4. Can Stone Axes be made from Erratics?

Few recent investigators or policy-makers have taken seriously the complex question of boulder, pebble and stone re-cycling as potential resources for tool-making in later prehistory. Indeed Gardiner (2004, 4-5) writes ambiguously of secondhand materials and avoids using the geologically more appropriate and archaeologically less ambivalent terms re-cycled deposits, materials or stones.

An important exception to this pessimistic statement is the research of Olwen Williams-Thorpe, who has not only made sterling progress in identifying early implements: together with her colleagues she has initiated work on a limited number of erratics (Williams-Thorpe et al. 1999). The results showed that of 16 erratics from Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, four were quartz-dolerites comparable to the material from the Whin Sill employed to make prehistoric axe-hammers, and it was concluded that 'this supports the view that many Group XVIII and XXVIII axes were manufactured from erratics, rather than at outcrops' (Williams-Thorpe et al. 1999, 238; 2003).

Reviewing a much earlier study it was proposed that 'cobbles' (pebbles 64-256mm in length) were selected in axe manufacture (Fenton 1984, 231-2). Acknowledging the history of opinion on the use of local glacial resources since 1941, he advocated cobble resources rather than those from 'factories' and drew attention to the similar misgivings of numerous authors (including Stone and Wallis 1951, 129; Livens 1958-59, 138-9).

The above examples are drawn from a prehistoric repertory mainly of axe-hammers and mace-heads already considered likely to have been fashioned from large pebbles or cobbles. Of far greater significance for the purposes of this discussion, are implements fashioned upon Group VI stone. Here the tradition of flaking or part-flaking Lake District material from superficial deposits is shown to go back to the Palaeolithic, as witnessed by the discovery of an ovate from Broad, Warwickshire (Fennell and Shotton 1977). Shotton believed this to have been indubitably of glacially transported Cumbrian rock. Another implement in a similar material, but more likely of Neolithic currency from Over Whittaker, Warwickshire, was described by Saville and Shotton (1977). A third example is the poorly defined implement of Group VI material found at Lynch Farm in the Nene Valley, Northamptonshire (Challands 1973). This appears to have been struck from a larger, glacially striated and patinated boulder (Briggs 1979; Fig. 10). Curiously, although the Maxey excavations produced pieces similar to this, none of the petrographic reports confidently ascribing them to Group VI or near-Group VI mention how prolific Cumbrian re-cycled stone is in the locality where they were found (Pryor 1998, 257-69).

A large flat polished light green pebble about 110mm long, 60mm wide and 25mm thick with two flake scars and one end rubbed flat, was found at Eldernell, Whittlesey in 1957 (Peterborough Mus. no. L 955). Although believed to be of Group VI rock (M. Howe, pers. comm.), its petrographic section is lost (F.W. Shotton, pers. comm.). The nearby discovery of a Group VI axe of almost the same size as the pebble (Aldhouse-Green 1977, 14, no. 22; Peterborough Mus. L 956; petrographic section also lost) might be taken as a further indication that Group VI rock was present there as glacial erratic, and could have been utilised for axes without a great deal of effort. Attention has already been drawn to geological observations (Skertchley 1877; Sabine 1949) confirming this availability.

Volcanic or rhyolitic flakes are known from several Later Prehistoric sites in Wales. Examples come from Bryn yr Hen Bobl, where large convex scrapers (Clark 1936, 289-90, fig. 7, nos 9, 10), a chisel (fig. 7, no. 12) and secondary edge-trimmed flakes (p. 290, fig. 7, nos 7-9), were of Graig Lwyd stone, which J.G.D. Clark believed had been struck from axes imported to the site. Oddly enough, however, complete Graig Lwyd axes were absent from the assemblage, and Hemp felt 'it ... curious ... that while the complete axes [were] all of local material, the many flakes [were] of imported Graig Lwyd stone, some struck from polished axes, the bulk from blocks of raw material' (Hemp 1936). One, at least displays the outer patina of a boulder (Fig. 11). Considering the glacial dispersal of North Wales rock (Jehn 1909), there is every reason to support the notion that such flakes would have been struck from locally procured erratic, rather than invoke the human transport of either artefacts or these particular raw materials.

These examples aside, in spite of continuing pleas that major museums might encourage the public to report findings of naturally occurring unusual or exotic stones (Briggs 2003) few prehistorians appear to be collecting or even looking at boulders and cobbles, either at excavated sites, in stream or cliff sections, or on beaches. Because the idea of trade and exchange mechanisms is uppermost in our training (in Britain, though thankfully not so much in the USA; see, for example, Shackley 1987; see also the cautionary note about secondary redeposition in S. France by Bouard (1987, 869)), it is neither fashionable to collect unworked stone from excavations, nor to comb their environs for loose stone.


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