Stone Tools and the Prehistory of the Northern Isles, by Ann Clarke
Anyone having even a passing acquaintance with the prehistoric archaeology of the Northern Isles will be aware that stone tools loom large in the local material culture inventory. Ann Clarke’s monograph provides a timely and valuable introduction to a selection of the (often unloved) ‘coarse stone tools’ found in Orkney and Shetland, where the abundant and highly serviceable stone resources constituted such an important commodity in many aspects of prehistoric life. This is an expanded and updated version of Clarke’s 1995 Glasgow University MLitt thesis, benefiting considerably from the continuing upsurge in excavation, research and publication in the intervening decade, in much of which she has been involved as a specialist
‘Coarse stone tools’ are defined in the introductory chapter as ‘tools or other objects … made from non-siliceous rock’, a broad and loose category which, as the author notes, has come in some present-day usage ‘to encompass all stone objects, except flaked flint, chert and quartz’. In fact, however, Clarke has been relatively narrow in her focus, concentrating almost exclusively on a restricted range of cobble and slab tools, which means that stone artefact types such as axeheads, maceheads, beads, Shetland knives, stone weights, lamps, bowls, querns, spindle-whorls, gaming pieces, tracked pebbles, knocking-stones, socket-stones, loom-weights and whetstones are all excluded. The chronological focus is Neolithic to Iron Age (i.e. up to AD 800 in northern Scottish terms), though one detects a bias towards the Neolithic of Orkney, understandably so in view of the author’s own involvements in this area.
Previous research is summarised in Chapter 2, and in Chapter 3 we are given an overview of the lithic resources available in the islands and how they were exploited. The heart of the volume is contained in the next two chapters, where the author describes, illustrates and discusses the common (Chap. 4) and less common (Chap. 5) artefact forms with which this volume is principally concerned. These include such specific types as Skaill knives, ard points, cleavers, perforated heart-shaped pieces, Knap of Howar grinders and borers, handled clubs and sculpted objects, and less specific types such as flaked stone bars, flaked cobbles, stone discs, hollowed stones, pounders, grinders, and hammers.
Clarke is of course working within a long tradition of the study of these tools, one in which somewhat confusing and idiosyncratic terminology and subdivision has been, and to an extent still is being applied. (There are frequent asides in this book about incompatibility between specialist reports because of inexplicit terminology or divergent classification, e.g. pp.83, 93, 97). Perhaps erring on the side of caution, Clarke has chosen not to define rigidly all of her named types, which are, however, at least in the case of the common forms, situated within a framework of four major groupings: flakes, flaked blanks, chipped laminated material, and cobble tools.
Nevertheless, there are some unresolved ambiguities here which other workers will find frustrating, such as the precise distinctions between faceted cobbles, pounder/grinders, hammerstones and their various subdivisions. And one is left wondering over some descriptions, for example if or how the Orcadian ground-end tools differ from the bevel-ended tools of the Mesolithic and later west coast Scotland, or why none of the artefacts with pecked and dimpled surfaces qualify as anvils?
It is Chapters 4 and 5, in particular, which are very useful and will be required reading for any specialists attempting to come to terms with what are often dauntingly large assemblages of worked stone from the Northern Isles. The scale of the problem involved in such work is neatly captured by one of the photographs in this book (illus 4.21, p.27), which shows a post-excavation layout table carpeted with hundreds of flaked stone bars from the Bronze Age/Iron Age site of Sumburgh on Shetland. Such a surfeit of richness has its drawbacks not just for the specialist of course, but also for the excavator and subsequently for the museum curator. (In this respect it perhaps comes as no huge surprise (p.93) to learn that over three-quarters of the cobble tools from Sumburgh are ‘lost’.)
In Chapters 6 and 7 the mainly domestic and more limited funerary sites and contexts in which coarse stone tools have been found are examined and comparisons made by period, by context, and by function, while in Chapter 8 the chronological dimension to the occurrence of different artefact types is covered, revealing in some cases a remarkable longevity of continued usage. In a final chapter the author ambitiously considers aspects of site activity and social change which might be deduced from a study of coarse stone tools, or at least to which their presence is germane. For many reasons this is difficult territory, as the author admittedly recognises. Excavations at the sites involved have often been of limited extent, have targeted differing types of context and have, over the years, been subject to varying recovery and retention strategies; in many cases the author is reliant on interim accounts for details of context and phasing; and, as already mentioned, there are problems in view of differing tool classifications of knowing if like is always being compared with like.
There are also interpretative issues which make the conclusions problematic. For example, the flaked stone bars which are so common in Shetland are considered to be possible tillage tools (p.30). This tentative functional attribution, for which there is as yet no hard evidence, is asserted more dogmatically in the later chapters leading to circular argument. Thus the continued importance on Shetland of flaked stone bars from the Neolithic through into the Iron Age is seen as demonstrating the continued importance of cultivation. The lack of flaked stone bars (and ard points) on Orkney before the Bronze Age, despite the palaeoenvironmental evidence for Neolithic cultivation, is explained by the suggestion that tillage tools of bone and wood (which have not survived) were used instead (p.121).
While the sculpted artefacts, such as the well-known ones from Quoyness and the more recently discovered examples from Pool are accepted as part of the Orcadian Neolithic repertoire, doubt is cast on some of the more enigmatic stone objects found at Skara Brae (p.116). It is suggested that some of these are much later items intruded into Late Neolithic contexts, and perhaps of ethnographic origin.
This reader would gladly have sacrificed the somewhat repetitive later chapters of the book for more extensive coverage in the earlier ones of a wider range of tool types, for discussion of the use of other lithic raw materials such as Shetland’s steatite and riebeckite felsite, and for casting the net wider in terms of analysis of extant assemblages (e.g. from Jarlshof). It would also have been illuminating to put the stone tools of the Northern Isles into the context of broader studies dealing with the description, analysis and experimental use of stone tools (e.g. Adams 2002; Beaune 1997). None of these remarks detract from the fact, however, that Clarke has achieved a significant milestone in her chosen field and her book will be essential for all lithic specialists working in Scotland.
Review Submitted: June 2006
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