chapter  3
26 Pages

The Mutability of Stone

Throughout the twentieth century a variety of different stones were collected and excavated from what is now a dramatic coastal headland in southwest Pembrokeshire (Gordon Williams 1926; Wainwright 1963; David 1990, 2007). These finds from the Nab Head date to the early part of the Mesolithic period, around 9200BP. Amongst the stones recovered are numerous flint, rhyolite and tuff tools and manufacturing debris, at least 690 shale beads, several unmodified stones and the ‘Nab Head Venus’, an enigmatic piece of worked shale. These stones have been analysed and interpreted in very different ways. The stone tools have undergone a technological and typological analysis (David 2007), which has revealed their resemblance to tools from English and Welsh sites of a similar date. Their very quantity has been interpreted as revealing the presence of a repeatedly revisited residential base camp, possibly occupied during the autumn (Jacobi 1980; Bell 2007). These tools have only ever been considered in terms of their typology, production, economic function and source. Much less notice, though, has been taken of the ‘natural’ stones from the site, apart from a note that they were imported by human agency (David 2007, 111). Such stones only become significant in archaeological narratives if wear shows they also had a function (for example as bevel-ended tools). As Cooney (2009, 64) points out, unmodified stones are usually not considered artefactual and often not even retained in excavation archives. The numerous shale beads found at the Nab Head, by contrast, are con-

sidered to mark this place as significant, perhaps even indicative that a cemetery once existed on this site where acid soils mean that bone is no longer preserved (David 1990). Their importance is thus mainly seen in their ability to signify something more abstract (such as a cemetery), rather than anything to do with either the nature of their material or their materiality per se. The Nab Head has been viewed as a production site for these small blue/grey beads which were then exchanged across southwest Wales and possibly also further afield: similar examples have been found at Star Carr, North Yorkshire, Staple Crag, County Durham and Manton Warren in Lincolnshire (Barton et al. 1995). Also recovered from this site was the ‘Nab Head Venus’, an enigmatic piece of shale, which can be interpreted as a

Venus figurine or phallic object, depending on the orientation of the viewer. It has either been seen as very significant indeed – ‘a remarkable Palaeolithic trinket’ (Breuil 1953, cited in David 2007, 111) – or treated with suspicion as a possible forgery (David 2007, 109). More recent finds of similar shaped and/or decorated, pebbles at Rhuddlan, North Wales and Llandegai (Lynch and Muson 2001) and a ground pebble at Goldcliffe, Site B (Bell 2007), have reinforced both the form of the Venus as significant as well as its status as a ‘special object’. In this way, the range of stones found at Nab Head have been variously

treated as utilitarian or special, significant or insignificant. Attribution of significance comes from the rarity of the stone’s manufactured form or its subsequent treatment. Little has been made of the material of the different stones themselves, whether flint or shale, apart from discussion of their source. The presence of abundant shale on local beaches has precluded the usual archaeological narratives of effort in raw material procurement which might otherwise have further underlined the significance of the beads. The Nab Head is very typical of the traditional treatment of stone

from archaeological sites. While there has been increasing attention to the significance of the stones used in monuments and to the sources of prestigious stone artefacts in later periods (Bradley and Edmonds 1993; Saunders 2001; Cooney 2002, 2005; Tilley 2004; Pétrequin et al. 2006; O’Connor et al. 2009), both the stone used to make tools utilised in mundane contexts and the unmodified stones frequently found on archaeological sites have been neglected (although see Cooney 2009). Instead, a consideration of the properties of artefactual stone has primarily focused on issues of raw material source and quality (Inizan et al. 1992; Luedtke 1992; Schlanger 1996). The choice of stone selected for the tools used in daily tasks has been presumed to be purely functional, the product of a balance between expedience and the demands of the technical system (e.g. Myers 1989; Fagnart 1997). Here an implicit ritual/functional divide, which permits rare objects only to be made from significant stones, has proved detrimental both to an understanding of routine stone working and to other less overtly special stones. In this chapter I will argue that even the materials used in mundane tasks were bound up with past people’s understandings of the world and thus cannot simply be reduced to the sum of their mechanical properties.