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.

 

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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.

Neolithic leaf shaped arrowhead

Whilst away on holiday I paid a visit to the Whitby Museum, well worth it if you should get the chance.

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Inside there is lots of treasure, and this is a photograph of a lovely Neolithic leaf shaped arrowhead found locally.

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This, by contrast, is my point from today (and yesterday) made from a really thick piece of glass given to me by a friend, Stephen Poole.

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It started out as an exercise in exploring the differing functions of hard and soft hammer in the process of reduction. In this respect it was successful as I now have some nice flakes for reference purposes.

However, the striking difference between the flakes produced by the different methods was also useful for me in deepening my understanding. Thinning a nodule to produce a handaxe is a process that I have observed (and filmed) a number of times. Karl Lee always emphasises the import of understanding angles. The stark contrast between these flakes is allowing something to fall into place for me (conceptually, not yet practically!) The hard hammer is perhaps more about producing angles to work with. The soft hammer more about exploiting those angles to thin the piece effectively.

I don’t like this arrowhead. It is too thick and lumpy and will probably go into the box in my back yard where my not quite resolved experiments end up. However, I have made it my point for today (made yesterday, finished today) which keeps the process, and therefore learning opportunities, going. What is intriguing for me is how the actual flakes themselves are helping me understand  the process differently. Learning from the materials seems to encourage me to think about something I already know about in a different way. This thinking through objects is obviously something we do a lot within archaeology. It will be interesting to pick apart how the objects have added to my understanding in a way that observation and explanation have not. Perhaps the theme for another post.

Neolithic Milk of Magnesia interlude.

I had the opportunity to have a wander around Chorlton Ees one morning last week and came home with quite a few pieces of old glass recovered from the roots of fallen trees.

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This lovely blue piece in particular caught my eye and I like to think it is the base of an old Milk of Magnesia bottle.

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As you can see it is chunky and I wasn’t quite sure how well I could reduce it. This is because it is both narrow and thick and I was worried that I may run out of width before it was adequately thinned. Anyway, today has been a beautiful day here in Manchester and I got to spend a couple of hours outside playing with it.

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I am pleased with the result. It has become a Neolithic leaf shaped arrowhead, similar in proportion to some of the stone examples I have seen. The edges are sharp, the tip is good and it is fairly symmetrical.  What really makes it stand out though is the lovely blue colour. When Nick Overton sees this photograph he will immediately focus upon the very, very small section of original surface left in the middle. All I can say Nick, is: “when a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees is pockets!”.