New analysis of water-clear rock crystal found at the early Neolithic complex at Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire – which consists of a causewayed enclosure and three long mounds that unusually began their life as timber halls (see CA 285 and 321) – suggests that this curious material may have been used to help mark burial sites and commemorate the dead.
During excavations of the site between 2011 and 2019, archaeologists from the University of Manchester, in collaboration with the University of Cardiff and Herefordshire County Council, uncovered a large assemblage of water-clear quartz crystal, comprising a total of 337 pieces.
Recent analysis of these rocks has revealed some interesting information. For one, they were probably well travelled. While quartz is commonly found across the UK, this particular type of crystal is much rarer and only found in specific geologies, including parts of Snowdonia and St David’s Head in Wales; the area around Tintagel in Cornwall; the Isle of Jura, and parts of Argyle and Bute, Aberdeenshire, and East Lothian in Scotland; and the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. This means that the rock crystals found at Dorstone Hill must have been brought to the site from at least 80-100 miles away, assuming they came from the closest location, Snowdonia, which is by no means certain.
It also seems that the quartz was brought to Dorstone Hill as whole crystals, which were then worked into smaller flakes, blades, and cores. Unlike the flint blades that were also found at the site, however, these objects do not appear to have been used as tools. Instead, they seem to have been purposefully deposited into the long mounds, a practice which may have been carried out over several generations.
Based on these unusual characteristics, Nick Overton, who led the study, suggests, ‘We argue their use would have created memorable moments that brought individuals together, forged local identities, and connected the living with the dead whose remains they were deposited with.’
The researchers are now working to compile more information on the use of rock crystals in prehistory. They hope to hear from those who may know of other potential examples of this practice from sites across Britain and Ireland.
The results of this research were recently published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0959774322000142.