Mainland Scotland and the Shetland Islands.

Mainland Scotland and the Shetland Islands.

The housing of a substantial collection of Shetland Neolithic riebeckite felsite axes at The Hunterian Museum owes a substantial debt of gratitude to the work of the antiquarian collector James Cursiter.

The Shetland Isles

The Shetland Isles

Cursiter was a well known Orcadian antiquarian who had his own private museum and a library of specialist books. His collections were initially made up of geological samples and fossils (many of which are held in the Hunterian collections) but also extended to archaeological artefacts from both Orkney and Shetland.

His knowledge of archaeological collections was summed up in the memoirs of Sir John Flett (a fellow geologist and friend), ‘Orcadian archaeology he knew as well as anyone living in the country and he had a remarkable memory and a great store of knowledge…’.

James Cursiter

James Cursiter.

Clearly this knowledge extended to the Shetland Isles and after his retirement in 1912 his library was sold and his fish fossil collections went to the Hunterian Museum. His antiquarian collection (of which  felsite axeheads make up a substantial proportion) was donated in the 1920’s.

The Scottish Archaeological Framework Neolithic document (ScARF 2012, Neolithic Panel Report) provides valuable information on the research narrative of the Neolithic Shetland archipelago. During the 1980’s Neolithic settlement (structures and field systems) were discovered at Scord of Brouster (Whittle et al 1986). However, a recent reassessment of this evidence suggests that many structures post date the Neolithic period (Sheridan, 2012, 20). Therefore, despite earlier survey work in the 1960s and 1970s (settlement and funerary by Henshall 1963; Calder 1956, 340-397;1963, 37-86; felsite sources by Ritchie, 1968, 117-136), the character of Neolithic Shetland remained largely enigmatic. 

Fortunately, recent excavation and study have gone some way to rectify this problem (excavation of a Mesolithic-Neolithic midden at West Voe, Sumburgh (Melton 2009 184-189); excavation of Neolithic and later sites at Crooksetter Hill (Brend & Barton 2011); Reassessment of human remains from Sumburgh cist (Walsh, Knusel and Melton 2011, 3-17) and palaeo-environmental survey (Edwards, 2009, 113-123). Research including the Nationalmuseet’s Farming on the Edge Project (Mahler 2011, 2012), comparing Neolithic Shetland and Southern Scandinavia, and Torben Bjarke Ballin’s immense catalogue of work on felsite implements (2011a, 121-130; 2011b,62-82; 2011c, 32-43; 2012, 62-78; 2013, 73-91) are also invaluable sources of information. Current and ongoing research on the North Roe Felsite Project, Shetland (University college Dublin: Principal Investigators Professor Gabriel Cooney, UCD School of Archaeology and Dr Torben Ballin, Lithic Research and Research Associate, Department of Archaeology, University of Bradford) could conceivably bring together ground breaking research. The project aims to pioneer research into quarrying and manufacture of felsite axes together with petrological and geochemical source analysis of axeheads from specific quarry complexes. 

The Mesolithic prelude to Neolithic axe manufacture on Shetland is still rather cryptic. No definitive Mesolithic artefacts are found in Shetland but it is likely that they are yet to be found ‘beneath sea, sand or peat’. (ScARF 2012, Mesolithic Panel Report, 34). Evidence of Mesolithic firespots and also palynological evidence (Edwards et al, 2009, 117) suggesting human management of the landscape are hotly debated amongst archaeologists (ScARF, Mesolithic Panel Report, 34) however it is likely that Shetland was colonised or at the very least visited during the Mesolithic. Indeed, until recently Mesolithic evidence in Orkney was also scarce but recent excavations at Stronsay (Pitts 2007, 9) have readdressed this problem (Ballin, 2011c, 32-33).

The earliest stages of Neolithic settlement evidence on Shetland comes from the site of West Voe, near Sumburgh. The site has been radiocarbon dated to (OxA-14242) c. 3700–3600 cal BC (See Melton 2009, 184-189). This midden site may be ‘a very rare example of where Mesolithic inhabitants selectively adopted elements of a Neolithic lifestyle’ (Sheridan, 2012b, 6-37) . However, while this may be true it seems highly unlikely that one isolated event of gradual local acculturation would occur only in Shetland and not throughout other areas of Scotland. Furthermore, while it is plausible that farming groups would most certainly utilise customary Mesolithic strategies to maximise their productivity it is just as likely that after a period of major change and traumatic upheaval (which we can speculate may have occurred with the uptake of agriculture) some indigenous groups are just as likely to have continued traditional subsistence strategies, or to have returned to familiar patterns of exploitation of places in the landscape despite their role in the agency of transition.

The initial Neolithisation of Britain (c.4000 cal BC) is a highly contentious issue amongst archaeologists (For detailed debate see, Sheridan 2003 3-17; 2007, 441-492;Thomas 2004, 113-130; 2007, 423-440; Whittle et al 2011). Passage tombs (of Atlantic Breton origin) begin to be constructed in the Western Isles, northern mainland Scotland, and Northern Isles by the 38th or 37th centuries BC  and this may be indicative of a secondary wave of farming expansion from western Scotland (Sheridan, 2012, 10). However, no radio carbon dates are currently available from Shetland passage tombs to confirm this although the presence of two Irish porcellanite axes from the Shetland Isles could attest to either the movement of  farming groups from western Scotland (Sheridan, 2012, 10) or indeed the movement of material culture (not necessarily people) via exchange  networks.

Expansion of mainland farming groups is thought to have been motivated by population growth (ScARF 2012, Neolithic Panel Report, 27). However, recent research into the Neolithisation of Orkney and the Western Isles suggests that ‘there is no need to attribute a single directionality’ to transition and that ‘No one side was responsible for Neolithisation’ (Garrow and Strurt, 2011,69). Even by the Middle Neolithic, evidence on Shetland does not necessarily fit with our idea of a rapid change of lifestyle. Unlike other dietary studies of Neolithic human remains in Britain, which have identified a diet reliant on Neolithic staples (Richards et al 1999, 891-897; Richards et al 2003, 366; Schulting and Richards 2002, 147-189), isotopic analysis of human bone dated to the Middle Neolithic from Sumburgh communal cist indicate that marine consumption did in fact continue on Shetland (Melton and Montgomery 2009, 167). The idea that all Neolithic communities turned their back on the sea may therefore not be universal.

View of the coastline from Sumburgh Head.

View of the coastline from Sumburgh Head, Shetland.

While a contentious Mesolithic-type flint axe core from the Fair Isles (Cumming 1946, 146-148) remains a fascinating anomaly within a landscape devoid of all other Mesolithic evidence, it seems that the first manufacture of axes in Shetland occurred during the later Early Neolithic. Radio- carbon dates from the Modesty felsite axe and knife hoard centre around (SUERC-37997) 3500–3110 cal BC (Sheridan, 2012, 13). Based on the kite shaped arrowhead typological association to the later part of Early Neolithic and typical Shetland felsite knives typological resemblance to earlier Later Neolithic discoidal flint knives’ (Clarke’s type IV: Clarke 1932, 44), Ballin suggests the main period of felsite exploitation spans from the later Early Neolithic and throughout the early Later Neolithic (Ballin 2011a, 125). 

Oval felsite stone knife with scalloped edge from Hawick, Northmavine, Shetland. Cursiter Collection, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery Collections: GLAHM B.1914.932

Oval felsite stone knife with scalloped edge from Hawick, Northmavine, Shetland. Cursiter Collection, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery Collections: GLAHM B.1914.932

The vast body of research amassed by Torben Bjarke Ballin on felsite implement production has added significantly to our knowledge of polished stone axe production (2011a, 121-130; 2011b, 62-81; 2011c, 32-43; 2012, 62-78; 2013 73-91). The manufacture of felsite implements remained largely insular to Shetland and appears to have evolved within a strict set of social and cosmological conventions. 

felsite axe

Polished felsite axehead (18 x 7 cm) , Lunnasting, Shetland. Cursiter Collection, Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery Collections, GLAHM.1914.917/2.

Shetland felsite implements, quarried in North Roe, mainland Shetland, are found throughout the Shetland Islands but have a restricted distribution outside of their archipelago location. Felsite as a material was clearly regarded as very special, as almost no felsite objects are found outside of the islands. No felsite knives are found outside of the Shetland Isles and the few axeheads that are claimed (from North-East Scotland, the Central Belt, and the Scottish Borders) have never been securely provenanced (N.B Reibeckite felsite outcrops also exist outside Shetland in Southern Scotland) (Ballin, 2011c, 38-39). Likewise, only a very few ‘exotic’ items appear to have been imported to Shetland. Shetland is the only area of Scotland where Arran pitchstone is completely absent during the Neolithic (Ballin, 2011c, 36-37) and imported axes are very rare compared to the rest of the country (only one Cumbrian axehead and two Irish porcellanite axes have been recorded (Ritchie and Scott 1988, 87; Ballin, 2011a,128-129). From these findings Ballin has suggested that exportation of felsite ‘was regulated, akin to an interdict’ (Ballin, 2013, 88).

Felsite axeheads are larger-often in excess of 140mm (Ritchie 1968)- than their Cumbrian tuff and Irish porcellanite counterparts- and can be extremely well finished. However during the Neolithic the environment of Shetland was largely void of trees (ScARF 2012, Neolithic panel, 76), indicating that axe hafts may have been extremely precious, and at least equal in value to that of the axeheads themselves (Ballin, 2012, 68-69).

Purple-grey reibeckite felsite axehead from Assater, Northmavine, Shetland, S.  The axe is very weathered but phenocrystals are still visible. Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery Collections: GLAHM B.1914.927

Purple-grey reibeckite felsite axehead fragment from Northmavine, Shetland.  The axe is very weathered but phenocrystals are still visible. Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery Collections: GLAHM B.1914.927

Within Shetland manufacture of felsite implements followed rigid axioms. Colour was clearly selected with implement format in mind as homogeneous purple-grey felsite (with small phenocrystal inclusions) were preferred for axe manufacture, while more patterned and colourful material (blue, blue-green, or purple with spherulites) was exploited for knives (Ballin, 2011a, 123); 2013, 85).

riebeckite felsite; blue green, showing excellent spherulites and infilled lithophysae. Beorgs of Uyea, SW of Pettadale Water, North Roe, Shetland Isles, Scotland. Context: outcrop/debris. Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery Collections: GLAHM 148582

Blue-green riebeckite felsite showing spherulites (often used for knife manufacture). From outcrop debris at North Roe, Shetland Isles, Scotland.  Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery Collections: GLAHM 148582


Current debitage evidence suggests that axe production mainly occurred at the Beorgs of Uyea in the north and knife production centred on Midfield hill in the south (Ballin,2012, 64). The importance of Beorgs of Uyea is clearly indicated by the gallery’s monumentalisation, construction of dry stone walling and a lintelled roof enclosing the area (Cooney, 2004, 2004). Quarrying appears to have been kept very separate from domestic activities and no domestic tools have been found at these sites (Ballin, 2013, 88). It is possible that these zones were regarded as dangerous places where ‘disturbing the earth may have been viewed as a very powerful act’ (Cooney, 2004, 200).

North Roe quarry appears to have been exceptional as only at this site do we see the manufacture of axes and knives alongside other tool forms (the latter being comparatively low in number as in general felsite arrowheads and scrapers were only produced from recycled axeheads (Ballin, 2011a, 128-129)). Recycling of axeheads is apparent from Firths Voe assemblage where approximately one-third of the 271 pieces of modified and unmodified felsite have polished surfaces and seem to have been manufactured from damaged axeheads (Ballin 2012; Ballin, 2013, 82). Ironically, the final phase of axe and knife manufacture- polishing- has not been identified within any quarrying complexes or associated workshops and is yet to be identified elsewhere on Shetland (Ballin , 2011a, 126) (although one possible exception is outlined below).

Production of domestic and ‘prestige’ implements occur concurrently. It is likely that domestic implements still had a very intrinsic symbolism but ‘prestige’ items clearly differ in that they were never manufactured for use (larger axeheads tend to fall into this category) and have no recycling phase prior to their final deposition (Ballin, 2013, 81-82). While most felsite axes and implements are stray finds, one axehead (visually identifed as felsite, but not yet thin sectioned (Ballin 2012, 67)), was excavated from the Sumburgh cist burial (Hedges et al,1980, 15-26), while at the Modesty hoard (see above) and at Stourbrough Hill (where nineteen felsite knives were stacked vertically (Fojut, 1980, 27)) caches of felsite implements are evident. In terms of domestic sites/settlement, felsite is only found in very small numbers (fragments of felsite, a few axeheads or knife fragments, or limited tools made from recycled axeheads) (Ballin, 2012, 67).

Large polished stone  axehead from the small island of Trondraoff mainland Shetland. Maximum dimensions 31cm x 6cm. Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery Collections: GLAHM B.1914.971

Large polished stone axehead from the small island of Trondra, off mainland Shetland. Maximum dimensions 31cm x 6cm. Cursiter Collection, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery Collections: GLAHM B.1914.971

While most felsite axeheads are recorded as out of context stray finds, contemporary deposition was very much deliberate, often in a prepared location. This final act was intrinsic to communities’ treatment of axeheads on the Shetland Isles where the death of the axe was as fundamentally important as its life. This was a society where the use of lithic material was not only regulated but intertwined with several narratives including tool form, social conventions and ritual cosmologies. From Ballin’s research (see bibliography, below) it would also seem that not all axeheads in this category are large ceremonial types, as one may have assumed. In fact, two groups exist, firstly those axeheads that are deliberately made for deposition and secondly axeheads made initially for use as a chopping tool (Ballin, 2013, 85). Currently evidence suggests that the former were deposited in the landscape but smaller functional axes were deposited both within the landscape and in or near settlements (Ballin 2013 85). ‘ ‘Waste’ discard of felsite implements does occur but is also regulated and related only to everyday axeheads which have been used, broken, or recycled (Ballin, 2013, 74).

Small polished stone axehead from  Ennisfirth Voe, North Mavine, Shetland. Cursiter Collection, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery Collections: GLAHM B.1914.929/1

Small polished stone axehead from Ennisfirth Voe, Northmavine, Shetland. Cursiter Collection, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery Collections:
GLAHM B.1914.929/1

The role of axe manufacture in Shetland therefore appears to have been highly imbued with ritual. Any notion of western 21st century secular divisions only serve to entrench Neolithic Shetland with our own preconceived ideologies. As in most prehistoric societies the line between the sanctified and the prosaic remains very obscure. The association of axeheads with ritual and arenas of transformation (touched upon in the previous posts- see The Italian Job: Jaded, bladed, and traded) may therefore also be relevant to insular manufacture and use of felsite in Shetland.

Ballin has pointed out that despite the complexities of felsite production and its uses, Neolithic Shetland appears to have been a far more egalitarian society compared to that of Late Neolithic Orkney where complex hierarchical systems were in place (Ballin, 2012, 76). Why then did felsite have such intrinsic value? The insular nature of the material and its use may have denoted tribal identity and recognition (ie. to own a felsite axehead meant to identify with the place from which it was manufactured. A sense of community and place may have been instilled in such ownership, whether individual or communal).

Ethnography studies suggests that rock may be viewed as living and anthropological studies of adze production in Irian Jay have revealed that at least fourteen different names are used to describe lithic material. In addition to stone type names, each adze receives an ancestor name and a place of origin name (Stout, 2002, 704). It may be that similar categorisation on Shetland related to the human actors with whom the felsite implements were associated.

In Irian Jay anthropomorphic attributes of boulders used for implement manufacture extend to beliefs concerning the age of stone. Darker stone is viewed as older and stronger than other ‘younger stone’ types (Petrequin and Petrequin 1993, 226). This may be very relevant to the regulated lithic conventions we see on Neolithic Shetland and the conventions dictating colouring and stone type divisions between axehead and knife manufacture. The Felsite dykes (which run North to South) are conspicuously striking amongst the red granite bedrock that surrounds them in the local landscape (Cooney, Ballin, Warren, 2013, 412). This may be significant, given Darville’s recent paper on the significance of the colour red in Neolithic and Bronze age Atlantic North Western Europe, as contrasting red and dark orthostats in megalithic architecture are thought to symbolise cycles of life and death (Darville, 2013, 239). 

From simple observation of different dykes of stone type (and felsite type) in Shetland it is easily apparent, from various intersections, which rock sources are oldest (‘ From observation of chilling of dike against dike and intersection of dike by dike it has been found that tile basic dikes, spessartine, microdiorite, and porphyrite, are the oldest of the suite, the quartz-felspar-porphyries are older than the felsites, and the blue riebeckite-felsites are younger than white, pink, and dull red felsites which contain neither aegirine nor riebeckite’ (Phemister, 1950, 359). Most recently, the ‘freeze thaw action’ of weathering on dykes and blocks of felsite is thought to have perhaps influenced selection of extraction sites and ‘how stone was utilised in the Neolithic’. However, caution is urged in interpretation as it is somewhat difficult to decipher if extraction sites were simply weathered or if stone sources were effected by climate and subsequently used for extraction (Cooney, Ballin, Warren, 2013, 414). Presumably, those working with and quarrying felsite implements during the Neolithic would have been fully aware of these relationships and as such colour, age, weathering, pattern etc became embodied in final implement form, symbolism and function. The intentions of the North Roe project to compare the use and distribution of felsite with other local lithic resources may provide further insight into this (Cooney, Ballin, Warren, 2013,423).

Felsite axeheads’ association with identity and ancestral connection is indicated from evidence of an axehead recovered from Sumburgh communal burial cist (see above). Ritualisation of the axe is also probable from evidence at Hill of Crooksetter, where two average-sized functional axes were deposited with felsite flakes, cores and scrapers, and a large amount of charred plant remains (including a significant quantity of barley) in association with an area of intense burning (Reay, 2011, 160-170; Ballin, 2013, 85). However this association is further established when considering the construction and layout of Beorgs of Uyea quarrying gallery.

Beorgs of Uyea axe quarry

Beorgs of Uyea axe quarry, Northmavine, Shetland.

The architectural construction and design of the gallery is strikingly similar to Neolithic communal chambered tombs. The quarry is also located in close proximity to Uyea chambered cairn (the sites lie ‘within 150 yards of each other’ Scott and Calder, 1952, 171), which is cruciform in plan and has been likened to the shape of a ‘hafted axe’ (Taylor 1996, 229) Uyea chambered cairn plan. These links were further compounded in 2013 when The North Roe Felsite project survey discovered a small megalithic tomb (situated 300 metres from the discovery of a hoard of three felsite roughouts, two large axes and a Shetland knife) which not only overlooked the Grut Wells felsite dyke but also appears to have been constructed in the sightline of the Beorgs of Uyea quarry to the north (Cooney et al, 2014, 9-10). 

There is a  brief mention of ‘an anvil/or lapstone’ in an early (1952) report of the quarrying gallery at Beorgs of Uyea that was thought to have been used for ‘polishing something hard’ (Scott and Calder, 1952, 175). This is potentially significant, given axe polishing is considered to be unidentified in current research on Shetland. Is it possible that this final act of axe manufacture, from rough to smooth, denotes close affiliation with funerary arenas (in themselves zones of transformation with unique links to ancestry and identity). These suggestions are tentatively proposed (see further suggestions below) but it may be that such connections will be recognised more fully given the aims of the North Roe Felsite Project.

The North Roe felsite project is currently working under the premise that riebeckite felsite in the central Northmavine peninsula was ‘prospected by prehistoric people, but not subjected to organized exploitation’ (Cooney, Ballin,Warren, 2013, 414). To add to our knowledge the research project intends to analyse patterns of felsite implement distribution across the island group. Initial investigations have revealed that there is a spread of activity throughout the archipelago but evidence also centres on specific zones including the western and northern mainland and the smaller island of Whalsay where Neolithic tombs and domestic archaeology are concentrated (Cooney, Ballin, Warren, 2013, 422, 424). Future research offers potentially exciting new results while recent advances and use of non-destructive portable x-ray equipment on Shetland, denoting the specific source of axeheads, will enable the collection of invaluable future data (Markham, 2014, 21).

One other aim of the project is to identify areas where axes and knives were being polished. This brings us back to the possible link between felsite implements and ancestry/death/identity (as discussed above). The project currently maintains there is no evidence of polishing of any magnitude at domestic sites and there is no trace of this activity at quarrying sites (Cooney, Ballin, Warren, 2013, 417). However, I would like to refer back to an earlier Cutting Edge Chronicles post ‘The Italian Job: Jaded, Bladed, and Traded’. Here, the discovery of axe polishing grooves at Cairnholy I chambered tomb, Dumfries and Galloway (and fragment of Altenstadt/Greenlaw jadeite axe excavated from the forecourt) (Piggott and Powell, 1949, 117) were discussed in detail. Could it be that megalithic chambered tombs and other as of yet undiscovered spaces on Shetland were being utilised for polishing felsite implements?

west overton avebury fallen stone with axe polishing grooves

Fallen orthostat at West Overton, Avebury with axe polishing grooves.

Outside of Scotland, Taylor has listed axe polishing activity at several Neolithic monuments (axe polishers being found at Bryn-yr-Hen-Bobl chambered cairn and Gwernvale Cairn, Wales (Britnell and Savoury1984); axe polishing grooves at West Kennet tomb, Wiltshire (Piggot, 1962) and Waylands Smitty barrow, Oxfordshire (Atkinson 1965); an axe polisher within a cremation pit within Henge A Llladegai, Wales (Houlder1968); two uprights at Avebury avenue with evidence of axe polishing and associated with nearby inhumations at the base of other orthostats (Smith 1965); lastly, in plan Newgrange tomb, Boyne Valley is again similar to a hafted axe and axe polishing appears to have occurred on its corbels (O’Kelly 1982; Bradley and Edmonds 1993) (For all references please refer to Taylor, 1996, 229). It may be that such spaces may have been used as arenas where material culture, as well as the archaeological sites such evidence was found in, negotiated various transformations, not least the primary cycle of life and death in contemporary society (Taylor, 1996, 232).

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Torben Bjarke Ballin who kindly provided me with information and articles relating to his phenomenal body of research on the felsite implements of Shetland. Also thanks to Kenny Brophy and Nyree Finlay for discussions and thoughts on various themes covered in this post and to John Telford for reading earlier drafts and offering support and comments. 



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