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.

 

Learning about structured depositions by making structured depositions

This weeks ‘Themes in British Prehistory’ module was focused upon the notion of structured deposition. Because on module feedback forms the students have emphasised how they find activities useful, this week they got to do some structured deposition of their own. We were using the activity to explore three concepts: firstly, the possibility of using objects as a local language to express ideas; secondly, how by depositing these objects within a landscape, that landscape can then hold that meaning and experience; thirdly, how subsequent visits to the depositional site can trigger within the participant a memory of the experience and the ideas associated with the deposited objects. Perhaps by making some structured depositions ourselves in the present it might alert us to some of the patterns that may be recognisable within past prehistoric contexts.

So first of all how did we explore the idea of using objects to express a local language? I harvested from our various piles of stuff at Manchester, some raffia cordage, flint flakes, sheep vertebrae and some broken pot. I also have three colleagues at Chester who teach the same students and each has a different specialist area. Amy is a bones specialist, Barry does plant materials and experimental archaeology, Caroline was more difficult to pigeon hole. She is an Iron Age specialist but I didn’t have any metalworking debris. However, because her name began with C she would be third on the list and so have to be have to be the pottery. Sorted.

At the start of the lecture I explained the concept and then showed the students the materials. I asked them as a cohort to choose the material or materials that best expressed the idea of Amy Gray Jones. Their immediate response was “It has to be the bone“. Correct answer! Then the material or materials that best expressed the idea of Barry Taylor. The slightly slower consensus was raffia cordage and flint blades. It was all going to plan. Finally the material or materials that best expressed the idea of Caroline Pudney. As they only had the pot shards left they all chose the correct material. Onto the deposition.

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We were going to dig three pits and make three deposits. I had arranged it with Dan the gardener the week before, and we were using the green space directly outside the lecture theatre. I had plotted in the direction and approximate spacing using Digimap so that all three pits created a directional line towards the Binks Building (top left) where Amy, Barry and Caroline’s offices are. Before setting out we had one one more task. To avoid any future archaeological confusion all flint, pot, and bone was initialled so that it was clear that should they be found, these were modern twenty first century Neolithic pits.

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And then we were outside in the lovely sunshine. First of all we used a compass to set our bearing and then lay out the tape in the direction of Binks Building (approximately north west of where we were).

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After laying out the tape out along our official north west bearing the mulch could start to be cleared and the ground surface exposed. This was my agreement with Dan so that the mulch would not be contaminated with soil bound weeds.

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This mulch clearing process revealed the hidden land surface we were going to be digging and depositing into.

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Once the north west bearing has been cleared of mulch the future pit locations were marked (from top to bottom) by a twig, a pencil and an orange peg. This in itself was a materials based critique of how funding cuts have affected archaeology departments.

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Then the structured deposition process could begin. This involved digging three shallow Neolithic style pits to a depth of fifteen centimetres.

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Once the pits were ready Amy Gray Jones was deposited first. Coincidentally, she walked past just prior to being deposited! A large part of the idea of structured deposition is that development of the alphabet has created a distance between our modern selves and objects. This in turn inhibits our consideration of being able to express our ideas through objects. Consequently we may not consider this kind of material communication within evidence from prehistory. In spite of this conceptual insight we still deposited the objects in alphabetical order. that’s what happens in the twenty first century Neolithic.

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We didn’t get a photo of the Barry Taylor deposit, however here is one of Caroline Pudney going in.

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Once all three depositions had been made we marked each one with a twig, spread out the mulch and then said goodbye to the sunshine and hello again to the lecture theatre. We covered a lot of ground in this exercise (pardon the pun), and I think it did explain in practical terms how depositing objects / ideas within the landscape means that the landscape can then hold that meaning and experience. We also talked about how we now cannot un-experience that experience and so that location can now trigger the memory of depositing the objects and the ideas associated with the deposited objects within all of us as a group. The whole process took about an hour, and it may be interesting to excavate these Neolithic pits next year. We can then try and work out why they form a line pointing towards Binks Building, why they are all 15cms deep, and why one contains some pot shards in the form of a smiley face.

For more on the concept of structured deposition see: Thomas, J. 1999. Understanding the Neolithic. London. Routledge.

Photos courtesy of Jade Foxall

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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 Neolithic axe from Graig Lwyd volcanic material: a short photo essay

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One of my colleagues, Alison Ollier, is doing her PhD research sourcing the volcanic materials  from North Wales that were used to produce Neolithic polished stone axes. She has a geological background and is also interested in how the material can be worked. Consequently she brought me a large block of this volcanic stone to experiment with.

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Because I am not familiar with Neolithic axes Elizabeth Healey lent me the replica discussed in the previous post. This was to give me an idea what I was aiming for. One of the outstanding aspects of this block was the fantastic platforms it presented. Because it was both large and potentially dense I used my hardest hammerstone, an almost perfectly rounded cobble of flint, and off we went.

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This volcanic material flaked cleanly and provided very sharp edges, but I would struggle to tell from the flakes what kind of hammer had been used to remove them.

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Anyway, after removing a good number of large flakes semi-disaster struck. My best hammerstone retired itself. I have got to say that the volcanic material has a really good feel to it, and also an interesting smell when you knap it.

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Anyway, I shifted to a smaller hammerstone and was surprised to find that the roughout I was producing was Neolithic axe like in shape. Things were going well, partly because I was taking it slowly as I wanted Alison to have something useful to take away.

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Whilst the earlier photograph presents this axe’s ‘acceptable’ face, this other side boasted this series of horrible step fractures. As I carried on with the hard hammer these presented a problem that proved increasingly difficult to remove. I needed a different approach and it was this step fractured section that led to my own second moment of enlightenment. I have to segue here to a short video I watched recently of Will Lord making a flint point. I saw him using a large antler hammer differently to how I understood them to be used. Essentially he hit into the body of the flint to remove long thin flakes. I observed with interest and that was that.

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So I was left with this horrible stepped section and it seemed that I needed to do something different to remove it. Consequently I used an abrading stone to isolate a platform and then chose my heaviest antler hammer

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Following Will Lord’s example I hit into the body of the material through the isolated platform and with the heavy hammer. It worked beautifully in that a large and long flake removed all the horrible stepping in one go. Perfect. This was a real eye opener for me and as you can see, the character and size of that flake scar differs from all the others on that piece. I stopped after that. It was getting late and I felt that I had achieved a result. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was the right shape and size, and I had learned something. Elizabeth has suggested she may have a go at grinding and polishing it which would be interesting. For me, I am just keen to explore a little more this novel way of using the antler to achieve these long thin flakes. And Alison has her Neolithic axe and associated debitage.

 

Our wet March pit firing: a short photo essay

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On Friday the 8th of March we had our postponed pit firing. Friday was the least wet week-end day we have had for a fortnight and so we went ahead in far from ideal conditions. This was partly because Eleanor, a student from Chester is examining the process for her dissertation, and the timing had to also fit within her academic deadlines. Anyway, spoiler alert: 99% success rate!

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After digging the pit the above photo shows the initial heating stage, to get the fire going and nurture a steady heat source.  

This initial heating dries out and warms up the soil in the pit. After heating for an hour and a half the pots could then be slowly introduced around the fire.

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Our task then was to both feed the fire, and gradually turn the pots and move them closer to the heat source. The aim of this stage was to evaporate moisture from the pots very gently.

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The fire generated hot embers and once established it was possible to rake the embers towards the pots, as well as move the pots towards the embers. These were the variables being controlled in order to facilitate a smooth heating and evaporation of moisture from the pots.

 

We had started the process at ten in the morning and at around one in the afternoon the rain started. Nacho (or rather the Met Office) had anticipated this, and so Nacho had bought two packs of aluminium foil. The cold-hearted drops of rain falling on the now heated pots presented the possibility of thermal shock, or breakage through rapid cooling. Nacho covered the pots with the foil to both protect them from the raindrops and reflect the heat from the embers back onto the pots. Although not strictly a Neolithic or Bronze Age solution, it helped us work in far from ideal conditions.

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The photograph above is of ‘the office’. We had two thermometers (one on the left courtesy of Sean Ashton) with which to monitor the internal and external temperatures. Alan (Eleanor’s dad) was charged with recording both every 20 minutes, and every time the pots were moved. Eleanor wants to compare and contrast temperature data with the subjective decision making of Paul and Nacho throughout the process.

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Once the pots were judged to be dry enough and hot enough they were introduced to the hot embers and a fire built on top of them. The fire needed to get hot enough to transform them from clay into ceramic. It was very much up to Nacho and Paul to decide at which point to start the fire and how hot and how long it should carry on for.

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The final stage for Friday occurred after 3.30pm, when Paul returned from picking up the children from school. This final stage involved covering the fire with greenery and soil to starve it of oxygen. This effectively ‘slow cooks’ the pots.

Fast forward to 10am Saturday morning, and the fire was still smoking and still pretty hot. In an ideal world Nacho would have left the pots in the ground for a couple of days, to cool slowly and naturally. Because of our deadlines we took a risk and raked off the upper surface to speed up the cooling process, had a cup of tea, and then went back to excavate and recover pots from one section only.

As you can see, in spite of the challenges the firing worked pretty well. I had to leave at 11.30am but Paul texted me later to say they had a 99% success rate. Nacho and Paul now have really good control over both the clay and its necessary processes and inclusions, as well as the pit firing variables. They fired all the pots they were given by our participants from from the Early Neolithic, Late Neolithic and Bronze Age sessions, and I think Eleanor has got some excellent material for her dissertation. Result!

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Neolithic points produced using a stone and antler tine pressure flaker

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This is the debris from my large slab of Runton beach flint. It has generated lots of flakes and I have a couple of Neolithic arrowhead events in mind. At uni we have a film crew recording part of a project we are doing, and they want some footage of experimental work going on. I have now mastered Neolithic arrowheads made from flint and produced using the correct methods: stone and antler. I think I can probably teach someone to produce one from a flint flake in about 40 minutes. That is my hypothesis and I get to test it out with the students in a week or so.

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Today has been a funny day. I had a lot of small tasks to do and this morning laid out my piles of paperwork to get through them one by one. They have remained untouched and I have been in the backyard and among other things produced these three points. The one in the middle was finished using my metal pressure flaker, the other two with my antler tine. I could feel unproductive having unfinished piles of paperwork, or I can feel productive having finished these points. It is obviously how I choose to contextualise it. I gravitated towards making these today, unplanned, and they have emerged into the world. They are an unconscious link between my positive feelings around the Bronze Age arrowhead workshop last week, and my thoughts about a future Neolithic Day at the same venue. They are also the result of my wanting to get better at using flint and leaf shaped points being simpler to produce. So a lot of things were going on for me and my body led the way into the backyard, and I came back in with these. Karen has just got back and we are going for a curry. I think I will choose to feel productive.