'The durability, quantity, and near-ubiquity of knapped flint and stone give them an unique value as the most widely surviving evidence of prehistoric human activity...Holocene lithics stand out by the evenness of their preservation across the landscape...lithics are still there... This makes lithics one of the most reliable indicators of human use of the landscape through at least the first 9000 years of the Holocene.' (Lithic Studies Society 2004, 1 – my emphasis).

1. Introduction

For many years lithic scatters, those locations in the landscape where flint and stone artefacts have been disturbed by the plough, have been viewed as poor data, second to excavated assemblages (for example, Thomas 1991, 14-15; 1999, 18). Chronological resolution has been viewed as coarse, rendering any data of poor intellectual value. In fact, as Schofield has argued, the data is simply different (Lisk et al. 1998; Schofield 1995; 2000). This category of site and their artefact assemblages actually hold great potential. That potential for analysis is drawn from the diversity and quantity of artefacts recovered and the ability to map different traditions of landscape occupation. This is an under-explored resource. This article aims to go beyond the common theme of field methods (Clark and Schofield 1991; Haselgrove et al. 1985) to discuss lithic scatters in terms of the social construction of place (Tilley 1994). Field methods are acknowledged as important, for example, expedient collection methods (Bond 2007a; Gerrard et al. 2007). But in this article, emphasis is on the interpretation of lithic scatters as inhabited places (cf. Hind 2004a; 2004b; Ingold 1993; Pollard 1998; 1999; 2000; Whittle 1990; 1997). The case study presented concerns recent research in central Somerset, a study area from the Polden Hills, the Somerset Levels to the Mendip Hills, covering 486.3km² (Fig. 1). More than 150 lithic scatters were selected from museum collections, mostly from previously unknown sites, and over 20,000 lithic artefacts were analysed (cf. Bond 2006).

Lithic scatters may represent complex palimpsests. Lithic analysis often indicates multi-period activity over generations and successive periods, from the Mesolithic to the earlier Bronze Age (for example, see Edmonds et al. 1999; Healy 1991; Waddington 1999). The time-depth may, but not always, represent successive seasonal, even cyclical, episodes of activity at these locations. Such activity may represent a social group's repeated attachment to certain places discontinuously over millennia. Where this can be demonstrated by the chronological variation of artefacts recovered from the site this is not likely to be fortuitous, more an indication of conscious selection processes. These locations may have been favoured places to visit or camp, located on well-used paths. The idea of persistent or preferred places may be applicable here (cf. Barton et al. 1995). Viewed in this way, lithic scatters can represent a critical resource for understanding the biography of the stone (the artefact worked at that location) and the landscape (place and interaction between places). In re-thinking lithic scatters in this article, four themes will be addressed:

The methodology summarised below is one that enables lithics to be assigned into different groups based on data quality and period, in effect, phasing lithic scatters. The following discussion contrasts two different scales of analysis and explanation:

The question of the change in human presence and perception of lithic scatters can be addressed by using both scales of analysis (Fig. 1). The place from which we recover multi-period lithic scatters may have meant different things to different groups over time. People may have re-visited these places over millennia. It may be argued that it was intentional to select these locations rather than coincidence. For example, foragers coming to a glade in a forest with an existing spread of worked stone may have deliberately chosen that place for the resource available. Other factors may also have guided the selection of a location, such as good browser and understory vegetation, an elevated knoll, a tree exhibiting bark stripping or pollarding. People who visited a lithic scatter over time may not have been from the same social or kin group but they may have gained knowledge of the route to the place from others. Archaeologically, such re-visiting may be represented by discontinuous discard of artefacts of different dates at that location. This may be viewed as incidental; successive visitors may not have noticed previous activity at that place (however ancient). However, here it is thought highly unlikely. Rather prehistoric artefacts have been charted as heirlooms, shifting from different social and depositional contexts over many hundreds, even thousands of years (Woodward 2002). Indeed, past social places have been argued to retain meaning over generations (Bradley 2002). This, together with the inherent bush-craft skills that prehistoric small-scale societies most probably possessed, as demonstrated in the anthropological record (Mears and Hillman 2007), indicate a potential ability for these peoples to track animals, forage for plants and also be aware of past human activity at a place.

Whether each place and the material culture there retained the same meaning over successive visits is doubtful. This would depend on the specific cultural appropriation of that place. People may have ignored lithic debris at a locale. Intentional agency may not be demonstrated at every lithic scatter, linking one period of artefact discard with a later visit and re-appropriation of that place. But, it is argued here that the presence of differently dated stone artefacts is likely to demonstrate knowledge of the past lithic scatter (either by those who visited or those who informed the visitor). If this is accepted, past artefacts at a locale would have been actively appropriated by new groups moving around the landscape. This suggests people shared knowledge of places embedded within long standing oral traditions. Such traditions are informed and inferred ethnographically (Ingold 1993; 2000; Taçon 1991).

It can therefore be assumed that people did deliberately visit lithic scatters. Moreover, it is also assumed that lithic scatters were viewed as a residue of past activity, whether it being human, or more mythical. The scatters may have been visible or obscured by vegetation. Importantly, knowledge of the place may have been held in social memory; it need not have been lost. Even if later activity at the location displaced past traces by pit digging, construction of middens or clearance of the surface for occupation, it is likely that debris from the past would be found. Attachment of social memory to place is central to understanding the social construction and re-visiting of lithic scatters. The time-depth exhibited within assemblages from lithic scatters is not accidental!


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