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.

News and Notebooks

New A6 notebooks now for sale in the Prehistories etsy shop. They are inspired by Ancient Egyptian wall paintings and Neolithic art (the Folkton Drums).

Photo 04-11-2015, 14 09 02


I’m also very pleased to say that two of my comics are now on sale in the Small Press section of Gosh! comics shop in London.

Cover with signature

Rock Face

Dr H



Ask an Archaeologist: Aaron Watson

In another Ask an Archaeologist meets Ask an Artist, Prehistories questioned Dr Aaron Watson about his engagement with archaeology, art and landscape.

Ask an Archaeologist
Aaron Watson

What is your specialism?

I explore archaeological ideas and experiences through painting, photography, film, animation and collage. My background is in archaeology, and sometimes I work with established conventions for visual representation – maps, plans and excavation photos etc. But what interests me most is the potential for experimentation. When I encounter artefacts, sites and landscapes they often possess qualities that I am unable to capture in words and pictures alone, and which cannot even be recorded by sophisticated technologies like laser scanning. I’m talking about rather subjective characteristics such as temperature, sound, movement or the way light reflects from surfaces. Then there is the time of day and the weather, all of which transform experience. I’ve found that creative approaches to recording and representation can make space for unexpected visions of the past in the present. Sometimes I go with my imagination, and sometimes I am commissioned to communicate in a specific way; the outputs include installation, exhibition, publication and visualisation.


Why did you become an archaeologist?

I grew up in the Derbyshire Dales, a land of wild moors and extraordinary rock formations. Some of my earliest memories are of visits to stone circles and barrows amidst this landscape; places like Arbor Low. I think I must have responded very instinctively to their special atmosphere and aesthetic – an emotional response that existed without any knowledge of archaeology. Then the world moved on, and I was presented with a choice between archaeology at university or going to art college. Looking back, I can’t answer why I made the choice I did. But I do know that academic training has been essential to what I do. Not in the sense that it brings me any closer to the past – archaeological ideas inevitably seem to reflect the present. But the evidence methodological and theoretical research can yield is often suggestive of a past that is stranger and more inspiring than I could ever have envisaged during my childhood walks across the moors.
Which archaeologist (past or present) would you invite onto an excavation?

I think it would have to be one of the early antiquarians – John Aubrey perhaps. I haven’t done a lot of reading about it, but I have a notion that the 17th and 18th century landscape was being reconfigured by Enlightenment thinking; a crucible within which archaeology as we know it was forged. The early antiquarians seem to have been learning to disentangle what we now describe as archaeological ‘sites’ from the background of the natural landscape. We take this for granted now, but the distinction between things made by people and things made by geological processes was not always defined. I’ve also read anthropological accounts that describe how people around the world understand their surroundings in diverse ways that can be difficult to decipher. Prior to the natural sciences, understandings of rocks, animals or weather must also have been very different. Antiquarians brought the modern discipline of archaeology into being and it would be fascinating to speak with of someone working on that quarry face.

Choose one of the following: trowel; museum; archive; library; landscape; laptop.

While I’m using a laptop right now, I would have to say landscape. I find it a difficult word to define yet it provides the context within which all my actions take place, from inner city to mountain summit. Whenever museums, archives, libraries (or even trowels and laptops) fail to deliver; inspiration can be found out there in the wider world.


What is your dream find?

I’ve been fortunate to stumble across wonderful things. An unrecorded passage grave was a highlight while fieldwalking near Inverness. Trowelling down onto unknown cup and ring carvings during excavations near Kilmartin and on Ben Lawers was also evocative. What I find most compelling are less tangible experiences. For example, many years ago I unexpectedly heard subtle echoes reflecting from a stone circle, and this ultimately led to an ongoing research project that changed my understanding of the role of sound and acoustics in prehistory. But in terms of artefacts, a carved stone ball or ground stone axe would be rather fun.

Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)

Time travel might seem to be the greatest opportunity (or challenge) to someone who creates visual reconstructions of the past. If I could go back there and take photos would visualisation be necessary at all? Setting aside the hazards of time travel that I’ve been reliably informed about through science fiction (temporal paradoxes etc), would a fieldtrip through time change my interpretation? On one level it certainly would, as the archaeological record can only represent a tiny fraction of what people did in the past. But on another level I would still only be a modern tourist with particular ways of seeing. I have to acknowledge that the visualisations I create are informed by archaeology, but are ultimately reflections of the society in which I live. The real challenge is to confront my own preconceptions and expectations. The past, and therefore the present, might turn out to be even less familiar than we could possibly imagine.


If you had to relocate to the past, which era would you move to?

Well, sweeping aside the previous answer, curiosity would inevitably lead me to the Neolithic. Everything there would be fascinating, but I hope the itinerary might include a chance to witness a vast construction project such as Silbury Hill or Maeshowe. But I’d also like to see smaller acts; the creation of cup and ring marks, or activities within Skara Brae or Barnhouse. Simply meeting the people would be extraordinary; not only how they dress and speak, but subtleties such as posture and movement.

Is there a work of art (e.g. novel, painting, music, film, etc) that has influenced you as an archaeologist?

There have been many, and for various reasons. In no particular order they include Kurt Schwitters for collage, and the Merz Barn in the Lake District. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso for finding radical ways to represent time and space through Cubism, and David Hockney for translating these ideas into photography and other mediums. I’ve always been intrigued by Boyle Family’s intricate mixed media studies, which seem fundamentally archaeological. Finally, I’m always drawn back to Richard Long’s evocative landscape works.


What are you working on at the moment?

A variety of photography, film, and illustration commissions – and some collaborative projects in between. Over the past year or so I’ve been involved with experimental fieldwork at Skara Brae and Links of Noltland in Orkney, as well as capturing sensory experiences of Palaeolithic art in the caves of northern Spain. I’ve also embarked upon a community arts and archaeology project hosted by Kilmartin Museum in Argyll. This is a collaboration with composer John Was to explore cup and ring markings through sculpture, music and multimedia. Once I get around to updating it, there’ll be further info on my website:


This text was intermittently compiled during train journeys to Durham, London and Edinburgh, and completed atop an outcrop overlooking Great Langdale.


Thank you, Aaron for answering our questions. 

Do head over to Aaron’s Monumental site and check out more of his artwork.

Read more Ask an Archaeologist features here: