Northumberland has a rich heritage throughout every period of our history. We tend to think more of the times when the county was under siege from the Viking hordes or embroiled in battles with the Scots, the medieval times when the castles and strongholds were built or the age of the Border Reivers. But if you go back even further, earlier than even the Romans, the area was well populated with ancient people. They left a visible legacy with the rock art and standing stones that can be seen in many places, which attract many visitors and generate a huge amount of interest.
There is, however, another legacy that was left behind, one that can turn into an absorbing hobby and can help historians and archaeologists piece together parts of a jigsaw. Our ancestors left behind large quantities of flint. This was the mainstay of their existence – flint was used to make tools and weapons. From the Mesolithic period through to the late Bronze Age, finely crafted flint tools were made throughout the area and they are easily found with the help of a sharp eye.
As there is no naturally occurring flint in Northumberland, apart from the odd pebble on the beach, it means that every piece that you find was dropped by ancient humans, maybe 8,000 years ago. There are outcrops of Chert, similar to flint but easily distinguishable from it in several places, notably around Lewisburn in Kielder but any flint you find will most likely have come from much further afield, maybe even from Norfolk or possibly Scotland.
So how do you find these tools and scraps of flint and what do they look like?
The best way is to gain permission (which cannot be stressed too much!) to walk over a ploughed field after a shower of rain followed by sunlight. If you look across the field from a low point of view, the flint will shine and glisten. But just walking across the field looking carefully will also reveal plenty. There is no specific area to go to – anywhere at all is likely to reveal tools and fragments.
They can be categorised into items such as scrapers, blades and arrowheads. Scrapers are the most common worked tools and were used to clean animal skins of excess flesh and fat before curing into furs or leather. If you look closely you will be able to see if the edges have been struck, or knapped to shape them. Blades are usually longer pieces of flint with one or both edges worked to create a sharp cutting edge. They are often still extremely sharp, so be careful! But the premier league of flints are the arrowheads – not common but still findable with some luck and perseverance. Most fragments, or debitage, are flakes that have been struck from a larger piece of flint when creating a tool by knapping. These are the most common finds but if you find a lot in one area, you will be sure to find some tools as well.
One thing is important, however. If you do come across a location where you find more than the odd flint, you should inform your local archaeological society or consider reporting them via the Portable Antiquities Scheme, so that the information can be added to what is already known and enhance the knowledge of ancient people in Northumberland. I would advise always reporting arrowheads, as these are more easily dated and may be an important find. And please, do not trespass or go disturbing known sites of archaeological interest. There is no need and you will just end up in trouble.