On Tweeting, Freelancing and the Axe Factor

A Neolithic sandstone flake from Ness of Brodgar, Orkney. Photograph © Woody Musgrove

Tweeting suits me. Write a short message, rip it off the notepad and throw it out there. And repeat. Some messages drop straight to the ground. Others flap around before landing. Occasionally they get taken up in a gust and are blown every which way before disappearing.

I took to Twitter @annclarkerocks to promote my work over a year ago. As a freelance archaeologist you only have yourself to bring in the work. Over the years I’ve developed a website, sent out advertising postcards to Commercial Units across the UK, dabbled with LinkedIn – too corporate, and Facebook – just a confusing guddle of information. The regular promotional platform, the conference, has always been difficult for me in the past – cost, access, the childcare issue, not having anything zippy to say, as well as sitting quietly in a darkened room for hours listening to frequent uninspiring talks all combine to make this a networking nightmare for me, and many other people! Whether I’ve attracted any extra work as a result of the self-promotion is a moot point but like all archaeology businesses we need to get our name out there and hopefully to people who want work from us.

I particularly love using Twitter as a platform to share images of the fabulous range of stone tools that I work on. As well as flaked lithics of all materials and ages, I research stone tools which are much more diverse in form, and use, than flaked tools. Have a look through my Twitter feed – you will be amazed at all the ways stone was shaped into tools in the past.

I’m glad that many folk have liked and commented on these images over the last year. Many of you will have been introduced to particular tool forms for the very first time and I consider that a job well done. It’s good to share.

But what interests me most is how the Twitter audience likes, and engages with, the familiar. I call this the Axe Factor. A quick look through the statistics of my feed shows that of the 100 odd tweets about stone tools of all sorts, the most liked and engaged with were the six images of ground stone axeheads – and the two polissoirs. Other favourites were also ground stone tool forms such as the spatulate tools and ground stone knives – both axehead look-alikes.

Why this strong engagement with the familiar? And what makes axeheads so familiar in the first place? I would consider several of the tool forms I have tweeted about to be of greater importance to the study of the past than stone axeheads: the ground stone from the Mesolithic structure Cass ny Hawin 2, Isle of Man; the huge assemblage of Mesolithic worked ochre from Stainton West, Cumbria; and the Bronze Age ‘handled clubs’ from Shetland, to name but a few.  But these are not in the public imagination because the Axe Factor is a direct result of showing off our past as bling; promoting those objects perceived to be most powerful and authoritative; often the most photogenic; and through this maintaining the fiction of archaeology as ‘treasure’.

This came back to bite us very recently during the recent Cadbury debacle. In this case Twitter was the perfect platform to express the collective dismay of archaeologists. But how did we get it so wrong to start with that a large company felt able to promote our heritage in this damaging way? Despite all our professed public engagement will we ever be able to tweak the public perception of archaeology from Treasure Hunting to engaging with and taking an informed interest in our shared past.

And can we really use social media to promote new knowledge?

I leave you with a mighty image by Woody Musgrove of a simple sandstone flake from Neolithic Orkney. Is this bling? You decide.

Working Stone, Making Communities

Very pleased to announce the the launch of a web resource for prehistoric stone tools in Orkney http://www.orkneystonetools.org.uk/ .

The results of a three year Leverhulme-funded project led by Professor Mark Edmonds together with Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, Ann Clarke and Dr Antonia Thomas are presented with fabulous images and descriptions of a multitude of different stone tools and flaked lithics from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age

Vintage Stonehenge


There is always a jolt when you realise that your career can be measured in decades. Imagine then when I did the necessary subtraction to find that it was four and a tenth decades since my first excavation – Winchester Unit 1976 by the way, nice and sunny, didn’t realise then that most digs were cold, wet and muddy.

I thought I’d celebrate this milestone – 41 years and still managing to hang on as a freelance lithic specialist – with something I’ve never done before…

I had never written the word ‘Stonehenge’.

There we go, I’ve done it now Stonehenge, Stonehenge, Stonehenge. Many of you will find this peculiar: if you are not an archaeologist then you most probably think that I would naturally know all about it along with Pyramids and Romans. If you are an archaeologist then you might think it amazing that I have managed my entire career without hanging on to its coat-tails.

Well, a goodly portion of prehistoric archaeology is done in the UK without reference to Stonehenge and despite the massive amount of attention paid to Stonehenge in the press and academia it is in reality a construct of Archaeology in the South of England. I even managed to get through an MA in Prehistory and Archaeology at Sheffield in the early 80s without much reference to Stonehenge – it was all Oppida, Oronsay and oh yes, the Romans.

But I was looking through family snaps the other day and found these four blurry photographs taken with Mum’s Kodak Instamatic, probably around the late 60s. I won’t say that this family visit turned me on to archaeology, in fact I most likely spent the time playing with a boomerang off camera or fighting with my brothers. The photographs themselves tick quite a few trendy boxes: the ‘Stonehenge’ box; the ‘Vintage’ box; the ‘Hipster real film’ box; the ‘Family holiday memory’ box. But I am struck by how much change these images show.

See how long ago people wandered around the stones, apparently undirected, unstructured, uninformed by the State. How some of the stones were the perfect height for resting weary legs, or scrambling on. With the distance of time – half a century – this disregard for the wear and tear of the monument   will seem shocking to some folk.  Others will look at the photographs and see how the stones themselves seem to wrap around and shepherd the people wandering amongst them and yearn for that simpler time when the monument was not guarded so closely.

Whatever your viewpoint, the last 50 years have made their own history at Stonehenge and left new postholes, paths, and roads encircling the monument; there is vegetation regrowth, backfilled excavation trenches and signage for future archaeologist to investigate. These researchers might observe an apparent retreat from the stones with no major interaction after the mid 1970s.  Maybe geophysics will record that a new monument was built nearby that appeared to collect and funnel people at some distance around the earlier monument.

How will the future interpret this period of the late 20th/early 21st Century AD? Perhaps they will call it the cult of look but don’t touch; that we revered our past through keeping it at distance.

I wonder what the next fifty years will bring in the life of Stonehenge and whose histories it will be part of. It is a pretty close bet though that my first mention of Stonehenge is also likely to be my last.

Ritual or Magic?

Stones from excavations at Loch Freuchie showing waterworn anthropomorphic stones at the back and cobbles at the front. Image by Steve Black.

Northlight Heritage have recently excavated a fascinating site by Loch Freuchie, Perth and Kinross. This structure, built around a spring head, housed a group of stone ‘figures’ and a collection of quartz cobbles.

The anthropomorphic figures are intriguing. They are natural waterworn forms, ranging in height from 100mm to 200mm, which have been formed by differential erosion of metamorphic blocks leaving distinctive waisted shapes.

These stones bear close comparison the group of seven stone forms from Tigh na Cailleach, Glen Lyon, Perthshire http://www.stravaiging.com/history/ancient/site/tigh-na-cailleach These are thought to be representative of the figures Cailleach and Boddach from Celtic mythology. At Tigh na Cailleach the ritual of placing the figures in the stone shelter at the beginning of winter and taking them outside every spring is carried on in the present day.

The quartz cobbles are likely to have had deeper meanings associated with their inclusion in the structure built around the spring head – from Medieval times (and probably even earlier) white and clear stones were associated with water and were placed at holy wells.  In historical times the curative or magic powers of white stones were effected by dipping them in water and then drinking the liquid. It is possible then that the white cobbles were deliberately placed at the source of this spring to purify or imbue the water with magical or healing properties. An alternative explanation for the light wear traces found on the surface of the small cobbles could link them to the practice of rubbing or striking quartz pebbles together to produce a faint glow called triboluminescence.

This was clearly a site at which ritual took place – at Tigh na Cailleach the timing of the actions appear to be linked to fertility and rebirth. At Loch Freuchie the close association with a spring head is intriguing. Is this a continuation of pre-Christian practices and if so was it a secretive and hidden ritual?

A report of the excavation is being prepared for publication by Northlight Heritage.


Further reading

Gilchrist, R. (2008) Magic for the dead? The archaeology of magic in later medieval burials. Medieval Archaeology, 52, 119-159.

Lebour, N 1914, ‘White quartz pebbles and their archaeological significance’, Trans Dumfriesshire Galloway Natur Hist Antiq Soc 2, 121–34.