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Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Romance of the Venturesome Trader

I've been looking at some articles by Stephen Briggs and others, relating to the tendency in the archaeological community to build into the story of stone axe trading (and other sorts of trading as well) a romantic story about secret sources and factories in the hills, known only to a select few........

There is of course a large community of specialists who attend Stone Axe conferences and publish specialist papers on British stone axe groups -- of which there are, I believe, almost thirty.  Prehistoric stone implement distributions can tell us a lot about the societies that made and traded items which were sometimes utilitarian and sometimes ceremonial.  But Briggs and others including Olwen Williams-Thorpe have pointed to the tendency to assume that all of the sources were actually known to those who traded them.  They have argued that very many of these implements were simply manufactured -- on an opportunistic basis -- from glacial erratics, especially in eastern England where they were abundant on and in the widespread glacial deposits.  Neither the makers nor the traders necessarily knew where these stones -- their raw materials -- had come from.  They were simply "foreign" or "exotic" because they were from somewhere else........  and maybe that enhanced their mystery and their value too.

But many archaeologists insist that there have to be quarries and factories, just as they insist that the stones used in Neolithic stone settings (eg Stonehenge and Callanish One, to name but two) must also have come from designated quarries which became the focal points of rituals and which were invested with economic value as well.   Look at the works of Darvill, Wainwright, Richards, Parker Pearson, Atkinson and a host of others, and you will see what I mean.  Let's call it the romance of the venturesome trader -- all very delightful, but underpinned by very little hard evidence.

I prefer the rather utilitarian view proposed by Briggs -- namely that prehistoric people operated on the basis of minimising effort wherever possible, and utilising opportunistically whatever suitable raw materials were to hand.  This is not to deny that stone axes were made in many places where suitable rock outcrops were located.  But it does suggest Neolithic society might have been simpler and less organized than some have assumed, and that the use of a Scottish or Welsh rock type (Preselite, for example) for the fashioning of an axe found in Wiltshire does not necessarily imply the existence of a heavily used long-distance trade route between one tribal territory and another.

This romantic vision has of course fed into the vision of the heroic bluestone argonauts who went off and fetched all those bluestones from Preseli so that they could be built into Stonehenge.  Healing stones, the stones of the ancestors, tribute stones -- call them what you will, but there is always the assumption that behind it all lay the romance of the venturesome trader.

Here is a note of some of Stephen Briggs's papers:

Briggs, C.S. 1982.  Review of Stone Axe Studies, Cummins and Clough (eds.), Archaeol. Cambr. 131, 150-153.

Briggs,C.S.1976.  Notes on the distribution of some raw material in later prehistoric Britain', 267-282 in Settlement and Economy in the Third and Second Millenium B.C., C. Burgess, and R.Miket, (eds.), Brit.Archaeol. Rep. 33, Oxford.

Briggs, C.S. 1977.  'Stone axe 'trade' or glacial erratics?' Current Archaeol.  57,303.

Briggs, C.S. 1979.  'The stone of group VI rock from the Lynch Farm complex; a reconsideration', Durobrivae 7(1978), 14-15.

Briggs, C.S. 1988.  'Irish Stone Axes: a Review', Ulster Jnl Archaeol. 51[1990], 5-20.

Briggs, C.S. 1989.  'Axes of Cumbrian Stone', Archaeol. Jnl 146 (1989), 1-43 .

Briggs, C.S. 2001. ’The past and future of Irish implement petrography’, Ulster Jnl Archaeol. 60 [2003], 32-46.

Briggs, C.S. 2003.  ‘A strategy for Raw Materials [for Welsh Archaeology]’, in C.S.Briggs, (ed.), Towards a Research Agenda for Welsh Archaeology: Proceedings of the IFA Wales/Cymru Conference Aberystwyth 2001,  British Archaeological Reports, British Series 343, Oxford , 201-212. [Title and text altered subsequent to submission to IFA].

Briggs, C.S. 2009.  ‘Erratics and re-cycled stone: scholarly irrelevancies or fundamental utilities?’ IPG Conference Website contribution.


And here is an extract from a conference paper presented in 2011:

Briggs, C.S.  2011. Neolithic near-identical twins: the ambivalent relationship between ‘factory’ rock and polished stone implements, in Stone Axe Studies 3, Ch 22, pp 353-360 


An important principle of British-Irish implement provenancing schemes is that ‘grouped’ implements (those given locations of origin to primary outcrop) should share identical lithologies. A brief review of groups I-V, VI, VII and XVIII, however, shows that there may be wide variation in the mineral composition of some. It is suggested that this differential composition enables working qualities in the stone: to allow flaking or pecking and polishing. Flaking is enabled by minerals that determine fissility and perhaps even fragility. Greater durability results from compositions favouring homogeneity within lithic mass that protect against regular cleavage or fracture. This disables flaking potential, making it possible only to peck or polish the stone.

This differential composition may explain distributional coincidences between some glacially re-cycled erratics and polished stone axes deriving from the same country rock. Since flakable stone survives only limited distances from source in ice carriage, the phenomenon of polished stone axes of Lake District origin in E and NE England (and probably elsewhere) appears to be attributable to natural deterministic causes, rather than to human carriage.

This hypothesis can be tested by the detailed re-examination of all the petrographic sections from British-Irish grouped axes.

((Main text omitted here))


In spite of much campaigning over many years to have re-cycled materials examined to the same laboratory standards as the stone implements there is still reluctance to recognise the serious potential of that resource in its contribution to an understanding of lithic procurement patterns in prehistoric times. That such research can also refine an appreciation of regional glaciation and other geological processes has been demonstrated by the Open University team, which is an obvious and welcome exception to this statement.

Unfortunately the quality of data generally available to archaeologists on the background geology to the stone axe trading question is not of a high order. Consequently there still a strong belief among the archaeological public that the detailed distribution and paths of all ice-carried erratics are by now well known or can be reliably predicted. However, although erratics have undergone little petrography, such detailed work as has been undertaken seems to demonstrate that a wide repertory of far-travelled stones was available to the prehistoric implement-makers, even outside those areas conventionally believed to have been glaciated (for e.g.Williams Thorpe, Aldiss et al. 1999).

Time and again, in explanations about the form taken and likely provenances of axes randomly found or excavated implements, the accredited existence of a distant ‘factory’ is given priority over any reasonable deduction that should be made from first-hand observations about the form of the artefact. Consequently, the existence of partial patina or ice-scratching, like that seen on the artefact from Lynch Farm in the Nene Valley tends to be overlooked (Briggs 1979; 1989, 29-30, fig.5; 2009, FIG.13).  This problem was also mentioned (Briggs 1989, 29) in relation to discussion about the provenance of a Group VI axe from Alveley in Shropshire, in which whereas there was a possibility that the stone had been fashioned from local erratic, the accomplishment of its craftsmanship swayed the discussants into conviction that it was a ‘factory’ product (Chitty 1970). In cases such as this, it would in future be useful, if it not in reality vital to a better appreciation of the problem, were provenancing data to be made available on local re-cycled material for comparative purposes.

If it could be satisfactorily demonstrated that the implement workshops of the British-Irish uplands really were places central to organised production involving the long-distance movement of goods, to refer so consistently to the factories at the expense of all the other lithic resources available during later prehistory would seem reasonable and excusable. But the petrographic evidence suggests how the sectioned polished axes are generically freer of epidote than factory flaked blanks on the one hand, and that flaked epidotic prehistoric implements become increasingly uncommon with distance travelled from exposure on the other. Surely, the scientific community ought to be concerned about problems of this sort, and there ought to be pause for thought to more fully assess and investigate, before continuing to promote exclusively the theory of trade?

If a dichotomy really exists between the petrographies of flaked, largely upland-produced implements, and those polished implements which tend to be found at some distance from the factories believed to have produced them, more detailed petrographic descriptions now need to be published, or the nature of the relationship between polished and flaked implements will continue to remain elusive. More exhaustive research on this variable petrography will lend greater credibility to and will strengthen an understanding of the ‘groupings’ in relation to, or in revision of thsose provenances established by the Southwestern Museums Implement Petrology Committee over half a century ago.

Arguably the most important problem yet to be addressed in British-Irish later prehistoric stone axe studies is that of establishing how far natural, rather than human agency affected the form, efficacy and distribution of the implements.

From the limited information presented here, it has been argued that there is now strong evidence for proposing that the flaking and polishing of stone implements is most likely controlled by inherent mineral determinants within the composition of the implement. Although first suggested thirty years ago from first hand observation by the petrologist W.A. Cummins, this line of inquiry still remains largely unexplored.

It is important that when proposing or promoting theories of human behaviour, these should be based upon secure evidence, the data quality of which is agreed among all members of the investigating community.
This question of data quality must therefore be addressed urgently and should underscore all future investigational strategies aimed at provenancing lithic implements. There is clearly a need to resolve an objective research strategem and establish working standards for all aspects of lithic implement study and related evidence development. Re-cycled stone needs to be afforded greater parity with the implements in future investigation programmes as a priority.

The surviving records of implement petrographic sections (as well as  information deriving from geochemistry or other investigative procedures) should form the core of any database, whether developed and available manually or online. This should be the starting point for attaining a sound basis for future lithic provenancing studies.

Future arrangements that may help improve communications among scholars concerned with lithic studies might include the regular circulation or publication of mineral descriptions for implements submitted to the Implement Petrology Group or its partners; thin-section archives should be centralised and open discussion of grouping definitions are needed. Finally, little will be learnt of prehistoric behaviour patterns if any related investigation is pursued in ignorance of all the lithic resources and of any differentiation in petrographic definition, quantitative and qualitative which could lead to ambivalence of interpretation. Without them, the outcomes of so many of diverse efforts undertaken on so many aspects of this study over the last century will remain meaningless to posterity.


Myris of Alexandria said...

Foundered or founded on rock said many of the same things.
Worth reading alongside if just for another polemical style.
I have always thought Briggs to be unrecognised in his own land.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Of course none of this is original -- I dare say many have raised this issue within the 'implement petrology" community....

As for SB, I recognize him in his own land, as I recognize all those whom I consider to be talking good sense!

Jon Morris said...

I prefer the rather utilitarian view proposed by Briggs -- namely that prehistoric people operated on the basis of minimising effort wherever possible

Why then would we argue that the same people constructed a folly Brian? A folly is a construction built at maximum effort which serves no apparent purpose.

If you are correct about the utilitarian nature of the Stonehenge venture and previous constructions, they would have served a wholly necessary purpose in the minds of the people. Such a vast effort would require an imperative of exceptional importance.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Oh I too am a firm follower of Dr Briggs (I sometimes wonder if he be but a cross between thee and me!)

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Jon makes a good point. But Brian and Briggs do too.

”We have a problem, Huston!”.

The Stonehenge dilemma cannot be solved with out of spaces explanations that don't account for all the facts on the ground. Like, ”how did the rhyolite gravel from Wales got to be at Stonehenge?

Any courageous volunteers, Myris, that can answer this simple sensible question? No more "chips" please! Just the fish.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- lay off on the gravel issue. There is a lot of debris at Stonehenge, and some of it revealed in assorted digs is made of rhyolite fragments that appear to have come from Rhosyfelin. They may well have come from one or more destroyed orthostsat. End of story -- for now, at any rate.

With respect to follies, I don't see a problem with the builders of Stonehenge being scavengers, opportunists and utilitarians while at the same time having mad fantasies. Even those who build follies will have their foibles, and they will seek to build them economically with the materials readily to hand.

Jon Morris said...

Even those who build follies will have their foibles, and they will seek to build them economically with the materials readily to hand.

Here's a list of famous follies Brian. In what respect do you think they were built with any sense of economy or using materials at hand?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah, we could go on about follies at great length. i have a fine glossy book about them on my shelf -- we all love the eccentricity of the English (are the Scots, Welsh and Irish less eccentric?) and even the madness of some folly builders, but rare indeed is the madman for whom expense is no object. I bet they all bought their raw materials as cheaply as they could, so as to enable the folly to be even more grandiose then it might otherwise have been.

Jon Morris said...

I bet they all bought their raw materials as cheaply as they could

Many of the most economic stone supplies are from distributors in Wales Brian. So I guess that fits well with the folly theory.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Always top value for money in these parts....... psst! Want a nice cheap bluestone orthostat? I know a man who knows a man who has one......