Day of Archaeology | Come up to the lab and see what’s on the slab

Dear Microburins,


doa-noyear-200pxIt’s Friday the 11th of July and the international Day of Archaeology! This is the day when hundreds of archaeologists around the world share their secrets, their pleasures and their work in a blog post (web diary). You can follow it on the website or on the Twitter with hashtag #dayofarch. Why wouldn’t you?

Is that a rod microlith in your ziplock or are you just happy to see me?

My own contribution requires you to observe the Captain’s illuminated seat belt sign, place your tray tables in the upright position and strap yourself in for some Mesolithic turbulence (sic) ahead. I hope you also enjoy the lithicist’s toolkit, clamps, slabs, scales, calipers (digital don’t you know), a protractor and a neat little USB x200 microscope. I also won £1.50 on the illustrated Lotto ticket and I shan’t be sharing.

Mesolithic Spence

Summer reflections | Semaphore archaeology | Mesolithic hazelnut season

SummerMicroburin looks back at summer 2012 fieldwork and forward to autumn activities. The excavation work near Whitby didn’t happen due to the late harvest and other complications—but field-walking, disciplinarian B&B landladies, Mesolithic pollen coring with professional palynologically qualified palaeo-ecologistical botanists, and more Early Mesolithic discoveries in museum boxes—all did. Oh, and some sublime fish & chips from a man who has worked in the chippy since I was a kid in shorts. That’s an awfully long time and an awful lot of battered cod ago, and remains a top-secret location.

When summer’s end is nighing
And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
And all the feats I vowed
When I was young and proud.

From hill and cloud and heaven
The hues of evening died;
Night welled through lane and hollow
And hushed the countryside,
But I had youth and pride.

So here’s an end of roaming
On eves when autumn nighs:
The ear too fondly listens
For summer’s parting sighs,
And then the heart replies.

Selected verses from When summer’s end is nighing by AE Housman

Summer journal | Wettest on record | In no particular order

Themes to inspire:

  • Hand of PeatHow to get a partridge from field to oven – via the sky
  • Edicts from the Lord – of the manor
  • Archaeology by semaphore – with flags
  • Pollen in chocolate cake peat – with flint trimmings
  • Pushing Teesside’s heritage back to the eighth or ninth millennium BP – in-a-box
  • Troublesome students, mapping by sextant, very good morale – with a hint of paranoia
  • Carb calendar date – September 20th is the ripening kickoff for hazelnuts, a favourite focal for foraging Mesolithic folk

Field-walking with Total stations | Semaphore finds

HazelnutsWhile the London Olympics—and the superb Paralympics that followed—remained largely rain-free for the duration, looked upon favourably by a meandering jet stream, the rest of Blighty (Great Britain) was less fortunate. It was indeed a wet summer. Mum had the heating on int’t North and cars became submersibles on several occasions. Andy Murray’s Wimbledon tears only added to an overall sense of moisture. BrambleSo it was a very late harvest. The viability of the proposed geophys surveying and trial excavations—the third phase of the North-East Yorkshire Mesolithic Project—hung on both the harvest timetable and the impending shooting season, not for grouse here, but a veritable car-boot-sale swarm of partridges all hiding under-cover in a portion of the field especially planted with artichokes.

Be thankful you’re not a partridge

PartridgeThe point about partridges—a Microburin favourite needing a very hot oven—is that they somehow have to get from the artichokes into the sky and then down again into the hot oven. The received wisdom is that this is best achieved by hosting a party of rather wealthy people, of the blue-blooded and merchant banking kind (or Lord Mandelson), armed with shot guns, pointing in the right direction (upwards), and somebody running with flails through the artichokes—over a good six month season. Any self-respecting partridge, you would think, would have the common sense not to sit around for that long. And so there cameth an Edict from the Lord. The chap at the very big house understandably didn’t want an anorak of archaeologists (and likely tree-huggers and sock knitters) messing about in his artichokes. Nor do I think a vortex of heritage-hungry volunteers would want to be in the sights of so many double-barrels, if you’ll forgive the pun? So, birds, lordships, artichokes, rain and the late harvest all conspired.

Surveying flagsHowever, all was not entirely lost. Between combine harvesters and bales, a window of a few days allowed the tribe—from Tees Archaeology plus a baking tray of volunteers—to field-walk looking mainly for flints although a few bits of jet were found too. Despite malevolent downpours on day 2, the mission was rather successful. On top of prior geophys results, clear distribution clusters were evident with good indications for Mesolithic activity as well as Neolithic to Bronze Age.


Flag waving | Naval semaphore

Each find was placed in a ziplock bag, marked with a flag, and then surveyed in using a frighteningly expensive prismatic GPS total station—if you were married to one, you wouldn’t let him or her out on their own.

The partridges snoozed oblivious to über-quiet walky-talky coordinate gathering and a bit of flag waving. The hope is to reconvene in the spring to complete the project, corpses allowing and kind lordships permitting.

Waterlogged siteChocolate peat | Pollen nougat | Flint chippings

Dear microburins, if you recall earlier posts, the intention was to drag two doctoral experts up onto the high moors at Westerdale, to extract some pollen core columns from a Late Mesolithic site with flints seemingly situated in the peat. This is a very rare, if not unparalleled situation. Most Mesolithic flint lay at the interface between the peat and underlying sandy mineral soil and so is not associated with the peat—which began to form in the very Late Mesolithic and early Neolithic as the climate became wetter.


Mesolithic activity | Westerdale

The microscopic pollen preserved in peat acts as a proxy indicator that allows the prehistoric environment to be reconstructed and disturbance events, such as burning and clearances, whether man-made or otherwise, to be identified. With luck, pollen sequences can also be dated. Having flint artefacts in the peat starts to provide a direct correlation between human activity and the local paleo-environment.

Lion Inn

Lion Inn, Blakey | April 2012

All this was supposed to happen back in April 2012. The week before was so warm and sunny that T-shirts were the order of the day. It was truly like summer, even above 400m altitude. And then the storm. Powerlines and broadband were blown away. It snowed. And it snowed. The drifts at the infamous Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge were over ten feet deep. And the beer ran out.

Perseverance wins


Jeff (left) and Jim

As luck would have it, it has been possible to amass a column of palynologists—well two of them—a car full of shovels, tins, guttering, ranging poles, tin foil, cling film and a trowel or two. The fantastic local game-keeper arranged for gates to be opened, and off we drove around the head of Farndale on the old ironstone railway trackbed. It’s an awesome drive, dodging walkers, sheep, grouse, but not partridges.


Flint in peat!

Doctors Jim Innes from Durham and Jeff Blackford of Manchester, proved great company. Mum arranged with “certain powers” to have the torrential rain turned off at 11am on the last day of August and, after building dams and removing sticky gloop, flints-in-peat is exactly what we found. We managed to remove four pollen columns with flints embedded in each. Over the coming several months, these will be cleaned, analysed and assessed for AMS dating potential. A sample taken in 2009 about 10m further up-slope dated the base of the peat to the Late Mesolithic (Innes, pers comm).


Water in 3m² trench!

I returned to the site the a few days later to re-clean about 3 square metres of the section and explore a timber fragment protruding from the peat with some vertical birch stems sitting to the side. Over the entire day, thankfully a dry one, the area was cleaned up, planned and photographed. The vertical “stakes” proved to have nice little root systems and so, with the clay laying around, seem to have been growing in a damp hollow—one could see the tiny sections of reeds as black flecks in the clay.


Yellow markers for the flints underneath the timber.

The timber remains somewhat elusive (and is now protected and back-filled). It could be a root, a fallen trunk, but retains an odd profile and rather bulbous right (exposed) terminus, although exposure and erosion (this is a footpath) could account for this. It lay in the peat too and had a layer of flints, mostly debitage but potentially one microlith, directly beneath it. These join about 100 flints previously recovered and are in the process of being catalogued as part of the White Gill and Esklets project. So far, the microliths are only straight backed bladelets (not rods) and the debitage overall is homogenous, with several refits, suggesting little large scale movement of flints since deposition although the site is located on a gentle slope. I’m writing up* the coring and excavation exercise for HER and ADS archives and ready for the palaeo-environmental analysis results as and when those become available.


Gated Road

After this exercise, in mid-life, none of my body parts would function for a week, and I developed a very big and painful spot on my nose (named Jehovah). Back-filling is a moral duty that exacts a heavy price on the physical being. The following day, in lovely sunshine, I was met by a local farmer—sheepdog attached to the back of his trike—who shared his flints, spoke in rich “Nordic” Yorkshire dialect, and whose sheepdog, named Ben, shook paws with me. Treasured moments. We talked to several local picnicers about ancient people, long-gone forests and beasts of the woods. I don’t think anybody would want to upset a bos longifrons?

* Same format as a commercial “grey literature” watching brief / excavation record, hopefully uploaded into the OASIS project repository managed by the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) based in York. North York Moors National Park Authority pre-approved the work (core extraction and section recording) and permission was gratefully received from the Farndale Estate who provided access.

Teesside is older than you think | It is now | Mapping by sextant

Mesolithic Tees Basin

Mesolithic activity in the Tees Basin | North-East England

My earlier post in June offered the first inklings of a suspicion that Teesside—the strangest and not always comfortable blend of industry, sea-faring and natural beauty—might have the first evidence for Mesolithic occupation in the earlier phases after the melting of glaciers over 12,000 years ago. Ironically this harks back to my undergraduate dissertation on the Mesolithic in the Tees Basin, unpublished in 1987 at the University of Durham. Early Mesolithic activity is scant in north-east Yorkshire, excepting the world-renowned Star Carr and Vale of Pickering landscape. Much else undoubtedly sits, moistly, under the North Sea. There are probably under a baker’s dozen assemblages (excepting a few isolated finds of diagnostic tools–mostly microliths*), none fully documented or published, including:

  • Pointed Stone | three sites in the Taylor private collection only summarised by Roger Jacobi in his 1978 article “Northern England in the eighth millennium bc: an essay” in The Early Postglacial Settlement of Northern Europe by Mellars, P. (ed.) published by Duckworth (Star Carr type microliths)
  • Money Howe (Star Carr type microliths)
  • Scugdale area (Deepcar type microliths)
  • Danby Beacon (Deepcar type microliths)
  • Highcliff Nab, Guisborough (Deepcar type microliths, the closest to the Eston Hills)

* If you’re new to British prehistory and flint technology, I’d highly recommend Chris Butler’s Prehistoric Flintwork (Tempus 2005, affordable and widely available) is an excellent one-stop reference. The Mesolithic section is especially useful with a summary of microlith and major tool form typolologies. The rendition of Roger Jacobi’s microlith typology is covered on pages 94-6 and there’s a good summary of Early Mesolithic and Late Mesolithic chronological patterns—including the “Star Carr” and “Deepcar” types.

Roseberry Topping

Roseberry Topping | April 2012

What we can do now is add, with increasing confidence, the northern-most activity area that is immediately south of the Tees basin, on the Eston Hills c. 200m altitude that quite dramatically overlook the Tees Estuary and south Durham coast—perhaps offshore wetlands and forests in the Mesolithic, for which there is published evidence. On clear days you can see as far as the Pennines to the west, and southwards towards Highcliff and the North York Moors escarpment. Roseberry Topping would, as it does today—albeit after historical landslips that precipitated a fine Bronze Age hoard (in Sheffield Museum)—appear prominently in a Mesolithic vista even given heavy deciduous forestation at the time. I guess that’s why it appeared in a recent branded wholesome bread advert on TV last year?


CPE82 | Author’s 1982 finds

Our postulation, in summary, was that a particular assemblage recovered by your dearest Microburin writer in 1982 (site CPE82), contained an Early Mesolithic “Deepcar” type microlith of broad blade form. This is in addition to blades (and virtually no debitage—most stuff seems to show utilisation and edge wear) whose characteristics are not only different to the general Later Mesolithic assemblages but had much more in common with other early finds in north-east England and the Pennines, if not farther north —Clive Waddington’s landscape work in the Millfield basin and the Borders. Colleagues have, meantime, confirmed the microlith typology, and more is to come. Excited? Do please read on.

A lone and gentle mapper | a sensitive man with a sextant


H. Duffy’s map of Eston Hills | Site CPE82 shown as “Sandy Knoll”

A central aspect and enjoyment in any archaeological exercise is researching the activities of our immediate antecedents—the people who have walked the hills and recovered artefacts, here flints, no matter what their interest point. Much of our archaeological record and museum collections bear homage to the wanderings of curious people (by nature and outlook) within the wild landscapes they enjoyed. Historiography—recording these earlier adventures—is as interesting as making sense of what they discovered. From 18th and 19th Century antiquarians who dug barrows for treasure and sought proof of evolution by way of pejorative views on human and cultural development (small flints were made by small pygmy people), to the ladies and gentlemen who have enjoyed their hills and valleys up to the present, all of these explorers have picked up things that have seemed odd. Some recorded their find spots, some still do extremely well. Others leave vague records, but ones that can still build up a storyboard of human presence and activities over millennia. We cannot undo the foibles of our friends in the historical past, only make the best of what they have bequeathed to us.


Duffy’s Late Mesolithic flints | Compare with the CPE82 Early assemblage

Enter Mr. H. Duffy from Redcar of which nothing is known except a box of flints, a map made with a sextant, two diaries and a photograph, all in the Kirkleatham Old Hall Museum*. He seems to be an eccentric gentleman who very much preferred his own company—he notes “troublesome student types” with binoculars (one being of non-caucasian complexion), a vicar, a birdwatcher, nuisance security guards at the ICI Wilton Castle headquarters. His map was completely home-made over probably a decade from the mid-late 1970s to 1984. He also, partly endearingly and partly frustratingly, made up names. He gave street names to footpaths, called the burnt area where most flints came from “The Paddock” and invented “Stonegate Farm” which doesn’t exist as a farm—it’s two stone gateposts (stonegate) and a ploughed field (farm). But Microburin knows the place and gate posts very well. “Rosebay Heap” is where he built a small cairn as his central “datum” point. It was constantly “vandalised” by the wandering youths, poor chap.


CPE82 | Duffy’s microliths and microburin

This was also a time, remembered by Microburin himself, when some devastating fires removed huge areas of vegetation and peat. From the sandy mineral soil he picked up flint artefacts, but unfortunately didn’t plot all the find spots. Nevertheless, his collection provides evidence for prehistoric activity from the Early and Late Mesolithic to the Bronze Age. He also picked up shrapnel and bits of discarded clothing—anything out of the ordinary. He records his moods too, varying from “Felt much better after MGN [unknown: mighty good nap?] and a rest” (Tue 5 July 1983) to “Morale very low… old paranoia again” (Sat 27 Aug 1983). It also took extremely bad weather to put him off.

* I’m extremely grateful to Peter and the gang at Tees Archaeology for allowing me to look at the Duffy archive, make records and take photographs. Peter also kindly provided a scan of the Duffy map.

Early Mesolithic match


CPE82 | Compare Duffy’s flints (top) with the author’s (bottom) | Good match?

In addition to a fine array of Late Mesolithic “narrow blade” microliths—bladelet cores, blades and debitage too—a series of lovely Neolithic leaf-shaped arrowheads plus a very fine, large ripple-flaked oblique arrow, an extremely beautiful and large Bronze Age barbed-and-tanged arrowhead, and wide selection of scrapers, retouched tools and the like (perhaps for a later post)—one particular group of flints stand out. Whilst he didn’t record the exact location, there’s another broad-blade microlith (or two), this time a slightly irregular rhomboidal obliquely truncated blade, with backing retouch on both margins. Again, it has close parallels in Deepcar type* assemblages. This is accompanied by blades and flakes, many with utilisation wear, and microburins virtually identical to my CPE82 assemblage. The raw material, largely white “Wolds” flint and some patinated Drift flint, is all identical to CPE82.

* A quick scan of the literature shows similar examples at Warcock Hill North (Pennines), Oakhanger VII and Wawcott III amongst others.

Mr H Duffy

Mr H Duffy | Nothing else is known about him

As the evidence grows, I don’t think the Early Mesolithic folks were here at Carr Pond very long, at least in this place. It doesn’t so far seem to be a “persistent place” as we have in the high uplands, and as we may have in the Later Mesolithic on Eston Hills and Upleatham. It does not seem to be a spot of primary flint knapping either. There’s little debitage, a majority of used blades and flakes. But there’s enough evidence by way of three or four microburins that they’re perhaps repairing toolkits using blank blades or prepared-and-tested pebbles—you don’t want to be carrying around heavy cobbles of dubious quality, not through forests and scrub.

More to come? | Don Spratt Collection

Don Spratt

Donald Spratt | Original from the Northern Echo

Don Spratt (1922-1992) was an enthusiastic “amateur” archaeologist who spent his retirement years working in Cleveland and the North York Moors with the likes of Raymond Hayes. His most visible achievement, the Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology of North-East Yorkshire, remains a central resource for anybody studying the north-east of England. With friends he recovered and published the Upleatham Mesolithic assemblages and his excavations over many years at Roxby Iron Age settlement, published in PPS, won a major award. A good deal of his Cleveland finds are in the Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough and include artefacts recovered by field-walking on the Eston Hills.

Microburin is heading to the museum next week to follow-up on previous observations that some broken broad blade microliths are present in his collection. The ploughed fields at Barnaby are very close to CPE82. It’s going to be very interesting to see if this adds to the unfolding story of early post-glacial Teesside.

Summer epilogue | “Love” on the beach | Flamborough Head flint


Flamborough Head | Beach messages

The final ritual act of this summer was a visit to Flamborough Head, East Riding of Yorkshire, to scramble around the coves, cliffs and boulder clay in search of reference sample flint pebbles. There’s no problem finding them in the same way there were no problems for our Mesolithic friends. What Microburin found is identical to much of the material from the high moors, but missing some of the brighter coloured material—the reds, oranges, deep browns, pinks and finer translucent flints thought to occur more on the Durham coast. The layer of opaque cream-white flint in the chalk is very similar to the CPE82 assemblage. Interestingly, only very small pieces of stained flint occurred in the glacial till, and some of the larger cobbles that would be considered drift flint look like they’re in a primary deposit or derived from offshore chalk beds in the immediate vicinity. I’m sure there’ll be more on raw material sources in 2013.


Let me leave you with a final picture of more later prehistoric artefacts in the Duffy collection.


Roses and bubbly | White Gill charcoal results just in

rose and champRoses are red, violets are blue, charcoal results mean I really like you.

shy charcoal | incarcerated in Ziplocks®

White Gill IsometricThe 2000 excavation* of a late Mesolithic activity area at White Gill, Westerdale, revealed three** fire-spots, one of which was a stone-delineated hearth. Each is associated with a distinct flint knapping and tooling event, and clearly defined by burnt flint debitage as well as tool deposition—including microliths burnt in the fires. As is typical of high elevation moorland “sites”, burnt patches tend to be ephemeral with bashful charcoal flecks that seem to vaporise just by being stared at. With no discernible stratigraphy in the leached profiles, the lenses of the fire spots sit within the sandy matrix below a layer of sticky black peat that always reminds me of death by chocolate fudge cake. It was fortunate to discover the hearth that had been somewhat protected by the stones around it—an area where stones had been piled up, presumably to create some clear areas that are also respected by the lack of flint waste. This is a place where time was invested in creating “flat-surface” features around which various focus activities took place (e.g. scraping hides and/or wood, boring holes in things, cutting meat and maybe veg), and clearing areas—the placements for tents or huts? But that’s another story.

* 20 square metres of excavation overall.
** A fourth, close by, is assumed by surface collection where a concentration of burnt flint was apparent and where there are close raw material matches with the excavated area.

tell me your secrets | through the keyhole

Image_WhiteGill_samplesEach of the fire-spots was sampled even though it was virtually impossible to recover any chunks of charcoal. You take a soil scrape from the burnt context in lieu of digging up the whole thing and micro-excavating it in a lab, as they did in the West Yorkshire project (Penny Spikins). The charcoal is so fragile that it fell apart if you tried, and I did try. Labeled-up and triple-sealed in ziplock bags, they sat in boxes until Spring this year, holding back their secrets. As part of this voluntary project, lithics without context are just broken stones. Lithics in undated contexts are interesting broken stones that begin to tell a story—provide a through-the-keyhole view of activities at a moment in time sometime a long time ago. Ah, time? Could the charcoal not only fix the human activities in calendar time, but also say something about the immediate environment, perhaps even the selection of wood and tinder, when the only other artefact survivals are the broken stones?

I’m especially fortunate in having had assistance from an archaeological consultancy firm who have just completed the preliminary analysis of the charcoal. The results are mixed, but there’s a chink of light that may take us forward into radiocarbon dating (AMS fine resolution) that itself might just give us the first reliable ageing and, after statistical calibration, calendar dates for this period in north-east Yorkshire (Jacqui Huntley, English Heritage NE). The whole field of radiocarbon aging is full of pitfalls and not for this space yet. One of the biggest challenges is to understand not just the integrity and context of the charcoal, its association with human activity and artefacts, but then to understand exactly what you are dating.

love nuts | like twigs | bad old wood

Bad young oak

Lovely young oak | behaviour gets worse in old age

What you want, in addition to an impeccable archaeological context, are bits of carbonized material—the stuff that charred slowly in the fire—from things that had a short life. Hazelnut shells, being a favourite of our Mesolithic friends, are ideal. Young twigs and wood from plants and trees with short lifespans are also ideal, if rare to find. You need enough that’s big enough to be able to identify the species, and that is often not the case. And then there’s the bad old wood problem. So let’s imagine that the charcoal is from a fallen branch or trunk that was already sitting around for years. And it comes from a tree like oak that itself might be hundreds of years old. Some trees in the wildwood could be older! You’re not dating the fire episode and the human activity around it, you’re dating a very elderly tree. Similarly, dating Medieval buildings, even by dendrochronology (tree ring dating), is problematic if the timber was re-used, like an old ship timber built into a structure.

rose-tinted glasses | old oak blues

Can we have a drum-roll for the results? I said they were mixed, so in reverse order:

  • One fire-spot produced a modest amount of charcoal in a sandy matrix, with burnt flint. However, under the stress of being un-ziplocked, in an emotionally charged moment, it fell apart: nothing big enough for species identification nor dating.
  • The stone-delineated hearth produced the biggest sample with macro pieces of charcoal. The only species identifiable is—you guessed it—most likely quercus (oak, large pores). There may be other species in there, but none can be extracted.
  • The chink of light? The fire-spot that, ironically, was the best sealed (under half a metre of peat) produced a modest amount of charcoal and—a bit exciting—a fragment from the rosaceae family. That’s rose! It could also be ligustrum vulgare (privet) but this is less likely: wild privet has a southern British and southern European distribution and prefers chalky soils; the berries are also poisonous to humans.

HawthornWell, not quite rose. The rosaceae family includes things such as hawthorn, crab apple, sloe, berry plants such as bramble and raspberry—mostly thorned but with edible fruits too. Yes! Even hawthorn fruits are edible, although benefitting hugely from preparation. Ray Mears has produced something called “fruit leather” tasting of liquorice that would last two years—or through a harsh winter | » have a watch!

privet privacy | fruity delight

Crab appleIt’s a shame to discount the charcoal as privet because that does conjure up some interesting pictures in my mind’s eye around headlines like:

“the oldest privacy hedge in Britain…”

from the days before twitching net curtains and shower screens? However, while completely conjectural, it is interesting to consider the possibilities of this being from the rosaceae family of edible fruits. The family is also an indicator species for regeneration and its pollen occurs in the Bramblepaleo-environmental samples from the North York Moors where microscopic charcoal seems to indicate periodic burning of the forests—whether by people or natural wild-fires—and the steady regrowth of the clearances. Crab apple too is not only edible, if very sour unless prepared, but the wood is an excellent material for tools and arrow shafts, once seasoned.

Take this to extreme conjecture, indeed fantasy, impossible to prove—but could the fragment of charcoal be from a crab apple-wood arrow shaft with broken microliths (scalene triangles) embedded in it, after the hunt, and deposited in the camp fire as a blood-tainted or failed or venerated tool? Was it a hunting trip for sustenance and calories, or a competition with the folks in the next camp over the hill? Might it have been from a test for the not-yet-men in their passage to adulthood? As I said, flights of entire fancy, but fun to imagine. However, the burnt microliths from the hearths are all broken, and in roughly the same place, some with tentative impact fractures.

I think they were depositing spent arrow shafts (or tools) in the fires and not just casually discarding them into the flames.

age is how you feel | a date with the mesolithic is a thrill

Realising that “old wood” is a bit of a taboo these days, and I’m one nut short of a hazelnut festival, I’m consulting the experts on the next best steps—English Heritage and radiocarbon dating scientists. However, fingers crossed that there is at least something to start with. This could be the first (or first series) of AMS dates for the later Mesolithic in north-east Yorkshire, outside Star Carr and lake Flixton, and the fish weir/trap at Hartlepool to the north. It’s too early for champagne, but a couple of bottles and a few chocolates did find their way to the folks who became intimate with my samples.

The rose? It sits in a ziplock bag for now!


Away damned typologies | I want landscapes : behaviours : motives

The only way to spot the unexpected is to lay out all the flints!

At this point, if you have no idea what I am talking about, you are probably a dear colleague from my prior life in hi-tech sales operations, maybe working far too hard. But aren’t you curious—about your very ancient heritage?

Which one is the microlith?

Which one is the microlith? Only one has shaved recently.

This has been another weekend unusual for several kinds of weather in the space of a day. I’ve been in the meso-office again after an unusual week for lithic analysis. In short, I have moved away from the White Gill excavated assemblage for a short while, to looking at those recovered as eroded surface finds a few kilometres to the south at Esklets[1]. These are a mix of true assemblages, small groups of a dozen or more flints, a few clusters of utilised pieces and tools in two’s and three’s—in unusual damp places, and so all the more interesting.

This is not the unusual bit for either of us.


Lithoscape | everything laid out

There are essentially two approaches I could take:

  • I could treat each “assemblage” as a separate entity, analyse and catalogue it in isolation to the others
  • Alternatively, I could lay out all the flints, carefully separated (and labeled!) in an attempt to become intimate* with them—meaning that anomolies, patterns, commonalities and differences are much easier to spot

* Richard Bradley famously talked about a mesolithic inclination to ecological relations with hazelnuts, but I am not a proposing anything other than an uber-analytical and research-based relationship with broken stones—behave!

To an analyst, and a mesolithic one at that, I think it also looks quite attractive. White Gill didn’t give me the same aesthetic buzz because it was laid out according to excavated grid squares, although this also allowed patterning to be spotted. I chose the option to lay everything out on 1 inch thick polystyrene insulation blocks that were a bargain at a local DIY store.

So what was unusual about last week? Why did I lose a couple of nights of precious sleep? Well I tell you, it wasn’t learning to use a new macro lens or spiralling out of raster control with Corel® PaintShop photo pro™—I’m not very disciplined at reading the manual (RTFM as they say in IT) and expect things, perhaps unreasonably, to be more intuitive than they are. No, not those challenges.

flint is sexy | red-brown and pink-mauve

Spotted it yet?

Spotted it yet?

It’s only by laying out all the flints—there’s probably a couple of thousand or more—that I made the oddest observation. While a few assemblages are from sites* not far apart, the largest are hundreds of metres apart, and recovered as surface scatters at different times since 1982 through to about 2006. One evening before heading home, taking some joy out of three days of achievement and a fine array of microliths (and the rest!) I cast my eyes over the raw material. As usual for the North York Moors, the majority of flint is across a tiresome spectrum of grey, fawn, speckled, mottled—riverine, coastal or glacial erratic sources. There’s the odd admix of “Wolds” cream-white, the very occasional bit of black-brown chert (more usual in the Pennines). And then there’s the toffee-brown or red-brown flint—generally of fine quality and rather “sexy” to look at, likely also secondary deposits; there’s some occasional pretty pink-mauve stuff too.

But it’s not that common as a rule**, especially the finest translucent reddish sort. It really was time to turn off the lights. However I noticed half a bladelet in one assemblage, and another half of identical colour in another. At this stage I didn’t take note of the site locations. “I bet they don’t fit together” I assured myself. Click—an exact fit! Within a few minutes of rapid checking I realised that the two sites were exactly 170 metres apart.

* I’m using the term “site” guardedly; I would rather say “activity area” or “landscape node”.
** There’s an assemblage from Glaisdale High Moor that has a significant proportion of this lovely stuff.

paranoia | beautiful ziplocks

The evidence

The evidence | honestly better than an episode of CSI Miami (where they show the passage of the bullet)

I’ll spare you the whole story about the anguish and self-doubt that then ensued. Had I messed up when collecting the flints many years ago? Or since? Or while laying them out? I spent the remainder of last week re-checking all the bags, labels, boxes and records. If there’s one thing I have always been clinically paranoid about it is the end to end process from collecting a flint, through washing, individually ziplock-bagging and storing. Indeed, all these assemblages have remained separately boxed and stored.

3D Terrain Map | Km squares

3D Terrain Map | Paleolake to the right, see text later | Km squares

Moreover, the items are listed on cards for their respective sites, and the find dates are a decade apart. There are, of course, other factors—post-depositional taphonomic processes—that could have operated here: walkers along the footpath dropping a piece of flint from one “site” upon another—there are many reasons as to why I think such risks of “pollution” are remote, not least that the two or three “sites” in question were not substantially visible for long, at least in last few hundred years, and one is really only partly eroded and virtually invisible to anyone plodding past. Site 2 in particular was recovered extremely rapidly after heavy winter storms leaving little subsequent surface flint, and Site 1B is only marginally revealed and easily missed.

phone a doctor | prognosis

When an apple a day doesn’t work—phone for help! I have the good fortune to be in touch with Dr Paul R Preston, a gentleman who is beyond familiar with Mesolithic assemblages in the Vale of Pickering (Star Carr) and the south-central Pennines, where his latest doctoral research was focused.

“Should I be paranoid? Has this happened to you? In the Pennines?”

The evidence close up

The evidence | close up | macro lens first attempt!

The answer, actually by email, has been entirely calming, comforting and reassuring. Site “pairing”, while rare, has been noted and is a phenomenon that should be expected. Having an actual rejoin/refit between my two sites is extremely rare, but is not an accident. Closer scrutiny of the Esklets assemblages also shows a few other bits and pieces that substantiate the story:

  • We have the two re-joining halves of a utilised bladelet | 170m apart (Site 1B east and Site 2 west)
  • Site 1A has a scalene triangle (that might be a re-tooled backed bladelet) in identical raw material | 18m east of Site 1A
  • Site 2 has a scalene triangle in the same raw material, but also has some micro-debitage, possibly a couple of other utilised bladelets, in the same raw material
  • Otherwise Sites 1A and 1B have no matching red-brown debitage
  • Sites 1A, 1B and 2 all have a similar microlithic component | scalene triangles as the majority, straight-backed bladelets, a very few micro-tranchet forms and one or two double-backed rods, along with proximal and distal microburins and bladelet segments
  • One small observation is that the scalene triangles at Site 1B are marginally different in style from 1A and 2 (or even White Gill)—they’re more like isosceles triangles with the blunted edges closer to equal in length versus the usual “medium-short-long” configuration
  • Site 1A was around 40 sq metres (1982-96) | 1B is only partially eroded (1996-2006) | Site 2 (1984-86) was a circular scatter of about 4 sq metres with evidence for a central fire-spot (Quercus / oak charcoal) | Recovery of flints included all pieces and even the tiniest chips and spalls

better as a pair | even triplets?

Site pairing has been noted for the earlier Mesolithic as long ago as Roger Jacobi’s pivotal work on the British Mesolithic[2]. Francis Buckley and Pat Stonehouse[3] noted the same in the Pennines. Allegedly paired sites include:

  • Pennines: Warcock Hill South and Turnpike | 19m apart
  • Pennines: Waystone – Hassock 1 and Hassock 2 | 20m apart
  • North York Moors: Pointed Stone 2 and 3 (Jacobi, unpublished in detail)

so what does it mean?

Esklets today | heather moorland, no trees

Esklets today | heather moorland, no trees | across site 1A to 1B facing east (2010)

The possibility is surely that these two or three “sites” or activity areas were occupied at the same time, perhaps for different purposes, by the same group or family, or by different groups who came together in the same area, one summer-autumn between 6,000 and 9,000 years ago. Alternatively, was Site 2 exploited for discarded or “cached” flint after its abandonment, taken back to Sites 1A / 1B in hard times? Analysis continues! As mentioned, Site 2 yielded some oak charcoal that may be submitted for expensive AMS aging/dating (although “old wood” problems are noted—where you may be dating a piece of timber already a few hundred years old, in the case of oak).


Esklets back then? | might the paleolake have looked a bit like this, with some oak, elm, lime and alder? | Carr Pond, Eston Hills (2010)

Interestingly, Dr Jim Innes of Durham University (pers. comm.) has noted a paleolake—or at least a modest, long-standing pool—in the vicinity during paleo-environmental investigations over the last few years. Diatoms and open-water indicators show an area of standing water over millennia. Here too the late and venerated Raymond Hayes, doyen of north-east Yorkshire archaeology, recovered a couple of assemblages, effectively on the lake edge, in the mid twentieth century[1]. The 3D terrain map, above, indicates how close it was to the present Esklets activity areas.

equipotentiality™ | toward landscapes : behaviours : motives?

It was reading Dr Preston’s thought-provoking paper Cache and Carry: lithic technology and Mesolithic mobility[4] that has helped shift my own mind away from categorisations and typologies—artificial normalisations that mask variation, patterning, function and the potential for artefact biographies.

I have deeper and richer things laid out on my tables than a corresponding table of artefact types in an archaeological report or, dare I say, a passive chaîne opératoire flowchart in the appendix? How do I present the real complexity and nuance—empirical observations as well as conjectural?

White Gill apprentice piece

White Gill apprentice piece | a rushed scalene triangle that breaks all the rules, or a juvenile’s practice on a bad piece of flint?

By example, is the conjectural apprentice microlith from White Gill a rushed, informal scalene triangle on terrible flawed flint that so does not conform to the mental template norm as we perceive it might be, or evidence of juvenile apprenticeship and the transfer of know-how? My belief that we can engender and populate the Mesolithic, and that localising it is not necessarily a taboo, means that restrictive typologies constrain—you wouldn’t see the apprentice piece in my lithics table because I made a judgement about what it was intended to be and its closest interpreted best fit—how much are we missing?

In a soundbite, I personally read equipotentiality as:

the expedient re-use / re-tooling / curation / caching of resources and artefacts, of which flint is but one, the most durable ahead of roasted hazelnuts—reflecting the relative ease or difficulty in procuring the raw materials (e.g. availability, accessibility, distance, quality) in the context of social factors and behaviours (e.g. mobility, territoriality, ownership, exchange, value, reciprocity, spirituality and memory in a dynamic landscape of persistent and memorable places, significance of topography, phenomenology, perception and risk.

While we span thousands of years here, climatic, environmental, and commensurate resource changes—perhaps sometimes rapid and generational—are also at play. Britain becomes an island with rising sea levels, and wetter too with the formation of peat bogs, and forests get denser with questions about how and where mobility operated (through river valleys?)

Importantly, if I understand the model, equipotentiality may involve a change in the function of an artefact or different treatment of an existing blank flake, from its original mental design template or indeed the use of “waste” material—garbage.

By example, a way-back flat-mate of mine used to use pan lids as platters when all the plates were unwashed in the sink. It was a pan lid one day, a plate or dish the next. Similarly, cutlery became multi-functional. None got washed up, so I moved out. But this is a change in function (and the exploitation of) a pan lid contrary to its original role to speed up cooking—the pan lid has a biography. It came close to becoming a weapon.

In the Mesolithic, the presence of “combination” tools—tools for multiple functions on the same blank—may represent not one expedient use of a blank, but its adaptation and changing function over time; similarly microliths as a “composite” tool – plug it in, take it out (like drill bits), may have had multivarious functions; it’s only the lack of reliable microwear analysis and overlaying of functional evidence that frustrates/tantalises us—plus microwear analysis is slow, arduous, inexact, multiple-attribute-based and a pain in the proverbial butt to do—but it can provide exceptional surprises!

the evidence | re-fitting for purpose?

While analysis of the Esklets and White Gill assemblages continues, it is noteworthy that the Esklets Site 1A scalene triangle, that features in this story, may be a re-tooled backed bladelet, because the terminal retouch is much cruder than the norm. As composite tools, microliths may have had many functions beyond that of projectile armatures. A few scraper rejuvenation flakes, definitely not core platform trimmings, are also present. Re-use of cores as scrapers is complemented by some expedient combination tools and likely imported items—very long and long-used utilised blades (heavy use wear and gloss) and “exotic” raw materials (chert).

Furthermore, at White Gill there seems to be a greater proportion and diversity of tools, many exploiting primary and secondary blanks versus conforming to the standard mesolithic toolkit templates. Here there’s also an investment in durable features—flat top working surfaces, seat/anvils, areas cleared of stones that were piled up, and a stone-delineated hearth. Overall, the volume of expediently utilised pieces (bruised edges and some gloss) is more than you tend to gather from legacy reports. There’s notably less debitage than one would expect overall, perhaps more debitage from tertiary re-tooling, with more informal tools at White Gill along with a significant diversity of raw materials with few re-fit sequences—these are all attributes embodied in the equipotentiality portfolio of distinct and varied activities, a spectrum of constraints, behaviours, choices and evolving practices. Above all, high elevation assemblages are definitely not all equal!

If nothing else, I suspect this overall shift in thinking might call upon us to recover, record, engage with, curate and question a dataset comprised largely of broken stones, in a more creative way. New thinking needs new questions, recursively.

if you don’t get it by now | lithoscapes

This is one of the most fascinating periods in the occupation of our recent islands, by function of being one of the least well-preserved, explored or understood, where most evidence—artefactual and ecofactual—is gone, segmented, or interrogated incorrectly. I’d only ask how well and questioningly we are interrogating what does survive. Do we want general mush in neat tables or specific intimacy, specificity, insight and empathy? I honestly believe we can do so much more with the data we have, certainly the way we present it, and the things we might look for anew. My frustration is that there is no overall holistic / systematic approach to these things:

  • How we deal with vast existing archival data | and accessibility to it
  • Assemblage analysis and consistency | terminology, categorisation, metrical consistency at detail and summation levels
  • Guidelines about how to engage with or archive an assemblage analysis | i.e. future proofness
  • Absence of a joined-up approach to raw material characterisation and reference

This list extends, and our model-oriented analyses are inherently heuristic in a way that negatively influences the way we record, archive and curate our data.

integrity of the data record | meta vs para

And therein is a constant challenge, if I also understand this ambiguous terminology correctly. As archaeologists we aspire to metadata as an empirical acquisition and recording of vanilla data that can be stored and used for many or any purpose—now and forever. The output can often be paradata, that is, the result of selective, interpretive and judgemental processes that, by proxy to our own views of significance and world-experiences without the empirical “core data” backbone, are not durable when it comes to full academic scrutiny. I’m still chewing this over in the work I am doing. I suspect most archaeologists are and do too?

Woof! You can also post your views on the Mesolithic Miscellany Facebook page, gently.


Any naivety and all opinions posted here are obviously of my own construct.

selective references

[1] Wilson, P. R. (1988) North-East Yorkshire Studies: Papers by Raymond H. Hayes, Yorkshire Archaeol. Soc. RAS monograph.
[2] Jacobi, R. M. (1978) Northern England in the eighth millennium bc: an essay, in Mellars, P. (ed.) The Early Postglacial Settlement of Northern Europe: Duckworth.
[3] Stonehouse, P. B. (1992) Two Early Mesolithic Sites in the Central Pennines, Yorkshire Archaeol. J. 64, pp 1-16.
[4] Preston, P. R. (2009) Cache and Carry: lithic technology and Mesolithic mobility, Internet Archaeology 26,