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.