Refitting: what’s going on?

This is the reduction sequence when I managed to get some overshot flakes and a series of other clean removals. What is going on when you refit? You are re-experiencing something akin to the initial reduction process, but very slowly, and in reverse order. Your hands and eyes work together with shape, pattern and colour to find the answer you know is there, and sometimes you can’t find it (I had two pieces left over).

When I have learnt complicated physical exercise sequences in the past, one strategy I have been taught is to do the desired sequence backwards. it has no functional value other than letting your body explore the pattern a different way. It disrupts muscle memory, and that is important, because muscle memory allows you to do things unconsciously. Reversing the process makes you and your body very conscious of each part of the sequence. I wonder if something similar is going on here?

So the main question I am exploring is, can refitting the reduction sequence contribute to the process of learning to flintknap? And if it does, then how does that process work?

Grooved ware pots and Neolithic gender


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.


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.



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:




Workshop at Whitworth Men’s Shed

It has taken me a while to write this post. Currently we are away in London and I am enjoying catching up with myself. There are no images to go along with the text and in many ways that reflects the experience of the workshop itself.

I first encountered a Men’s Shed last year when we went to Norfolk to visit John Lord. Karen hates paying for parking and so when we visited Norwich we walked in from the outskirts where we had parked to the centre where we were headed.

Norwich Men’s Shed is in an old industrial unit on the outskirts of the city. It looked interesting so I popped in. I found out that it is an organisation to promote social inclusion and wellbeing for older and economically disadvantaged men. This is facilitated through peer to peer practical skill sharing. Beautiful.

A few months later I found out that a friend of mine, Tony Sheppard, was running a Men’s Shed in Whitworth, just outside Rochdale. In the spirit of the project I offered to run an arrowhead making workshop for the men at the Whitworth project.

I had however an ulterior motive. I get a great deal from the making process and thought this may be an opportunity to measure a wellbeing outcome. A measured wellbeing outcome would be valuable for approaching funding bodies to develop future workshops. I (naively) thought this could be a win win. Tony was keen and so we arranged a date and I went to Whitworth.

The project comprised two organisers, about a dozen ‘men’ and a small industrial unit in the process of being refurbished by the men themselves. After a brief introduction from Tony I explained what I was about and passed around some flint and glass tools.

I propsed six weekly sessions with a wellbeing questionnaire at the beginning and the end. The wellbeing measure was something done for every activity and so really it was just the six weekly sessions that was new. The response was overwhelmingly negative.

The explanations as to why my proposal was not wanted could be debated, but that was not really for me to do. They did not need to explain to me why it was not attractive to them. Anyway, I was more interested in the overall feeling in the room.

It reminded me more than anything of being in a playground, with certain individuals making decisions and speaking for the group. Tony was frustrated because I was a guest. I was a guest and so had to take on board what was unfolding. It was really interesting.

Universities, museums and members of the public pay me money to teach them how to make stone tools. Here I couldn’t give it away.

I think the above is an accurate description of events. What follows is my conjecture as to the reasons why this interesting situation occurred, and it should be taken as conjecture.

Tony thought that we two were the only university graduates. I am 58 and almost all the men present were older than me. Some of them were skilled practitioners in their own fields, as  illustrated by the improvement work being done by them on the shed.

The same individuals who were recognised as skilled practitioners within the group seemed to also be the individuals that spoke up for the group. This suggested to me a relationship between recognised skill and leadership within the group.

Tony had not asked the men if they wanted a university person to come in and teach them a practice based skill. Both he and I had assumed making glass arrowheads would be of interest. It was a mistake to not include any of the men in that initial descision making process.

I think skilled older men with unofficial positions of authority within a group may resent not being consulted. Especially about a university person coming into their space and exercising ‘expertise’ upon them.

It made me think about how male identities and within-group status can be constructed through skilled practice. Conversely, how trying out a new practice and not being so skilled could be threatening to status and identity.

the nub of resistance coalesced around the commitment to doing six weeks of something they saw as having little value. I agreed to return the following week and do a taster session with a few of the men.

The following week I worked through the arrowhead process with five men, whilst another six or so observed from the sidelines whilst playing dominos. And it went well.

I want to work with Tony and in a wellbeing context in the future. However, the key here is how our assumptions were wrong, creating a context that was hostile, and suggesting interesting relationships between skilled practice and male status and identity. All that has been percolating for the past few months!