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 asChalcedony-Agates occur along east coast beaches, but with differing north-south characteristics;Pennine-derivedcherts 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 some40-60km 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!



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

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