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Home sweet home: investigating Neolithic houses in Britain through the microwear and residue analysis of tools

Final Report Summary - HOUSE (Home sweet home: investigating Neolithic houses in Britain through the microwear and residue analysis of tools)

Research Question
What is a house? The answer to this question may seem obvious, but even in today's society houses represent many different things. To name but a few, houses are bricks and mortar, a shelter from the elements, places intimately connected with memories, places we keep our belongings and places we think of as a refuge from the outside world. Houses therefore are multi-faceted and understanding what they mean to us is a complex question that varies according to context and between different societies. As interesting as this question is to us today it is rather more fundamental when we consider what houses meant to people in the Neolithic period (dated in Britain to c. 4000-2200 cal BC) when for the first time people across Europe and Asia started to construct substantial and relatively permanent dwellings.

This projects seeks to explore how Neolithic people thought about the houses they lived in using a practice-orientated approach. The starting premise is that areas around prehistoric houses are spaces fundamentally defined by activities (cooking, hide working, flint knapping, pottery making etc.). Therefore, to understand what houses represented to Neolithic people it is first necessary to understand what types of activities took place in and around them. The project sets out to achieve this by reconstructing the character and spatial arrangement of those practices using use-wear analysis on the stone tools associated with Neolithic houses. Use-wear analysis involves the study of the microscopic traces of wear on tools (e.g. edge removals, edge rounding, use-polish etc.), which are characteristic of contact with particular materials (e.g. bone, hide, wood etc). Using this type of analysis we can reconstruct the range of practices that were associated with different Neolithic houses.

Case studies and Research Objectives
Two case studies have been chosen that include the best-preserved Neolithic houses in Britain. These are as follows:

1) The Orkney Islands, which have some of the best preserved stone-built domestic architecture in western Europe. The project will focus on the Neolithic settlements of the Braes of Ha'Breck, Wyre, and Barnhouse, near Stenness.

2) The Late Neolithic settlement at Durrington Walls, located 3km from Stonehenge, where a Neolithic village has been found with well-preserved occupation surfaces including house floor deposits and extensive middens.

Based upon the archaeological potential of these case studies the project has the following research objectives:

1) To investigate the range and spatial organisation of material practices that took place within different Neolithic settlements in Orkney and southern Britain

2) To investigate whether different types of settlement (short term vs. long term, homestead vs. aggregated settlement) were associated with different ranges of activities and whether tasks within aggregated settlements were conducted by individual households or shared communally

3) To investigate the effect of the spatial organisation of daily practice on potentials for learning and skill acquisition

4) To investigate whether there was a difference in the range of tasks that took place within what archaeologists have defined "domestic" compared to "ritual/ceremonial" buildings at the sites of Barnhouse and within Durrington Walls

5) To investigate the importance of daily practices in the creation of Neolithic social identities and the manner in which this changed between the Early and Late Neolithic in Orkney

Description of the work performed
The project revolves around the analysis of stone tools from the sites of Durrington Walls, the Braes of Ha'Breck and Barnhouse. The analysis of the Durrington Walls assemblage focuses on a particular artefact type, the Oblique Arrowhead, which is one of the defining features of the assemblage. The site represents, among other things, a settlement in which people gathered periodically to undertake ritual observance and to construct the massive monumental complexes of the Stonehenge landscape. The analysis was focused on understanding the role of skill acquisition within these large temporary aggregations. Therefore, a series of attributes was recorded to assess the relative skill levels involved in the manufacture of the large assemblage of arrowheads from the site.

In contrast to Durrington Walls, the Braes of Ha'Breck and Barnhouse represent permanently occupied settlements with stone-built architecture. The analysis of the assemblages from these sites involves detailed use-wear analysis, primarily of flint tools (e.g. knives, scrapers, arrowheads etc.). So as not to make any pre-judgement as to what a tool should look like, the entire assemblages from these sites (including pieces that may otherwise appear to be simple waste material) was also analysed for use-wear traces. The resultant data provides information on the types of materials tools were used on, the motion of use (i.e. was a tool used in a longitudinal or transverse motion) and the part of the tool that was used (e.g. lateral margin, distal end etc.). Taken together this information provides detailed insights into the nature of tool use and therefore, at a more general level, the material traditions of craft working that existed within a particular settlement. These data were then analysed both contextually and spatially in order to understand the locales of particular practices in relation to the house. For example, did hide working routinely take place inside houses, immediately outside houses, or within central communal working areas?

Final Results and their Potential impact
The analysis conducted for project HOUSE has important implications both methodologically and in terms of our understanding of Neolithic houses. Methodologically the project has proved the potential for use-wear analysis within the context of Orkney, an area in which use-wear analysis has not been applied before. More specifically, it has shown that the post-depositional surface modification of flint within the soils of Orkney, probably related to the acidity of the soil, has altered the surface of the flint obscuring use-wear traces to an extent that limits but does not prevent conclusions being made about the range of tasks that flint tools were used for. This in itself is significant because it shows that use-wear analysis can provide insight into otherwise invisible craft and other activities for the extremely well-preserved Neolithic settlement sites in Orkney. The project therefore has opened up potentials for much further analysis of other Orcadian sites allowing a shift in focus away from the analysis of architecture and traditional techno-typological analyses of associated material culture and towards a more detailed and nuanced understanding of practice.

The analysis of the Braes of Ha'Breck and Barnhouse assemblage has revealed a wide range of different tool uses relating predominantly to the practice of craft activities within the areas of the settlements. The tools with identifiable traces suggest that a wide range of activities were associated with the houses including hunting, hide working, pottery production, and soft, medium and hard plant working. Scrapers in particular, which are the most common retouched form in the assemblages, appear to have been used for a wide variety of craft activities. At the Braes of Ha'Breck, the evidence of tool function suggests that Houses 3 & 5 were self-sufficient in, or at least had the potential to practice, most common prehistoric craft activities. Moreover, the suggestion of pottery production occurring within the context of the house reveals the house as nexus of activities that in many senses defined "being Neolithic". This perhaps provides important insight into the role of the house within the development of emergent Neolithic lifeways. At Barnhouse, the settlement consists of many more houses and was built several centuries later than the Braes of Ha'Breck. The greater number of houses is reflected in a great complexity and variety in the range of practices they were associated with. Until final data and contextual analysis is completed it will not be clear whether or not this pattern relates to the active use of houses or issues associated with treatment on abandonment or differential preservation across the site. Certainly at the Braes of Ha'Breck the contextual analysis of the data has shown that the vast majority of tools with use-wear traces were retrieved from contexts associated with the abandonment of the house, rather than its active use. This has raised a series of important questions about the status of these deposits and whether they reflect the active use-life of the house or alternatively tell us more about the special practices that were involved in closing down a house and putting it beyond use.

The analysis of the Durrington Walls arrowhead assemblage has shown that the arrowheads from the site represent a broad spectrum in terms of morphology and all factors relating to the level of skill used to produce them. In simple terms, they vary from delicately worked and finely retouched, to crude and so large and chunky that they could probably not be hafted let alone operate as effective projectile points. Statistical analysis of the data shows distinct clusters of arrowheads, which correlate with the different skill levels involved in manufacture, with the largest and most crude examples representing a distinctly separate group from the rest of the population. This analysis has conclusively shown that these arrowheads were made by either young and/or inexperienced flint knappers who barely had a grasp of the rudiments of flint knapping. This is of particular importance as it gives an indication of the range of people that were gathered at Durrington Walls and equally, of the range of practices they were involved in and the potentials for skill acquisition that such gatherings offered. Understanding aggregation at large monument complexes as opportunities for knowledge transmission and skill acquisition is an aspect of Neolithic life that has been rarely considered and it is argued should be fundamental to our understanding of the role of monument use in Neolithic society. Perhaps more fundamentally, given that istotope analysis of cattle teeth from Durrington Walls shows that its inhabitants had gathered from all over Britain, it also provides clues about one of the mechanisms that allowed the material traditions which define the period to be spread across the country.

In terms of its broader societal impact the projects aim in many senses is to move away from abstract narratives of the past by framing an interpretation of Neolithic people in regard to something that resonates with people today; the house and the hustle and bustle that surrounds it. It is important in this regard that this has been undertaken within archaeological landscapes (Stonehenge and Orkney) that are already in the public consciousness and are visited by many thousands of people every year. The information generated by this project will be disseminated to the public through public lectures and through the popular website with the results being condensed into a visually intuitive format to aid public consumption. The researcher was previously involved in advising English Heritage on the contents of its display of artefacts from Durrington Walls at the new Stonehenge Visitors Centre, which received 1.3 million visitors in 2014. The results of this research will be passed onto English Heritage so that it can be incorporated into any changes to the information presented by visitors centre. The researcher is also involved in ongoing discussions with the curator of the Orkney Museum about using the results of the analysis to create a temporary exhibition about everyday life at Neolithic Barnhouse. The museum is visited by tens of thousands of locals and tourists every year, many of whom also visit the key archaeological sites in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, including Barnhouse itself.