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

Stone tools from an Early Iron Age souterrain at Windwick, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

A fine assemblage of stone tools including saddle querns, quern rubbers and cobble tools was found during recent excavations at Windwick by Martin Carruthers, University of the Highlands and Islands.

The stone tools were used for the construction of the souterrain and above ground structure as well as for activities within the completed buildings. There appears to be some reuse of an earlier assemblage of pounder/grinders to build the souterrain as demonstrated by the reuse patterns on some of the tools. We cannot be sure just what the stone tools were used for within the souterrain but several, including the saddle querns were broken and the scattered fragments of the refitted pounder/grinder suggest some mobility of the fragments in antiquity. Above ground, the stone tools appear to have been reused in structural cuts and fills whilst the presence of the pumice and Skaill knife in above ground layers suggests the possibility of different activities to that below ground.

Saddle querns and quern rubbers form quite large assemblages at some sites of this date and at High Pasture Cave, Skye they were an important feature of the closing deposits of the Early Iron Age use of the cave (Steven Birch pers.comm.). At Bayanne, Shetland; and Mine Howe and Howe in Orkney saddle querns were also numerous but found outwith their main context of use in redeposited structural contexts or even reused as anvils or tethering stones. The saddle querns at Windwick, though broken appear to be in primary deposits and it is possible that these, together with the broken cobbles represent some kind of closing deposit.

Stone tools and butchering

 Skaill knives are simple flake tools made from sandstone cobbles. They are commonly found in middens associated with settlements of the Late Neolithic  in Orkney. Wear traces are often visible on these tools indicating that they had been used prior to deposition.  Given the perceived ‘softness’ or fragility of the sandstone the question arose as to what exactly these stone flakes had been used for and an experimental programme was designed to investigate the potential of the Skaill knife as a butchering tool.

These flake tools were made by me and given to a professional butcher to use in his work. The subsequent edge damage on the tools was measured and correlated with the types of job the flakes had been used for. Verdict – competent butchery tools giving the sausages an extra crunch.

For more information read:

Clarke, A 1989 ‘The Skaill knife as a butchery tool’, Lithics 10, 16-27

Clarke, A 2006 Stone Tools and thePrehistory of the Northern Isles, BAR 406

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.