ICE AND FIRE | 2017 Community Rescue Archaeology Project on Teesside

est17_ice-and-fire◊ Dear Microburins,

I’m delighted, as TimeVista Archaeology, to be part of this project team: a HLF-funded community project on Teesside, North-east England – supported by the local MP – ICE AND FIRE! Volunteer opportunities for outdoor fieldwork and indoor activities will be announced soon – all with training, so no previous experience is needed. You can register your interest via the website. The rescue project will look at the prehistoric archaeology of this fragile upland landscape from the end of the last Ice Age. Most fieldwork will take place in summer 2017 but with seasonal fieldwalking too. DOWNLOAD THE BROCHURE »

Project director Adam Mead is a Durham University archaeology student and we’re grateful for considerable support from the department and Teesside Archaeological Society.

Spence

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.

Highlights

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.

Risks

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.

Spence


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.

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 | http://immersedinlithics.org/ »

  • 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!

Spence

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.

Description

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.

TimeVista_Logo_BW2

Lithics selfie? | Rapid photography, decent results

Dear microburins,

I’m normally a night owl but, having collapsed in bed with a couple of archaeology journals at 10pm last night, here I am awake in the early hours. So I thought I’d do something moderately useful before the sun rises and the day unfolds. This post offers notes on recent experiences in photographing lithic artefacts – efficiently and cost-effectively – in a manner suitable for assemblage characterisation reports (‘grey lit’ and HER¹/PAS²) and archiving. There’s a shopping list at the end and an outreach, as always, for feedback and advice.

¹ Historic Environment Record (HER) | ² Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). OASIS is a publicly accessible portal for submitting archaeological and fieldwork records to the relevant HER, with documents/images uploaded to Archaeology Data Service (ADS) digital archives.

 Image | A bit of paraphernalia in the lithics lab for the blogtastic Day of Archaeology 2014.

A recent bout of lithics analysis needed some rapid, efficient and consistent images for the more significant pieces. The excavation-derived collection (not an assemblage per se) was in majority chert rather than flint – one of the fascinating aspects of prehistoric raw material consumption in north-east England related to availability in base and drift geology. The late glacial ice sheet dynamics and subsequent fluvial activity have created a jigsaw of knappable raw material types including limestone-derived cherts from the Pennines and various chalk-derived flint types from beds under the north sea, Scandinavia and farther south beyond the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire wolds. Flint remains readily available in east coast beach gravels, boulder clay deposits and some river gravels. Against this canvass, human mobility, most especially in the Mesolithic, provides for some interesting patterns in terms of what one finds where.

Photographic set-up

Images (below) | Top: Late Mesolithic flint microliths (narrow blade), Bottom: Side view of a Mesolithic chert core tablet.

MicrolithsI’m largely self-taught and results-driven when it comes to photographing lithics. I’ve experimented with black backgrounds and lighting configurations with some success. However, depth of field and pronounced shadowing for the more substantial artefacts have provided some challenges. Inevitably, a significant amount of work in image enhancement software is also needed, plus the addition of graphical scales (I use Corel because Adobe is too expensive). There can also be problems with darker coloured materials and especially the edges against a rather brutal black background. The results have been good, I think, but time-consuming. More on dark background specifications »

Lithic21sideWhat I now find is far more efficient and consistent is using an acrylic frosted block, the type you see in museums or retail displays. In diffused natural daylight the block lets sufficient light permeate around the base of an artefact to suppress excessive shadows – the object almost seems to float in a milky ether – and allows for a small enough aperture (high f/stop number) to counter blurring within the frame, or between the top of an object and the scale, such as with deep objects like cores, items with heavy curvature or a deep arête. Lighting can be tuned by raising the block on a clear acrylic stand or placing foil or white card underneath – much cheaper than using a lightbox (not very transportable) or augmenting with artificial lighting. By using a good quality photographic scale I’ve also avoided the need to overlay digital scale images, although this is easy enough to do. And if an object needs support, I actually find that soft silicone earplugs (like bluetack but colourless) work fine.

CCPS-3THaving a colour-correction scale has helped to maintain consistent hue/chroma results and I can, pretty much, adjust all images in a sequence using batch mode in photo/paintshop software, including corrections for barrel distortion (depends on your lens). The results feel good enough for archive/grey lit reports and need little extra work for publication-quality, as and when that becomes necessary. You can also combine objects, matched to scale, in a single merged image. You can’t really beat a good lithics line drawing but these remain open to the biases of interpretation – the eye of the penholder – and completeness in terms of what is included, excluded or emphasised. Drawing is subjective.

Mobility

The beauty of this toolkit is that it can all be carried in a small plastic storage box and set up pretty much anywhere that’s suitably lit, perhaps excepting the lighting equipment which I keep in the lab. Office/fluorescent/tungsten lighting is challenging but can be neutralised/compensated for with camera settings (or manipulating raw file images).

Specification

So here’s the set-up I am operating. I’m absolutely open to advice and suggestions too. Supplier information is offered in good faith without any implied endorsement or coercion. It’s just good stuff, well-priced (although the camera and macro lens are relatively expensive – try second-hand if you don’t have one), and it works. I hope the following is pragmatic and useful:


The lithics selected for photography were photographed to display their dorsal and ventral faces, and additionally to give a side or platform view when required. Each image included a metric 50mm scale and true-colour correction panel. The lithic was placed on an opaque (frosted) acrylic display block and photographed in partially diffused natural light with the following equipment and settings:

  • Camera: Canon EOS 450D SLR with remote shutter release
  • Lens: Canon EFS 60mm f/2.88 macro lens
  • F-stop: f/14 (small aperture)
  • Exposure: 1/6 second
  • ISO speed: ISO-400
  • Focal length: 60mm
  • White balance: Auto

I’ve not needed artificial lighting yet but assuming gloomy winter days:

  • Professional photographic lighting (2x 300 Watt opal, filtered white, lateral, no fluorescent overhead) | Calumet, see shopping list below

Images were uploaded as JPEG files and colour-corrected using Corel PaintShop Pro X5 software against the true-colour panel (batch processing was cross checked). TIFF files are also appropriate and an accepted format for long-term archives. The images included in the written report are compressed at 220dpi resolution, the maximum permissible in Microsoft office applications³. Original unmodified JPEG images have been retained; RAW files were not generated due to their large file size and memory requirements although archive retention is recommended.

³ For MS Word or Powerpoint, go to File > Options > Advanced and click the “do not compress” box before saving to PDF or PDF-A (Archive).


rapid-shoot Examples

Lithic13dorsal  Lithic21platform KIP14_Lithic13ventral  Lithic21base

Left: Late Mesolithic quadrangular (rhomboid) chert microlith, dorsal and ventral views | Right: Mesolithic chert core tablet, platform and base views.


 Online Shopping list

Spence

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 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.

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

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.