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




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