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The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S16. Life and Death of Artefacts: A Biographical Approach to Ritual Practice

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Session sponsored by Dino-Lite

Session organizers:

Mathias Bjørnevad Jensen (Aarhus University, Denmark) and Peter Bye-Jensen (University of Southampton,

Session abstract:

This session will focus on creating biographies from lithic material culture, artefacts, as a means of understanding relationship between the life of an artefact and its final deposition. The aim of this session is to look through the vast span of time from the Palaeolithic to the end of the Neolithic, and let researcher’s present examples of conceivable “chains of practices” that culminated in ritualised depositions. From well used and unused, to sharpened and dulled and to burnt and broken all objects underwent multiple stages and “chains of practices” prior to the final deposition. However, this life history of an object is all too rarely taken into account when archaeologists discuss ritualised depositions. As such research has all too often focussed on the deposition as the ritual rather than the deposition as part of a larger ritualised practice that culminated but is not limited to the deposition. In order to rectify this, in this session the presenters will address the narratives of ritualised practices by studying the biography of the objects contained within ritualised depositions. By studying ritual depositions using a biographical approach we may be able to understand better the temporality of the practices that culminated in the deposition including but not limited to the use, treatment, modification, selection and arrangement of artefacts.

The ambition is to create a synthesis about life biographies of artefacts from the Stone Age via practises and activities that the material culture reflects.

Contributor Abstracts:

The ritual significance of stone objects: a study of their life paths

Annelou Van Gijn (Leiden University, Netherlands)

Throughout their life path objects circulate through time and space and can be inscribed with different meanings, ranging from a mundane to a highly ceremonial or even sacred significance. These roles can change during the life path of the objects. Studying prehistoric objects from a biographical perspective has proven to be extremely useful in gaining insight into the highly variable functions and meanings objects must have had in the past. Especially microwear analysis – using low and high power microscopy to study traces of wear and tear – has provided unique insights in the life paths of things. It is one of the methods to detect the hidden evidence for the manufacture, use, transformations and treatments of objects. Although many different materials can be imbued with special meaning, stone is special in that it is a lasting material that connects generations. As such it is often considered a perfect repository for symbolic knowledge. The study of stone objects from a biographical perspective has shown that not only impressive flint daggers and oversized axes display evidence for special (ritual) treatment. Simple flint flakes and scrapers, as well as querns, often considered typical domestic items, also show evidence of transformations that indicate they had a special significance. This paper will elucidate the importance of a close, microscopic, inspection of objects for a better understanding of past ritual behaviour by drawing on some examples from the Dutch Neolithic and Irish Mesolithic.

Chiselled Away - Examining the Role and Function of Transverse Arrowheads in Neolithic Britain

Mike Burgess (University of Southampton)

In this paper the efficacy and intentionality behind observed variations in a specific kind of lithic tool associated with the British Middle Neolithic – the chisel arrowhead – are explored through a detailed examination of methods of manufacture and subsequent usage and disposal. Excavations during the 2015 season on the West Kennet Avenue, part of the Avebury UNESCO World Heritage Site, found eight large chisel arrowheads in a small re-cut pit, located directly in the centre of what was to become the line of the Avenue. The manufacture of Chisel arrowheads appeared to follow a strict set of procedures (or chaîne opératoire) and detailed metric and experimental analysis of the West Kennet examples revealed evidence of two distinct manufacturing techniques as well as very different subsequent uses. Through marrying together, the observations of form and use-related traces with experimental and ethnographic research, it is argued here that different styles of chisel arrowhead contained different agency through their ritual production, usage and deposition, and played separate, but important, roles in society: smaller, blade-manufactured arrowheads were used for killing outright, whilst the larger, flake-manufactured arrowheads were used for wounding.

Taking a closer look – causewayed enclosures through the lens of a large scale use-wear analysis project

Peter Bye-Jensen (University of Southampton)

This paper presents a closer look at the phenomenon of monumentality in the early Neolithic, at a micro scale. The methodological approach is use-wear analysis of flint assemblages from selected contexts of a selection of well excavated early Neolithic causewayed enclosures in southern Britain and southern Scandinavia. Results from the use-wear analysis offer a way of characterizing activities at these sites that has not been taken before. In particular, use-wear analysis has been able to reveal some of the encapsulated life biographies that the flint artefacts hold, and in this way, contributes to understanding the temporality in depositional practices at causewayed enclosures. The project has also sought to develop a method in use-wear analysis, notably with high-end digital microscope technology in combination with a conventional microscope. This paper links the empirical data that is the results of the use-wear analysis to the archaeological theories behind the complex ritual monuments that the causewayed enclosures are.

Polished-edge Discoidal Knives: An Empirical Investigation into Their Archaeological Context and Function as Flint Objects from the British Isles

Melissa Metzger (University of Bradford)

Polished-edge discoidal knives are lithic objects found across the British Isles with an approximate Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age date. These artefacts were created in four different shapes (circular to D-shaped, triangular, broad leaf to lozenge and rectangular) and potentially formed a significant role in lithic material culture based on what we know of their depositional context. They have chipped and polished edge modification and the current range of use tasks is unknown. This PhD research uses microscopy to understand their function and ways of modifications and will discuss this in the context of how and where they were deposited. Ethnographic research is also used and, along with the other lines of research, help build an object biography for these artefacts.

An experimental design was set in place to study different tasks to identify use-wear patterns on top of the polished edges in order to understand the activities these objects were involved in. The manufacturing techniques show a high level of flint knapping experience and knowledge. A digital database has been created so this research can compare shape to the different archaeological and find locations to find a pattern of deposition. This paper outlines the approach taken to study these objects to date and draws some initial conclusions about the use-lives of these objects and the roles they will have played in prehistoric societies.

The biography of a practice: An analysis of Mesolithic multi-object deposits in southern Scandinavia

Mathias Bjørnevad Jensen (Aarhus University, Denmark)

Hoarding has often been characterised as a ritualised post-Mesolithic phenomena, but when similar Mesolithic deposits are identified they are often seen to be ‘unique events’ and when interpreted they are often thought of as profane caches of raw material. In this study, rather than coming from the priori that these deposits are either ritual hoards or profane caches, the more neutral term of multi-object deposit (MOD) will be used. Prior to this analysis less than a dozen Mesolithic MODs had been discussed in any one study, however in this study more than 60 MODs in southern Scandinavia were analysed. These results indicated that Mesolithic MODs are a lot more common than previously recognised and are the combination of highly patterned as well as idiosyncratic practices. In this paper, I will present the results of the biographical analysis of these deposits, including but not limited to object biography. By studying these Mesolithic MODs using a biographical perspective we may get a better understanding of the practice(s) and how they can be interpreted including the potential ritual or non-ritualised nature of them.

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