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Sunday, 20 September 2015

Were Rhosyfelin fragments used as tools?



I was chasing around for information on lithics and stone tools used in the Neolithic, and I came across this piece on Mike Pitts's blog from the year 2011.  Interesting.  He suggests here that rhyolite is rather useful for the making of tools of various kinds -- especially for cutting things -- and that maybe some of the Rhosyfelin rhyolite found in the Stonehenge debitage is associated with tool-making either in conjunction with orthostat destruction or with tool manufacture at Rhosyfelin itself.  This is something I have suggested before, many times, on this blog.  The illustration above comes from his blog, and presumably shows various rhyolite chips and flakes up to 5 cm long.

Pitts on rhyolite chips and flakes...

https://mikepitts.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/bluestones-on-news-at-ten/

"One of the distinctive features of the rhyolitic rocks is that they are flinty – they have a good conchoidal fracture. That makes them relatively easy to break up, if they are standing as monoliths at Stonehenge. But it also makes them pretty good for making tools, or portable artefacts of some kind. There are plenty of flaked bluestone “tools” in museum collections from Stonehenge (some of them from my own dig, as illustrated above, from my PPS report). Which of these are made from debris created when stones were dressed on site? Which are made from broken up megaliths? And which were made in Wales and brought to Stonehenge by people visiting, perhaps on a pilgrimage of some kind? Clearly the distinction has important implications for how we understand Stonehenge.

These are questions that future research can answer, through excavation in Wales and at Stonehenge and study of the debris – that we can do this is a reflection of the quality and utility of the new research. Ixer and Bevins identified five groups of rock amongst the rhyolitic pieces they studied, of which three (by far the bulk of all they saw) they have matched to the Pont Saeson outcrops. There is one buried stump at Stonehenge (stone 32e) that they say could well be from Pont Saeson (to be confirmed), but the four standing rhyolitic stones are different. One of the latter (stone 48) belongs to one of the two very rare classes that Ixer and Bevins identified, which have yet to be matched to a source. One way excavation at Stonehenge would help us, is in allowing modern identification of the stumps and other bits of megaliths at the site.
"

Wiki:  In lithic stone tools, conchoidal fractures form the basis of flint knapping, since the shape of the broken surface is controlled only by the stresses applied, and not by some preferred orientation of the material. This property also makes such fractures useful in engineering, since they provide a permanent record of the stress state at the time of failure. As conchoidal fractures can be produced only by mechanical impact, rather than frost cracking for example, they can be a useful method of differentiating prehistoric stone tools from natural stones. .............  A swelling appears at the point of impact called the bulb of percussion. Shock waves emanating outwards from this point leave their mark on the stone as ripples. Other conchoidal features include small fissures emanating from the bulb of percussion.

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This is all a nice idea, but it's worth making the point that there are no -- or very few -- conchoidal fractures in the Rhosyfelin foliated rhyolites.   The fractures are not curved and crescentic, but tend towards being straight and flat.  Just take a look at this photo of rather typical splintered or shattered fragments from the rockfall debris on the flank of the crag:


In my discussions with visitors to Rhosyfelin we have had many duscussions about whether fresh flakes and slivers, either picked up or knocked off the edges of exposed rock surfaces, or even knocked off orthostats at Stonehenge, would make desirable and valuable tools for cutting flesh, skinning animals etc.  Some of us think the foliated rhyolite is rather soft to be used for long-lasting tools, and others disagree.  Edges are certainly very sharp indeed.  Maybe such flakes were so abundant that they could be treated as disposable items, rather like plastic knives are used as cheap substitutes for knives made of Sheffield steel?

This is an interesting dilemma, which maybe needs some input from lithics experts.  What do others think?

31 comments:

Myris of Alexandria said...

The reason we have nomenclature is to avoid such elementary errors.
You are showing photos of joint faces. They are not fractures.
Joint blocks and struck flakes look and have little to do with each other.
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

Come now Myris. Wiki says: "A fracture is any separation in a geologic formation, such as a joint or a fault that divides the rock into two or more pieces. A fracture will sometimes form a deep fissure or crevice in the rock." Fractures always happen on lines of weakness. Stands to reason. Joint planes are surfaces of weakness. What we see in the pic are fractures that have occurred on intersecting joint planes.

More to the point, have you seen any conchoidal fractures in Rhosyfelin rhyolite? Or are the foliations and joint planes so dense that if you strike the rock that it simply fractures along those weaknesses?

Myris of Alexandria said...

Glad you have asked that.
The answer is that the flaked debitage does have sub conceptual fractures, ever since Gowland, read the Edwardian literature, the debitage has been described as STRUCK, it is a shame that you (and Kostas) have not handled/seen any debitage,some looks like small joint block look at the pet rock boys illustrations in the SH48 knock off paper but many show all the classical signs of a structurally homogenous material being forcibly struck.
A large Cryf axe head from the 2008 excavation is I think on display at the Stonehenge centre.
Since Cryf is not a quarry and all the rock breakage are natural it is quite quite disingenuous to compare its litter to worked debitage.
So RTBL, RTBEL, go and see better handle the artefacts. Become a competent lithics person before interpreting them.
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

I'm not interpreting here, Myris. I'm asking a question. I'm not doubting for a moment that a lot of the debitage consists of struck flakes and fragments. Whether ALL OF IT is struck is another matter -- neither you nor anybody else has got enough evidence to make that sort of statement.

So now Rhosyfelin is not a quarry and all the fragments there are natural? But there is a worked axe at Stonehenge made of Rhosyfelin foliated rhyolite that has conchoidal fractures on it? Now I am really confused......

Is there a picture of this wonderful axe somewhere?

chris johnson said...

Not having a reputation to loose, in this field at least, I can afford to make remarks from time that an expert would leap on to correct, astounded by my ignorance. So please do, in this case, I am eager to learn.

I have worked as an amateur on a few sites being catalogued and done a lot of field walking with people who know what they are doing. Everything I have seen so far tells that the stone age folk were casual about using and discarding their stones. Where they lived for any period of time you tend to find hundreds, if not thousands of "tools" and waste product of tool making in the tens of thousands. This is the case even when there is no local supply of stone and stone found can be provenanced to fifty or a hundred miles away. Stone for tool making was carried around and left around casually it seems, perhaps they were thinking to return next year to pick up where they left off.

Now the curious thing to me about Prescelli, and actually Pembrokeshire in general, is that "tools" are incredibly rare. I have never found one piece after years of walking and looking, and what I have seen in museums is interesting but not spectacular. Carmarthen museum is a case in point.

Had the Nevern valley been intensively inhabited in Neolithic times I would expect to see tools all over the place in great abundance, especially given the amount of raw material everywhere. It is not flint, but quite suitable for mesoliths, scrapers, borers, etc. At Rhosyfelin the mesolithic surface should have been littered with stuff and as far as we know it was not.

Where were people living in Pembrokeshire in the mesolithic/neolithic?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Perfectly valid point, Chris. I think I am reporting things correctly when I say that, according to MPP at his lecture the other day, there are no tools, scrapers or even knapped flakes or microliths found thus far at Rhosyfelin. We can assume that they have been searched for with incredible thoroughness........

Geo Cur said...

"Where were people living in Pembrokeshire in the mesolithic/neolithic? "

Unlike monuments , evidence for early settlements are thin on the ground ,possibly due to the mobility and use of wood which would need excavation to confirm ,as opposed to the later use of stone as found in hut circles etc .
In Pembroke multiple finds of Mesolithic/Neolithic lithics on Caldey Island and in the Castlemartin area .Lots of individual finds throughout the area .

Dave Maynard said...

From my time running up and down the farm at Poppit, I came across about 20 pieces of flint, both flakes and tools over 20 years. This being beside the sea, would be an ideal Mesolithic location. Ploughed fields usually gave nothing up, it would normally be mole hills or cattle scrapes, after they had been weathered a bit.

When walking on the Preselis, I don't give a thought to finding anything. In my view, the chances of finding any prehistoric flint is pretty low, even in areas where it may commonly thought to be, including Rhosyfelin.

But after saying that, I did casually find a petit tranchet flint arrowhead on the surface of a track on Gower last year. The trick is to blank your mind out and enjoy the experience, if they are there, they'll be unavoidable.

Dave

BRIAN JOHN said...

There was reputedly a Mesolithic tool-making site on the Nevern Estuary, near Parrog. And a very famous site on Nab Head (name derived from Knap Head?)....... as Geo says. quite a few other sires as well -- but nearly all on the coast, I think. I recently published a map of the main sites.

Geo Cur said...

Nab Head looks like a tautological place name i.e. Lawhill , Hillmountain etc .Nab means rocky projection or headland quite common on Yorkshire coast .

TonyH said...

My brother lives very close to where an amateur archaeologist lives who is rather well known in the St David's/ Fishguard area. He has found many things whilst fieldwalking, e.g. axe heads and gold items, the latter on the sands on the mainland near St David's and Ramsay Island. He appeared on a BBC programme in which Brian fronted things, and Hugh of the Ten O'clock News did the commentary. Don't recall this local man's name off - hand, but have got photos of some of his ?Bronze Age gold items, probably from Ireland.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Roy Lewis is your man, Tony. Know him well -- he and I used to do things for the National Park, back in the Stone Age.....

chris johnson said...

Tony, I would like to know more.
Please don't mention the G word. My life is plagued by detector people who are only interested in lucre. They would cheerfully arrive on a weekend with a couple of hundred shovels and CrF would be done and dusted in no time.

TonyH said...

N..P. Figgis, in his "Prehistoric Preseli: a field guide", Revised 2010, 1st published 2001, has some astute observations on the presence and finding of Mesolithic sites, pages 7 to 13. orth a look. Price £10.99.

TonyH said...

Saw the TV programme via my brother 10 to 15 years ago. Haven't met the guy Brian knows, who lives near Trefin, but my brother has had conversations with him. Somewhere I have a press article about the guy's discovery of a very old prehistoric axe in the general St David's/ Fishguard vicinity.

chris johnson said...

@Tony.
Just tried to find the Figgis book. I do recall buying and readng it - maybe I left it in Tenby.

Can you say what you think he is observing?

Myris of Alexandria said...

Nobody who has seen and handled the debitage has said it is all struck, although I suspect it all has. Most is too small to say much about. A few show an outer weathered surface and fresh interior mainly the dolerite.
There is a photo of the axe rough out, it was sent to lithic experts for their opinion. But like my homework, the computer ate it! And one of the lithic experts is now dead and the other is in exile in France, you cannot make this up.
It was taken away by the lovely lady who set up the display for the Stonehenge Centre.
Someone rich or local could take a look.
M
Please no more talk of the CPRF or everyone will want to dip in. It is I fear being used for other Wessex work. (There must be an anti-minor royal joke or gossip).

BRIAN JOHN said...

CPRF? Not for the first time, I am lost.......

BRIAN JOHN said...

Council for the Protection of Rural France?

Myris of Alexandria said...

Constantine XI Palaeologos Porphyrogenitus Research Fund or CPRF for fun.
Founder has a statue outside Parliament in Athens.
Oh! do keep up.
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

OK -- will do my best, although CPRF is not exactly up there with BBC, WTO and LOL......

Myris of Alexandria said...

Don't be silly have you seen the CPRF charter, board of trustees, CEO.
It makes Blatter and cronies seem like the Little Sisters of the Poor.
But as a major sponsor nobody is talking.
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

Hey -- sounds intriguing...... Take your chance, Myris! Blow the whistle and become famous!

T said...

Chris. My laptop computer is giving me the heebie - jeebies!! (an expression taken from a South Seas tribe discovered living under the floorboards of the UCL, Myris will confirm), so I am not able to easily type in what Figgis says about the Mesolithic and the Preselis, even a precis. I suggest you ask your local friendly library staff to give you a sight of it - or even Brian, who no doubt still has a copy.

For the same reason, Brian, I'm unable just now to enlarge on the Things We Never Knew About Stonehenge, in particular that it may never have been completed, as stated in Oct 2015 Current Archaeology.

TonyH said...

Chris (and also Brian) Because my computer is giving me the Heebie - Jeebies (a South Sea tribe found living under the carpet of the UCL archaeology dept - Myris will confirm), I am currently unable to enlarge on what N.P. Figgis says about Mesolithic human activity in Preseli, quite a bit of which relates to Brian's "patch" around Newport.

I would recommend people, especially in Pembrokeshire, go into their local libraries because this book should be easily obtainable for reference or to borrow there.

Myris of Alexandria said...

UCL does not have an archaeology department but has The Institute of Archaeology, far grander, far more wonderful but not overendowed with carpet. Good views of Bloomsbury from the staff co-mingling area, that is where naughty archaeologists are carpeted.Impressive library too, slightly more difficult to get into than the bullion rooms at Johnson Matthey.

M

TonyH said...

Yes indeed, Myris, I had to use "shorthand" because of my errant computer's behaviour. I did know about UCL using a much - needed Institute to confine its over - imaginative archaeologists, there is,however a hospice on Dartmoor at Princetown which might also come in useful for those with severe flights of wild goose fancy....

Myris of Alexandria said...

Going Bodmin? Proper job.
M

Hugh Thomas said...

I have found a piece of flint at Banc Llwydros , it is roughly an inch and a half long and has a serated edge. I showed it to MP Pearson and he showed it to one of his experts at the dig in Felindre Farchog. She confirmed it had been in use a long time ago and they wanted to know where it came from, it feels great to have such a piece.... :)

chris johnson said...

Hi Hugh,
Yes it is really fun to find a piece of flint that was used so long ago.

Where I look there are many thousands found. Currently on a Neanderthal site we have over 500 pieces recognised as artefacts, and only gathered from the top soil as the farmer will not allow archaeologists to do any digging. From mesolithic times there are literally tens of thousands either in private collections or languished unexamined in university repositories - actually so much is found already that there is not real need to find any more until we studied what we already have.

My puzzle in Pembrokeshire is that so little is found. A guy like yourself who loves walking the wild country should have a substantial collection by now had Pembrokeshire been intensively inhabited in the stone age days. I think is was NOT - on the evidence or lack of it. This makes it improbable that it was a place of great significance for Stonehenge people. All speculations you understand.

Hugh Thomas said...

Hi Chris

After walking over 800 miles in Preselau I actually DO NOT have a large collection of artifacts from the area,
A big piece of black beach flint found at Banc Llwydros
A flint blade also found at the above ( I sent images of this in the email to you).
A piece of a Ww2 aircraft found on the plain north of Carn Goeddog
A very nice piece of fossilised wood/bark , this was found below a small waterfall in the big northern slope gulley that pours into Ffos Dyrysienog .
What may be a hand tool , a nicely rounded piece of rock that sits beautifully in the palm of the hand with percussion damage at one end, this was found near the big ring feature west of Cnwc Y Hydd up slope of the farm at Gernos Fach , my archaeologist cousin looked at it and said "That is a very nice find"....
So no I do not have a large collection like that ,but what I may have is possibly the largest photographic collection of images of the hills anywhere built up over 6 years , there are now few places I have not visited at least once... :)