Early Neolithic Britons carried rare rock crystals long distances and used them to mark their burial sites, according to groundbreaking new archaeological research.
Evidence of the use of rock crystal – a rare type of perfectly transparent quartz that forms into large hexagonal gems – has occasionally been found at prehistoric sites in the British Isles, but until now very little research has been done on how this material was used. and its possible meaning.
Archaeologists from the University of Manchester worked with experts from Cardiff University and Herefordshire County Council on an excavation at Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire, a mile south of another excavation at Arthur’s Stone. There they studied a 6,000-year-old complex of wooden halls, burial mounds and burial grounds from the Early Neolithic, the time when agriculture first came to Britain.
In addition to a number of artifacts such as pottery, stone utensils, and cremated bones, they discovered rock crystal that had been carved like flint at the site, but unlike the site, had not been made into tools such as arrowheads or scrapers, but the pieces were collected intentionally and deposited in the mounds. Experts say the material was deposited at the site over many generations, possibly as long as 300 years.
Only a few locations in the British Isles have produced sufficiently large pure crystals of the Dorstone Hill material, the nearest being Snowdonia in north Wales and St David’s Head in south-west Wales; this means that the ancient Britons had to transport the material great distances to reach the site.
Therefore, the researchers speculate that the material may have been used by people to prove their local identity and their connections to other places in the British Isles.
It was very exciting to find the crystal because it is exceptionally rare; in a time before glass, these perfectly transparent chunks of solid material had to be truly distinctivesaid lead researcher Nick Overton. I was very interested in finding out where the material came from and how people could have worked and used it..
The crystals would have been very unusual in appearance compared to other stones they used, and are extremely distinctive in that they emit light when struck or rubbed, producing small rainbow specks; we maintain that its use would have created memorable moments that united individuals, forged local identities, and connected the living with the dead with whose remains they were deposited..
The researchers plan to study materials found at other sites to find out if people worked with this material in a similar way, in order to uncover local connections and traditions. They also intend to examine the chemical composition of the crystal to find out if they can pinpoint its specific origin.
The University of Manchester | Overton, N., Healey, E., Garcia Rovira, I., Thomas, J., Birchenall, J., Challinor, D., Ray, K. (2022). Not All That Glitters is Gold? Rock Crystal in the Early British Neolithic at Dorstone Hill, Herefordshire, and the Wider British and Irish Context. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 1-20. doi:10.1017/S0959774322000142