4.1 Factories vs re-cycled stone: an ongoing polemic

Some of the above studies have helped promote greater awareness, though not necessarily an acceptance of the relative unlikelihood that these particular implement types were from 'factory' centres (Fenton 1984, 218, defines 'factory' as 'centre of implement manufacture on, or adjacent to, the scree/outcrop site from which the blanks are obtained).

During the late 1980s important new discoveries were made around the axe-laden screes of the Langdale Pikes by Richard Bradley and Mark Edmonds during a reconnaissance programme that included excavations. This, they published (Bradley and Edmonds 1994) soon after I had articulated further serious challenges to the fundamentals of the 'trading theory' (Briggs 1989).

In their synthesis of this new work, initially, it was acknowledged only that 'whilst most of the raw materials were obtained from their natural sources, an unknown proportion of the axes were made from glacial erratics of the same composition, and these can be found in different parts of the country'(Bradley and Edmonds 1994, 38). This statement was referenced simply 'Briggs 1976, 1989', though without further explanation of the detailed arguments presented in those papers. The fundamental question of how flaked axes may differ in composition from polished ones was entirely overlooked (Bradley and Edmonds 1994 passim), and the potential for any localised stone procurement came over thirty pages later when the emphasis shifted slightly in the statement that 'nearly all the axes of Group VI did originate in Cumbria, the exception being those artefacts made from glacial erratics' (idem, 71-72). There was no indication as to which artefacts it was agreed were non-manuports, or what proportion of the total axe population they might have been. Later still, it was accepted that 'a few stone maceheads [were] made of erratics' (Bradley and Edmonds 2005, 189). So here was partial, though reluctant acceptance of a resource potential in at least some of the re-cycled stone on the lands inhabited by prehistoric peoples.

The authors did admit that:

'in some ways glacial erratics pose serious problems. Indeed, the fact that the full extent remains unmapped has been thought to discredit the whole idea of an "axe trade" (Briggs 1976 and 1989) – a rather eccentric argument which could only be sustained in the absence of large production sites. In fact the existence of such erratics helps to define the characteristic features of this system, for here was a source of stone with similar properties to those imported from distant areas. The significant difference lies in the nature and extent of polishing. Axes made from local erratics were seldom polished completely. This has two implications. First it was considered that the origin of the material was more important than its physical characteristics. This may be because exchanged items carried with them a history of relations between people. Secondly, the fact that axes made from materials with similar properties received different treatment according to their area of origin shows the extent to which such judgments were socially determined. They were not a response to practical problems encountered during use. The significance accorded to particular artefacts, as manifested in their treatment, depended more on their cultural biographies.' (Bradley and Edmonds 2005, 50).

The first part of this statement is to be welcomed. At long last, after a century or more of understanding glacial geology and lithic re-cycling, we have a statement euphemistically accepting that there is in the erratics resource an elephant in the Neolithic axe-makers' parlour! But going on and unfortunately ignoring its implications, the second part is a categorical statement unsupported by fact, written without misgiving and quite devoid of degrees of the possible or probable. The problems of examining re-cycled stone disposed of, the authors here indulge in pure fantasy, omitting to signal any recognisable threshold between ascertained fact and attractive free interpretation. This is an intrusive minor chord of unannounced post-Modernism entering into a debate I had believed was governed by the harmonious rules of simple empiricism.

Whatever their own views, here as elsewhere, Bradley and Edmonds so condense my study of Cumbrian axes and erratics as to omit its most crucial tenets, particularly on petrography. Erratics aside, they acknowledge none of the other elements of the supporting thesis of determinism elsewhere in the book, either for discussion or dismissal. This gives readers an unfortunate impression that sufficient is known of the subject to demonstrate the integrity of its conclusions as written. But the text is misleading in that it omits to explain that there are still many outstanding investigational caveats.

Bradley later ignored these problems posed by an absence of the required evidence by making a proposal that is even more difficult to document, namely that Neolithic peoples possessed the equivalent of an 18th-century Sublime aesthetic. This was apparently manifest in their collective mind, where there was an intuitive element magnetically drawing Britain's earliest industrialists to places as far as possible from the populated lowlands to enjoy and be at one with Wilderness Quality and primary rock exposures (Bradley 2000, passim). Discussing 'production sites' as part of this comprehensive approach to an 'archaeology of natural places', acknowledgement is afforded some of the broader misgivings of those scholars who interpret primitive implement outputs in terms of a Law of Least Effort (the empirical approach) rather than seeing it through the more cosmic imaginings of some present-day prehistorians (the post-Modern way; Bradley 2000, 86-7).

Once more, the potential for erratics as a major source of stone axe supply was dismissed, though without reference either to studies of erratics or to any other of the investigational hazards of studying stone implements. The overall influence of this post-Modern approach on empiricist teaching and research in prehistoric studies generally is hard to assess, but its effect on approaches to provenancing early implements and early human behaviour has been profound.

If the implement workshops of the British-Irish uplands really could be demonstrated to have been places central to organised production, to overlook all the other lithic resources available in later prehistory would be excusable. But empirical arguments have been presented incrementally over quite a long period that question the role of the 'factory' as one that demonstrably served long-distance production demands (Briggs 1976-2003). These problems need to be addressed, not dismissed or overlooked. I believe that both past and recent petrographic studies have provided less than subtle hints about the dichotomy in the materials of flaked, largely upland-produced implements, and the polished implements which tend to be found at some distance from the factories that produced them. This dichotomy is detailed at greater length elsewhere (Briggs 2009), but brief explanation is offered here.

The problem was introduced in relation to Cumbrian axes (Briggs 1989), where it was pointed out that Cowper (1934) presented the most obvious evidence, when he asked how we could tell whether or not unpolished Cumbrian axes (the ones now known as 'roughouts') had ever endured human use. There are, after all, numerous unpolished or only partly polished implements in upland Cumbria. If these are to be interpreted largely as the output of a production process, their producers were remarkably careless in losing so many of their product. And if Cumbria was deforested, as Pennington (1975) and others have demonstrated, precious few polished axes now survive testifying to tree felling. So, surely, these 'roughouts' and partly polished implements must offer the missing clue to how Neolithic settlement and agriculture were conducted?

It is quite certain that some axes were being flaked from large pebbles in the Lake District though at some distance from the axe factories. The axe illustrated here from Castlerigg (see Figs 12 and 13) is probably a case in point, and is a tool that bears some indication of use. The Cumbrian uplands possess only flaked or part-polished axes. It is known that upland Lake District was deforested c. 4000-2000 bc. How else could the work be done but with flake axes, particularly as so many trees were relatively soft pine, and not hardwoods?


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