Stone Age Tools from Around Scalford, Wycombe and Goadby Marwood

By local historian Alan Massey

The small, rather insignificant brook which flows by the Leicestershire villages of Wycombe and Scalford starts its journey from a spring rising several hundred metres to the north at Blesswell Grange, the ruined Cistercian monastic farm estate in the grounds of Goadby Hall. It was probably a somewhat larger stream, or even a river, in the past because books describing place-names state that the word Scalford means “shallow-ford”. The thousands of flint tools retrieved from the surrounding fields over the past twenty years show how important this stretch of water must have been to prehistoric man from the end of the Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago, right up to the Roman period. A small handful of the tools in the collection, one of which was found in the grounds of Goadby Hall Farm, were made by Neanderthals around 200,000 years ago. To find such material in modern plough soil is incredible considering the huge glaciers which covered much of Britain during the Ice Age.

In this area, flint patinates rather slowly (due to the low levels of calcium carbonate in the soil) so that the characteristic blue-ish surface colouration only starts to be noticeable on tools from the early Neolithic era. Worked flints from the Late Upper Palaeolithic, on the other hand, are totally white with a patination layer up to 0.5mm thick. Whilst patination does spoil the beauty of older tools, it does allow us to recognise that some flint tools were re-used several millennia later because the “new” flaking scars starkly reveal the underlying flint colour against the white patina surface. That patinated tools were able to be found for re-use implies the soil was periodically devoid of plant coverage due to farming - just as we need ploughed fields to recover these ancient flint tools.

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Fig. 1: Black dots show scatter of ochre-coloured flints in fields 8,9, and 10; F denotes fire-affected flints. Red dots show scatter of recorticated flints.

However, some of the older flints have a beautiful brown (ochre) colouration caused by prolonged periods of immersion in water. In field 10 (see map Fig.1) several ochreous flints were found lying next to “fresh” Neolithic blades and cores. This suggests the ochre tools had been made and used on a dry land surface which flooded later. After the passage of several millennia the water receded, allowing man access to the land again; the find-spots of these ochreous flints show the water reached up to somewhere between the 110 and 115 metre contours.

On a scraper made from a very large flake, some small impact scars arising from plough damage revealed a brown (ochre?) layer lying under the white surface of the flint. Close examination of other large flakes, and the deliberate breaking of two, showed that the inner brown layer found in the scraper was not unique (Fig.2). Perhaps these artefacts had been underwater, developed an ochreous surface and then after the water dried up, the brown impurity (almost certainly an iron species) diffused away to leave a white surface on the flint. This surface is quite unlike the smooth patination surfaces of other flints - it feels ‘harsh’ to the touch and somewhat dull to the eye.

The intriguing question is: how does the brown colour “diffuse” from the surface? Having been released from the contaminated flood water an ochreous flint will be regularly saturated by clean water in the form of rain and dew, osmosis would cause the brown impurity to move towards the clean water on the surface and so be leached away gradually. Each time the flint had dried after a shower, the next rain or dew water would be sucked into the flint by capillary action and so “push” the impurity further into the body of the flint. Which of these two mechanisms predominates is unclear at the present time; it is possible that this phenomenon only occurs in ironstone areas and so our flints with “harsh and dull” surfaces may be rather unique.

The extent of prehistoric flooding in the Scalford-Wycomb-Goadby area was marked out by the ochreous flints; in a complimentary fashion, the patinated flints show us the land surfaces which were always dry; (see map Fig.1). These white flints with an internal layer of brown material tell us that they probably lay in the shallows near the edge of a water-body (lake?). As the water receded, the shallows would be the first to disappear leaving any flints on dry land; over time, the surface of such flints will change in colour from ochre to white so showing the approximate extremity of the “lake”.

Flint was not the only material used for making tools. The hard sandstone in this area was fashioned by abrasion into pointed implements which appear to have been intended for digging, either hand-held or hafted; almost identical shapes were made from the much more durable, but very hard to fabricate, granite. Unfortunately, professional archaeologists say these items are accidents of nature, not man-made. Nature seldom replicates complex shapes by the dozen in the same district. (Fig.6)

Again, it may be the ready availability of tough sandstone in this area that makes these tools unusual and thus not commonly seen by people in other parts of the country. The material was used to make the adze digging tool shown right.


The adze head (Fig.3) was described by an expert at the British Geological Survey as… “sandstone greenish-grey with some ferruginous staining, medium grained, quartz cemented and extremely hard. Probably a small piece of sarsen sandstone (early Tertiary) imported from southern England”. So hard sandstone was obviously highly prized for making tools.

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Fig. 2: Top left: part of a large scraper deliberately broken to show a brown layer underneath the white surface.
Bottom right: an ochre coloured flint blade.

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Fig.3: Adze head for a digging tool 11.5 cm long

The denial by some archaeologists that these sandstone and granite pieces such as those pictured below (Fig.4) are genuine tools made by man, brings back memories of the 19th century, when many people disputed flint tools. As if to mock the blinkered folk, there are several scatters of their natural, splintered sandstone pieces around - such scatters now mark for us the resting places of those ‘Kings’ who once strode this land.

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Fig. 4: Various sandstone and granite pieces.

Portable Art

These two “faces” below (Figs.5a&b) are the product of man and chance. They are cores from which blades have been carefully struck in such a way that the natural features in the flint are utilised to form “eyes”. A few other examples are in the collection; although very rare (but hugely important) objects, they are not unique, but can be overlooked. The splendid bird’s head below (Fig.6) was found in a child’s grave excavated in Cossington, Leicestershire. The dig report describes the flint simply as a broken knife - it may well have been a broken knife, but surely one highly prized as a bird-toy by the child. It may have had a carved wooden body added to it by a loving father. Children appear to be almost totally absent in the archaeological records, unless they occur as a bundle of bones; we must look for their signs elsewhere as in these toy faces.

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Fig. 5a

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Fig. 5b

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Fig. 6

Are some (all?) of the tiny arrowheads and miniature sandstone tools (Fig. 7 below) the contents of prehistoric children’s learning kits? Can we see badly struck cores that were made by teenagers? We may if we look more closely.

Archaeologists should, perhaps, be frequently reminded of the comments attributed to Sir James Dewar: “Minds are like parachutes: they only function when they are open”.

Rupert Birtwistle (of Past to Present Archaeology), a Stone-Age tool specialist who is making an inventory of the Scalford collection, has found over 300 arrowheads among the 900 items so far studied (December 2018). Together with flints bearing “sickle gloss”, the large number of arrows lost in the area point to a wet hunting ground covered with grasses or reeds at various times in prehistory. Interestingly, the arrowheads were made from a variety of stone types, not just flint.

One flint from Field 1 (Fig.8) is of particular interest because its working edge shows a considerable amount of “sickle gloss” caused by abrasion from phytoliths (minute silica particles in plant stems) when cutting straw, grass or reeds.

Alan Massey 2019

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Fig. 7: Sandstone tools (diggers?) with “toy” copies - all made by nature and not man!?

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Fig 8: Flint showing "sickle gloss".

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Fig. 9: Overview map of area studied. (Red circles show Roman activity, shaded and numbered areas show the fields studied).