Investigating multi-hollowed cobbles in the Orcadian Neolithic
By Gary Lloyd
We are often drawn to the aesthetically pleasing, meticulously crafted, unusual, or enigmatic in archaeology.
Many of the distinctive artefacts and material culture from the late Neolithic site at the Ness of Brodgar fall into those categories and have roused great interest. The monumental building complex has been the focus of several television documentaries and periodical articles.
Many of the Ness of Brodgar’s unique artefacts have also appeared in national newspapers or featured in museum exhibitions, such as the British Museum’s World of Stonehenge in 2022.
Though not quite as well-known, many people are also aware of the flint tools and polished stone axes recovered from the Ness of Brodgar through local articles and web posts (Fig. 1).
However, many more stone tools recovered from the Ness of Brodgar are not as well known.
As with many Scottish prehistoric sites (ScARF 2012), the coarse stone tool group from the Ness of Brodgar numbers among the most abundant artefacts recovered. However, the pejorative name given to this diverse group of stone objects may call into question their contribution to our insight into the activities that occurred at the Ness of Brodgar.
These seemingly workaday objects are found in large numbers; to date, more than 2000 coarse stone tools and cobbles have been recovered. Yet, though they could arguably better inform us of everyday life during the Neolithic and at the Ness of Brodgar, coarse stone tools as a group remain under-researched (ibid).
Coarse stone tool typology is often based on their possible function.
Hammerstones were used for knapping flint blades and scrapers. Hammerstones were also used for pecking decorations into larger stones or shaping larger stones for architectural use in one of the many structures at the Ness of Brodgar.
Certain use-wear traces suggest that some stone cobble tools were used as anvils for bipolar flint knapping. Cobble Pounders were used for crushing haematite or coloured stone to use a pigment for decorating pottery and walls (Thomas 2021: 135) or for crushing rock temper (Towers and MacSween 2021: 258) to add to pottery clay to prevent cracks and minimise shrinkage during firing (Fig. 3).
Waterworn beach cobbles were used as smoothers for hide and fibre or polissoirs (Fig. 4) for shaping, sharpening, and polishing stone axes, maceheads, or bone.
These tool types are essential evidence and could contribute significantly to understanding the activities we see the remains of at the Ness of Brodgar.
However, while functional terms suggesting tool use are often given to coarse stone tools, experiments and functional analysis are often needed to verify their specific use (ScARF 2012).
For example, experimental research has shown that Skaill knives, made from beach cobbles, are effective tools for cutting and butchering (Clarke 1989).
There are also coarse stone tools whose use or function is not apparent or seems quite complex.
The spoon-shaped stone spatulate tool, ground from fine-grained sandstone, is delicately refined but shows no other trace of wear from use (Lloyd 2020).
Distinctly shaped pillow stones are made from rocks that can only be found in select locations, which suggests they may have had some special function, yet their purpose remains unknown (Clarke 2021: 234).
There are multi-hollowed cobbles with up to six depressions that were ground, chipped, or pecked into their faces. Many of these grapefruit-sized tools not only have hollows but are also covered with other traces of the work they were used to perform (Fig. 5).
It is the level and complexity of wear exhibited by multi-hollowed cobbles that prompted me to focus on them for my research master’s degree at the UHI Archaeology Institute, which asks the following questions:
- How do beach cobbles become the multi-hollowed stone tools we find at the Ness of Brodgar?
- Will any cobble do?
- What is the importance of their shape, weight, or size?
- Were they formed for use or through use?
- Were they the Neolithic equivalent of a multi-tool?
- Can a better understanding of these tools’ function shed light on their significance to the Neolithic Orcadians that used them?
The complex nature of the wear on these tools suggests that experiments and functional analysis are a requirement for a comprehensive study.
With this requirement in mind, I plan to use experimental archaeology to replicate the use-wear we see on multi-hollowed cobbles.
Next, I will compare the replicas with the original artefacts using photographic 3D models and use-wear analysis to try and determine their function and the sequence in which the wear occurred.
Then I will combine this new data with what we already know about these tools, their shapes, raw materials, and recovery context to better understand their function and develop biographies that describe the tool’s life history.
Ultimately, the project aims to understand these unique tools’ contribution and significance to Neolithic Orcadian life at the Ness of Brodgar and possibly use this project as a model to research other coarse stone tool group artefacts.
- Clarke, A (1989) The Skaill knife as a butchering tool, Lithics 10, 16-27.
- Clarke, A. (2021) Stone Tools from the Ness of Brodgar. In Card, N., Edmonds, M., and Mitchell, A. (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: As It Stands. Kirkwall: Kirkwall Press.
- Lloyd, G (2020) The Function and Significance of the Neolithic Stone Spatulate Tools from the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney. Unpublished Dissertation, UHI.
- ScARF (2012) Coarse Stone Artefacts from the Neolithic. In Sheridan, A. and Brophy, K. (eds) Neolithic Panel Report. Scottish Archaeological Research Framework: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 78-79. [online] available from <http://tinyurl.com/seszu53> [10/2/23]
- Thomas, A. (2021) Art in Context: The Decorated Stone Assemblage. In Card, N., Edmonds, M., and Mitchell, A. (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: As It Stands. Kirkwall: Kirkwall Press.
- Towers, R. and MacSween, A. (2021) The Age of Clay: Pottery by Another Name. In Card, N., Edmonds, M., and Mitchell, A. (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: As It Stands. Kirkwall: Kirkwall Press