Notes on working with a flint axe for the first time

Suzi Richer, Richer Environmental

Picking it up for the first time felt awkward, but a lot of things feel awkward the first time. I think it was partly because my body had already been trained to use metal tools. Surely it would be the same? Well, as Mark had already told us, no, it’s totally different. But having said that, using knowledge from my everyday experiences and of how my body works best, combined with experimenting and observing others led to what I felt was a good technique. Others might disagree…

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One of the flint axes 

The first weekend we went out to start collecting trees for reconstructing the 4500 year old Hatfield Trackway saw a bunch of about a dozen people – children and adults – walking out onto the moors with a wheelbarrow full of flint axes and an aura of excitement around them.

In some ways the experience probably hadn’t changed too much from when the first lot of trees would have been gathered (were the trees already fallen or had they been cut down?), in that there are still elements of the environment that would have been familiar to people even 4500 years ago. Pine trees and heather still grow on the sandy, dry, high patches that protrude above the bog. They will be more exposed now because of the historic drainage and peat-cutting, but this landscape of wet and dry land and the associated vegetation stretches back to the time when the original trackway was built. But today, with a wheelbarrow to manoeuvre we are not complaining that the sandy paths are perhaps a little higher and much more defined into straight lines.

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Brian and Mark moving a chopped pine tree. Note the heather in the foreground and water in the background

But what was different? Us. For most of us we were using a flint axe for first time. We are not used to living and working in this landscape, or if we are, we have done so with metal or power tools. As I’m fumbling trying to make the axe hit the same spot on the trunk, the thought that pops into my head is about time. Now, everything is dictated by time. The time it takes to fell a tree, when we stop for a cup of tea, when we stop for the day, how many days we have before nesting season to collect all of the timbers needed, when can I pass the axe to next person because my muscles really are not used to this. How did time, or I should say the pressure of time, effect the working practice of the original builders? Some things will still be roughly the same, like the timing of sap rising and birds nesting, but what pressures were on them, and is ‘pressures’ even the right word? I suspect not.

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Mark on a lunch break 

What I am sure will be same is that they would have brought their experiences to the task in hand, in much the same was we have done. I’m working in a team of four, alongside Marysia, Margaret and Brian. On one of the last trees of the day Marysia mentions that it seems to be easier to use the axe if you turn from the waist. As soon as she said this, something clicks with me and when I try it the power and accuracy I deliver shifts up a few gears. This is where my everyday experience kicks in as its along the same lines as what I had been taught in tai-chi classes and what I used to do in golf years ago – use the power in your hips and core. Whilst this may sound obvious, it takes some time to get used to just holding the axe, feeling how it cuts, getting angles right, etc, let alone refining the technique. Ultimately the axe is an extension of our body, but it takes use and familiarity for a new tool to become that extension.

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Margaret axing

By the end of that first weekend, with ‘waist axing’ becoming a thing (a term coined by Mark) I think we were all starting to feel more connected to the tools. Whilst we will never know the skills, practices and thoughts of the original builders of the trackway, gaining that extra degree of familiarity with the tools in the same environment certainly made me feel closer to the people who made the trackway originally and what might have been involved with the building of it. What I hadn’t expected was that it also increased my understanding of how my body works and my knowledge of the current environment – and importantly the connection between the two, with flint axe being between (and part of) both.

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A cut Tree

 

 

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My experiences as a student with the ‘Wildscapes’ project

My involvement with the project started when I emailed Dr Bunting asking if she was accepting students for an internship. I was studying for a masters degree in Environmental Biology at Utrecht in the Netherlands and needed to find an interesting short term project as part of the degree. I was familiar with the pollen modelling work of Dr Bunting and was interested in learning her approach. I wrote Dr Bunting in March of 2018 to see if she was interested in supervising me for a short project in which I would learn the intricate details of the pollen modelling software. In all honesty, I expected that there would be no projects to work on, but to my surprise there were several. I chose to get involved with the ‘Wildscapes’ project because it seemed the most interesting and there was a lot of room for me to follow my own research interests within this project. I have definitely not regretted it one bit!

I had never been further north than London before (shame on me). I came to Hull in May of 2018 and it took me a while to adapt to the UK lifestyle, and academic environment (being from the Netherlands). Having had no previous experience in programming, the first few weeks proved the be rather challenging, but I kept telling myself that I would be able to understand the material one day. After a few weeks I finally knew what I was doing (sort of), and I began to enjoy my work tremendously. My task was to set up some initial reconstructions of the Humberhead Levels for the late Mesolithic (7000-4000 BCE) and the Anglo-Saxon period (410-1066 CE). In short, I had to make an assessment of all the previous pollen work that was done in the area and digitise the pollen diagrams from these publications. These pollen results would be used as targets in the reconstruction. Then I would produce simulated landscapes using the modelling software and compare the pollen records that these simulated landscapes produced to the targets. In doing so, I would be able to find some of the most likely vegetation reconstructions for the Humberhead Levels.

 

Besides my work on the reconstructions, I also had the opportunity to do fieldwork with Nika and Kim in the Thorne area. A team of volunteers from the area were also present, some of whom have also written blog posts about their experiences. I also joined the team for their first public outreach event in Barton upon Humber. This was a very interesting experience for me, trying to explain our work to non-experts. When I was talking to people, the first thing they would almost always ask me was: “where are you from?” I was under the impression that I managed to suppress my Dutch accent quite well, but apparently not.

Before I knew it, it was October already, and I was supposed to go home. I was able to stretch my stay until the middle of November, luckily, which tells something about how much I enjoyed my stay in Hull and my involvement with the project. I learned a lot during the months of my stay, and I hope I will be able to put my newly gained knowledge to work in the future. I have just been accepted onto a PhD programme at the University of St Andrews and i’m quite sure my involved in the Wildscapes project helped my case. 

As I am writing this, I am already looking forward to going back to Hull in the future and staying involved with Wildscapes project, be it remotely and in between all the new work I will be doing! 

 Wilmer Koster

 

From Retting Pits to Flaxen Locks

By Angus Townley
Regional History 

The Growing and processing of flax and hemp in the Isle of Axholme has been an important industry for a long time. In her paper ‘The Isle of Axholme before  Vermuyden’ , Joan Thirsk describes how the importance of the industry was underlined by local probate inventories. Flax and hemp laid the foundations for a comparatively large scale domestic industry of spinning and weaving. The probate inventories show that the flourishing sack and canvas making industry of Axholme in the nineteenth century had a long history behind it. To the average peasant family of the sixteenth century it was profitable by-employment whereas to the poor it was one of the principal ways of earning a living.

 

One of the victories won by the inhabitants of Axholme in their prolonged legal battle with  Vermuyden was an award in 1636 of £400 for a stock to employ the poor in the making of sackcloth to compensate them for the loss of fishing and fowling rights. In the mid-nineteenth century, the domestic industry gave way to steam flax mills, though this was relatively short-lived as by 1900 the industry had died out, only to have a partial revival during World War I.

In 1744 there was a dreadful fire in Haxey that burnt down 62 houses. The fire commenced in a flax manufactory near the Church and is supposed to have been the act of arson.  A few days before the master of the manufactory discharged one of his men for misconduct who let fall some vindictive expressions He was committed to Lincoln Castle on suspicion but as no further evidence could be brought against him he was of course acquitted at the next Assizes.

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Newspaper extract
The processing of flax had a number of stages;
After harvesting the flax crop underwent a process known as retting. The flax was laid in ponds or streams so that the flax fibres can be separated from the woody stem of the plant. The process would last up to several weeks an was extremely smelly – which is why retting pits were usually located at some distance from houses.

The retted plants were then laid out in a field to dry so that they could then be further processed through the following steps;

Breaking and Scutching – the stems of the flax plant were then broken so that the woody inner core can be separated from the fibres o the outside of the stem. Scutching was the initial process of combing out the woody inner core from the flax.
Heckling  – This was a process similar to carding wool in which the flax fibre is passed through finer and finer combs until the skeins of fax resembled flaxen locks of hair.
The flax could then be used for weaving into sackcloth or for making ropes on a rope walk.
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The steam flax mill in Crowle – built in the mid-1800s.

 

The ‘Retting Pits’ Project is part of the Heritage Lottery Funded IOAHC partnership and has a number of objectives.

These are;
To identify and record features associated with the flax industry including:
  • Retting Pits
  • Warehouses
  • Mills and processing facilities
  • Rope walks etc.
Archaeological study of retting pits
  • Core samples for pollen analysis
  • Excavation of retting pit
Experimental archaeology  project:
  • Grow flax and hemp
  • Process flax and hemp
  • Spin and weave flax & hemp into sackcloth and linen

 

ropwalk
An external rope walk similar to Shiilitos n Crowle.
Being part of the partnerships has some great benefits. Last year Project Wildscape ran a pollen identification workshop which I attended and learnt how to identify pollen. They will be running further workshops to help build a team of citizen scientists who can help with lots of different projects across the partnership.

Team Wildscape might also be helping out with the coring of retting pits so watch this space for more details!

 

Reconstructing a Neolithic Trackway. Step 1: Recruiting for prehistoric builders

By Ben Gearey

On a rather damp Remembrance Sunday, myself, Henry Chapman and Mark Griffiths met up on Hatfield Moors, which is part of the Humberhead Peatlands National Nature Reserve, to mark the opening of its new Reserve Base and LIFE Lab. Alongside this, we were there to take part in the ‘Trackway through time’ launch event organised by the IoAHC which marks the start of a project that will create a replica of the 4,500 year old Hatfield Neolithic trackway (click here to find out more about the excavation of the original).

 

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The open day had a ‘Neolithic theme’ and included James Dilley of Ancient Craft, with Consuming Prehistory also in attendance with their pop-up shop ‘Stonehengeburys’ along with Dr Kirsty High and her rather impressive (if slightly unsettling…) ‘bogbody in a box’! 

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The Chemistry of a Bog Body

The plan for 2019, with the assistance and involvement of the local community, is to build a replica of the trackway and we were looking for volunteers at the open day! The building project is being led by Mark Griffiths who is the woodworker on our Pallasboy Project which has been exploring the process of crafting of prehistoric wooden artefacts; this is to be his biggest challenge to date.

We had been provided with a pile of pine logs and several replica Neolithic axes to allow Mark to get a feel for these tools. It was not long before we had some willing volunteers; one young boy was determined to chop his way through one of the logs and worked away until he had achieved his goal! It was remarkable that some of the children seemed to be natural woodworkers, handling the replica Neolithic tools with assurance.

We also took the opportunity to discuss the technical and practical aspects of building a 45m long corduroy timber trackway, in particular the surprising number of pine trees that this will require and the projected timeline for the undertaking.

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Mark inspecting the pine poles

The work begins in earnest in January: anyone is interested in getting involved in this unique event is welcome, please contact us for more information or keep an eye on the IoAHC website. We have our first event on the 26th and 27th Jan which is an opportunity to get the training and the skills to become a prehistoric builder. During the 2-day training workshop volunteers will also learn more about the trackway and the Neolithic people who made it. Follow the link below to register for this exciting event.

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/experimental-archaeology-becoming-a-stone-age-builder-with-dr-henry-chapman-and-mark-griffiths-2-tickets-53097994531

Have a wonderful holiday season everyone!

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Conferences and Confabs: A round up of Project Wildscape’s summer

It’s been a busy summer for everyone involved in Project Wildscape and we thought we should post an update of all the happenings and let you know what we’ll be up to over the autumn and winter.

Training and fieldwork

In July and August we held a number of training and citizen science sessions focusing on geo-archaeology. These sessions were in a variety of locations across the Humberhead levels with volunteers new and old participating for a few days at a time. These sessions were a great success and some of the volunteers wrote about their experiences for us (You can access Karen and James’ blogs by clicking their names).

We’ll be back in area in the coming months to run more training sessions but these will be focused on skills and sessions that can be honed indoors such as pollen identification or discussions around local environmental issues (no one wants to be coring in the cold and wet winter months!). Keep an eye on the website and twitter for updates on how to get involved with these sessions.

Conferences

The project work has been presented at a number of conferences in the last few months including at the European Association for Archaeologists (EAA) in Barcelona, Spain,  the Landscape Archaeology Conference (LAC) in Newcastle and Durham and the IUCN peatlands conference, Scotland. The project was met with positive comments from members of the audiences and we’re very excited to be moving forward with our plans after a number of informative discussions.

Publications

Earlier in the summer the team published an article in the conversation about the importance of bogs and wetlands and highlighted the work being completed by the wildscape project. (To read the article click here)

Fieldtrips

In August we project hosted a fieldtrip onto Hatfield Moors associated with the British Ecological Society’s Special Interest Group in Palaeoecology . It was attended by approximately 25 scientists from across theUK and Europe and several of our core volunteers also attended. Natural England helped to facilitate this event with Senior Reserve Manager Tim Kohler talking to participants about the restoration work they have been doing on the Moors. This led to a number of interesting discussions regarding the role of palaeoecological data in site management and practices and how the scientific community can contribute to this in a productive way.

Upcoming events and plans

Just because we’ve had a busy few months, doesn’t mean we’re taking a break and hibernating over the winter, we’ve got lots planned! First up, we’ll be doing some more research in the area including coring (but don’t worry we’re not asking you to work in the bad weather, that fun is just for us!) and some archaeological survey work.

Team members Ben and Henry will be helping out on another IOAHC event looking at the Neolithic trackway on Hatfield (click here for more information on the trackway).

We’re planning more events for November and December which will mean you can get involved with new aspects of the project such as pollen analysis and learn about the science behind the reconstruction work. Watch this space for updates.

sdr

 

Volunteering experiences: positive & surprising impacts. An account of my time with ‘Project Wildscape’

By James Caldwell

I came into contact with the Wildscape Project as I am a volunteer for a local woodland (Thorne Community Wood) and the team wanted to do some coring on the site to understand the prehistoric environment on which the modern woodland sat. According to many historic documents the woodland may have been a former mere prior to the large-scale drainage in the 17th century.

The exact position and nature of this waterbody is still considered somewhat mysterious and the Wildscape team wanted to get a clearer understanding by analysing the sediments.

Having worked on the wood for many years, myself and others volunteered our help in coring and navigating the site. The project introduced me to the long-term history of the woodland to which I was unaware of before and how rich a part it played in the legacy of my town (Thorne), with the area having even been a hunting site for past royalty.

A view of Thorne Moors & what the ‘Mere’ may have looked like. Source: Thorne Historical Society Collection (2014). Taken from an article by Martin Limbert

 

After our initial on-site meeting, I met up with Nika and Kim at a local pub to discuss the mere’s possible location. We considered the mere in relation to modern maps, lidar images and historic maps. Both Nika and Kim were enthusiastic about the project and happy to teach me in laymen’s terms the nature of their work, being very informative which helped me to gain an understanding in fields I was completely unfamiliar with.

The next day, we began coring various locations within the woodland, making for some good exercise in the area’s with tougher ground! After just one or two drives with the corer, I got to see first-hand, the nature of what we had discussed the day before. Grey and black sediments with very clear banding. Nika and Kim described the different colours, banding and density  and what this could tell us about how these sediments were deposited.

 

As well as helping with the physical side of coring, I am also an amateur photographer and the project has helped me in this regard as before it I would have never once considered taking pictures of what is essentially, dirt. However, much to my surprise, some of the samples we pulled up were not only informative but surprisingly pretty and made for great pictures, the project not only expanding my knowledge in areas completely new to me but helping me to re-evaluate my photography and the very idea of what is worth taking a picture of.

 

Lastly, having continued to assist in nearby sessions outside of the wood, I have gotten to meet so many great people through the project, ranging from locals to students from other countries such as the Netherlands. Everyone had their own reason for being there and was getting something different from it, be it academic or even recreational. It was wonderful to see so many people coming together, and each person bringing something new and useful to the group.

I would highly recommend helping out with any of the sessions or events near you, as you may be surprised just how much you get out of it.

 

My volunteer experiences with ‘Reconstructing the Wildscape’ & Isle of Axholme & Hatfield Chase Landscape Partnership

I’ll have a go at anything new. The opportunity to volunteer on coring sessions in Thorne Community Wood with the ‘Reconstructing the Wildscape’ and IoAHC team was certainly different and exciting! As a Classical Archaeology MA student, my only previous encounter with coring in any sense has been a very brief undergraduate study of how the ebb and flow of Roman smelting was reflected in Greenland ice core samples. But this wasn’t ice…and it was likely to be a bit muddy. So what would be so interesting about a community woodland on the outskirts of Doncaster?

Thorne Community Woodland
Thorne Community Woodland

Knowing little about the process, I turned up bright and early one morning in April 2018 – and so began what has become something of a fascination with coring…huffing and puffing to drive the equipment into the ground and pulling up all sorts of exciting things!

Kim, Nika and the team were warm, welcoming and encouraging from the outset. They shared information about the aim of the project (in this case, profiling the original path of the old River Don) as well as guiding the community volunteers through the coring process and explaining the samples. It was great fun and extremely informative….the satisfaction of managing to drive a core to a 5 metre depth and seeing the beautiful layers in the samples was pretty exciting! I had no idea I could be so thrilled about different soil colours and types, and seeing the preservation of organic material such as wood and leaves from that sort of depth was staggering. Utterly brilliant. I loved it.

Coring team
Coring team (I’m on the left!)

Since the first session in April, I’ve taken part in various other coring projects: profiling the old Thorne Mere and Messic Mere and looking for evidence of the deliberate warping of nearby watercourses. I’ve learned a huge amount about coring, sampling, and on-site recording; about assessing soil types and the different approaches to coring depending on the terrain (driving a core through sand is a lot harder and a great workout! Who needs a gym membership?!)

Putting the effort in!
Putting the effort in!

Also, the things I’ve discovered about the environmental history of my local area has been completely fascinating. It has been a great experience. Being a distance learner in both my undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses – volunteering on this project has provided me with valuable field experience and skills that I can take forward, as well as meeting some great people. I can’t thank the team enough for providing this opportunity.