bronze age

4.3.1 Coarse Stone Artefacts


The term ‘coarse stone artefact’ is used in archaeological discussion as a blanket description for what is really a wide and disparate range of tools and objects. Many potential functions are represented including butchering tools, grain processors, craft tools of all types, agricultural implements and sculpted pieces. Widely different types of rock were selected and some artefacts were deliberately shaped prior to use whilst others, particularly the cobble tools, were used for jobs which left distinctive task-specific wear traces. These artefacts had many and varied roles to play in prehistoric lifeways and for this reason they must be a valuable component of any research framework.

Research into the stone tools of Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland is heavily biased towards the Northern Isles partly because of research priorities and partly because Orkney and Shetland are the only areas in Britain where non-siliceous stone is used for manufacturing artefacts to any great degree; consequently large assemblages of different types of coarse stone artefacts are recovered. Elsewhere, in the Western Isles and Mainland Scotland the coarse stone assemblages tend to be limited to cobble tools and querns (though see remarks on St Kilda below). Until recently work on stone tools in Scotland has been confined to recording their presence in excavation reports; even that is patchy with no recognised terminology and little discussion of context. Scholarly attention has been paid to individual tool types such as the flaked stone bars and ard points from the Northern Isles with attempts to classify them by shape and to date their use (Rees 1979, Rees 1986a, Rees 1986b, Hedges 1986).  With the exception of a recent work of synthesis in the Northern Isles (Clarke 2006) stone tools have never had a role in regional or national discussions of material culture; consequently most of the remarks made below are based on this publication.

Nature and development of the repertoire of stone artefacts over time (see Clarke 2006, 124-126 for summary)

A major change in tool types and manufacturing methods of coarse stone tools took place at the start of the Bronze Age. Flaked stone bars and ard points which had already been made and used in Shetland in the Neolithic began to be used in Early Bronze Age contexts in Orkney e.g. at Tofts Ness, Crossiecrown and Links of Noltland (Clarke 2007, Clarke forthcoming b)and presumably marked a change in agricultural practices in the islands.  Large assemblages of these tools also occur in Shetland e.g. Sumburgh, Kebister, Scord of Brouster during the Bronze Age (Whittle 1986, Clarke 1999, Clarke 2000). At this point too there is a development in the manufacturing techniques applied to stone assemblages from Shetland with a greater emphasis on grinding the sandstones to more intricate shapes e.g. handled clubs (Clarke 2000, Clarke 2006) and there is a simultaneous development in the production of finer ard points (Clarke 2006).

Skaill knives, which were very common during the Neolithic, continued in use at many Bronze Age sites e.g. Crossiecrown and Tofts Ness in Orkney and Sumburgh, Shetland whilst a new tool type, the flaked cobble, utilised a chopper edge which may have been associated with extracting marrow from split bones at Tofts Ness (Clarke 2006, 2007). Tools made on laminated stone such as schists and shale became widespread in Shetland including various handled forms such as knives and cleavers/ choppers (Clarke 2000, Clarke 2006). Flaked stone bars were also manufactured on St Kilda but it is not yet known whether they are from the Neolithic or later occupations; the presence of flaked cobbles and Skaill knives alongside the flaked stone bars but in redeposited contexts suggests that they may date to at least the Bronze Age (Fleming 2005).

Agricultural implements played an important role in the funerary ritual of this period in particular the placing of ard pints and flaked stone bars around the kerbs of burial mounds (Clarke 2006). Along with occasional deposits of grain (e.g. at Ness of Gruting) flaked stone bars and ard points were also commonly found deposited in house walls demonstrating close links with arable farming and life and death cycles.

A much narrower range of stone tool types occur outwith the Northern Isles and these comprise mainly cobble tools such as pounder/grinders and trough querns. This implies that wood and bone must have substituted for stone for larger tillage implements. Links between Ireland and the west coast of Scotland at this period are demonstrated by the presence of grinding slabs from Kilellan, Islay that can be most closely compared to those from Dun Aonghasa, Aran islands, County Galway (Clarke 2005, Clarke forthcoming a).

It is not understood how the repertoire of stone tools may have changed throughout the Bronze Age. Certainly, at Bayanne there is a change in the stone used for the ard points in phase 3 suggesting that access to resources had changed (Clarke 2006, Clarke forthcoming c) but in reality there are not enough well-dated published sites to investigate the subtleties of resource use throughout this period.

In Shetland the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Early Iron Age is marked by structural and ceramic changes e.g. at Sumburgh and Bayanne but there appears to be no immediate change in the composition of stone tool assemblages implying that the means of production essentially stayed the same over the period of style change (Clarke 2000, Clarke 2006). Structural changes at this point involved new arrangements for cattle stalling and the heart-shaped stone objects specifically found in these contexts may be directly linked to tethering animals. In contrast, at Tofts Ness the Early Iron Age round-house phase marks an abrupt drop in of the use of stone agricultural tools so there are clearly local and regional differences as to how changes were made and incorporated at this time.

Key points and recommendations for further research

  1. Not much is known about the use of coarse stone tools across mainland Scotland and the Inner and Outer Hebrides. There is a need for a proper programme of recording the assemblages from these sites in order to be able to look for similarities or differences and to bring the analysis to the same level as that achieved for the Northern Isles.
  2. Research is needed that is designed to overlap the boundaries of the ‘Three Age System’; these are points at which there are significant changes in the production and use of coarse stone tools e.g. Late Mesolithic/ Early Neolithic; Early Neolithic/ Late Neolithic; Late Neolithic/ Early Bronze Age.
  3. A programme of experimental archaeology could attempt to address the range of craft and processing activities that involved these stone tools. Microwear analysis is now possible on large coarse stone tools because of new designs of microscope.
  4. More specifically for the Bronze Age there is a need for more excavations of multi-phase habitations that span the Neolithic through to the Bronze Age and from the Bronze Age through to the Iron Age e.g. Scord of Brouster and Bayanne and Sumburgh, Shetland as these are the types of site from which one can observe change through the various phases of activity. In Orkney these cross-over phases and continuation of occupations are not so commonly observed – why?
  5. Dating is required for quarry sites on St Kilda and in the Northern Isles to refine the phases of use of these sites.


4.3.2 Flaked lithics of the Bronze Age

From the beginning to the end of the Bronze Age there is a radical change in the manufacture (and presumably use) of flaked lithics. This is marked by reductions in the size of assemblages, a different and smaller range of tool types and by less controlled manufacturing techniques.

Lithic assemblages from the Early Bronze Age (EBA) are not easily separated from those of the Late Neolithic, unless by virtue of a securely dated context and these are usually funerary in nature. A few lithic types are considered as classic EBA forms: barbed-and-tanged points and thumbnail scrapers because these have Beaker funerary associations (Edmonds 1995) whilst retouched tools from contexts with Food Vessels and Collared Urns often include knives and end scrapers (Shepherd and Cowie 1977). More often than not these retouched types, particularly the latter two also occur within larger assemblages linked with Late Neolithic Grooved Ware occupations (Suddaby and Ballin 2011, Clarke 2012).  So unless there is pottery with which to more closely date the activity a lithic assemblage such as this is normally dated only broadly  by specialists to the Late Neolithic/ Early Bronze Age (LN/EBA).

There are indications that a wider range of local materials was being used in the Bronze Age than in the Neolithic. Quartz is often found in lithic assemblages of this date and at many sites it is the most common material, supplemented by only a small amount of flint e.g. The Udal, S Uist (Clarke 1997), Rosinish, Benbecula (Clarke 1982), Kebister, Shetland (Clarke 1999b),  Dail na Caraidh, Inverness-shire (Clarke 1999c) and see Ballin 2009. Recent excavations on the Shiant Islands produced a probable LN/EBA assemblage of baked mudstone which was most likely derived from immediately accessible sources (Clarke 2008) as well as flint. In Aberdeenshire Ballin notes the use of local flint at this time (Ballin 2011). Can we recognise this in Bronze Age assemblages in the south of Scotland where local cherts were an important resource throughout the earlier prehistoric period?

Towards the end of the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age lithic working became less organised and assemblages are characterised by the dominance of unsystematically produced flakes a high proportion of them with pebble cortex, pronounced bulbs of percussion and hinged terminations as well as a narrow range of particular retouched tools including chunky scrapers, denticulates and notched pieces (Ballin in White and Richardson 2010, Ballin 2011, Young and Humphreys 1999).

Research questions for lithics in the Bronze Age -

·    How does the use of lithics differ between occupation and funerary contexts in the LN/EBA?

·    How were lithics used in the cremation ritual – some are heavily burnt before incorporation in or around vessel, others not.

·    How does the selection of lithic material for knapping compare with the Neolithic – has the ‘value’ of particular rock types been diminished with the use of metal? How has access to these resources changed?

·    At what point was the knowledge of organised flint knapping lost? And when do flaked lithics become ‘secondary’ to other materials e.g. metal?