Stone Age Britons may have struck flakes from rock crystals in burial-site rituals that created shared memories of the dead through rainbow colours and bursts of light.
Archaeologists have revealed details of a group of 337 pieces of worked rock crystal discovered at an impressive Early Neolithic site in Herefordshire. It is the largest known group of worked rock crystal pieces in Britain and Ireland, although single pieces and small groups are found at other sites, suggesting that the water-clear quartz crystals were prized more widely.
As detailed in the study in The Cambridge Archaeological Journal analysing and interpreting the finds, the rock crystal was found at a monumental complex uncovered between 2011 and 2019 at Dorstone Hill, east of Hay-on-Wye.
The complex was in use around 3900BC-3600BC. It includes three timber halls that were used for a time, then burnt and buried in three mounds, the largest of which was about 25 metres long. Immediately to the south was a causewayed enclosure — a circular area of 150 metres across, bounded by human-made ditches and accessible by a series of causeways.
Dr Nick Overton, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester and the study’s lead author, said there was evidence that cremated human remains were regularly buried at the site, including in the mounds and nearby pits. Most of the rock crystal pieces were clearly linked to treatment of the dead. In all, 95 per cent were deposited in association with cremated bone, in comparison to 35 per cent of flint flakes and 39 per cent of formal stone tools found at the site.
In the paper, the archaeologists write: “This clearly demonstrates that rock crystal, over other materials, was being intentionally selected and deposited with cremated bone deposits, citing a specific link between this material, the transformative moments of working it, and the cremated remains of the dead.”
The rock crystal was knapped but, unlike flint found at the site, there was no evidence that it was ever worked into utilitarian tools such as knives or scrapers. The technique, which remained the same over the centuries, shows knowledge of rock crystal’s distinctive diagonal lines of fracture.
The team found flakes of rock crystal, the bases of the original hexagonal crystals from which flakes were struck, and tiny fragments that break off when stone is worked.
“We can see that they were starting with a crystal and removing the tip, then working from the top down,” Overton said. “So we’ve got a few cores that are clearly the base of a crystal. You can think of them as exhausted cores, as everything’s been taken off. You can also see that flakes were removed diagonally to the longitudinal axis of the crystal. They were going along the lines of best cleavage, so it looks like they had a really good, intimate understanding of the material.”
“They were almost forcibly making people remember these key moments”Dr Nick Overton
The presence of tiny rock crystal fragments in burial deposits indicates that the rock crystal was worked at Dorstone Hill, either right on the burial sites or nearby where these pieces could be gathered and placed with the dead. The rock crystal could only have originated from a limited number of sources, all at a considerable distance from the site. The most likely are Snowdonia in North Wales, where rock crystals measuring up to 10cm have been found, or St David’s Head in southwest Wales. Cornwall and continental Europe are also possible.
Overton said that, before glass, clear rock crystal was likely to have been a particularly arresting material. Its refractive properties, splitting white light into its spectrum of constituent colours, would have added to its appeal. “If you were in the right place, you could even project small patches of rainbow onto a wall or surface which would have felt really unusual. I’m reticent to use terms like magical, because it makes it sound like people had no better way of understanding the world, but I definitely think these experiences were distinctive.”
The crystals are also triboluminescent, meaning that they emit a glowing light, or bursts of light, when rubbed together or struck. This may have had an especially dramatic effect if the crystals were worked at night, dawn or dusk, or inside a timber hall. Overton said the crystals may also have been imbued with significance from the dramatic landscapes, including mountain ranges and rocky coastal outcrops, from which they originated. It is possible that the crystals were transported by sea and river, as well as overland.
Overton said: “At Dorstone Hill, the event of working the material was the key thing. It was not about using them for anything utilitarian — we say in the paper that it was actually about creating moments. So that the dead that these crystals were being deposited with were being remembered. They were almost forcibly making people remember these key moments so that in the future they would continue to remember their loved ones and ancestors.”
He said it was possible that some of the pieces of crystal created in these rituals were held as keepsakes by the living while the remainder were deposited. Further study of rock crystal pieces found elsewhere may help to clarify this and reveal more about the material’s wider significance. The distribution of Neolithic sites with rock crystal shows a concentration in northwest England, northwest Wales and Ireland, often at sites with Neolithic timber halls.
He added: “As well as publishing the site, as you would do normally in archaeology, I felt that it was really important to do some specific focused research on this material, because it’s so underrepresented in publications and it’s an incredible thing. I was slightly taken by the material because it’s just so alluring and beguiling.”
The paper notes that Australian aboriginal groups understand rock crystal as “solidified light”, spiritually charged with power and associated with ancestral beings. Meanwhile, animist groups in the Amazon consider quartz as “living rock”, with special healing properties.