5.5.2 Territorial structures

Raw material studies may allow the definition of several higher levels of territories, such as techno-complexes or social territories (cf. Ballin 2009). Techno-complexes may be a group of social territories, which simply share a common raw material basis, which then determines specific technological approaches (e.g. the Scottish ‘quartz province’ in the north and west and the ‘chert province’ in the south).

Social territories have been suggested via their use of style. Wiessner (1983, 256), defines style as ‘...formal variation in material culture that transmits information about personal and social identity’, and she distinguishes between two forms of style, one relating to personal identity (assertive style), and the other to group identity (emblemic style) (Wiessner 1983, 257). Assertive style is of no relevance to the present case. Wiessner defines emblemic style as ‘...formal variation in material culture that has a distinct referent and transmits a clear message to a defined target population (cf. Wobst 1977, 323) about conscious affiliation or identity’ (Wiessner 1983, 257). In the following, the term ‘style’ refers exclusively to emblemic style.

In some cases, raw materials represent style, in the sense that they are markers of prehistoric group identity, and thereby also markers of social territories. If a decision to use or not use a certain raw-material is based entirely on the presence or absence of this raw-material the expression is functional, whereas a decision to give preference to a rare raw-material, or a decision to disregard a suitable abundant raw-material, are stylistic expressions (exchange of social information).

The almost total dominance of quartz in some parts of northern and western Scotland, as well as the almost total dominance of chert in southern Scotland, may be examples of the former, as in those cases few other suitable raw materials were available in the volumes needed. The use of Rùm bloodstone and Staffin baked mudstone in one specific part of the west coast of Scotland, on the other hand, may be examples of the latter, with the overlapping distribution patterns (Clarke and Griffiths 1990, ill. 94, table 29) of these two visibly distinctive raw materials probably defining one social territory.

Raw-material preference as an expression of function usually results in a gradually declining fall-off curve (Renfrew 1977, 73) with growing distance to the outcrop, whereas raw-material preference as an expression of style results in a marked drop in frequency at the borders of the social territory in question (Hodder 1979, 447), or possibly a stepped decline (O’Shea and Milner 2002, 220).

5.5.2 Typo-technological issues

Most commonly, the preferential use of one specific raw material led to the production of characteristic core forms, as the properties of that particular raw material determined the use of specific technological approaches or operational schemas. Pitchstone (Ballin 2009), for example, is characterized by a number of different properties, each of which resulted in the ubiquity or scarcity of certain core forms:

  1. the tendency to break into tabular pieces led to the formation of many small squat or cubic cores, frequently with a flat ‘back-side’ (this also characterizes chert);
  2. the exaggerated tendency of pitchstone blades to curve along their long axes led to the formation of small discoidal cores; and
  3. its brittleness made this raw material less suitable for hammer-and-anvil production, resulting in low numbers of bipolar cores.

Blades from the Burnetland Hill chert quarry pit near Biggar, South Lanarkshire. This picture shows how the presence of internal fault planes in chert to a degree determines the final shape of chert artefacts (courtesy of Tam Ward, Biggar Archaeology Group).

Quartz (Ballin 2008a) is generally considered a ‘difficult’ raw material, defined by intricate fracture patterns, which lead to many cores being rather chunky, and with quartz operational schemas being less sophisticated than contemporary schemas in other raw materials. One consequence of this was that, in many parts of north and west Scotland, bipolar approaches were preferred (eg, Lussa River on Jura; Mercer 1971 (‘chisels’); also Ballin 2002), although some pure or fine-grained quartzes (e.g., Shieldaig, Wester Ross; Ballin 2008) allowed more traditional platform techniques to be applied.

Where more than one raw material was available to prehistoric people, certain raw materials were commonly preferred for certain tasks or tool forms. Although ideology (like group identity and religion) may occasionally have played a role in connection with these choices, many of those preferences may simply express functionality, in the sense that specific raw materials produced particularly sharp cutting-edges (knives), or they may have been valued for their durability (scrapers). At Upper Palaeolithic Howburn in South Lanarkshire, certain raw materials were clearly preferred for certain tool forms, and those preferences may represent a complex mixture of ideological and functional choices (Ballin et al. 2010).