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Material Principles and Economic Relations Underlying Neolithic Axe Circulation in Western Europe

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To Vin Davis. In Memoriam

Abstract

Neolithic societies produced and circulated axeheads made out of different rock types over substantial distances. These tools were indispensable to their economic reproduction, but they also demanded considerable manufacturing efforts. The material properties of the raw materials chosen to produce axeheads had a direct effect on the grinding and polishing processes, as well as on the use life of these tools. However, surprisingly little is known about the criteria followed by these societies when it came to choosing adequate raw materials, or why certain rocks were exploited in greater volumes and circulated over larger distances than others. In order to determine the material parameters ruling axe production, circulation, and use, a range of different rock types was submitted to mechanical tests. For the first time, comparative values relating to the resistance to friction and to breakage are presented for some of the most important rock types used for the manufacture of axeheads by the Neolithic communities of Western Europe. These mechanical parameters allow us to approach hypothetical production and use values, which are then correlated with the distances travelled and the volumes of rock in circulation. This combination of petrographic, mechanical, and paleo-economic information leads to new understandings of the principles ruling Neolithic supply and distribution networks and the economic rationale behind them. It reveals how deeply the economic and symbolic meanings of these outstanding Neolithic artefacts were rooted in their production and use values.

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Notes

  1. This study complements the spectroradiometric analyses undertaken by Errera et al. (2012: 440–533).

  2. Most of the rock samples were cut in the Department of Geology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona with the aid of a mechanical saw (Wendt Bart DV 27; Speed: 1480, 1950, 2400, 2900; steel body: 400 mm diameter, 2.2 mm thickness, 3 kW power, consumption of 1 l/min). The segment of the disc was made of agglomerate and resins provided with synthetic diamond. However, this saw was not able to cut all samples, and some had to be prepared with a special, 0.5-mm-thick saw. This fact is worth noting, as it already illustrates the substantial mechanical differences between rocks.

  3. Concerning the discussion on the importance of primary and secondary sources, see D’Amico (2011) for the West Alpine rocks, Briggs (2011) for the British rock groups, and Risch and Martínez (2008) for hornfels procurement in Northeast Iberia.

  4. We are aware of the relativism reducing the concept of “transport cost” to lineal distances, as goods did not necessarily circulate only away from their source but in any direction. However, lineal distance seems to be the best common denominator for any analytical, comparative study.

  5. The quality of brightness seems to be a direct effect of the rock’s resistance against friction. Most of the Alpine rocks offer a sufficient stable surface, on which mineral particles stay enough time exposed on the relief so that they can be shiny polished. In this way, the difficulty to grind turns into an advantage to polish.

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Acknowledgements

Thin sections were prepared in the Geology Department, while SEM analyses were carried out at the Microscopy Sevice, both belonging to the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. We are grateful to Anne-Marie Pétrequin, Pierre Pétrequin, Vin Davis (†) and Kathina Lillios for providing samples from Italy, the British Isles, Ireland and Portugal. Anne-Marie and Pierre Pétrequin also guided us to the axe quarries of Plancher-les-Mines, where we spent a wonderful day taking samples. We extend our thanks to Juan Martínez Egea, from the inspection and certification company Applus (Barcelona), where mechanical tests were performed. Without his altruistic availability, this study would simply not have been viable. Tim Darvill, Pierre Pétrequin and three anonymous reviewers are also acknowledged for their helpful remarks and suggestions.

Funding

This research is made possible because of grants from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (HAR2017-85962-P) and the AGAUR of the Generalitat de Catalunya (2017SGR1044).

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Delgado-Raack, S., Risch, R., Martínez-Fernández, F. et al. Material Principles and Economic Relations Underlying Neolithic Axe Circulation in Western Europe. J Archaeol Method Theory 27, 771–798 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-019-09425-x

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