Recollections of working stone: Incised lines – a matter of ambidexterity?
The second account of Ness volunteer Lorraine Clay’s foray into experimental archaeology over the summer of 2022. Part 1 is available here.
By Lorraine Clay
Continuing the work to polish the axe at home, I found water unnecessary but did use a little on the axe itself to ascertain where the colour was emerging and where needed more work. I used two new polissoirs – a gritty red sandstone from the Trench P spoilheap (from Chris) and a smooth rounded cobble from Newark, Deerness (Figure 13).
The smooth one is not as well balanced or rounded as the Skaill Bay one, and I may replace it when next at the beach – but it does sit nicely on my knee.
Action was more linear, polishing the sides and grinding the sides symmetrically. However, when I was polishing the axe, particularly the blade, I noticed that instead of a straight line, it produced a natural curved line coming from my wrist movement rotating the blade along the face of the stone. This is similar to that on the Brodgar butterfly (Figure 13) – a left-facing arc with my left hand; a right-facing arc with my right hand. Is there evidence that these curves were made by using different hands?
I progressed to using a small hammer-anvil-polissoir against the axe, held in my hands, and, to finish, used pumice (from the bathroom!), chamois, and beeswax. The beeswax gave a more visible shine, but the stone felt smoother without it.
My incisions so far were on sandstone, not flag, and I made some deep incisions using siltstone then conglomerate (Figure 14) and noted a left/right rising diagonal was natural with a left hand, a right/left rising with a right hand.
Considering whether some incisions could be created during tool creation or sharpening, I also incised the flag with bone (from Harris) and a tooth (from North Ronaldsay) (Figure 14), ochre and a fine siltstone flake (Figure 15).
I began to deepen the horned spiral down into the dark coloured layer (Figure 16).
It was more difficult to peck down to this layer and the split cobble was no longer sharp enough (Figure 11). I used indirect percussion and the quartz finger (Figure 8) for a while but this chipped, I then used a North Ronaldsay siltstone finger from which fine slivers shattered off. Eventually I used flint from the garden, which I split over an anvil with a hammerstone.
On the second occasion, I sharpened the Skaill split cobble by placing it on the wall-stone anvil and glancing it with the cobble hammer-anvil-polissoir until it fractured into a point, a quarter part of the Skaill split cobble, and then both ends of a quartz chunk.
For deepening the cup and ring I used the resharpened Skaill cobbles then the quartz chunk.
Fashioning a bone needle
To create a sharp bone point to use to incise, I shattered an animal bone. The fragments of this gave me the idea to make a needle and see which tools were useful and what marks were added to the tools.
There was a worked bone fragment found in Structure Twenty-Six in 2019 (figure 17) which was part drilled. This suggested that the hole was made first.
Drilling the hole was the most difficult. Because they were tricky to hold, this involved rotating, alternately a fine flint point, chip of Birsay quartz, the siltstone flake (Figure 8), a cubic chip of quartz and a fragment of black Lewisian Gneiss with two points.
I believe a bow drill would have been easier but would need constructing.
It took over two hours to see light through the hole (compared to how easy the rock art was!), the bone being very tough. Smoothing the sides was relatively quick (about 20 minutes) using my rough wall stone, rough red sandstone, Newark polissoir and small hammer-anvil-polissoir.
I also used a rough but flat sided chunk of red gneiss to smooth the underside (on its back on the small hammer-anvil-polissoir).
I have finished the axe, cheating a little with beeswax for a visible shine, but the stone felt smoother without. I have decided not to work it further as there was a fine crack when I began the process, which is being exacerbated by working on it.
I will use the knowledge gained through this in my work on Cumbrian Rock art.
I will observe the pecked horned spiral and cup and ring over winter to see whether it splits, and will repeat these experiments with rocks similar to (or from) Cumbria to see which stones are easier to work, and which motifs easiest to create. I’ll also watching these over time to see how long the pale crushed stone contrast lasts.
I would eventually like to acquire a sandstone and flagstone monolith to add rock art before erection and some after to examine whether the angle of pecking is different, whether it is more or less easy, and which designs are easier.