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Returning to the source: investigating flaked stone tool raw material procurement strategies in prehistoric Ireland

Returning to the source flint provenancing project


The Returning to the Source project is the second part of the Irish Lithics Landscapes project (IRLL) that is investigating the places where prehistoric communities obtained the raw materials for their flaked stone tools during the Irish Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Early Bronze Age, which dates to about 8,000–2,000 BC. During the first part of the project that was based at the Université de Montréal, we focused attention particularly on chert from northwest Ireland; during the second part, based at the University College Dublin, we turned attention to the flint deposits from the northeast of the island, along with an island-wide flint beach pebble survey, and a continuation of the chert deposits in the west of Ireland (for the differences between chert and flint see Driscoll et al. 2016).

Glenarm flint

Glenarm Quarry of the Ulster White Limestone Formation with courses of flint nodules visible.

2015-16 Fieldwork

For the project's geological prospection we spent c.350 person/hrs collecting 300 geological hand samples in the three zones - 1. in the northeast of the island of Ireland collecting samples from the flint deposits in the Ulster White Limestone Formation; 2. along the coast for an island-wide flint beach pebble survey; 3. in the west of Ireland collecting samples from the chert deposits in the Burren area in particular. The fieldwork recording and the laboratory analytical methods follow the same methods as the previous project.

NE Ireland flint deposits. The first component of the geological prospection focused attention on the in situ flint from outcrops in northeast Ireland, with the flint often called 'Anrim flint'. In the northeast, we examined 33 outcrop groups from three counties. The flint from the northeast is derived from the Ulster White Limestone Formation; compared to the chert-bearing rock units surveyed in the previous project which form part of the Carboniferous Basin of Ireland, the flint-bearing Ulster White Limestone Formation outcrops are more constrained to thinner strips of outcrop beneath the basalt cap (darker rock above the paler limestone in image). The Ulster White Limestone was previously more extensive across the island of Ireland, but survives today mainly along the Antrim coast partly due to this basalt cap which protected it from erosion. While the outcrops in the northeast are horizontally constrained, vertically the exposures are formed as cliffs that can best be described as intimidating to survey in many cases. This image on the right shows a sea cliff on the upper left, and on the upper right a typical nodule sampled from a vast slipped block, while the bottom shows an example of a massive nodule exposed in a quarry face where a vertical sequence of 15 courses of nodules were sampled (marked in red): an even larger flint nodule - (a paramoudra) - can be seen in the middle of the exposure towards the right. This paramoudra is from the disused Clarehill Quarry, in the area where the word paramoudra for these very large flint nodules is derived; the term was first used by Buckland in 1817 and is a corruption of a Gaelic name, probably padhramoudras "ugly Paddies" or peura muireach "sea pears" (Porter).

2015 fieldwork survey points and flint-bearing bedrock in northeast Ireland Flint-bearing bedrock with basalt cap flint outcrop collage NE Ireland

Flint pebble beach survey. Along with the geological survey of the in situ flint in outcrops, we undertook a series of beach surveys around the island, investigating the distribution of flint pebbles. This map shows the distribution of beach flint according to Woodman et al. 2006), with this project's survey points marked in red, and the in situ flint deposits of the Ulster White Limestone Formation. In total, 44 beaches were surveyed. The choice of beaches was guided by Woodman et al.'s (2006) schematic, which suggests that beach flint is available along the east and south coast, and then available on some beaches along the west and north coast. In order to quantify this distribution of beach flint, 13 areas outside of the northeast were surveyed, with at least three beaches surveyed in each area (three areas had four beaches in total surv)eyed, thus surveying 42 beaches; these all fell within the Woodman et al.'s suggested distribution, except for one extra area in the southwest which was also surveyed. As well as the beaches away from the flint deposits, two beaches in the northeast close to outcrops with flint were surveyed in order to provide a baseline to compare the quantity and size range of beach flint on beaches near flint outcrops to those away from the outcrops.

Flint pebble beach survey Ireland

Burren chert deposits. The final component continued the chert provenancing of the previous project, extending the survey south into south Galway and Clare, with a particular focus on the chert outcrops of the Burren, but also including a number of outcrops surveyed in south Galway and across the River Shannon into County Tipperary.

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IRLL15 Map

The map below provides an overview of the IRLL15 geological prospection, and contains two layers: a survey point layer that includes survey points with and without sampled material (i.e. negative evidence of survey points with no in situ chert / outcrops not found), and a sample layer with all the geological samples collected that also includes descriptions of the samples' survey points. The layers can be toggled using the layer box on the left, or the map can be opened in a new window and layers toggled from there.

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2015 fieldwork survey points and chert-bearing bedrock in west Ireland
  • Lithics Ireland Consultancy
  • Galway, Ireland