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.

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

Stone axes from Orkney

Recent excavations in Orkney have almost doubled the number of recorded stone axes. Consequently, a large proportion of these tools, some 64%, come from excavated contexts at settlement or funerary sites dating from the Early to Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Many different types of stone were chosen for the axes and they were produced in a wide range of shapes and sizes. This information, together with the contextual detail, allows us to go beyond the standard ‘source and distribution’ aspect of stone axe studies and instead take a wider view of how all the axes in a region may have been used in prehistory by exploring the relationship between the style of axe, by looking at the choice of stone and shape, and the means of deposition of these tools.The research demonstrated that there were significant differences in axe style and deposition between funerary sites and occupation sites of the Early Neolithic, Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. For instance, axes that were placed in Early Neolithic chambered tombs or as ‘special’ deposits at Late Neolithic occupation sites were larger than axes that were in general use on settlement sites and they were more likely to be complete. The axes found in Late Neolithic houses were often further defined by variations in their shape and the patterning of the stone. In contrast, axes that were deposited in the Orkney Cromarty tombs had less variation in shape and were possibly more restricted in the choice of stone. Axes from external deposits at settlement sites tended to be smaller in size or more fragmented.

Discussion as to why the axes were deposited in particular ways touches on their role in the life of the house or chambered tomb; some were placed against walls or under floors whilst the structures were in use and others came from contexts that may have acted as closing deposits or markers of transition. The use of stone axes continued into the Early Bronze Age at cist cemeteries and they were also deposited in middens of this date at settlement sites.

The full article is to published as: Clarke, A forthcoming ‘Does Size Matter? Stone axes from Orkney: their style and deposition’ in RV Davis and MR Edmonds (eds) Stone Axe Studies lll, CBA and can be downloaded here:

We now have records on all axes that were found through excavation up to September 2008 as well as all of the axes from the National Museum of Scotland, the Hunterian Museum, Tankerness House and Stromness Museum. A full catalogue is to be lodged with the Implement Petrology Group. It is hoped to update this catalogue with any new finds of stone axes and I would be delighted to hear of any axes that have been found recently in Orkney, either as stray finds or excavated finds.