Type:  Modern Art, Flint Jack

Location: London, England



MoST ID: 2660

Pedestal Link: https://une.pedestal3d.com/r/0npVPYnbBq

Model Author:  Emma Watt

This flint axe replica was made by Edward Simpson, alias ‘Flint Jack‘, in about 1863.

Flint Jack, 1867

Flint Jack, 1867

The flint axe in this model was originally in the teaching collection of the Charterhouse School, Godalming, Surrey, and attributed to Flint Jack.  The flint is high quality and the white patinated cortical patches suggest that the blank was a relatively flat weathered piece from a larger nodule.  The bifacial flaking is relatively well executed.  The stacked compression rings are consistent with the use of a steel hammer.  Fairly heavy percussion was used for the larger initial scars, followed by lighter percussion to shape the lateral edges and proximal end.  The deep step-termination of a lateral scar was used as the platform to strike off a relatively large flake onto the face of the axe; this technique is rarely seen on prehistoric axes.  It implies a precise delivery of force using a narrow or pointed hammer.

Flint Jack was the most notorious artefact forger of the Victorian period. An article in The Times in May 1867 said that

‘wherever geologists or archaeologists resided, or wherever a museum was established, there did Flint Jack assuredly pass off his forged fossils and antiquities. For nearly 30 years this extraordinary man has led a life of imposture. During that period he has “tramped” the kingdom through, repeatedly vending spurious fossils, Roman and British urns, fibulae, coins, flint arrow-heads, stone celts, stone hammers, adzes, &c., flint hatchets, seals, rings, leaden antiques, manuscripts, Roman armour, Roman milestones, jet seals and necklaces, and numerous other forged antiquities.’

Despite his skills with various media, as his nickname suggests, Edward was most renown for his stone tool replicas.

Contemporary accounts of Flint Jack are rife with inconsistencies because he frequently changed his story.  Flint Jack was born in about 1815, most likely at Sleights near Whitby in North Yorkshire, where he became acquainted with a minister/fossil collector and, later, a doctor/artefact collector.  He evidently became inspired at a young age to search for fossils and artefacts under the influence of these amateur collectors, and became well-acquainted with the Victorian rage to build curio cabinets and fill them with ancient objects.

One man—possibly a forger himself—showed Flint Jack a barbed flint arrowhead and asked him if he could make one like it, and by perhaps as early as 1843, when he was in his 20s, he had trained himself to do so using an iron gate hasp to percussion-flake flint from East Cliff near Whitby Bay.

Flint Jack’s forgeries are poor replications by today’s standards but they readily fooled amateur collectors in the Victorian period because of the relative lack of knowledge about stylistic variations in ancient stone tools.  In his early days, after about 1841, Flint Jack established a workshop in a hut in the woods inland from Staintondale, spending a week at a time there making forgeries before travelling to Whitby or Scarborough to sell them.  He also learned how to artificially age fake artefacts and fossils by burying them or smearing them with wet clay.

Flint Jack attempted to replicate a variety of ancient stone tools, but he also created flint fish hooks and serrated objects with no known counterparts in the archaeological record of Britain.  Flint Jack was not alone; the demand for these objects was so great—and the supply of genuine specimens was so limited—that a number of forgers were active during this period to meet the market demand.  Flint Jack was firmly engrossed in making forgeries by 1844, and ‘henceforth it would appear that the forgery of antiquities became the governing principle of Flint Jack’s life.’

In 1856 a historian in North Yorkshire studied two antiquarian collections and inferred that the stone tools were made by a distinct culture known only from North and East Yorkshire.  He was  told by a curator at the British Museum that his thesis was based entirely on forged artefacts, probably those made by Flint Jack.  In 1857 an awareness campaign was launched at a museum in York by duped collectors to warn others to be careful what they purchased.  After this, selling large numbers of fakes in one area was a less viable option for Flint Jack, so he travelled across the country to find unaware buyers in other regions, taking on a variety of aliases, and flintknapping as he went.

Flint Jack mounted genuine stone artefacts on a foot-square board that he used as models to replicate.  His fakes were sold at Hull, Lincoln, Neward, Cambridge, Newmarket, Thetford, Norwich, Ipswich, Colchester, Yarmouth, and London, and he walked between these places hawking his wares as genuine.  He was a heavy drinker, and alcoholism (and the crimes he engaged in to feed his addiction) dogged his later years.  He began making arrowheads from bottle glass as well as flint.

He stayed in London for a year and began to worry that he might become a victim of his own success, overwhelming museums and collections with his fakes.  According to one contemporary account, ‘he found the demand for celts and other flint implements fully up to the measure of his power to manufacture them’.  One modern source lists 14 high-profile museum with his fakes, including the British Museum, the Hunterian Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the National Museums of Ireland and Scotland.  He took pride in duping the most knowledgeable of antiquarians in spite of the widespread knowledge of his fraud.  He told one antiquities dealer that ‘there were plenty of his things in the British Museum—and very good things they were, too.’

After his stint in London, Flint Jack walked through the Midlands, travelling through Hertford, Bedford, Nottingham, and Chesterfield, selling his replicas as he went.  He ran out of flint in Sheffield and shifted to legitimate fossil collecting during a stay in York.  He next travelled northward, apparently without selling fakes and focussing on legitimate fossils instead, until arriving at a shingle beach with flint at North Shields.  He began flintknapping again and selling his forgeries in Durham, York, Leeds, and Manchester.

Flint Jack boarded a ship at Liverpool and travelled to Ireland.  He visited the Giant’s Causeway, and sold his fakes in Belfast, Derry, Monaghan, and Dublin.  He then travelled back to Britain at Sheffield and resumed hawking his fakes while walking across the country, this time travelling to Scotland.  He spent two years in Glasgow and Edinburgh, making flake stone tools from flint nodules from ships ballast, but he found the Scots to be less gullible than the English.

Flint Jack travelled south again, revisiting places he had successfully sold fakes before, eventually arriving back in London.  By this time there was a demand for him to demonstrate his flintknapping techniques, which were poorly understood at the time.  His first recorded flintknapping demonstration was in 1862 at a gathering of influential collectors at the Geologists Association meeting in Cavendish Square in London’s West End.  A witness to the demonstration first described his ragtag appearance in some detail, including the ‘furtive and cunning glances which he occasionally cast around him from eyes that did not correspond with each other in size and expression’.

He then described the demonstration:

‘So Flint Jack mounted the platform and seated himself so all could see.  He undid the knots of his red handkerchief, which proved to be full of fragments of flint.  He turned them over, and selected a small piece, which he held sometimes on his knee, sometimes in the palm of his hand, and gave it a few careless blows with what looked like a crooked nail.  In a few minutes he had produced a small arrowhead, which he handed to a gentleman near, and went on fabricating another with a facility and rapidity that proved long practice.  Soon a crowd had collected round the forger, while his fragments of flint were fast converted into different varieties of arrowheads, and exchanged for sixpences among the audience.  This was the first appearance before the public, in London, of the celebrated “Flint Jack.”’

This was a turning point for Flint Jack, as this and other demonstrations, combined with his reputation, secured his notoriety as a Dickensian rogue.  His stone tools—he called them his ‘dooplicates’—began to be intentionally collected and attributed.  In 1863 he was commissioned by the Blackmore Museum in Salisbury to make a teaching set, which was put on display with his studio portrait and a memoir.  A similar set was displayed in the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh.

A Yorkshire newspaper published a detailed biography of Flint Jack in 1866, introducing is as ‘the tale of a deceitful, dissolute tramp, a filthy, fraudulent, convicted thief and vagrant, with apparently few, if any, redeeming traits.’  The biography became so popular that it was reprinted in various versions and circulated widely in pamphlet form.

Flint Jack began travelling again but spent his money on drink and was arrested for breaking-and-entering, and served a year at hard labour in 1867 (he was not sentenced to transport to Australia because of the intervention of the fellow writer and some-time flintknapper James Wyatt of Bedford).  Demonstrating the widespread conflicting attitudes regarding Flint Jack—condemning his fraud but admiring his skill—the editor of an archaeology journal began an appeal for funds to help Flint Jack after his incarceration.

After release, Flint Jack began travelling again, with short spells in prison for drunkenness and vagrancy.  In 1868 Flint Jack visited the archaeologist/flintknapper John Evans, one of the founders of the scientific study of stone technology, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and knighted by Queen Victoria.  He admired Sir John’s handiwork and, according to Evans, Flint Jack told him ‘he believed I was likely to attain an equal degree of eminence with himself.’

In 1872 he posed for a photograph arranged by a policemen and they were sold for a shilling a copy, attesting to his contemporary notoriety.  He stayed with a lady friend on the moors outside Whitby, appeared in court again on 21 February 1874, then disappeared from history.

Flint Jack was alternately humble and boastful about his flintknapping skills.  Asked about the pressure flaking seen on Neolithic arrowheads, he replied ‘no man alive can do it:  it is a barbarous art that is lost.  I known the nature of flint as well as any man but I can’t do that.  I can make a barb that you could not detect: and I’ll do it some day.’  One account said he used a bradawl to pressure-flake the points and barbs of his arrowhead replicas, but most accounts emphasise his percussion-flaking techniques using an iron hammer.

His pleasure at flintknapping is apparent in this description of a knapping episode in James Wyatt’s sitting room:

‘. . . he proceeded to luxuriate in the possession of [a large flint nodule] by tapping off flakes, knives, and “fragments”, some of which he admired very much.  He is a thorough enthusiast, and when he strikes off a well-formed flake, or makes on the side of a “fragment” a few good successive fractures I believe he really thinks that he has accomplished something very creditable.  It was very curious to see him seize the flint and critically examine the “grain” of it, and to hear his speculations as to the mode the flakes would run, and how many could be struck off it. . .’

Flint Jack was unrepentant about his deception:  ‘. . . he did not regard his forgeries in the light of moral offences and seemed to think that it was very excusable to palm them off as antiquities as they were “really good things” as works of art.’

One Victorian social critic, and no doubt many of those duped by him, judged his exploits harshly: ‘. . . his love of wandering and adventure mingled with his native duplicity were more than a match for his integrity, and his life became a failure.’  Despite this, Flint Jack passed from the scene with no regrets:  ‘. . . he firmly insisted that he could never work at anything with so much pleasure as his imitations. . . he frankly confessed his own opinion that he should never do otherwise than he was doing.’

Flint Jack was well-known in the Victorian era, and a long biography of his exploits was published in March, 1867, in the newspaper All The Year Round, owned and edited by Charles Dickens.  Regarding Flint Jack, the author of that work quotes a poem: ‘And sure the pleasure is as great, in being cheated as to cheat.’

The rock band Monks of Doom released a concept album in 1992 called Forgery and the first track is a tribute to him called ‘Flint Jack’.  In 2019 the artist Sean Lynch created an art exhibition and book for the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds called The Rise and Fall of Flint Jack.