by time. The time it takes to fell a tree, when we stop for a cup of tea, when we stop for the day, how many days we have before nesting season to collect all of the timbers needed, when can I pass the axe to next person because my muscles really are not used to this. How did time, or I should say the pressure of time, effect the working practice of the original builders? Some things will still be roughly the same, like the timing of sap rising and birds nesting, but what pressures were on them, and is ‘pressures’ even the right word? I suspect not.

Mark on a lunch break 

What I am sure will be same is that they would have brought their experiences to the task in hand, in much the same was we have done. I’m working in a team of four, alongside Marysia, Margaret and Brian. On one of the last trees of the day Marysia mentions that it seems to be easier to use the axe if you turn from the waist. As soon as she said this, something clicks with me and when I try it the power and accuracy I deliver shifts up a few gears. This is where my everyday experience kicks in as its along the same lines as what I had been taught in tai-chi classes and what I used to do in golf years ago – use the power in your hips and core. Whilst this may sound obvious, it takes some time to get used to just holding the axe, feeling how it cuts, getting angles right, etc, let alone refining the technique. Ultimately the axe is an extension of our body, but it takes use and familiarity for a new tool to become that extension.

Margaret axing

By the end of that first weekend, with ‘waist axing’ becoming a thing (a term coined by Mark) I think we were all starting to feel more connected to the tools. Whilst we will never know the skills, practices and thoughts of the original builders of the trackway, gaining that extra degree of familiarity with the tools in the same environment certainly made me feel closer to the people who made the trackway originally and what might have been involved with the building of it. What I hadn’t expected was that it also increased my understanding of how my body works and my knowledge of the current environment – and importantly the connection between the two, with flint axe being between (and part of) both.

A cut Tree