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Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics of Neolithic Mining in NW Europe (NEOMINE)

Shennan, S et al 2017 Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics of
Neolithic Mining in NW Europe (NEOMINE).
Archaeology International
No. 20: pp. 74–79, DOI:
Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics
of Neolithic Mining in NW Europe (NEOMINE)
Stephen Shennan*
, Andy Bevan*
, Kevan Edinborough*
, Tim Kerig,
Mike Parker Pearson* and Peter Schauer*
Publisher’s Note
The acknowledgement was updated after
the print version of this paper had been
Project Background
Its overall aim is to address the question of what
factors influenced non-agricultural production
in prehistory. Explicitly or implicitly this has
long been a topic of debate in prehistoric stud-
ies, because it relates to the question of whether
people in prehistoric societies had ‘economic’
motivations and what those might have been.
The NEOMINE project is approaching this
general issue by analysing the evidence for
Neolithic stone quarrying and flint mining
and factors potentially affecting consump-
tion of their products in Britain and North
West Europe over the period c.5300–2000 BC.
This is to address the question: what economic
factors, if any, had an influence on their scale and
intensity? In particular, did the amount of mate-
rial the quarries and mines produced vary over
time in response to external demand generated
by the surrounding population, and, if so, in what
ways? It is known from ethnography, for example
(Pétrequin and Pétrequin 1993), that the factors
affecting demand for stone axes in what is now
known as Western New Guinea were very com-
plex, but certainly included external demand.
We now know that the quarries and mines
of the Neolithic were often major enterprises,
producing quantities of artefacts far beyond
any imaginable requirement for local use; for
example, the Rijckholt mines (Netherlands) are
estimated to have produced between 13 and
61 million kg of flint over a period of 600 years
(Felder, Rademakers and de Grooth 1998: 75–77).
Their products were often distributed over
hundreds of kilometres and studies over the
years have documented the distribution of
material from some of the best-known sources
(e.g. Clough and Cummins 1979; Pétrequin et al.
2012; Zimmermann 1995). We also have some
information on when particular sources were in
use (e.g. Rijkholt, above). However, in general,
radiocarbon dating of European mining activ-
ity is patchy at best and at worst highly skewed
towards a few well known sites such as Grime’s
Graves in Norfolk. Moreover, with the exception
of Schyle’s (2006) study, no one has systemati-
cally addressed the economic factors that might
have affected the amount that was produced by
different mines at different times. Indeed, after a
period of strong interest in the nature of prehis-
toric production and exchange in the 1970s and
1980s, such economic approaches have largely
fallen out of favour, especially among schol-
ars of European prehistory. There has been an
* UCL Institute of Archaeology,
London WC1H 0PY, UK
University of Leipzig, DE
Corresponding author: Stephen Shennan
Shennan et al: Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics of Neolithic Mining in
emphasis on cultural differences as an explana-
tion for variation in practices.
The NEOMINE project is focussed on Britain
and NW Europe because this region contains
a large number of important flint mines and
stone quarries, and a great deal of fieldwork
and scientific work on identifying raw mate-
rial sources has taken place here over recent
decades. However, with few exceptions, espe-
cially the work of Pétrequin and colleagues on
the axes of jadeitite and related material from
the Alps of southern France and northern Italy
(Pétrequin et al. 2012; Pétrequin, Gauthier and
Pétrequin 2017), the results have never been
gathered together to ask large-scale questions
such as those to be addressed here.
Hypotheses Being Tested
The overall hypothesis is that the exploita-
tion of mines and quarries in Britain and NW
Europe depended on the scale of demand for
the products. A variety of factors could poten-
tially have an impact on demand at a given
source. They include the size of regional
populations, the intensity of forest clear-
ance, the scale of regional/inter-regional
social inequality and competition, especially
for sources specialising in materials with
significant non-utilitarian uses, competition
from other stone sources and competition
from copper (see e.g. Klassen, Cassen and
Pétrequin 2012; Pétrequin and Jeunesse
1995: 111–112). Evaluating the importance
of these different factors involves obtaining a
reliable measure of the periods of use of indi-
vidual mines and quarries and reliable inde-
pendent evidence of the factors themselves.
Obtaining a measure of the periods of use
of individual mines and quarries requires
collating and evaluating all existing radio-
carbon dates associated with quarrying and
flint-mining activity and collecting a targeted
series of new dates where existing dates are
not sufficient. It is also necessary to create
a database of find locations and the source
composition of lithic assemblages at dated
consumption sites to reconstruct quarry and
mine exchange networks.
Obtaining similar reliable indicators of
the factors listed above that might have
affected demand, and therefore potentially
production, at a particular source, and test-
ing their impact involves a number of dif-
ferent lines of evidence. First, a measure of
regional population fluctuations during the
Neolithic for the study areas is required so
that inferred periods of use of the sources
can be correlated with changing population
patterns for the surrounding area, to see if
mine production responded to changes in
the regional population size. This has been
done by using summed radiocarbon prob-
abilities as a demographic proxy, on the
assumption that the number of radiocarbon-
dated sites of a given date reflects the size
of the population at that time (see Shennan
et al. 2013; Timpson et al. 2014) for discus-
sion of this assumption). Some sites, includ-
ing mines, have more dates than others
because of differences in excavator research
priorities and budgets. To reduce this effect,
dates within 100 years of one another at any
given site are combined; this is the 100 year
‘bin’ size shown in Fig. 1. To control even
more strongly for this effect, we repeated
the comparison between mine dates and
hinterland populations with each mine rep-
resented by one date only (Fig. 2). Because
the dates are geo-referenced, population
fluctuations within hinterlands at different
distances from mines can be characterised.
Results So Far
The project has produced a geo-referenced
database of 361 mines, quarries and other
sources across Europe (https://www.ucl., with more than
1100 radiocarbon dates coming directly from
those mines (often sampled from the antler
picks used by the quarry workers). We are
currently processing new samples from the
Great Langdale ‘axe quarries’ in the north of
England, using material provided by Richard
Bradley from his earlier fieldwork (Bradley
and Edmonds 1993), and archived samples
Shennan et al: Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics of Neolithic Mining in
Figure 1: (a) The solid line shows the summed probability distribution (SPD) of the dates
from all mines and quarries in Britain and Ireland, with dates grouped into 100 year bins.
The grey area shows the 95% confidence interval derived from generating 1000 samples
of dates from sites in the 100km radius hinterlands of all the mines/quarries combined.
Periods where the mine SPD is higher than the hinterland SPD are shown in pink, periods
were it is lower in blue. The overall significance of the departures = 0.003. The horizontal
axis is in years BC. The vertical axis is a probability axis on which only relative values matter
so no scale is given. (b) The map shows the locations of the mines and quarries in the analysis
and their 100km radius hinterlands, including areas of overlap. Dates from sites in areas of
overlap are only counted once.
Shennan et al: Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics of Neolithic Mining in
from the South Downs flint mines in the UK.
We are also processing samples from ongo-
ing mining excavations in the Marne region
of North Eastern France, directed by Rémi
Martineau (CNRS, University of Bourgogne).
The Scottish Universities Environmental
Research Council (SUERC) laboratories are
measuring NEOMINE samples, following the
latest radiocarbon protocols (Dunbar et al.
2016). For NW Europe as a whole (including
France, Germany, the Low Countries, south-
ern Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland) we have
collated over 26,000 geo-referenced radiocar-
bon dates for the period 5500–2000 cal. BC
as the basis for constructing the population
proxies for the individual mine hinterlands.
We have tested the chronological distribu-
tion of our dates for mines and quarries against
the radiocarbon population proxy. If the exploi-
tation of mines and quarries depended sim-
ply on the scale of demand generated by the
population in the surrounding region, then
their inferred periods of use would correlate
with changing population patterns in the hin-
terlands around each site: in particular, they
would be more likely to be in use when regional
populations were high and less so when they
were low. This can be tested by comparing the
distribution of mine dates with the hinter-
land dates in a bootstrap analysis. The process
involves repeatedly taking random samples of
calibrated dates from the hinterland, with the
size of the sample corresponding to the num-
ber of mine dates, to create a mean confidence
envelope. This is the distribution of mine dates
through time that would be expected if the size
of the regional population was the only factor
that influenced it. The result can then be com-
pared with the distribution of real mine and
quarry dates. If the pattern for the mines and
quarries is significantly different, then we can
conclude that activity at the mine or quarry was
influenced by factors other than the size of the
regional population.
The results for Britain and Ireland are shown
in Fig. 1. In this example, the calibrated
Figure 2: As figure 1 but with only one date per mine or quarry. This is achieved by grouping
the dates into 4000 year bins. The overall significance of the departures = 0.007.
Shennan et al: Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics of Neolithic Mining in
distributions of all the dates from all mines
and quarries within this region are aggregated
into a single summed probability distribu-
tion (SPD), and similarly all the dates from
all mine/quarry hinterlands are combined
into one large, non-overlapping sample.
When this has been done the random sam-
ples of hinterland dates can be generated for
testing against the mine date distribution.
Combining the mines and hinterlands in this
way allows us to make statements about the
general relationship between mines and hin-
terlands in Britain and Ireland. The hinterland
distance of 100km was chosen after testing
the relationship between hinterlands of vary-
ing sizes and finding that this provided the
best balance between sample size and the
scale of the mine and quarry product distri-
butions. Of course, some products from many
sites travelled much further than 100km, and
in later work we will repeat this test using a
hinterland shaped by the actual distribution
of products from known sources.
The results show that there is a significant dif-
ference between the mine and quarry site SPD
and the hinterland mean confidence envelope.
In particular, we can see that mine activity accel-
erated rapidly after beginning around 4500
cal. BC, in advance of the Neolithic population
increase in Britain and Ireland, leading the pop-
ulation curve by around 200 years (though our
method will tend to exaggerate the effect of
the early end of the individual date probability
distributions for both the mines and the popu-
lation). Since the main products of the mines
and quarries were axes it seems likely that this
corresponds to a period of forest clearance by
the immigrant groups who introduced farm-
ing to Britain and Ireland at this time (Olalde
et al. 2017). Mining activity then declined,
before rising again around 3000 cal. BC. The
hinterland population decreased sharply after
this, and when it recovered from 2500 cal. BC
onwards, flint and stone mining did not
return, probably because the first cop-
per metallurgy was introduced at this time.
The pattern was the same whether we used
100 year ‘bins’ for the mine dates (Fig. 1) or
reduced the dates even more, to only one per
mine (Fig. 2).
Immediate Next Steps
Next we will compare the distribution of
mine dates with changes in regional intensity
of forest clearance, using pollen data, to test
the suggestion made above that mine exploi-
tation leads the population curve because it
reflects initial forest clearance by farmers.
We will also test for correlation between the
decline of large-scale mine and quarry pro-
duction and the appearance of copper items
within each source’s region of distribution.
We are extremely grateful to the Leverhulme
Trust for Research Project Grant RPG-2015-199
that is making this project possible. This
project began in December 2015 and will run
until February 2019. The radiocarbon results
shown in the figures draw primarily on the
EUROEVOL radiocarbon dataset, expanded
via further attention to recent journal and
book publications, Chapple, R (2015) Irish
Radiocarbon and Dendrochronological
Dates (
chronological-dates), the ADS grey literature
archive, Historic England’s published date
lists and consultation of the Canmore and
Museum of Wales radiocarbon databases.
Competing Interests
The authors have no competing interests to declare.
Authors’ Contribution
The principal investigators are Stephen
Shennan, Andy Bevan and Mike Parker Pearson
of the UCL Institute of Archaeology and Tim
Kerig from Leipzig University, Germany. The
project has two post-doctoral researchers,
Kevan Edinborough and Peter Schauer.
Bradley, R and Edmonds, M 1993 Inter preting
the Axe Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Shennan et al: Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics of Neolithic Mining in
How to cite this article: Shennan, S, Bevan, A, Edinborough, K, Kerig, T, Parker Pearson, M and
Schauer, P 2017 Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics of Neolithic Mining in NW Europe
Archaeology International
No. 20: pp. 74–79, DOI:
Published: 14 December 2017
Copyright: © 2017 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Archaeology International
is a peer-reviewed open access journal
published by Ubiquity Press.
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Reconstructing regional demographies of the European Neolithic using radiocarbon dates: a new case-study using an improved method
  • Timpson A, Colledge S, Crema E, Edinborough K, Kerig T, Manning K, Thomas M, Shennan S