5.2.1 Small knapped tools (such as scrapers and blades)

The study of small stone tools has much to tell us about the nature of Neolithic society, by revealing patterns of raw material procurement, traditions of working, and the networks of exchange over which materials and finished objects travelled. Much of this work is best undertaken in close collaboration with geologist colleagues, but the research questions that it can address can only be answered by integrating the results of lithic analysis within broader models of (and approaches to) Neolithic society and its material culture.

Neolithic Raw Materials

A large number of lithic raw materials were exploited during the Scottish Neolithic, and in recent time research has shown that raw materials traditionally associated with the Mesolithic were also used in the Neolithic. Staffin baked mudstone and Rhum bloodstone, for example, were not only used in the Mesolithic, but through the Neolithic and well into the Bronze Age.

The following lithic and stone raw materials were widely used in the Scottish Neolithic:

  1. Flint (coastal, Buchan Ridge, Antrim (both directly imported and beach derived on western coasts) and Yorkshire flint);
  2. Chert;
  3. Quartz and quartzite;
  4. Arran pitchstone;
  5. Rhum bloodstone;
  6. Staffin baked mudstone;
  7. Lewisian mylonite;

and for axes –

  1. Cumbrian tuff;
  2. Porcellanite;
  3. Creag na Caillich hornfels;
  4. North Roe felsite;
  5. Various Aberdeenshire axehead materials (Groups XXXII and XXXIII).

These materials all inform on Scottish Neolithic territoriality, and they may be grouped in several ways. Some, for example, were used for everyday smaller tools (the list’s first seven raw materials), whereas others were used mainly for the production of axeheads (the list’s last five raw materials see also section 5.2.2). In considering the general territorial structure of Scottish Neolithic societies, the above raw materials may also be grouped according to their inclusion in various exchange networks, where some appear to have been used locally without being exchanged at all (e.g. quartz and chert); others were exchanged within relatively small territories (e.g. baked mudstone, bloodstone and mylonite – possibly also coastal flint and Buchan Ridge flint); whereas some were exchanged over extensive distances (e.g. pitchstone, Antrim flint and Yorkshire flint). The way these raw materials were exchanged obviously also reveals how much, and possibly in which way, they were regarded, thereby informing us about beliefs and ideology.


In Scotland, Neolithic extraction sites relating to different raw materials have been investigated, such as: several groups of chert quarry pits from the Scottish Borders and South Lanarkshire (some probably dating to the Mesolithic period, others to the Neolithic); a worked quartz vein from Lewis (Cnoc Dubh); a hornfels quarry in Perthshire (Creag na Caillich); a complex of flint quarry pits in Aberdeenshire (Den of Bodham and Skelmuir); and the massive felsite quarry complex in North Roe, Shetland. Some raw materials were probably largely procured from pebble deposits along the Scottish coast (e.g. bloodstone), some from exposed coastal veins (e.g. pitchstone), whereas the procurement of other raw materials are as yet unexplored (e.g. mylonite). The procurement of ‘imported’ raw materials, such as Yorkshire flint and porcellanite, have been discussed in a number of English and Northern Irish papers.

The analysis of procurement sites allows a number of questions to be discussed, such as technical matters (e.g were the raw materials hammered out of the bedrock, was fire-setting used, scafolding, etc.); organizational matters (e.g. operational schemas, spatial organization of the various processual steps, etc.), and ideological matters (was work at the procurement sites ritualized to any degree, as known from ethnographic cases).

Key Issues

The analysis of Scottish Neolithic territorial structures and exchange networks ought to focus on a number of specific topics, tasks and questions. They include:

Lithic and stone quarries; this point is obviously of importance to the definition and understanding of exchange networks, as the quarries form one end of chains of exchange. At present, practically no Scottish lithic and stone quarries have been analysed and published.

A photograph taken from an elevated position in a rocky landscape with a spread of broken pieces of felsite stone in the foreground

Felsite workshop within the Neolithic quarry complex at Midfield, North Roe, Shetland. A scatter of knapping debris is seen within a circle of boulders – large pieces of waste to one side, finer waste to the other. Probably a workshop for the combined production of felsite axeheads and Shetland knives (photo: T.B. Ballin).

Production of distribution maps (simple plots, contour maps, Thiessen polygons, fall-off curves, etc.) to define the geographical extent of territorial units, as well as the character of the associated exchange networks (eg, did the exchange involve any form of redistribution?). This ought to involve the production of catalogues and databases of assemblages which include artefacts in bloodstone, etc., the way the distribution of Arran pitchstone has recently been analysed (Ballin 2011).

Some individual raw materials are very poorly understood, which clearly affects the interpretation of the exchange between various regions. Most notably, a banded form of rock found in practically all later Neolithic and Bronze Age assemblages along the Lewisian west-coast has been defined as practically every possible fine-grained meta-sedimentary rock – by geologists (!) – which has as a consequence that the associated exchange network would either link the Lewisian west-coast with that island’s east-coast (if it is mylonite) or with the Isle of Skye (if it is baked mudstone, as recently suggested). The solution is to consult geologists as to how this particular conundrum may be resolved, and to seek to locate the actual sources/outcrops/quarries on the ground. If the raw material is Lewisian mylonite (as one might expect, if one applied Occam’s Razor), the sources are likely to be within a limited part of the faultzone running along the Lewisian eastern seaboard.

In addition to informing us on Neolithic territoriality and exchange networks, stone raw materials may carry information on ideology in general. Ethnographic sources suggest that practically all lithic raw materials were associated with non-functional (for example totemic) values. This topic ought to be explored by analysis of how different raw materials were used for different tool forms, or how they were used in different associations or contexts (domestic, burial, ritual). Where particular raw materials were used for specific tools, but not for others, it should be asked whether this could have a functional explanation (it is, for example, the writer’s view that the lack of serrated pieces in pitchstone – despite the fact that pitchstone was mainly exchanged throughout Scotland in the Early Neolithic – was due to the brittleness of the raw material), and it is well-known that crushed quartz (despite the fact that it was not treasured enough to be exchanged) was used to cover certain burial and ritual monuments.

Traditions of working, and range of artefacts produced

There appear to be differences in the way raw materials (and particularly flint) were worked during the Neolithic, as opposed to during the Mesolithic. This includes the introduction in the Early Neolithic period of invasive retouch, and in the Late Neolithic period (Impressed Ware and Grooved Ware periods) of highly diagnostic Levallois-like technique.

Uni- and bifacial invasive retouch allowed the production of a series of new artefact forms, such as sophisticated projectile points and cutting implements, whereas it is thought that the Levallois-like technique may have allowed broad flakes for chisel-shaped and oblique arrowheads, discoid knives, and slender blades for cutting implements, scrapers, etc. to be produced from the same parent cores. Particularly the latter technique needs further investigation, and it is suggested that a chronologically unmixed, statistically suitable Late Neolithic flint assemblage be selected for refitting. This should allow a standardized operational schema to be produced for this approach, shedding light on the steps involved and the blank types produced.

The range of small lithic artefacts includes leaf- and lozenge-shaped (EN) as well as chisel-shaped and oblique (LN) arrowheads (which contrast with Mesolithic microlithic armatures ); plano-convex and scale-flaked knives with extensive invasive retouch; polished axeheads and knives (blade and discoidal forms); finely serrated pieces and saws; strike-a-lights; scrapers and piercers; as well as many simpler forms, such as notched, denticulated and edge-retouched pieces. It is generally thought that burins disappeared at the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, but dating late burins more precisely to investigate whether burins may also form part of the toolkit in the earliest part of the Early Neolithic period should be attempted.

Due to the flaking properties and varying toughness/brittleness of the raw materials used in the Neolithic, some tool types have a special affinity for, or avoid certain raw material types. It is, as stated above, likely that the brittleness of pitchstone is the reason why no serrated pieces are known in this material.

The distribution patterns and assemblage compositions of, for example, pitchstone and Yorkshire flint indicate that some raw materials may have been perceived differently, and subsequently used differently, in different parts of Scotland. Pitchstone may have been perceived in emblematic terms on the source island, Arran, defining people there as ‘those who use and control pitchstone’ while on the immediate mainland, it may have been an important exchange object , tying together a number of kinship-related groups. Further afield, where pieces are usually found in ones and twos rather than whole assemblages, they may be highly valued exotica.

Yorkshire flint, which in the Late Neolithic dominates southern Scotland completely, may have been perceived here mainly in functional terms, while further afield, where assemblages may contain as much as 50% Yorkshire flint, it may have gained in value due to its exotic character. It should be noted, however, that (as shown on Orkney) where central sites in a territory may contain 50% Yorkshire flint, more peripheral sites may contain none at all.

The distribution patterns, and perceptions, of Early Neolithic pitchstone and Late Neolithic Yorkshire flint suggest that important changes took place around the Early/Late Neolithic transition with the former probably representing a tribal society, organisation, and belief system, and the latter one of budding chiefdoms .

Exchange/movement of lithic materials and/or finished artefacts

Depending on whether the raw materials were perceived mainly in a functional or in a stylistic light (i.e., as a means of group identification or differentation), they were exchanged, either within smaller geographical areas or territories, or across large areas, possibly across numerous territories.

Following Clark’s (1975) territorial definitions, the raw material exchange of the Scottish Neolithic may be summarized in the following manner:

  1. techno-complexes – quartz, chert
  2. inter-regional social networks – pitchstone, Yorkshire flint; Antrim flint
  3. social territories -baked mudstone, bloodstone, mylonite
  4. local sources of importance – pebble flint, Buchan Ridge flint, agate/chalcedony, chalcedonic silica, quartzite
  5. local ad hoc supplements – jasper, basalt/dolerite

In the north, the west and the Highland zone quartz was used throughout prehistory, but probably not exchanged to any great extent. Chert dominated southern Scotland in the early Neolithic, but continued to be used to a lesser extent through the Late Neolithic period. This raw material was probably exchanged very little either, but used near the ubiquitous outcrops.

Arran pitchstone was exploited throughout prehistory on Arran itself (and probably in southern Argyll and Bute), but on the mainland the exchange of pitchstone is mainly associated with the first half of the Early Neolithic, followed by a trickle into Impressed Ware times. The importation of Yorkshire flint may have started as early as 3600 BC (Greenbrae hoard), and went on to dominate raw material use completely through the Late Neolithic period, and dropped to a trickle in the early Bronze Age. The dating of the Antrim flint exchange is less certain, but the Auchenhoan and Portpatrick caches suggest dates in the middle and later Neolithic. The importation of Antrim flint, probably from 37th century BC if not earlier, is fairly certain. However, the understanding of the associations and context of Antrim flint in Scotland would definitely benefit from more attention.

Extensive exploitation of Buchan Ridge flint in Aberdeenshire is associated by virtue of the technological attributes of its manipulation (widespread use of Levallois-like technique) with the later Neolithic. Work on these finds is presently ongoing. The remaining raw materials known from Scottish Neolithic contexts generally appear to have been used throughout prehistory, but all these raw materials are in need of more attention to increase our understanding of their general use, distribution and exchange patterns, as well as of how they were perceived in prehistory society.

Research questions:

How strong is the contrast between Neolithic and Mesolithic lithic traditions: and is it possible to identify a process of acculturation or mutual influence between them? To what extent does the structure of technologies compare to the possible North French progenitors for the earliest Neolithic in Scotland? It might be one thing to copy a lithic type, but to change the whole structure is very different.

How and when did reduction techniques change during the Neolithic? Debate still exists about the timing of the appearance, for example, of bipolar techniques. Our understanding of core technologies, percussive techniques etc, are limited in terms of understanding both spatial and temporal variation; not least in terms of considering this across the range of materials exploited.

Organisation of the reduction sequence across space: how was the chain of events from procurement to deposition structured across the Scottish landscape? Can any large-scale artefact production, akin to the specialist Middle and Late Neolithic flint artefact production on the Yorkshire Wolds be identified?

Typo-chronology: can definitive typologies for formal stone tools be generated for the Scottish Neolithic, establishing a clear technical vocabulary and a sense of changes over time? To what extent does typology allow   allow identification of links to other areas within or without Scotland? What is the date of the Campbeltown hoard of Antrim flint axeheads and flakes? This will require a review of the current dating evidence of a) the same type of flint axehead elsewhere and b) the same reduction pattern for flake production in Ireland

Function: what contribution does use wear and/or residue analysis have to understanding the use of stone tools during the Neolithic? These practices have revolutionised our understanding of stone tools (cf. Van Gjin, for example) and preliminary work in Scotland (Finlayson, Hardy, Barton, Warren) shows promise- albeit mainly on Mesolithic sites. How does function change over time? Where? Why? How does this relate to other evidence for the nature of the landscape and the function of sites – e.g. palaeoenvironmental and plant macrofossil evidence etc.

Deposition: how and why were stone tools deposited in the ground in the Neolithic? Arguably, if this cannot be answered, neither can many of the other questions currently being asked … This in turn is clearly related to:

Belief: How do attitudes to flaked stone reflect on attitudes to stone more generally?

What is the source of the black flint as used for many of the Late Neolithic ripple-flaked oblique arrowheads?

Comments 1

  1. SAIR 26: Quartz technology in Scottish prehistorySAIR 26:Quartz technology in Scottish prehistoryby Torben Bjarke Ballin.The project Quartz Technology in Scottish Prehistory was initiated in the year 2000, and over the following five years a large number of quartz assemblages were examined from all parts of Scotland, and from all prehistoric periods. The general aim of the project was to shed light on quartz variability, that is, to define how quartz assemblages in different periods and areas of the Scottish quartz province (the north, north-west and Highland regions of Scotland) differ. Subsequently it was attempted to explain the observed variability, focusing on factors such as chronology, territoriality, access to lithic resources, technology and activity patterns. In the larger framework, the present paper forms part of international efforts to increase awareness of archaeological quartz as an important resource. It is hoped that the research put forward in this paper may prove useful to quartz researchers in other parts of the world.

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