The ‘Ford, Dagenham’ production line of the Stone Age
If you thought that Beer was just about smugglers long ago, and fishermen like me nowadays, think again. Once upon a time, and even if it was a very long time ago, the folks of Beer did more than fish, quarry limestone, and run contraband. Beer did flint, big, like it was once the Ford Dagenham production line of the stone age. Well everyone knows there’s flint in Beer; it front faces many of our houses. It’s a beautiful material to look at and even more beautiful material to work with. Flint is dark and gleams. It is also the oldest tool known to mankind. The first traces of flint tools were found at Gona in Ethiopia and are dated to 2.6 million years ago. Prior to that the earliest flint tools known, dating back 1.7 million years, were found at Olduwa gorge in Kenya’s rift valley by the British palaeontologist Richard Leaky and his wife.
Its important to mention at this point that the toolmakers of Ethiopia and Kenya were not Homo sapiens, but ancestors of Homo sapiens. The distinction is important here in Beer because as far as we can make out the stone age flint makers of Beer, who were here from around 11000 BC until the Romans arrived in 43 AD, were homo sapiens or modern human beings.
However, we should not forget the wonderful flint axe heads in the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter, which come from Broom in Axminster. They are dated to 350,000 years ago and were made by the last Neanderthals in Britain. That species of humanity vanished from our island sometime between 350000 BC and 124000 BC. It was climate change that drove the Neanderthals out, and it was the end of the last great Ice age that brought modern humans back to Britain, and to Beer around 12000 BC to 11000 BC.
Now, the best way to think of Beer and its flint workshops is to take a slightly wider view of East Devon in the Stone Age. There are three well established settlements; Farway Castle, Blackbury Camp, And Sidbury Fort. The inhabitants of those three settlements left behind one of the largest Stone Age cemeteries in Britain, the Barrow graves and Tumuli graves at Putts Corner, opposite the Hare and Hounds pub. There are about 160 graves identified, but most of the graves have never been fully investigated or researched because of cost. Ancient history, especially if you are digging it up, is very expensive. But the direct link to Beer is the barrow grave at Bovey Fir Cross, on Quarry lane. The people burying their dead at Farway were also using the same burial schemes, almost in Beer village itself.
And this is how we get to flint in Beer and the mystery that surrounds it. Phil Clarke of Arrowhead Archaeology in Bridport did a survey off Quarry Lane for a new barn structure in early 2010. He discovered flint tool making all over the fields there. Here is what he wrote.
“Of greater significance for the present study, Beer Head is the most westerly outcrop of upper and middle chalk in Britain, with the densest source of high quality (black) flint in the entire southwest peninsula (Tingle, 1998). The chalk at Beer contains distinctive seams of high quality flint which has been exploited through much of the prehistoric period as a source of flint for tool manufacture. The occurrence of high quality flint as a raw material would undoubtedly have been of high importance to prehistoric populations; the low quality flint and greensand chert, a form of flint, otherwise available in west Dorset and east Devon west of the chalk on the Ridgeway is an inferior material for flint tool manufacture. Although both occur as components in local assemblages (collections) (e.g. at Mare Lane, Beer. Tingle 1998), the preference for high quality flint over chert is indicated in Tingle’s assemblage (collection) at Bovey Lane where only 18 pieces of chert in an assemblage of 4144 pieces of worked stone, the remainder being flint (Tingle, 1992). An intensive exploitation of this raw material is to be expected, and this is reflected in the concentration of flint tools in the area (of Beer) from at least the Neolithic onwards; (especially at Bovey Lane)”
What Clarke does is link the various parts of Beer in which flint tools were being produced. He cites flint workings (assemblages) at Quarry Lane, Bovey Lane, Mare Lane and at Beer Head. The entire prehistoric population of Beer would seem to have been engaged in the production and distribution of flint tools! Flint from Beer has been discovered at Carn Brae in Cornwall and may have been found at Stonehenge.
Clark also says why the study was necessary, further indicating the extraordinary extent of flint tool making in the area of Beer.
“The archaeological work was recommended on the basis of Historic England Records (HER) records of artefact scatters and tool working sites near the development area, (the field by Quarry Lane) reflecting activity in the prehistoric period “,
Here is what Clarke found in just this one field at Quarry lane.
“An assemblage (collection) of sixty-nine pieces of worked flint was recovered from topsoil and an underlying deposit of colluvium (stones found at the bottom of a slope) occurring on the upper edge of the scarp forming the northern side of the valley floor”.
But what Clarke didn’t find was the Beer settlement, the place in Beer where the flint tool makers lived. There are two things we are looking for around Beer Quarry caves now. The first is the local source for the beautiful black flint on Quarry Lane, that was not coming from Beer Head. The second is the Beer stone age settlement itself, in Beer.