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? 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. 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?
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 | 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 | 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 | 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. Francis Buckley and Pat Stonehouse 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 | 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. 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 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 | 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.
 Wilson, P. R. (1988) North-East Yorkshire Studies: Papers by Raymond H. Hayes, Yorkshire Archaeol. Soc. RAS monograph.
 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.
 Stonehouse, P. B. (1992) Two Early Mesolithic Sites in the Central Pennines, Yorkshire Archaeol. J. 64, pp 1-16.
 Preston, P. R. (2009) Cache and Carry: lithic technology and Mesolithic mobility, Internet Archaeology 26, http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue26/preston_index.html