Erratics and Re-cycled Stone: scholarly irrelevancies or fundamental utilities to lithic studies in prehistoric Britain and beyond?

C. Stephen Briggs

Independent Researcher and Lecturer. Email:


There are many theories explaining later prehistoric 'trade' and 'exchange systems' in stone artefacts. Evidence matching the petrographic information of transported implements with the country rock (local bedrock) where 'factories' produced flaked stone axes is felt to be compelling. Consequently, across Europe it is widely believed that the only way 'factory' rock could have reached the places where artefacts have been found was by human carriage. The discovery of implement working floors, or 'factories' in montane areas (c. 1900-1970) on primary exposures of stone, lithologically almost identical to polished axes found considerable distances from them, has led to a belief in the industrial, economic or social processing and carriage of finished products. There are caveats to this proof of evidence, however.

Natural processes constantly redistribute incalculable numbers of durable erratic pebble- to boulder-sized clasts, so why could these not have been used for making prehistoric artefacts? There is abundant evidence in the archaeological record that artefacts were crafted from such material. And although there is now an archive of petrographic thin-sections available to help to identify the origins of the artefacts, no comparable data are available on re-cycled stone. Implement provenancing is therefore unlikely to be of lasting scientific value until investigative programmes have accumulated far more accurate petrographic data on pebbles and erratics from superficial deposits. Comparisons between some British-Irish implement distribution patterns with those of glacial erratics suggests the available evidence already better fits an interpretation of deterministic and opportunistic stone procurement rather than one involving long-distance travel by prehistoric peoples. Extensive, long-term sampling and provenancing programmes are now needed to address this requirement.

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