(Amendment: Due to copyright issues several images from the original post have been removed as requested by Dr Alison Sheridan, National Museums of Scotland)
Neolithic Jadeite polished stone axes are exquisite objects of tactual and visual beauty. Jadeite is a raw material foreign to Britain, instead being sourced from continental Europe. The great distances these objects travelled, together with the exotic colouring and beauty of the axes themselves, imbued them with preternatural connotations. A sizeable number of jadeite axes from Scotland are in pristine condition and are large, extremely thin triangular forms (Murray, 1994, 97). Clearly these axes were not used for utilitarian purposes.
The five jadeite axe examples held in the Hunterian Museum collections may not fall into the aforementioned category. However, regardless of this, each object evokes a powerful response. The two most visually aesthetic pieces are pictured below and while they may not be as resplendent as the example displayed at The Early People Gallery at the National Museum of Scotland (pictured above) they have their part to play in the narrative of the Scottish polished stone axe story and have a truly evocative presence.
None of the Alpine axes from the Hunterian collections have been provenanced and pictured objects are stray finds with little or no dateable contextual information.
Lack of information on deposition and discovery lends a degree of enigma to these artefacts. Each may just as easily have originated from Neolithic continental European contexts, rather than Neolithic Scotland, having eventually found their way to the Hunterian Museum collections. Vague antiquarian cataloguing is common place in museum archives and in a few isolated cases axes of assumed Neolithic Alpine extraction have been proven to originate from more recent Antipodean shores (For example, New Zealand nephrite blades collected by Victorian missionaries: Sheridan et al, 2011, 422). However, these problems aside, the Hunterian Alpine axes are part of a wider phenomenon covering the European Neolithic where instantly recognisable foreign material, originating from great distances, became intertwined within localised human agency and Neolithic cosmologies.
Jadeite axes were quarried in extremely inaccessible environments where blocks of raw material would have required arduous long distance transportation. Their manufacture was equally laborious as jadeite’s matrix of prismatic crystals lend it enviable properties resilient to breakage. This is clearly demonstrated when considering that on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, where maximum hardness is 10.0 (diamond), jadeite ranges between 6.5-7.0 (harder than a steel knife blade). Given that an authentic highly polished Neolithic jadeite axehead would take as much as one thousand hours to manufacture (Sheridan et al, 2011, 412), the tenacity of ancient grinding and polishing techniques is formidable. Indeed, recent attempts to reproduce Neolithic jadeite axeheads have been reduced to using modern cutting and grinding methods.
Based on very early typological categorisation of British and Irish jadeite axes (Smith, 1963, 133-172) the extreme attenuation of triangular British axes (type I) was considered to contrast markedly with the situation in continental Europe (where ‘plump’ type II axes are common) (Murray, 1994, 99). The rarity of triangular axes on the continent coupled with the extreme thinness of British types (unknown in European parent areas) led to the conclusion that local stylistic preference determined the form found at the distant end of the distribution line (Murray, 1994, 99). Since the advent of Projet JADE in 2006 (an international research project led by Dr Pierre Pétrequin) a pan-European, rather than regional, approach has advanced our understanding of jadeite axehead typologies. The commonest type of jadeite axe in Britain and Ireland still corresponds loosely to Smith’s type I of fine jadeite, however original typologies proved to be simplistic, often overlapping. A far more complex range of axe types has emerged in Britain and Ireland, amongst which the most common are thin flat triangular types (reclassified as ‘Altenstadt’ and related ‘Greenlaw’ axes), followed by a significant proportion of Durrington tear dropped types (Sheridan et al, 2011, 414) (For detailed information on Jadeite axe typologies see Pétrequin et al 2008, 261-279).
Although it has been claimed that Projet JADE examined, ‘All objects of Alpine rock from Britain, Ireland, and the Channel Islands, irrespective of length’ (Sheridan et al, 2011, 412), it seems the Hunterian axes may have slipped through the net. Dr Sally-Anne Couper, the Hunterian Museum Curator of Archaeology , Ethnography and Historical Collections, informed me that no record exists of the museum being approached as part of this project. While it is unfortunate that the axes have not been authenticated this blog post, in part, seeks to highlight this oversight and raise awareness of the Hunterian’s collection. (Amendment: Since publication of this post I have been kindly informed (by Dr Alison Sheridan, National Museums of Scotland) that the Hunterian axes were included in Projet Jade but were not considered to have been British Alpine axeheads. Unfortunately the Hunterian Museum kept no record of this. I have therefore sent all relevant information on to the Hunterian Collections staff, so insuring future researchers will be more accurately informed)
The accumulated knowledge of European jadeite axes was reinforced by the discovery of quarries at the South East foot of Mont Viso and Mont Beigua in the Italian Alps (1,800-2,400 metres above sea level), in mountainous areas possibly belonging to ‘ the realm of the supernatural and divine’ (Sheridan et al 2011, 412). One spectroradiometric analysed axe from Dunfermline, Fife has even been traced back to the same free standing block of jadeite on Mont Viso that three other axes from Northern Germany have also been sourced from (Sheridan et al, 2011, 414).
The exploitation of incidental raw material debris probably continued alongside the extraction of finer quality material at quarrying sites throughout the 5th millennium BC, but the use of official quarrying sites appears to have been well regulated, as each site was operated exclusively. The two strands of axe production overlap chronologically and were maintained by divorced Neolithic communities, southern-type axeheads being distributed southwards to Italy and the south of France; while northern-type axeheads travelled toward the French side of the Alps (Pétrequin et al, 2008, 270). Earliest exploitation and localised distribution of dark green Mont Viso eclogites at the end of the 6th millennium gave way to long distance export patterns by the beginning of the 5th millennium BC. By the mid 5th millennium pale green jadeites from Mont Viso and Mont Beigua were circulating as far away as Brittany where they were reworked, thinned, and re-polished, in order to negotiate unique localised forms of expression (Pétrequin et al, 2008, 263). Raw materials were therefore not only selected for their aesthetic appeal but for their fine grained tensile quality, and circulated over a network that extended over 3500 kilometres (Pétrequin et al, 2009, 22). These advances to our understanding of jadeite axe production and distribution allow us to revisit and evaluate the role of these objects within the narrative of Neolithic Scotland.
At present the only absolute dates for jadeite axes in Britain are from the Sweet Track in Somerset. Here, a jadeite axe, found close to a flint axe and carinated bowl pottery, are associated with construction and use of the Early Neolithic trackway (dated by dendrochronology to 3807/3806 BC-3791 BC (Coles et al, 1974, 216-220.; Coles and Coles, 1996, 28)). However, it is extremely hard to establish an exact chronology of axes (the majority of which are stray finds) as even when they are found in secure archaeological contexts these contexts relate to their deposition rather than their currency or to the date they crossed the channel. Despite this, the Sweet Track axe, and a jadeite axe fragment found at the Cairnholy I Clyde cairn, Dumfries and Galloway (Piggot and Powell, 1949, 103-161), have led to arguments that the appearance of jadeite axes corresponds chronologically to the rapid appearance of the Neolithic in Britain in the early fourth millennium BC. In this model, the source of farming in Britain is thought to have derived from immigrant farming groups. The Carinated Bowl Neolithic (a strand of immigration originating from Normandy, most likely from Pas-de-Calais) is believed to have involved the settling in large areas of Britain and Ireland 4100-c.3800 BC, while the Somerset Sweet Track axe may have arrived as part of the Trans Manche Ouest strand from North West France to Southern and South West England at around the same time (For the purpose of this blog we will concentrate on the former model: Sheridan, 2007, 441-492.; Pétrequin et al, 2008, 276; Sheridan 2010, 89-106; Sheridan et al 2011, 415/ScARF 2012, Neolithic Panel Report, 89-106).
Alpine axes circulated in the coastal zone between Normandy and Pas-de-Calais from the mid 5th millennium BC, their currency intensifying by 4300-4200 BC. However, by the 4th millennium cal BC, the ambit of Alpine axes in France and Belgium had ended, but axes were circulating elsewhere in northern Europe (Pétrequin et al, 2008, 276). The presence of three of the oldest type of jadeite axehead types in England (Southern Bernon or possible earlier reshaped Bégude types from Breamore, Hampshire and Coddington, Nottinghamshire, and a ‘Carnacéen’ Tumiac axe from Sidmouth, Devon), which would not have been out of place in mid-fifth millennium BC Morbihan tombs, complicates matters somewhat (Pétrequin et al, 2008, 270). Could isolated finds of these very early axe types indicate contact between the British Isles and the continent prior to the introduction of farming?
The isolated nature of these finds and lack of any other associated Villeneuve-Saint-Germain material culture has led Pétrequin et al to suggest that, in regard to jadeite axe exchange routes, contact between the continent and British Isles could not have been established earlier than 4300-4200 BC (2008, 270). However, it is perhaps worth noting that Thomas (2004, 114) suggests that there is no reason why interaction did not occur between Britain, Ireland and Brittany prior to the introduction of farming and has pointed out that absence of material culture is not necessarily an index of lack of social interaction between communities (2007, 429). Indeed, seemingly long range movements of people in the late 5th millennium cal BC (as possibly indicated by the presence of cattle bone at Ferriter’s Cove Ireland), although somewhat contentious, may not have been an isolated event (Whittle, 2007, 329). Perversely, the same protagonists who maintain that absolutely no pre-farming contact took place between Britain, Ireland, and the continent do not seem concerned that we find little evidence of ‘wholesale transference of continental cultural practices’ from Pas-de-Calais to Britain at the start of the earliest Neolithic (Whittle et al, 2011, 859). Likewise, similar problems of evidential archaeological material is conspicuous when considering Sheridan’s earlier Breton Atlantic strand of immigration (involving the immigration of small Morbihannais farming groups to Atlantic Britain (including western Scotland) and Ireland 4300-4000/3900 BC (Sheridan, 2007, 441-492). The absence of associated early immigrant settlements with Achnacreebeag style tombs and pottery (interpreted as Breton in origin) in western Scotland and the fact that jadeite axe find spots are not closely related to these funerary sites is rather problematic (Pétrequin et al, 2008, 275).
While it is not the purpose of this blog to regress to debates regarding the transition to farming in Britain and Ireland it is clear that the human agency by which jadeite axes reached British and Irish shores remains ambiguous and contentious. However, regardless of whether these artefacts arrived via immigrant farming groups or selective indigenous acculturation, specific patterns in the distribution of jadeite axes requires further mention. On the basis of present available evidence, it seems that jadeite axes are largely absent from western and northern Scotland north of the Great Glen. Distribution throughout the rest of Scotland is fairly even but it is interesting that a distinctive cluster occurs around Aberdeenshire. Timber halls of Eastern Scotland (Balbridie, Claish Farm, and Warren Field) and the South West (Lockerbie) have been regarded as the product of immigrant farming groups who lived communally for a few generations before ‘budding off’ into family units (ScARF 2012, Neolithic Panel Report, 23). As such these groups are considered to have been part of the Carinated Bowl Neolithic , where presumably at least some of these axeheads would have been brought from the continent as part of the process of Neolithisation (Sheridan et al, 2011, 414-415).
However, Bayesian modelling indicates that such structures may not belong to earliest pioneering farming groups but rather to a restricted period a few generations later (3800-3705 cal BC and 3705-3630 cal BC (at 95% probability), while Clyde cairns such as Cairnholy I are estimated to have been constructed by the first half of the 37th century cal BC (Bayliss et al, 2011, 832-833; Whittle et al, 2011, 863).
Recent work at Projet JADE has suggested that Alpine axes and axe fragments may have been several hundred years old before reaching the British Isles and Ireland (Pétrequin et al, 2002, 67-68), and as such were treated as ancestral relics. It may well be that immigrant groups used these relics to establish and maintain contacts amongst themselves as jadeite axes provided forums that evoked ‘supernatural protection of colonists’ new land’ (Sheridan, 2007, 467). Within this model regional archaeological idiosyncrasies within Britain are viewed as the varying responses of continental colonists to their new found environments (Sheridan, 2007, 462), multiple strands of immigration occurring at different time scales over several centuries (Sheridan, 2010, 89). However, differential Neolithics occur within Scotland even at micro-localities. Local histories and indigenous populations may just as easily have played a major role in the story of the jadeite axes in Scotland and indeed the way in which Neolithic identities were expressed through material culture.
Interestingly, several deliberate copies of tear-drop shaped Durrington type Alpine axes have recently been identified from the Marischal Museum collections, Aberdeen. While their exact provenance is presently unknown, their non-Alpine origin suggest they were manufactured in localised British contexts, the most likely area being North East Scotland (Sheridan et al, 2011, 420). It is therefore not unthinkable that indigenous Mesolithic communities in this area interacted with settling immigrant farmers, selectively adopting exotic new items within their own chosen repertoire of localised lithic materials. A more gradual series of transformations may have taken place at least in some areas of Scotland ‘rather than a brief horizon of change’ (Whittle, 2007, 389). Processes of chain migration and indigenous acculturation (Whittle et al, 2011, 861), presumably aided by existing Mesolithic social and exchange networks, are therefore relevant to the life cycle and journey of Alpine axes in Scotland.
Fluidity may have happened at many levels in early prehistoric society (between and within hunter gatherer and farming groups, or vice versa): individuals, family, multi-family groups, or movement of entire self-sufficient societies (Robb and Miracle, 2007, 99-117). As Robb and Miracle have pointed out, uni-causal models where Neolithic ‘things’ only move via the migration of an entire social group or local acculturation are generally unhelpful (2007, 104). With this in mind, movement on several scales between Britain/Ireland and the continent (and therefore the itinerant jadeite axes’ currency in Britain) may have occurred prior to the Neolithic. However, on current archaeological contextual evidence this, or indeed the assumed date Neolithic of axes, cannot be proven unequivocally.
Clearly, communities in Early Neolithic Scotland should be regarded as ‘active participants in wider networks of movement and exchange, not the last passive recipients of Neolithic culture in Europe’ (Brophy, 2006, 39). While immigrant farmers may have been part of the jade axe story, this does not explain entirely why axes where deposited in specific contexts and what these items may have meant to the individuals or groups who claimed their ownership. While, as Sheridan suggests, such axes may evoke supernatural protection of colonists’ new land (2007, 467), their ownership and human agency may extend beyond this. Examples of pristine jadeite axes, or indeed those that appear to have been deliberately fractured, are not deposited as the result of accidental loss. Instead these objects (exotic in nature) may have been linked to local cosmologies. Clarke et al regard their ownership as being restricted to a small number of individuals but do not consider them to have been private possessions. Instead, control over their ‘hidden-ness’ by either destroying them or rendering them totally inaccessible would require spectatorship of an entire community, bearing witness to a spectacular act of conspicuous consumption (Clarke et al, 1985).
Alpine axes are rarely found on settlement sites (exceptions being those dated to ‘initial and final stages of the phenomenon of diffusion’ and broken roughouts within the Italian zone of production), and deposition in funerary context throughout continental Europe is also extremely rare (Pétrequin et al, 2008, 262). Therefore the deposition of sometimes broken jadeite axes in Morbihan tumuli is notable. Pétrequin et al believe that during the 5th millennium BC these symbolic items (deliberately reworked and re-shaped) were ‘destroyed by being buried in the tombs of men whose status must have been associated with the possession of supernatural powers’ (2008, 263).
This engendered view of exclusive male axe ownership is , however, completely unwarranted and perhaps we should recall that the men in question were not actively selecting their own grave goods, these depositional acts occurred posthumously. Traditionally workaday (and by association non-utilitarian) axes are viewed within the assumed male preserves of hunting and clearance. However, evidence suggests that hunting is not mutually exclusive to men and that women participate with men or even alone (Nelson, 1997, 98). In addition, the axe can be used for a multitude of tasks including gathering, firewood collection, butchery, cooking, and crafting. As such the axe may have been a potent ‘female symbol’ (Taylor, 1996, 231) (This is a theme I will return to in a future post).
The fragment of Altenstadt/Greenlaw jadeite axe head from Cairnholy I chambered tomb, Dumfries and Galloway (Piggott and Powell, 1949, 117) is the only jadeite axe excavated from a British chambered tomb. The close proximity of two jadeite axes (found at Glenjorrie) to Mid- Gleniron chambered tombs I and II, Dumfries and Galloway have also been noted by Murray in her 1994 study of Alpine axes in Scotland (Murray, 1994, 101). Clyde tombs were often positioned near to or on significant points in landscape tied into local cosmologies and, as such, construction in these places referenced places in the landscape that were already important in the preceding Mesolithic (Cummings, 2003, 29). Interestingly, axe polishing grooves are also located at Cairnholy I and while this may not be directly associated with the Alpine axe fragment in question it is clear that this space was utilised as an arena where various transformations occurred (Taylor, 1996, 232).
Further jadeite axe associations with funerary contexts remain tenuous but examples of antiquarian collectors’ records hint at a shared past. Examples from Perthshire include, an axe from Lochearnhead which was catalogued as being found in a ‘cist’ (NMS AF290) and a jade axe from Mozievaird recorded as being discovered in a long cairn. In addition, the distribution of jadeite axes in Perthshire Glen do seem to coincide with set of long chambered cairns. However, while the distribution of jadeite axes has been claimed to coincide with that of Neolithic funerary monuments, the absence of jadeite axes from the core Clyde cairn areas of Arran, Bute, Kintyre, and South Argyll negates direct correlations (Murray, 1994, 101).
The Cairnholy I axe fragment was well cycled and theoretically could have been deposited at any time during the Neolithic. Evidence of deliberate breakage and burning of the axe fragment rendered this object unusable and signified in no uncertain terms the end of the artefact’s life cycle. These calculated, somewhat violent acts have connotations affiliated with contemporary funerary rites (such as the burning and breaking up of the body for collective inhumation) but axe rituals are not confined to the chambered tomb. Broken and burnt Alpine axes have also been found in watery contexts (long and fine specimens are notably more common in wetland and riverine locations (Thomas 1991, 74) and areas of topographical significance (Sheridan, 2011, 414).
Axe deposits are associated with a number of natural rock formations in Nithsdale, Dumfries and Galloway. Conspicuous examples have been recorded at Maidenbower Crags, near Dumfries (Dumfries museum D 1934-110), and at a boulder known as the Stiller Stane located by a spring above the River Nith on the east side of Keir hills (New statistical account 4, 1845, 467; Murray 1994 101). A direct correlation between the beginning and end of an the axe’s lifecycle becomes apparent when analysing the circumstances of the birth and death of an axe. Just as axe roughouts were quarried from highly visible but very inaccessible liminal zones, the axe ends its life cycle in a very public arena where its destruction and/or burial marks its permanent ‘hidden-ness’ and irretrievable end. Similarly, axes were born (or quarried and subsequently shaped) using fire to extract raw material and water to grind and polish roughouts while their ultimate demise eventuates from the same elements that formed them (breakage, burning and watery contexts signifying their death).
From the study of wet place axe deposits in Southern Scandinavia it has been postulated that a fertility or regeneration cult is tied into general trends of ancestral veneration (Whittle, 1996, 281). Taking this northern European example as an analogy, it may be that this act of transformation, the axe’s death, referenced life for the living, sometimes within a mortuary related domain and certainly by affiliated funerary rites. The use of white quartz in the manufacture of jadeite axes in the Italian Alps (Pétrequin et al, 2009, 6) and white quartz rubbers associated with axe polishing in general may also be relevant (Taylor, 1996, 229). White quartz is commonly found at Neolithic monuments and in particular chambered tombs and may symbolize the ‘presence or soul of a person’ (Darville, 2002, 85). So within these contexts the axe can be brought to the end of its life cycle or alternatively brought back to life by reshaping and re-polishing, both processes being inextricably linked to the human experience of life and arenas of death.
The high regard that these objects continue to be held in the general public’s psyche remains to this day. The publicity surrounding the 2007 culture minister’s export ban on a privately owned jadeite axehead, originally found near Bournemouth in the 19th century and once owned by the famous archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, clearly illustrates this (British Archaeology, May/June 2007). In the more recent past the very fact that most jadeite axes were recovered as stray finds often led to their relegation ‘to cabinets of curiosities, to private collections, and to museum stores’ (Pétrequin et al, 2008, 262). Mineralogists rather than antiquarian collectors brought them to prominence in their research to prove that European jadeite had been used in prehistory (Pétrequin et al, 2008, 262). This appears to have been a driving factor behind the collection of the Hunterian jadeite axes by geological scholars associated with the University of Glasgow.
The pictured axehead is described as being catalogued in ‘John Young style handwriting’. Hunterian collection archives also state that the jadeite ‘dull-green stone axe celt’ is of ‘non-local origin’ and ‘very nice!’. The perplexity of this particular axehead emphasises the enduring cryptic legacy surrounding Alpine axeheads in general.
Just as the axehead itself has no clear provenancing so too its original cataloguing cannot be clearly provenanced: confusingly two employees named John Young worked together and concurrently at the the Hunterian Museum: John Young LL.D, F.G.S and his colleague Professor John Young (Obituary, John Young LL.D, F.G.S, 1900; University of Glasgow Story archive).
It is perhaps ironic then, that while the ancestry of the Hunterian axes remain ambiguous, a spectacular jadeite axe was discovered near to the Hunterian itself. The St Enoch’s jadeite axehead (belonging to Glasgow Museums and housed at St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art GAGM A 8931) is said to have come from below a layer of laminated clay discovered by workmen digging the foundations for St. Enoch’s church, around 1780 ( Smith,1963, 167).
The axehead was described as being found within a log canoe (several of which were found beside the Clyde at the time of Glasgow’s expansion) also containing ‘six stone celts’ an ‘oaken war club and a considerable piece of deer’s horn’ (Buchanan, 1870, 77). Projet JADE has sourced this eclogite Durrington type axehead to Bulé Valley, Mont Viso (Sheridan et al, 2011, 418). The axe’s high glossy polish (uniquely administered while the axe was hafted) may have been applied in the Morbihan before it’s arrival in Scotland (Sheridan et al, 2011, 419).
Glasgow, and indeed Scotland’s place within the Neolithic Alpine axehead trajectory is therefore of considerable significance. Continental axes circulated for several hundred years through various geographies and Neolithics. In Britain’s case there are intriguing possibilities that the quintessentially Neolithic Jadeite axe may have been in circulated prior to c.4000 cal BC and the introduction of farming. Currently sparse and restricted dating evidence cannot prove (or disprove) their earlier than envisioned currency in Britain (from at least the mid-5th millennium BC). Human agency and the cosmologies that jadeite axes evoked continue to this day as they inveigle a host of characters ancient and modern in their narrative. Numerous ‘new age’ books promote the healing and magical properties of jadeite, while the breakage of a jadeite crystal is thought to protect the life and health of its owner, particularly after exposure to grave danger. This retrospective reverence for jadeite is widespread in many current world cultures and its universal association with ancestry and protection of the dead is as relevant today as it was when jadeite axes journeyed to Scotland thousands of years ago.
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