Cliffside Workshops

Piltdown Productions

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Education of a Flintknapper

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webdeveloper - wfranck@mindspring.com

Errett Callahan, MA, MFA, PhD

Background     (Excerpt from Callahan's catalog, "Piltdown Productions Catalog #5" p.4 - 6, 1999)
I started knapping in 1956 - not counting a few slate pieces I knapped out in 1950 - and have been at it without let-up ever since. During these past 42 years, I have produced, as of August 1998, 9049 stone tools, all duly signed and recorded. I was raised on quartzite and the tougher cherts. I didn't work obsidian much until the early 1980s.

I made my first hafted stone knife in 1966. Knife production was occasional thereafter until 1984, when I started obsidian knife production in a big way. Since 1984, I have produced 860 stone knives, all duly signed and documented. (I make and sell about 50-60 knives a year. That's about one knife a week. But I spend 1-2 months on my big showpieces.) Today, knife production comprises the vast majority of my stone work; I'm considered a halftime maker. (See Below.)

I knap 2 - 2 1/2 hours a day and have done so for decades. (Between 1990 and 1998, I knapped a measured average of 2.2 hours a day. Range 1.8 - 2.7 hours.). I love flintknapping.

The Importance of Reputation
In his article, "So You Want to Be a Knifemaker?" (BLADE, June '89:30...77), Bernard Levine notes that of the three factors which most influence sales - design, craftsmanship, and reputation - the most important is reputation. Yes, the design must be sound and the craftsmanship excellent, but, among knife collectors, it's your name which is taken as the best indication of a sound investment. That is, one's reputation, ethical stand, and professionalism must be above reproach. So what I'd like to do here is to introduce myself, not in order to toot my own horn, but so you can get to know me a little better, to show you that I mean business, and to assure you of that sound investment.

I'd like to say I am self-taught, for I worked completely alone and without reading any instructional material for the first 10 years. My only guides were the silent ancient original artifacts. But since then, though I did not attend their classes (few taught), I've sat down and had intensive, hands-on instruction from the Master-level knappers - Don Crabtree, Gene Titmus, Francois Bordes, J. B. Sollberger, and Jacques Pelegrin. And that's instruction. And I've read practically everything in and out of print on the subject. And that's instruction. So I owe a debt of gratitude and thanks to these, my mentors. (I've also seen hundreds of other knappers work and learned countless bits of information from them. That's learning too.)

Go to a teacher. Study under him. Take his classes, if possible. If not, then read his works, visit with him, write to him, talk to him. Listen. Learn. Consult with him on future projects and publications. Stay in touch. Then thereafter give him credit for helping you on your way.

Being aware of a teacher far ahead of you, do your utmost to take a shortcut to get ahead of him. Study his work carefully; but either have no direct contact with him or take his courses and put on a front of appreciation. Try to get into print in his specialty before him. Then when you make your tiny mark, make little or no mention of his influence, give him little credit.  EC

Reinventing the Wheel
Those first 10 years were a real struggle. I had to work it all out by trial and error. I didn't even know what the questions were, much less the answers. Sometimes I'd find myself banging away for years, making one mistake after the other, trying to isolate what causes what. As slowly as evolution itself, I eventually sorted most of it out.

All in all, I'd say I spent 20 years working my way through the Paleolithic, Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Woodland levels and another five years working through the Mesolithic - all the while voluntarily restricting myself to replicas of ancient forms. This was my basic training and excellent discipline it was.

During the last 20 years I have been working my way through the complex Neolithic levels, finally breaking through into the unexplored Post-Neolithic territory shown herein. These latter years have also been a real struggle, for once again I've had little to guide me. What do you use for guidance when you're trying to break a new trail into unexplored territory? - Only intuition.

But I don't forget to check my backtrail to see how others are coming along. That's why I offer my workshops. (My students are now learning in one week what it took me the first 10 years to learn on my own.) And that's why I founded the Society of Primitive Technology in l989 and served as President of the Board from 1989-1996.(See Tribute by Steve Watts in SPT Bulletin #14, in 1997.)

Education and its Relevance to Knifemaking
That MA, MFA and PhD after my name do indeed relate to knifemaking, as Steve Shackleford alludes.

"Perhaps nowhere in the business of sharp edges does one's background prepare him so well for his livelihood as does that of obsidian knifemaker Errett Callahan." - Steve Shackleford, Editor, BLADE Magazine SE/OC '87:20.

This means that I have a master's and a doctorate in anthropology (with emphasis in lithic technology and experimental archeology respectively) and a masters in Fine Arts. (My Master's Thesis, THE BASICS, is still a best seller after 20 years and four printings. It's the basics of instruction in my workshops.) In 1992, I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Uppsala University in Sweden for my work on the Mesolithic and Neolithic there. Thus I am now on the faculty of Uppsala University, Archeology Department.

These degrees may not be responsible for my craftsmanship but they have indeed forced me to think hard about design, about historical context, and about field testing my products. Throughout the 1970s, I pioneered the field of "Living Archeology, conducting subsistence projects in which participants lived off the land for from two to nine weeks under primitive conditions. We used stone knives and other primitive tools exclusively, while testing certain archeological hypotheses. When your life and very material comfort depend exclusively upon your stone tools, you learn a few things about function, design, and craftsmanship. So when I say that my knives are functional, I think I know what I am talking about. The knives shown in my catalog are the culmination of all that experience

And Now?
I am in the midst of writing a major book on flintknapping - everthing I know, practically. It's about how Danish Daggers are made. (Working title: NEOLITHIC DANISH DAGGERS: AN EXPERIMENTAL AND ANALYTICAL STUDY - It's addressed to both the archeologist and the flintknapper. This is a 20-year research project in which about 200 daggers have been produced. It has been funded by you, my dagger and knife buying customers, by a grant from the king of Sweden, and by Uppsala University. I am co-authoring it with Jan Apel, a PhD student at Uppsala and a fellow knapper. The book will do for daggers what THE BASICS did for bifaces but will include the final products in great detail and the debitage story too. Keep an eye out for it.

I am also in the final stages of writing a book on experimental archeology - everything I know on that too, another 15-year project. (Working title: THE CAHOKIA PIT HOUSE PROJECT: A CASE STUDY IN RECONSTRUCTIVE ARCHEOLOGY.) Watch for it.

Once the books are behind me, then I can start on my videos.

Over the years I have fought hard for what is ethical in flintknapping. (Yes, there is a sordid side to our history.) I have supported and will continue to support ethical flintknapping causes. And vice versa. You can count on it.

My work is done with the conviction that I can serve best by supporting causes and revealing my so-called "secrets." In fact, I make it my duty to see that my students can duplicate my accomplishments. This may be easier said than done, but that's my goal. I love teaching flintknapping.

Bud Lang, Editor of KNIVES ILLUSTRATED, says: "Errett Callahan (is) a master flintknapper, instructor, etc., a gentleman who makes some of the finest obsidian knives ever created." (KI, Oct. 1998: 4).

(Thanks Bud, but as I clearly state later on, I make no claims at being a master - though I think I am mature. Having worked extensively with the real masters, I am aware of the vast gap between them and me.)

I am available for occasional consultant work related to lithic analysis, archeological reconstruction, private flintknapping instruction, demonstrations, lectures, slide presentations, or similar advisory sessions. But I rarely teach outside workshops which would compete with my Cliffside Workshops. My rate is usually $200/day plus expenses. Let me know if I may be of service.


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