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. The wooden wheels and drill-bits used throughtout the experimental research were produced by Ambrose O'Halloran, Woodturner, Claregalway.

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 proved possible (with a degree of perseverance and patience!) to drill an aperture through a flint nodule using a combination of a 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 have been 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 was also possible to demonstrate that a series of elongated concave facets, of a type similar to those on the surface of the Knowth and other maesmor-type maceheads, could be ground into the surface of a flint nodule. 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.

Additional wheel grinding experiments using wooden wheels with an applied water-suspended quartzite paste were conducted in 2023. A bow-driven device designed to turn the wooden cutting wheel back-and-forth, in an alternating clockwise/anticlockwise rotation, similar to a pole lathe was also constructed for the purposes of further experimentation. Again, the results proved to be very promising.

 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 of flint polishing on a sandstone polissoir and also a wooden-block polissoir using a quartzite grit as an abrasive was also investigated. While the sandstone was largely ineffective the wooden equivalent proved to be relatively efficient for the task.   

Attempts to grind facets into the surface of a flint nodule using a straight-edge abrasive tool had mixed results. It did demonstrate, however, that it is not possible to carve or grind a curved line onto a flat or concave stone surface using this method. This provides some additional pausability to the hypothesis that abrasive wheels of various size and profile were required to apply some of the decorative motifs to the Knowth macehead. Experimental work continues ...

Using a bow-drill to grind an aperture in a flint nodule. Experimental Archaeology.   A bow-drill in the process of drilling an aperture in a flint nodule using a hollow bone drill bit with quartzite grit as an abrasive. Fred Curtis grinding a flint nodule using a wooden wheel with quartzite grit as an abrasive. Experimental Archaeology 
Flint nodule hollow drill-bit aperture. Experimental archaeology. A facet ground onto a flint nodule using a wooden wheel (alternating motion) with a quartzite grit abrasive. Experimental archaeology.  

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 Brú 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