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  • Stephen Jennings

In Depth - The North Roe Neolithic 'Axe Factory'

The North Roe Neolithic ‘axe factory’ covers an area of at least 60 square kilometres, from the Beorgs of Uyea on its northern fringe to the slopes of Collafirth, Midfield and Ronas Hill on the southern. Intensive quarrying and knapping of felsite characterise the region as an ‘axe factory’ though scatter of various kinds can be found outside this noted zone of activity. With the increased scrutiny this area has received over the last few years, owing much to Dr Gabriel Cooney and the North Roe Felsite Project among others, we can much more easily understand what was happening.

One aspect of the overall picture thus far is varying activity. For example, the Beorgs of Uyea, perhaps the most recognised as the ‘axe factory’, appears to be a series of small-scale activities over a long period of time. The Neolithic peoples were exploiting the surface dyke material as individuals or small groups, likely seasonally, and creating roughouts. By contrast, on the southern end of the region, Midfield and Grut Wells in particular, the activity is more concentrated where large quarry pits were created as the people, probably larger in number, took huge swathes of material along the felsite dyke, created blanks and early stage roughouts and then worked the material to a finer degree further down the slope. To wit, one of the trenches excavated by the North Roe Felsite Project showed quarrying to a depth of 1.8 metres whilst both sides of a 4 ½ metre wide dyke was exploited to the extent of removing a half metre of granite. This was then backfilled rather than left open as opposed to much of the small-scale activity at the Beorgs.

As shown at Grut Wells, the most prized felsite they were after for functional use items was nearest the chill margin where it directly abuts the granite as this felsite exhibited the best conchoidal fracture. In other words, the fracture created is directly proportional to the force used rather than following a fault or existing fracture in the stone which results in a stronger tool. This material is plain in appearance, typically blue grey. The ceremonial tools, on the other hand, tend to be fashioned out of more dramatic coloured and patterned felsite. In the end, both types of objects are polished – more accurately ground – to a high degree. The tools themselves are basic to a functioning subsistence agricultural household of any time period – primarily axes, adzes and knives and whilst the functional axes tend to be smaller than the ceremonial version, the knives have more uniformity of size though the bulk considered to be functional are slightly more robust. Interestingly, 2/3 of the knives housed in museums and examined by the North Roe Felsite Project were determined to come directly from percussive flakes and 1/3 were indeterminate. To clarify, when force is used to remove a flake it creates a bulb of percussion, a bulge on the flake itself often accompanied by radiating fissures (this would be an artefact) whereas a flake created by natural forces such as freeze/thaw action has straight, sharp edges and is known as a thermal flake (a geofact).

The tools used for quarrying are rather basic as well, consisting primarily of hammerstones and wedges. Of the hammerstones found, the material and source vary – local granite, beach stones and felsite itself make up the bulk. The size shows variety as well and is, naturally, related to the stage of the activity: large hammerstones for initial quarrying and taking off large flakes, smaller for roughing out at each stage and finally very small for final pecking and finishing. There may be some evidence of natural forces being utilized as well – fractures left to be subject to freeze/thaw action for a later date.

The post quarrying process is a little less clear. It’s fairly certain that roughouts at the quarrying site were of a very early stage, the large flake removal, and then moved downslope to what may be ad hoc workshops for further finishing even to a late stage. Based on evidence from other sites throughout Shetland, including field walks of freshly ploughed fields, the late stage roughouts were then pecked and polished away from the ‘axe factory’ to create the functional and ceremonial pieces. A large so-called ‘chop shop’ has been uncovered in Ollaberry, a smaller in Tangwick, where the pieces were finished and perhaps moved on through an internal trade network.

It is also unclear how much time was spent on the ‘axe factory’ itself. Recent identification/discovery of permanent structures by Archaeology Shetland may help answer this and further aid in understanding to what stage at a given time period the pieces were finished. One such lay loch side and buried in .8m of peat and heather, the base of the trefoil structure at native soil layer. A couple of hundred metres away and next to an exposed dyke is another site consisting of various cells, one complex exposed and the other on the opposite side of the same rock outcrop buried in peat and heather as well. Here a broken roughout was found with a variety of felsite scattered around. Further afield is another complex of cells, at least seven in number, corbelled and with various other structures whilst also buried in nearly a metre of peat with native soil at the base. It’s impossible without further study to determine the origin or use of these structures but the morphology and the lack of field systems or enclosing walls is highly compelling.

This leads to a small discussion on the structures that have become ‘iconic’ to the ‘axe factory’, particularly the highly visible gallery at the Beorgs of Uyea. Sunk beneath the ground and measuring roughly 3 metres long by 1 metre wide and covered in lintel stones, it has been previously identified as a workshop. This may be true, it may not. Not far from the Grut Wells complex is another gallery of nearly identical size (yet with a more compelling circular structure nearby, again buried deep in peat and heather) and here there is no visible felsite on the floor yet the location, not far off a surface dyke, would be ideal. In fact, throughout the area there are scores of these and other such temporary shelters with the densest occurring between Grut Wells and moving west toward the sea. The vast majority are well away from felsite dykes and no felsite is visible. The connection of these structures with quarrying appears rather spurious and although felsite artefacts were found on the floor of the gallery at the Beorgs, it very well could be a temporary shelter constructed over the site at a much later date. Simply put, the context isn’t there literally and in consideration of the many other similar structures spread throughout the region.

Nonetheless, the increased scrutiny of the Neolithic ‘axe factory’ has given us a much clearer picture of the processes at work. Although there remain many unanswered questions as detailed above, the work of the North Roe Felsite Project will undoubtedly continue to further our understanding and sharpen the focus of the unique felsite tool creation and use in Shetland. With the dates coming in from the Grut Wells quarries at 3620-3520BC, already our understanding of the pace of settlement and the need for cooperation within the Neolithic community in Shetland has led to our having a greater comprehension of the period. In consideration of the idea the felsite tool market in Shetland was closed, axes and knives produced and used here only, this likely indicates a large and settled farming community at an earlier date than perhaps hitherto believed.

Further Reading:

Canmore - Beorgs of Uyea

Canmore - Grut Wells

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