An experimental exploration of a unique Neolithic artefact

Through an exploration of several strands of experimental archaeological research, this Royal Irish Academy-funded project seeks to ‘reverse-engineer’ the specialist technology, methodology and innovative ingenuity that was required to craft the Knowth maesmor-type macehead, a singularly assured masterpiece of Neolithic craft and artistry. This research is being conducted in collaboration with Fred Curtis, internationally renowned crystal glass sculptor, designer and artist.

Using materials that would have been readily available to the Passage Tomb peoples of these islands during the latter half of the fourth millennium BC, it has been possible to recreate some of the processes that were likely to have been used in the crafting of this remarkable flint artefact. This achievement is all the more compelling given the unyielding hardness of this raw material. Despite the inherent challenges, it can be demonstrated with a significant degree of confidence how the aperture in a flint macehead could have been produced using a combination of hollow wooden drill-bit and a water-suspended abrasive medium. Moreover, this research has also rediscovered the means by which a stone object – a macehead or battle-axe - could be drilled from both sides so as to achieve a straight aperture that meets precisely in the middle.

 Joe Fenwick, experimental archaeological research, drilling a stone (flint) using a hollow drill-bit of oak with an abrasive paste (quartzite grit)  Drilling a flint nodule using a hollow drill-bit of oak with a quartzite grit abrasive

In addition to drilling, it has also proved possible to cut a series of elongated concave facets in flint, of a type similar to those on the surface of the Knowth and other maesmor-type maceheads. This was achieved with the use of a fixed-horizontal-axis rotating wooden wheel with a water-suspended abrasive paste applied to its edge – a specialist technology of a type used in crystal glass cutting, but which is otherwise unknown in a prehistoric context.

 Fred Curtis - working flint with an abrasive wheel  Wooden wheel - grinding a faced in flint
 Flint - experimental archaeology - ground facet using a wooden wheel with quartzite as abrasive medium.  Flint - experimental archaeology - ground facets using a ceramic wheel

Some limited exploration into the polishing of flint against an abrasive grit-imbedded wooden surface was also explored. This proved to be effective and so determined that a polissoir or grinding stone was not a necessary requirement in order to grind or polish stone.   

The preliminary results of the work to date have been very encouraging and additional experimental research is currently underway (November 2022).

Further reading: 

Fenwick, J. 1995 The manufacture of the decorated macehead from Knowth, county Meath. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 125, 51-60.

  For related research see: 'The Brugh na Boinne Research Project'

This research project entitled 'Crafting the Knowth macehead: an experimental exploration of a unique Neolithic artefact' was awarded an Archaeologial Research Grant through the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) in May of 2022.

 Royal Irish Academy's logo  Logo of the University of Galway 2022