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




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.


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


Upon or within?

I have a Mesolithic Star Carr style shale pendant workshop tomorrow! It is this that triggered my midweek trip to the north east coast with Richard and Stephen, the subject of my previous post. My friend Stephen was a geologist in a past career and his more recent archaeological focus has been upon the use of chert as a Mesolithic material. Because of previous geological experience his knowledge of this fossil coast is deep. Issues such as tidal timings and the necessary exposed shale stratigraphies all come as standard.


Visiting Runswick Bay with a geologist was an eye opener. The amount of fossil evidence present in plain site had been invisible to me on my two earlier pebble collecting visits. Producing the previous post made me think about the relationship between fossils and the shale pebbles I was collecting, especially having found shale pebbles containing fossils within my collection.

If I am now recognising an association between the shale pebbles and fossilised creatures then perhaps Mesolithic people also had a recognition of this relationship. Our modern understanding of materials is something of a topic within the theoretical archaeology lectures I teach at Chester. In particular, how our western and modern understanding of materials is based (among other things) upon the Enlightenment ideas of Rene Descartes. If we take the Mesolithic Star Carr pendant as an example, a Cartesian Enlightenment approach would see a ‘subject object’ divide. Put another way, it would envisage active Mesolithic humans inscribing meaning onto a passive shale pebble.

However, myself and shale have form. Although not discussed here, I recognised on my earlier visits that the larger shale nodules were knappable. I was able to produce a couple of small handaxes from two such nodules, but the amazing aspect to the process was the smell. Upon breaking open the nodule I was hit by a strong smell of petrol. I texted Stephen immediately, and he texted back to tell me that it was because I was knapping bituminous shale, similar to the shale targeted in fracking. Because I had a modern analogue I was able to recognise the smell as petrol. Subsequently I have noticed that other lithic materials also have smells. These however, are perhaps more subtle and less easy to describe, having no obvious modern analogues. My engagement with bituminous shale was therefore surprising in a number of interesting ways.

So how would Mesolithic people have made sense of a material that comprised fossilised past creatures along with a strong smell of the  yet to be invented petrol? More precisely, would this kind of material have been seen simply as a ‘blank canvas’ to have meaning inscribed upon. Or would the material itself be seen to hold meaning?


At a technician event recently I did a glass arrowhead workshop for twelve of my technician colleagues. In return for services to technician world I was awarded this handy key-ring multi-tool (as were all other event attendees). I have just used it to scratch a Star Carr type pattern and then drill a hole in a fossilised shale pebble. In the final stage of drilling the hole a small laminar flake detached itself from the edge. Throughout the drilling process a fine powder was produced along with a subtle bituminous smell.


Finally, I have discussed before the value for me of working with other crafts people and members of the public. Carolyn Quinn I think falls between these stools as she has made jewellery in the past, and was confident in the process of making at the workshop she took part in with me. The way she integrated the hole into the pattern alerted me to the fact that the hole in the original may not simply be to facilitate suspension, but in fact be a part of the design.


So, if we shift attention away from the particular pattern inscribed on the original, and move attention onto the processes and context of material acquisition, and think about the transformation from pebble into inscribed and drilled object, what might this tell us? Perhaps the fossil associations and particular smells released through the process of inscribing and drilling were significant? Perhaps our smell of petrol was their smell of stone fossil creatures? Perhaps any meaning Mesolithic people associated with the stone fossil creatures was embedded within the materials they were found within? The beads associated with the pendant were made from shale, Baltic amber and also a perforated tooth. Baltic amber is also known as a material that can encase insects. I think we have some mileage here for an interesting exploration of Mesolithic materials and their meanings. Watch this space.

The GIF was produced by Colleen Morgan and taken from the Star Carr website:




Northern woman and wolverine: a short photo essay

Today we had our first experimental archaeology Palaeolithic ‘Venus’ figurine workshop at Staircase House in Stockport.

I began with a mini lecture and then Nacho took over with a drawing the figurine exercise. We had laminated photographs and two finished examples to work from and the aim was to get people to recognise relevant detail before beginning the making process proper.


Drawing was followed by the unexpectedly popular dog bone grinding. We genuinely hadn’t realised what a social activity this was. Whilst the jury is still out on whether or not Palaeolithic people mixed mammoth bone with the clay, this bit is definitely staying in any future workshops. Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos (sad face). This one was provided by Ashley.


Anyway, once the dog bone was integrated into the clay, figurines started emerging thick and fast.

The photos are not as good as usual because I took them, on my phone, mainly towards the end of the session. However, the best ensemble piece for my money was the vaguely threatening (and slightly out of focus) ‘Northern woman with wolverine’ seen below.


The discussion section at the end was as rich as ever, and I really enjoyed the afternoon. Thanks to Martin for the cup of tea, and I am grateful to Creative Manchester plus Christine and Graham at Staircase House for facilitating the space. I would also like to thank all the participants for spending their Saturday afternoon with us, as well as Daisy and Joe for recording event.

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Fussell’s Lodge Long Barrow

I am currently teaching a module at Chester dealing with the different periods of British prehistory. One of my colleagues at Manchester, Julian Thomas, is a Neolithic specialist and so I asked him if he had anything detailing the building and dating of an Early Neolithic monument. Teaching about periods that are not your specialist area is actually very rewarding, it means you have to spend time researching interesting topics and knowledgeable colleagues are there to help guide the process. Anyway, Julian handed over this book.


From my previous readings it was clear that sites like Fussell’s Lodge had developed over a number of generations, and perhaps people’s relationships to the monument had changed over that period as well. Categorising it as Early Neolithic and a Long Barrow helped students grasp period and function but I wanted to see if we as a group could penetrate these categories to get to the more interesting aspects of the monument. In their paper Serious Mortality Michael Wysocki, Alex Bayliss and Alasdair Whittle use a series of twenty seven radiocarbon results to propose a relative sequence of dates for the building of the different components of the monument. This allowed the building phases to be understood in generational time.


Next on my list of visits was Nick Overton’s Sheep bone teaching collection. Fussell’s Lodge was rich in both human and animal remains and the depositional acts were discussed in detail in the book. I just needed to borrow some suitable material so that we could go through the process of making the depositions ourselves. Finally, the session I was teaching starts at 4pm and lasts approximately two hours. This is late in the day and the students don’t want to be listening to me for two hours. I know this because they said so in their feedback. This was couched more positively within the request for more practical activities. So, in response we were going to split up into around nine generations (or groups) and each generation would play their part in building a Fussell’s Lodge Long Barrow, between five and six o’clock, in room CML 009, on the Parkgate Campus.

First stage

The first stage was to clear some land and then build a tent like structure supported by two posts. It was within this relatively small area that a series of depositions of human bones were to be made over a series of generations.

Wooden revetment 3

Wooden revetment 2

The next stage of construction was to build a wooden revetment that outlined the long barrow shape. This was the process that established the much larger part of the monument and was achieved with a tape, more chairs and some cooperative working.

Bone deposition early

Once the monument was outlined depositions could begin. The human bones deposited early on were root etched, which suggested they had been dug up and relocated into the monument. Subsequent bone depositions were ‘green’ and indicate that actual bodies may have been deposited by later generations. A series of ‘generations’ of students deposited their bones within the small tent like structure of the monument. In the Neolithic this was finished off with the deposition of an ox skull. We used a sheep jaw.

Tent like structure

Then the monument was ‘sealed’ by a new pit and post (chair). Imaginary turf and flint cobbles were piled on top of the tent like structure and it was covered with an ox hide (feet attached) and left to weather for a decade or so.

Putting on the skin

After that the final generations had to burn down the monument, and fill the wooden revetment with the imaginary soil from two parallel and imaginary trenches. The final act was to deposit some ox remains in the south ditch (sheep jaw).


Wysocki and co. present three different possible scenarios as to the relative order of events that took place in the Neolithic. I feel that our re-enactment fell approximately somewhere close to perhaps one of them. All things considered. However, it was a success. They still had to listen to me, but the students also got to move around, crawl under chairs, handle sheep bones, and importantly grasp that Fussell’s Lodge Long Barrow was a cooperative endeavour. They also experienced the shift from depositing ‘ancestral’ remains to then human bodies with parts of oxen. They can now think about what that change in practice may have meant in the Neolithic. Discussing the process with Nick afterwards I think next time we could do a two hour session, with the first hour making the monument, and the second hour doing an eight page graphic novel of the making of the monument. This would integrate a reflective learning element to the process. Best comment of the evening: “Are we paying nine grand for this?



On working with crafts people

Last weekend we had a Bronze Age beaker workshop, and I will post about that separately, here I want to work through my current experience and thoughts regarding my collaboration with crafts people, in particular Nacho and Paul the potters. Part of the workshop on Saturday included bringing the fired pots from previous sessions so that people could collect their pieces. Having worked with Nacho and Paul on Early Neolithic, Later Neolithic and Bronze Age pots a pattern has emerged. I am not a pottery specialist, however, I make sure I understand the categorising systems and characteristics of each period in order to make it clear how archaeology uses objects (in this case pots) to understand the past. It is through these different aspects that narratives are developed to explain each period.

Early Neolithic pot

One example might be a comparison between Early Neolithic and Later Neolithic pots. Early Neolithic pots tend to have round bases, whilst Later Neolithic vessels have flat bases. This has been interpreted as Early Neolithic pots being more suitable for resting upon broken ground, and therefore indicative of a less settled lifestyle. So a functional approach to form leads to interpretation. In contrast the later flat based vessels suggest flat surfaces are more common, and therefore the form of vessels again reflects aspects of environment and use. I like to emphasise the difference between evidence and interpretation to allow people to decide for themselves if they think this is a reasonable explanation, but more importantly, recognise the critical thinking processes involved.

Later Neolithic pot

The pattern that has emerged within Nacho and Paul’s production process doesn’t seem to reflect this approach though, in that we do the same thing every time. First we make a pinch pot, then we make a coil pot, then we add the designs. Shape and pattern are provided for us in the form of illustrations mainly derived from the publications of Alex Gibson. Shape and pattern are afterthoughts not related in any meaningful way with production process. The participant can take their pick as to which method they want to use to produce each or any vessel from each or any period.


When handling pots from the previous firing it slowly occurred to me that if the Early Neolithic pots had round bases because people were not using flat surfaces, then the coiling method we were using (which needs a large flat surface) would be technologically incorrect. Conversely, if this coiling method was indeed being used in the Early Neolithic it would cast doubt upon the mobility interpretation. To me this seemed an exciting observation and one that could be productively explored experimentally. And so I discussed it with Nacho. Nacho’s approach to our workshops could be described as more ‘person centred’, providing a participant with the basic components: pinching; coiling, shapes and patterns, and letting them work through the process at their own speed to produce something approximating the desired outcome. I have sympathy with this approach, indeed I do something similar with my glass Bronze Age arrowhead workshop. However I was finding it difficult to reconcile this approach with the pottery sessions. I think because the pedagogic approach being used was not made explicit, and an archaeological integrity between method and outcome was implied. The workshops were beginning to feel (to me) a little repetitive and superficial.

I think what is actually happening is a difference between an academic and a craft person’s approach. As a practitioner Nacho places high value on the aesthetics of his finished vessel. He also refers to relevant academic texts to shape his approach and final outcome. Within our workshops he adopts the above ‘person centred’ approach to ensure each person goes home with something. All this is commendable. From my perspective as an academic and archaeologist I can’t stop myself asking questions, and I encourage our participants to do the same, encouraging them to think critically about the orthodox interpretations. I have said previously that some amazing ideas come out when this critical process is structured. Nacho lent me some Gibson texts and I have started reading about Early Neolithic pottery. The question I have to resolve is what our workshops are actually about. Working with Nacho and Paul has really opened my eyes to pottery technology. Asking questions is the process by which I develop my understanding. If we work together to find an answer to this coiling question the process of investigation will develop my own understanding but also Nacho’s technological approach. I think this may be a large part of what these workshops are for me.

Mesolithic Star Carr type shale pendant workshop: a medium sized photo essay

I was planning to just present the photographs because as usual Pete Yankowski has done an excellent job of recording the event. However, when laying them out I thought it may be of interest to say a little about how the workshops are organised and explaining what I have learned from this process. I have done half day and full day workshops at the Old Abbey, and I have found a half day four hour workshop works for the pub, as well as myself and most participants. Quite often the workshops are collaborative, and this time I was directing the pendant making, and Edwina Staniforth making willow bast cordage for the pendant. The workshops always start out with an introduction to the topic. The periodisation of prehistory, and the concept of understanding the past through objects can be alien to many people. Consequently I use this section to explain these ideas and sow the seed that by making an artefact we can also use this active process to learn something about people in the past. Discussing this together at the end can enrich both our own, and everyone else’s understanding of the past. I end the introductory session by presenting us all with a research question, to keep in mind throughout the making process: “what (if anything) can experimental archaeology tell us about people in the past?” I overran by 15 minutes and then Edwina explained the processes she had already completed to get the willow bast to a stage that it could be worked on the day. 15


And then we went outside. Rachele Evaarooa and Craig Thomas from the Old Abbey have been fundamental for me getting these workshops up and running. As well as providing encouragement they also provide me with the space to host them free of charge. The external space is an old cobbled road with an awning protecting us from both the sun, and the rain. On this occasion it provided us with shade on what was a beautiful warm and sunny Saturday. The group was split into two, so that as one group produced the cordage, the other group could make the pendants. We would have a break for half an hour at 3pm, and the the groups changed tasks meaning everyone got to do both activities.




Making the cordage was a more complex process than making the pendant. Consequently, Edwina ended up completing a couple of people’s cords so that they could hang their pendants at the end of the workshop. By contrast, the pendant making needed minimal instruction and people were off! The shale pebbles had been collected by Rina Srabonian, Karen Buckley and myself from Runswick Bay north of Whitby the week before. The main task was to find a pebble thick enough to not break, but thin enough to be able to drill through successfully. They all aced it.


I had produced twenty or so flint drills to make the hole. These were made from waste flakes from the wheelbarrow full of debris generated from our knapping experiments. As drills they work really well.




We had looked at the Star Carr pendant design in the introduction, but it was really interesting to see how people engaged with the tools and materials to develop their own designs. I would say the group as a whole were confident in their artistic abilities and at least one of them was an experienced jewellery maker.



The above photograph is of a worn down flint drill after being used for making a series of holes and engravings. I have talked about it in another post but the best bit for me is where we share with each other our experience of the process and attempt to answer the original research question. It is important to me that we create a conducive environment for people to contribute, and I encourage everyone to do so. I am terrible with names and so we all have name badges which helps me to facilitate this process.


Anyway, the results. After everyone had combined their cordage with their pendants Pete arranged them to take some pics. This brought the two groups of makers together and gave everyone a chance to chat informally to everyone else. We all had something in common, and it seemed we all had something to say. One thing I am learning from these workshops is how this overall process creates community. Archaeology is an inherently interesting subject and a group of people coming together to engage in process and discussion seems to really work well.



And of course we all had something to wear! Post workshop feedback suggests the willow cordage is too abrasive to wear next to skin. Edwina chose willow bast because it is the appropriate material for this time of year, however there are other forms of cordage that would be less abrasive, but not available yet.


Anyway, the only person not in the photographs is Pete Yankowski, so here is one of him, and a link to his website. Enjoy!




Object style and author biography

This week I indulged in a little after hours flint knapping and made this pointy handaxe. I like it, and it bears a genetic similarity to many of the other handaxes I have made previously. This shape and form is not a blueprint I start with, but more a negotiated outcome.

Within university the concept of object biography is a current component of our undergraduate teaching. Considering the past lives of the object, and interactions that have helped to shape it over time. By its very nature, it takes the object at its present point in time and ventures backwards to reveal the objects story.

This must have been on my mind as this handaxe embodies a number of stylistic features that I can relate directly to my own biography. First of all the shape and aesthetic. For it to be a ‘result’ the acid test is that I have to like it. I have said before, I am competent at making functional tools, but I enjoy making aesthetic tools. This one chimes with my aesthetic and that is how I know it is ‘finished’.

Second up is the steep scraper retouch I have applied to the thick handle bit. Karl Lee taught me how to make a scraper, and I now use his same method to teach our students. In fact, that is what I had been doing earlier in the day, and the day before. Consequently the handle bit (if I cleaned it up) would be akin to, and could function as, a large scraper.

Finally, Because of the depth of the original flake I was using, to shape the basal section involved taking a series of long and thin removals. I was again using a ‘finger’ method learned from Karl, and with a little conscious care I could have used this process to produce bladelets. This reminded me of an observation by Damien Flas regarding an Early Upper Palaeolithic blade point from Kent’s Cavern. He recognised a series of bladelet removals from the basal section of the dorsal surface, suggesting it had also been used as a bladelet core.

The image above is a screen shot of page 207 of my PhD thesis showing the blade point in question. Observe the four removals travelling in a right to left direction on the proximal dorsal section. So the artefact aesthetic and form is clearly embedded within this author’s biography, and these aspects emerged through the process of making. This object will shortly be going on its travels, to my knapping comrade Rob Howarth. Consequently, this object biography is not ‘finished’, but has in fact only just started.