I’m giving a talk in the Collection Bites series for Sally Thelwell up in the Collection Study Centre at Manchester Museum today. I tweeted it and wanted to include a link to the Ancient Worlds website, where, I was convinced, I’d already posted an entry on these enigmatic objects. It turned out that I hadn’t so here goes….
The objects look like pebbles you might dig up in your garden but if you look carefully you can see that they have a patch of wear or a facet on one side. Looked at under a microscope you can scratches and striations. The stone is calcite, a very hard stone and clearly the pebbles have been in contact with something that has caused intense abrasion for them to be worn away in this way. In one case one of the stones has two wear facets. What’s going on?
Years ago, when they were collected, it would have been assumed that they were used for grinding and polishing stone axes but the level of abrasion needed and the difficulty of holding a rounded pebble at the same angle to create a facet like this makes it unlikely. It was realised over 50 years ago that the stones were plough pebbles, i.e. they’d been inserted in the surface of a wooden plough and the facets were the result of contact with sand and stones as the plough passed through the soil. The pebbles were rather like studs to help protect the plough tip against excessive wear. Presumably this was done when the farmer had no access to iron, or perhaps because it was expensive, hadn’t been invented yet or was impractical to use in such soil conditions. Relatively well-preserved examples of wooden ploughs with pebbles still in situ have been found in peat bogs in Denmark. The date of these ploughs is Iron Age, though that doesn’t necessarily mean pre-Roman in a Scandinavian context. An example that was radiocarbon-dated from Scotland gave an early Medieval date round about 600 AD.
We don’t know much about where these fascinating objects came from save that they are labelled ‘Holderness’ and ‘the surface’. A quartz pounder associated with them is labelled ‘Lissit’, a village in northern Holderness. There can be little doubt that the objects were originally in the collection of William Morfitt (1831-1923). William Morfitt was a grocer from Goole who made enough money from supplying ships entering the important inland port to retire in the late 1880s.
He took his family, including sons Aaron and Beaumont and daughters Charlotte and Margaret, to live in the sleepy Holderness village of Atwick. There they had the leisure time to collect items of archaeological and geological interest that were being washed out of the soft boulder clay cliffs by coastal erosion. Holderness has one of the highest rates of coastal erosion in the world. Over time they built up an impressive collection including mammoth teeth, fossil ammonites, stone axes and even animal skeletons revealed in the beds of ancient lakes and water courses.
It was but a short step to excavating the features they saw sectioned by coastal erosion and to walking across ploughed fields and picking up objects on the surface of the soil. The family published little but they were happy for visiting archaeologists and antiquaries to write about their discoveries. They were very proud of their collection which became known by the rather grandiose name of ‘the East Coast collection of antiquities’. They attracted the attention of Canon William Greenwell of Durham Cathedral (1820-1918) and William Boyd Dawkins (1837-1929) at the Manchester Museum. Dawkins visited Atwick in 1908 in connection with a row involving the curator of Hull Museums, Thomas Sheppard (1876-1945), over archaeological features known as pit dwellings.
This is likely to have been the occasion when the plough pebbles were given to Boyd Dawkins and later they entered the Manchester Museum collection. The term ‘the Surface’ was one of the terms used to discuss the stratigraphy of the pit dwellings. Correspondence and notes in the East Yorkshire Archives office in Beverley show that the Morfitt family picked up lots of plough pebbles in and around Atwick. Perhaps the glacial deposits that constitute the promontory of Holderness contain too much abrasive material in the area or perhaps pebbles of the right size for use in a plough happen to be available there. Whatever the explanation plough pebbles seem to have been unusually common there and were collected and some eventually, made their way to Manchester Museum.
The last member of the Morfitt family, Beaumont, died in 1929. He is buried with his father and brothers and sisters in Atwick churchyard. Their tombstone, appropriately, is a large glacial erratic. Sadly the family was largely forgotten after an unseemly row with the Curator of Hull Museums who belittled the Morfitts’ collecting activities. More about this in a future blog.