Stone Age Bling

Imagine if a loved one, or friend, picked up a stone and asked you to make from it a piece of jewellery which they could hang around their neck. And, that the only tools available to you to make this would be other similar stones, a selection of animal bones, water, and wood. How would you go about it? How would you shape and smooth the stone? How would you go about creating a hole with which to put the neck lace through without, accidentally, breaking the whole piece?  In an age when the wheel was only just being invented ( believed to be in, either,  Ukraine or Iraq — the jury is still out on that one –) it must have been quite a labour intensive, frustrating, and time consuming task to create what, essentially, is a non essential, luxury item. That person would have to be pretty special!

Neolithic Perforated Stone Pendant. 9 cm x 4 cm

This stone pendant was found at Chrome Hill, Derbyshire and dates back to around 3,500 BC during the late Neolithic Period (Stone Age). The Neolithic period was the age when large stone circles  such as Stonehenge and dolmens like the Bodowyr Dolmen in Wales were first constructed. Although Chrome Hill has no neolithic monuments it is believed to be an important site for both the Neolithic and Bronze age peoples as a possible place of ritual. It is known for its unusual, natural features where the hill resembles a giant, ridge backed, exoskeleton, bulging out of the land beneath the enveloping blanket of the Derbyshire countryside. It is also reported that a remarkable split sunset can be observed at certain angles over Chrome when standing on Chrome’s nearby sister – Parkhouse Hill – during Solstice.

Whether the jewellery piece was the ancient equivalent of a wedding ring or, perhaps, worn by warrior women and men as a battle talisman, or merely used for trade, we can never know. But, like a Rothko painting it confronts us with courage and boldness while within its simplicity lies a much deeper meaning. A meaning that we may never fully grasp in our modern society.

Lovely, Lovely Lithics

Any mention of stone tools or lithics and you’ll see my ears twitch. This is a subject which has held long fascination for me, ever since my days as an archaeology student. Coming back to Buxton has given me the opportunity to work with these types of collections once more, so I really couldn’t be happier.

Stone tools are a window into the distant past, and are often the only material that remains from prehistoric societies. As such, lithics are a precious route into the lives of our ancestors, allowing us to imagine how people may have lived and interacted with their environments. This will be critical to the successful delivery of Collections in the Landscape, as we attempt to interpret the lives of the prehistoric  residents of the Peak District.

A selection of arrowheads from the Waterhouse Collection of lithics, housed at the museum.

A selection of arrowheads from the Waterhouse Collection of lithics, housed at the museum.

Let’s take an arrowhead as an example. They can be used to explore the relationship between technology and the environment, but they also demonstrate that, like today, objects can be more than utilitarian, and can hold important cultural, political or ritual meanings.

The Mesolithic period (c. 10,000 – 4,000 BC) is often characterised by the production of ‘microliths’ – tiny worked pieces of flint or chert. These could form composite tools, including arrowheads, where multiple microliths were set into a wooden shaft. You can see an amazing example of the real thing here.

These tools were effective against a range of creatures, and have even been discovered in association with auroch bones in northern Zealand, Denmark (aurochs were large, wild cattle that could be up to 1.8m tall!)

However, during the Early Neolithic (c. 4,000 – 3200 BC) we can observe a number of new arrow forms, including the distinctive leaf-shape arrowhead. So what drove this change in technology?

A leaf-shaped arrowhead from the museum collections

A leaf-shaped arrowhead from the museum collections

As the climate warmed after the Ice Age, Britain became home to fully developed mixed deciduous woodland. In fact, the period between c.7,500 and c.5,500 BC is often referred to as the ‘climatic optimum’ with average temperatures around 2 degrees higher than they are today, with more sunshine and lower annual rainfall (so nothing like contemporary Derbyshire!).

However, the clearance of woodland during the Early Neolithic changed this environment. It was now more difficult for the hunter to get a closer shot at his or her target. It’s theorised that leaf-shaped arrowheads offered a more aerodynamic and effective killing tool with increased range and penetration – more suited to the open environment.

However, not everything can be explained through a tool’s practical form and use. Archaeologists have to contend with the presence of both ‘fancy’ and ‘non-fancy’ tools (forgive the use of highly technical language). Some arrowheads have clearly only been worked enough to make them practically useful, but other’s exhibit extensive retouch and shaping. If you’re sole goal is create functional arrows, this amounts to hours and hours and unnecessary work.

So what’s going on here? Some archaeologists have suggested that ‘fancy’ arrowheads were more about ritual or status than they were practical tools, contrasting them with the partially-flaked, mass-produced arrowheads used for day-to-day hunting. However, others point out the fact that some ‘fancy’ arrowheads do appear to show evidence of use, so the plot thickens…

Fast forward to the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age and consider beautiful barbed-and-tanged arrowheads like the one pictured. This type of ‘fancy’ arrowhead is closely associated with ritual activity, for example, often placed alongside the dead during burial. But these arrowheads also dangle another tantalising hint about the structure of Bronze Age society.

barbed and tanged arrowhead

Hunting tool or status symbol? Or both?

In general terms, the quality of flintwork generally deteriorates during the course of the Bronze Age, but clearly the knowledge and ability to manufacture quality stone items was still present, perhaps in the hands of a small number of specialists who were creating objects with powerful meanings or status.

As with most forays into the world of prehistoric archaeology I’m going to end up asking more questions than I started with. However, I hope this blog has helped demonstrate some of the ways stone tools can help us explore and theorise about the lives of prehistoric societies.

References and further reading:

Butler, C. 2005. Prehistoric Flintwork.  Tempus, Gloucestershire.

Larsson, L & Sjostrom, A. 2011. Early Mesolithic flint-tipped arrows from Sweden. Antiquity. November 2011.

Waddington, C. 2004. The Joy of Flint. Museum of Antiquities, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

A Visit to Arbor Low

A number of weeks ago, Ben and I braved the elements, jumped in the car, and made the 10 mile journey from Buxton to Arbor Low. The prehistoric monument is one of the sites we’d like to build a pilot project around for Collections in the Landscape. The Scheduled Ancient Monument is one of the most important monuments in the Peak District but also holds national significance. This is reflected in it’s popular nickname, ‘Stonehenge of the North’.Luckily the rain held off as we met our guide for the morning’s visit: Ken Smith, Cultural Heritage Manager for the Peak District National Park Authority. Ken explained the archaeology and history of the site as well as how the monument is managed for present and future generations.

Welcome to Arbor Low

Welcome to Arbor Low

Prehistoric Henge & Stone Circle

Arbor Low consists of a henge monument, enclosed by a bank and ditch, with a circle of stones inside. A round barrow was incorporated in the south-western bank during the Bronze Age. Another barrow, known as Gib Hill, lies 300m to the south-west.

There are still many gaps in our understanding regarding Arbor Low. This doesn’t harm the sense of mystery and wonder I always experience when I visit, but it does frustrate the archaeologist in me! The Arbor Low Environs Project has recently been set up to help broaden our understanding of the monument and is still on-going.

The monument we see today was created in several phases over more than 1000 years, from around 2500 to 1500 BC. According to English Heritage, it’s thought that the first feature on the site was a Neolithic barrow at Gib Hill, followed by the creation of the bank and ditch at Arbor Low. Later, in the Bronze Age, the stone circle was added inside of the henge monument and two barrows built; one over part of the bank and another built over the Neolithic barrow.

Plan of Arbor Low

Plan of Arbor Low

The stones at Arbor Low lie flat rather than upright as one might expect. This has caused some debate over the years about whether or not they were ever standing. Ken was definitely in the ‘they once stood’ camp and pointed out what look like the stumps of several stones long since broken and removed.

Regardless of whether or not the stones ever stood, I think a lot of blood, sweat and tears must have gone into the construction. Today the bank stands at over 2 metres high and is 75 to 79 metres in diameter. This demonstrates a huge investment in time and effort even before anyone dragged more than 40 slabs of quarried limestone into the centre of the monument! However, looking out at the view, and the prominent position of the site, it’s easy to see why the spot was chosen.

It’s very easy to get bogged down in the fascinating archaeology at Arbor Low, but we also had other business for being there. It gave us a sense of the landscape we’d be working in and we were able to explore both the benefits and potential issues that delivering digital projects at the site might bring forth. It’s easy to sit in an office and forget all the problems that the weather, rugged terrain, variable mobile signal and rogue sheep can bring!

 Access vs Conservation

Access to Arbor Low for you or me is thanks to a partnership between the Peak District National Park Authority, English Heritage and local landowners. This aims to create a sustainable future for the monument, balancing out the needs for conservation, visitor access and agricultural use of the land. Access is maintained through a £1 charge, payable at an honesty box at the farm. A bargain if I do say so!

My favourite bit of subtle visitor management was a thin line of gravel path that peters out as you cross the field towards Arbor Low. For many years visitors went through the gate and made a bee-line for the closest point of the henge, crossing over the bank and wearing a noticeable groove in the earthwork. Without any intrusive signage, the subtle gravel path sets today’s visitors unconsciously towards one of the monuments two entrances, ancient gaps in the bank and ditch.

Objects from the Past

Our collection includes many stone tools discovered in the region of Arbor Low, many discovered by local people as they walked the fields. There is little evidence to suggest where the communities that built Arbor Low may have lived, but finds such as arrowheads, scrapers, knifes and axe heads confirm their presence. Other tools, pottery and bones, found in other areas of the Peak District, also help put the world of ancient Derbyshire into context.

Some of our Arbor Low flints on display at the museum

Some of our Arbor Low flints on display at the museum

The collection also contains crawings, prints, lantern slides and photographs of Arbor Low. These help us understand how subsequent generations viewed the site. The monument attracted the attention of many local antiquarians including the likes of Thomas Bateman. 19th century excavations discovered human remains and grave goods in both barrows and further remains were discovered at the centre of the stone circle between 1901 and 1902.

We’d like to make our collections available to people as they stand amongst the stones and we’re still figuring out the best way to do this. I Dig Sheffield is a good example of a simple, effective method but at the moment the site doesn’t translate well to mobile devices. Keep tuned and we hope to announce exciting things for Arbor Low very soon…

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