The four ages of prehistory are named after the dominant material from which tools were made, and of these the period popularly known as the Stone Age was by far the longest: the Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages spanned periods of 1,000 to 2,000 years (40 to 80 generations), compared with the 3.5 million years (140,000 generations) of the Stone Age in its various manifestations – the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods. That is a very long time in which to develop a knowledge of the sources and properties of different kinds of stone and methods of working them to create tools, weapons, and objects of great aesthetic and symbolic appeal.
The very first stone tools were no doubt the products of natural erosive processes, collected and put to use by our most ancient Palaeolithic ancestors from riverbeds, beach material, glacial moraines, gravels, rock exposures, and upland scree. The practice of obtaining subterranean material from within caves and fissures or by digging into the earth does not begin until the Mesolithic. Fire-setting also dates from the later Mesolithic, along with the use of hammerstones to obtain specific types of stone, such as rhyolite, dolerite, quartzite, and obsidian, all used for making bifacial tools and weapons, blades, scrapers, tanged points, and microliths.
Peter Topping’s first chapter reviews all the evidence for pre-Neolithic mining and presents much evidence for deliberate open-site quarrying by indigenous hunter-gatherer- fisher communities in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. In the British Isles, later Mesolithic quarrying of the dolerite and mudstone on the southern flanks of the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire has been demonstrated by Tim Darvill and the late Geoff Wainwright. Other sites with similar carbon dates – the 6th to 5th millennium BC – include Burnetland Hill on the Scottish borders, the Isles of Arran and Rhum, the summit of Fin Cop in Derbyshire, at Mynydd Rhiw on the Lleyn Peninsula in north Wales and on nearby Bardsey Island, and at Monvoy in County Waterford.
There are additional features associated with Mesolithic stone extraction that prefigure Neolithic practice: deliberately placed deposits of partially or completely worked lithics at extraction sites, sometimes inserted into the fissures below or between boulders; knapping debris and debitage gathered and placed in pits rather than casually strewn across the working platform; and rock art nearby or framing a quarry entrance.
In addition, Mesolithic stone workers had already developed the techniques for grinding, polishing, or burnishing stone to give it a distinctive sheen. In southern Norway, ground-stone axes were being produced as early as 8000 BC, and at Lugh Boora, County Offaly, ground-stone axe-heads were found sealed beneath a peat inundation dating from 6000 BC. The Nab Head site in Pembrokeshire produced four axe-heads of ground dolerite with an associated carbon date of 7310 to 6700 BC. Overall, the evidence shows that deliberate extraction was not a Neolithic invention, but was a widespread phenomenon in Mesolithic Europe. Mesolithic people had already started to seek out unusual lithologies (such as Rhum’s so-called Bloodstone, a dark green rock with red inclusions that resemble spots of blood), especially those associated with distinctive landforms like prominent rock outcrops, caves, and swallow holes. Grinding technology was in use from the 9th millennium BC onwards, extraction practices included deliberately placed on-site deposits, and quarries were the starting point for extensive long-distance distribution networks.
Thus, although it is often said that quarrying and stone polishing are part of the Neolithic ‘package’ of innovations brought to northern Europe by agricultural migrants, along with pottery, domesticated animals, and cultivated crops (see CA 290 and 333), the evidence shows that the Neolithic witnessed the intensification of existing practices, not their invention. Distinctive to the Neolithic period is the development of deep-shaft and gallery mining to reach more deeply buried strata. Sometimes this took place at the same open-air quarry sites as had been exploited earlier, but new sites were also opened up that seem to have been sought out deliberately for their inaccessibility – for example, the sources of jadeitite high in the Italian Alps at Monte Viso, south-west of Turin, and Monte Beigua, above Genoa, from which impressive polished stone axes were made and distributed widely throughout Europe.
Symbolism at source?
During the Neolithic, the distinction became more marked between utilitarian tools that were commonly made from local deposits, and non-domestic objects of great cultural value, originating from remote sites and transported over long distances. Clearly these latter highly prized objects came with a story attached. What Peter wanted to find out is where and when that narrative began. Did the layers of significance represented by the exotically coloured, finely shaped, and laboriously polished axe- or mace-head start at the quarry, or later in the life story of the object? Could the axe-head’s significance be attributed to its inherent aesthetic appeal, its ownership by a prestigious individual, its heritage as an heirloom, its usage within particular ceremonies, its rarity, its cost, its magical properties, or its symbolism – all qualities that belong to the later life of the object? Or was the value of the object connected with a much earlier stage: was there something about the source and the extraction process that made the object special?
Some clue that the latter might be the case is the fact that the raw materials for these objects could, in some cases, have been obtained more easily from riverine deposits or more accessible open-air sites. If the easily won material was ignored in favour of the difficult, some symbolic value must have been placed on the location and character of the extraction sites and/or on the methods employed in winning and working the stone.
To find out more, Peter Topping turned to ethnographic studies conducted among people who extract and work stone using pre-industrial methods. He warns against the simplistic use of ethnographic material to explain what prehistoric people might have believed, however. The sheer variety of beliefs among the 168 ethnographic studies that he looked at shows that there is no universal paradigm that explains the meaning of stone in every instance. However, the very fact that mythology, cosmology, religious practice, and ritual activity are associated with extraction sites in such a high proportion of these ethnographic studies tells us that Neolithic people are likely to have had similar stories and practices, even if we don’t know their precise nature.
Foundation myths and deities
What is common to many of the extraction sites in these studies is that they are located at prominent or distinctive landforms (peaks, cliffs, boulders) and comprise deposits that are visually different in scale, texture, or colouration from the surrounding landscape. These characteristics set them apart from the norm, and many myths start by explaining the character of the landform and the reasons why these deposits are different. A second characteristic is that the resulting narrative often forges a direct link between the stone source and the community’s existing foundation myths and cultural narratives.
In some myths, the landforms and boulders are said to represent petrified deities or significant ancestors, both male and female. Caves, fissures, and rock shelters are portrayed as portals to the underworld, the abode of chthonic deities. In some origin myths, there is an echo of ancient memory in the belief that ancestors emerged from caves and fissures. In other myths (and in the Bible), the first humans are created from earth and rock. Stone and flint nodules are mythologised as eggs whose potential can only be released with appropriate rituals. The shaping and polishing of stone is frequently described not as a human act of creativity, but (prefiguring Michelangelo’s comments about his own practice as a sculptor) as the release of forms and entities already residing in the material, a process that requires supernatural sanction and help.
Spirits and deities thus act as makers and guardians of distinctive raw materials. For that reason, stone cannot simply be extracted: access depends on appeasing the entity that curates the resource, seeking permission to quarry, and asking for help in finding the best stone. This might explain why ritual deposits at Neolithic extraction sites sometimes contain worked and polished axe-heads, giving back to the chthonic deities a finished human artefact in return for the divine gift of raw material. It also partially explains the presence of human remains at some sites: the Una people of New Guinea use the bones of ancestors in their rituals associated with quarrying, bringing these individuals with them to sanction their work. After a successful extraction, they offer a pig whose fat is used to anoint selected boulders and thus feed ancestors and deities.
The deities so honoured are frequently female, like the mythical woman of the Una people who gives birth to the stones of the Langda quarry and controls their availability. Other examples from Inca mythology and the Plains people of Minnesota link female fecundity with the provision of valuable stones, minerals, and ores. The counterpoint to this engenderment is the exclusively adult male composition of many stone-working teams, by means of which a female-derived substance is complemented, neutralised, or transformed into a male power symbol. Not all chthonic deities are willing accomplices, and the mythology of mining and quarrying also includes examples of malevolent creatures – like the orcs and trolls of Tolkien’s Middle Earth or the gnome-like ‘knockers’ of Cornish mining lore.
Aquisition of resources
Ownership of the resource, and access to it, must have been an issue at a time when settled Neolithic communities were being formed and probably claiming exclusive use of land cleared for cultivation, by contrast with Mesolithic lifeways, which probably involved unrestricted seasonal movement across large tracts of landscape. Ethnographic parallels show that open access and ownership by an individual (for example, a village headman) are known, but group ownership is the more common pattern, with elders, ritual specialists, or hereditary officers having authority over who has access and when. Occasionally, sites are occupied year-round, but more often they are located at some distance (one- to five-days’ march) from the users’ community. Extraction teams are predominantly made up of male adults, with boys occasionally present as apprentices, though a minority of the sites studied had mixed teams and in two instances (ochre-extraction in Africa and Australia) were female-only. Neolithic practices are difficult to determine from the skeletal evidence at extraction sites because there is no way of knowing what connection the people buried there had with the site. As with extraction teams, so with the craft specialists who turn raw materials into artefacts: 94 per cent of the studies that recorded their ages and sexes showed that they were exclusively male, with only 4 per cent mixed and 2 per cent exclusively female.
Although owned or managed by a specific community, the products that emerge from extraction sites can be carried great distances, and cultural value seems to increase the further the object travels. Of the studies that recorded distribution, distances of more than 200km from the source were recorded in 73 per cent of cases, 100-200km in 19 per cent, and up to 100km in 8 per cent. This leads us to ask what might have happened when an object passed from the community that extracted and made it and entered a community with entirely different myths and rituals.
Studies among Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians suggest that what survives as the object travels is the association with deities and ancestral beings, even if the exact nature and form of those beings differs from one community to the next. The artefact is viewed as resulting from an interaction with supernatural entities, and thus to be an appropriate type of object for use in whatever rituals might have taken place at Neolithic monuments or special places, such as rivers and wetlands, or in ceremonies designed to maintain social structures and power relations – the giving and receiving of gifts, the installation of community leaders, and so on.
Another important quality of rare and distinctive forms of stone is the great difficulty that attaches to their acquisition. Some archaeologists have theorised that polished stone axes travel through many different hands on their journey from the extraction site to the point where they are eventually found by archaeologists. This may be the case, but there are other possibilities: in Maori communities, an individual or a small group sets out on a journey to obtain artefacts and materials at their source, and surviving the perils of the journey becomes a part of the object’s cultural importance – even more so if the journey involves travel through hostile territory or, as in the case of the South Island Maori people, travelling to greenstone sources on the north coast of the North Island, a hazardous sea-crossing.
Trade and social exchange
What benefit do the quarry owners and extraction teams get from exploiting the resources they control? The ethnographic evidence is not always as illuminating as one might desire, but in New Guinea, precious stone is traded for another kind of prestige resource that the source community lacks, be that ‘pigs, marine shells, or new wives’ – the latter not only creating and maintaining exchange partnerships but also kinship links and community alliances.
Much of the ethnographic evidence points to the conclusion that some types of extraction site were used exclusively to produce materials that fulfilled a symbolic role. Thus to characterise Langdale (Cumbria), Graig Lwyd, or Mynydd Rhiw (both in Gwynedd) as ‘axe factories’ is incorrect if it implies an economic function or an industrial production model. Their products were not designed to satisfy the growing demand for the functional axes that played a crucial role in the systematic woodland clearance of the Neolithic age. Instead, these products were solely emblematic, designed for gift-giving, social transactions, and religious ceremonies, to carry narratives and creation myths, and to represent supernatural forces and cosmological ordering. Perhaps they were always destined, ultimately, for purposeful burial or deposition in pits, in the ditches of causewayed enclosures, and in rivers and bogs, sometimes having first been broken or burned. It is difficult for us to understand why such beautiful objects, so difficult to create, were then treated in such a manner, but that may well have been the fate for which they were originally created. New Guinean ethnography again offers a possible explanation: ‘power stones’, including adze-heads and stone knives, are sometimes buried to transfer their power to the earth and symbolically to encourage plant and animal fertility (or the opposite: to avert evil influences).
That idea would fit well with the estimates of the numbers of objects produced at these sites. Some 1,800 jadeitite axes have been found around Europe, representing three axe-heads per year during the 600-year history of these Alpine quarries and perhaps a maximum of 12 a year taking into account the axe-heads that have not yet been found. The 1,661 recorded Langdale axe-heads represent a production average of two-to-seven implements a year for the 250-to-750 years during which these Lake District quarry sites operated. Graig Lwyd produced 387 provenanced axe-heads during c.500 years of production, or between one and four a year, and Mynydd Rhiw only 33 in 700 years of quarrying. Ethnographic accounts support these numbers: at the Yeineri site, New Guinea, groups comprising five-to-ten men spend three days securing enough stone for their annual production of 10-to-15 ceremonial axe-heads. These were not factories bent on mass production and profit, but small-scale producers of very rare artefacts – and the numbers of unworked cores, broken axe-heads, and rejects left behind at these sites is an indication of rigid quality control.
Perhaps these high-status objects did have some influence, however, on the parallel production of functional objects made from flint or from local rocks found closer to home, whose forms were often based on the shapes of prestige axe-heads made from Alpine material. Indeed, it has even been suggested that Langdale axe-heads themselves represent an attempt to replicate the appearance of Alpine jadeitite products – the ultimate and most desirable of all lithologies.
Peter’s thought-provoking book is largely concerned with portable stone objects, but many of his findings must also have some bearing on the other uses of stone in the Neolithic, not least for standing stones and stone circles. It is a reminder, as we contemplate the mysteries of Stonehenge and similar sites (Avebury, Carnac, and Orkney’s Ring of Brogdar, for example), that the meaning does not only lie in the form of the monument (circles, lines, and trilithons) or its cosmological alignments, or its ceremonial uses, or the significance of its location, but also in the myths embodied in the stones themselves and in the landscapes and locations from which they were sourced: they are (to quote Alasdair Whittle) ‘gifts from the earth’ and (to quote Richard Bradley) ‘pieces of places’.
Peter Topping, Neolithic Stone Extraction in Britain and Europe: an ethnoarchaeological perspective (Prehistoric Society Research Paper 12), Oxbow Books, £35, ISBN 978-1789257052.
All photos: P Topping.