2. Crusading for the Recognition of Re-cycled Stones 1973-2009

As a young archaeologist, I learnt the fundamentals of the 'axe trade' from the late Joe Davis and Terry Manby while attending lectures of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society Prehistory Research Group during the early 1960s. They explained the British implement-provenancing programme, begun during the 1930s (Grimes 1979); how petrographic investigations of successive Implement Petrology Committees had since commissioned the slicing of Neolithic stone axes, and how at least 30 different outcrop sources were known for them (Clough and Cummins 1979; 1988). Denoted by Roman numerals, these 'factory groupings' localised the sites of country rock as far apart as Mount's Bay in Cornwall (Groups 1-IV), Penmaenmawr north Wales (Group VII), the Lake District (Groups VI, XI and XV), Tievebulliagh and Rathlin Island, Co Antrim (N. Ireland: Group IX) and even Scotland (Group XXIV; Livens 1958-9;) and the Shetland Islands (Group XXII). It was particularly fascinating to hear how axes of Borrowdale volcanic rock (Group VI: Bunch and Fell 1949) had apparently been traded across the north of England (Fell 1964; Manby 1965). I not only felt this combination of petrographic corroboration and deductive reasoning formulated a compelling argument, but accepted it uncritically and regularly evangelised its scientific importance and apparent truth.

While I was learning of this 'axe trade', I was being taught geology and geography at Batley Grammar School by Mr E.T.W. Robinson. He assured his pupils that if they wanted to see evidence for glaciation, they only had to visit the boulder clays of East Yorkshire and see it in cliff exposures. There they could pick up in abundance green stones from the Lake District as well as more exotic-looking pebbles from Scandinavia, Scotland and elsewhere.

Subsequently, I studied archaeology at the Queen's University, Belfast (1965-73). There, during fieldwork, mainly in Central Ulster, undertaken for undergraduate, then for postgraduate studies, doubts began to grow about the axe trading theory. Ireland is well glaciated, and well endowed with superficial deposits that seemed to include a great deal of material resembling porcellanite. Much of this occurs as pebbles that would make appropriate implements, particularly axe- or adze-heads. Its durability is almost legendary: it can be as hard as tool steel.

Collaborating with the petrologist Jack Preston from around 1950, Prof. E.M. Jope had produced studies of axes from the Tievebulliagh and Rathlin Island factory workshops (Group IX) and Antrim baked shales (Francis et al. 1988), demonstrating how the former, at least, had been distributed right across the British Isles (Jope 1952; cf. Briggs 1988a; 2003). These soon became (and for some they remain) model demonstrations of Neolithic 'axe trade' (e.g. for Cooney and Mandel 1998). Although Jope was a remarkably liberal teacher and scholar, it can be difficult for students to challenge their teachers by new and important interpretations, particularly if they result from investigation employing an expensive technology.

These doubts only crystallised after I had left Northern Ireland in 1973 and joined the RCAHMW at Aberystwyth (west Wales). When reading W.A. Cummins' Antiquity article on British Neolithic axe distributions of 1974; Fig. 1, it struck me forcibly that, rather than prove the movement of stone by prehistoric peoples, his isoplethic map showing Group VI (Great Langdale) implements was more likely to demonstrate the implements' coincidence with the greenstone glacial erratics that littered East Yorkshire and other parts of the eastern seaboard. How the other distributions might be interpreted remains a matter of some difficulty, if not, in some cases, even of controversy (cf. Berridge 1994).

In my early career, I reported officially at RCAHMW to Mr C.H. Houlder. A long-standing member of the CBA Implement Petrology Committee, his was then among the most authoritative voices in Welsh stone axe studies: his work on the Mynydd Rhiw axe factory (Group XXI) was well known (Houlder 1961), and though not so clearly associated with his name, the synthesis on Group VII axes and the Penmaenmawr axe factories in the Inventory for Caernarvonshire was also his work (RCAM 1956). He was not entirely sympathetic to the course my curiosity began to take under his professional eye.

In 1975 during a chance meeting with Ian Smalley, Professor of Soil Science at Leeds University, my attention was drawn to F.W. Harmer's distribution map of erratics in the Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society for 1928 (Fig. 2). Even a cursory glance at it suggested there may have been some correlation between East Coast erratics and the distribution of Lake District Group VI axes, if not also between other 'grouped' stone and erratics.


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