Back to the amazing Palaeolithic Summer School run by the British Museum. One of the things that most archaeologists come up against in their career at some point is lithics or as most people know them, stone tools, after all, it is what we call most of prehistory. It is one thing to excavate stone tools or read about them in site reports, it is quite another to make them!
As part of the school we had the privilege of learning how to make simple tools with Karl Lee an expert knapper. This was a real eye opener and so useful in understanding how our ancestors both procured supplies and made their tools. In the hands of an expert, as surely most of our ancestors were in prehistoric times, sophisticated multi-purpose tools can be created in minutes. It took a little longer in the hands of novices it must be said, even with a little extra help. However, joking aside, it was valuable as it made the rationale of re-fitting exercises such as those we’d seen earlier in the week much clearer. It also raised the profile of knappers in the past and helped us appreciate their undoubted skills all the more.
The highlight of the week for me was next – Dr Jill Cook and Ice Age art. One of the wonders of human history, and something which distinguishes modern humans from even their closest ancestors is the ability to produce what we call ‘art’. The earliest examples appeared around 40,000 ago, but the examples we were shown were slightly younger at around 35-16,000 years old. Sadly copyright prevents me showing images but two of the pieces (carved mammoth tusk and engraved bone) at least can be seen on the British Museum website. We saw what seemed to be hundreds of examples of carving and engraving, and many of the pieces were functional tools, not simply beautiful objects. We followed this up with a great session on cave painting, where we had a go at creating our own masterpieces with varying degrees of success. Of course, we were only given the same equipment available to our ancestors – ochre, leather, water, charcoal and feathers, oh and a sense of imagination!
For us, the week was an amazing time. Yes, we had to grapple with immense depths of time, changing hominid species and the intricacies and subtleties of lithic technologies, but these were the essence of why we were there – what was the story of our ancestors and our islands? Yes, there was some debate over the changing landform/scape over the almost 1 million years of ‘human’ presence here, and yes there was some hands-on practical work which helped take learning beyond simply reading about things in a book.
Ian Parker Heath