The story of Mesolithic quarries on the western coast of South-Norway

How did people think about stone adzes, the collection of raw material and quarries in Stone Age Norway? Could there be reasons beyond required qualities needed for making certain tools that made people quarry and distribute certain rocks? Can we tell by the volume of exploitation and scale of distribution and use whether stone from some places was considered more valuable than others?

Flint is the most commonly used raw material in many countries, as in Norway. However, there is no flint in Norwegian bedrock. Instead, nodules of flint had been redeposited with the help of ice-water and ice during the Ice Age. When the glaciers melted, ice that had covered areas with flint deposits further south broke loose and floated west and north with flint stuck to them. They stranded at the shores, melted, and made the sloping shores of the Norwegian coast treasure chests for Mesolithic and Neolithic raw material hunters. Hence also the colloquial name “beach flint”.

However, after the first two thousand years of settling along the Norwegian coast, something stirred in these societies. Some researchers suggest that mobile hunter-gatherers did not only move in from the south-east, but now also came from the north-east (e.g. Sørensen et al. 2013; Damlien 2016). This may have caused the apparent changes in tool types and the way one made them. Beach flint was no longer sufficient for making adzes. After 8000 BC, adzes were roughly shaped by knapping, and then ground into their final shape (Figure 1).

Figure 1. An example of the new type of greenstone adze made after 8000 BC in South Norway. (Photo: Astrid J. Nyland).
Figure 1. An example of the new type of greenstone adze made after 8000 BC in South Norway. (Photo: Astrid J. Nyland).

At this point in time, quarrying began. At first, a few sources were probably exploited repeatedly as a predictable supply of high quality rock. However, as millennia went by it became clear that a few sites must have come to mean more to the people that used them, than simply being sources of rock. An indication of significance beyond pragmatics may be the ‘refusal’ to abandon these quarries, even as the rock deposits were partly submerged by a transgressing sea, making other deposits more accessible.

Over time, the quarries on the western coast of South-Norway developed into the most monumental human-made sites of the Norwegian Stone Age that we know of. These are a diabase quarry at Stakalleneset in Flora, Sogn og Fjordane County (Figure 2), and the Hespriholmen greenstone quarry at Bømlo, Hordaland County (Figure 3).

Figure 2: Left: A massively exploited diabase dike at Stakalleneset, Flora, Sogn og Fjordane County. Right: Blanks, used knapping stones and waste of diabase found at the foot of the quarry. (Photo: Astrid J. Nyland)
Figure 2. Left: A massively exploited diabase dike at Stakalleneset, Flora, Sogn og Fjordane County. Right: Blanks, used knapping stones and waste of diabase found at the foot of the quarry. (Photo: Astrid J. Nyland).
Figure 3: The greenstone quarry Hespriholmen on an islet in the sea outside Bømlo, Hordaland County. (Photo: Astrid J. Nyland)
Figure 3. The greenstone quarry Hespriholmen on an islet in the sea outside Bømlo, Hordaland County. (Photo: Astrid J. Nyland).

These quarries were exploited from around 7500 BC to 2500 BC, and around 400 m3 were extracted. Hence, during more than 4000 years, the hollows and scars in the rock phase and tailing piles grew ever larger. The diabase and greenstone were distributed widely, but each type within a demarcated area that probably defined a social territory (Olsen and Alsaker 1984).

These quarries were not the sole providers of rock for adzes, but the particularities of the exploitation of these sites indicate that they gradually turned into social nodes too. In the Norwegian Stone Age, enduring man-made structures of stone were rare as most things were made of degradable materials. By the end of the Mesolithic, before 4000 BC, the mentioned quarries displayed deep scars and large waste piles that persisted for generations.

In ethnographic books, there are several examples of specific places being bestowed with social or symbolic meaning and power. Places can be related to origin myths or tales of other significant events in a society. In the case of the prehistoric quarries, there might have been value in the mere continuance of the quarrying tradition at a place where one saw solid proof of one’s ancestors endeavours (Nyland 2016a, 2017). Rock associated with these socially significant places would then also have become valued. Perhaps that was one reason for the wide distribution?

Dr. Astrid J. Nyland, Associate Professor, Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger, Norway. (Nyland has written a PhD (2016) about 21 quarries of various types of rock, located both at the coast and in the mountains, dating to the Stone, Bronze and Early Iron Age in South-Norway. The results that this blog post builds on have been published in several articles accessible from her page at


Damlien, H. 2014. Eastern Pioneers in Westernmost Territories? Current perspectives on Mesolithic hunter-gatherer large-scale interaction and migration within Northern Eurasia. Quaternary International. doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2014.02.023

Nyland, A.J., 2016a. Humans in Motion and Places of Essence. Variations in rock procurement practices in the Stone, Bronze and Early Iron Ages in southern Norway. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Oslo.

Nyland, A.J., 2017a. Materialized Taskscapes? – Mesolithic lithic procurement in Southern Norway. In: Rajala, U. & Mills, P. (eds.) Forms of Dwelling; 20 Years of Taskscapes in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow books, pp. 125–150.

Olsen, A. B. and Alsaker, S. 1984. Greenstone and Diabase Utilization in the Stone Age of Western Norway: Technological and socio-cultural aspects of axe and adze production and distribution. Norwegian Archaeological Review 17, 2: 71-103.

Sørensen, M., Rankama, T., Kankaanpää, J., Knutsson, K., Knutsson, H., Melvold, S., Eriksen, B. Valentin and Glørstad, H. 2013. The First Eastern Migrations of People and Knowledge into Scandinavia: Evidence from studies of Mesolithic technology, 9th-8th millenium BC. Norwegian Archaeological Review, 46, 1: 19-56.

Deliberate Destruction in the Bronze Age

People love to destroy things. Always have done. Always will. It is thus no surprise that the archaeological record is filled with deliberately damaged and buried objects. I became interested in this while studying a 3000-year-old Bronze Age axe at Somerset County Museum that had been broken in half, crushed and melted. How was it done? And why?

A broken, burnt and crushed socketed axe from Greylake in Somerset (author’s photo, courtesy of the South West Heritage Trust, Museums Service)
A broken, burnt and crushed socketed axe from Greylake in Somerset (author’s photo, courtesy of the South West Heritage Trust, Museums Service)

This was not an isolated instance. Deliberately destroyed Bronze Age metalwork is found across Europe. My curiosity in this phenomenon led to me undertaking a PhD in 2014. I began from the simple question: why did people destroy things?

This question has been debated for Bronze Age metalwork since the 1800s. However, few archaeologists have considered how metalwork was destroyed or how one might identify deliberate destruction.

Often Bronze Age metalwork is considered destroyed by its obvious nature. A sword bent in half and thrown in a river is certainly an intentional action; so is a group of bracelets crushed into a ball. I call this the ‘common sense’ approach to destruction. Broken axeheads found in the ground are often considered to have broken through overuse. Broken swords in the same situation are still considered to be deliberately destroyed though.

Broken sword pieces from Marazion, Cornwall (author’s photo, courtesy of the Royal Cornwall Museum)
Broken sword pieces from Marazion, Cornwall (author’s photo, courtesy of the Royal Cornwall Museum)

This is problematic because it makes assumptions about what humans did to different objects without considering how it was done or the significance of different objects. Instead, modern assumptions about the importance of a sword over an axe are projected onto the past.

To tackle this, I studied many (many!) Bronze Age metal objects across my study region (South West England). I also commissioned Neil Burridge to produce experimental replicas of archaeological artefacts, including swords, spears and axes. I then tested different modes of destruction to see how easily one might break a Bronze Age metal object. The aim was to replicate prehistoric damage.

The easiest method for breaking a bronze object is to heat it and hit it. Stick a sword, spear, or axe into a fire, remove it and strike with a blunt object and it will usually fragment.

Me breaking a replica sword.
Me breaking a replica sword

Of course, it’s slightly more complicated than this, with factors such as the temperature and the metal composition of the objects playing important roles. Meanwhile, it is much more difficult to damage an object that has not been heated. Different conditions mean damage will occur in different ways. By identifying the various techniques used for destroying metalwork, we can begin to more clearly understand prehistoric techniques and decision-making processes.

These experiments thus added a new dimension to the study of metalwork in the South West in much the same way using replica swords in combat experiments helps us understand how these weapons were used in the past. Experimentally destroyed pieces could be compared with damaged archaeological artefacts to determine the likelihood that they were deliberately destroyed. This could be strengthened by analysing patterns of damage, as well as the depositional context in which objects were found (e.g. a hoard, a settlement or a burial).

The material from South West England was particularly interesting as a variety of practices occurred across the region. In the Early Bronze Age (c.2200-1600 BC), metalwork was burnt and broken with bodies during cremation. In the Middle Bronze Age (1600-1100 BC), gold objects or large hoards were most commonly damaged. By the Late Bronze Age (1100-800 BC), lots of metalwork destruction was taking place. It was more common to break axes and ingots in Cornwall and Devon and bury them in hoards.

A hoard of fragmented metalwork from Talaton, Devon (author’s photo, courtesy of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter)
A hoard of fragmented metalwork from Talaton, Devon (author’s photo, courtesy of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter)

Meanwhile very little deliberate destruction was undertaken in Dorset. In Somerset, metalwork destruction was influenced by other areas. This means there was no overall pattern that could be observed. This indicates that destruction was not part of a uniform ideology. People undertook different practices at different times for different reasons. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

It is important to consider that it wasn’t just metalwork that was destroyed. Stone objects and ceramic vessels were also commonly destroyed. Additionally, roundhouses were often burnt and dismantled. The destruction of Bronze Age metalwork was part of a broader set of concepts that allowed people to express certain ideas. Some objects may have been destroyed for recycling. Meanwhile, others were destroyed for symbolic reasons, perhaps as votive offerings. These are ideas that archaeologists have been grappling with for decades. By combining these questions with an understanding of how destruction was done, we can begin to appreciate the skills, processes and decisions involved in the practice. This will ultimately give us a better understanding of the past, which after all is what archaeology is all about.

Acknowledgements: My thanks go to Neil Burridge for engaging with this project, as well as countless museums for accommodating research visits.

Matthew Knight is Curator of the Bronze Age collections at the National Museum of Scotland. Further details about his work can be accessed at:







Mapping archaeological sites in Oslo

Being an archaeologist often means digging and finding artefacts. But a lot of work is also done from behind one’s desk. I work with heritage protection at the National Trust of Norway, mostly with buildings from the 18th century onwards. The trust applies for funding for different projects, one of those projects was creating a map of historic buildings in an area of Oslo, Norway, with the support of a trust called Sparebankstiftelsen DNB. The aim of the project was to make local heritage accessible to everyone. The project resulted in an online map, a folder, and a guided tour of the area.

There was still money left after the project was finished, and last year we decided to also map archaeological finds and old farms in the area. The oldest buldings that were registered in the previous map were built the 17th century, so we decided to map finds and place-names from the Stone Age up until the medieval period (10,000 BC – AD 1537).

To start the research, I checked the Norwegian heritage databases. Norway has two heritage databases where most finds, sites and buildings in Norway are registrered: Askeladden is for heritage professionals and requires a log in, while Kulturminnesøk is open to everyone. I also visited the archives at the Museum of Cultural History, they have documents concerning archaeological finds. Many of the finds were found in the 19th century, and this information is not always available online. I also read reports from the Agency for Heritage Management in Oslo, they are responsible for archaeological registration projects in Oslo. A lot of books and articles about Oslo’s prehistory were also consulted. Finally, I checked references to old farm-names. Some of the farm names still exist, but we cannot know that they were in the same location.

After making a list of the finds, I visited the Museum of Cultural History again. Most of the artefacts are stored there, and it is possible to look at the artefacts and take pictures. In the end, a total of 49 archaeological finds and old farms were chosen to be included in the map. I then had to rewrite the information I had gathered to make them presentable online. Following are some snippets from the exciting finds:

The heritage map. Stone Age finds (green), Iron Age finds (blue), medieval structures (orange), farms from the Iron Age (red). Illustration: Anne Grandt, The National Trust of Norway.
The heritage map. Stone Age finds (green), Iron Age finds (blue), medieval structures (orange), farms from the Iron Age (red). Illustration: Anne Grandt, The National Trust of Norway.

The earliest finds are from around 5000 BC, the later part of the Norwegian Early Stone Age, before agriculture was introduced. These finds are from an archaeological culture called the Nøstvet-culture. One is an axe that was found alone, while a big settlement was found where one of the major roads through town is located today. The remaining Stone Age finds are from the Later Stone Age (4000-1800 BC), mostly axes. There are no Bronze Age artefacts on the map, but some archaeological structures discovered by the Agency for Heritage Management have been dated to the Bronze Age (1800-500 BC).

Axes from the Later Stone Age (4000-1800 BC) found in Oslo. Photo: Linn Marie Krogsrud, courtesy of the Museum of Cultural History.
Axes from the Later Stone Age (4000-1800 BC) found in Oslo. Photo: Linn Marie Krogsrud, courtesy of the Museum of Cultural History.

The majority of the archeological finds can be dated to the Iron Age (500 BC – AD 1050), more specifically the Viking Age (AD 800-1050). It is evident that the area was important and relatively densely populated in this period. Most of the finds are artefacts from graves, such as swords, axes and spear heads. Some burial mounds are still preserved, but they have not been excavated.

Artefacts from a Viking Age burial (AD 800-1050) found in Oslo. Photo: Linn Marie Krogsrud, courtesy of the Museum of Cultural History.
Artefacts from a Viking Age burial (AD 800-1050) found in Oslo. Photo: Linn Marie Krogsrud, courtesy of the Museum of Cultural History.

There are also structures that were constructed in the medieval period (AD 1050-1537). One of the structures is a church from the early 12th century that still stands. An old mine still exists beneath the church, the mine was probably exploited already in the 12th century. Two roads still in existence can be dated to the medieval period, but we cannot be sure that they followed the exact same route as today. They are both mentioned in historical records.

Iron sword from the Roman period (AD 0-400) found in Oslo. Photo: Linn Marie Krogsrud, courtesy of the Museum of Cultural History.
Iron sword from the Roman period (AD 0-400) found in Oslo. Photo: Linn Marie Krogsrud, courtesy of the Museum of Cultural History.

The remaining sites that were researched were 14 old farms. We know that they were in existence in the Iron Age, as we can date the names. Historical records from the medieval period mention the farms, so we know that many of them survived. Some of them exist even today, but it is possible that they were moved several times during their long history. Some of the farms are long gone, and only their names attest to their existence. Interestingly, many of the Iron Age artefacts have been found near were some of the farms are located today.

The aim of the project was to map the history of a part of Oslo. We want people to explore the area on their own, and both maps are available from our office and online. (In Norwegian).

Linn Marie Krogsrud is a Norwegian archaeologist, she works for the National Trust of Norway.

What Archaeological Features can tell us about the Past

When people hear that I am an archaeologist they usually want to know if I have ever found anything interesting on an excavation. I usually tell them about the blue glass beads which I found on our excavation at Meillionydd, near Rhiw on the Llŷn peninsula in Northwest Wales (UK). To me these beads are special because they were hard to spot – tiny and covered in soil as they were. However, from an archaeological viewpoint those beads are hardly something to be excited about. They do not tell us much about the site or the people who once lived there.

One of the glass beads found at Meillionydd in 2014 in situ.
One of the glass beads found at Meillionydd in 2014 in situ.

What is much more interesting to me as an archaeologist are the features that we excavate. Meillionydd is a double ringwork enclosure, a settlement that at some point during its existence was surrounded by two banks. If you are on site today – outside of our excavation season – you will hardly notice the remains of the banks, because they were slighted at some point.

The glass beads from Meillionydd in their cleaned state.
The glass beads from Meillionydd in their cleaned state.

However, underneath a few centimetres of grass and soil there remains plenty of archaeological evidence. Thanks to our excavations and a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey, which was carried out by the ZAMG in 2012, we know that the site started out as an unenclosed settlement consisting of timber roundhouses. The settlement was surrounded by a ditch and a wooden palisade at a later stage, until both of these features were replaced by two earth and stone banks. At roughly the same time, the timber roundhouses were replaced by stone built roundhouses. The GPR interpretation shows that there were around 100 roundhouses on site. We do know that these houses were not built all at once, because they intersect with each other and, therefore, cannot have existed at the same time.

Interpretation of the 2012 GPR survey highlighting the ditch (brown) and - where possible - different types of roundhouses (blue = unspecified roundhouse, yellow = timber roundhouse & green = stone roundhouse) potentially present on site. Furthermore, it includes Trenches 1, 2 and 3 in different stages of excavation.
Interpretation of the 2012 GPR survey highlighting the ditch (brown) and – where possible – different types of roundhouses (blue = unspecified roundhouse, yellow = timber roundhouse & green = stone roundhouse) potentially present on site. Furthermore, it includes Trenches 1, 2 and 3 in different stages of excavation.


Archaeologists usually use pottery or other finds to date sites or specific features on sites. Unfortunately, people in Wales stopped using pottery during the Late Bronze Age and only started using it again after the Roman invasion in the first century AD. In fact, at Meillionydd we find hardly any finds except for stone tools, which are chronologically unspecific and thus cannot be used for dating the site. In the absence of finds, the only absolute dating method that we can use is radiocarbon dating. For this purpose we collect charcoal samples. The two samples that we had analysed as of yet give us a range of 500 years, from the 8th to the 3rd century BC, during which the site was in use. We are planning to use this method to date most features on site.


Where we do not find charcoal, the only method we can use to date features is stratigraphy. While this method does not give us actual dates for features, it does tell us if features are older or younger than others. When you use the stratigraphic method you look at how features overlap and/or intersect with each other. For example, at Meillionydd we found the remains of a roundhouse next to the entrance through the outer bank. When we first started to excavate this feature in 2012 it looked like the roundhouse was cut into the outer bank. It seemed likely that it was built at a later stage than the bank and that part of the bank had been cut away to build the roundhouse.

Plan of the 2010 to 2015 excavations at Meillionydd. Banks indicated in grey, roundhouses as coloured circles. Roundhouse with drainage gully at the end of the southern terminal of the outer bank highlighted by red square.
Plan of the 2010 to 2015 excavations at Meillionydd. Banks indicated in grey, roundhouses as coloured circles. Roundhouse with drainage gully at the end of the southern terminal of the outer bank highlighted by red square.


However, when excavating the entrance through the outer bank in 2014 we realised that the drainage gully of the roundhouse runs underneath the bank. For the gully to be underneath the bank it must have been dug before the bank was build. Therefore, the gully and the roundhouse must have been built before the bank was built. Combined with other evidence it seems likely that both the roundhouse and the bank were built roughly at the same time and that the roundhouse functioned as a gate house.

This example explains how archaeological features give insights into the past and why an undisturbed, well documented stratigraphy is important. At this point, most of the dating at Meillionydd has been done through stratigraphy. Without this method we would not have been able to say how the settlement developed. The undisturbed stratigraphy on site enables us to gain valuable information that might be lost otherwise.

For more information on the Meillionydd excavations, please visit the website ( or follow us on Facebook ( and Twitter (

Katharina Möller is a German archaeologist with an interest in Public and Community archaeology. She is an Honorary Research Associate and a PhD student at the School of History and Archaeology at Bangor University (UK). Since 2013 she co-directs the excavations at Meillionydd together with her colleague Raimund Karl.

The Hunter, The Dog Men, and the House by the Shore: How an archaeologist writes an archaeological novel.

To begin with, I have a wide range of interests, including experimental archaeology which provides a fusion between my environmental knowledge, interests in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology and my fascination in the Prehistoric use of organic materials.

A major recent project for me has been to work on the west coast of Scotland trying to establish how Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were living.  I did this by restricting myself to the natural resources and tool kit of a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer so that I could I go through similar thought processes and experiences. Using experimental archaeology and bushcraft skills to fill in some of the gaps in the archaeological record, the human facets that are often missing. Making and testing a wide range of fishing gear, travelling thousands of miles over 4 years and starting to feel like a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer; lugging fishing gear to remote sites, planning to maximise the use of tides, and often experiencing awful weather.

Pete in snow

These experiences provided me with an insight into the world of the Prehistoric coastal hunter-gatherer, revealing the extent of organisation and knowledge that they must have had in order to fully utilise their environment. The planning needed to maximise returns, whether foraging, hunting or collecting natural resources.

Experimental archaeology is often used to engage public interest in our past, most notably through reconstruction or experiential learning. With a view to further communicating our understanding of the Mesolithic to a wider audience I recently wrote a novel; The Hunter, The Dog Men and the House by the Shore.

I had three objectives in mind.

Firstly, to illustrate what a fascinating and diverse ecosystem we have lost in the UK since the Mesolithic. With over 30 years’ experience in the environmental sector, I have long been aware of the relationship between human activities, however small, and their environmental consequences. The environmental and ecological knowledge required; the places to find the best materials for a particular task, knowledge of seasons and the seasonal movement of species. When and where to be, at a particular place at a particular time of year. My novel takes the reader on a journey through north-west England (what is now Merseyside, Cheshire and North Staffordshire), 8000 years ago, in a landscape where aurochs, elk, wolf, lynx and wild boar roam.

Secondly, to bring to the modern reader an insight into the daily lives of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the food they ate, how they might have cooked it, how they travelled, the tools, the buildings, the boats. The novel is based on the latest archaeological research and is packed full of natural history and bushcraft skills. The main character is a lone Prehistoric hunter who works his way through this diverse and changing landscape. On his travels he encounters a range of characters; from traders to killers and ultimately meets his new mate who lives in a house by the shore.

Thirdly, to demonstrate the extensive skills and knowledge that our ancestors would have employed day in, day out, skills that most people now lack. As an experimental archaeologist I use ancient technologies and bushcraft skills to understand how our ancestors used to live.  Some of my projects have included; stone and bone bead making in Romania, tree bast comparisons in Denmark, skin-on-frame boat building, and Neanderthal birch bark tar production. In short, a range of exciting and fascinating projects that have provided me with a genuine insight into the range of skills required by our Prehistoric ancestors.

It is of course very difficult to understand the mind-set of someone who lived 8000 years ago, but by using some of those ancient hunter-gatherer skills together with experimental archaeology, we can move some way toward them.

The Hunter, The Dog Men and the House by the Shore

Peter Groom has a PhD in Mesolithic Archaeology, is a freelance experimental archaeologist and primitive skills/bushcraft practitioner, a founding member of the Mesolithic Resource Group and is the course manager and principal instructor of the Environmental Archaeology and Primitive Skills course at Reaseheath College. He lives in Staffordshire, England.




The novel is available to purchase via Amazon:


A Heritage Walk for Hearing Impaired Children

GoUNESCO Make Heritage Fun – Calcutta, March 2017

On 27th March 2017, Heritage Walk Calcutta, in collaboration with Made in Bengal and ArchaeologistsEngage, hosted the year’s first GoUNESCO Make Heritage Fun event in Kolkata, India. Make Heritage Fun is a global initiative by GoUNESCO, aimed at celebrating local culture—simultaneously, across the world. This campaign provides a platform for heritage and culture enthusiasts to share local heritage with others in their community. In Calcutta, we organized an event to help children with hearing-related disabilities explore Calcutta’s history through a guided and assisted 2-hour walking tour inside the compound of St. John’s Church, one of the oldest in the city. For this event, we were proud to work with the Ideal School for the Deaf, located in Salt Lake, Kolkata. 26 of their students from 6th to 10th grade (12-17 years old) and 6 teachers actively participated in this event. The tour was led by Tathagata Neogi, an archaeologist and the co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, and translated into sign language by the accompanying teachers.


After the walking tour, we asked the children to create a work of art about what they learned during the walk.  When ready, these paintings/sketches will be shared through our online platforms and displayed during an exhibition at the Ideal School for the Deaf later this year.

The following is a link to the live telecast at the beginning of the walk.

The accessibility of historic sites is an issue that has not been widely addressed globally. While some countries have recently passed legislation to ensure the accessibility of major historic sites for various groups with disabilities, this issue has not been systematically addressed in India, despite the country’s rich tangible and intangible heritage, and large population of people with disabilities. By conducting a heritage walk specifically aimed at children with hearing-related disabilities under the GoUNESCO Make Heritage Fun umbrella, we at Heritage Walk Calcutta wanted to start a discussion about the issue of accessibility in India’s historic sites. Heritage Walk Calcutta and our collaborators believe in a common, shared heritage, which members of disabled communities have an equal right to access.

Heritage Walk Calcutta approached GoUNESCO about hosting this event under the Make Heritage Fun umbrella at the end of February. The original plan was to provide a bus tour of several major heritage sites for school children. When GoUNESCO approved our application to host an event, this idea was further refined in the hope of addressing accessibility issues in Indian heritage sites. At this time, our collaborators, Made in Bengal and ArchaeologistsEngage, came on board to provide support for the event. The idea of a bus tour was abandoned in favour of a walking tour to increase the experiential value of the event, and to give ample time for the children to connect with a single historic site in a deeper way.

The St. John’s Church complex was chosen as the venue because of its central location and historical importance as the first Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta. The church compound also houses the graves of Job Charnock, the “founder” of the city, and some other important East India Company personalities from the city’s very early days. The Church complex is also a protected site under the Archaeological Survey of India, which is a perfect setting to start discussions about the accessibility of heritage sites, and which does not have any restrictions on entry. Finally, since the children have hearing-related disabilities, the church compound provided safety from the fast moving traffic on some busiest streets in Kolkata, just outside the walls.


After this plan was finalized, we approached the Ideal School for the Deaf through a common friend. Their authorities were very enthusiastic about the event. We discussed our plan with the head of the institute and other faculty members to come up with an accessible narrative for the children. The school requested that the event be done on Monday, March 27th, rather than on Sunday, which was the day of the international event. GoUNESCO very kindly agreed to let us host the event on this alternate day to make it easier for the children to attend, since many of them come from very far distances to attend the school. The Friday before the event, Tathagata made a presentation at the school to give the children some historical context through pictures and paintings, with translation into sign language. This also provided us, the students, and the teachers with a warm-up run for the event.


To ensure the accessibility of the information during the walking tour, we prepared visual aids for the children. This included print outs of important names, dates and numbers in large fonts and visible colours. Tathagata also spoke slowly in Bangla so that the children, who are experts in lip-reading, could get some information immediately, without waiting for the translation. Both Tathagata and the teacher who was interpreting stood on higher ground whenever possible throughout the tour so that all of the children could easily see them. A small welcome kit was also provided for the children and their teachers, which included a bottle of water and some snacks.


The issue of the accessibility of historic sites is very close to our hearts at Heritage Walk Calcutta. We believe that, while one-off events like these can spark a discussion, this talk will die out if it is not regularly followed up by similar events and workshops. Heritage Walk Calcutta is therefore committed to making significant contributions to this discussion by organizing follow-up events for various disabled groups and by working with different stakeholders to make heritage sites more accessible for disabled communities.

Heritage Walk Calcutta is an academic-run company in Kolkata that aims to increase awareness of heritage in the community by connecting scholars and the common people through walking tours and workshops.

Tathagata Neogi is an archaeologist and the co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta.

The event would not be possible without the active support of our various collaborators and GoUNESCO. Here, I briefly introduce our collaborators and thank them for their support.

Ideal School for the Deaf: Established in 1967 by the Society for the Deaf, the school functions as a not for profit institution to provide free education for hearing impaired children. The organization is based out of Salt Lake Sector I, Kolkata, India. The school caters to students from all backgrounds in the Kolkata area and beyond.

Made in Bengal: ‘Made in’ is a digital platform for any product/service made by the people of Bengal…for the people of the world. The Made in Bengal team constantly work with artists, artisans and weavers to innovate in order to keep traditional techniques intact! The aim is to bring on more artists, manufacturers, designers, weavers, musicians, theatre artists, and so on, to this single e-platform and reach out to the world with our products, culture, art and cuisine.

ArchaeologistsEngage: ArchaeologistsEngage is an independent non-profit group of archaeologists who came together to enable engagement between professionals and the public. ArchaeologistsEngage is a registered voluntary organisation in the Norwegian Brønnøysund Register.



Stones and people: how do we determine function?

As you may have understood from this blog, archaeologists do many things outside of The Excavation. One such thing happens after something has been dug. When something is discovered, it often has undefined entities. While you can often tell that something was manipulated by humans, it is rarer to immediately see what the thing in question was for. Most often, finds have to go through a period of analysis to bear meaning, and certainly to be relevant for our understanding of the entire excavation as a whole.

One type of analysis is functional analysis of lithics. Through thousands, and sometimes millions of years, stones have been worked into specific types of tools.  But, even if something looks like an axe today, that doesn’t mean that it was in fact an axe thousands of years ago. We therefore carefully investigate each artefact, first to group and label them for magazines, and later to research their actual role in our society. The latter can be achieved by many means, such as residue analysis or placement on a site (for instance in a grave). However, sometimes we want to look at the practical function that a stone tool had, and we often do this through experimental means. One method that is closely linked to experimental archaeology, is use-wear analysis. Through this method, a researcher will scrutinise the tool for worn facets or edges under a microscope, and look at the patterning of the wear. Sometimes it may be criss-cross scratches, sometimes chipped edges, sometimes patches that are worn to the extent that they shine. Often, these traces are not visible to the naked eye, and we use a variety of microscopes to get the best or most detailed view of the pattern. Then, ideally the archaeologists will aim to create a replica pattern, and this is done through experimentation.

For instance, an axe will be investigated along the axe edge to determine whether it was a) used at all, b) heavily worn, and c) what the pattern looks like. After that, the archaeologist will make a replica tool and use it in one or more fashions to see if the resulting wear pattern is similar to the one on the archaeological tool.

Last year, I made a use-wear analysis of my own, on a mysterious find category from the Norwegian Mesolithic period. The tools are typically found along the coast, and often in relation to settlement sites. The artefact type consists of a hand sized beach pebble with one or two heavily worn facets, usually on either side of the stone. Not only are the stones worn, but the facets are also carefully prepared prior to use, by pecking at them with another stone. But, no one really knows what they were for, and I set out to try and come closer to this mystery.

One of the mysterious stones (C53854/22 from Rørbekk 1, Svinesund, Norway)
One of the mysterious stones (C53854/22 from Rørbekk 1, Svinesund, Norway)

So, I had to come up with a number of tasks that people in the Mesolithic may have done with such a tool. Then I did those tasks with replicated tools, in the hope that I would make a pattern similar to the archaeological ones. Out in the woods, I cracked 6 kg of hazelnuts, and with other stones I ground them up. Neither of the wear patterns showed any similarity to the real stones. But, with a third set of stones I bashed up some dried deer sinew, and this pattern of wear was almost identical to the archaeological stones.

Hazelnut cracking with replica tool well under way.
Hazelnut cracking with replica tool well under way.
Separated deer sinew after 20 minutes of bashing.
Separated deer sinew after 20 minutes of bashing.

In hindsight, I should probably also have rubbed some hides with the stones, as the wear trace did indicate that the stones were used on a soft, pliable surface. I will hopefully have the opportunity to go back and do that another day. But for now, a preliminary interpretation is that the stones were used with something soft that is most likely not a plant material, but not as soft as meat. It could very well be that inhabitants of the coastal settlement sites in Mesolithic Norway used these little stones to soften dried sinew before they used it to haft arrows and harpoons, or sew seal skins into bags, clothes, or tents. With more experiments, we may find out!

Tine Schenck is an experimental archaeologist with a special interest in Boreal, seasonal exploitation of resources.

Revealing the person behind the bones.

Like many people, I’ve always been interested in the past and how people lived their lives. Historical accounts that have survived through time can tell us so much about what life was like, but they also have their limitations. One aspect that frustrated me was that these accounts didn’t really get close enough to the person behind the image, which was what I actually wanted to know about. So it seemed like a good idea to go directly to the people themselves for this level of information.

I have read some wonderful archaeological reports on excavated sites that provide incredible details on the buildings, pottery, stone, glass, preserved grains, animal and human bones. They allow the reader to really get to grips with what was going on at the location in the past. The physical aspects of the people who died and were buried at an excavated location can be determined through analysis giving us detail about demography (age and sex) and pathology (dental health, arthritis, injury). This information is vastly different to historical accounts in terms of the level of detail and in providing direct access to specific individuals.

The human skeleton is a record in bone of that person’s physical life experience. All of the detailed information that can be gathered from analysing a skeleton can be reconstructed to give us a very personal knowledge of one individual. We can understand aspects of their early childhood and movement through life, diseases and trauma they suffered from, and possibly survived, activities they undertook, and even if they were left- or right-handed. This is essentially what I do through my research. I focus on a specific group of individuals, the youngest ones. They are a very special group because their skeletons give me information about two individuals; themselves and their mothers.

In the UK, if excavated human remains are not reburied, they are stored securely according to the regulations for the treatment of human remains. Any analysis and research must follow ethical requirements and be carried out by trained individuals. A large part of my research time is spent working in secure-access locations with lots of boxes of bones. Occasionally I have the opportunity to excavate the remains on site, which is hard work but fun. Most recently my fieldwork has been in a very hot, dry environment, so it’s certainly a change of scenery from basement storage areas!

Secure storage area for human skeletal remains recovered from archaeological contexts.


Lifting fragile remains uncovered during excavation.
Lifting fragile remains uncovered during excavation.

As an osteoarchaeologist, I’m normally only involved in excavation where burials are concerned. This means that I can ensure that the remains are being dealt with correctly and that nothing is overlooked. On a busy site, my role is to advise and oversee the exposure (uncovering) of burials. Once the remains are visible I then complete the excavation of the skeleton. After a skeleton is lifted, it is gently cleaned, labelled and stored. Then it is possible for the remains to be analysed in detail. Occasionally, there are multiple burials with mixing up of the bones. This means that there is a long process after cleaning of separating the individuals; much like a big, complex puzzle with lots of tiny pieces.

Sorting skeletal remains from a multiple burial.
Sorting skeletal remains from a multiple burial.

Analysing a skeleton allows me to understand specific impacts that an individual experienced before their death and how this affected their life. Looking at the context of their burial lets me see how the other people around them responded to their death. The combination of these two factors is about as close as we can currently get to ‘knowing’ past individuals. Other specialists can provide further details on where these past people grew up, their diet, and perhaps how they looked. Knowing about the end of their lives and how their community reacted to their death tells us something else, something that cannot be easily measured. It can reveal that they were important in their community, regardless of age or sex, or status. It can re-write our interpretations of how past people thought about each other, and where they drew distinctions.

As interesting as this line of work is, it’s important to remember that all of the information we gain from studying past people comes with a catch; every interpretation we make is informed by our own reality. It is impossible to separate our own experience from what we think about someone else’s. The best we can do is get close to finding these lost people amongst all the evidence, and giving them back a voice. This is one of the goals that I strive to achieve through my work.

Belinda Tibbetts is a PhD Candidate in the Archaeology Department at the University of Exeter.

“Do you actually dig and stuff?” Archaeology aside from the artifacts.

I was at a party last night—one with a very long line for the bathroom. While I was waiting, the girl in front of me struck up a conversation about my work as a graduate student in archaeology.

“Oh wow! So do you go to lots of places?” she asked.

“Yes! I’ve dug in Jordan, Turkey, Kenya, and Virginia.” I replied.

“Really? You actually dig and stuff?” she responded incredulously.

“Yep! I’ve actually dug in all those places. Although, my work is more focused on the people who are affected by archaeological projects. I do a lot of interviewing people in the communities around archaeological sites, asking them what they care about, how much they want to be involved in the excavation, how we can work to be respectful of their needs and desires. So my work is more about the people than the artifacts.”

“Wow,” she answered, and paused. “But, so… do you actually find stuff when you dig?”

This conversation was almost a direct playback of hundreds of conversations I’ve had. If you’re here, surely you agree that archaeology is really cool. Tons of people are eager to learn more about it. I can’t count the number of times a bank teller or fellow dog-owner or high-school acquaintance has told me that their childhood dream was to be an archaeologist.

Although their admission can sometimes be based on a romanticization of archaeology, I actually don’t find this to be the case most of the time. Indeed, many people have read articles in news sources like the Chicago Tribune and the National Science Foundation, or work by archaeologists including Cornelius Holtorf and Anne Pyburn, who have written about the differences between popular presentations of archaeology and the realities of excavation. These discussions are really important to have; as they point out, the swashbuckling, finders-keepers image of archaeology that we are used to from movies like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft leads to real misunderstandings of just how scientific and meticulous archaeological excavation is, and justifies the removal of artifacts from their original contexts or from the possession of the people to whom they rightfully belong.

But even these conversations do little to help non-archaeologists understand just how diverse the discipline of archaeology is. Yes, we measure the specific find-spots of artifacts instead of snatching them and running off. And yes, we record absolutely everything we can from soil color and texture to what tools we used to remove the earth. And yes, we collect, document, and conserve the artifacts that we find.

And then there are some of us, like me, who ask questions that are very indirectly related to the artifacts. For example, more and more archaeologists identify themselves as practitioners of public archaeology, a really broadly-encompassing term that refers to archaeology seeking to involve non-specialists in archaeological research. It can take the form of educating members of the public about archaeological work, or involving descendant community members in planning and executing and excavation, or training local people in analysis and conservation strategies. This blog, in fact, is an example of public archaeology!

Ironically, most non-archaeologists do not know that this sub-discipline is emerging within the larger field of archaeology. When I explain my work, the most frequent question I am asked is, “Is that really archaeology?” And I can’t very well be offended—public archaeology sits in this uncomfortable place where it is still new enough that non-practitioners don’t know about it, even though its entire goal is engaging non-practitioners!

So, in the interest of broadening ideas of what constitutes ‘archaeology,’ I will tell a little bit about my research which, yes, is really archaeology, but might look a little different from what one would expect.

For the past four years, I have been working with the local communities at Petra in Jordan and at Çatalhöyük in Turkey, asking them about their perspectives on the archaeological work that has been completed at these sites. My interest is especially in talking to the men and women who have been employed to work on these projects, to understand what only they know about the sites from both living and working there.

Allison map

You see, since archaeology began—particularly in the Middle East—excavations have relied on massive gangs of locally-hired laborers to move the soil and expose the remains (see below). In some cases, like the Quftis in Egypt, these workers were trained in specialized excavation techniques and in turn trained their sons, so on through the generations. One group of workmen in Iraq were hired consistently on projects for nearly 100 years!


Workers from Leonard Woolley's expedition at Ur. Photograph from the Penn Museum's blog:
Workers from Leonard Woolley’s expedition at Ur. Photograph from the Penn Museum’s blog:

Petra and Çatalhöyük were both excavated starting in the mid-20th century. These are sites where groups of locally-hired workers acquired unique expertise from working on project after project, season after season, as well as growing up amid these archaeological remains. They learned from their family, they learn from archaeologists, and most importantly they learned from firsthand experience. They became experts in archaeology, without any formal training.

These locally-hired diggers, however, never participated in the documentation, analysis, and publication of the archaeology. This means that their privileged and expert observations and perceptions of the remains have gone formally unrecorded, only handed down through oral history. This is what I aim to recover in my work. By interviewing the people whose families have worked for decades on archaeological projects at these two sites, I’m uncovering some stories and information that has never been recorded before, which can help us to learn even more about the archaeology of both of these exciting places.


The author interviewing Huseyin Veli Yasli in Küçükköy about his experiences as a site worker at Çatalhöyük. Photograph by Tunc Ilada.
The author interviewing Huseyin Veli Yasli in Küçükköy about his experiences as a site worker at Çatalhöyük. Photograph by Tunc Ilada.

So yes, I do dig for artifacts, but what I really love digging for is stories from some archaeologists who have never been recognized as the experts they are. And yes, I travel to lots of places, but when I get there I go into peoples’ homes, if they are kind enough to invite me in, and I record their memories. And yes (as I hope you agree!) what I do really is archaeology.

Allison Mickel is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University.