Hitting things

Sarsen hammerstones

Sarsen hammerstones

Seeing my little bit in Operation Stonehenge  – and being held up with all bar one of my current pieces of work because of problems with raw materials – made me look over the range of the “hitting” tools in my workshop.   So here’s a little photographic review of some hammers, dressers, mallets and mauls.

Raphael Salaman (1975, 1982:218-236) describes 70 tools under the headline “hammer” in his catalogue of woodworking trades’ tools.   Some of these entries describe more than one type of the hammer in question, increasing the number of distinctive hammers beyond 70; such as the entry for the Cooper’s Hammer on page 223.   This includes the London or Burton pattern of hand hammer, the Scotch pattern of hand hammer, the Flue Hammer; and two types of two-handed hammers, the Sledge and the Set.   Salaman describes the  specific characteristics of these five hammers, including their shapes, sizes and uses in coopering.

Salaman records an additional 41 alternative hammer names amongst the tools that he has described in full.   He also has six mallets (pp267-269), one dresser (p380) and there are trade-specific mauls (p270) – see also batter, beater, beetle, cudgel, froe club – for the shipwright, cooper, basket-maker and other greenwood-workers.

Being a record of tools used in woodworking, this book doesn’t include all the hammers belonging to smiths, jewellers, watch- and clock-makers, cobblers, and a myriad other trades.   So there are a lot of hammers out there.

Most of the hitting tools described by Salaman are used for driving.   That is, they knock a thing into, onto, or from, another thing; like a nail into a timber, a wedge into a log, a hoop around barrel staves, a sheet of lead around roof timbers.

In a trade like quarrying there are hitting tools which drive another tool – such as a sledge hammer to drive plug and feather wedges into stone to split it open – and hitting tools which hit the stone directly, to remove material.   These include things like the pick, hammer-axe and walling hammer.   So when is a stone-working tool a hammer, a pick or an axe?

A pick pecks – an axe cuts – a hammer strikes.   These words describe the action, the movement, of the tool at work.   The result of the action depends on a number of different factors, such as the shape of the tool, the force used in the action, the nature of the struck stone, the angle of the strike, the position of the point of impact.

The pecking stones, for example, which are made from nodules of flint, remove tiny grains from a stone surface.   I am using them to pick away at a piece of sarsen stone to make an even surface finish.   The knapping hammers, however, remove whole flakes – from large flakes which themselves might be knapped into other tools, to tiny little retouching flakes to finish a tool edge.  Here’s a short video of Karl Lee describing some of his knapping hammers.

The knapping hammers have characteristic damage at certain places which show where they hit the flint and how they are held to do it.   They are more like the hammers in the top group of photos, which also have one or two main surfaces that come into contact with the thing being hit, and which are held in a particular way.   In contrast, the pecking stones can be held any-which-way.   They have many angular, sharp edges all over that abrade the surface they hit.   Eventually these will all wear down and the stones will become useless.

All these different types of hitting tools…how can an archaeologist usefully talk about them?

In 1901, William Gowland carried out a small excavation at Stonehenge prior to straightening one of the huge sarsen stones.   Stone 56 looked like it was going to fall over.   Other sarsens had come crashing to the ground and broken into pieces in the past; but stone 56 is really handsome and the only part of the Great Trilithon still standing.   No one wanted to see it come to a sad end.   Here’s a pair of before and after photographs on Timothy Daw’s blog to show you what Gowland did.

Gowland was the first person to identify and classify tools used on Stonehenge’s stones.   During his excavation he found a range of beaten-up nodules and rocks which he interpreted as the tools used to shape and dress the standing stones.   Using a sample of 100, he divided them into five groups by material and weight.   He called the smallest groups axes and hammerstones; the middle group weighing from 1lb to 6½lb, hammerstones; and the largest, weighing more than 36lb, mauls (Gowland 1902:62).   He then described the different tasks he thought the tools would have been used for, such as the biggest mauls for knocking off lumps of stone to make the rectangular shapes of the standing sarsens.

This is a bit like the difference between a lump hammer and a sledge hammer.   One is a larger version of the other, and because of the sledge hammer’s greater weight, greater striking area and longer handle, it can do heavier work than the lump hammer.

On the other hand, you could think about classifying the lump and sledge hammer in terms of the action used to wield them (one-handed, two-handed…); the people that use them (brick-layer, navvy, convict…); the shape of the head (four-sided, eight-sided…); the shape of the handle (short, long, straight, curved…); the other tools each is used with (chisel, pick, crow-bar…) – and probably a hundred and one other ways, including the manufacturer, the forging technique, the source and quality of the metal…

Since the nineteenth-century, archaeologists have been grouping and dividing classes of object into types – typologies – with the aim of putting the things into relative chronological order.   Working out the age of something is a really important question to answer.   Working out what something was used for, and who used it, are just as important –  answering different questions like these might require the archaeologist to group the same objects in different ways.   It all depends on what you want to find out, like Salaman grouping together the hammers of many different trades, or Gowland dividing tools for one specific job (preparing bits of Stonehenge).

However you group or divide the hammers depends on how like or unlike one is to another.   Are my mauls more like my lead dressers, because they are each made of one piece of wood?   Or are my mauls more like my lump hammer and railway track hammer, because they are similar weights?  Are my pecking stones more like my sarsen hammerstones, because they are made of a silicified type of stone?   Or are my knapping hammers more like my mason’s axe because they chip bits of stone away?   Should I just lump them all together as “hammers”?   Or are they all so different that I should split them up into sixteen different types of hammer?

Archaeology has numerous techniques to cluster objects together or to divide and sub-divide them into ever smaller groups.   It all depends on what you are interested to find out – and whether you are a —

...lumper or a splitter.

…lumper or a splitter.

Gowland, W. (1902) “Recent Excavations at Stonehenge”  Archaeologia 58(1): 37-118

Salamon, (1975, 1982) Dictionary of Tools Used in the Woodworking and Allied Trades, c.1700-1970   London: George Allen and Unwin

Operation Stonehenge episode 2

The forecast for the December day made it look cold and grey outside, even though it was still dark at 6am.   In the brightly-lit farm kitchen the sizzling bacon smelt fabulous.   We all tucked in – bacon rolls, bowls of cereal, mugs of coffee and tea.

As daylight broke, we drove up towards the Down.   In Pickledean, the cameraman set up gear including a crane for overhead shots and a bed for controlled panning at grass level, while the sound guy complained about the rustling made by synthetic fibres of modern outdoors clothing.



Much ambling about the stones later, and talking, and filming, and more talking, and it was time for lunch.

In the afternoon, the sky grew ever more grey as the sarsen slowly grew more white.  This is what they had really come for.   Action shots; noisy shots; things that look good on telly.   Technology; experience; knowledge; clever prehistoric people who did amazing things with simple materials.   Other things that might surprise the general viewer – who knew that bits of Stonehenge were once gleaming white?*

Worked sarsen

Worked sarsen

A day’s work for a few minutes of a TV programme.   Possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done yet.   It’s easy to extemporize on a subject; less easy to stick to a story line and give the Director exactly the words and style of delivery he’s after with only a few minutes of instruction.   I think I’d do it much better if I was asked again.

You’ll be able to watch it via the BBC iplayer for a bit, and no doubt there’ll be repeats.   Operation Stonehenge, episode 2, was broadcast on BBC2 on 18 and 20 September.

* all of the Stonehenge sarsens, according to the Production team, rather than just the ones that were worked, and the ones that didn’t have too much brown iron oxide running through them.

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

Sarsen #4

I have finished the two facsimile sarsen hammerstones that I was making for the Stonehenge Visitor Centre Education Team.

Small quartzite sarsen hammerstone, 2013

Small quartzite sarsen hammerstone, 2013

The smaller hammerstone (Facsimile 1) is an effective pecking stone.   A “dimple” in the cortex of the quartzite nodule became part of the stone’s grip; by accident, not design.   The larger hammerstone (Facsimile 2) is considerably heavier and has to be held with two hands.   It is good for attritional work, removing grains from the surface of a saccaroid sarsen stone.   The last thing I did with it before packing it up was to cut a channel along the surface of the stone that I was shaping.

Large quartzite sarsen hammerstone, 2013

Large quartzite sarsen hammerstone, 2013

I made these two objects with a mix of “modern” and “prehistoric” techniques: that is, I quickly removed material from each original nodule using some of my iron mason’s tools before finishing them by using them as hammers on saccaroid sarsen.   This means that I can’t use data from them in my research to understand how the prehistoric tools got the way we find them.   But it is interesting to do the numbers.

As expected, both nodules lost weight as I worked on them.   This seems a silly thing to point out.   It is important, however, for a number of reasons; not least because archaeologists and curators have tended to describe and present the excavated artefacts as though they all represent the same finished state.   Tools change during their life, however, and this change can tell us things about how they were made and used.   The small nodule weighed 536g – the hammerstone weighs 444g.   The large nodule weighed 2149g – the hammerstone it became weighs 1818g.

It is very difficult to describe the shape of these irregular objects in a meaningful way – a way that can be replicated.   When I analysed the Stonehenge hammerstone assemblage (a forthcoming publication), I used a technique developed and used in geology.   It makes it possible to document and follow the changing shape of the nodules as they become hammerstones.

The small nodule’s shape was “oblate spheroid”.   By the time I had finished, the hammerstone shape still fell into this class, but now at the less elongated and ‘fatter’ end of the scale.   This reflects how material was knocked off the circumference of the small nodule, making the tool more rounded than the nodule.

The large nodule’s shape was “sub-equant spheroid”.   On completion, the hammerstone shape still fell into the same range of this class.   This is a reflection of the blocky shape of the un-worked nodule which I chose specially for this quality; and the way that I concentrated on using one end of the nodule for hammering.

Had I continued using the hammerstones, their weights shapes would have changed.   As it is, they are now with the Education Team and will take their place with the rest of the objects in the new handling collection.

Sarsen #2

Before I write more about sarsen objects, sarsen tools and sarsen working, I thought I would summarise sarsen geology.

Sarsen is a silcrete sandstone, formed through the surface or near-surface silicification of other deposits.   In Wiltshire, sarsen stones probably represent locally-silicified zones in the 4m to 5m thick Paleocene deposits overlying Cretaceous chalk; perhaps the Reading Beds or upper Bagshot Beds.   The sand, silt and mud of these layers are thought to have been cemented by water-borne silica, aided by silica-rich plants growing at the time.  It is possible that this silicification happened rapidly, over some 30,000 years or more.   The cementation was, however, uneven.   As the Paleocene deposits eroded, the scattered silicified patches were left on the surface.   You can see these most clearly on the Marlborough Downs, in the Fyfield National Nature Reserve, where sarsen stones lie sleeping across the beautiful landscape.

Archaeologists tend to talk about two types of sarsen in Wiltshire.   The most common – and the one of which the standing stones at Avebury and Stonehenge are comprised – is “saccaroid” sarsen.   The less common is “quartzite” sarsen, which appears in the archaeological record as the principal hammerstone material at Stonehenge.

Saccaroid sarsen

Saccaroid sarsen

Saccaroid sarsen’s fresh break is white to grey in colour.   The name is derived from the similarity of the fresh break’s surface to broken sugar loaf.   It is made up of quartz sand grains and is usually found in large boulders.

quartzite sarsen

Quartzite sarsen

Quartzite sarsen is usually a darker grey-brown colour, comprising much finer grained, clayey silts.   It is usually found as nodules up to c. 60cm diameter.   Fossils are rarely found in sarsens; but root voids and silicified roots are common, part of the characteristically  gnarled look of much sarsen.

These two distinctions are useful although they mask sarsen’s subtle variations.   For example, pebbles can be found cemented into the mix; varying amounts of iron oxide stain the stone red-brown; the cementation varies, leaving some grains of sand more-or-less well “glued” together.   The “case-hardening” effect brought about by atmospheric weathering also affects texture and hardness.   These variations can be found between stones and within individual boulders.   And the shapes and sizes of sarsen stones vary immensely; from smooth, rounded boulders to irregular, contorted, pitted blocks.

Geddes, I. (2000, 2003) Hidden Depths: Wiltshire’s Geology and Landscapes   Bradford on Avon: Ex Libris Press

Summerfield, M.A. and Goudie, A.S. (1980) “The sarsens of southern England: their palaeoenvironmental interpretation with reference to other silcretes”   In Jones, D.K.C. (ed) The Shaping of Southern England   Institute of British Geographers Special Publication 11   London: Academic Press