Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsWhen we were excavating inside the inner henge at Marden Henge, Vale of Pewsey, when one of my fellow excavators came across a several centimetre long rod-like piece of flint. And upon rubbing off the dirt from the surface, we realised that this showed signs of human modification, of quite fine working along its length. Initially, it was just a couple of us went over to see what it was and realised what had been found. And as soon as people started to see it, people clustering around looking a bit excited, then after that several people came over and there started to be somewhat of a commotion, and people started saying, oh--we have to tell Jim about this.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 secondsSo we had excavated at Marden Henge back in 2010. During those excavations we uncovered two absolutely exquisite arrowheads. Now quite clearly they had a slightly elongated tail, which had snapped off and we could see that that had snapped off. Roll on five years and we were excavating again in 2015, and we uncovered a thin sliver of flint. Now this looks for all the world, like it should be the tail of one of these arrowhead. And hoping, daring to hope, that it might re-fit, we drove it to the museum. And we tried the tail on one and it didn't fit, and we tried it on the other one and it fitted perfectly. Oh, that's it. Yes. No way. It is.

Skip to 1 minute and 53 secondsYeah, it is. It fits. Fabulous. Oh my god. Is that 5,500 years later and then five years between excavating the two. And we've finally got the rest of the arrowhead. Isn't that amazing? It's just astounding. It's so, so beautifully made. However, they could never have been fired, not usefully at least. The majority of these rough form of arrowhead have that isosceles triangle shape with a little tail on the end, and that little tail was used to haft them into the shaft of the arrow. But this tail is something like three or four centimetres long and hardly more than a millimetre thick. It's been flaked absolutely along its length.

Skip to 2 minutes and 40 secondsSo it's just inconceivable that you could have hafted that without it breaking. So it seems unlikely that it would have been used for a functional purpose. They're not practical in any sense. These are quite literally items for display. They are show-off items.

The arrowhead

As we discussed in Step 1.5 the majority of work for any archaeological site takes place after the digging has finished; during the post-excavation stage of the project.

This is where most time, effort and money goes – if you imagine the project as an iceberg, excavation is the small part above the water and post-excavation is the majority below it. Post-excavation is rarely championed by television programmes and newspaper reports and is therefore often an unseen aspect of archaeology. But, as we discussed before, there is very little point in excavating in the first place if we do not look in detail at everything we have excavated.

The arrowheads were wonderful discoveries on site, but it is only through careful analysis by an expert in the lab that their real meaning begins to come out – a process we have only just begun. Close examination of the arrowheads has shown that they almost certainly represented prestigious objects. Not only is the quality of their manufacture exceptional, they are so finely made that they would have been virtually guaranteed to break if used. Indeed, merely making and trying to haft them would have been precarious.

Both arrowheads are missing their tips and, although they are still in a very sharp condition, it is certainly possible that they had been fired. We may never know this for sure, but by analysing the arrowheads under a high-powered microscope it may be possible to discern characteristic patterns of wear or damage that will tell us whether they were fired or not. This is a type of analysis known as ‘use-wear’ or ‘microwear’. Occasionally it is possible to use this technique to identify residues still stuck to the stone tools, which can provide valuable information on how they were hafted or used.

The care and skill witnessed in the manufacture of the arrowheads clearly indicates that they were important display items. They would have showcased the skills of their manufacturers and, if not actually used by their makers, could confer prestige on their owners by demonstrating their ability to secure possession. In this sense, they may have contributed to signalling identity, be it that of an exceptionally specialized flint worker or of somebody who had sufficient authority to obtain and use such rare and spectacular items. Equally important may have been the circumstances surrounding their use, even though this would lead to their destruction, and it is quite possible that they were used in ceremonial or ritualised practices, including those involving ‘conspicuous display’.

What do you think the arrowheads were used for? How could experimental work on the arrowheads help us better understand their manufacture and use? Share your thoughts in the discussion area below.

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This video is from the free online course:

Archaeology: from Dig to Lab and Beyond

University of Reading