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: http://www.starcarr.com/pendant.html




On plasticity and creation


This image is taken from a book that accompanied a British Museum Ice Age art exhibition (Cook 2013: 153). It is a Palaeolithic clay figurine interpreted as a wolverine from the Czech site of Predmosti. The key thing, shocking thing about this figurine (for me) is its size: only 47mm long. The above image was used for our most recent Dolni Vestonice ‘Venus’ figurine workshop, added to the worksheet late on the Friday evening as an additional activity for those people who finished their ‘Venus’ quickly.

At the Saturday event I had my third go at producing a ‘Venus’ but also the above wolverine, and a bear. I was particularly pleased with how the wolverine figure turned out. At the very first ‘Venus’ event the experimental potter, Paul Thomas, showed me how simply squeezing a handful of clay allowed the ‘Venus’ figurine shape to emerge. He then went on to work this basic shape into a lovely replica of the original. Paul then applied this same process to the wolverine, and also a bear, to great effect. I had this in mind on Saturday when I started making my figurines.


The wolverine worked really well using this squeezing technique. Once approximately formed I then pulled out the legs and that was it. I said in the feedback session at the end of the workshop how I was becoming really interested in the relationship between the figurines form and that of the human hand that created them. After the session I began to think about the plasticity of the material and how that directly led to the creation of the figurines, a blend of ideas and materials brought together through the form and action of the human hand. This led me on to wondering if the idea of the animal came before or after the initial squeeze? Was the shape imposed, or did it emerge and in doing so present the idea of the animal?

I was getting excited by this line of thought, developed directly through the making process, and was keen to write it down as my way of working it out. Before putting finger to keyboard I started by revisiting the reference for the images used. This involved a trip down the corridor to the Art and Archaeology library. Having found the book, Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind (Cook 2013), I found the image and then noted the actual size of the original. It became apparent that my Saturday version is around twice the size of the original. The original was tiny, only 47mm long. If the ‘hand idea’ has any mileage then the Palaeolithic hands that produced the wolverine were half the size of my own. A child’s hand? If so a child of what age? The squeezing approach does work well for the ‘Venus’, the amount of clay and the size of an average adult hand does allow a figurine of approximately the right size and shape to be squeezed out. Also, a child’s fingerprint was found on the original Dolni Vestonice example. I now want to have another go at producing the wolverine and the bear, but this time to the actual size of the originals, to see how that works, perhaps do it with some children? This wolverine is the gift that keeps on giving!

Cook, J. 2013. Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind. London. The British Museum Press.

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?



Making a Bronze Age beaker: a short photo essay

Almost a month ago now we had our ‘make a Bronze Age beaker’ workshop at the Old Abbey Taphouse.

The two beakers above were produced by Nacho as examples for us to follow. The first has dried and is ready for firing, the second has been fired. The following photos show the coiling process discussed in the previous post. A flattened digestive biscuit sized base is produced and the the sausage like coils are then built up.


As the coils are built up they are systematically blended together on the outside and inside to bind together and form the walls of the vessel. As you can see from the photographs, a range of approximately Bronze Age shapes emerged from this process.




Once we had produced our Bronze Age pots the next stage was to decorate the walls with designs copied from archaeological examples. We first of all practised upon 2D shapes before going onto the pots directly.

Steve Cunio

In the photograph below Nacho is showing how nettle cordage can be used to produce patterning on the pots.




As I have said before, the end results are not just the finished vessels, but also the experience of the people taking part in the process.







As ever, thanks to Pete Yankowski for the photographs: https://peteryankowski.co.uk/



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!




Mesolithic ‘pendant’ workshop: my thoughts


The most recent Old Abbey workshop focused upon making willow bast cordage and a Mesolithic Star Carr type shale pendant (see above GIF by Colleen Morgan). The idea was a development of cordage making activities from the experimental archaeology group at Manchester, as well as the pendant making activity from this years Material Culture module organised by Nick Overton.


Edwina Staniforth was running the cordage making activity, and introduced a new ‘community’ of women to the Learning Through Making workshop. I was surprised at how differently this group approached the pendant decoration, compared to the undergraduate students who completed the same activity a month or so earlier.


Above is a pendant made by Catherine O’Doherty, a third year student at Manchester. The engraving is more similar to the original Star Carr pendant. The following photograph is of Carolyn Quinn’s pendant and shows how the process and material have been explored differently to produce deeper gouges and a curvilinear pattern.


What struck me about the above example is how the hole has been integrated into the design. This is in contrast to Catherine’s example, where the hole is made specifically to suspend the pendant, whilst the pattern decorates the pendant. It then occurred to me that if the hole is actually part of the design on the original object we may be imposing the idea of a pendant onto something that comprises a pattern and hole.

This was exciting to me because the University of York have completed a lot of work on the pendant, but did not find any convincing use wear to suggest it had been worn for any length of time, or at all. At that point lots of ideas started to present themselves, but the key point I want to focus on is my assumption that the object in question was a pendant as we understand them. This assumption had excluded any further consideration of what the original object was to the Mesolithic maker.

My most recent workshops have been really presenting me with food for thought, and this is directly related to engagement with communities beyond the academic. This post is brief as I hope to have one of the participants write about their experience of the workshop, and include Pete Yankowski’s excellent photographs. However, and to conclude, I am finding these workshops to be febrile environments, allowing  the exploration of archaeological artefacts and processes from new and exciting directions.


The GIF was produced by Colleen Morgan and taken from the Star Carr website: http://www.starcarr.com/pendant.html

This is the paper documenting the pendant analysis and interpretation: http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue40/8/index.html