Bits of Old Stone | Lithics workshops for Community Projects

Dear Microburins,

OldStone500This is the third post in a trilogy reflecting recent activities. This one really makes me pinch myself to realise just two-and-a-bit years ago I was stepping away from a career as a senior manager at Cisco Systems leaping through the fiery hoops that were business process improvement, sales operations and customer services—across 83 countries, 23 time zones and operationally accountable for over $800M of annual bookings (gulp). Now look at the state of me?!

Old stone | New tricks

The Joy of FlintI was thrilled, back in February, to be invited by Kevin Cale to deliver a prehistoric lithics workshop for an after-school kids group and then for a local community group about to engage with fieldwork to gain a deeper understanding of their area. Kevin is a well-known Community Archaeologist supporting diverse projects across North Yorkshire. I’ve always loved imparting knowledge with enthusiasm, but these would be my first such sessions (probably since university in the late 80s) to an audience. That said, I did give a short presentation to the Teesside Archaeological Society about my Mesolithic research and excavations last year. However, teaching about stone tools—flint, chert and the like—is quite a different knapping event—without knapping on health & safety grounds. Indeed, the remit was less related to the rendition of flint tools, at which I am a keen amateur, than explaining how lithic technology can tell us about our past communities, their lifestyles and environments, within dynamic landscapes, over millennia and—more to the point—as a prelude to archaeological fieldwork.

I’m also very grateful to Clive Waddington (Archaeological Research Services Ltd.) for allowing me to use, adapt and distribute as a handout, an excellent diagram from his book (see Recommended Reading, at the end of this post). Proceeds from the sale of this book go towards maintaining a public trail in the Millfield area of Northumberland.

The audience

DogKennelLane“Understand your audience” is always the mantra. In this case, the first session was with a group of seven-to-eleven year olds in an after-school session known as the HOP Club—Hand on the Past—a fantastic Heritage Lottery-funded project run by Kevin. The second session was for the Boroughbridge & District Historical Society whose community venture, the Dog Kennel Lane Project, is coming together. The first episode of fieldwalking kicked off the weekend after the lithics workshop and flints were recovered. At the end of the day the two sessions were not that different and the same materials (and principles) worked for each. Each session lasted about two hours.

A Special Landscape

Glaciers500Being a native of North Yorkshire, despite subsisting for two decades in central London, I was already aware of the very special landscape these two groups are located within. The Vale of Mowbray (and Vale of York) is a vast flat plain between the east-facing Pennines and the south-westerly flanks of the North York Moors and Howardian Hills. Boroughbridge sits close the confluence of two major Pennine river drainages—the Swale and the Ure (Wensleydale) that join the Nidd to become the River Ouse which then flows through (sometimes over) York towards the mighty Humber estuary. These rivers were major transit corridors throughout prehistory. The vale was entirely glaciated in the Late ThornboroughDevensian with ice flows from the north, the Pennines (limestone-based cherts), Lake District (igneous rocks) and Scotland—it would not have looked dissimilar to the illustration here. Moraines and related glacial features persist, barely masked, in today’s landscape. In the early post-glacial and into the Mesolithic, with a climatic optimum around 5000 BC (and almost impenetrable deciduous forests), this area would have been a resource-rich “wetland” (or “washlands”) with kettle-hole lakes and rivers. Glacial tills, boulder clay and riverine gravels are especially important in understanding the raw material available to the prehistoric inhabitants of the area, more so when it is found “out of context”. To the east, glaciers dragged flint (and more) from Scandinavia and the bed of the North Sea and trapped huge lakes in the Vale of Pickering and Teesmouth. We find all of this in the archaeological record.

CBA174Into the Neolithic and Bronze Ages this was a very special place indeed. Only a few kilometres away is the immense ritual landscape comprising the Thornborough henges, cursus, pit alignments, stone alignments (the Devil’s arrows) and burial mounds. Jan Harding’s new book Cult, Religion, and Pilgrimage Archaeological Investigations at the Neolithic and Bronze Age Monument Complex of Thornborough, North Yorkshire (CBA Research Report 174) places recent investigations into a regional context.

With local evidence for human activity from at least the Early Mesolithic (there are cheeky hints of possible epi-Palaeolithic late glacial meanderings) up and around the river valleys and kettle holes, the scope for what the community might recover in their systematic fieldwork, where every find is GPS recorded, is tremendously exciting.

But how does one know what to look for, whether it is natural, what it is, how it got there, what it was for and how old it is?

The Turnip and Potato Game | Reversed Technological evolution?

Potatoturnip500Engaging the kids, who already had a grounding in the “Three Age System”, was not as difficult as I envisaged. However, Kevin and I were determined to knock a couple of misconceptions on the head (not literally): that prehistory = cavemen/women and that stone tools are inferior. Preparation for the latter involved a lovely half hour of flint knapping in my back garden at home using huge nodules collected on a beach near Hartlepool in January. A 5kg nodule produced an equally impressive giant core after flake and blade (and finger) removal.

Spalls flew in my face like shrapnel and ricocheted over a vast area! I only lost one finger, since darned back on.

Metal is better than flint?

Cutting500We kicked off with a game. Whilst a volunteer butler laid out my picnic dinner service, the kids were each given a potato or turnip, plastic knife and paper plate. Napkins were available but seemed incongruous. Each then had to try cut the end off one of the vegetables. It took an age for the first prize to be awarded. Timber500Technological ‘advancement’ has yielded plastic cutlery. What would be better? A metal knife? I demonstrated: it was faster but still a slow sawing process. And then, behold the flint flake. My potato end parted company with its body in only two sweeps of the gleaming infinitely-sharp edge. It was like Zorro on steroids.

There was a time before plastic and metal…the flint blade made a swishing noise not unlike the automatic doors on the original Star Trek. – Captain’s Log, Star Date 2014

Dinner500Point proven (limbs retained, no first aid needed)! We then looked at other technology for which stone tools are either comparable in success—or even better than—their metal counterparts. Bronze, for example, easily blunts and one has to wait a few thousand years for the advent of iron, longer still for steel.

The Generation Game

DKL_WorkshopThe HOPs Club kids were asked to bring along a photograph of at least three generations of their family, preferably four if a great grand parent was around. The concept of time depth and chronology is a very difficult one to deal with, especially when we’re travelling around 12,000 years to the last glaciers. Then, on a 6m role of wrapping paper unrolled over four tables, we drew out a timeline from the photographs back to 12,000 BP (50cm per 1k years). The kids added both “BC” points and “BP” (even though that’s AD 1950 in radiocarbon terms—a minor detail) so we could relate the two. We then assumed that about four generations represent a century and, with wizard maths skills, added how many generations each 1k years represented—that’s about 480 back to the Early Mesolithic post-glacial. While big numbers, I do think this personalises time and, it certainly showed across the tables, the vast tract that is the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer-fisher period. We then laid out real artefacts and replicas—a real hands-on exercise—from an 18th-century gunflint right back to Early Mesolithic microliths and and a tranchet axe. The same wrapping paper was used for the adult session later that evening—very successfully.

It was rather gratifying to pass over the entire Medieval, Early Medieval and Roman periods with a certain contempt for their short duration.

Hertzian Waves

Jewellers_LoupeIn the end we didn’t get time to play the Hertzian Waves game, despite careful choreographic planning. This game was supposed to demonstrate how Hertzian forces work on a dense siliceous material like flint when one hits it. The game was to be an around-the-room chain of children, a front kid gently bashed with an antler, a linked-hand Mexican wave motion flowing around (a bit like shaking a hosepipe) and a giant-sized blade made from foam-board springing of the side. In the end the foam-board blade worked in both sessions to show the morphology of a humanly-knapped blade and the nomenclature used by lithicists (distal, proximal, ventral, dorsal, platform, and so on). The kids all had jewellers’ loupe magnifiers too so that they could look for the characteristic signatures of humanly-knapped flint: a platform, bulb of percussion, ripples, dorsal scars, edge retouch, pressure flaking.

The End Game?

Gunflint500If there was a finale then it was to show that flint use persisted until very recently. A gun flint and firelighter flint demonstrated that raw materials and technology “do not age” when they are entirely fit for purpose. And obsidian, the sharpest material of all, is sometimes still used for its prowess as a cutting material—even in modern surgery I hear?

2am slot

Crewsell Crags (by kind permission)Image | Upper Palaeolithic flint tools at Crewsell Crags.

After both sessions were completed, a quick drive back from Roman Aldborough (ISVRIVM BRIGANTVM) to the hotel (Best Western in Boroughbridge, a fine value-for-money establishment) and before indulging in a round of sandwiches, I sat with a local landowner and businessman to look through his lithics. His fields are very close to the A1(M) and the pit alignments recorded in Jan’s book. There was a resplendent presence of every period from the Late Mesolithic and some whopping pieces that wouldn’t look out of place at Crewsell Crags (I dropped in on the way back) that hint at possible Early Mesolithic (if not earlier) human presence on the side of a palaeochannel visible in aerial photographs. Needless to say that the landowner intends some more fieldwalking and, perhaps, shovel pits (with sieving) under Kevin’s guidance.

To see such fascination with local heritage alongside a deep care to record it in the correct way is, most certainly, the greatest reward for any archaeologist and lithicist. All speed to their feet and elbows!


Recommended Reading

  • Handbook of British Archaeology (2008) by Roy and Lesley Adkins and Victoria Leitch
  • The Joy of Flint: An Introduction to Stone Tools and Guide to the Museum of Antiquities Collection (2004) by Clive Waddington
  • Prehistoric Flintwork (2005) by Chris Butler
  • Schools Prehistory website and blog | Resources for History Teachers

#FlintFriday | Do you Tweet? Join this weekly ritual

If you’re a Twitterer and ‘into’ archaeological lithics and flint, why not join the weekly #FlintFriday celebration of beautiful flint—as well as good fieldwork, recording, curation and sharing? Do you have a favourite in your local museum or archive?*

This week’s latest from @microburin



*Please always ask permission to take photographs, and a scale is useful! Always report finds to the landowner (who remains the legal owner), the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and Historic Environment Record (HER) or seek advice | See useful contacts and links »

Remember: if an artefact isn’t accurately recorded, it’s lost its context and much of its meaning for everybody else.

Raw beginnings | Lithics from landscape

Building a Lithics Raw Material Reference Collection

Dear microburins,

Lithics Raw MaterialsI’ve set myself a little extra project for 2014 in between storm surges and pluvial interludes, in an attempt to get outdoors more often, into the beautiful English landscape, leaving the loupe magnifier and calipers in the lab. One of the fascinating aspects of Mesolithic research in northern Britain is the potential offered by a huge diversity of lithic raw materials present, to differing degrees, in early prehistoric chipped stone assemblages.

NYM Assemblage diversity

High level view of lithic diversity in Late/Terminal Mesolithic assemblages, North York Moors uplands. The unusual stuff is at the top. This gets even more interesting when one looks at the earlier Mesolithic and lowland river valley assemblages.

Natural Roughage

Flamborough Head

Flamborough Head

Natural geology, exposures and erosion, yield flint, cherts and other lithic types that were exploited in early prehistory—the period after the rapid melting of the glaciers that scoured most of our landscape until around 11,000 years before present (BP). Glacial boulder clays, tills and gravels have carried lithics huge distances from their primary sources—agates, quartzite, porphyry and other knappable or modifiable materials added to the array. Rivers and marine turbation subsequently move materials through the seascape and landscape into secondary deposits, some still accessible, others masked by later alluvial and colluvial sedimentation. Rising sea levels have also removed some primary sources from human reach, causing changes to past procurement strategies.

What’s your flint like, then? “Well, it’s browny-grey, greyish brown, beige, a bit fawn, more grey than off-grey, blackish but also deathly white, reddish pink, gingery-orange, yellowish-green, a bit rough, shiny sometimes, cherty, when its not smooth, speckled, mottled, blemished, streaky—nasty-but-nice.” I’m glad I asked.

Un-natural agencies

Durham Coast

South Durham Coast

All things are seldom equal. The third dynamic in this story is, of course, human agency. The most obvious, and closest, raw material source for the manufacture of stones tools—as we might see it today—often contradicts what we find in the archaeological record. Lithics move long distances in various forms: nodules and pebbles, pre-tested cores ready for reduction, pre-prepared blade and flake “blanks” ready for transformation into a variety of finished tool forms, and finished tools ready for the job in hand, all of these sometimes “stored” or cached for later retrieval—we find them because that intention was not always realised.

River Swale

River Swale at Topcliffe

When one looks at the natural agencies that yield raw materials, the source locations, native geology, the detail of glacial advance and retraction (and unglaciated areas), offshore geology—it’s more than evident that raw materials are often many tens, sometimes hundreds of kilometers from the places where they enter the archaeological record, and that these patterns seem to change over time. If extrapolated as a proxy for human mobility in a changing environment from the tenth to fourth millennium BC, tundra to dense woodland with extreme climatic interludes from time-to-time (like the 8ka event that lasted a couple of centuries, windy, cold and dry; the odd tsunami), a fascinating picture emerges.

Not From These Parts


Upper Teesdale

By small example, considering the Mesolithic lithic assemblages of the North York Moors and catchment areas, some hard truths must be grappled with:

  • Flint and cherts are not present in the natural base geology; the closest primary deposits are in excess of 40km to the south from the chalk deposits of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds and offshore east of Flamborough Head, chert-bearing limestone deposits in the Pennines are more than 40km away too.
  • The uplands south of the River Esk (entering the North Sea at Whitby) were not glaciated in the last Late Devensian glacial episode, and so there are no glacial deposits in the immediate vicinity.
  • Glacial movements were from the east across the North Sea and south and south-eastwards from the Pennines down the Vales of Mowbray and York, each leaving boulder clay, till deposits and a characteristic post-glacial topography.
  • Hence flint and occasional erratics such as Chalcedony-Agates occur along east coast beaches, but with differing north-south characteristics; Pennine-derived cherts in river gravels and till 20km or more to the west, in the upper reaches of the Tees and Wear Valleys, or in primary outcrops some 40-60km or even more distant; some characteristically stained flint may derive from Humber-Trent Basin gravels over 100km away.

    Meso Scraper Chert

    Mesolithic black chert scraper from the banks of the Tees, Wynch Bridge Upper Teesdale, with Tim Laurie

  • Not all lithic material is equally suitable for knapping/working: there are choices to be had. Flawed flint, for example, is extremely difficult to work consistently and predictably (time spent knapping); nodules of varying size and quantity are present in different locations (time to procure, energy to transport); cherts similarly have differential “knappability”; quartz and other materials do not fracture conchoidally. Furthermore, are there additional “choices” being made around raw material colour, texture or even source (memory and significance of place)—there are some North York Moors assemblages that comprise a greater proportion of brightly coloured flint such as deep reds—happen-chance or preference (sensu Cummings 2011). “Blood red”?

So what are these raw materials, often present only as finished tools (e.g. chert without knapping debitage), doing on top of the North York Moors? How, why, where and when were they being procured—perhaps even being exchanged?

Raw Research

Upper Esk Valley

Upper Esk Valley

Little of what I am writing here, in brief, is especially new although the detailed, metrics-based scrutiny of Mesolithic assemblages as part of my own research is adding granularity and opening up some interesting questions.

The luxury that lithic raw materials afford archaeologists in northern England, by virtue of their range, variety and multiple sources—some conflated, others distinct—is well recognised and has formed the basis of many dynamic, sometimes conflicting, seldom concluded arguments (Lovis et al. 2006; Barton & Roberts 2004, 349-50).

Flamborough Head

Glacial till above the chalk cliffs at Flamborough Head

Many researchers, past and present, have been frustrated in their endeavours by enduring challenges such as an on-going inability to find distinctive, reliable geo-chemical signatures (e.g. from Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry) that tie raw materials to precise primary or secondary source locations, recognising some progress with chert sourcing, e.g. Evans et al. (2007). There is, for example, no commercial driver (oil, mineral or potash prospecting) that would focus secondary attention on the karstic deposits that contain flint and chert. Compare this with the archaeological and geo-morphological advances that have successfully leveraged geological prospecting on the North Sea bed and Doggerland over the past three decades.


The vast Humber Estuary

Additionally, inconsistencies in identifying and cataloguing raw material types in both archival records as well as formal publications (as recognised by Young 1984; 1987;  and Spratt 1993) leads to only generalised observations and likelihoods. Lastly, and acknowledging the biases involved in analysing contemporary primary and secondary sources, a systematic recovery and descriptive regime over time, space and sample, might add objective comparative data around the yield of, and accessibility to, different resource locations as a working benchmark.

A Year Outdoors

Yorkshire Coast

East Cleveland Coast

And so, dear microburins, off to the wonderful shorelines of the east coast of Yorkshire, Cleveland and Durham I head, from the Humber to the Wear by way of Holderness and Filey. The Vale of Mowbray beckons, with the washlands of the rivers Swale, Ure, Nidd and Tees towards the upper reaches of the Tees Valley with its dramatic outcrops of Whinstone sill—the same igneous event that extends to the Northumbrian Farne Islands. Look out for a kindly chap with either multi-coloured buckets or a deer hide back-pack, a stopwatch, GPS, geological hammer and my favourite tweed cap. Oh, and always a trowel. Two, in fact.

Limpet or I shootAnd it would be great to take some friends and volunteers along too!

Spence |


Barton, R.N.E. & Roberts, A. 2004. The Mesolithic period in England: current perspectives and new research, in A. Saville (ed.) Mesolithic Scotland and its Neighbours,339-5. Edinburgh: Soc Antiquaries Scotland.
Cummings, V. 2011. A view from the outside: some thoughts on the research priorities for Mesolithic and Neolithic lithic studies in Britain and Ireland. Lithics 31: 68-77.
Evans, A., Wolframm, Y.B., Donahue, R.E. & Lovis, W.A. 2007. A Pilot Study of 'Black Chert‘ sourcing and implications for Assessing Hunter‐Gatherer Mobility Strategies in Northern England. J Archaeol Science 34(12): 2161‐2169.
Lovis. W.A., Whallon. R. & Donahue, R.E. 2006. Social and spatial dimensions of Mesolithic mobility. J of Anthrop Archaeol 25: 271-274.
Spratt, D.A. (ed.) 1993. Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology of North-East Yorkshire. CBA Res Rep 87. London: CBA.
Young, R. 1984 Potential Sources of Flint and Chert in North-East England. Lithics 5: 3-9.
Young, R. 1987. Lithics and Subsistence in North-Eastern England. BAR British Series S161. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Lithics Studies Society | Journal 33 2012 now out | Why not join?

Lithics33The latest journal, No. 33 for 2012 is just out, and sexy. Why not join the Lithic Studies Society?

Flint and stone tools have been manufactured and used since the earliest times and arguably they represent the world’s oldest technology. The Lithic Studies Society was founded in 1979 to advance the international study of lithic industries, and particularly flaked and ground artefacts, in the broadest possible context. Member’s interests are diverse, spanning Palaeolithic to historic periods across many areas of the world. The Society provides a convivial forum for the exchange of ideas and information.

The Society has over 350 members from four continents. Membership is growing steadily, and they are always delighted to welcome new members. The Society is open to all who have, or would like to develop, an interest in lithic artefacts of any period. Members receive:

The membership year runs from 1st October to 30th September and the journal Lithics is published annually. The AGM takes place in October and all members are welcome. Individual rates are £15.76 (including 76p PayPal levy).

Search for Mesolithic campsite continues | NE Yorkshire Coast | PastHorizons News

Microburin Goldsborough flint findenjoying lithic finds during 2012 fieldwork at Goldsborough near Whitby on the north-east coast of Yorkshire.

Could this be the site of another Howick or more?

Discover more | Past Horizons article 17-Dec-2012 » | UK Mesolithic Sites and Finds

PastHorizons homepage »

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,