3. Current Project

3.1 Quartz database

The initial stage of this project has been the setting up of a database of quartz finds from excavated and non-excavated contexts. This database has been formulated by a literature review, a search of the online database of Irish excavation reports, excavations, and an archive search in the National Museum, Dublin. The database will eventually appear as an interactive, online map. It is important to note that this database is heavily constrained by the primary data in four key areas. Firstly, the database currently includes both 'worked' and 'unworked' finds – i.e. deposits of quartz in ritual and funerary contexts that do not necessarily include 'worked' quartz (Herity 1987; O'Brien 1999). 'Worked' and 'unworked' finds are differentiated in the database, and the maps here include only 'worked' finds. However, this distinction is based on the description in the primary source, and, as Warren and Neighbour (2004) have argued, the differing contexts of quartz use are associated with different sets of archaeological terminology. Many 'unworked' finds may, in fact, include worked pieces; and many 'worked' finds may need considering in the light of the use of quartz in ritual contexts. Secondly, and related to the first point, the identification of the quartz as worked or possibly worked has not been checked, but rather simply referenced as stated. Thirdly, this count should be seen as a minimum amount, as it is apparent that even though quartz may have been found during excavations, it may not be stated explicitly as quartz in the reports or publications but instead called 'stone' artefacts/lithics; this also applies to the National Museum archives. And finally, the point made earlier, that quartz will be under-accounted for in both surface collections and excavations, must also be borne in mind.

These problems demonstrate that any current 'total' for quartz in Ireland would be incorrect – but in a context where over 1000 licences for archaeological excavation have been granted in Ireland every year since 2001 (Anon. 2006), any static figure would be meaningless in any case. More significantly, and accepting the caveats above, this simple database explicitly highlights the extent of the 'quartz problem' in existing archives. A recently published review of Irish prehistoric stonecraft has highlighted eight instances of quartz lithics (admittedly not attempting to list all quartz use) and mentions that quartz occurs at a number of other Neolithic structures (Woodman et al. 2006). This project's database has shown that over 150 townlands (the smallest official land unit in Ireland) have quartz artefacts that are described in the literature as either worked or possibly worked, and some of these have more than one findspot.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Quartz artefacts from Ireland

The map in Figure 1 shows that quartz artefacts are found throughout Ireland. As with any distribution map, this mainly informs us of modern archaeological practice: for example, infrastructural developments in eastern Ireland are clearly evidenced in the distribution. The map should also be seen in the context of the general distribution of finds of other raw materials; for instance, the south-west and the midlands both have a relative lack of non-excavated finds of any material, and both have a minor amount of research and development-led excavations. Whereas finds of flint are more common from non-excavated contexts, this map highlights that quartz is relatively rare from such contexts due to the difficulties in identifying surface finds of worked quartz mentioned earlier. In the map a distinction is made between 'surface' finds and 'fieldwalking' finds – 'surface' finds denotes quartz found on the surface, including those resulting from antiquarian lithic-collecting activities, while 'fieldwalking' denotes surface finds collected during research projects, such as ploughzone surveys. While it is apparent that quartz is far more common from research excavations than from development-led excavations, a caveat is that this interpretation may be skewed because more research excavations have been published.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Quartz finds from Ireland – quantities

For most of the assemblages the amount of quartz finds is small (Fig. 2). However, this should be seen in context of the overall number of lithics from these areas: for instance, while only five quartz lithics were found at the Neolithic structure at Drummenny Lower, Co. Donegal, these accounted for 33% of the lithic assemblage (the rest being six flint and four chert) (Dunne 2003); at the Neolithic house at Enagh, Co. Londonderry, the quartz finds were a 'few' flakes, yet only one flint artefact was recovered, making the quartz the majority of the assemblage (McSparron 2003). Given all the difficulties of collection and curation highlighted above, it is clear that any comment on the comparative significance of the raw materials is impossible at this stage.

3.2 Case studies

In order to understand the chaîne opératoires of the quartz technology, three excavated assemblages have been chosen as case studies – Belderrig, Co. Mayo, Thornhill, Co. Londonderry, and Lambay Island, Co. Dublin (Fig. 3). The primary case study is a Later Mesolithic and Early Neolithic site at Belderrig, Co. Mayo, a research excavation directed by Dr Graeme Warren, UCD School of Archaeology. This site is located immediately on the shore of the modern Belderrig Harbour. The site is characterised by a complex archaeological sequence buried beneath up to 2m of blanket bog. In brief, a series of activities appear to have taken place from c. 4800-4300 cal BC to c. 3600-3300 cal BC, resulting in the deposition of stone tools, faunal remains, and evidence for the laying out of stony surfaces and some stake-holes and pits. Also within the excavation trenches are dykes of the pre-bog field systems of the region, most widely known as the Céide fields (Caulfield et al. 1998). The latter date relates to the active use of the field system. Abundant lithics have been recovered from Belderrig, mainly in quartz (both vein quartz and rock crystal); most of the quartz lithics are derived from a platform technology producing large flakes and some blades. As excavation is ongoing and many samples still require processing the overall size of the assemblage is not currently known, but is in excess of 10,000 pieces.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Case studies

The second case study is the quartz component from the Neolithic palisaded enclosure site from Thornhill, Co. Londonderry, a development-led excavation directed by Dr Paul Logue, Environment and Heritage Service, Dept of Environment, Northern Ireland (Logue 2003). This site overlooks the mouth of the River Foyle. This extensive site, as yet with no radiocarbon dates, uncovered five potential buildings – related to the multitude of other Neolithic 'houses' discovered throughout Ireland – within the palisaded enclosure, as well as evidence for numerous pits. Logue (2003) noted that '[t]he wealth of archaeological features exposed during the initial phase led to a change in emphasis ... from rescue excavation to identification and preservation'; furthermore, 'Area 1 was excavated very rapidly as only five days were available to investigate an area measuring 50m x 40m'. The artefactual evidence comprised flint (c. 1000 artefacts) and stone tools, stone axes, saddle querns and ceramics as well as the quartz (vein quartz and rock crystal) component which is c. 4000 artefacts.

The third, smaller, study focuses on a cluster of quartz identified at Lambay Island, Co. Dublin during research excavations of a Neolithic stone axe quarry, directed by Prof. Gabriel Cooney of the UCD School of Archaeology (Cooney 2005). This small group of artefacts (c. 70 pieces in total) appears to be a complete knapping episode, deposited against a face of worked porphyry. Preliminary examination indicates that a high-quality platform technology has been used. Using the framework developed in the main case study, this assemblage will be analysed, and a refitting exercise will be conducted to ascertain whether this represents a knapping episode.

3.3 Methodology

The database of Irish quartz finds clearly highlights that the quartz problem in Ireland is significant, and the international context of quartz research highlights that many researchers maintain that an understanding of quartz must be derived from a detailed knowledge of fracture mechanics – ideally developed through experimental work. In essence, this is the approach taken by this project in analysing the selected assemblages from the case studies. However, some caveats are needed. There is a tendency to treat the results of experimental work, especially those based on fracture mechanics, as 'hard' facts. This sometimes fails to recognise that technology is not primarily constituted of material production but is fundamentally social (see Pfaffenberger 1988; Reynolds 1993; Dobres 2000; Ingold 2000). The sociality of technology is not an after-the-fact addition to material considerations; the social factors of technology cannot be appended on to discussions after the analysis of the seemingly more grounded material side of technology, nor can they reside in a separate analytical chapter from technological considerations. Rather, from the first instance the study of past technologies must be approached from a perspective that implicates the sociality with the materiality of technology. To take a concrete example, extensive programmes of quartz analysis in Scandinavia (e.g. Holm and Knutsson 1998; Rankama et al. 2006) are founded upon detailed experimental work within a framework of fracture mechanics, leading to the development of analytical frameworks based on the fragmentation of a material prone to shattering. A simple approach to quartz analysis in Ireland would be to borrow these frameworks and apply them to our material. However, this would fall foul of the materialist fallacy of technology: quartz working was not just a matter of fracture mechanics but was social – choices in how to work rock, and what rock to work, arose from the interplay of local identities, local traditions, and local materials and as a consequence our understanding must be grounded locally, and build outwards from these points.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Possible chaîne opératoires

This project uses the concept of the chaîne opératoire, which was developed as a methodology for comprehending and analysing the operational sequences undertaken in the creation and use of material culture. At base, the chaîne opératoire looks at all the operational sequences in play from an artefact's birth to death, with the initial concept having an explicitly social, cognitive, and evolutionary focus in its contemplation and analysis of technological practices. Whereas typological systems of analysis focus on results – the finished artefact – the chaîne opératoire focuses on action. In terms of the possible chaîne opératoires with stone tools, Figure 4 shows the basic possible broad-scale sequences as seen in the archaeological record; therefore you can see that there are a myriad of possibilities even at this very basic representation and scale. Unfortunately, use-wear analysis is beyond the scope of this project; consequently, Figure 5 highlights that the lack of use-wear analysis invariably cuts down on the depth of possible information that can be examined, and the interpretations of the possible chaîne opératoires are consequently weakened. This current project, however, should be seen as a first step in analysis, and it is hoped that use-wear analysis can be carried out at a later stage.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Possible chaîne opératoires without use-wear analysis

In order to explore the possible chaîne opératoires in the case study assemblages, the experimental work will involve assessing the fracture mechanics of the quartz by knapping the material using various techniques. As mentioned earlier, before we can begin to understand the chaîne opératoires, the fracture mechanics of the raw material in question must be understood. Therefore, a series of knapping experiments will be conducted that will produce an experimental assemblage which will be analysed through attribute analysis and used to devise a core and debitage typology for comparison with the excavated assemblages. During the analysis of the case study assemblages, further experimental knapping will be conducted to clarify any questions that may arise.

The initial stage of the knapping exercise has been to collect the raw material from near the main case study assemblage from Belderrig. The material collected has been from both in situ veins, disturbed veins, and beach cobbles (which are also vein quartz). Samples from three different veins and a beach cobble have been analysed macroscopcially and in thin-section by Dr Julian Menuge, School of Geological Sciences, UCD. This has shown that the vein quartz naturally available near Belderrig is variable in character in terms of crystal size, orientation, and fracture development. An initial overview of the vein quartz variability from the excavated assemblage has shown that other possible 'subtypes' of quartz were utilised beyond those sampled so far; the next stage is to identify possible outcrop sources for these types and to conduct further programmes of thin-sectioning. The implications of the variability of the quartz for knapping is poorly understood, and this aspect will be examined during the experimental exercises.


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Last updated: Wed Jun 10 2009