Working Stone, Making Communities

Very pleased to announce the the launch of a web resource for prehistoric stone tools in Orkney .

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 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.

A Late Neolithic butchery site in Orkney

Winter storms exposed a spread of animal bone and stone tools at Skaill Bay next to Skara Brae, Orkney. Most of the bone was of red deer and the stone tools were Skaill knives – flakes made from sandstone cobbles.

Here is the plan of the site showing the arcs and groups of Skaill knives around the deer bone . The butchering was carried out away from the main settlement at Skara Brae.

For a full story the publication by Richards et al ‘Containment, closure and red deer: a Late Neolithic butchery site at Skaill Bay, Orkney’ can be accessed here

Ground stone from Isle of Man Meolithic

Oxford Archaeology North  recently excavated a Mesolithic house at Cass ny Hawin 2, Isle of Man. This house had burnt down leaving charred timbers and quantities of burnt hazelnut shell as well as the flint and stone tools lying where they were last placed before the conflagration.

The stone tools formed a fascinating collection including three unusual ground stones; bevelled pebbles and elongated hammerstones; several hammerstones or anvils as well as smoothers/rubbers; a dimpled cobble, and a grinding slab. A collection of distinctive, large, rounded cobbles was also made.  These tools were used, or placed, in an organised manner within the structure and the spatial analysis of the finds is explored in the report.

The publication of the site is expected soon but for now I want to share images of one of the ground stone tools.

This fine stone tool was made from an oval cobble of medium-grained sandstone and it was shaped by pecking and grinding to form a fine bifacial bevelled edge around the perimeter of the cobble. Both faces have been ground at slight inward angles to form a splayed long-section and are slightly concave in cross-section.

The bevels are particularly defined on the long edges of the cobble where they have been very finely ground to form a curved cross-section with a sharp edge. A distinctive feature is the raised ribbed pattern worked on the surface of the ground bevels on either side. When observed side-on these ridges are angled to form chevrons with the sharp edge of the bevel as the central spine The ridges or ribs are clearly linked with how the edges were ground – and it seems likely that the edge was grooved in this pattern prior to use or further shaping. The placing of these grooves may have been to provide purchase for a substance being processed, or as decoration, or perhaps as a means of decorating another surface on which this tool was subsequently used. These ridges have then been worn to a smooth and rounded finish or in some cases are quite flattened with further working.

Just what this tool was used for can only be guessed at but the distinctive features which include a finely bevelled edge with surface preparation in the form of a clear pattern of grooves suggests that it was manufactured for a very specific purpose. On its own, this finely-shaped object could be interpreted at many levels – it may not be a tool and instead could have been shaped as a decorative or symbolic object. However, there are two other pieces of ground stone which share some characteristics such as the flat faces and bifacially bevelled edges with this object but neither have been so finely altered to shape and this would suggest a more utilitarian use for the ground stone.

There are as yet no parallels for this tool form at other sites, Mesolithic or later. The closest published comparison is the perforated and ground stone disc from Nab Head Site 2 (David and Walker 2004, Figure 17.17.4). Despite the lack of a perforation on the Cass ny Hawin 2 example as well as a different outline in plan there is close similarity in the profile of the bifacially ground angled edge around the perimeter of both pieces. This is not to say that that these artefacts were made to be used in the same way – this is highly unlikely. However, it is perhaps evidence that the template for a regular bifacially ground edge existed and across regions and time though whether it was a functional or stylistic device cannot be determined yet. Of note is the decorative grooving forming raised chevrons around the spine of the bevelled edges of the Ronaldsway object which does not occur on the disc from Nab Head.