Hardback: 224pp

Published: Eye (September 2024)

ISBN: 9781785634086


Joanne Bourne


A lithic love letter

‘Vivid, personal, upbeat – makes you feel her happiness’

Maggie Gee

Joanne Bourne has been in awe of flint as long as she can remember.

It was all around her where she grew up in Kent: used for garden walls, to edge drives and weight dustbin lids, as well as to build pubs, churches, Roman villas and castles. For centuries it was the only building stone available.

It is also magical. Made from the remains of plankton and sea sponges, it is second only in hardness to a diamond and can be used to make fire. Part of human development for three million years, it was used as a weapon to hunt and in war, and hung as protection against thunderbolts and fairies.

In a deeply personal love letter to this extraordinary ‘biogenic’ rock, Bourne traces its geological, architectural and social history and invites us to roam with her in search of it on her beloved North Downs.

Fusing science, poetry, history and a profound love of landscape, this is her heartfelt, thoroughly persuasive tribute to the stone she calls ‘an art project of the great divine’.



Autumn had come late to the Downs that year and the leaves hung tawny and bleached green on the trees. The day was still; a minuscule shift in the air currents brought them down around us in eddies, as we walked – Frank Beresford and I – up a flint track on a pale November morning.



Autumn had come late to the Downs that year and the leaves hung tawny and bleached green on the trees. The day was still; a minuscule shift in the air currents brought them down around us in eddies, as we walked – Frank Beresford and I – up a flint track on a pale November morning.

Frank Beresford was a retired schools inspector from West Wickham. We had met just once, that summer, at the Lithic Studies Society in London, at an afternoon talk on the artefact-logging systems of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

We were the kind of audience that shuffled in and nodded where necessary before fixing on the speaker or our feet. But that day the president, in a burst of embracive enthusiasm, asked that we each introduce ourselves and declare our area of interest. When my turn came I kept it brief, telling the group about my fieldwalking, the flint tools I had logged and the Neolithic settlement I had roughly mapped on the upper slope of a river terrace on the North Downs. What might have been truer to say was that I was a 54-year-old woman with a rock problem, but it was not a confessional, and anyway, we all had our issues.

Frank Beresford’s, it turned out, was handaxes. Frank was writing a report on the Palaeolithic tools of the Upper Ravensbourne valley; an axe had been found locally to me by a 19th-century antiquarian, and Frank said he’d be keen to join me fieldwalking, should ever I happen to be over that way, to get a feel for the landscape.

And here, some months later, we were.

I had grown up on these Downs, on the opposite side of the valley. I still live in the village where I was born, which is mostly happenstance and suggests a continuity that’s by no means true, but that is one of the great blessings of my life. From my house I can see fields and the small copses that stretch away to the wooded ridge that defines a wide horizon. I walk the Downs all the time, but not these woods and fields in my immediate view, which are farmland and mostly out of bounds.

The track we were following – a hollow way worn to mud and stone by footfall and washed deep in the middle by rain – runs at right angles from the valley floor up to the ridge, after which it doglegs down into the next valley. The fields on either side of the track have no paths across or round. A warning to trespassers on a sign close to the entrance stile and again, farther up the track, must have put the local dog walkers off. The couple of times I’d ignored the sign and walked the fields after ploughing, I’d turned up nothing for my trouble. Not even a decent nodule. I’d noted them as archaeologically sterile and geologically dull. Anyway, some places just feel wrong if you’re alone. It was years since I’d walked this way, so I was happy to be exploring afresh in Frank Beresford’s company.

The find spot of the axe Frank was studying was a small chalk quarry near the southern tip of the wood where we were headed. Frank was certain it came from the clay overlying the quarry and was unearthed as estate workers dug down to get to the chalk to use for fertiliser or to make lime for mortar.

The axe was now in the British Museum stores – part of its vast back-room flint collection. Frank showed me a picture on a printout. It was magnificent. Deep-toffee-coloured flint had been knapped – that is, shaped with a series of carefully aimed hammer blows from another rock or antler piece – into a round-topped kite-shaped axe that would fit into the grip of a large man’s hand.

Its date – based on others of its type – was around 420,000 years Before Present. It meant that no Sapiens had made it. The hand that knapped the tool belonged to Homo heidelbergensis, a species of human that lived 800,000 to 300,000 years ago – becoming extinct around 100,000 years before the Sapiens lineage emerged on the African continent.

I have held tools not touched since they were discarded 5,000 years ago in the late Stone Age. I have gathered flint flakes struck by Neolithic knappers on the banks of long-dead rivers. I’ve found fossils worn smooth by ancient human touch. But I have never held a tool made by another kind of human. I asked Frank if he’d had the axe out of its storeroom case. He said he had. I wanted to ask what it felt like to have it in his hand, but that was at once stupid and personal. Stupid because it probably felt like nothing; personal because if it did feel like something, that was between Frank and the hominin.


‘If you like walking through the English countryside and the deep history of these isles, you will adore this vivid, personal, upbeat book about the hundred varieties of flint gleaming just under our feet. It’s an archaeologist’s love letter to a landscape trampled by prehistoric elephants, bears, boars, Romans, Saxons, Romanies and modern picnickers. Joanne Bourne makes the reader feel her happiness as she spots in a wood or on a chalk beach yet another shape or colour of the ancient stone that obsesses her, or as a Red Admiral butterfly curls its tongue for the salt on her arm’

Maggie Gee

Flint is a beautifully written love letter to the history and mystique of a stone that has shaped human civilisation for millennia. Joanne Bourne’s enchanting narrative and personal anecdotes bring to life the magic and enduring significance of flint in a way that is both educational and deeply heartfelt’

Alastair Humphreys

‘Joanne Bourne writes beautifully and convincingly. I liked it very much and learned a lot’

Liz Trenow

‘A unique, well-informed and enjoyable read that puts a new slant on this wondrous material from prehistory to the modern day’

Nick Card, director of the Ness of Brodgar




Joanne Bourne

Joanne Bourne is a writer, photographer and archaeologist, born and raised on the North Downs of Kent, where she still lives. She has combined a career in publishing with archaeological fieldwork, excavating Neolithic and multi-period sites in Dalmatia, Libya and Orkney, where she has spent nine summers with the Ness of Brodgar team.  

Her great love is the chalk downland of her native Kent and, when she can, she spends her free time walking and photographing the seasons of its nature and wildlife.

Her book Jake’s Bones, written with the young bone collector Jake McGowan-Lowe, was shortlisted for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize. She is also the author of The Maps Book, published by Lonely Planet Kids in 2023, which was shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Children’s Travel Book of the Year.

She is a member of the Folklore Society, the Lithic Studies Society and the Geologists’ Association.

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