7th Experimental Archaeology Conference Abstract – Bernard Gilhooly

Neither Rough nor Tuff; an Experimental Approach to Understanding the Durability of Prehistoric Irish Shale Axes

Bernard Gilhooly

University College Dublin, School of Archaeology

Shale was the second most popular lithology used in Irish prehistory for the production of axeheads (Cooney & Mandal, forthcoming). Yet, as a fine-grained sedimentary stone, there have been questions about its robustness (see Kooyman, 2000, 35). As the testing of archaeological examples could not be undertaken, a two stage assessment was devised. Here, replica axeheads were constructed and used to work wood species which were native to Ireland in prehistory; ash and pine. Shale was sourced from two distinct locations within Ireland; Fisherstreet Co. Clare and Bray Co. Wicklow, to determine if the resilience of this lithology differed between source locations. With the durability of these experimental examples tested, a comparative analysis was then undertaken with archaeological specimens from the National Museum of Ireland (NMI). From this, an interpretation of the durability of prehistoric shale axes, with regard to working wood, was possible. The results of which are presented here.

From observations made during both the experimental phase, and the comparative analysis, new areas of research were identified. These future experiments will include a widening of the range of uses shale axes are put to, and a quantitative comparison with the most popular lithology for stone axeheads in Irish prehistory; porcellanite. This research will, in part, run in unison with work planned for the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Ancient Technology, which,  following a number of very successful experiments, will look to construct a Mesolithic ‘house’ based on the remains discovered at Mount Sandel.

One Response to “7th Experimental Archaeology Conference Abstract – Bernard Gilhooly”
  1. Dr Christine Arkwright says:

    Speaking as a geologist, also interested in archaeology, shale is a FISSILE (and thus weak) fine-grained sedimentary rock formed by the compaction of clay or silt and would crumble if used as a tool. The tools described as “shale” by archaeologists are more likely to be made of mudstone or siltstone which is more robust. Thus the widely-used term of “shale” as a material for tools is incorrect – but I suppose has been used wrongly for so long in archaeological circles that it would be difficult to correct the terminology now.

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