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

Dear Microburins,

I SEE YOU SHIVER WITH ANTICIPATION?

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

Lithoscapes Mesolithic project receives National Park grant | Radiocarbon dating

LS_logo_web_750wideI am delighted, as a researcher at Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation, to have received full grant funding for a final round of radiocarbon AMS determinations of charcoal samples from the Mesolithic excavation at White Gill, Westerdale, North Yorkshire.

NYMNPAThe North York Moors National Park Authority has provided almost £1000 to allow processing of the samples by the AMS labs at SUERC, University of Glasgow. Seven radiocarbon determinations achieved so far indicate a multi-period activity area in a ‘persistent place’ associated with diagnostically Late Mesolithic artefacts—from at least 5000 cal BC. While the Mesolithic presence at White Gill has been known since at least the mid-20th century, the area has been plagued by largely unrecorded and unsystematic flint collecting and minor excavations (unpublished). The detailed excavation, together with the first reliable radiocarbon determinations for the Mesolithic in north-east Yorkshire, will provide a unique reference point for, and insights into, this period and region—and possibly also for the transition to the early Neolithic.

Image_WhiteGill_samplesThis present and final tranche of three samples, all Coyrlus avellana (Hazel), will allow clarification of a burning event (one of two fire-spots plus a stone-ringed hearth, all with burnt lithics) that have yielded very late dates so far—with a number of possible taphonomic factors and interpretations. Detailed analysis of the flint assemblage, characterised by discreet knapping events across the 20m² excavation area, is still in progress.

Acknowledgements | Thanks are extended to Dr Seren Griffiths for ongoing advice, Dana Challinor for species identification, and Graham Lee, Senior Archaeological Conservation Officer at NYMNPA.

Spence

Ryedale Folk Museum | Archaeology returns

Gallery

This gallery contains 21 photos.

One of my favourite museums in the north of England is the Ryedale Folk Museum in the beautiful village of Hutton-le-Hole on the southern flanks of the North York Moors. It actually sits at the boundary of the high moors—a … Continue reading

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

Teedale

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.

Humber

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 | lithocapes.co.uk

References

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.

Photography, Diplomacy and Grub | 1986 archaeology on a moor in Yorkshire

Dear Microburins.

Danby RiggI was flipping through some old (scanned) pictures from the prehistory of my archaeological past and thought you might enjoy these. It’s 1986 throw-back time, the second season investigating the Bronze Age upland landscape on Danby Rigg in the beautiful Esk valley on the North York Moors.

Aerial photography | On-site diplomacy | Sectioned lunch

The Bronze Age triple dykes subsequently radiocarbon dated to the Viking period, which was a surprise. The Durham University project included re-examination of a Bronze Age ring cairn with a large monolith, proving it to have at least one cremation burial.

Ring cairnThe landscape survey plotted the entire network of field systems and cairns hidden under the heather—certainly one of the most comprehensive surveys of its kind in north-east England, and executed before the advent of GPS or Total Station technology, but we did have an EDM. This was all dumpy level and back-sighting. I’m proud to be able to set up a theodolite in five seconds, while sleeping!

There is a tenuous Mesolithic connection in that, on the long walk up to the moor each morning, Microburin discovered a small Mesolithic assemblage at relatively low altitude. It included some blades and a scraper with edge gloss from processing plant materials, but no microliths. A large Mesolithic core was, inevitably, lying at the bottom of the deepest Viking ditch (residual). It’s a bit like the “token” sherd of Roman Samian Ware (posh dinner service crockery) found most other places, no matter what period you’re digging.

AF Harding Danby RiggHarding, A., Ostoja-Zagorski, J. 1994. Prehistoric and Early Medieval Activity on Danby Rigg, North Yorkshire, Archaeological Journal 151, 16-97.

The plans and sections are mostly mine, but some cheeky rascal got the credit.

Spence

Wild Things 2.0 Palaeolithic-Mesolithic Conference 2014 Abstracts | Lithoscapes posters

wild20Abstracts are now available, including two poster presentations from Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation! That’s Paul Preston and me. There’s an exciting line-up of paper presentations with renowned national and international speakers. And a pub.

IMG_4469Unpicking the Palimpsest: A late Mesolithic upland activity area in North East England

Spencer Carter, Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation | p30

This poster will outline the emerging results from on-going analyses of artefacts recorded during a systematic rescue excavation of a typologically Late Mesolithic upland lithic scatter at White Gill, Westerdale on the North York Moors, UK. The excavation and lithic assemblages are described and evaluated, including unequivocal evidence of hearth features with associated, discrete knapping events surrounding them, artefact associations with flat-stones, and a tentative structure. The early results of the lithics analysis are elucidated and reveal the complex lithic chaînes opératoires including the possible expedient use of legacy lithic material, and the possibility that one of the knappers was a juvenile or ‘apprentice learner’.

WGW2000-conjoining-microlithThe poster will also outline interesting evidence for site “pairing” suggested by lithic re-fits between neighbouring sites in the proximity of a palaeolake, the transport of raw materials, including the presence of finished Pennine chert tools. The project therefore affords a rare opportunity to analyse potential coeval activity and mobility over distance. Being the first comprehensive study of its kind in an area hitherto ignored or largely unrecorded, the micro-scale of the analyses described in this poster provides a keyhole view that not only confirms a rich data set, but also opens up new research questions that allow us to begin unpicking a persistent, palimpsestual, complex Mesolithic taskscape in a largely over-looked period and region. It also highlights implicit warnings about the damage that well-meaning or illicit “flinting” activities can wreak on a fragile archaeological record.

IMG_9690Everything We Know is Wrong? The MESOlithics Project: Charging lithics into the Mesolithic Canon

Paul Preston, Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation | p42

Many researchers have set ambitious goals in attempting to create social narratives from Mesolithic lithic scatters in a landscape context or to derive socio-cultural/stylistic meaning from. While laudable, and recognising the rich debate that emanates from the research, such attempts have been arguably impeded by their reliance upon referential frameworks that fail to integrate adequately their theoretical base with systematic methodologies in support of their conclusions. As a result British Mesolithic studies — and concomitantly the so-called ‘Mesolithic Canon’ — have been hampered by the lack of three fundamental analytical foundations:

  1. a consensus definition of the Mesolithic, its phases and its geographic variation;
  2. an accurate, calibrated, sufficiently granular chronology, and;
  3. an explicitly defined, standardised, replicable lithic analysis methodology and typology.

KnapperThe most important of these is the third: it underpins the other two. However, this issue is especially acute since there are no agreed minimum standards for analysis and there remain a number of incompatible, unsystematic non-technological methodologies. It is therefore difficult to compare assemblages analysed by different lithicists, to derive reliable conclusions from past analyses and literature, and to communicate interpretations with universal clarity. Hence, interpretations tend to be subjective, result in para data rather than meta data, and are difficult to test in a replicable way.

As a consequence, this poster considers best practice in lithics analysis and how it can impact on current definitions of the British Mesolithic and its chronology. It then proposes a way to ameliorate many of the highlighted problems and outlines how a standardised technologically-based lithic methodology—with explicitly defined types, attributes and analytical protocols—can be developed and integrated with current theoretical paradigms.

About the conference

See you there!

Spence