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Our Global Neighbours: The flint of Brighton

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 09 Jul 2015

A stone that served humanity for millennia.

Hangleton Manor: Brighton, UK

Hangleton Manor: Brighton, UK
Photographer: reproduction © Public Domain

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Recorded in the Doomsday Book (1086) as Brighthelmstone (recently Brighton), was a fishing settlement and a small port on the south coast in East Sussex, UK. In modern times Brighton graduated to become a holiday sea-resort and a spa. Good road and railway connection make Brighton one of the favourite destinations for Londoners seeking rest and recreation by the seaside.

The vagaries of life brought me recently to Brighton, in early summer. Naturally I strolled to the beach, which in nearly nine unbroken kilometre stretches on both sides of the town. Unlike Bondi Beach or other Sydney beaches, however, it is without sand. The entire beach is made of plum-size and smaller pebbles. Its lower area, within the surf, is narrow and bordered by a steep incline to the plateau above, which is pretty wide in some sections.

On an overcast day this pebbly plateau looks like a bed prepared for a railway track. And indeed along the beach margin runs the oldest operating electric train in the world (Volk's Electric Railway, since 1883). Most of the pebbles are pure local flint, worked by water and rounded so that rarely sharp edges can be seen. The flint, with glassy appearance and hardness was used by humans through millennia (and longer still by pre-modern humans) for knapping to form sharp flakes or cutting blades, robust choppers and hand-axes - all tools necessary to work wood, bone and natural fibre, to cut flesh and hide and probably to do haircutting and shaving.

With the increasing use of metal tools (mostly through early centuries of the Common Era) flint lost its importance in the technology of advancing civilisations. Unlike clay used to make bricks and tails, sandstone, granite and marble, flint has limited application in architecture. Except in Brighton (and south east England) where flint is so omnipresent, it was commonly used as a building material.

I was astonished to see such widespread use of flint in construction. For example, Hangleton Manor, the oldest secular building in Brighton, was originally built in 1540 with flint nodules, often knapped into rough shapes. Another example is the St Nicholas Church whose origins date back to the middle of the 14th century. But there are numerous buildings and retention walls throughout Brighton where flint gives them a distinctive character.

While exploring the town, also called Doctor Brighton or London-by-Sea, I was wondering what the Palaeolithic women and men would think about such unorthodox use of their favourite material for hardware.

Additional Information:

Flint is a hard “glassy”, sedimentary, cryptocrystalline (minute, almost invisible crystals) type of the mineral quartz. It typically occurs as nodules and masses in sedimentary rocks, especially in chalk and limestone. Flint is uncommon in our country, mostly present in South Australia.

Brighton flint occurs in bands within layers of chalk. When the cliff erodes, the flints accumulate on the beaches. The beach flints get rolled around and are gradually reduced to smaller pebbles. For building material larger cobbles of flint are used, collected close to the source or excavated from flint-bearing deposits.

Flint was used with fire-steels to produce sparks and make fire since Roman antiquity. It had returned to favour at the beginning of the 17th century and it was commonly used, for over 200 years, in the flintlock of firearms such as pistols, muskets and rifles. The knapped piece of flint was inserted into the flintlock mechanism and when triggered it would generate a spark to ignite the gunpowder.