From the 21-23 August ARCHON organised a summer school for experimental archaeology. The summer school was organised in collaboration with the Putting Life into Late Neolithic Houses Project. The summer school was held in three different locations, aimed to highlight three major aspects of experimental archaeological research. On the first day a symposium was held to highlight different case-studies on scientific archaeological experiments. The second day consisted of hands-on prehistoric craft/technology workshops in Masamuda. During the last day we visited the Eindhoven Museum where students were introduced to the concept of living experiments, and the value of archaeological open-air museums in public education (see figure 1).

Figure 1. ARCHON Summer School visiting the Eindhoven Museum.

The building workshop on the second day was connected to the Putting Life into Late Neolithic Houses project. During this day we began to build a new reconstruction at Masamuda. The project was initiated because professor Annelou van Gijn received a contribution for a new structure in the park for her retirement last year. The structure would be a reconstruction of a temporary shelter which was found in Den Haag Wateringse Binnentuinen. During this day students were introduced to various stages of house construction, including the digging of postholes, chopping down trees and the making of posts. The experiments were scientifically documented, and the tools used in these experiments will be included in the reference collection of the Laboratory for Material Culture Studies in Leiden.

Figure 2. Building workshop during the second day in Masamuda.

The other two workshops on the second day were concerned either with cooking or basketry and fiber processing techniques. These workshops were not necessarily aimed at scientific documentation but more at introducing students to a wide variability of prehistoric cooking, basketry, and fiber processing techniques.

Figure 3. Basketry and fiber workshop in Masamuda.

Overall, the summer school was a success. At present experimental archaeology is not being taught as a course (or even as part of a course) at Dutch universities. As such the summer school aimed to partially fill this gap in the Dutch education system. At the end of the summer school students had to write a setup/protocol for a scientific experiment. This provided them the opportunity to reflect on the type of questions, data, and variables which need to be considered during experiments. As such, the summer school provided a good starting point for students who consider applying this method in their own research.

During several periods of the Neolithic, be it the Michelsberger or Vlaardingen period, flint tools to cut cereals are absent in the archaeological record. Could this absence be due to the fact that people cut cereals with other tools?

To answer this question an experiment was made in summer 2022 to cut cereals with other tools that the usual flint sickles of the Neolithic.

Sickles were made with shell inserts of oysters and freshwater mussels among others. They were then tested by cutting typical cereal types of the Neolithic.

Different types of sickles and harvesting knives used to cut cereals (from top: cattle rib, entire oyster and mussel shells, sickle with mussel shell inserts, sickle with oyster shell inserts and wooden sickle), (Photo: Marc-Philipp Häg).

These were einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum), emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum), barley (Hordeum vulgare) and bread wheat (Triticum aestivum).

Sickle with freshwater mussel inserts used in a bread wheat field, (Photo: Marc-Philipp Häg).

After hours of harvesting,  the results were clear. Harvesting with other materials than flint is possible. Not only could cereal stems be cut off easily, but also the harvesting speed was similar to sickles made with flint inserts. This could indicate that in neolithic periods where flint sickles are absent, tools made from other materials, as shells, were used.

Significant use-wear traces were also visible on the different shell inserts. Be it dents, edge rounding, polish or striations, these traces showed how much the shells were worn off during the harvest.

Oyster shell insert before the harvest with first traces of grass (green spots), (Photo: Marc-Philipp Häg).

 

Oyster shell insert after three hours of harvest with very rounded and diminished shape, (Photo: Marc-Philipp Häg).

Text: Marc-Philipp Häg

On a hot and sunny Saturday, a group of volunteers gathered in the flintknapping area of Masamuda Archaeological Educational Centre. Their first task: making simple flint flakes to clean out some deer legs. Only one of the participants had knapped flint before, but an hour later everyone had a handful of the necessary tools. These had a wide variety in shape and size and boasted every possible edge angle. So, which one to use to cut the tough deerskin? The sharpest edges of the smoothest, blackest flint tools proved to be the best. These same tools were used to remove the tendons and cut through the ligaments of the joints to free the cannon bones that would provide the material for making the Vlaardingen Culture awls (figure 1). The tendons were cleaned and then dried in the sun for future use as hafting material (figure 2).

Figure 1: Removing the tendons, (© Diederik Pomstra).

 

Figure 2: Tendons drying in the sun for future use as hafting material, (© Diederik Pomstra).

A few flakes with edges of 40 – 90 degrees edge angles were used to scrape the bones clean and then the job of removing both ends of the bones began (figure 3). This proved to be most easily done with fairly large flakes of more coarse-grained flint with a comparatively long and straight edge. These cut through the bone until approximately threequarters of the thickness after which the ends were removed with a sharp tap on a piece of wood.

Figure 3: Removing both ends of the bones, (© Diederik Pomstra).

Then we went back to the flintknapping area to make or find suitable tools for deepening the two natural channels along the cannon bone. A sharp, thin point is the best tool for this (see figure 4) and these can simply be found, or made by snapping a blade or breaking a flake between a hammerstone and a stone anvil. Making real burins was still beyond the skill of the participants, but suitable flints were quickly made or found. Armed with these tools, the volunteers returned into the shade to cut the two grooves in the bone. That took some time, but just after teatime the bones were ready to be split. For this work a sharp edge on a flint core was used. The groove in the bone was laid on top of the core’s edge and lightly tapped with a piece of wood to make it split slowly and steadily. Not every bone splits neatly into two, indicating that more time should have been spent deepening the two grooves.

Figure 4: An example of a thin pointed flint (burin) suitable for splitting the bone, (© Diederik Pomstra).

These halves could be split again or the halves themselves could be cut into a point to make a Vlaardingen Culture bone awl. Making the point was done by lightly chopping with sharp edges on flint cores, scraping with a flake with a large edge-angle and grinding on one of the stones that were lying in the immediate area.

At the end of the day, no awls were finished, but that was not the object of the day. The participants learned to make flakes, those all-round and always necessary tools, and learned about which kind of edges were suitable for which kind of work. And all participants had learned some basic bone working techniques. All valuable skills for future work in Masamuda and for doing experiments that will contribute to the goals of the project Putting Life into Neolithic Houses!

 

Photos and text: Diederik Pomstra

This month the Dutch government installed a 15 cent deposit on tin cans to encourage people to recycle their cans. Recycling is however not a recent invention, it has been around since early prehistory. During the Vlaardingen Culture phase (3400-2500 BC) flint axes were often recycled to make other tools such as scrapers and flint borers. To better understand the recycling of these axes we conducted several experiments with reconstructed flint axes. The experiments were now published in the journal Lithic Technology.

Flake core from Vlaardingen Arij Koplaan (trench 17), made from a recycled flint axe. The flakes struck from these kind of cores were used to make a wide variety of tools including borers, scrapers and strike-a-lights.

Based on our experiments we concluded that importance of recycled flint axes in this period was so far underestimated. We now estimate that on some sites up to 40% of all the flint originally came from broken/reused flint axes.

The article was published open access and it can be downloaded via this link.
Also read our previous blog about the setup of the experiments.

The research project Putting Life into Late Neolithic Houses is a rather comprehensive research project that aims to understand various aspects of Neolithic life in the Rhine/Meuse delta of the Netherlands. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the project, people with different skills and knowledge are required. Apart from academics, the project needs people skilled in crafts. Our team member Diederik Pomstra is such a craftsperson.

Knowing Diederik’s background, one would not expect him to be an experimental archaeologist. He studied Dutch and International Law in Utrecht, and trained as a jurist, he started his professional career at Amnesty International where he facilitated the work of the doctors who documented the effects of torture, and at VluchtelingenWerk Nederland where he gave legal advice to refugee lawyers. Although this challenging work to defend human rights and being confronted with the devastating consequences of war did affect him, he never consciously exchanged his job for a career in experimental archaeology.

Becoming a self-employed stone age craftsperson was not a watershed moment. The interest for prehistoric technology was already present early on. “Life just brought me there,” Diederik recalls when elaborating on his trajectory from being a jurist to an archaeologist. However, a moment that did boost his profession as an experimental archaeologist, or at the very least steered him towards becoming a full-time archaeologist was a chance encounter with Annelou van Gijn during a Mesolithic living project in Horsterwold (Flevoland) in 2005. Since then, Diederik contributes to research projects of scientists from various universities as a toolmaker and performer of experiments (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Diederik Pomstra explaining how to grain a hide, 11 July 2021.

Being a nature-lover all his life, experimental archaeology certainly increased that devotion to nature, although he would say that nature led him towards experimental archaeology rather than vice versa. Gaining extensive experience in prehistoric crafts certainly made him more aware of nature as a source for tools and materials. Now, he keeps a close eye on what the seasons offer in order to plan the harvesting of the materials and shape them into tools subsequently, a transformation process that fascinates him time and again. While he was already familiar with most materials he works with, antler is something he learned to appreciate along the way. In that sense, his profession broadened his horizon. Yet, even after all those years of professional experience, he is still driven by an insatiable creative hunger for trying out new materials. For example, making a lime bark canoe, as an equivalent of the Native American birch bark canoe, is on top of his bucket list. “It is so logical,” says Diederik referring to the bark and its properties to make a boat. And seeing the ‘logic’ of natural sources to make tools is exactly why we need a craftsperson in our research team.

One way of communicating about the archaeological past to a broader public, is by making visual representations. For our research project Putting Life into Late Neolithic Houses, archaeological reconstruction illustrator Kelvin Wilson is bringing to life those times long gone.

 

An archaeological reconstruction illustrator translates what once was minutely excavated into visualization manageable for an outside public. He puts the sherds of a broken pot together and recreates its former function. He is able to revive the faded colours and decoration patterns on pottery and repairs the cracks of broken glass. He builds houses out of what are now mere discolorations in the soil, and turns them into a home. He is the builder, the potter, the smith, the glassblower, the textile worker and the one with oversight over people’s life from birth to the grave.

In our research project, Kelvin Wilson is the archaeological reconstruction illustrator, or – as he describes himself – a storyteller. The storyteller seeks to present a mood and a setting into which the archaeology fits — to give an impression of a given moment in time, and share it with his audience. The snapshot can be of Mesolithic children playing in the sand, a Medieval ship’s crew battling stormy weather, or one Neolithic individual’s job on creating a dugout (Making a dugout – visualisation by Kelvin Wilson – YouTube).

Although it might seem that the viewer is looking at the artist’s own subjective impression of the past, the drawings are always based on scientific knowledge — with the artist’s imagination ending not far past the point where the facts begin. The repaired pottery he draws, is indeed present in the archaeological record (fig. 1). As for the natural environment, everything the artist paints (from the omnipresence of the ferns to the scattering of birches) is based on what the botanists concluded from the paleobotanical dataset (fig. 2). This doesn’t mean that visual representations of the past are mere catalogues of the archaeological finds put into a resuscitated context. The focus in Kelvin’s illustrations remains with the more transient character of people, with the archaeological finds as their attributes. This is completely different from technical drawings in catalogues or encyclopedias in which the object is mostly considered a prototype, and its function in life is rendered perfect as under a bell glass. Instead, Kelvin draws past worlds as the homes of people in flux. One could say he is an anthropologist, studying past peoples by means of a pencil.

1. An impression of a Neolithic interior, (Drawing: Kelvin Wilson)

The advantage of having a reconstruction illustrator in the research team, is that he draws our attention to those things we have not been able to excavate: the colour of hair or eyes, or what clothes people might have worn. Details, perhaps, yet very important in accurately representing the past. After all, our work in retelling the stories of the past doesn’t end with the assemblage of the archaeological remains, it begins with the visualization of them.

2. Vlaardingen people working at a dugout, (Drawing: Kelvin Wilson)

Launching the dugout on September the 16th

On 16 September, the dugout – or boat made from a hollowed log – was launched at Natsec, a canoe club near the Vlaardingen cultuurhuis (figure 1). The making of the dugout, which is part of the research project Putting Life into Late Neolithic houses, started in June 2021 and lasted through July 2022. Starting from an oak tree, it took the volunteers of Masamuda 30.433 minutes, or 507 hours, or more than 21 entire days to finish the dugout. During those 507 working hours, the volunteers performed no less than 516 experiments with various tools and had to register every experiment on paper (figure 2).

Figure 1: Launching the dugout on 16 September 2022.

 

Figure 2: Erwin, Ellen and Leo filling in the paperwork on 26 June 2021.

The volunteers, of which the majority had no previous experience in making a dugout, worked exclusively with a Neolithic toolkit. Such a prehistoric toolkit consists of axes and adzes, wedges made of antler, chisels of antler or bone, and flint scrapers. In addition to the dugout, they also made paddles from ash tree.

The Putting Life team wishes to thank the volunteers for their effort, endeavor and dedication in making the dugout.

On the 22nd of October 2022 we hosted a hide-working workshop for the volunteers of Masamuda. The workshop was aimed to gain insight into hide-working traces on Vlaardingen Culture (VLC) scrapers. On the VLC site of Hekelingen III several scrapers were found with hide working traces which potentially could be linked to the scraping of fatty hides with the use of additives (Van Gijn 1990). To test this hypothesis, we scraped two sealskins with flint scrapers using additives. One hide was scraped with sand while the other was scraped with dried clay. The sealskins were donated to the project by Zeehondencentrum Pieterburen, a seal rescue center. These skins belonged to weaners, common seals (Phoca vitulina), who died of pneumonia, the skins were removed during the autopsy. We chose to use sealskins because these are notoriously fat and because seal bones were found both in Hekelingen III and in Vlaardingen (Brinkkemper et al. 2010).

Removing the blubber

Unlike most mammals, seals have a thick layer of blubber (fat) below their skin. The first step in the hide-working process therefore consisted of removing the layer of blubber (see figure 1). We did this using unmodified flint flakes. The sharp edges of the flakes proved to be effective tools for this task. It took the volunteers approximately two and a half hours to remove the thick layer of fat.

Figure 1. Removing the layer of blubber with flint flakes.

Framing the skins

Once the layer of fat was removed small incisions were made in the skins to facilitate stretching them in a frame. The skins were stretched in a wooden frame and laid down in the grass for further processing (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Framing the seal skins in a wooden frame.

Scraping with additives

Now the entire skins were covered in additives which were added to absorb the fat (see figure 3). One skin was covered in sand while the other was covered in ground dry clay. After this, the hides were scraped with flint scrapers which were hafted in a wooden haft (see figure 4 and 5). The hides were scraped for approximately fifty minutes. It could be noted during the process that the scrapers already acquired a macroscopically visible gloss, this was especially true for the scrapers used to scrape the hide with sand. This is not entirely surprising as it is known that flint can be polished using sand in combination with leather. The additives indeed absorbed fat from the hides and it therefore seemed that this was indeed an effective method for removing excessive fat from these skins. The use-wear traces on the scrapers still need to be studied, but the fact that they acquired macroscopically visible traces in the form of a macroscopically visible gloss and clear rounding of the edges indicates that they must attained have well developed wear traces.

 

To be continued…

After this the hides will have to be scraped again in order to remove the remaining fat. They will have to be dried, stretched and rubbed to create a kind of fat cured leather. In this case the fat inside the skin will serve to cure and preserve the skins. All the tools used in the experiments will be analyzed microscopically and the wear traces on these tools will be compared to archaeological scrapers of which the wear traces have been tentatively interpreted as being the result of scraping hides with additives. Hopefully, this will provide more insights into the hide-working processes in the Neolithic.

Literature

Brinkkemper, O., E. Drenth and J.T. Zeiler, 2010. De voedseleconomie van de Vlaardingen cultuur in Nederland. Een algemeen overzicht, Westerheem Special 2010: Vlaardingen-cultuur, 26-51.

Van Gijn, A.L., 1990. The wear and tear of flint. Principles of functional analysis applied to Dutch Neolithic assemblages, Leiden  Faculty of Archaeology.

On the 14th and 15th of May the Putting Life into Late Neolithic houses project held a workshop weekend at the Vlaardingen Culture house. The workshops were aimed to teach the volunteers and project members about daily life in the Neolithic. For two days workshops were hosted to learn about crafts and subsistence in the Neolithic.The crafts workshops included workshops for flintknapping, antler and bone working, basketry, working with fibers and woodworking. This would allow the volunteers to begin to make artefacts to furnish the Neolithic house. Food related workshops included gathering wild plants, making fire with Neolithic tools and a Neolithic cooking workshop.

During the flintknapping workshop the basics of flintknapping were taught. Participants learned to strike flakes from cores and these were then retouched into scrapers and borers. In addition to that simple hafting methods were taught. One type of haft was made from willow branches of which the wood itself was used as the handle while the willow bark was taken off in long strips to form the binding. Another hafting type involved the hafting of flint using birchbark tar as an adhesive.

Diederik Pomstra giving an introduction in flint technology during the workshop weekend.

 

Basket made from willow branches. The brown parts still have bark while the decorative white lines are made with debarked willow branches.

The basketry workshop taught the volunteers to make baskets from willow branches using traditional methods. These kind of workshops also remind us of how little is actually known about this period. Baskets have not been found in Vlaardingen Culture sites, but this is mainly due to the fact that wood doesn’t preserve in the archaeological record. And even if wood would preserve, wooden artefacts most likely always end-up as firewood after the fall into disuse. We need to be aware of how little we still find and therefore, how important it is to be creative and imaginative to put the Neolithic house back to life. Most objects that would have been present in a house like this will not be found on archaeological excavations. It is what professor Linda Hurcomb termed ‘the missing majority’ of organic artefacts.

If we want to bring the house to life we will need to think beyond flint and ceramics (which are always preserved). The workshop weekend was a great way to promote awareness of the wealth of materials that people would have used in the Neolithic.

 

The heavy storms in February and March this year damaged one of the Stone Age houses at Masamuda.

In order to repair the house, that was originally built with Stone Age tools, members of the Putting Life into Late Neolithic Houses team joined forces under the supervision of Leo Wolterbeek and started the reparation of the house with ropes, wooden forks and levers.

Repairing the Vlaardingen house, (© Yuri van Koeveringe)

Thanks to the team, they managed it quite well and the house is now back into its original shape.

Please find the news item on the EXARC website: https://exarc.net/history/stone-age-house-repair.