Today’s barb and tang

A tale of two arrowheads (and a point)


Like many people I have been working from home for the past week or so. One of the first things I did last week was to become reacquainted with the backyard. I have been spoilt having the labs at work, but even so, no flint knapping has gone on for a while. After organising the space I then took a great deal of pleasure in having a play. It has taken quite a few nodules of bituminous shale and shards of toilet cistern to get my hand back in.

This point is produced almost entirely using a soft antler hammer, as the large rounded flake scars indicate. The material is johnstone and when I ‘read’ this piece it is the rhythm and the simple symmetry that I like. It is pretty much fully bifacial and thin enough at around 7mm.


Anyway, today I had a delivery. It is a ‘proper’ copper pressure flaker. I have used one before and I know that the thicker copper point works more effectively than my flattened copper pipes. It cost £10-ish and should allow me to work more difficult materials, and so this afternoon I had a play.

This was a small piece of glass found about two months ago at Harper Hey dogs home (we are looking for another lurcher, one that works) . I thinned it with the antler and then used the pressure flaker to make the point. It is very thin (4mm), flat and fully bifacial. Because of its thinness the notching was pretty straightforward, almost pleasurable. However, there is something about the shape that I don’t like.

So then I made this one exclusively with the pressure flaker. It is a piece of glass recovered from an industrial site by my friend and field archaeologist Rob Howarth. A couple of years ago we went through a phase of using a glass cutter to make preforms, and this is from one of those preforms. I used the pressure flaker to make steep retouch all along one edge, and then started pressure flaking to produce flat invasive flaking. I systematically did this along each edge of each face, slowly reducing the angle. It is a variant of the Kimberley Point method shown to me by Kim Akerman, but using copper rather than soft iron wire. Ultimately, I don’t like this one too much either. I have it in my hand currently, and I am thinking tomorrow I will sit down with it again.

This is a beautiful leaf shaped arrowhead found by Brian Howcroft. It is smaller, thinner and more finely worked. Perhaps this is what my point will become tomorrow.

Impartial (!) review of our most recent ‘Venus’ workshop

What follows is an impartial review (i.e. I didn’t write it!) of our most recent ‘Venus’ workshop. Thanks to Elizabeth Jowett for taking part in the workshop and for writing the review, but also for using her own blog to provide an insight into the world of painting conservation. More broadly, her blog posts are valuable for revealing how one person has found their way of earning a living within the arts. The question of how to do interesting paid work within this sector is a recurrent theme with many of the people I know and work with. As such it is worth further examination and Elizabeth’s blog posts are a good way in. Enjoy!

It’s the start of another year, indeed another decade. It doesn’t feel like long enough since last January and once again it’s been a hectic start, …

Hello 2020!

Bronze Age glass arrowhead workshop at Staircase House Museum: a short photo essay

These are the photos from today’s Bronze Age arrowhead workshop. This is our last workshop at Staircase House and it feels a little sad. Christine and Graham have made us feel very welcome and I have grown to like the museum.

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We started off with a look at the prehistory section of the museum, and then went upstairs for the lecture bit. I divided the session into two parts: the first discussing the role stone tools have played in how we have organised our understanding of prehistory; the second, and practical part, about how making can help us understand stone tools. I had taken in some handling artefacts to allow people to get a feel for the periods, and finally, why we were using glass.

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And then we were off, starting with the ever popular removing of the beer bottle base.

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I have introduced a new health and safety innovation, protective gloves. I bought them from Huddersfield Market about two months ago and this was their first outing. No plasters were needed today and so they are now a fixture.

After the soft hammer thinning we went for our coffee break. This was opportune as it allowed me to demonstrate the pressure flaking when we came back up. Pressure flaking is the most difficult part for people to get to grips with, and I allow time towards the end to finish of anyone’s problem bits. Let’s just say I was in demand.

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The discussion section at the end went very well and everyone had something to say. It still amazes me how people can share so freely with each other about their experience whilst still not really knowing each other. There was pleasant surprise at the experience of using glass as a material, and the difficulty of pressure flaking. Pressure flaking is hard and it is ambitious to try and get people up and running in a starter session like this. I hope coming away with a result is incentive for people (who want to) to carry on with their own practice.

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Anyway, my thanks to Nacho for helping me set up and my friend Chris Garry for taking the photos and providing the transport. I am also grateful to Christine and Graham at Staircase House and the folks at Creative Manchester who have facilitated this series of workshops.

Grooved ware pots and Neolithic gender

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After our Grooved ware workshop I had an interesting and relevant discussion with Nacho regarding the above topic. Early on in the session Mike Copper had remarked on the fact that we were three males instructing ten females. It was indeed correct that all the participants were women. It had not registered with me, as I had consciously divided the group up differently in my mind and in relation to my own preoccupation, as either new participants or ‘returners’.

In the discussion section at the end Nacho made a point that I disagreed with in relation to the gender of Neolithic potters. He inferred that because there were ten women participating on this course, and in many ethnographic accounts it was women who made pottery, that those two things together would support the idea that Neolithic potters were women. I made it clear that I didn’t agree with that point, however, the final few minutes of the session was not the time or place to unpick the issue. We did however explore it in more depth in the car on the way home. By chance I had a similar discussion with Rachele from the Old Abbey the following week. These conversations have alerted me to the fact that there are aspects of the archaeological interpretation process that are generally less well understood. This then is my opportunity to remedy that situation. To do so I will discuss the kind of framework used by archaeologists to make evidence based explanations about the prehistoric past, and I will organise the discussion around the topic of Neolithic pottery and gender.

First of all, I agree with Nacho that it is interesting that all ten of our participants were female. Following on from Mikes’s observation, it is also interesting that all three organisers and instructors were male. These interesting observations have to be contextualised within the twenty first century and within urban Manchester, and within a £25 four hour experimental archaeology entry level weekend taster session. Any examination of why we are men and the participants on this occasion were all women will tell us nothing about the gender of Neolithic potters.

In relation to ethnographic analogy we encounter a similar problem. Nacho is well read in the ethnography of potters. It is one of the things he is passionate about and is much more knowledgeable on this subject than I am. The key point for me though is that ethnographic research has again focused upon modern peoples. In doing so it can provide an insight into why different modern cultures have differently gendered practices, and perhaps reveal why in many cultures pottery is gendered a female activity. However, again it tells us nothing about the gender of Neolithic potters. Adding these two different sources of information together will still tell us nothing about the gender of Neolithic potters. As L.P. Hartley (1953) poetically put it: “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there“.

This observation of difference is important on a number of levels. Firstly because how different tasks are gendered will be related to particular social factors. The example I use to illustrate this is the role British women had as housewives before World War Two (WW2). In contrast, during WW2 these same women took over many of the factory and production roles usually allocated to men. The established gendered roles of men and women in British society changed as the societal circumstances changed.

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A second further aspect is that task gendering will very usually have associated power implications. Taking modern examples of gendered tasks and projecting them backwards in time onto the Neolithic gives the impression that particular power relationships present today were also present in the Neolithic. This is circular reasoning, and problematically, it makes modern power relationships seem natural by embedding them in the Neolithic past. Furthermore, it also curtails any exploration of how gender may have been structured differently within the Neolithic past.

Our experimental session and Nacho’s observations regarding ethnographic evidence have led to an interesting question regarding the gender of Neolithic potters. However, to actively find an answer to this particular question we have to shift our focus on from experimental archaeology and ethnographic analogy and to archaeological evidence from the Neolithic. If we focus upon said archaeological evidence we can explore the method of enquiry generally used to answer research questions. This can be broken down into number of elements and can be summarised in terms of: a research question; a theoretical approach; a literature review; research methods; results and interpretation; and finally a conclusion. I have given the impression that this is a linear process, but there is invariably a lot of blurring and movement between the categories. I will discuss each in turn to explain how these together can provide a framework by which we can make evidenced based explanations of the past.

The first component is the one we have already established, a research question. Our research question can be quite broad, something such as: an examination of the gender of Neolithic potters. This allows us to think broadly about the kinds of evidence and methods that will allow us to answer our question. The next theoretical section is a clear explanation of how all the differing elements will be brought together to answer the research question. The next component is usually a literature review. A literature review will let us know if anyone has already answered this question. However, more probably it will help identify publications that have used methods that may be useful for us in answering this research question. This leads to a detailed explanation of research methods. We haven’t done a literature review for this imaginary project, however Mike mentioned some current North American research using fingerprints to identify gender from pottery. I don’t know of that research but in relation to methods I imagine that adult male and female fingerprints can generally be differentiated by size. It would be difficult (again, I imagine) to separate out adolescent males from adult women because the fingerprint size may be similar. To resolve this you could probably have two approximate categories: large fingerprint (equating to males); and smaller fingerprint (equating to adolescent males and adult females). This is all based upon the assumption that the fingerprint on the pot is that of the maker. If this was our research method it would take us back to the literature review, as we would also need to use it to identify all collections with Neolithic pot sherds recorded with fingerprints.

If there were enough Neolithic pot sherds with fingerprints to make a study viable, the next stage would involve data collection. This would mean visiting institutions holding the collections and recording the size of the fingerprints on each particular Neolithic sherd. This process would provide data in the form of fingerprint sizes and these could be analysed to identify categories and patterning. Patterning may be complex, being different in different geographical areas, or it may be random. Based upon the previously established criteria and caveats resultant patterning may be able to reveal a probable biological sex of Neolithic potters. If we assume that biological sex can be read directly as gender then we can present an answer to the initial question. The conclusion would have to consider assumptions such as the relationship between biological sex and gender, the possibility that adolescent males were misread as adult females, as well as the quantity of shards analysed to see if  any patterning discerned would have real meaning.  This all sounds quite convoluted, and it is. However, it is through processes such as this that archaeologists can start to make evidence based statements, in this case about the gender of potters in the Neolithic past.

I have emphasised elsewhere how I believe that with our workshops we are doing something quite innovative. Experimental archaeology is being used, in a similar way to ethnographic analogy, as a fantastic tool for provoking new ways of thinking about the past. However, these new ways of thinking about the past are simply starting points, and as in this case can sometimes present us with interesting new research questions. If a particular research question has mileage then it needs a method of inquiry in order to explore it, and through this exploratory process assess if it has any validity. In summary I am arguing that our workshops are structured to help develop interesting new ways of thinking about the past. To explore any of these ideas further they need to be treated as research questions, starting points for the above kind of research process to be developed. What our workshops do not do, however, is provide us with the kind of evidence that can be used to present explanations about the prehistoric past. Discussions with both Nacho and Rachelle have helped me recognise how the interpretive process can be misunderstood, and by working through the above discussion establish more clearly what these workshops are actually about. Consequently, I thank them both for their ideas, input and support throughout the workshop process.

 

 

Grooved ware workshop at Staircase House: a medium sized photo essay

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Thanks to everyone who joined us for the session today, and in particular Mike Copper for making the trip from Skipton to share with us his knowledge of Scottish Grooved ware, and Daisy for filming the session. Appreciation as well to Christine and Graham from Staircase House Museum, and the folks at Creative Manchester for facilitating these workshops.

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This is a picture of Mike checking his house hasn’t been washed away.

 

Making a Star Carr type Mesolithic pendant at Staircase House Museum: a medium photo essay

Raffia

WIN 2019 white (238 of 321)

Jo and table

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Laura plus

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Shale

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The topic of conversation was how light the engraved marks are on the original. Perhaps more about the process than ultimately being visible.

Nacho again

WIN 2019 white (288 of 321)

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A man outstanding with his Grooved ware.

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Thanks to all that joined us for the session. Appreciation to Christine and Graham at Staircase House and Creative Manchester for facilitating the workshops, to Daisy and Joe for filming the event and Pete Yankowski for the photographs.