Open Farm Sunday!

Last weekend it was Open Farm Sunday.   On 8 June, farms across the UK opened their gates to visitors to learn about what life is like on the modern farm – what we grow, the animals we care for, the equipment we use, programmes for helping wildlife and lots more.   Open Farm Sunday is a great day out and this year was no exception in Wiltshire.

A group of farms on the Marlborough Downs are partners in the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area.   An Open Farm Sunday event is thrown by one of the farms in the partnership and this year was the turn of North Farm, West Overton.

The Nature Improvement Area is around 10,000 hectares of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Beauty.   The farmland includes a huge area of land scheduled for its archaeological significance.   The Avebury part of the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site nestles in its south-western corner.   There are Sites of Special Scientific Interest, County Wildlife Sites, important geological sites, public rights of way, Open Access land, and the Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve.   All told, it’s a wonderful part of the world.   The NIA partnership aims to ensure that the Downs are as biodiverse in the future as they have been in the past.

North Farm is at the very south of the NIA, tightly bound to the World Heritage Site and a very important archaeological landscape.   Farmer Gill Swanton is also an archaeologist and she and I have worked together for years on different projects.   Gill wanted to ensure that the archaeological heritage of farming in the area was represented to the visitors – after all, the land has been farmed for a good few thousand years.   While Gill put together a display about the fabulously well-preserved prehistoric landscape and its range of natural materials that attracted people to the area in the past, I took some objects for families to handle (as well as a whole pile of Yong Archaeologists’ Club subscription forms!).

Carrying on the early farming theme, Gill asked me to demonstrate an aspect of prehistoric domestic life.   She had a raw sheepskin in the freezer – last year one of her Wiltshire Horn shearlings had an accident and she kept the hide when the carcass was butchered.   So I decided to process the hide to show one of the ways that one of the most common archaeological artefacts found in the area – the flint scraper – would have been used.

This meant that I had to refurbish my toolset for the task.   I keep a very basic set of hide scraping tools – no more than hazel rods with flint scrapers fitted into the ends.   There are very few archaeological examples of hafted flint tools, and as far as I know none of them are scrapers.   Butler (2005, 2011:49) suggests that most scrapers would have been used in hand, but hide scraping needs a force and leverage which requires a handle.   There are ethnographic and historical examples to use as analogies, but for my day-to-day toolset I like to keep it simple and suit myself.

The fixings are no more than slots in the ends of the hazel rods, a “glue” made of a mix of beeswax, resin and bark tar, and sometimes a strip of rawhide.   One of the rods has just the slot, so that I can easily interchange scrapers, sharpen them or turn a scraper in the slot to use a different edge.   If I want to sharpen or re-shape the scrapers that are fixed with glue, I do it with the flint in place.   You can see one of the effects that this has in the photos above of the small scraper; only one third of the scraper was left for work, the rest was covered in glue and stuck in the handle slot.

To make a supple, soft, strong leather for clothing, raw animal hide needs to be cleaned up, stretched on a frame, and scraped down to remove all the unwanted layers.   The flint scraper needs to be sharp, but also evenly shaped – even the smallest point or spur of flint left around the working edge will score or slice the skin.   The working edge must be clear of the handle, but the fixing needs to be strong and enough of the stone must be available to make a good bind.

This is a lovely scraper to work hide with. The curve of the ventral surface (the underside of the scraper) helps to bite the edge into the hide layers and scrape downwards, removing the unwanted material.  All this now needs is a bit of glue.

This is a lovely scraper to work hide with. The curve of the ventral surface (the underside of the scraper) helps to bite the edge into the hide layers and scrape downwards, removing the unwanted material. All this now needs is a bit of glue.

 

Butler, C. (2005, 2011)  Prehistoric Flintwork   Stroud: The History Press

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Sarsen #5

Blogging about what archaeologists can learn from toolmarks left by the sharp edges of metal tools – and how ephemeral those marks can be – reminded me of one of my all-time favourite archaeological features.

Last Saturday I was in Avebury to see what a pasture to the north of the Manor House would be like for a Young Archaeologists’ Club activity.   Lovely earthworks, probably medieval, quiet and secluded without being remote, and great views out to Windmill Hill and back to the church and manor – so it’s perfect for a surveying session.

The weather was holding up.   Heading east out of the village up Green Street, I was reminded just how enclosed, protected, encircled, claustrophobic, it feels inside the prehistoric earthworks of the huge henge monument.   Green Street – the herepath on the way to Marlborough – felt faintly like an Anglo-Saxon military way as runners participating in the Marlborough Downs Challenge plodded uphill and teenagers working on their Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award splashed down.

I was heading for the Valley of Stones and the open-access area of Totterdown.   Crossing the Ridgeway, the rise is broached at 236m above sea level on Overton Down and three landmarks come into view; the remains of a barrow in a cluster of wind-blown hawthorns, the Experimental Earthwork hung with more stunted trees, and another barrow crowning the south-east facing spur of the hill.   The first hint of what’s to come appears in the light scattering of grey wethers on the slope below.

The view to the east from the Ridgeway, over Overton Down.

The view to the east from the Ridgeway, over Overton Down.

Having enjoyed the best part of three hours amongst the sarsen stones in a small area around Delling, taking photos and gathering data, it was time to head back down to Avebury.   Dark downpours of freezing rain had been interspersed with bright, blowsy sun.   Sometimes it felt heavenly up on the heights – sometimes it was impossible to imagine just how the prehistoric farmers had teased life out of their cold, wet arable fields now shadowed under sheep-run pasture.

But I could hardly take the short route back and not visit this:

The polissoir - a grinding stone for polishing stone axe heads - one of a number on the Downs but the only one with this variety of toolmarks.

The polissoir – a grinding stone for polishing stone axe heads – one of a number on the Downs but the only one with this variety of toolmarks.

This magnificent sarsen stone is a polissoir, just to the east of the Ridgeway at grid reference SU 1283 7150.   It’s a large version of the grindstones and honing blocks I use to sharpen my steel axe edges – but it was used in the Neolithic to put smooth surfaces onto stone axe heads.   Sarsen is a sandstone: not so finely grained that it won’t rip off material from an axe head; but nicely regular and evenly textured to work down a flaked surface.

Not every Neolithic axe head was ground and polished – and some were only partially worked –  but those that were have beautifully finished surfaces.   You get a hint of this if you touch the dished corner of the polissoir, run a finger along the grooves, and stroke the glossy surface which you can see shining in the sunlight.

This polissoir has probably lost part of its prehistoric grinding surface.   It was split by the stone cutters who used to work this area, and who removed the whole of the west side of the stone, taking some of the worn area with it.   Before being used as a grinding bench it had perhaps been a standing stone.   Excavations in 1963 revealed the remains of a pit at the northern end of the stone, interpreted as a socket in which the sarsen had once stood (Fowler 2000:66-8).

This is not the only polissoir in this area to have been one thing, then another.   For example, one of the sarsens used to construct the chambers of the West Kennet long barrow (no more than about 4km away to the south-west) bears a similar dished, glossy grinding area.   There is a portion of a polissoir, with a shallower but still glossy surface, incorporated as a block in the farmyard wall at North Farm, West Overton (just over 2km to the south).

The stone tools ground and polished on this sarsen have left their marks.   Knapped axe heads, like the flint one below made recently by Karl Lee, lost their flake scars and ridges; but in the process of becoming smooth, cut and marked the sarsen.   For such a hard, tough stone, these cuts are deep.

Flint axe head knapped by Karl Lee - Neolithic form, 20cm long.

Flint axe head knapped by Karl Lee – Neolithic form, 20cm long.

Fowler, P.J. (2000)  Landscape Plotted and Pieced   London: The Society of Antiquaries