Flint knife

A single piece flint knife worked on both sides. The upper edge of the blade is straight and the lower edge, the cutting edge, is curved. The point of the blade is now missing. There is a handle, or narrow area at the opposite end of the knife with which the piece could be grasped.

This typology of knife continued to be used throughout the history of Egypt, although the quality and style of the fashioning of the flints decreased. They were used since the beginnings of mummification to make the incision in the side of the corpse from which to extract the bodily organs and so allow them to be preserved.

Almost all the cultural material existing in these formative periods has been found in burial sites. These all have great similarities as they consist of a hole in the ground where the deceased is placed in a foetal position and where the dryness of the desert mummifies the corpse and preserves it for eternity. Grave goods were placed around the body. These principally consisted of: jewellery; vases both in stone of many different types and terracotta, in which notable pieces have been found in animal forms; cosmetic palettes in animal and geometric forms and lastly, knives and other flint instruments.

These flint objects were either to be used simply as tools to cut, scrape and perforate, or made to serve as anthropomorphic amulets. In the same manner cosmetic palettes could be either functional pottery pieces or for use in funerary activities. Egyptian artisans developed a refined technique for working flint.

Flint is an impure and compact variety of quartz-chalcedony. It is found in abundance in both Egypt and Sudan in the form of pebbles along the length of the Nile Valley, and as nodules or masses of smaller or greater size in sedimentary rock such as limestone which has been mined at least since the Neolithic period.

The colour of flint varies from dark grey, to light ochre or blonde. It was used in Egypt from the Palaeolithic to the Middle Kingdom. Its use competed with copper in weaponry. Flint was mostly used for arms and utensils such as arrow points, darts, lances, knives, chisels, burins, scrapers and sickle blades, although it was also used to make bracelets and vessels. Due to its magic properties texts mention its use in the making of certain amulets.

It is not necessary to point out the importance of this material in its pre-historic use. However the role it played in the mentality of the Ancient Egyptians as “the stone of preference of the Gods in their struggle against the demons of the Other World” is practically unknown. This ritual role of flint appears in two forms, one material and the other linguistic.

The care taken in the fashioning of flint objects suffered a sort of falling-off: while its use still continued until the Ptolemaic Period, its working became cruder, by simple percussion flaking which was quicker and easier. However, the religious connection continued, as proof of this we have the existence of the word used for flint in the Egyptian language which also means “knife”, and was used by the King of the Gods to defeat demons. It is a “stone used to beat and annihilate the enemies in the underworld”. This association can be found up until the Roman era in ritual texts. So that for more than two millennia, the King or the Gods annihilated the enemy with a “flint” thus adding the stone’s magic character to its efficacy as a cutting object.

Those knives which stand out for the quality of their production are known as “ripple flake” knives. They date from the middle of the 4th Millennium BC. They make up a series of great flint knife blades produced by pressure flaking after initial preformation and polishing of the blade, to create a regular pattern of S undulations on the stone. One side of the blade was left polished and received no further work while the other was worked in the method described. The edge of the blade which is usually straight appears to be more concave in form while the blade itself has a slightly curved appearance. These blades are very thin pieces worked from high quality flint without imperfections.

These ripple-flake knives are considered the high point of flint tool making techniques, and are quite rare objects. Only around 50 of these blades are known to be in existence. This represents a very small number compared with the 15,000 tombs which have been explored. This type of weapon is found especially in burials: very few knives or fragments of knives have been found in habitations.

The real masterpieces are the ripple flake knives with handles made from ivory and worked in bas-relief. One of the most outstanding is the Gebel el-Arak knife in the Louvre Museum. The blade is of flint and the handle of ivory worked in bas-relief (the ivory is either that of elephant or hippopotamus: there are differing opinions about this). On one side of the handle there is a scene of battle and on the other side we find mythological themes. The latter shows the Mesopotamian influence, as it shows the god El, a Semitic god, dressed in Mesopotamian robes, flanked by two lions which symbolize the Morning and Evening stars, both now identified with the planet Venus.


- EATON-KRAUSS, M. et. al. Dawn of Egyptian Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. 2011.
- PETRIE, W. F. Tools and Weapons. British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account 30. London. 1917.
- PETRIE, W. F. Prehistoric Egypt Illustrated by over 1,000 Objects in University College, London. British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account 31. London. 1910.
- TEETER, E. Before the Pyramids. The Origins of Egyptian Civilization. Oriental Institute Museum Pub 33. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago 2011.

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