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Final Report Summary - HARDROCK (Between a Rock and a Hard Place: context, function and choice of early metalworking tools on Europe’s Atlantic façade)

The aim of the HardRock project was to achieve a better understanding of both the technological and the social dimensions of early metalworking in Western Europe, through a systematic study of the toolkit employed by early metalworkers. The study has considered both physical (tool morphology, use wear, material properties) and contextual data (site type, chronology, association with other items), with the primary objectives of reconstructing the respective chaînes opératoires and of identifying inherent constraints and determinants in metalworkers’ decision making.

Traditionally, research on Bronze Age craftsmanship has focused on the typology of its end products. Questions relating to manufacturing techniques have usually been approached based on the study of manufacturing marks left on these products. In contrast, the actual tools used in the manufacturing process received comparatively little attention, with the notable exception of casting moulds. Where early metalworkers’ tools have attracted scholarly attention, they are rarely considered in the context of the relevant chaînes opératoires. An example in case are metalworking hammers and anvils, whose functional diversity so far has not been fully explored and whose potential for adding to our understanding of past metalworking techniques remains much underexploited.

There is also a clear bias in scholarly interest depending not so much on the type, but on the material tools are made of. Attention has focused mainly on implements from copper-base alloys rather than lithic materials, as the former usually occur in metalwork hoards and thus are more easily subjected to traditional typo-chronological approaches. As a consequence, copper-base metal tools are often considered emblematic of the Bronze Age metalworker's toolkit. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of metalworking implements surviving from that period are made from stone, and that their find circumstances, frequently from settlement or even specific workshop sites, tend to provide much more relevant contextual information about their original use.

In everyday archaeological practice, metalworking hammers and anvils made from lithic materials frequently are still not being recognized for what they are, and thus hardly play any role in archaeological research. Even where such pieces are identified as metalworking tools, they are often viewed as curious oddities rather than items that might provide crucial information on production processes and on the social position of craftsmen. This is even more disconcerting as the use of lithic metalworking tools is attested for the Americas, Africa, and Europe, in many instances from the first introduction of metallurgy to modern times.

The main focus of the HardRock project consequently was on these lithic metalworking tools, which are much more numerous, but so far have attracted much less attention than homologous tools from copper-base alloys. For comparative purposes, however, and in order to explore the functional relationship between the two, all available relevant information on metal tools has also been considered. The project thus drew on a full corpus of metalworking tools from a study area that comprises the British Isles, France, and the Iberian Peninsula, prior to the onset of the Iron Age in the early 1st millennium BC.

The initial phase of the HardRock project concentrated on the acquisition by the Fellow of new skills in GIS, 3D scanning and artefact petrology. Training in 3D scanning was completed to schedule, while some training components in GIS and artefact petrology had to be staggered over subsequent months. In-house training at the host institution was complemented by webinars from external providers (DIGIMAP, ESRI, NextEngine). The purpose of these additional webinars was to gain a better knowledge of the different possibilities offered by the software used to study the lithic metalworking tools. Many of these skills are easily transferrable to other fields of artefact study. For example, GIS combined with 3D scanning is turning out to be a potentially powerful new technique to map tool surfaces and to study use-wear not only on stone tools, but also in metal and bone objects. This is an exciting new possibility which offers considerable scope for future exploration.

During the first year of the HardRock project, relevant material from the main British and Irish museum collections were studied. Part of the time was also devoted to bibliographical research concerning ethnoarchaeological comparisons, mainly from the Americas and from Africa, as well as from the Aegean. This research provided stimulating results regarding the difference between stone tools used by goldsmiths and blacksmiths. Work during the second project year mainly focused on the study of relevant material from Spanish, Portuguese and to a lesser extent French collections. During the 24 months of the HardRock project, at least 33 museums and collections have been visited and more than 500 tools have been identified and studied, forming the most numerous corpus of this type of objects anywhere in Europe.

Among the most significant results from the work undertaken is the discovery of clear preferences for specific categories of tools – not based on their function, but on the approach chosen in their manufacture, e.g. block-based vs. blade-based – and also of different preferences in the choice of raw material, between different parts of the study area. The strong patterning identified in this respect was unexpected at the outset of the project.

The archaeological contexts these tools have been found in also vary considerably between different parts of the study area, and we have begun to formulate different models to help us understand these differences. We have also discovered some tools with metal traces (gold and copper alloy) which in the future will require SEM analysis.

To conclude, the study of stone tools used by Bronze Age metalworkers on Europe's Atlantic façade has been an exciting project which through a range of different approaches (3D scanning and modelling, ethnoarchaeology, etc.) succeeded in opening up some stimulating new perspectives for further research. Several papers with results from different sections of the study have been submitted for publication in peer reviewed journals and will be forthcoming in the near future. A project monograph is currently under preparation and is expected to be brought to publication in 2017.

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