The Aesthetics of Lithics – Marden Henge and Late Mesolithic Switzerland

I have great respect for the prehistoric flintworkers that produced the extraordinary pieces of craftsmanship that stand out from the usual crowd of artefacts and debitage we archaeologists mostly deal with. However, I do not count myself amongst the lithics fans who can dote on these special artefacts for hours. When I saw the picture of these ripple-flaked oblique arrowheads, though, it struck me how much they differ from the late Mesolithic artefacts from Central Europe that I am working with.

Ripple Flaked Arrowheads, Marden Henge. from Leary etal 2010, PAST 66

Ripple Flaked Arrowheads, Marden Henge. from Leary etal 2010, PAST 66

Let me introduce the mentioned arrowheads briefly. First, they are stunning and amazing pieces of craftsmanship! They were found during excavations by English Heritage at Marden Henge, southern England. Marden Henge dates to the Late Neolithic, ca. 2500 BC and lies between Avebury and Stonehenge. Leary, Field and Russell (2010) briefly report on the fieldwork in Past 66. The arrowheads came from a trench in which a remarkably well preserved building was discovered. More on Marden Henge and the fieldwork can also be found on these sites: The BBC site shows a short video and The Guardian website has an article and a small interactive feature. Digital Digging made this nice little overlay video.

Back to the lithics. Leary, Field and Russell (2010, p. 16) write:

“Two exquisitely crafted ripple-flaked oblique flint arrowheads were also recovered from this trench, but with broken tips and one missing barb each. However, if an intriguing broken fragment of flint from another part of the site is correctly interpreted, these arrowheads may have once sported grossly elongated barbs on one side. This long and narrow surface-flaked ‘barb’ fragment closely matches the character and width of the stubs on the arrowheads – so much so that it almost refits with one of them. Such an overstated feature places the artefact well beyond the realms of practicality, and must have been the ultimate show-off item. As far as we know, nothing similar exists in Britain – and even the barbs on elaborate continental barbed and tanged arrowheads are small by comparison. We lay a challenge here at the feet of all flint knappers out there to try to recreate a similar arrowhead and barb.”

What struck me was how different they are from the finest, most sophisticated artefacts from the Central European Late Mesolithic. And yes, I do realise artefacts from different periods and different parts of the world are being compared. It is also not my aim to do a typological comparison, but to take a moment to look at some of the wonderful things we – as archaeologists – have the privilige to work with, to contemplate how a skill can be used in such varied ways, producing artefacts withi such different functions and meanings.

Late Mesolithic Trapezes from Switzerland

To me the small trapezes are the most aesthetically beautiful chipped stone tools from Late Mesolithic Switzerland. These, however, can be assumed to have been practical tools, used and hafted as arrowheads, unlike the “ultimate show-of items from Marden Henge”. And unlike the Marden arrowheads, their beauty lies in their simplicity, their elegance, their practicality. With this technique many highly efficient arrowheads (or other tools) can be produced from relatively small pieces of raw-material (if need be raw-material of lesser quality). They can be routinely made and replaced. There is no reason to suppose they were show-off items, in fact when hafted you would hardly have seen much of them.

late mesolithic trapeze, Central Switzerland

late mesolithic trapeze, Central Switzerland (Foto ProSpect)

That almost seems to be a shame with e.g. trapezes like this one, made of rock crystal (from a site in the Central Swiss Alps). Its beauty, it seems, is in the design, and not in an ostentatious display of skill and luxury as in the Marden Henge arrowheads.

Update here!

Leary, J.,  Field, D.  and Russell, M., 2010, Marvels at Marden Henge, in PAST 66, p. 14-16

One response to “The Aesthetics of Lithics – Marden Henge and Late Mesolithic Switzerland

  1. Great artifacts. Great blog. I like these tiny instruments!
    Best Regards
    JLK

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