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Connecting Spirals

06 g macehead

The Garboldisham macehead is a remarkable Neolithic artefact fashioned from red deer antler and carved with three spiral motifs. The macehead was discovered in the mid 1960s in a tributary of the river Little Ouse, Norfolk and is one of a number of iconic decorated artefacts from Neolithic Britain. Dr. Marta Díaz-Guardamino and I have been studying it as part of the ongoing ‘Making a Mark’ project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Marta  recorded the carving on the macehead using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) and it revealed some interesting features. It is clear that at least one of the spirals was carved over two phases, as the carving overlays at least two phases of polishing striations on the artefact’s surface. Detailed recording of the carved spirals using low powered digital microscopy also indicated that the carving of the spirals themselves were repeated more than once; possibly we might be looking at two craftspeople working on the same artefact.

 
Garboldisham 1

The date of this iconic artefact has been a mystery until now. A recently published project looking at these maceheads made from red deer antler decisively indicated that these artefacts date from the Middle Neolithic. We suspected this might be the case for Garboldisham too, but were delighted to be given permission to date the object. Following dating by the Oxford Radiocarbon lab, we can now report that the Garboldisham macehead dates from 3483 – 3104 BC (95% probability), placing it firmly in the same date range as the other antler maceheads. This is exciting as spirals occur in a diversity of locations, including Irish passage tombs, such as Newgrange, rock art in the Kilmartin region of Scotland and on Grooved Ware pottery from Skara Brae, Orkney. The early date for the Garboldisham macehead indicates that it dates from the same period as the primary use of Irish passage tombs. Indeed, the Knowth flint macehead is also carved with spiral decoration. The comparability of dates for the Garboldhisham macehead and Irish passage tombs suggests there were networks of interaction between eastern Ireland and East Anglia during the Middle Neolithic.

08 G macehead

We are currently writing up the results of this aspect of the ‘Making a Mark’ project, along with Alex Gibson (who was one of the authors of the antler macehead dating project) and Sylvia Cox (former curator at Moyse’s Hall/West Stow).

The Garboldisham macehead currently resides at West Stow Anglo Saxon village in Suffolk. We are very excited that as the result of these new analyses the Garboldisham macehead has been re-displayed. If you happen to be in Suffolk, and near West Stow, do drop in to see this intriguing artefact.

Dr. A.

About Hannah

@hannahksackett prehistories.wordpress.com

3 responses to “Connecting Spirals

  1. Andy

    If only we knew what the spirals signified. Likewise with the zigzag type pattern I’ve seen on other things.

    • Dr H

      Hi Andy. Lots of people have put forward suggestions for what the spirals mean, but Dr A’s work is more focused on looking at how art was made and how it created connections between different sites and locations in the Neolithic. Dr A will be writing more about the project soon!

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