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2 History of Irish lithic research

2.1 Introduction

In order to delimit and contextualise the current project’s aims and methodologies, this chapter outlines the predominant strands of Irish lithic research. While not aiming to be an exhaustive narrative, this review highlights by example some of the key antiquarian and archaeological concerns over the past two centuries. The prehistoric use of flint as a lithic raw material has featured centrally in researchers’ ponderings, so much so that the Antrim flint deposits were seen as the lynchpin of Irish prehistory for most of the period covered in this chapter – indeed, even by some as the raison d’être of the post-glacial colonisation of the island. As this thesis is concerned with quartz – a flint ‘alternative’ – particular focus will be towards how researchers have comprehended and assessed the flint alternative raw materials used in prehistoric stonecraft. Although Woodman et al. (2006) have recently provided an overview of raw material variability in Ireland, they did not focus attention per se on how previous researchers have approached these materials. While quartz use will be mentioned throughout, a more specific history of quartz research – in both Ireland and beyond – will be provided in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 respectively.

The eighteenth century European realisation that the antiquity of humankind was far greater than had previously been thought led to an investment in the study of lithics, to ascertain what they could tell of times past. Section 2.2 outlines the preoccupation with the antiquity of stone tools, and discusses the development of the Three Age system, and how this seriational and typological concept was initially received, and eventually applied, in Ireland. Social Darwinism was a parallel conceptual development to the Three Age system, which allowed the drawing of ethnographic parallels between Irish prehistory and the contemporary stone tool-using peoples with whom colonialism came into contact. Section 2.3 turns to the twentieth century concept of the Culture group, where classes and types of lithics were seen as identifying discrete, bounded cultural groupings of people. Here, I will outline aspects of the research carried out by Mahr, Movius and the Harvard Expedition, and Mitchell, and how they interpreted the lithic record. Section 2.4 discusses the new emphasis given towards the quantification, and ethnographically influenced model building, of the lithic record from the 1960’s. A key researcher from this time was Woodman, who undertook a series of excavations that remain as key Irish Mesolithic sites. From the 1980’s a landscape approach to the collecting and analysing of lithics was undertaken, with programmes such as the Bally Lough project and the Mt. Oriel project initiating plough zone surveys. Section 2.5 outlines the limited use-wear, refitting and replication studies that have been carried out, and Section, 2.6 discusses the reassessment of older assemblages, which have either been previously under-researched, not fully published, or have been assessed in a different interpretive light.

chap 2 locations

Figure 2-1 Areas mentioned in Chapter 2

2.2 The nineteenth century collections

Up to the mid-nineteenth century the bible provided the chronology for the scientific interpretation of the past in the Christian world. The timescale of humanity was estimated to be about 6000 years, and earlier propositions from the Classical world that there had been an age of stone before metal were disregarded because it was considered that the bible clearly stated otherwise. However, eighteenth century European antiquarian research suggested that the classical writers had in fact been correct, and an age of stone preceding that of metal was posited again (Trigger 1989). Consequently, the antiquity of stone tools became one of the most focused reasons for the study of lithics in Europe, and led to debates in Ireland as to the true antiquity of Irish human occupation. In Denmark Thomsen organised an exhibition of Danish antiquities using the typological Three Age system; this formed the basis for Worsaae’s work on  the prehistory of Denmark in 1843 (Trigger 1989, 81). Subsequently, Worsaae (1845-7) visited Ireland, and in presentations to the Royal Irish Academy, he suggested the applicability of the Three Age system to Irish prehistory, and posited a Stone Age date for the building of megaliths.

Nevertheless, nine years after Worsaae’s presentation, the Royal Irish Academy eschewed the Three Age system when it published the first account of Irish stone tools – this was part of the catalogue of the Academy’s artefacts which Wilde compiled in 1856 (Wilde 1857; Waddell 2005, 135). Instead, Wilde used a classificatory model from natural history: stone materials were considered as a class, and “flint”, “stone”, and “crystal” were considered as orders, thus circumventing the need to explicitly theorise on the series of ages implied in the Three Age system. Wilde (1857, 2) suggested that this way of presenting the museum’s artefacts was adopted “for convenience sake”. Waddell (2005, 136), however, has argued that it is more likely that the idea of successive ages was bypassed as it did not tally with the picture of Irish history "that was accepted in varying degrees by Petrie, O'Curry and Wilde himself". This version of history maintained that the medieval annals provided an exhaustive account of the chronology of the past, and these mentioned the use of metal at an early stage. Nevertheless, the Three Age system could not be ignored entirely – Wilde (1857, 9, 32) commented that a gradual development in stone tool types could be discerned, and that the stone tools were the "traces of the first wave of population - the pre-historic data which aid and confirm Bardic traditions", thus leaving open the notion of a pre-metal age in Ireland, which fit the model of the Three Age system.  

The vast majority of the Academy’s lithics collection came from the northeast of Ireland, which is the richest source of Irish in situ flint and also an area where raised beaches and diatomite cutting were conducive for the collection of artefacts. As elsewhere, flint was considered to have been the premier raw material for stone tools, and Wilde (1857, 7) suggested that “the rarity of flint must have rendered these weapons very valuable in other districts”. Because flint tools are invariably easier to recognise on the ground in comparison to other lithic raw materials a stronger tradition of collecting lithics developed in the northeast than elsewhere in Ireland. The 1852 exhibition of the local Ulster collectors’ artefacts, which was organised in conjunction with the Belfast meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, highlighted the significance of this tradition – Woodman et al. (2006, 9) comment that the exhibition’s catalogue shows that “over twenty individuals had amassed significant private collections…many [of which]…do not survive”. Similarly to the Royal Irish Academy’s catalogue, the 1852 exhibition and accompanying catalogue did not mention the Three Age system (Woodman 1978, 6).

With Lubbock’s (1865) subsequent publication of Pre-historic times, the Three Age system slowly gained more widespread acceptance in Ireland. Here, Lubbock also introduced a bipartite division of the Stone Age into the Palaeolithic and Neolithic, which overshadowed Westropp’s earlier tripartite division which included the Mesolithic (Rowley-Conwy 1996). This system of development through the ages mirrored the contemporary concern with notions of societal development through successive stages from savagery to civilisation. The age of imperialism had brought Europeans face to face with what they saw as peoples on a lower rung of humanity, and social Darwinism became an explanation and justification for imperialism. Social Darwinisn enabled the notion that the natives’ technological ‘stage’ matched their societal ‘stage’ on the ladder to civilisation, therefore the stone tool-using communities encountered could be viewed as static entities, therefore mirroring how prehistoric communities had lived and used their material culture (Trigger 1989).

Two decades after Wilde’s catalogue, Gray (1879) published the next general account of Irish lithics, this time specifically looking at the flints from northeastern Ireland. Again, a key concern was the antiquity of the lithics; he argued that the northern artefacts were identical to the oldest material retrieved from sites on the continent, which also produced bones of extinct fauna. However, he (1879, 130-2) maintained that the stratigraphic position of the lithics in the Irish raised beaches suggested that they only occurred in the surface soil, and no extinct faunal remains were found amongst them, suggesting a younger age for the lithics. As well as looking at the chronological implications, he outlined the characteristics of humanly struck stone and the range of forms from cores and flakes, to scrapers and arrowheads. He commented that in contradistinction to earlier collectors, his contemporaries now found interest and use in collecting and studying the “ruder” types as opposed to the “higher forms” such as polished “celts” and arrowheads; from the “ruder” types of flakes, he suggested that ethnographic parallels could be made to flakes mounted in handles that he had been sent from Australia, and that “even very rude flakes were considered of such value as to be deposited in ancient graves” (Gray 1879, 118-9).

Further ethnographic comparisons were made to Irish stone tools in Wood-Martin’s (1888) book on The rude stone monuments of Ireland; he suggested that the evidence coming from Australia, where a “commerce” in stone tools was observed with stone tools being “bartered” over a distance of a hundred miles, could be analogous with the finding of Antrim flint in Co. Sligo. Soon after Wood-Martin’s publication, Hardman (1889-91) reported on his finds from Australia (where he had been part of a geological survey), where he collected various implements that bore “remarkable resemblance to ancient Irish weapons”, so much so that he hoped his collection could help understand the manner and mode of stone tool use in Irish prehistory. For example, he (1889-91, 68) argued that similar scrapers were in use there, “but that the Australian implement is used for the carving of wood, not for scraping skins, as it is supposed the Irish one was intended for”. 

Hardman’s article highlights that the ideological posturing of the biological and cultural superiority of the Europeans caused inevitable tensions when actually encountering the Other face to face. On the one hand, Hardman (1889-91, 58) relayed that the Australian aborigine women were so ugly that a colleague of his could not eat after seeing them; while on the other hand, he commented that “another specimen [of stone tool]…attests the wonderful delicacy of touch and sense of symmetry which the so-called degraded Australian savage possesses”. Moreover, he (1889-91, 61) noted change and innovation in the supposed static society, as the ‘natives’ “were not slow to discover that glass makes a formidable offensive weapon…they interfere seriously with telegraphic communication, by stealing the glass insulators as material for spear-heads”.  It should be remembered that scholars at this time noted cultural commonalities between the ‘natives’ of contemporary Ireland and Australia (see Miles 1854), and ethnographic research of the ‘native’ Irish was carried out into the 1930’s by the Harvard Expedition (see Waddell 2005). 

Along with Gray, Knowles was another key figure in lithic research at this time, and discussions on the antiquity of lithics dominated his work, with a life-long quest to recognise Palaeolithic lithics in Irish assemblages. Knowles both collected material himself as well as buying material through dealers, and he amassed a significant collection of lithics, again mainly from the northeast (Woodman et al. 2006, 21). At this time archaeology was still an amateur pursuit and collections were almost exclusively in private hands, therefore research necessitated either investigating one’s own collection, or visiting other individuals’ homes (Knowles 1893, 163). With a substantial collection, Knowles was therefore in a good position to write on the subject of stone tools – Woodman et al. (2006, 48) estimate that Knowles’ lithic collection amounted to 40,000 items. However, Woodman et al. (2006, 37-8) comment that Knowles was never a typologist per se, and his “attitude to collection and analysis owed as much to his initial interest in the natural sciences…as to his archaeological curiosity”. 

Knowles did however investigate various aspects of lithic use and manufacture – he looked at the colour differentiation on lithics and remnants of cement as evidence for hafting of projectiles (1909); ethnographic analogies for axes (1893), scrapers (1898), and flakes (1912); and the manufacture and hafting of axes (1893). Importantly, Knowles (1898, 367) showed how biases in collecting and dealing of lithics – which was a bustling industry – moulded opinion on prehistory. He commented that in Ireland scrapers were often ignored by farmers (whom the dealers bought the lithics from), and  consequently, Irish prehistory was perceived to be lacking in scrapers, even though Knowles (1898, 371) had nearly 10,000 in his collection. Knowles noted another instance where the collector used the scrapers as gravel outside his home as he only saved the “better class of implement”. Therefore, the fastidious, or not so fastidious, collecting by farmers, antiquarians, and dealers shaped the archaeological record. In terms of distribution and density of finds, Woodman et al. (2006) noted the relationship between the distribution and density of known findspots and the railway network and also the ‘territories’ of the various collectors.

Critically, Knowles (1889; 1891; 1898) pointed out on various occasions the necessity of looking beyond the ‘flint gaze’, commenting that in areas of Ireland without flint, other materials would have been used: he warned that implements in these other materials were harder to recognise, which led to a substantial bias in the known distribution in prehistoric communities. During Knowles’ (1889, 182, passim) fieldwork along the coast of Ireland – investigating numerous sites found in the sandhills – he noted the use of various raw materials such as pitchstone, chert, quartz, ‘crystalline rocks’, and metamorphic rocks, commenting that “they wrought almost any material that came in their way”. 

Partly based on Knowles work, Brunicardi (1914, 206) outlined the evidence of the midden sites of Ireland; she compared the Irish middens to those from around the world and suggested that the finds “point to a race of people in the same plane of civilisation as the Danish and Scotch kitchen-midden makers of prehistoric times, and the Fuegian and Australian of to-day”. She argued that the lithics suggested a “low grade of civilisation” because flint was not exported around the country, but rather, local material was used. Citing the work of Lubbock – who called the Fuegians “the most miserable specimens of the human race” – and other explorers, she maintained that aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders were stuck in a stasis of non-development, and in line with this theoretical stance argued that the Neolithic shore-dwellers in Ireland were a distinct degraded race from the megalithic builders inland.

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2.3 Culture groups

From this early twentieth century description of a subset of peoples as a race, the Childean influence of Culture groups is evident when Mahr contemplated the ‘Riverford Peoples’’ material culture. Mahr (1937, 306-8) argued that the evidence produced from numerous river systems – such as the Bann, the Shannon and the Barrow – suggested the presence of a distinct culture; as there was a clear distinction between the “districts” of the Riverford People, the coastal sandhill people, and the megalith builders, “there must have been either an almost complete cultural separation, or, more likely still, also a chronological difference”. 

Mahr’s article also highlighted the important role played by the 1930s Harvard Expedition to Ireland. Part of this expedition resulted in Movius’ (1942) publication of The Irish Stone Age. While ostensibly covering the Stone Age, this book focused primarily on the Mesolithic (the Larnian), and omitted discussion of megaliths as these were considered to be primarily Bronze Age entities, which went against Worsaae’s more accurate speculation a hundred years previously (see above p. 13). Further, while titled The Irish Stone Age, his monograph was limited to the northeast: the Antrim flint supply was seen as an attractor for settlers (Movius 1942). Indeed, not only was flint seen as an attractor, but during the Late-Glacial period the lack of flint in the south of Ireland was seen as a reason for the avoidance of the area by the “wandering bands” of hunters (Movius 1942, xxi). Therefore, we can see that researchers effectively ignored the earlier work of Knowles which had highlighted the use of various local raw  materials for stone tools, with the result that flint maintained its position as the perceived premier raw material and the northeast as the ultimate home of the Irish Stone Age.

The 1930s was certainly a tumultuous time to be involved in a project like the Harvard Expedition that involved investigations in both Northern and Southern Ireland. The Janus-faced nationalism of Ulster Unionism was in full flight; the South, involved in its Economic War with Britain, was in the process of divorcing itself from the Empire and becoming a republic; and Britain’s relationship with Europe was again in question.  Movius (1942, xxi) alluded bluntly to the political climate:
"[t]he writer trained as an archaeologist and approaching the problem from the purely objective viewpoint of an outsider, sees no valid reason for doubting an intimate relationship between Britain and Ireland on the one hand and Northern Europe on the other during Late-Glacial and Early Post-Glacial times".

Therefore, Movius (1942, 175) typologically aligned the Irish lithic assemblages into a British and European cultural group framework, and argued for an Early and Late Larnian division; the Late Larnian was typified by heavier woodworking tools, which developed with the increase of the post-glacial forests. Movius (1942, xvii) noted that Clark’s work on the Mesolithic in Britain was an inspiration for his monograph.  This influence, as well as Childe’s, is clearly seen from this extended quote in which he outlines the aforementioned Irish connections with Britain and the continent, the effect of diffusion on technology, technology on society, and the overarching influence of the environment on technology and society:
"Furthermore, the well-established principles of diffusion are clearly substantiated by the distribution of Mesolithic settlements in England and Ireland. On the periphery influences arrived late, and, due to the proximity of the continent, South-Eastern England was farther advanced than Ireland and Scotland…Other factors, both climatological and geological, were operative, and, in so far as they affected either mode of life or facilities for movement, they must be considered by the archaeologist. These also were important in the diffusion of new ideas. Unless there was a definite need resulting from such a major cause as environmental conditions, traits would probably fail to diffuse…As far as Ireland is concerned the arrival of the Campignian seems to mark an invasion of new peoples…As in earlier times, the North Channel was the line of approach used by the newcomers, who, possessing superior equipment, forced the Larnian food collectors inland and to the infertile sand dune areas of the coast, and occupied the rich flint region of Counties Antrim and Down…In the sand-dune areas of the coasts of Northern and Western Ireland, the Larnian survivors clung on to a basically food-gathering economy until the Early Christian Period" (Movius 1942, 260-1, 265 emphasis added).

One hundred years after Worsaae had made his presentations to the Royal Irish Academy on the Three Age system and placed the megaliths in the Stone Age, Macalister (1949) argued that the work of the Movius and the Harvard Expedition – and that of Mahr and Evans – enabled him to (happily) “discard the Danish scheme of Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, with their subdivisions”, and in its place use a chronology based “upon types of megalithic monuments, the most important prehistoric remains in the country”. In so doing, he (1949, viii-ix) argued for the following periodisation:

Period Corresponding generally to the:
Beachcombers Mesolithic
Protomegalithic Neolithic and Early Bronze Age
Deutromegalithic Middle Bronze Age
Epimegalithic Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age
Table 2-1 Macalister’s (1949, viii-ix) periodisation

From Table 2-1, we can see the strong emphasis placed on upstanding monuments in comparison to other material culture in defining Irish prehistory. Instead of using lithics and artefacts as the primary type fossils of analysis, they were treated as merely background to the upstanding monuments. Equally, his work involved the marginalisation of the beachcombers, regarded as merely a pre-megalithic phase in Ireland, and therefore defined by what they did not do (build megaliths). Nevertheless, Macalister did recognise – as did Movius – that the raw materials themselves directly impacted upon prehistoric peoples; Macalister (1949, 104) suggested that the lack of good flint in Co. Sligo and the reliance on the “poor substitute” chert, was a reason for the posited early exploitation of metal there.     

Woodman (1978, 11) commented that the Harvard expedition defined the concept of the Mesolithic in Ireland which survived until well into the seventies. The main figure in Mesolithic research at this time was the natural scientist Mitchell, a polymath who excavated a number of Mesolithic sites (1949; 1956; 1972b), as well as fieldwalking for surface collections, particularly in the midlands where chert dominated the assemblages (1970). Mitchell’s 1971 article was the first to make explicit use of interpretations drawn from experimental knapping to understand the character of Irish lithics; Mitchell (1971) noted his observations of a flint knapping demonstration that produced various types of flakes accidentally: flakes which were similar to those that had been considered as implements of Irish Mesolithic type. He (1971, 280) therefore asked: “if we harshly exclude as possible debitage a great deal of material, what are we left with as true implements?”. Rather than investigating what information the debitage products could provide, Mitchell focused on actual perceived implement types, taking a minimal view of technology and technological analysis.

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2.4 The New Archaeology

Considering the Irish prehistorians’ bias towards researching monuments, it is not surprising that Woodman’s Mesolithic research provided the greatest emphasis on lithics. To a much greater extent than Mitchell – who was in many ways an accidental archaeologist, whose main interests and majority of his research lay in natural history (Anon. 2006b) – and previous researchers, Woodman looked at the lithics specifically for what they could tell about the prehistoric society. Following models developed in New Archaeology, he used quantitative analysis on the lithics for the first time in Ireland, and discussed concepts such as inter-site lithic variability, site catchment analysis, and the Binfordian models of foragers and collectors, all of which were founded on ethnographic work.

Woodman’s (1978) monograph on the Mesolithic primarily concerned outlining and defining the period’s chronology, typology, technology, and economy. His gazetteer of all known sites to that date shows a significant northern bias: he listed about 150 sites in the north against 40 in the rest of the island. However, he (1978, 208) made clear that the earlier notions – including his own (Woodman 1974) – of the Mesolithic dependence on the exploitation of Antrim flint, and of initial colonisation occurring in the northeast, were no longer tenable. Moving away from the culture group mode of description, Woodman (1978, 209) suggested that the term ‘Larnian’ should be reserved for a specific core type. Woodman (1978, 209) typologically divided the period into the Early Mesolithic microlithic phase, typified by an indirect percussion technique[1], and Later Mesolithic macrolithic phase, typified by a hard hammer direct percussion technique. 

The Later Mesolithic was subsequently subdivided in light of the excavations at Newferry, Co. Antrim. Woodman (1977) argued that Newferry was primarily a temporary fishing site, with evidence for both the Early and Later Mesolithic but predominantly the latter; the range of flint lithics were only those non-organic tools that survived – the lithics probably represented tools for the maintenance of weirs and traps, as well as general purpose tools. He (1977, 193) argued that as the area changed from a series of river channels to marsh the site was gradually abandoned. Woodman (1977, 160, 185) noted various changes in the lithic assemblage through the zones with more evidence of lithic production in earlier than later zones. Woodman (1977, 192) noted that over time the range of tools became more restricted, and that a broader flake became more dominant; tanged flakes were more common in the earlier zones, with these being superseded by the leaf-shaped, butt trimmed flakes in the upper zones – he suggested that this change may be related to a difference in hafting as opposed to a differing implement type. The raw materials for the axes changed from a predominant use of schist to mudstone (1977, 187-9). 

Woodman and Johnson’s (1996) article on the Bay Farm 1, Co. Antrim excavations was a belated publication of Woodman’s excavation carried out in 1977-80, after that at Newferry. At Bay Farm, Later Mesolithic artefacts were uncovered during drainage work beside the Antrim coast, and it was hoped that this would enable the examination of in situ material, as for the most part “the study of the Irish Mesolithic on the Antrim coast [had] been based on material found in geologically re-sorted contexts” (1996, 138). The Bay Farm excavations revealed stake-holes and pits but no substantial hearths (despite expectations); the excavations produced no evidence for settlement per se, but rather, the evidence suggested repeated visits to a specialised knapping site. Over 1000 cores were uncovered as well as primary debitage products consisting of unused flakes. Woodman and Johnson (1996, 228) suggested that the products from Bay Farm were transported to the Bann Valley and Lough Neagh, to sites such as Newferry – in comparison to Bay Farm, the Newferry assemblage contained substantially less cores and substantially more retouched pieces, and the communities at Newferry avoided the lower quality material available in the Bann Valley itself. Instead, the Newferry flint was of a higher quality such as that found on the coast at Bay Farm (Woodman and Anderson 1990, 382-3).

While flint was the predominant raw material at both Newferry and Bay Farm, chert also appears. At Bay Farm, some of the excavated pits were filled with flint and interpreted as lithic caches, but not for blades alone, as some of the same pits contained cores as well: the result was that these features were treated as “enigmatic”. In one of these “enigmatic” pits a single, large chert flake was found; aside from the chert flake, the rest of the flint found in this pit was treated as ‘industrial waste’ (Woodman and Johnson 1996, 155-6). However, the placement of a chert flake amongst the flint suggests something more involved than the disposal of industrial waste. This can arguably be seen as a purposeful deposition of a different kind of stone amongst the more pedestrian flint – if we can call it that – that is abundant in the area.

Woodman began excavations at Ferriter’s Cove, Co. Kerry in 1983, at what was presumed to be a Neolithic site. This excavation was instigated to flesh out the Neolithic evidence in the region, and ended up examining a Later Mesolithic coastal site; for the first time the Mesolithic occupation was seen as extending to the south of the country (Woodman et al. 1999). The site has been interpreted as following the model of ephemeral Later Mesolithic habitation, and the dating suggests that it was used intermittently over a millennium, with three main phases. The lithics at this site highlighted the variable types of stone utilised during the Mesolithic, displacing the ideas of a flint-dominated/dependant Mesolithic; the assemblage was predominantly of locally sourced stone: greenstone, tuff, rhyolite, and flint, with minimal amounts of siltstone, quartz, and chert. Beach pebbles were also used, and 13 polished stone axes were recovered, five of which had been deposited together (Woodman et al. 1999, 153). The authors (1999, 76) commented that the usual Later Mesolithic-type lithics – the butt-trimmed flakes and related forms – were proportionally underrepresented at Ferriter’s Cove in comparison to other sites, and that, of those present, “few of them could be considered classic examples”; they argued “it is important to emphasise diversity within the Later Mesolithic assemblages rather than always attempting to fit them within one template”.

While Ferriter’s Cove, Newferry, and Bay Farm became type-sites for the Later Mesolithic, Woodman’s (1985) 1970’s excavations of an Early Mesolithic settlement at Mt. Sandel, Co. Derry acted as a type-site for the Early Mesolithic. Here, Woodman used ethnographic research – such as that of Binford, Gould, and Yellen – to determine the settlement type, organisation, and size, as well as using site catchment analysis to model the range of the community. Woodman (1985, 151-5) suggested that Mt. Sandel typified a base camp, and that the immediately local flint was not used, but rather the flint sourced from the coast a few kilometres away, along with the minor amount of chert; the lithic types were suggested as being an insular form, suggesting that this site did not represent the earliest community in Ireland.

Another Early Mesolithic site to become a type-site was the interpreted temporary camp at Lough Boora, Co. Offaly (Ryan 1980), which is yet to be published. This site provided the perfect complement to the Mt. Sandel base camp: at Mt. Sandel they overwintered; at Lough Boora they stayed a while. Whereas at Mt. Sandel the predominant raw material was (unsurprisingly) flint with some chert, at Lough Boora it was chert, with some flint. The flint in a chert dominated assemblage at Lough Boora and vice versa for Mt. Sandel, was interpreted as signs of the extent of peoples’ movement in the landscape (Woodman 1985, 166), or signatures of exchange and social contact (Cooney and Grogan 1999, 24).

All of this research was primarily based around the excavation of specific sites. A move towards a landscape approach to archaeology developed a greater appreciation for plough zone surveys. While Ulster, and Leinster to a degree, had a tradition of field collecting, this had not been done systematically, and was really comprised of artefact collecting rather than landscape survey. The Bally Lough Project, in contrast, was developed to research the Stone Age on a landscape scale by walking ploughed fields as well as test pitting and excavation to assess the surface collections – this was the first large-scale, systematic survey of ploughed fields in Ireland (Zvelebil et al. 1992). This was soon followed by Cooney’s (1990) survey at Mt. Oriel, Co. Louth, and later by projects including Kimball (2000) at Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal, Brady (2002) in the Boyne Valley, Co. Meath, and, at a smaller scale, Driscoll (2006) in the Tawin/Maree area, Co. Galway.

The Bally Lough Project used the Barrow River system as a regional focus, and sought to ascertain evidence for the initial colonisation, the land-use patterns in the Mesolithic, and the question of the land-use patterns in terms of the Neolithic transition. They initially investigated around the River Barrow’s estuary and then around the middle reaches of the river from Carlow to Monasterevin (Zvelebil et al. 1996). This region was for the most part devoid of research and early prehistoric evidence, apart from the known monuments. Interestingly, considering they subtitled one of their articles “the ‘Riverford Culture’ revisited”, the authors assign ground and polished axes as post-Mesolithic artefacts (Green and Zvelebil 1990, 65; Zvelebil et al. 1996, 33). The initial work on the coast and estuary produced evidence for a rhyolite quarry. The authors noted that while the excavations of the quarry showed evidence of sustained (Mesolithic to Bronze Age) and substantial use (over 30,000 lithics excavated from the site), lithics made from rhyolite were found almost exclusively in a very local area around the quarry (Zvelebil et al. 1987, 18). This apparently highly localised nature of rhyolite use led the authors to four questions:
(1) How intensive was, in fact, rhyolite production, bearing in mind the high waste to finished product ratio of its reduction process?
(2) Who was in control of the rhyolite source – perhaps a group not resident in the region?
(3) Was rhyolite obtained for export, and if so, what was its destination?
(4) Why did local the local people ignore the advantages of this raw material [over the local small pebble flint] for making large and medium-sized tools? (Green and Zvelebil 1990, 70).

The predominant raw material was flint from small beach pebbles, with a small amount of chert, basalt, and quartz; the authors (1990) suggested that the coastal and estuarine areas were favoured in the Mesolithic compared to inland, and the lack of riverine evidence in this area may be due to peat formation and alluvial events, therefore biasing their survey results.

The survey then continued in following years, taking place some 70 km upriver from the estuary. The density of lithics was smaller in the basin in comparison to the estuary, leading the authors to suggest this may have been due to alluvial deposition and the use of the coastal area as primary reduction sites, hence creating more artefacts, or due to the ease with which worked flint in the estuary was spotted by the researchers, compared to the more predominant basalt/rhyolite material inland which was not as straightforward to identify as worked (Zvelebil et al. 1996, 31). Inland the (prehistoric, not specifically Mesolithic) lithic raw material changed, with a preponderance of chert, basalts, andesites and rhyolites – flint accounted for 20% of the lithics, with the authors suggesting that the larger flint tools were imported from outside the region, as the available flint nodule size was too small for such tool-making; 5% of the lithics were quartz or quartzite (Zvelebil et al. 1996, 21-3).

Looking at the authors’ Appendix A where they list the finds by find area, one initially gets the impression that chert and flint are the almost exclusive raw materials collected, but a footnote explains that they have used the term ‘chert’ to denote “a variety of non-flint materials...and subsumes Basalt, Rhyolite, Chert, Slate and other materials (Zvelebil et al. 1996, 38-9 emphasis added). While this can be seen as simply a convenient way of reducing the size of an appendix, it clearly is not a helpful way of outlining research findings; it reduces the actual variability seen in the findings, and creates the impression that material is flint or ‘non-flint’.

Kimball (2000) designed his Lough Swilly Survey to investigate the Neolithic transition in Co. Donegal through fieldwalking of ploughed fields, and to compare his results to that of the Bally Lough Project. He argued that whereas the Bally Lough Project’s results showed continuity in geographical locations over the transition, his results showed that Mesolithic evidence was located solely in aquatic locations (as defined by his division of ecotones) and post-Mesolithic was more widespread (Kimball 2000, 77). Further, he argued that discontinuity is apparent in the lithic material use and procurement strategies, with Later Mesolithic characterised by the use of non-local flint, and the post-Mesolithic characterised by local flint, apart from the axes. Kimball argued that the Later Mesolithic implements were too large to be made from local flint, and that their source of suitable flint was 50km away. However, his thesis was based on finding 21 diagnostic Later Mesolithic artefacts out of 100 tilled fields, and he also noted that only two quartz artefacts were collected even though “natural quartz is ubiquitous, which probably suggests that worked quartz is underrepresented in the survey’s sample” (Kimball 2000, 25). Further, his survey team almost exclusively collected flint, hinting that other raw materials may well have been missed in addition to quartz.

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2.5 Use-wear, Refitting, and replication

Woodman instigated the first application of use-wear analysis on Irish lithics, with Dumont’s (1985) work on the Mt. Sandel flint assemblage which revealed signs of extensive use. However, Anderson and Johnson (1993, 98) have hinted that Dumont may have overstated the case of the evidence for use-wear on that assemblage. Use-wear analysis was conducted on the Bay Farm flint assemblage, but the analysis was ultimately “not successful”, with Anderson (1996, 234) suggesting that possible use was masked by post-depositional surface modification. The Ferriter’s Cove assemblage was tested for use-wear – this time on non-flint, and unretouched artefacts. The results suggested that of the 49 pieces tested, none showed signs of extensive use, and a few showed signs of possible use. One of the siltstone points had possible traces of birch tar, perhaps indicating hafting. Another showed evidence of scraping animal material as well as polish which was suggested as being formed by rubbing against a cover during transport, implying that this lithic was “curated” and “valued” (Woodman et al. 1999, 68-70). Bamforth and Woodman (2004) approached use-wear analysis from a different angle than previously, when they analysed scrapers from surface collections, hoards, and excavations in order to look at material from a regional perspective in northeastern Ireland. This was done to ascertain the possible spectrum of mobility of Neolithic communities in that area. The wear marks suggested that the larger convex scrapers were used for scraping hides and the smaller for scraping wood; as scrapers were reduced in size due to resharpening, their use switched use to wood. The hollow scrapers were used for scraping wood and a number of them for cutting.

While Knowles (1897, 17) had commented on French research that used refitting of lithics in their analysis, it was almost a century later before this technique was used in Ireland. The Windy Ridge assemblage was subjected to refitting, in this case to understand the spatial distribution of the flint scatter and the function of the site (Woodman et al. 1991-92, 29). Refitting was also carried out on the flint, tuff, and greenstone assemblage from Ferriter’s Cove, again to attempt to ascertain the spatial distribution and the reduction sequences carried out (Woodman et al. 1999). The Bay Farm assemblage’s refitting was undertaken in order to understand the reduction sequence of the ‘Larnian’ core, specifically to ascertain whether the production of broad ‘Bann’ flakes was deliberate or incidental, as well as to understand the spatial distribution of the lithics (Anderson and Johnson 1993, 83). The results suggested that the reduction sequence was “very repetitive and predictable”, and that the full range of broad blades, flakes, and leaf-shaped flakes were the result of the sequence, but no preferential production of one type of lithic could be discerned. Woodman and Johnson (1996, 221) suggested that:
"[t]he classic uniplane core is not so much an integral feature during the reduction of a core but rather a frequent by-product which is a limitation to the further effective utilisation of the core. It has also been shown that frequently very few useful flakes and blades are produced from each core, with the result that large quantities of by-products are left after the production of a relatively small number of usable flakes".

The experimental knapping of stone to answer questions concerning archaeological artefacts dates back to the nineteenth century, with an explosion of experimental work from the mid-twentieth century (see Johnson et al. 1978; Flenniken 1984). “Limited” experimental knapping of siltstone and rhyolite was conducted during the Ferriter’s Cove excavations (Woodman et al. 1999). The results of this knapping did not feature greatly in the monograph, and appears to have been undertaken on a casual basis, or at least the results did not merit a full discussion. The only other published experimental knapping project in Ireland investigated axe manufacturing techniques (Mandal et al. 2004). This experimental work resulted from the research of the Irish Stone Axe Project, which undertook an extensive review of Irish stone axes, of which over 20,000 have been catalogued. Similarly to the Mesolithic material, the distribution of axes is biased towards the northeast of the country. Over half of the axes in the database have been macroscopically examined, and a single raw material, porcellanite, accounts for over half of these (Cooney and Mandal 1998, 58). The two known porcellanite quarries are located in Antrim, and nearly a third of the identified porcellanite axes are roughouts, and only about 2% of porcellanite axes are provenanced outside of Ulster (2006a). The next most common raw materials were shale and mudstone, with over nearly 4,000 identified; c. 15 % of these are also from Antrim (2006a).

Mandal et al.’s (2004) experimental work on axes primarily used shale as a raw material, as well as one attempt using porphyritic dolerite. The authors’ questions for the experiments were, 1) what was the most efficient method of making a stone axe; 2) what time and effort was required for the different materials and techniques; 3) and what tools were required? The experimentation initially produced 4 axes, and then two experienced knappers joined the project, and taught them techniques for raw material selection and production. The experiment led the authors (2004, 121-2) to conclude: that the manufacturing of axes is a “craft”, the “craft can be taught”, and the skills needed to produce high quality tools from some rock types “cannot easily be learned”. Again, similarly to Woodman’s assessment of technology and technological practices, this experiment was based on the notion of the rational actor as the driving force of technological practices. However, other research on prehistoric axe manufacturing techniques has suggested that technological choices are often dependent on cultural understandings of the ‘right’ way to work material, rather than on raw material qualities or the most efficient method of manufacture (Petrequin 1993).

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2.6 Re-assessing old assemblages

In 1993, McCartan and Anderson (1993) produced a list of published Irish lithic research from 1977 to that year. Of the 76 articles cited (of which five concerned the Isle of Man), over half were either short reports or brief mentions of finds. Eight papers concerned the typology of individual types such as maceheads, while 12 were substantial papers: of these 12, three were on the Bally Lough Project mentioned above and seven were by Woodman. This list highlights conspicuously that most of the work on lithics has been relegated to brief listings and addenda to reports. Consequently, many lithic assemblages have received little attention, as the sites were either not fully published, or the finds of lithics were glossed over. Since then the pattern has been reinforced – while there has been a massive increase in the amount of archaeological excavations since 1993 due to the development boom, few of these have reached publication, and detailed lithic analyses, such as use-wear or reduction sequencing, rarely factors into the report equation.

Since 1993, however, a number of older assemblages have been reassessed, such as those from, Lyles Hill, Co. Antrim (Nelis 2003); Mesolithic material from the midlands (Little 2005); and the Bally Lough Project’s assemblage (Kador 2007b). The Irish Stone Axe Project mentioned previously has focused on the multitude of stone axes that have been collected over the years (Cooney and Mandal 1998), and Woodman et al. (2006) have analysed the Keiller-Knowles collection of 15,000 items which had gone unrecorded in the National Museum for 70 years – this collection is predominantly comprised of Knowles’ collection mentioned earlier, but is much reduced from his original collection of 40,000. In the context of this publication, Woodman et al. (2006) have also provided an overview of Irish stonecraft, which has not been attempted since Wilde’s catalogue, published 150 years ago. Three other reassessed assemblages with quartz components – Lough Gur, Co. Limerick (Woodman and Scannell 1993); the Ballyglass, Co. Mayo Neolithic house and court tomb assemblage (Warren Forthcoming) and the Behy Co. Mayo court tomb assemblage (Dolan and Warren 2006) – will be discussed in the next chapter.

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2.7 Overview and Discussion

The nineteenth and early twentieth century’s collectors were predominantly based in the north east of Ireland, where a relative abundance of flint – and geographical features such as raised beaches and diatomite – allowed an intensity of collection not witnessed elsewhere in Ireland. This intensity of collection, which portrayed itself as an intensity of prehistoric settlement, has had an enduring legacy on perceptions of Irish prehistory. While researchers such as Knowles rightly pointed out that collectors should look beyond the flint gaze, and that other raw materials were valid in their own right, others such as Brunicardi regarded flint as the standard, and the lack of a trade in it as signs of the backwardness of the prehistoric communities. For the slim evidence there was of a flint trade around the country, ethnographic parallels were drawn between Irish prehistoric communities and what was witnessed in colonial Australia. The apparent preponderance of the use of flint, however, was not a major issue of the time, and for the most part was taken for granted, with more focus and energy spent on determining the antiquity of the stone tools, and debates raged on their correct place in a European-wide Stone Age chronology; this chronology was by the latter half of the nineteenth century divided into an earlier Palaeolithic phase, and a later Neolithic phase, and then in the twentieth century an intervening Mesolithic phase was accepted.

The existence of contemporary stone tool-using communities also had to be factored in to understandings of the chronology of the past, and the development of technology in particular, why some peoples continued using stone tools, while others had not. This was highly contentious, and provoked various theories, which by the late nineteenth century were dominated by a ‘scientific’ Social Darwinian approach, providing a theory that suggested that surviving stone tool-using societies had simply not progressed to a higher stage of civilisation. Meetings between Europeans and stone tool-using Aboriginal Australians, as well as those in the Americas, led to speculation as to the function and use of Irish stone tools, and these communities were seen as mirrors as to how the stone tool users in prehistoric Europe had lived. ‘Scrapers’ were seen to have been used for more than scraping, and importantly, it was noted that plain, non-diagnostic flakes were often tools, and that not just ‘formal’ tools from the archaeological record should be studied (Hardman 1889-91) – a lesson that is still often ignored today.

With a wealth of upstanding prehistoric monuments to study, lithic research took second place to megaliths – as noted, Macalister even used megaliths, and megalith building, as chronological markers instead of the Three Age system. Looking at the topics chosen for research by archaeology post-graduates in the Irish universities from 1970 to 2004, out of 519 theses surveyed, just 3.3% focused on lithics. When looking at theses that covered the prehistoric period alone (Figure 2-2), this figure moves to 11.8% (n-17), and 13.9% (n-20) if the stone axe studies are also included.[2]

prehistoric thesis by topic ireland

Figure 2-2 Prehistoric theses from Irish and Northern Irish universities by topic, 1970-2004

In the mid-twentieth century numerous non-flint assemblages began to be collected, connected with the drainage work in the midlands. Here, chert-dominated assemblages dating mainly to the Mesolithic were surface collected and excavated. However, while Mitchell used the results of the experimental knapping he witnessed to assess the assemblages he collected, he concluded that most was waste, and went on to focus on ‘formal’ types only in his assessment of the archaeological assemblages. For the most part these non-flint assemblages from the midlands were overlooked by the wider archaeological community and research focus remained on monuments, and flint assemblages.

With a focus on megaliths, it was left mostly to Mesolithic researchers to focus on the lithic record. Woodman excavated Early and Later Mesolithic sites – as well as some post-Mesolithic sites – and investigated the lithic record from a typological and technological approach, mainly based on flint assemblages. His Ferriter’s Cove excavation allowed this approach to be extended to a non-flint assemblage. In the 1980’s, the landscape approach to the archaeological record was a development away from single sites and upstanding monuments, whereby ploughed fields were systematically investigated. Similarly, the focus of the lithic analysis in these assemblages was based on both a typological and technological approach.

In Ireland the application of use-wear, refitting, and replication methods to analyse lithics has been limited in Ireland, and has mostly been instigated by Woodman’s excavations. An exception is the small replication experiment conducted on the manufacture of stone axes; this was undertaken as part of the more extensive, long term project headed by Cooney and Mandel which has catalogued and analysed Irish stone axes. None of these methods have yet been used on the lithic assemblages that have been produced by development-led excavations, most of which have yet to be published.

[1]Which Woodman subsequently interpreted as soft and hard hammer direct percussion; see Costa et al. (2001)[return].
[2]This analysis of theses was undertaken by assessing all post-graduate theses submitted to the archaeology departments in NUI, Galway, UCC, UCD, and Queens University between 1970 and 2004, with the subject matter determined by the thesis title.[return].

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