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Phil Harding has The Last Word

Published: May 2010

With a passion for the past and a life-long interest in archaeology, Phil Harding is probably best known as one of the specialists on Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’. But he will also be a familiar name to our more regular readers, as we featured him in an article in 1996, a time when he was often seen demonstrating his skills as a flint knapper at major craft fairs.

Now Angie Boyer asks Phil about the relevance of traditional craft skills in the 21st Century.

The Heritage Crafts Association is successfully raising the profile of traditional craft skills, including your own craft of flint knapping. Why do you feel it’s important to keep these skills alive? 

Inevitably, these skills are part of our tradition and culture and, just as we fight tooth and nail to keep rare species of birds, animals and plants alive because it adds to the diversity of our world, so too must we keep these craft skills alive. Craftsmen have a life time of knowledge, but it’s all in their heads and hands; we can’t write a book or produce a video to teach these craft skills to future generations, people couldn’t learn that way, they have to be taught verbally and by demonstration.

Some ancient skills, such of those of the potter, are still very much used today, mostly unchanged, often to create decorative, contemporary work which is very different from the functional ware that potters originally made. Do you think other traditional skills could – or should – be adapted to create products more suited to today’s consumers?

I think I’d probably take issue with you on how many potters are renaging on traditional skills, many of the best designs are the age-old designs created using traditional skills. We must never loose sight of our roots or where our skills have come from, but we need to adapt to suit the times. Traditional skills can be used to manipulate shapes to make something that can still be functional, but without a sound knowledge of skills and craftsmanship, you can’t become adaptable.

I’ve learnt skills in the past and later thought, let’s explore what I can do with those skills. As a result I’ve created fascinating, artistic shapes such as cubes and pyramids, that wouldn’t normally be associated with flint, no-one in prehistory ever made anything like them. This certainly hasn’t undermined my skills as a craftsman, if anything it’s probably enhanced them.

From your own experiences as a flint knapper, what advice would you give to people wanting to embark on a career working in traditional craft skills?

For anyone wanting to do a minority subject (and I seem to pick them!), I believe the advice I was given when I went into archaeology is the best: “If you seriously want to do something, then go and do it and do it until you can’t do it any more; and if it doesn’t work out, at least you will have tried.” It’s never easy, but I believe that if you take defeat, you’ll simply carry on through the rest of your life just wishing for what might have been.

If you were to choose a piece of hand crafted work for yourself, your home or garden, either contemporary or from times gone by, what would it be and why?

I know exactly what I’d choose, but I know I can’t have it! It’s a piece that’s displayed in the Natural History Museum in London, the biggest Lower Palaeolithic (that’s Old Stone Age to you and me) Hand Axe from Britain – it’s the most gorgeous piece! It was found in Maidenhead in 1919 and is 125/8 inches long. The quality of the workmanship is amazing, there isn’t a single flaw in the flaking on one side – and the other side is near as good as well. 

And finally, could you tell us about the history of your famous hat please, Phil?

I’ve been wearing hats like this for more than twenty years and didn’t really intend them to be famous, I just wanted something to wear on my head in the cold and wet! There have been three over the years; the first,  in the 1990s, was the Beadwork Hat, so called because it had a band of beadwork that I’d made around it. Then came the Badge Hat that was covered in badges. The one that I wear now took a while to find it’s character, I call it my ‘Bustard Hat’ as it has feathers on it from the Great Bustard, which is the County Bird where I live. 








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