Thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s post about bone tempering in one of the Moseley Height Urns. I have hidden my desk under books about pottery and am now going to try to respond to some of the questions in a bit more detail. I mentioned that bone temper is known from a few Neolithic vessels. One in particular, a Neolithic bowl fragment discovered during excavations in advance of the Market Deeping bypass, stuck in my head because I examined the pottery for that site. The Heritage Lincolnshire account of this work is available online through the splendid Archaeology Data Service but unfortunately the pot report Julia and I wrote is one of the archives which haven’t been digitized. We did this in 2000 so, unsurprisingly, I don’t have an electronic copy of my report anymore. However, I did find the pencil drawings I made at the time in the back of the filing cabinet.

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This is the bone tempered sherd in question. It is part of the rim of a Mildenhall style bowl. There is another bone tempered Neolithic bowl from Hazleton North in Gloucestershire which was reported by Isobel Smith and Tim Darvill in their pottery report for the site. They list six other examples of bone tempering from sites in western Britain and Ireland: Robin Hood’s Ball and Avebury in Wiltshire (one sherd from each site); The Breiddin, Powys (possible identification of bone in a Beaker sherd); one sherd from Carrowmore; and several sherds from Creevykeel both in Co. Sligo and another Beaker sherd from the Grange Stone circle, Lough Gur, Co. Limerick. The bone in the beaker sherds was only detected because they were microscopically examined and Darvill and Smith point out that this means there may be many others that haven’t been discovered. I have added a link to the online version of this pot report to the reading list page under ‘pottery’.

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All of these, even the Beaker sherds, are likely to be older than the collared urn we were looking at. Ian Longworth’s monumental ‘Collared Urns of the Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland’ only looks at the pottery fabric in general terms and he doesn’t note any bone tempered vessels. John Waddell and Breandán Ó Ríordáin wrote a similarly comprehensive study of the Irish material which neither I nor our library have a copy of so I can’t check in that yet. I have the same problem with two very useful volumes from 1978 on Northern Bronze Age pottery by Trevor Cowie and Alex Gibson. I have put all these things on the reading list to remind me to go shopping on Abe books for second-hand copies.

In the comments last week, Sean asked whether the bone could have been added accidentally – if the clay was being prepared in an area where bone had previously been burnt then you can see how small fragments could easily get into the body of the pot. The whole question of how you distinguish a deliberate inclusion from naturally occurring or accidentally added material is covered in great detail in Prudence Rice’s excellent Pottery Analysis: a sourcebook. In this case I think the bone is a deliberate addition because you only get the large fragments, not the range of sizes you would expect if the clay was accidentally mopping up bone ash.

Carlos picked up on my blithe assertion that lots of traditionally made pottery from around the world is tempered for what we would regard as non-functional reasons. There is an excellent review by Olivier Gosselain of belief systems around and based on pottery manufacture for African societies which includes a lot of this stuff. It was published in the Journal of Material Culture, once again the full reference is on the reading list.

Rick

Literally. We may have found evidence of crushed human bone being mixed into the clay used to make Early Bronze Age pottery. While I was looking at the Moseley Height Bronze Age pottery last week in Towneley Hall Museum I saw something that I thought was very exciting. Large white specks in the body of the pot had a very bone-like appearance. I kept quiet about this in last week’s post because I hadn’t had chance to check it out properly, however…

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This is the surviving portion of Urn C. It is the bit around the rim and, as you can see, it has been fairly intensively restored since it was excavated in 1950. There are big sections where the shape has been reconstructed (or made up) using plaster of paris and brown paint. The rest of it is original Bronze Age ceramic but, to keep it from crumbling, it has been impregnated with something like PVA resin. Oddly, this means that the whole thing now feels as if it is made of plastic, which I suppose in one sense it is.

What this image also shows are the white specks of whatever it was that had been used to temper the clay. I’ve posted before about the processes of pottery manufacture and the need to add temper to clay. There are various practical reasons why you do this; it lets the steam out during firing and can improve the heat resistance of the finished pot. However, studies of modern potters in traditional societies around the world also show that it is often added for all kinds of other strange reasons. This is not to say that the temper wasn’t regarded as extremely practical by the people who used it – you can see, for example, how putting something into the mix of a burial urn that stopped the spirits of the dead from coming to eat your soul might be a high priority.

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Last week, peering through the layers of resin wIth my little x20 magnification jeweller’s lens, I wasn’t quite sure what these white lumps were. Mike very generously agreed to loan us the pot so I could bring it back to Preston and put it under a microscope. On Wednesday morning Clare and I borrowed the fancy new digital microscope in the Forensic Science lab (usually used by our ballistics people to study gun cartridges) and set about trying to capture good images of the mystery tempering material.

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Here is one of the images from the microscope, clearly showing the bone structure in this particular fragment. Also, just as clearly showing all the shiny plastic of the consolidating resin and the microscopic particles of soil and roots now trapped in there forever.

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This is another fragment at slighter smaller magnification. Jim has had a look at these too and, like me, he is convinced that they are particles of burnt bone.

Burnt bone as temper in British prehistoric pottery is unusual, but not completely unknown. I know of Neolithic sherds from Hazleton North in Gloucestershire and Market Deeping in Lincolnshire, where bone was used in this way, and there are almost certainly others. We now have lots of questions about our bone tempering. Why did this pot need crushed bone in it when the other two urns from the site don’t have any? Is it cremated human bone or is it animal? (we are casting about for a non-destructive way to answer that one) and what is the relationship between the cremated bone buried in the pot and the bone temper fired into the body of the pot? We can begin to imagine all kinds of fascinating connections between the body of the pot, the body of the person buried in the pot, the food they ate and the other people buried in the ring cairn.

Rick

Especially on the Towneley Hall museum, where I went yesterday to look at finds from the Early Bronze Age ring cairn at Moseley Height, near Cliviger. This is yet another thing I am involved in which is not directly to do with caves or memory. I seem to have more side projects than David Byrne and Bryan Eno combined. The ring cairn at Moseley Height was excavated in 1950 by Walter Bennett – then a master at Burnley Grammar School. The site was about to be destroyed by open-cast coal mining and, in the days before organised rescue archaeology, a local volunteer dig was the only way any knowledge of the site could be saved. Mike Townend, senior curator at Towneley Hall, pointed me to some contemporary footage of the dig, taken by local film-maker Sam Hanna, which is now available online from the North West Film Archive.

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My interest in Moseley Height came about because Ken Tyson, the current landowner, remembered the site of the ring cairn and also of the now re-instated open cast pits. Although the site was listed as having been destroyed, Ken was convinced that it would have stood outside the area of the mining. There was just a chance, therefore, that it might have survived. In 2009 and 2010 we opened these enormous areas in Ken’s pasture on Moseley Height to gauge what had survived the attentions of the Coal Board. Ken was right, the circle had stood outside the area of the open cast pit. You can actually see the back-filled edge of the mine showing as the pale surface nearest the camera in this shot.

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Despite not actually being dug away by the mine, this was the only surviving feature from the ring cairn, the base of one of the stone holes. Ten years of 1950s era mechanical plant trundling over a site will do that for you. However, even though we didn’t find any structures from the ring cairn we did discover lots of artefacts. We found 107 pieces of worked stone, mostly waste from making tools, but we also found some tools, including a beautiful barbed and tanged arrowhead.

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Bennett and his team found four cremation burials in the centre of the ring cairn, three of them in Early Bronze Age urns of the type that are known as collared urns. This photo is of the largest one. They also found around 20 worked stone tools, mostly scrapers and knives, along with at least two arrowheads. The cremation burials were re-examined by Sam as part of her PhD. The reason I wanted to go to Towneley and re-examine Bennett’s finds is that we are aiming to bring together the results of both excavations in a new publication.

As always, when you go and look at archive material in museums, there was a surprise or two in the boxes. One interesting development is that not all of Bennett’s stone tools are Early Bronze Age, at least one of the arrowheads is Neolithic, there was obviously something happening on Moseley Height before the Early Bronze Age burial cairn. Even more importantly, Bennett had carefully marked the position of their finds on a map which is still held in Towneley Hall. This means that we should be able to tie together the results of the two excavations and get a clear idea of how the site was used in the Early Bronze Age.

Rick

Wednesday morning, to be precise. I set off on a trip into the uncharted territory otherwise known as the East Riding, to collect some flint samples. This wasn’t quite the epic trek it would have been from Preston because we were over in Scarborough for New Year.

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The samples are for Vicki and Matt’s PhD student Aine, who is using a range of different spectroscopic techniques to look at which trace elements are present in prehistoric flint tools. The idea is that the trace elements in different flint outcrops ought to vary enough to allow her to identify which flint sources were used to make the tools. She has already sampled a whole range of flint tools but she also needs samples from as wide a range of flint sources as possible. Hence my trip down into the East Riding, and specifically to the chalk cliffs around Flamborough Head.

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This is the sample site Aine had chosen, North Landing, just to the north of  Flamborough Head itself. It is a tiny north-east facing cove with what must be a delightful beach in the summer. At ten o clock on the last day of the year it was deserted except for a very few hardy dog walkers and me.

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Down at sea level it was exactly as cold as it looks in this photo. My job was to walk along the cliffs looking for outcropping flint, pick up as many loose bits as possible and link the samples to identified parts of the outcrop.

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As you can see in this photo there are bands of flint showing in the chalk at the base of the cliffs on the north side of the bay. These layers are very pale grey and opaque. They are quite chert-like in overall appearance and the bits I picked up didn’t look to be very good quality. I collected them anyway, although I am not confident that they would have made good stone tools.

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There were some much finer, black flint nodules lying around on the beach but it wasn’t until I looked in the debris from this recent cliff fall, also on the north side of the bay, that I spotted where this flint was coming from. I picked up lots of glassy black flint from within this pile of mud and chalk. There was clearly a band of the finer grade flint right up at the top of the chalk. I got lots of bits of both types of flint, hopefully Aine will be able to make sense of it all.

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I had a Frank Sutcliffe moment on the way back up the slipway, cobles in the morning light awaiting their turn at the shoals of herring.

Rick

We have a plague on both our houses (ours and my mother-in-law’s next door). Everyone has a chest infection, we are all coughing like old sheep and the kitchen is vanishing under the piles of the useful dosing syringes you get with Capol: even the two year old sounds like a pensioner asking for twenty Berkley Menthol Kingsize in the corner shop.

It has been a productive week on the project nevertheless. I went to Lancaster on Tuesday to meet up with Mairead and Denise from Oxford Archaeology. They are going to do the specialist analysis on the environmental samples, this is the work we got funding for last month. The point of the meeting was to prioritise which samples they would look at first. This initial assessment phase will allow us to focus most of our energies on those samples where we have good preservation. One of the things we are also looking for is for Denise to identify the charcoal small finds.

Charred plant remains like this can tell you lots of different things about the site and the environment. However, the first priority with our charcoals is to identify the species of the plants. I hope to use some of this charcoal as dating evidence. Good radiocarbon dating needs several things. First of all, you need to be able to prove that your sample is the same age as the archaeology.

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For example, this is one of the postholes in the timber circle showing in cross section during 2013. The dark layer at the top is a topsoil which is still developing, anything in here could be very recent. Beneath that, we have the hill-wash which lies over the prehistoric archaeology. There would be no point in dating charcoal from either of these two contexts. Charcoal from the layer beneath might be more interesting. This is the layer that was formed when the posts of the timber circle were removed so, in theory at least, a date from here could tell you when the circle went out of use. This would be even more valuable if you could combine it with a date from the layer at the base of the posthole. Some of this has not been disturbed since the posts were first erected and therefore you could possibly get evidence to tell you when the circle was built and how long it was in use for.

All this is only half the battle: some trees live a very long time. If we try to date the posthole using part of some 400 year old oak we are going to get a date which is too early by 400 years. This is where Denise’s work comes in. She will be looking for charcoal from twiggy new growth on short-lived species for us to date. These species identifications should mean that we can confidently say that whichever samples we chose to date would only have been a few years old and therefore give us a representative date.

Rick

We have been busy with lots of disconnected odds and ends on the project this week. Dan has washed a very large quantity of mud (part of getting the soils samples ready to go to be analysed in Lancaster next week), I have sent and answered many emails and looked at lots of spreadsheets but none of this necessarily makes great material for a blog post.

I did have a good trip to Ormskirk on Friday night. I went to give a talk to the West Lancashire Archaeological Society about Neanderthals, Before I got my present job at Preston I was a post-doctoral researcher in Wales, working on the later stages of a very long running research project on Pontnewydd Cave. The final results of this project were published just about the time I started this blog. Archaeologically, it is easily the most significant and important thing I have ever been involved in. In fact, I suspect that whatever I find in the rest of my career, my little bit of the Pontnewydd project will remain as my major contribution to archaeology.

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This is the inside of the main cave at Pontnewydd being excavated during the early 90s. Stephen Aldhouse-Green, who ran the project, excavated at Pontnewydd for over 20 years. The cave is in the Vale of Clwyd, in North Wales. Sometime before 225 000 years ago, early Neanderthals used the area outside the cave to make and use their stone tools. They also, we think, used the cave as a place to leave dead members of their group. There are 21 human teeth from the cave: all that is left, after all that time, of between five and sixteen different Neanderthals.

When I first arranged to do the Ormskirk talk I intended to focus on the Pontnewydd excavations, with a bit of a background about what a Neanderthal was. Looking over the slides I used, about 70% of my talk turns out to have been background of one kind or another. Revising all this stuff before the talk (and you do need to revise, human evolution is one of the fastest moving and most contentious fields in science) brought back one of my own personal pointless irritations.

This has nothing to do with academic debates but everything to do with children’s fiction. When my son was small, like many kids, he loved his dinosaurs. Stories and toys for pre-school children still regularly have dinosaurs and cavemen together. Despite a stern parental veto on the Flintstones chronology some of this stuff has crept into the house. High on the list of shame are a Ravensburger puzzle and a board game¹ (allegedly educational toys from Germany) but my personal bete noir is our copy of Dinosaurs Love Underpants. Not only does it conflate 65 million years of evolution but it has an annoying noise-making button built into the book which the little one has just discovered the use of.

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Since I am aware that this is not one of the burning issues of the day, I will rescue the positive tone of the post by providing a plug for the excellent Cave Baby by Julia Donaldson. This is a brilliantly illustrated picture book with an entirely Quaternary fauna and fantastic pictures by Emily Gravett.

Rick

¹Fairness compells me to admit that it is a very good board game, with cunningly compulsive reversed gameplay. It’s called Dodge a Dinosaur.

One of the least onerous parts of my job used to be to run an archaeology and anthropology field trip to southern Kenya. The reason I am thinking about Kenya is because I am going to Ormskirk next Friday. I am giving a talk about Neanderthals to the West Lancs Archaeology Society and I decided to draw on something I saw out there to explain a debate about Neanderthal behaviour.

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I do this kind of personal experience based pop-ethnology much too much. Colleagues and students have learnt to their cost that there is almost no anthropological debate that I don’t think is usefully enlivened by the phase well, in Kenya the Maasai/Chagga/Wataita (delete as appropriate) have an interesting practice… Often the insight offered is not revolutionary. For example, Julia and James demonstrate the traditional Maasai method of lighting a rollie using a firestick and dried cattle dung as tinder. Neanderthals almost certainly did not light their fags like this.

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In this particular case, the (possibly) relevant thing I learnt from going to Kenya concerns elephants. At Lynford in Norfolk, about 67 000 years ago a vast quantity of mammoth remains ended up in a swampy river channel alongside many stone tools made by Neanderthals. The Neanderthals were clearly eating the mammoths, but as is often the way in these cases, there is a lively debate about whether they were hunting them or scavenging mammoth carcases. Mark White has suggested that the mammoths were being deliberately driven into the swamp to, as he phrases it, ‘disadvantage’ them and allow the Neanderthals to attack sick or weak elephants in the group. The sheer quantity of mammoths at the site requires some explanation beyond just accidental drowning. The idea being, I assume, that lumbering great elephants are much easier to attack when they are stuck in the mud then when they are roaming freely about the steppe.

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Except, as this group of modern African elephants up to their tusks in water in Amboseli National Park shows, they don’t seem the slightest bit disadvantaged by being in a swamp. They look a lot happier than any group of Neanderthals struggling to keep their heads in the air would in the same place. I think, as with the later example of the Poulton Elk, the Lynford mammoths were probably trying to escape active human hunters by making for the water. However, in this case a lot of them didn’t make it.

I once asked James, thinking about this very problem, how you go about killing an elephant with a spear. (The Maasai are well-known to have a prohibition on eating bush-meat and can therefore be seen to know this sort of thing without attracting too much suspicion from the Kenya Wildlife Service). Admittedly he was talking about the modern Maasai spear, which is a 2 metre long mild steel javelin with a head like a carving knife on steroids, but he said that you need to throw the spear at a weak spot at the base of the trunk. This is not something that I would care to try to do personally: apart from anything else, elephants are such cool beasts. However, I think it is safe to assume that every Neanderthal who ever lived was both harder and less squeamish than me. If mammoths were hunted using the methods James described then almost all the damage would be to soft tissues rather than bone, which might explain why positive evidence for hunting injuries is so scarce.

Rick

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