Large glass ovate handaxe

I don’t normally destroy perfectly functional things in order to make my stone tools, however…I found this nice thick glass ashtray in Oxfam and it reminded me of the glass slabs I want to produce with Nacho.

So £3.99 and 24 hours later I was sat in the lab with a small hard hammer. The glass was really good to work even if it took me a while to get rid of the ‘walls’ of the ashtray.

Like the older glass I am used to, this ashtray glass had bubbles in it. I knew what I wanted, a large ovate handaxe, and my earlier removals, when I had more material were better. I have some nice flakes that will be good for arrowheads at some point.

It looks half decent, is fully bifacially worked (no original surface left) and I have retained a good size. However, it is not my best. Harder to see from the pics is a step fracture ‘island’ on one face. I relaxed a little and went ‘intuitive’, which felt right, but failed to produce descent removals.

I was concentrating more on outcome than process, and in doing so stopped giving each removal the due consideration it deserved. By the time I realised I didn’t any longer have a good way in to remove the steps. If I really wanted to make it into something I like I would lose size, and it would end up like many of my smaller ones that are either made from smaller pieces, or like this, takes me lots of removals to get it ‘right’. Anyway, the hour in the lab was the thing. It’s been a while and it was great.

I am a 61 year old man

Two weeks ago I had a day off work, which is absolutely unheard of for me. I woke up with intermittent pains in my chest, and as they were intermittent I was probably going to drive over to Chester to do my lecture anyway. Fortunately, I am part of a family and after a call to my doctor, Karen and Roxanna decided that a family day out to Accident and Emergency (A&E) was in order. Over seven hours I had an electrocardiogram, blood tests and a chest x-ray. I was able to observe these processes almost dispassionately. I was in no pain, and if there was a problem I was in the right place. In relation to me there was nothing serious to worry about, but I still have to find out what is causing the pains. As a visitor to A&E for the day it was both amazing to be looked after so well at a potentially critical moment, but also eye opening to see how they are managing to manage. As well as really busy and competent care professionals I spent the seven hours with a large number and range of individuals with a variety of distressing conditions and behaviours. There was a lot of vulnerable people and the less urgent cases will have spent a lot longer than me in there.

Fast forward to today, this is my fifth day of recovering from a really horrible flu bug. On Monday I had a snotty nose, Tuesday and Wednesday I couldn’t get out of bed. When I did get out of bed on Thursday I couldn’t walk because of lower back pain. Today is Saturday and I took the dog for a walk around the park. My lower back was really limiting movement and I was feeling very vulnerable to slipping on the patches of ice left over from last night. Last week I was dispassionately observing vulnerable people in physical distress, and today I was the vulnerable person in physical distress. I felt like one of the many and various people I had observed in hospital.

These feelings seems to have affected my focus because on the way back from the park all I could see was the amount of litter on the street. Being an archaeologist I think I can see a pattern. Car pulls up, driver consumes fast food, drink and cigarettes, winds down window, deposits empty packaging on the pavement, drives away. This may be an artefact of a new kind of work where drivers are living in their vehicles for most of the day. It is also incredibly selfish behaviour that makes me very angry. I have yet to see someone doing it which makes it even more frustrating to deal with.

My feelings of physical vulnerability and recent hospital experience made me realise that it is lower paid and older people (like me!) who come to rely more and more on services like the National Health Service (NHS). The deliberate underfunding of the NHS by our government is a clear strategy to turn an encompassing public service model into a profit making business one. By selling off significant elements of the service to the private sector it becomes a business model that profits from the physical vulnerability of an increasing poor and older population. Perhaps because I suddenly saw myself in this ‘new’ (poor and old!) situation it made me consider all those physically vulnerable people and the future of the NHS.

In my fevered and physically vulnerable state I imagined a clear correlation between the discarded packaging ending up in our street, and the various and vulnerable people ending up in A&E. Trafford Council will ultimately pick up the discarded packaging, and the NHS will deal with those vulnerable people, but both will spend a lot of time waiting to be sorted out.

I want to suggest that both these issues are structural in nature. I believe a modern attitude has been cultivated to understand ourselves as individuals first, and to a lesser degree part of a larger society. We are encouraged to become ‘entrepreneurs of the self’, creatively selling ourselves as a product within the wider capitalist market place. Until of course we are no longer ‘useful’ within that market place, something that is dawning upon me as a 61 year old man.

Within this argument, health insurance becomes a ‘technology of the self’, necessary to maintain the functioning of the individual. The discarded packaging are the remains of differing technologies of the self. The single use individual portion coffee cups, plastic bottles and cigarette boxes have all served their single use, and can now be dealt with by someone else. That someone else is larger society, something largely missing from the entrepreneur of the self narrative.

So what does all this mean? It felt like it made sense in my fevered state. Trying to unpick it is a bit more tricky. However, the thing that stands out for me is how virtually all my stone tool making equipment and materials is repurposed waste. It seems that following aboriginal cultures, it is possible to find satisfaction, value, and beauty in repurposing those materials. Developing this idea suggests we could organise things differently. Perhaps a society that was designed to find the value and beauty in both discarded materials as well as older and poorer people. A society like that would certainly be better for those vulnerable folks like myself ending up in A&E, but also for people like my 20 year old daughter, Roxanna. She is fit and healthy but through no fault of her own is going to inherit the looming environmental crisis we are busy creating, one single use plastic bottle at a time. I think we need a system change.

Experimental archaeology, engagement, fragmentation and enchainment

I have recently been reading about the work of archaeologist, John Chapman, and his ideas around fragmentation and enchainment. I have also been thinking about the role of experimental archaeology, not just for exploring past processes, but also the formation of relationships in the present.

Certainly working together on the process of learning how to make a stone tool can be a bonding experience, especially when the process is stretched out over three years and leads to other projects and activities. Enter Laura and Jordan.

Upon reaching the end of their third year of undergraduate degree it felt appropriate for me to recognise in some way all the help, but also all the experiences we shared through their degree journey. These included workshops, fieldwork, surveying, filming, conservation as well as lots of coffee drinking. I have really enjoyed developing projects along with them both.

A good while ago I gave a friend, Lucette, a glass arrowhead as a birthday present. Her partner Martin transformed it into a lovely necklace / pendant, and after she sent me a photo of it I asked Martin if he could make me a couple.

As you can see, Martin came up with the goods, and both Laura and Jordan appreciated their pendants. As third years I thought I would be seeing a lot less of them once they had finished their degrees, however that has not been the case. Jordan is working on a temporary conservation project for the department, and Laura has started a Masters degree in Museum Studies on the floor below me.

The fragmentation process within John Chapman’s discussion refers largely to Neolithic pottery sherds, and how the breaking up of a pot can provide fragments that can link people to other people, but also places and events. The knapping process is also a process of fragmentation, and the gifting of these two particular arrowhead pendants (one from a bottle glass and one from flint) does seem to have enchained both Laura and Jordan to the department, so it must be true!

Using experimental archaeology as a process to learn from each other

This week we had an experimental session with second-year ‘Themes’ students in Chester making some clay Palaeolithic Dolni Vestonice ‘venus’ figurines (and associated wolverines and bears). Nacho came over with me from Manchester and the topic we used the making process to explore was that of Personhood. How we as modern westerners understand the category, but also thinking about how people in the Palaeolithic past may have done so. And a number of interesting ideas emerged.

A 2017 scan (see link below) of the ‘venus’ revealed that it had been made from one piece of material, as opposed to having bits stuck on to create the arms, legs, breasts etc. This was something Paul Thomas talked about in a previous workshop and demonstrated how squeezing the clay brought out particular shapes that could then be ‘pulled’ into shape. This contrasted to the approach many of the students initially took this week, adding clay to the models to build them up. I think it is fair to say that everybody (including Nacho) had difficulties creating a model ‘venus’ that was correct in size and form. However, after initial difficulties, and once people had got a feel for the materials a menagerie of animals emerged. This cat for example seems to have started out as a wolverine or bear, but then morphed into a cat. People seemed to find it much easier to create a shape from the clay that corresponded with an animal they knew, rather than emulate photographs of the originals. As Nacho pointed out, that is exactly what people in the past were doing, and so in many ways figurines like the cat below are more representative of the original process than a super accurate wolverine or bear replica.

In relation to the ‘venus’ we asked people to draw the figurine first, as a way of seeing the key elements before embarking upon the making process. In the discussion section at the end Elowyn said that she didn’t see herself in the figurine, and felt as though it was referencing an older female form. Jacob suggested it represented a woman’s body after having gone through the process of childbirth, and we all agreed that the lack of facial detail meant it wasn’t an individual portrait but representing a category of women. This was interesting from the personhood perspective because it suggests Palaeolithic womanhood comprised different facets perhaps organised around age bands and the process of childbirth.

It was also interesting that towards the end of the session Elowyn made Victoria a present of a miniature bear, and then gifted it to her. This allowed us to think about the potential of the original ‘venus’ having been a gift, and about what possible qualities may also have been given along with the figurine? We had discussed the Soffer (et al. 1993) paper arguing that the figurines may have been deliberately exploded during the firing process for divination purposes. Developing the ideas of Soffer (et al. 1993: 39) we thought about whether the gifting of the figurine could have been intended to ensure safe childbirth?

For me, the key idea that emerged from the session was again about the making process and its relationship with the human hand. Squeezing the material allows certain shapes to emerge and these shapes may resemble recognisable animals or person categories. This general similarity can then be developed by literally pulling the material into shape. That the the creation is then fired and potentially exploded provides a really interesting blend of dramatic creation and destruction narratives. And so, far from Nacho and myself ‘delivering knowledge’, it was very much the making and sharing of ideas part of the session that resulted in it being so interesting and enjoyable.

And at this point it is probably apposite to introduce my own personal favourite, Owain’s cheeky bear, and thank Nacho for facilitating the making process and Jacob for being official photographer on the day.


Soffer, O., Vandiver, P., Oliva, M., and Seitl, L. 1993. Case of the exploding figurines. Archaeology Vol.46(1) pp.36-39.


On holiday

Currently we are on a mini two week tour of southern Spain. A first highlight was the Archaeology Museum in Jerez.

And yesterday, an exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Creation in Cordoba

However, most interesting was a small ceramics workshop in the centre of Cordoba. In there I bought for seven euros a small melted glass bottle.

I also had a good chat with the woman who made it, and she did her best to explain to me the necessary kiln timings for a successful glass melt.

Going to southern Spain was a last minute thing for me. I have tagged along with Karen and Roxanna, to make sure we get to spend some nice time together this summer. However, I have really been struck by how stimulating getting away, but also engaging with new places can be.

I am really excited about making some large bevelled glass slabs, that I can then use to knap some bigger handaxes of colour. I am super busy when I get back, but a visit to the bottle tip, and a session with Nacho and his kiln are now high on my agenda!

Thanks to Brosky and Maria for making us super welcome and spending their time showing us around Cordoba. We are so lucky to have good friends in great places.

On hitting things

My understanding of how to hit things has developed not through flintknapping but martial arts. Consequently, this also influences how I teach other people as I find the principles to be transferable. The first issue is cultural, that generally we are taught that hitting is a bad thing, and so we don’t get that much practice. A first step then is to just get people used to hitting flint with a hammerstone and I have previously done a whole two hour session at Chester on just that.

I then move on to a discussion of impact, or kinetic energy. My understanding is quite processual, in that kinetic energy is a result of the relationship between the mass of an object (hammerstone) and the speed it is travelling upon impact. Whilst the mass of your selected hammerstone will be constant, one variable we can play with is speed at impact. If we remove angles and accuracy from this discussion, a high impact speed increases the kinetic energy, and this in turn increases the chances of getting a clean flake removal. To increase the speed of the hammerstone it is necessary to have a relaxed arm, and relaxation comes from a familiarity with the hitting process (see paragraph one). So far, so good.

Anyway, I was at home and most of my knapping gear is at work and I was feeling a little bit stressed and saw a nice tabular piece of material in the back yard. I am 99.9% sure I picked it up at the Mynydd Rhiw site earlier this year, but my problem was that I only had a very large and very small hammerstone to hand, and a small antler hammer that I usually use on glass. None of the tools were ideal but I wanted to have a go, and if my above theoretical understanding was correct, I should be able to adapt my speed of hitting to compensate for the overly large or overly small size of the tools being used.

So that is what I did. The large hammerstone was good for the first stage of cortical removals. As you can see, each of these pieces has between 80% and 100% of cortex on the dorsal face.

The next stage was a little more tricky, as I could have done with a slightly smaller hammerstone and larger antler hammer for the shaping and thinning process. As you can see, these pieces are characterised by around 50% cortical surface and they are generally smaller.

With the final stage I really had to hit the material hard with the small antler hammer. A bigger one would have worked better, but my approach succeeded and I did manage to get some nice soft hammer flakes off. As you can see, these are characterised by minimal cortical surface present.

Anyway, if the material was indeed from Mynydd Rhiw I should have made a Neolithic polished stone axe, but being me it became a small flat based cordate handaxe. This is technically incorrect because the material was originally quarried even though I picked it up from the surface. At one point it had a large step on one surface, which I removed by replacing a removal and using that as a punch to get rid, and it worked really well.

The speed thing does work, but it is hard work, and the intuitive way I normally select the appropriate tool does save me energy. There is more to hitting than this, I deliberately avoided a lengthy discussion of angles and accuracy, however this post does go some way towards exploring and explaining (my understanding of) the underlying complexity of what is generally perceived to be a simple process.

Dorstone fieldwork pop up slag glass knapping session

On our Herefordshire fieldwork project we camp on the local Dorstone village playing fields behind which runs an old straight track. On a dog walk last year I noticed a section that had some inclusions with conchoidal fractures.

I stored this in my memory bank, and this year ended up going on a super impromptu walk with a group of students interested in lithics. The aim was to introduce them to the art of finding knappable materials in the landscape (something I am getting good at).

Anyway, as well as an opportunity to all get to know each other a little better, it turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable material locating and testing exercise.

I told Tim Hoverd, Herefordshire County archaeologist, about our adventure and he pointed out that this particular old straight track used to be a railway line, hence the glass slag that we were finding. I wanted to end this post with some kind of witty Alfred Watkins reference. However, I have now ended up reading about the Golden Valley Railway on Wikipedia. C’est la guerre.

Neolithic Fieldwork

I have been away for the whole of July on fieldwork in Herefordshire, and one element was the excavation of a scheduled ancient monument, Arthur’s Stone. Associated with this was an outreach project designed to engage locals with the excavation. Enter Martin Lewis.

Martin used to farm in the local area and when he heard we were up at Arthur’s Stone he brought this massive Neolithic axe up to show us. It was found by him in 1984 during a potato harvest, and only three fields away from where we were currently working.

Its main attribute was size, being flaked and patinated but not really polished. However, in areas with what looked like recent chips the material looked familiar, and it wasn’t flint. It reminded me of the material from the ‘axe factory’ that I visited in the Llyn Peninsula earlier this year.

Indeed, Martin brought up a report about the find which stated that the material was from South Wales, and it also suggested that what I read as recent chips were in fact original flake removals. I am not sure why they would say that as it makes no sense to me. I would say it was produced, it patinated, and more recent accidental chipping, perhaps by the potato harvesting machine has revealed the original material. That is my reading and it would be interesting to know why the authors thought differently however they presented no further explanation.

What is interesting to me though is that although I couldn’t tell you the kind of stone it was made from, I could tell straight away the approximate geographical area that the stone had come from. I think this aspect may well have been another important attribute of this object during the Neolithic.

Neolithic ‘axe factory’

Today we made a visit to a Neolithic ‘axe factory’. I say we, Karen and Roxanna stayed in the car whilst I went for a wander. The term ‘axe factory’ is embedded in an economic view of the past and the subject of one of my favourite lectures at Chester: Stone Age Economics.

Anyway, once out of the car I followed the obvious path up to a distinct pile of rocks on a small summit. It was some kind of collapsed structure, but the stone it was made from clearly wasn’t knappable. However, the summit gave me a good view of the area I had crossed, and I knew from previously looking at a 1:25 scale map approximately where the ‘factory’ was located. It was lower down, within spitting distance of the car park.

The ‘factory’ was found in the 1950s after a fire, and comprised a series of pits with surrounding lithic scatters. A knappable volcanic material outcropped in certain places, and the pits were the result of Neolithic people digging down to get at the seams below the surface.

Whilst getting pretty close to the car park I saw a sunken feature filled with foliage and surrounded by some interesting looking fragments. The material looked knappable and it appeared to be debitage, what is known as ‘shatter’. Shatter has no obvious evidence of human modification, such as a bulb of percussion, but forms a significant component of any reduction process. These pieces were very well preserved for surface finds. Or they are not very old.

These three large pieces were at a different pit, but show the material more clearly. The thing to note is the outer cortex and it’s thickness on these flakes. Anyway, the star of the show, and the one I brought away with me is this large piece below.

The above image shows the inner gray fine grained volcanic material on the left, in contrast to its outer cortex on the right. So far, so good. The following image shows part of the outer face, and on it what I think is a flake scar from a hard hammer removal.

This suggests that the outer surface is not homogeneous, but the thickest cortical part formed in Geological time. Presumably this piece was then quarried during the Neolithic and the aforementioned flake removed, perhaps to test the quality. The piece was apparently then abandoned. If this did occur during the Early Neolithic it would have been perhaps 5000 years ago. Long enough for a patina, or new surface to develop over the flake scar.

So I am arguing three phases: an original geological cortex; then a flake removed in the Neolithic and over 5000 years a patina formed over that flake scar; finally, a historical period removal revealing the grey inner surface.

Because I believe this is a humanly modified piece I need to register it with the local Finds Liaison Officer and let them decide. Tomorrow I need to find a museum!

Update. I didn’t find a local museum so I will contact the National Museum of Wales to see what they think…


We are on holiday in north Wales on the Llyn peninsula, and on my shopping list is some large new hammerstones. New to replace my battered ones, and large to break up the large nodules donated by Alice la Porta.

At the beach at Porth y Nant most of the pebbles were tabular and flattened. It occurred to me that an ideal hammerstone would be globular in shape, thus containing the maximum mass for shape and size. Consequently these Porth y Nant hammerstones are okay, but not ideal.

The second quality I was looking for was a smooth fine grained and dense material. This one from Pwllheli beach yesterday evening is pretty good. Hand size, dense, heavy and appropriately round, although for the big nodules, too small.

We are here until Friday, and we have a few more beaches to visit, however tomorrow’s highlight (for me) is a visit to a Neolithic ‘axe factory’. Watch this space!