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Daggers, Knowledge & Power -
The Social Aspects of Flint-Dagger Technology in Scandinavia 2350-1500 cal BC

Jan Apel
Anthropological Sciences Department
Uppsala University, Sweden
May 2001

In this dissertation, I argue that the social structure of the Late Neolithic societies in Scandinavia was more complex than previously thought. An investigation into the production of flint daggers indicates the presence of formal apprenticeship systems based on lineage or clan membership. The selection of apprentices was based on hereditary principles and, thus, the craft was institutionalized, suggesting a fairly complex social structure. This conclusion is related to a theory of symbolic economy presented by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Accordingly, the main social function of Late Neolithic families was to reproduce privileges through the generations by applying hereditary principles.

This thesis investigates how the organization of a traditional technology corresponds to the degree of social complexity in a sedentary, agrarian society. It concerns two main subjects:

  1. The ways in which the division of labor and the use of prestige technologies are related to the social complexity in traditional societies in general. This discussion concerns theoretical aspects as well as questions and observations made during controlled flint-working experiments.
  2. The role that the production of elaborate flint objects played in the transformation of segmented organized tribal societies into chiefdoms, which allegedly occurred during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods of Scandinavia. For this purpose, the production and consumption contexts of flint daggers are investigated.

I define technology as a system of artifacts, behaviors and knowledge that can be transmitted between generations and is thereby integrated with other aspects of social life. To acquire sufficient technological knowledge, I collaborated with an experienced flint-knapper, Dr. Errett Callahan. During two summers, at the Historical Research Centre in Lejre, Denmark, and at Uppsala University in Sweden, several stages in the production of flint daggers were defined. Thus, an understanding of the skill and time invested in the making of flint daggers was achieved.

These results were subjected to a "châine-operatoire" analysis. This method is rooted in Durkheimian sociology, where body techniques, even those that seem to reflect biological aspects of humanity, are regarded as learned in social contexts. This implies that the study of gestures concerns subjects such as anthropology, archaeology and sociology. Two important concepts form the basis of my investigation of the social aspects of flint-dagger technology: (1) knowledge (connaissance) and (2) know-how (savoir-faire). These terms define two fundamental elements of a distinct, neuro-psychological nature that are involved in the execution of all gestures. Knowledge has an explicit and declarative character and can be communicated, i.e. it can be spread from teacher to pupil by word of mouth, signs or written language. Know-how is an unconscious memory that springs only from practical experience and is intuitive, connected to body movements and can only be learned by practical repetition.

During the experiments, the gestures involved in each dagger-production stage were graded according to their relative degree of knowledge and know-how. Some stages were based on simple knowledge, in the forms of “recipes for action,” and a very low degree of know-how. Other stages demanded a fair proportion of knowledge and an enormous amount of know-how. It took years of practical training to coordinate muscles and applied force in a way that secured the desired outcome.

According to an explicit theory of practice suggested by Bourdieu, human institutions, such as domestic groups, are vehicles by which “symbolic capital” is transmitted. In this context, symbolic capital is defined as any ability or asset that is considered by a group of people as being valuable. Another term, “habitus,” is defined as a form of embodied symbolic capital, i.e. individual dispositions such as the spoken dialect, taste in music, etc. that are formed by social contexts. Thus, dispositions for different practices are regarded as shaped by social factors and not as signs of natural abilities or intelligence. Terms such as “symbolic capital” and “habitus” thereby give social meaning to the reproduction of technology and its role in Late Neolithic communities. Since the family is the main producer and reproducer of symbolic capital in traditional societies, it makes sense to regard prehistoric technological traditions as transmitted vertically within lineage groups.

This suggests that the craftsmanship involved in the production of flint daggers was handed down through generations within a form of apprenticeship system based on hereditary principles, i.e. that the trade was inherited within clans or lineage groups. The logic behind this reasoning is twofold. First, in such a system the time needed to transmit know-how through the generations made the principle of kinship the most convenient mechanism for recruitment. Second, flint and manufacturing skills were valuable assets that stimulated some form of limited access and thus regulations of group membership.