4. Mesolithic Ancestors?

In some areas, such as Sussex, Mesolithic communities do appear to have made axes of the unpolished tranchet form. Most significantly, perhaps, both tranchet and polished axes were used in the early Neolithic of Sussex (Gardiner 1990, 129). However, no tranchet axes are known from North Wales, parts of Northern England and Southern Scotland, although it has been suggested a tradition of antler ones may have existed (Saville 2003).

While the use of such material provides an interesting context for discussion of the significance of the later prestigious antler 'mace heads', it is also possible to ask whether we would recognise a Mesolithic Group VI or Group VII axe if it existed (Figure 4). It is, for example, probable that the flaking of an existing stone shape to produce Mesolithic ground axes as suggested by Woodman (1977, 189) would have required a technique not dissimilar to that of 'Neolithic' artefacts. Similarly, there is a need to recognise that the form of the polished 'Neolithic' axe is similar to some ground Mesolithic ones. In Figure 4, for example, the axes with the shape that we would probably think of as typical of the Neolithic (axes 6 and 7) are in fact from the early layers of the Newferry Mesolithic site, with uncalibrated dates of 4965-5535 bc and 5680 bc respectively (Woodman 1977), while axe 5 is from the later levels of that site and the others are from Neolithic Ballygalley.

An established tradition of ground axe manufacture in the Mesolithic of Ireland may help explain the existence of a Group XI axe in the early Magheraboy enclosure. However, the existence of any Mesolithic ground axes challenges the idea that the polished axe was one of the 'instruments of conversion' (see Sherratt 1995 for this term), to be adopted with the rest of the Neolithic package. Nevertheless, the latter idea is a reminder that the significance and meaning of the axe may well have changed during the course of the Neolithic and even during a defined period an axe may have had different significance reflected in its usage, casual loss or structured deposition.

However, it is necessary to note that most, if not all, sources for Neolithic axe procurement do not appear to have been used in the Mesolithic. For example in Cornwall, Greensand Chert had been used (Berridge and Roberts 1986), in Ireland Group IX does not appear in Mesolithic contexts and the flint mines of Sussex may also represent a shift from early sources. In addition, the fact that there appears to have been no Mesolithic (stone) axe tradition in North Wales and the Lake District means Groups VI and VII also relate to procurement from areas not previously exploited.

Nevertheless, that lack of a tradition raises the related question of how and why indigenous groups in the Lake District and North Wales – if such they were – chose Group VI and VII rocks. One possibility, reflected in the siting of some megalithic tombs, is that the areas were significant places in the Mesolithic landscape (Cummings 2004, 32-4). Such an interpretation might easily apply to the visually distinctive Langdales (Clare 2007b) and to the other exploited sources (Cooney 2000). In short, discussions of the detail of axe procurement at individual sites may need to allow for the fact that they were/had been part of the 'sacred' or mythologised Mesolithic landscapes. Certainly any such associations with the 'old' Mesolithic landscape must have added to the prestige of the objects obtained there and potency to their exchange for the new and alien domesticates.


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Last updated: Wed May 27 2009