Mesolithic Salvage | What the flint collector left behind

◊ Dear Microburins,

Update | I have added a Reporting Finds page to this blogsite. The guidance has been adopted by the Prehistoric Society on their Facebook page as a new rule of engagement.

After last week’s post about a walkover survey of a Mesolithic landscape in Yorkshire, something I do annually with permissions—and about the persisting evidence of unrecorded flint collecting¹—I’m glad to say that just enough has been left behind since 2013-14² to be able to tell some kind of story. Stones tell stories—but context is key!

The image here is rather rough-and-ready but shows, after gentle cleaning, 62 flints from the different disturbance locations, ahead of detailed analysis, cataloguing, HER submission, and archiving in a local museum. Very detailed grid references (GPS) have also been recorded. This is clearly a very small collection, but sits within a much larger archive, in the context of recent recording and volunteer regimes as part of a Historic England project, and the ongoing random activities of some participant(s) for their own various motives or habits.


Some highlights amongst the sixty-two include:

  • Four very small cores which have been reduced with difficulty due to flaws (blue);
  • At least two microliths: a tiny and damaged microscalene triangle top R, and a possible krukowski (broken) backed bladelet, bottom L (red);
  • A burin/scraper (rare) top L, and a retouched bladelet top C (red);
  • A few other pieces show possible use-wear;
  • Burnt debitage indicating likely hearths.

However, we don’t know what the collector(s) have removed, including any possible Early Mesolithic artefacts—which are extremely uncommon in this area and are usually broad-blade microliths (projectiles)—or indeed early Neolithic artefacts such as leaf-shaped arrowheads, attractive to collectors. We’re in an area where the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition (the overlap) hints at being potentially later than other northern locations.

Glaisdale_EMThe image above was found on the Internet some years ago, posted under a pseudonym, and shows a collector’s Early Mesolithic microliths from Glaisdale. There were also images of microscalene triangles and backed bladelet forms. The area was frequently visited by collectors throughout the 20th century until recent work by Natural England to re-vegetate and re-wet an extensively eroded moorland area.


The saddest news is that many 20th century collections, and very extensive collections amounting to tens-of-thousands of finds (if not more), ultimately ended up in land fills after the collectors’ deaths. Some ended up in museums, but mixed-up and not well documented, often the result ‘of a weekend walk’ over many years. There are a number of extensive private collections today, some known, many suspected, that may end up with a similar destiny—I know of at least four, filling garage-sized spaces that would take a generation to process. Even with recent developments in best-practice recording advice (PAS, HER, MoRPHE, CIfA and otherwise) by virtue of standards frameworks, an incredible amount of data—research data—remains out of reach, off-record and hence at risk.

The Narrative So Far

  • This is a Mesolithic landscape, or ‘taskscape’, a palimpsest, a persistent place returned to repeatedly for thousands of years.
  • The lithic technology and a few diagnostic tools confirm a Late Mesolithic ‘narrow-blade’ date with activity extending a considerable distance, over 150m or more, across the moorland—dense deciduous woodland with clearances in the later Mesolithic climatic optimum—below a spring line, and farther downslope than previously recorded.TVA_LateMes
  • My own recent radiocarbon age determinations (thirteen in all, from well-defined features) suggest discreet hearth-based knapping and tool manufacture/repair can span considerable date ranges even within a few metres of each other. The calibrated dates from a rescue excavation show activity around 5300-4800 cal BC (with possible re-use of a stone-ringed hearth together with a possible structure and ‘flat stone’ features) and perhaps even 3800-3770 cal BC (at least a discreet corylus burning event), and c.4300 cal BC elsewhere—these will all be published in due course. Our understanding of the palaeo-environmental prehistory of this area is much better researched and documented than the archaeology: see References in the previous post.
  • There are also some suggestions, overall, for varying raw material procurement sources (over considerable distances), reduction stages and activities at different times and locations, although previous removals on a vast scale into the tens of thousands, when the area was much more eroded, will have compromised at least some of the surviving archaeological record.
  • When legacy references and HER records talk to ‘an assemblage composed only of debitage’, one must wonder if that is true or a function of selective flint collecting along with other taphonomic (post-depositional) processes. Our record will always be a sample of a sample of a sample.

I’ll post more, with images, when the analysis and cataloguing is complete.


¹ Evidence comprises regular sightings by the gamekeepers and farmers of at least one collector, the same gentleman each time (he used to quote my name as a legitimiser), known to leave small piles of debitage (taking the tools) and characteristic footprint patterns in all the eroding or disturbed areas where lithics are revealed. Some of his finds have been summarily recorded in the past but lack specific provenances in many cases.
² When the shooting butts and tracks were constructed.

Stones Tell Stories | James Dilley knaps replica teaching assemblages

◊ Dear Microburins,

The extraordinary James Dilley @ancientcraftUK is working through multi-period replica assemblages for my lithics training workshops this year, and beyond. The workshops deal with the archaeological aspects of lithic assemblages—chronological trends, research questions, technology, typology, identification, function, field archaeology best practices, analysis, recording and interpretation. The teaching materials also include other material culture associations, such as ceramics courtesy of Graham Taylor @pottedhistory and Bronze Age artefacts by Neil Burridge.



Grim_candidate JD2 Grimston_neolithic-pottery SC-Mic
Selecting the correct pottery and lithic types to illustrate typological and material culture changes through prehistory. The pottery here is early Neolithic Grimston Ware from Yorkshire (c. 3800-3500 BC) and Early Mesolithic microlith flints from Star Carr (c. 8770-8460 BC).

What’s particularly useful in the expert knapping that James is undertaking is that each of the four period-based assemblages will be near complete, or at least a representative sample of coherent reduction sequences and artefact manufacture. James is also going to intentionally break some pieces.

The Reality of Bias

In reality, in the field:

  • Recovered lithics often represent multi-period mixtures where places have been visited and revisited over time (persistent places);
  • There is variation in past human activity in space and time, from the selection and testing/rejection of raw materials, stages of reduction and tool manufacture, selective or even random events in the movement, breakage, discard, use and re-use, caching of raw materials and artefacts—we call this the chaîne opératoire;
  • There are biases in survival, including disturbed contexts, where lithics are residual (not in original context) because of later activity or natural events, including agriculture and movement in sediments;
  • There are biases in archaeological recovery, whether intentional sampling or uncontrollable factors related to the nature of the recovery techniques employed—and of course in the ability to identify a lithic and human interpretation, always subjective to a degree, of assemblages.

artisans at large


Immersed In Lithics Conference | 25-27 Feb 2016 Manchester University

◊ Dear Microburins,

With permission from the organising team, I’m pleased to announce that registration is now open for this conference. It brings together lithic researchers from all aspects of the discipline—with a particular focus on new and current approaches to lithics—and aims to discuss a variety of innovative methods of lithic analysis.

Immersed-in-Lithics-PosterMore Info | »

  • Thu 25 Feb | Evening round-table discussion with keynote speakers followed by an informal wine reception
  • Fri 26 Feb | A day of paper presentations and posters
  • Sat 27 Feb | Stone Age Big Saturday! at the Manchester Museum, a family event offers the perfect opportunity for researchers to interact with the wider public

Manchester is rather busy this week and so please do book accommodation early. Both venues are on the university campus (close to Oxford Road) and generally a fair distance from hotels. Maps can be downloaded from the website. See you there!


Lithics Workshop 2016 | Hosted by Elmet Archaeological Services

ElmetMicroburin—in the guise of TimeVista Archaeology—is delighted to have been invited by Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd, a community-based enterprise, to deliver the latest in hopefully a number of Lithics Workshops. There’ll be plenty of Mesolithic. The next scheduled session is Sat 5 March 2016 at Wath-Upon-Dearne between Sheffield and Doncaster, England | Booking info »

Who it’s for

The workshop is aimed at anybody with an interest in British prehistoric archaeology and stone tool technology, whether actively involved in fieldwork, designing a project, or just generally interested by what they see in museums and in the media. This is an informal workshop with plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion.


MicrolithsThis workshop will use select prehistoric teaching artefacts—and a gun flint!—in hands-on sessions to explore the importance of flint and chert in prehistoric northern Britain, and what kind of insights archaeologists can deduce. Using mock-up flint assemblages—with tools and debitage—participants will also learn how to approach the analysis and recording of lithics. Case studies from north-east England will show the kind of narratives that can then be constructed.

Key Topics

  • Natural or human? | The nature of flint and chert, how to tell if it has been used or worked
  • Signatures in stone | Technology of knapping, nomenclature, attributes, form, function and symbolism
  • Keyholes to the past | Key lithic indicators and changes through time, material culture associations and typologies
  • Lithics matter | Important research questions, things we know and things we don’t, occupied spaces, human mobility and exchange
  • From field to desk | Good practices in field-walking and excavation, how to approach assemblage analysis and recording, cataloguing, principles of illustration and photography

Lithics Training by TimeVista

If your group or organisation, whether commercial or community non-profit, is interested in receiving similar training—for example, as part of your staff CPD or a field project—please get in touch with me at TimeVista Archaeology to discuss opportunities.


Swifterbant Stones | Two whopping volumes and a lithic analysis framework

◊ Dear Microburins,

SwifterbantIt’s big, it’s two whopping volumes, it’s got a full lithic typology and analysis protocol (vol 1 appendix) — we’re liking that already.

Swifterbant Stones: The Neolithic Stone and Flint Industry at Swifterbant (The Netherlands) by Izabel Devriendt (Groningen 2014).

“In this research the stone and flint artefacts of the site Swifterbant are analysed. Attention is focussed on the Neolithic occupation phase of the prehistoric creek system (c. 4300 – 4000 cal BC) where archaeological traces were found on several levee and river dune sites. This study shows that there is a larger variability in site types than originally presumed. It is established that these sites are all part of one settlement system in which they all had a different function. This thesis comprises a monograph on the research history of the site and the different aspects of the lithic research such as typological analysis, technological attribute analysis, raw material analysis and use-wear analysis, in combination with a detailed inventory (catalogue). All this leads to new insights into the use of lithic artefacts. The importance of stone tool morphology, the selective gathering of stone tool blanks or the use of two different fl­int production sequences are but a few of these interesting aspects. Other topics concern tool function, mobility, raw material access and use, cultural markers and social identity. In combining the results from this research with that of other Swifterbant sites a better understanding of the different aspects of prehistoric stone and fl­int industries is gained.”

Oxbow Books > Swifterbant Stones


Bifacially speaking | TimeVista Archaeology is alive

TimeVista_Logo_BW2◊ Dear microburins, It’s been brewing for a little while. Spurred on by successful paid work through this year, a burgeoning human network on LinkedIn, the time seems right to make a full commitment to archaeology. Now’s the time to draw a line between the past career and the palpably exciting prospect of doing what I’m passionate about. It’ll be an experiment, for sure, and I’m certain there are going to be some difficult moments.  TVeye_sq1Nor does this all mean turning my back on twenty-odd years in the private sector. I’m seizing the chance to mesh together the skills and experiences gained in operational and project management with those of commercial archaeology. This is surely reflexive change management, difficult though I am as the patient / customer / opportunity. Procrastination is too easy. I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t give it a try, extraordinary as it feels. So, TimeVista Archaeology is the new professional shop front, leaving microburin as the informal loud hailer, perhaps conscience. There’s much still to do: I need to sort out my CSCS safety card (deconstruction skills), Chartered Institute for Archaeologists application (peer review or die) and, if I’m to engage with activities to support prehistory in the national curriculum, I probably need a good vetting too – there’s a kid still inside this yellow-hatted archaeologist, which is a start. Of the many realities of being in one’s forties is to realise (a) there’s no such thing as grown-ups; (b) it’s OK not to like jazz, allegedly; and (c) apostrophes’ and, commas are very important indeed. That leaves me to thank you for your Microtalksupport, to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and a rewarding, peaceful 2015, until next I holler from behind the spoil heap. ♦ Spence | “good with archaeology”