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Thursday, 3 November 2011

The erratic harvest



I have pasted up a number of posts in the last couple of years relating to the scavenging / opportunistic activities of Neolithic groups who were seeking to do interesting things with stones. Many writers including Aubrey Burl, Chris Scarre, Olwen Williams-Thorpe, Steve Burrow and Stephen Briggs have argued that in the UK and Ireland those who were involved in the building of megalithic sytuctures (eg burial chambers, stone alignments and standing stones) AND those who were involved in the manufacture of stone axes almost always used what was to hand -- and in the glaciated parts of the UK this meant either building things and doing things next to rock outcrops where big and little stones were readily available, or else simply picking stones up wherever they were available in the open countryside -- in the erratic litter.  We can demonstrate this over and again with respect to dolmens or cromlechs, and standing stones.  Nobody went to the bother of carting stones a long way -- instead, if they wanted to build things, they built them right at the place where the stones were available.  Avebury, Carnac, Pentre Ifan, Garn Turne, Waun Mawn, Stanton Drew, etc etc.......

There is a whole branch of archaeology related to stone axes and implement petrology;  this is highly commendable, and it has brought about a creative dialogue between archaeologists, geologists and geomorphologists.  Groups of stone axes were identified on the basis of their stone types (labelled Groups I - XXXII) and a lot of effort went into provenancing.  That meant that people went off hunting for quarries and factories all over the UK in a rather uncritical fashion -- and developed a range of theories about trading activities.  After all, if a group of axes of a particular type was found at locality A, and the rock type was traceable back to locality B, was it not self-evident that there must have been a quarry and an axe factory at A and trading activities which brought the axes to B?  On a number of occasions Stephen Briggs and Olwen Williams-Thorpe and others have urged archaeologists to be a little more cautious in their assumptions of sophisticated trading networks -- and have said that until we know the precise patterns of erratic transport in the UK it is actually rather foolish to assume trading links of any sort, simply on the basis of where axes might be discovered in the field.  I would argue, with these authors, that it is much more likely that axes were simply fashioned where erratics of a convenient rock type were found by our Neolithic ancestors.

This means that we must be much more circumspect in making assumptions about (a) Neolithic quarries; (b) Neolithic axe factories;  and (c) monuments being constricted on ley lines or in locations of high "earth energy" or astronomical significance.

Have a look at these other posts:

10 Apr 2010
 http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.com/2010/04/needed-more-erratic-hunters.html
Stonehenge Thoughts: Megalithic structures -- the big issue
17 Oct 2011

And the relevance for those areas outside the supposed glaciation limit? There is no reason that those who lived in Southern England and who wanted to build with stone, or to make stone axes, would have behaved any differently from their neighbours in the north and west. Whatever their aspirations might have been, their first instinct would always have been to USE WHATEVER WAS AVAILABLE IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD. If they had no handy materials for making good axes, I suppose they might have gone looking for them -- and that is when trading kicks in.

Scavenging, opportunism and utilitarianism ruled -- ritual (whatever that is) came later in the list of priorities.

28 comments:

Geo Cur said...

As long as there is evidence of glaciation then anyone opposed to the idea of long distance transport of stones can use this as a possible explanation , the same can apply to axes sourced from erratics , although almost impossible to prove . However in those areas unaffected by glaciation they must remain silent . A good example of long distance transport of stone axes where glaciation can’t be used as an explanation are the Jadeite axes from the axe factories of the Viso and the Voltri massif in the Italian Alps . Scattered reflcetance spectroradiometric analysis has shown that 30 British axes from Caithness to East Anglia were sourced from these two quarries .Other examples have been found from Malta to Denmark to Slovenia .Whether or not the British axes were moved any distance or were sourced from local erratics the Viso and Voltri axes puts such small scale business in the shade .

Brian , re (c) I doubt that any archaeologists these days even bother commenting on earth energies or ley lines , possibly in the seventies when it was de riguer to dismiss “Druids at Stonehenge “ and Ley Lines in the first chapter . Astronomical alignments were built into the monument as at Stonehenge and Newgrange the locations themselves had no astronomical significance .

BRIAN JOHN said...

Geo -- I'm not arguing that the trading of stone axes didn't happen -- the example you quote, and others, are well known. I'm simply saying that care needs to be taken before jumping to conclusions about quarries and factories.

On point (c) I know that most archaeologists don't take ley lines and "auspicious locations" all that seriously, but there are still plenty of people who do!

And you say: "....at Stonehenge and Newgrange the locations themselves had no astronomical significance." As far as I can see, that seems fair enough to me, so we are probably agreed -- but there are plenty who would disagree with us!

Geo Cur said...

I don’t have a problem with the use of the term axe factory ,after all “workshop “ is used to describe areas where flints were knapped etc . M.B.Fenton defined it as “ centre of implement manufacture on, or adjacent to, the scree/outcrop site from which the blanks
were obtained “
Considering the amount of debitage and evidence of working found at sites like Langdale and Creag na Cailliche the term along with quarry seems reasonable .
It’s not only the distances from the distances and directions from sources that are interesting , often the tensile quality of the transported axe is inferior to that found locally as well as poor quality ( as with some bluestones at SH ) ,many have clearly never been used and like the macehead from Knowth they are obviously not utilitarian .
If it was simply a case of getting an axe locally then the communities of southern and eastern England had perfectly good flint mines in their area which were intensely utilised but they also had axes from North Wales and Cumbria found in the monuments like the causwayed enclosures of Etton , Briar Hill ,Great Wilbraham and Haddenham all unlikely to have been due to erratics being found in their areas .Further unlikely glaciated finds are group XX1V (Perthshire ) found in Bucks , group IX (Co Antrim ) found in Aberdeenshire the ubiquitous group VI found in to the SW of the forth Clyde isthmus and Lincolnshire and the various Cornish sources found in east Anglia .

Tony Hinchliffe said...

Some folk may be interested to know about Colin Richards' research activities (Colin is one of the leaders of the Stonehenge Riverside Project). Go to:-

http://www.manchester.ac.uk/research/colin.c.richards/research

Briefly, he has researched into the construction of late Neolithic stone circles. "In particular, attention is given to locating the quarries from which the massive monoliths are derived and the social processes of quarrying, moving and erecting the stones."

A 'megalithic' quarry at Vestra Fiold, west mainland, Orkney, which supplied stones for the Stones of Steness and Ring of Brodgar, has been investigated and evidence recovered for the quarrying and moving of stones. Also, an associated megalithic tomb at the quarry has been excavated.

Investigations at Calanais (Lewis), Outer Hebrides, have resulted in the location of quarry sites adjacent to several stone circles.

This research is "currently" being prepared for a monograph: "Monuments in the Making: constructing the Great Stone Circles of N.W.Britain.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Then we have the famous "preselite axe factory" which has frequently been mentioned in the literature, presumably on the basis that some axes are made of "preselite" (whatever that is). Of course, nobody has ever found the site of this supposed factory, in spite of many searches, leaving a distinct possibility that it never even existed.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Geo/Brian

So we have stone axes from stone sourced at different locations -- from the Italian Alps to Denmark, etc.

My problem with this is this.

How does the 'source of the stone' logically translate to the 'source of the axes' ?

Why couldn't the stones got to 'wherever' by natural geological processes over very long geological times and much latter be found and used by local people to shape axes? If we make swords in the UK from steel made in China, do the swords come from China? Please explain!

Kostas

Geo Cur said...

Brian ,I am not aware of any of the reputable commentators on axes since the 70's e.g. Clough & Cummins , Bradley & Edmonds etc describe the group XIII axes as being sourced from factories ,.From the 25 groups only 7 are described as factories .

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Geo. Fair enough -- I must make sure that I only read material from reputable commentators in future!

Geo Cur said...

Kostas , the two sources of the Jadeite axes are in the Italian Alps . These axes are found from Malta -Denmark - Britain - Slovenia-Brittany .We cannot prove where the axes were actually made .Can you suggest a geological explanation for their distribution ?

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Geo,

The stone for the Jadeite axes may be from the Italian Alps, but why the axes made from this stone be from the Italian Alps?

As for a geological explanation for the distribution of these axes, try first a geological explanation for the distribution of the stone type these axes are made from.

The idea of “ax factories” I find especially absurd! Factories mean “mass production” and “labor economies”. And “mass production” means markets and commerce and transportation means. Where is the evidence for such well organized economies and social order for prehistoric people?

This is just 'made up' to fit preconceived notions about great capabilities of prehistoric men. It's all circular and incestuous!

More likely, these stone tools were made by individuals that needed them when they needed them. Just like the self-sufficiency and reliance of primitive people now. When they need new arrows, they MAKE new arrows. They don't go to their favorite neighborhood store to buy new arrows!

Kostas

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- don't get too uptight about the word "factory" -- it simply means a place where things are manufactured or made. You could also use the word "workshop" if you like ---- I don't think there is any conspiracy here!

You do have a valid point about the assumed accurate sourcing of "far travelled" stone axes -- that does assume a very detailed geological knowledge of provenances, and we do need to be aware that there may be other provenances as yet unmapped. Also, a lot of stone axe identifications are visual only -- and such identifications may or may not be accurate..... that's a point that has already been made many times in print.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

We have here the 'conspiracy of like-minded people'! Making assumptions based on beliefs and seeing in the 'evidence' the assumptions they make! All understandable, of course!

Points to the need for your blog to help sort this out …

Kostas

Geo Cur said...

Kostas don't forget "Scattered reflcetance spectroradiometric analysis has shown that 30 British axes from Caithness to East Anglia were sourced from these two quarries .Other examples have been found from Malta to Denmark to Slovenia ."
Do you have a geological explanation for the distribution of the axes ?
I realise it may be upsetting but many of the jadeite and other axes found in deposits had never been used as axes .
Whilst they are splendid artefacts they are hardly the peak of the "great capabilities of prehistoric men."

BRIAN JOHN said...

Tony -- been looking at this:

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney
World Heritage Site
Setting Project

-- as fine a load of romantic and fanciful guff as I have ever seen! I wonder who wrote it? by the way, it does say: "The provenance of the stones remains to be absolutely determined and it is not proven that the quarry is the
source of the stones."

On CR's web page it says: "In particular, attention is given to locating the quarries from which the massive monoliths are derived and the social processes of quarrying, moving and erecting the stones. A 'megalithic' quarry at Vestra Fold, west Mainland, Orkney, which supplied stones for the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar, has been investigated and evidence recovered for the quarrying and moving of stones. Also, an associated megalithic tomb at the quarry has been excavated."

That sounds rather more definitive, but in the absence of any evidence it's difficult to say whether those statements are well founded in fact.

Colin is obviously involved in a quarry hunt, but I would really like to see what evidence he has that megaliths have actually been MOVED a good distance from their places of origin; and if there is good evidence, I would like to be assured that the movement was not accomplished by ice.

Geo Cur said...

Kostas , could you clarify the "assumptions based on beliefs and seeing in the 'evidence' the assumptions they make " ?
Assuming that is not your own belief which we have yet to see any evidence for .

Tony Hinchliffe said...

I would think that Colin Richards' investigations have shown that, in Orkney and Lewis at least, the sites that are being interpreted as Neolithic quarries are no great distance from the megalithic monuments that they may possibly have supplied.

Colin also says, on his research section, he was looking into a possible stone source close to the famous Machrie Moor monuments on the Isle of Arran, probably in 2007

Perhaps Colin's publication (mentioned in my comment around 14.00 hours today) is now available. If so, it will surely put "some flesh on the bones" of his necessarily short research interests statement. This is the man who discovered Barn House settlement site.

Does Geo Cur know more, I wonder?

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Geo you write,

“...30 British axes from Caithness to East Anglia were sourced from these two quarries”

Is it the 'axes' or the 'stone' sourced from these two quarries?

Nature is not in the business of distributing axes. Just the stone! Are you questioning Nature?

You write,

“I realise it may be upsetting but many of the jadeite and other axes found in deposits had never been used as axes .
Whilst they are splendid artefacts they are hardly the peak of the "great capabilities of prehistoric men."”


Something is lost here in the translation! Would you mind translating?

Kostas

Geo Cur said...

Tony , the suggested quarry sites for Brodgar and Callanish are not very far from either site 10 Km at least half of which could involve a loch transport and less than 2 Km downhill respectively .Both seem likely to me ,I don't know the Achmore site on Arran .That article was written some time ago and there doesn't appear to have been much of a follow up .Although recent excavations in Orkney have proved to be spectacular .

Tony Hinchliffe said...

Geo

Yes, I think Colin Richards has been "a little sidetracked" with the Stonehenge Team's activities over several years! A similar effect can be seen on MPP's Sheffield University SRP site, which just stops in 2008. We await with bated breath for the SRP's final reports!

CR has also been involved in Easter Island megalithic stuff.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- I have spammed your latest comment. You pretend that the only evidence for Stonehenge being built by Neolithic people is that there are a number of large stones standing in a circle. That is absolute nonsense -- and it is just wasting everybody's time. Please get real.

Geo Cur said...

Kostas , asked “Is it the 'axes' or the 'stone' sourced from these two quarries? “
Both . We don’t know where the axes were made but judging by the amount of debitage at the other factory sites rough cuts were done on site and the final arefact would more than likely be completed /polished locally .
We certainly have no evidence of jadeite debitage or rough cuts in this country so the assumption is that they were manufactured closer to the quarry site .

Try babble fish for a translation .
My Greek is zero ,French and Gaelic are my only other options and I doubt if they would be much better .

Anonymous said...

Brian,

No matter! I was only trying to explain to Geo what I meant by my previous statement. It was not about the evidence humans build Stonehenge.

Kostas

Anonymous said...

aahhhhHH Geo,

Little do you know you know more Greek than you think you know! Do you know 'know' is a Greek word? As is 'is'. And 'school' and 'street' and 'lamp' and 'tree' and 'orthostat' and 'petroglyph' and 'glad' and 'ego'!

Unfortunately, not even Greek can make muddled ideas clearer! Try rephrasing …

Kostas

Geo Cur said...

Koostas ,yes aware of plenty Greek words I don't count that as knowing Greek , BTW did you notice the reply to your taphonomy reply ?

To simplify ,Jadeite axes are often obviously unused .Like many polished axes they are clearly not utilitarian .Despite being beautiful artefacts they are not the pinnacle of the "great capabilities of prehistoric men "

Anonymous said...

Eric,I hope you are listening to this very learned discussion about all things Greek between Brian's guests, Kostas and Geo. Listen to me when I'm talking to you, Eric........

(Greek) Ernie Wise

Anonymous said...

You seem to have an axe to grind about something, Ern.


Eric

Anonymous said...

Eric, do you think we ought to explain to our Guests, Geo & Kostas, who we are, and what our Show's called? I suppose Geo may know, as he's British, but Kostas is from the other side of the Ocean........

Ern

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Ern & Eric

Ok … I am intrigued. Who are you! And why are you following this blab?

Kostas