Stone Tool Stories: Soft hammers

Soft-hammer percussion flaking involved detaching flakes with a soft indentor, such as an antler, bone, wood, or soft stone such as limestone or sandstone.  In bifacial flaking, flakes were removed from two faces of the stone from the one platform edge, and soft hammers were the best tool for thinning a biface because of the way the soft material transfers force into the stone.  

Tim Dillard antler billet

Modern Art, Tim Dillard

Antler is an ideal material for removing flakes by striking onto the edge of a core because the stone can bite into the antler, resulting in an efficient transfer of force.  But, unlike bone, antler is unlikely to shatter or break.  In one of the earliest examples of soft-hammer percussion, A large horse bone was used by a Homo heidelbergensis stoneworker at the site of Boxgrove in England to make a flint handaxe ca. 480,000 years ago.  Smaller unmodified bones and bone splinters are suitable for retouching the edges of flake tools.  These bone tools are called ‘retouchers’, and they have been recorded from Middle Palaeolithic sites in Africa, Europe, West Asia, and China.

Most types of wood are too soft for direct percussion flaking, although modern knappers have shown that hard wood works for on-edge percussion if you strike hard enough.  Aboriginal flintknappers in Australia used the faces of hardwood boomerangs to retouch the edges of flake tools, and flintknappers in the Kimberley region used a wood tool for the initial stages of pressure flaking.  Modern flintknappers have successfully used cactus needles to punch holes through thin obsidian flakes to make beads.  The attributes of flakes struck by wood flaking tools are similar to the attributes of using an antler or bone tool, so archaeologists may be underestimating the use of wood hammers in prehistory.