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"FANCY" FLINT  KNIVES
LATE PREDYNASTIC TO PROTODYNASTIC PERIODS
EGYPT
6,000 TO 5,300 YEARS AGO

PAGE 1 OF 1 PAGES
COPYRIGHT AUGUST 31, 2012 PETER A. BOSTROM
Eight examples of Predynastic flint knives from Egypt.
PREDYNASTIC KNIVES

Abstract image of a Gerzean knife.

ABSTRACT
"FANCY" FLINT KNIVES
LATE PREDYNASTIC TO PROTODYNASTIC PERIODS
EGYPT

   This article illustrates and describes several examples of what Flinders Petrie referred to as "fancy" flint knives from his excavation of Predynastic tombs. The best examples were apparently high status objects. In a few instances they have survived with richly decorated gold foil and carved ivory handles. Most of these knives date to the late Predynastic and early Protodynastic Periods in ancient Egypt. The most beautiful parallel pressure flaked knives were made by the best flint working craftsmen of the time. Writers have describe the Gerzean knives as the "finest flint knives from anywhere in the world." The more common Predynastic knives were made by percussion flaking. The best examples were discovered in royal tombs and are exceptionally well made and much larger than Gerzean knives. The most skillfully crafted Predynastic knives were made sometime between 4000 B.C. and 3300 B.C.

    "Probably the most prominent Egyptian knapped chert object is the "Gerzean" or "Ripple flaked" knife."---------2009, Marquardt Lund, "Egyptian Flint Work Part III Fishtail Knives, Rhomboid Knives, Gerzean Knives and Flint Figurines," Chips, Vol. 21, #3, p. 9.
   "In tomb 1226 (at Helwan excavations, 15 miles south of Cairo) were two flint knives of a different design. These knives, each about 50 centimeters (19 5/8 inches) long, are the largest ever discovered in Egypt."--------1969, Zaki Y. Saad, "The Excavations At Helwan," p. 43.
    "Egypt's Predynastic Period belongs to prehistory, or the story of human cultures before written records began."
--------2009, Abeer el-Shahawy, " Egyptian Museum In Cairo: A Walk Through The Alleys Of Ancient Egypt, p. 11.
    "In the Naqada II phase (of the Predynastic Period), flint was the most important material in use for making tools such as knives, chisels, punches and scrapers."------2009, Abeer el-Shahawy," Egyptian Museum In Cairo: A Walk Through The Alleys Of Ancient Egypt, p. 11.
   "Egyptian Predynastic flint knives belong in museums to the most admired, and in books to the most often shown stone tools of prehistory."
---------1984, Peter Kelterborn, "Towards Replicating Egyptian Predynastic Flint Knives," Journal Of Archaeological Science 1984, 11, p. 433.
    "The ripple flaked knives of the Late Predynastic Period are among the finest flint knives from anywhere in the world."---------internet 2012, British Museum.org.

Abstract image of Predynastic knives.
 
"FANCY" FLINT KNIVES
LATE PREDYNASTIC TO PROTODYNASTIC PERIODS
EGYPT

     Ancient Egypt is most famous for its spectacular monuments, tombs, and art from the Dynastic Periods. But in comparison, the Predynastic Period was a Neolithic society represented by people who were still using stone tools. The Predynastic period is more famous for such things as decorated ceramics, jewelry,  carved figurines, paint palettes, stone maces and "fancy knives." Stone tools usually don't impress the average museum-goer as much as the more artistic items. But the flint knives from the Predynastic Period may be one exception. They represent some of the best flint-work that has ever been done by skilled craftsmen anywhere in the world.

Gerzean knives on display in the Cairo Museum.
PHOTO BY DAN THEUS, CAIRO MUSEUM, COMPUTER ALTERED IMAGE.
GERZEAN KNIVES
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

    These two Gerzean knives are on display in the Cairo Museum. They are displayed showing the sides that have been ground smooth. The opposite sides would have a parallel pressure flaked surface. The knife in the upper picture appears to have organic materials encrusted on its surface. The lower knife seems to be fairly long. Both of these knives were probably collected from Predynastic tombs.

    Flinders Petrie is considered the father of modern archaeology in Egypt. He probably dug as many of more Predynastic knives than anyone. In 1928 at Naqada, just north of Luxor, he discovered and excavated a huge cemetery containing over 2,100 simple rectangular tombs. It was from this excavation that Petrie discovered and named the Predynastic Period.

Seven examples of Gerzean knives from Egypt.
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GERZEAN KNIVES
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

    This picture shows several different examples of Gerzean knives. They all have the same basic long curving blade edge and a straight to slightly concave back edge. They illustrate two main differences in the manufacturing process. Four of the knives were made from bifacially percussion flaked preforms. The other three knives (top row three from the right) were made from large flakes. Two of these flake Gerzean knives have parallel flaking on one side that obviously enhances their eye appeal. It's interesting to note that just the large flakes alone, without the added decorative pressure flaking would have been just as functional for cutting purposes. These types of Gerzean knives were easier to make because they skipped the time consuming process of bifacially percussion flaking a preform and grinding both sides smooth prior to applying the parallel "ripple" flaking on one side. These may have been the cheaper "poor man's" Gerzean knives.
   The other four Gerzean knives in this picture represent the best of the "classic" ripple flaked Gerzean knives. They were all made from bifacially percussion flaked preforms that were ground smooth prior to applying the decorative parallel "ripple" style pressure flakes on one side. Two of these knives also have gold foil wrapped handles. These are the types of knives that would have been owned by wealthy high status individuals.

    An estimated date for the Predynastic Period is between 5000 B.C. and 3100 B.C. This period is divided into different sub-periods beginning with Badarian (5000 B.C.), then Amratian also referred to as Naqada I (4000 B.C.), then Early Gerzean also referred to as Naqada II (3500 B.C.) then Late Gerzean also referred to as Naqada II (3300 B.C.) The Predynastic Period ended with the political unification of the region under the first kings of the First Dynasty about 3100 B.C.

Two Gerzean knives with gold handles in the Cairo Museum.
GERZEAN KNIVES WITH GILDED HANDLES
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

     Both of these Gerzean knives are on display in the Cairo Museum. They are displayed with one showing the smoothly ground side and the other showing the parallel pressure flaked side.  At least some Gerzean knives were apparently high status objects because they were so well made and, like these two examples, some are richly decorated with gold foil. They have also been found with carved ivory handles. Motifs on the various types of handles include goddesses, heroes and a scene of a boat battle.
   The lower knife is described as a knife with a flint blade and a handle that is covered with gold leaf.  The handle is decorated with floral and stylized animal designs. This knife is of unknown provenance but dates to the Naqada II phase within the Predynastic Period to about 3500 B.C.

     The people who lived during the Predynastic Period were using stone tools. Copper began to be used late in the period in the form of various types of cast tools and weapons. The use of copper rapidly begins to replace stone tools at the end of the Predynastic Period and beginning with the First Dynastic kings. The only metals used during the Archaic Dynasties before the Old Kingdom Dynasty is copper, gold and silver.

Predynastic Gerzean knife.
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GERZEAN KNIFE
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

     This picture shows three views of a very well made "classic" example of a Gerzean ripple flaked knife. Most of these knives have been reported from Predynastic tombs. They were made by specialized craftsmen. The manufacturing process begins with a preform that was percussion flaked into the desired shape. Then both sides were ground and polished smooth. The smooth surface of one side only was then uniformly removed with parallel pressure flaking. A completed Gerzean knife has a smooth ground surface on one side and a parallel pressure flaked surface on the other. This Gerzean knives measures 8 inches (22cm) long and 2 3/16 inches (5.5cm) wide.

   Flinders Petrie described what he called "fancy flint knives" from his excavations of Predynastic tombs. Predynastic knives are represented in many museum collections around the world. But a good number of them do not have a provenance. Even some of the examples on display in the Cairo museum will list them as "unknown provenance."  But enough of these "fancy knives" have been found in tombs to identify their main purpose as funerary offerings or possibly as ritual tools that were left behind. Zaki Y. Saad,  writes about the contents from one of the tombs at Helwan; "In it (a magazine storage room connected to a tomb) we found layers of ribs and other bones of sacrificial oxen. Below the first layer of bones we found a nicely shaped flint knife 35 centimeters (13 3/4 inches) long."

Gerzean knife made on a flake.
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GERZEAN FLAKE KNIFE
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

      This Gerzean knife was made on a long narrow and curved flake. Unlike the "classic" Gerzean knives that begin their manufacturing process with a percussion flaked preform that's been ground smooth on both sides, these types of Gerzean knives were made on edge trimmed flakes. The preform for this knife was made by trimming the edge to the desired shape by pressure flaking. The decorative parallel pressure flaking was applied to the smooth surface of the flake. No grinding was necessary. Most of the opposite side is the original flake surface.

   The most skillfully flaked stone artifacts ever made during the late Stone Age anywhere in the world are the best of the best examples of the ripple flaked Gerzean Knives. They represent a high point in flintknapping technology and are characteristic of the Predynastic period of ancient Egypt.

Gerzean knife made on a flake.
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GERZEAN FLAKE KNIFE
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

    This picture shows three views of a Predynastic knife that is similar to a Gerzean knife in several ways except for the fact that is was made on a flake with no grinding. It was pressure trimmed to a typical Gerzean shaped outline by straightening one of the blade edges. The few parallel pressure flakes removed on one side and the micro edge serrations are typical Gerzean manufacturing traits. Gerzean flake knives like this example were a lower and cheaper grade of knife that could have been made very quickly. This knife is made of good quality light tan colored chert and it measures 7 inches (17.8 cm) long and 1 1/4 inches (3.2 cm) wide.

      The best Gerzean knives were more difficult and time consuming to make compared to other Predynastic knives. They were made from good quality stone. The preform for a knife was first percussion flaked into the desired shape. Then both sides were ground and polished smooth. The smooth surface of one side only was then uniformly removed with parallel pressure flaking. A completed Gerzean knife has a smooth ground surface on one side and a parallel pressure flaked surface on the other. This unique style is only found in Egypt but a similar manufacturing technique was also used on some Neolithic daggers from northern Europe.

Gerzean knife from the Predynastic Period in Egypt.
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GERZEAN KNIFE
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

     This picture shows two views of a "classic" Predynastic Gerzean knife. Like many other examples, this knife was broken from a strike in the center of the blade that might suggest that it was ritually "killed." This knife would have been made from a percussion flaked preform that was ground smooth on both faces. Parallel pressure flakes were applied to one side and the blade edge was finely serrated. This Gerzean knife was made from a fine grade of slightly translucent chert and it measures 8 7/8 inches (22.5 cm) long and 2 9/16 inches (6.5 cm) wide.

    Gerzean knives have been replicated by modern flintknappers. The best study was done by Peter Kelterborn of Switzerland and published in the "Journal of Archaeological Science in 1984. He was able to make copies of the best examples out of glass and flint. He described the manufacturing sequence as consisting of six basic stages that involved percussion flaking, grinding, large pressure flaking and micro-flaking.

Ripple and micro pressure flaking on Gerzean knives.
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RIPPLE FLAKING AND SERRATED EDGE
 GERZEAN KNIVES
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

    These magnified views from two different Gerzean knives show classic flake removal patterns that can be observed on the best examples of Gerzean knives. The upper picture shows some very well done parallel pressure flaking on the back edge of one knife. This type of flaking decoration is one factor that has made Gerzean knives so famous. The area on the edge between the flakes are trimmed by pressure into small delta shapes. The lower picture shows some very well done serrations along the cutting edge of another knife.

    Some knives might be described as Gerzean-like but they were not made in exactly the same way as "classic" Gerzean knives. Two of the examples in this report were made from long flakes. The ripple flaking was applied to the surface of the flake rather than on a ground surface. Evidently, a flat smooth surface, no matter how it was produced, was acceptable for the production of Gerzean knives of lesser quality.

Gerzean-like knife from Egypt.
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GERZEAN FLAKE KNIFE
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

    This is another of what appears to be a Gerzean-like knife. It was not made from a bifacially percussion flaked preform but instead it was made on a large flake. This knife was shaped into the form of a Gerzean knife by grinding and by pressure trimming the edge. The arrows point to the area were it was ground into shape. The opposite side still retains most of the original outer cortex of the stone. There is some short parallel pressure flaking along the edge of the base. This knife measures 6 5/16 inches (16 cm) long and 2 1/16 inches (5.2 cm) wide.

   Gerzean ripple flaked knives were apparently high status objects. In a few instances they have survived with richly decorated gold foil and carved ivory handles. Motifs include goddesses, heroes and a scene of a boat battle.

Percussion flaked Predynastic knife with handle.
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PERCUSSION FLAKED KNIFE WITH HANDLE
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

    This picture shows a typical example of a percussion flaked knife from the Predynastic Period. It's made in the "classic" style with a long curved blade edge and a straight back edge. This knife also has a handle that is actually more of a finger notch. Handle designs vary but on these smaller more common knives they do seem to be functional rather than just decorative like those on large tomb swords. This knife is made from a gray colored chert of good quality and it measures 5 5/8 inches (14.3 cm) long and 2 inches (5.1 cm) wide.

   A fairly large number of ripple flaked Gerzean knives are broken. Some were struck in the center of the blade or cleanly snapped into two pieces. This may indicate a tradition of deliberate breaking, suggesting that some of them were ritually "killed." Burning or braking funerary artifacts was not an uncommon practice among Stone Age cultures.

Curved percussion flaked knife from the Predynastic Period.
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PERCUSSION FLAKED KNIFE WITHOUT HANDLE
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

    This is a nice example of a percussion flaked Predynastic knife. It has the typically wide sweeping curved blade edge. These types of heavy duty knives were probably being used for both utilitarian and for special ritual purposes. Animal sacrifice would be one example of a ritual purpose. This knife measures 6 5/8 inches (16.8 cm) long and 2 1/4 inches (5.7 cm) wide.

   Most of the knives from the Predynastic Period were bifacially flaked by percussion and never were ground or parallel pressure flaked like Gerzean knives. They are categorized as flint knives with handles and flint knives without handles. They all have a basic curved shape. The outer curved edge represents the main cutting edge. The opposite back edge varies in shape from straight to deeply concave curvatures.

Large flint "sword" from early dynastic tomb in Egypt.
PHOTO BY DAN THEUS, CAIRO MUSEUM, COMPUTER ALTERED IMAGE.
PERCUSSION FLAKED KNIFE WITH HANDLE
PROTODYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

    This large knife is on display in the Cairo Museum. These types of knives have been found in royal tombs that date to the first Dynasty, approximately 5,000 years ago. Two large curved knives similar to this example but without handles were reported from a tomb on the early dynastic site of Helwan. They measure 19 5/8 inches (50 cm) long and about 2 3/4 inches (7 cm) wide and they are reported to be "the longest ever discovered in Egypt."

   Some percussion flaked knives exhibit heavy use wear. Flinders Petrie describes some of the knives found at Abydos as "Many of the specimens (flint knives without handles) are greatly changed in outline by wear." He also refers to a type of wear pattern he called snubbing along the edge that he describes as being "the result of scraping away from the person," when the flint is held in the right hand.

Discoidal scraper made from fragment of Gerzean knife.
SCRAPER
MADE FROM BROKEN GERZEAN KNIFE
HIERAKONPOLIS SITE
PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
EGYPT

    This picture shows both sides of a discoidal shaped scraper that was made from a fragment of a broken Gerzean knife. One side is beautifully ripple flaked and the other side is ground smooth. This scraper measures 2 1/16 inches (5.3 cm) wide.

   Just as the Gerzean knives have been found in a wide range of quality of manufacture the same can be said for the percussion flaked knives. Some of the best examples rival their skill in manufacture to any bifaces that have been found anywhere else in the world. Zaki Saad reports one tomb at the early dynastic site of Helwan that contained two flint knives that were about 19 5/8 inches (50 cm) long and about 2 3/4 inches (7 cm) wide. These knives are percussion flaked and have a deep curve across their length and they do not have handles. Zaki Saad reported them to be "the longest ever discovered in Egypt." A similar knife with a handle design flaked onto its base is in the Royal Ontario Museum. This knife is not as long but its handle was wrapped in gold. The best examples of these large curved percussion flaked knives date to the first Dynastic Period.

Modern-made by Steve Allely Gerzean knife with handle.
GERZEAN KNIFE
MADE BY STEVE ALLELY

    This Gerzean knife was made by Steve Allely. The knife blade is made of obsidian and the handle is made of alabaster. Both sides of the knife was ground smooth then the surface of one side was uniformly removed with parallel pressure flaking. This knife measures 9 3/8 inches (23.8 cm) long.

    Many golden ages have come and gone throughout Stone Age history. It's during these short periods of time that flintknappers have produced some of their best work. The "fancy flint knives" of the Predynastic Period is only one example. Their best work has always been found in graves, tombs or special cache offerings. If it were not for these unique time capsules the modern world would never have seen any of these most exceptionally crafted pieces.

"REFERENCES"

1902, Petrie, W. M. Flinders, "Abydos," Part I, pp. 10-11.
1969
, Saad, Zaki Y., "The Excavations At Helwan," pp. 30-31 & 43.
1984
, Kelterborn, Peter, "Towards Replicating Egyptian Predynastic Flint Knives," Journal Of Archaeological Science 1984, 11, p. 433.
1988
, Hoffman, Michael Allen, "Prelude To Civilization: The Predynastic Period In Egypt," The First Egyptians, pp. 33-58.
2009
, Lund, Marquardt, "Egyptian Flint Work Part III Fishtail Knives, Rhomboid Knives, Gerzean Knives and Flint Figurines," Chips, Vol. 21, #3, p. 9.
2009
, el-Shahawy, Abeer, " Egyptian Museum In Cairo: A Walk Through The Alleys Of Ancient Egypt, p. 11 & 17.
From Personal Communications
with Michael Allen Hoffman, PhD. (deceased)

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