Stone Age

Back to the prehistoric future

It’s so nice to be doing archaeology again. My training was in archaeology (specifically the prehistory of north-western Europe) but after graduation I drifted into museum education, which turned out to be perfect for me in every way except one: there was very little archaeology. I ended up teaching and writing about the Tudors, Victorians and World Wars a lot. What archaeology there was in these topics was shunted aside by the overwhelming pile of historical documents and images.

But now (oh happy day!), archaeology is going to be taught in English museums in a big way. Not just as a fun add-on to a school’s day out, but as central to understanding the newest school topic in town: Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.

Today I spent the afternoon at an event held by the Surrey Museums Engagement Officer Haidee Thomas at Brooklands Museum. Teachers and senior school leaders were asked along to find out how to embed the contribution of museums and cultural organisations into their planning in history, geography and the arts. I sought out the museums offering prehistoric resources, as did many teachers who are currently baffled by the requirement to teach 800,000 more years of history.


Extract of the National Curriculum for England

The museums with prehistoric collections were creating handling boxes of real and replica Palaeolithic handaxes, Neolithic axes and arrowheads, Bronze Age palstaves, and Iron Age coins. It’s going to be amazing for kids to feel real ground stone axes, an original from Farnham Museum had been set in a new handle so kids could get an idea of how it was used. Elmbridge Museum had a real lava stone grinder in their handling box, which was clearly well used. Surrey Heritage’s box explores the production of a flint tool from the nodule to core, to flake and finished hafted tool. Chertsey Museum already runs archaeological digs in the museum and out at schools, and aims to create an Iron Age walk around Queen Anne’s Hill, which has a hillfort on it.

Comparing a broken original handaxe with a complete replica

Comparing a broken original handaxe with a complete replica

In a most interesting discussion with Farnham Museum, we tied learning about hunter-gatherers with the Forest School movement that is taking off in UK schools. Learning how to make fire, know what resources the natural world can provide, and what skills prehistoric people had as well as their rich cultural world can all be delivered alongside a Forest School programme.


The best thing about the day was hearing from teachers and museums that teaching local prehistory was going to be high on everyone’s list. The wonderful thing about prehistory is because it was such a long period, there’s something found near everyone. Whether it’s a stray arrowhead that was found down the road, or the round barrow that’s up on the hill nearby, it ties archaeology in with children’s lived experiences. I can’t wait for the new academic year!

A day with Macedonian archaeology – I know what archaeology is. (from the educational program of the Museum of Macedonia)


I know what archaeology is. (from the educational program of the Museum of Macedonia)

  • First visit to the museum, meeting with the educators, going through the museum exhibitions.
  • The story of the Caveman (man from the Stone Age). Adapted for the children’s age.
  • Modeling vessels of clay.
  • Visit to the ancient city of Skupi. (archaeological site)
  • Making jewelry.
  • Making the poster about archaeology
  • Presentation of the project to the parents.
  • OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAvisit to the museum
    Modeling vessels of clayDSCF2578 DSCF2593

    Making jewelry

    Making a poster about archaeology


    Presentation of the project to their parents

Students and Teaching and Archives, Oh My…

Unusually mixed day here – started by doing an archaeology handling session with a school group – not something I usually do. With any mixed group, there are always some who want to be there, and some who don’t care, and some who really are not fussed. Two of the boys in the group were really keen – all the questions and quite a few good answers! Real highlight though was seeing the look on ALL the faces, when I pulled out a Bronze Age sword….(which they didn’t handle, as I assumed the teacher wanted to take all of them home again).

You can tell if a young student will get the archaeology bug, when you hand them a palaeolithic hand axe, and tell them it was made 200,000 years ago. Watch that sink in, and see the reaction 🙂

Got a placement student from UCL with me at the moment, and she’s doing very well – happy to lift heavy boxes, and good with kids…useful combo!

Day ended showing the placement student our painfully slow database, and stores environmental monitoring systems. Then, of course, the network came crashing down around our ears….perfect way to end a week…time to go home…

Microwear analysis-determining the function of chipped stone tools

One of my technical specialties is high-powered microwear analysis, a method by which the function of chipped stone tools can be determined. Pioneered by Semenov (1964) and refined by Keeley (1980), the high-powered magnification approach has repeatedly demonstrated that variability in polish formation on utilized surfaces is related to tool use on different materials (e.g. soft tissue, hide, bone, wood, etc.). Striations, or the grooves and scratches of varying orientation and dimensions which often result from abrasive forces imparted during tool use are important indicators of intentional and unintentional motion, such as friction between a stone tool and its haft and/or the contact material being worked.  Taken together, micropolish and striations provide information on contact material, tool motion, and hafting.  In this manner, the identification of distinct surface and edge alteration of tools can be related to prehistoric patterns of activity and raw material use and utilized in the reconstruction of the organization of cultural behaviors.

Today I continue to work on material from three sites. Two sites were recently excavated by a Cultural Resource Management firm as contract excavations. These sites, which date from the Late Archaic and Woodland periods, were investigated to fufill compliance laws prior to disturbance. As part of the data recovery plans, the principle investigators have included a budget for analysis, a part of which is microwear analysis to determine the function of chipped stone tools recovered on site. A range of formal and informal tools were recovered, and so far, results indicate a wide variety of tasks  including butchery, hide,  and bone and wood working occurred on site.

The third site I am working on is the famous Lindenmeier Folsom site in Colorado. These materials were excavated and/or collected in 1934-40 during work at the site by Frank Roberts. Microwear analysis of a sample of endscrapers recovered from the site reveal that many of them were employed in the later stages of hide working. Edge wear in the form of eroded resharpening scars and heavily rounded edges along with a well formed dull-pitted polish characteristic of dry hide was present (see photomicrograph).  During late stage hide working, the edges of the tools are allowed to dull, so that accidental tearing of the hide during stretching and softening is lessened. Some endscrapers were discarded with sharp, fresh edges indicating use during earlier stages of hide working where cleaning and thinning is the object. These discard patterns illuminate the activities that took place on site, and when coupled with an assemblage of worn out, broken and discarded projectile points suggest active hunting and transport of fresh hides for processing at the site was common.  Here is a prime example of the value of why collections should be curated, as when they continue to be available for analysis, we can continue to learn from them.

Heavily worn and rounded distal edge of unifacial endscraper used on dry hide.

A New Day

Morning in York. A new day. A day doing archaeology. Not that many would recognise it as archaeology. I’ll be going through a pile of references on engaging young people in archaeology to help complete a report for the CBA. Do most archaeologists spend most of their time digging? No! We spend most of our time reading.

Just read on the BBC News website that some pot sherds from Xianrendong in China have been dated to 20,000 BP. The oldest pottery yet discovered. That puts British Neolithic pots into perspective.

Also just received a nice photo of an Acheulian hand-axe from Prof. Bae in Korea to help illustrate an article I’ve written for the Young Archaeologist magazine. The hand-axes at the Jeongok-ri site are made of quartzite. It’s very hard and tough to knap – I tried when I was out there last month. I have my poor attempt at a my very own hand-axe on my desk as a paperweight.

Field Walking in Binbrook, Ontario, Canada.

Field survey is not the most exciting thing to do in archaeology. It’s often hot or muddy or exhausting or all of the above. Sometimes you walk for eight hours and find absolutely nothing. Sometimes you find really cool things.

Today, we took a break from our excavation of a large lithic site to check out a field.

Fieldwalking in archaeology is pretty much exactly how it sounds. You get assigned a field, you drive over to it and walk a lot. The field has usually been ploughed a few weeks before and we wait for a few good rains to settle the dust. Canada does not have a significant period of architectural development, so the vast majority of our archaeology can be found less a metre below the surface. Ploughing brings artifacts up to the surface and rain washes away excess dirt, leaving them ready for us to find.

Walking along, looking for cool stuff.

We do it systematically. Standing five metres apart from each other, we walk in straight lines in a grid pattern, staring at the ground in front of us. Most of us have been doing this for so many years that artifacts seem to leap up from the ground and we spot them as easily as if they were glowing pink. When we find something culturally modified (a flake, an arrowhead, etc), we put a bright orange flag next to it.

Walking, looking at the dirt in front of me.

When we find something, we reduce our survey to a smaller scale. Instead of being five metres apart, we stand shoulder to shoulder and walk more slowly, doing an intensive survey of the area for roughly 15m square. If we find more artifacts, we flag them as well and expand our area until we have a significant buffer zone of no artifacts. If we find enough artifacts and place enough flags, it is declared a site. And thus, most of the archaeological sites in Canada are found.

We did well today. Our site was a field within a sod farm. The sod had been harvested a while back and the land had been ploughed for us. We had a few decent rain storms over the past few days, so the weathering was decent. We started out and almost immediately found a few flakes. Intensive survey didn’t reveal much else, so they were declared to be “IF’s” (Isolated Finds) and we moved on.

First flake of the day!

It was pouring when we got up in the morning but by the time we actually started working, it was nice outside. We’ve been having a really hot and dry summer so far, so the cool breeze and overcast sky was appreciated. And since it was a sod farm, the land was mercifully flat. Sometimes, we have to survey giant hills with badly ploughed fields, where each step is both exhausting and dangerous, not knowing where your feet will land. This was a walk in the park in comparison.

Around 11am, we found our first arrowhead. Not the prettiest specimen ever made, but hey, it made us happy. Looking around the point revealed tons of other lithics and we declared our first site. Half an hour later, we found a decent biface and some more flakes, leading to our second site.



Yay, biface.


Yep, this is what an archaeological site looks like in Canada before excavation.

After lunch, we finished walking the property with time to spare. We finish up the intensive survey and start cataloguing our finds. Each IF is noted on a map. Each “diagnostic” (an artifact, usually a tool, that can be used for dating methods) is automatically recorded as a site, regardless of whether we find much much else around it. Anything with seven or more finds on the surface is also declared a site. We record what we find, where we found it and we get a GPS reading of the location on the property. When the time comes for us to return to dig it all up, we’ll look over it again and map out the exact location of all the finds before we start digging.

Steve collects all the lithics.

After the day’s work, we come out with two sites that will require further excavation, two tools and tons of isolated finds. And, best of all, we finish an hour early on the Friday of a long weekend and we head home happy.

Mount Vernon Interns

At Mount Vernon, we have reached our final day (sad face) of an 8 week internship program devoted to different aspects of the Archaeological Collections Online initiative.  Our interns came from prestigious universities around the country to take on individual research projects pertaining to the material and social worlds of planter elites like George Washington and the enslaved community upon whose labor these genteel lifestyles were based.

Here’s what our interns have to say about their work!

Katie Barca: Today I am in the process of entering decorated or marked pipes from the South Grove Midden as Objects in the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). In the future, images of these pipes will be posted on the  Mount Vernon’s Midden website.

Joe Downer: Today I am transcribing store accounts from an 18th century Virginia merchant, Alexander Henderson.  By transcribing Henderson’s ledgers, researchers are better able to understand what colonists were purchasing in Northern Virginia before the Revolution, and have a greater insight into pre-revolutionary material culture.

James Bland: I’m also transcribing the Henderson store accounts, but for Alexandria instead of Colchester.  Henderson worked for John Glassford and Company, who together were the Scottish Tobacco Kings of the Chesapeake region.  Their records show an emerging class of non-elite consumers that didn’t exist in the early colonial period.

Page from Henderson's store account, 1763.

Leah Thomas: I am currently writing the report for my summer project, which involves research on 18th century dining objects as represented in museum collections.  I am also looking into the possibility of a connection between dining vessel and utensil form variety and the Rococo art movement in the American colonies.

Sophia Farrulla: This day of archaeology has been packed with thoughts of items related to tea, coffee, and drinking chocolate.  Twinnings tea in hand, I’m finishing a final write up on exotic beverages amongst the 18th century elite.

Tea cup decorated with Aesop's fables found in the midden.

Julia Kennedy: Squirrels and Bamboo and Grapes, oh my! I’m working on drawing a small rodent decoration that appears on Washington’s (George’s or perhaps his elder half-brother Lawrence’s) Chinese export porcelain plates. Each plate was hand-painted, therefore making each curious critter unique.

Squirrel, tree shrew, or other googly-eyed rodent on Washington's Chinese export porcelain.

Jennie Williams: I’m researching George Washington’s purchases from England between 1754 and 1772.  Eventually, these data, gathered from Washington’s orders and invoices, will be available to the public through an online, searchable database.

Anna Dempsey: Today, I am working on my paper for the research I’ve done on lead shot in the archaeological and historical record. I’m also writing an entry about picking 1/16” material, including lead shot, for our blog.

Interns ponder how their projects will appear on the Mount Vernon midden website!

More from Mount Vernon

Hello, I’m writing from our archaeology lab in Mount Vernon, Virginia along the lovely Potomac River just south of Washington, DC.  I’m a PhD student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in historical archaeology.  At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation, I’m doing a pre-doctoral fellowship to digitize and put online artifacts excavated from a fantastic feature.  By the end of 2012, we will be offering a website devoted to the material culture of George Washington and the enslaved individuals who lived and worked near the mansion.  The archaeological record of this colonial household comes in the form of a large midden feature – chock full of 18th century ceramics, glass, beads, buttons, buckles, tobacco pipes, fish scales, I could go on and on!

Archaeologists excavated the midden feature from 1990 to 1994. George Washington's mansion is in the background.

Our vision for this project takes a material culture analytical approach that unites the archaeological record with probate inventories, a database of George Washington’s orders and invoices for goods from England, those items stocked in local stores, and even museum collections to better understand the developing consumer revolution on the part of colonial Virginians.

Want to dig deeper into George Washington’s trash?  We have a blog and a facebook group!

Here’s a sample of some of the highlights of the assemblage:

Imported 18th century white ball clay figurines, minus heads.

Stoneware mug made by the "Poor Potter" of Yorktown, Virginia, ca. 1725-1745.


Sword scabbard ornament engraved with partial "GW" monogram, ca. 1778.

A Day in Japanese Archaeological Laboratory

I’m an archaeologist living and working in Japan. I’m a researcher of Meiji University Archaeological Investigation Unit. This unit is organized for preventive excavation within university campus.

In Japan, all archaeological sites are conserved under the national law. Local governments develop a registration map of archaeological sites and check all land development. In order to keep to the law, all developer and constructor – not only commercial sector but also public/administrative sector- must make an effort to conserve archaeological sites within their development/ construction area. If they cannot change their plans, they must do excavation. More than 95% of excavations carried out in Japan are this type – preventive excavation…documentation before destruction of sites for those 40yrs.

As you know Japan has large population- about 120 million- in small land. Most parts of our landscape are hilly or mountainous, so our living spaces are definitely limited and overlaid on ancestor’s lived space. This is the cause of so many excavations – more than 8,000 in average/year and the peak was about 12,000 in 1996…- have done every year.

In 2004, our project was started. It was for the construction of new buildings of the university affiliated junior-high and high school. At first we did survey and sounding in total 40,000 sq-meters area, then begun excavation in 18,000 sq-meters area. The excavation continued for 2 years and 5 months – more than 800 days. We unveiled Modern Age (including Imperial Japanese Army and occupation Allied Force sites during WWII ), Jomon Age (mostly Middle Jomon, 6-4.5ka) and the Upper Palaeolithic Age (32-16ka). Now I’m constructing web-site for our excavation ( :it’s not completed) .

aerial view of our excavation area in 2005

aerial view of our excavation area in 2005

excavation of the Upper Palaeolithic living floor

excavation of the Upper Palaeolithic living floor

excavation of a shelter for air fighter of Imperial Japanese Army during WWII

excavation of a shelter for air fighter of Imperial Japanese Army during WWII

documentation of the Late Pleistocene staratigraphy

documentation of the Late Pleistocene staratigraphy

Our excavation was finished in Dec,2007. However it means finishing just the first step only in the field… we have more than 500 containers filled with artefacts such as: 5,000 potsherd and 40,000 pebbles of Jomon, 25,000 lithics and 90,000 pebbles of the Upper Palaeolithic, more than 200GB of digital images and measurement datum by total station system… and so on.

Since 2008, we’re engaging with the post-excavation procedure and it will continue until 2015. We have published the 1st volume of our excavation report this May and will publish other 5 volumes over 5 years.

This is our background. And here I show our habitual day in post-excavation laboratory of our investigation unit. Now we’re tackling with Jomon and the Upper Palaeolithic materials.

The first section is for Upper Palaeolithic pebble refitting work. We uncovered more than 300 stone heaps composed with 90,000 pebbles. Most of pebbles are burnt and fragments. These stone heaps are assumed for cooking, as in the Pacific ethnography.

This work has started in 2010 and will continue for the next 2 years. There are many pebbles in containers waiting for their turn…

Upper Palaeolithic pebble refitting

Upper Palaeolithic pebble refitting

Upper Palaeolithic pebble refitting(2)

Upper Palaeolithic pebble refitting(2)

These workers are from the commercial company engaging in preventive archaeology.

more pebbles are waiting their turn...

more pebbles are waiting their turn...

all containers are fulfilled with material

all containers are fulfilled with material

The second section is for Upper Palaeolithic stone tools (lithic technology) refitting. This work has started in 2007 and will finished this year.

Basically we start from distinguishing chipped stone tools and debitages into petrological classification and making sub-divisions acording to their colour, texture, micro-structure and other characteristics. This is very empiric but very efficient method. Up to now we have documented more than 6,000 cases of refitting in 25,000 specimens of lithic material. In some cases, we can reconstruct original shape of nodule and decode total sequence of knapping technology. Of course, to determine source of raw material, we apply archaeo-scientific analysis.

Lithic refitting work(1)

Lithic refitting work(1)

Lithic refitting work(2)

Lithic refitting work(2)

arrange debitages with raw material, texture and other character

arrange debitages with raw material, texture and other character

documenting which pieces are and how they are refitting in sequence

documenting which pieces are and how they are refitting in sequence

The third section is computer application for managing the database, drawing maps and artefacts, geo-spatial analysing and editing publications. We use Microsoft(R) Access(2007)(R) for database managing; Inteli CAD(6.0J) for arranging and original drawings measurement survey datum, 3-dimensional distribution maps of artefacts; Adobe(R) Illustrator(CS5)(R) for drawing artefacts and finising maps and other figures for publication; Arc GIS<sup>(R)</sup>10 for geo-spatial analysing; Adobe(R) InDesign(CS4)(R) for editing publications. Some part of these computer works are put out to commercial companies, those which have specific technique and systems.

computers in our laboratory

computers in our laboratory

a drawing of stone tool (Upper Palaeolithic backed blade)

a drawing of stone tool (Upper Palaeolithic backed blade)

drawing distribution map of Upper Palaeolithic lithic concentration

drawing distribution map of Upper Palaeolithic lithic concentration

database for chipped stone tools of Upper Palaeolithic

database for chipped stone tools of Upper Palaeolithic

geo-spatial analysing of Jomon inter-site components

geo-spatial analysing of Jomon inter-site components

Post-excavation laboratory working continues…however I hope to go back to the field…yep I should!!!!

A Student has Arrived!

My first student volunteer just  walked in at 9:55 am. Davis is in my Summer II Introductory class Anthropology 101 Primates, People and Prehistory.  Davis is now equipped with a rather expensive, fragile and hard to replace item of lab equipment and has commenced Day of Archaeology work.  Using this item he is carefully removing the sandy soil that adheres to our artifacts.  Using a basin filled with two gallons of warm water he cleans stone flakes discarded during the manufacture of stone tools, 2500 year old and 2000 year old Native American pottery sherds, some brick fragments, petrified wood, and a small broken arrow point made of crystal quartz.

That rather expensive, fragile and hard to replace item of lab equipment is a tooth brush from the dollar store!