Manchester Museum has a very large and varied collection of prehistoric lithics collection, including hundred-thousand-year-old Palaeolithic hand-axes from southern England, Mesolithic microliths from the Pennines around Manchester, neolithic rough-outs from so-called ‘axe-factories‘ in Great Langdale in Cumbria and Craig Llwyd in Wales, Bronze Age stone mauls or mining tools from Alderley Edge in Cheshire, more recent material collected from indigenous peoples in the Americas, and Australia, and stone tools, flint flakes and other objects of all periods from the UK, Europe and other countries around the world.
The richness of the Museum’s lithics collection is due to the first curator, William Boyd Dawkins (1837-1929). Though primarily a geologist, Dawkins was an expert on the identification of prehistoric animal remains and wrote what was regarded at the time as the text-book about cave archaeology called Cave Hunting (1876). Dawkins is perhaps best known for work at Creswell Crags, conducted, at least initially, with Revd Magens Mello and Thomas Heath. Star finds include Neanderthal stone choppers and a beautiful Font Robert point dating from around 29,000 BC.The Museum has a very important archive of finds, photographs and other documentation relating both to these Victorian excavations and to later work undertaken by A.Leslie Armstrong (1878-1958).
Dawkins’ successor at the Museum was J.Wilfrid Jackson (1880-1978). Like Dawkins, Jackson had wide-ranging interests, excavated prehistoric sites and published important regional summaries of lithic discoveries. As a result of the collecting activities of Dawkins and Jackson, the Museum’s archaeology collection contains large quantities of flint and other stone implements, not to mention prehistoric metal, pottery, bone and antler objects. They built up collections of stone objects, including fakes, as reference material and for teaching purposes. One individual by the name of Edward Simpson alias ‘Flint Jack’, ‘Bones’ or ‘Fossil Willy’ was notorious for selling his dodgy flint artefacts to gullible collectors and museum curators, served time in prison and ended his days demonstrating flint-knapping for gentlemanly antiquarian societies.
Many of these objects are displayed in the Museum’s Ancient Worlds galleries, where, thanks to the range of disciplines represented in the collection it has been possible to show axes with ornate binding and rafia sleeves for comparison from New Guinea and Borneo – where the Stone Age finished as recently and precisely as 10am on 8th March 1933 – from the Living Cultures collection.
The intellectual focus of the Museum displays shifted in the latter part of the 20th century in favour of the Classical world but research on the lithics collection continued. For instance, many of the Museum’s stone axeheads were sampled petrologically during the 1970s and 1980s and the results published in Stone Axe Studies; researchers such as the late Roger Jacobi (1947-2009) carried out detailed work on the Creswell Crags archive, even identifying joins between fragments of the same implement in different museums; and an important landscape study of Alderley Edge was undertaken by Prof John Prag of Manchester Museum. The Museum also subscribed to excavations in the Middle East and received a proportional share of finds including lithic artefacts from sites such as Abu Hureyra in Syria, Jericho on the West Bank, and from the excavations at Mount Carmel in Northern Israel directed by Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968).
With the redevelopment of the new Ancient Worlds archaeology galleries, more of the Museum’s historically important lithic collections was put on show. The recent updating of the National Curriculum so that it includes the Stone Age offers another opportunity to work with teachers and school groups to interpret this material for the younger generation. Meanwhile new digital technology and augmented reality are providing more stimulating ways of engaging with the artefacts.
We will be having a special activity day about flint knapping at the Museum on Wednesday 18th November if you want to see how it’s done and maybe have a go yourself.
W.Boyd Dawkins (1876) Cave Hunting: researches on the evidence of caves respecting the early inhabitants of Europe (London, Macmillan and Co.).
J.W.Jackson (1936) ‘The Prehistoric Archaeology of Lancashire and Cheshire’, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society 50 (1936), 65-106.
J.W.Jackson (1936) ‘Contributions to the Archaeology of the Manchester Region’, The North Western Naturalist 11, 110-119.
T.H.McK Clough and W.A. Cummins (1988) Stone Axe Studies II Research Report no.67, Council for British Archaeology, 218-221.