Peter admired the arrow once more, running his finger gently along the microlith fastened to the straight shaft with glue made from beeswax and pine resin. The edges were so finely shaped, and the attachment was strong. He sighted along the arrow; it was smooth and straight. The technology of the microliths was so different to what he had thought he'd be using.
"And it really works?" he asked Mary, the hunting expert. "It seems so light compared to the whacking great ones you see later with their heavy iron heads."
"Let's try it, shall we?" she replied, waving a hand to a tree across the field from which had been hung a convenient pig's carcass. Peter spared a moment to hope there would be pork for dinner, maybe with watercress, if Ruth had been down to the stream, all with minimal effort on his part.
The bow was a marvel too, and Peter admired the curve of the wood, painstakingly shaped from a single length of wood, probably yew, judging by the colour.
"And you made this with stone tools?" he asked, delighted in the heft and spring of it in his hand. He'd seen bows made before, but it seemed amazing that people would be able to make it with stone tools.
"Yes," she said. "Mastery of most mesolithic occupations begins with flint, and this is no exception." She showed him her knife, and he saw the same careful crafting as in the arrows. This was sharp and delicate enough for fine work. Perhaps it was just that the larger flint lasted better, and so he'd always thought of stone tools as large and cumbersome. "I've made dozens of knives, hundreds of arrows, probably a dozen bows, and it all comes back to the stone," Mary continued. "These are the sort of tools you'll be using this year."
"I see what you mean about it all starting with the flint, though I'd make a case for wood as well," said Peter. "I mean, we call it the stone age because that's the most durable symbol of the period, but also because figuring out you could shape stone - and hence the more transient, malleable parts of your world from that - was the defining feature of the times. Humans shaping the world, one chip of flint at a time." He was pretty sure you could boil a lot of history down to that, actually, with whatever the technology of the time was. Perhaps, before the paleolithic, there should have been an age of wood that we just didn't know about yet.
"Want to have a turn?" she asked, nodding in agreement and holding out her bow. He did, of course he did, and it turned out he was just as bad with this as he had been with mediaeval archery when they were at the castle.
"I have the dexterity of a snail," he said, laughing at himself as he handed it back. He watched admiringly as two arrows, loosed in swift succession, punched into the hanging target. The flint head buried itself, and he was pretty sure the little barb had too. That arrow would have to be cut out.
"Now, that's all well and good," he said, "but I don't imagine the pig's just going to stand there and let you pepper it with arrows."
"No, and it won't be one of these soft, fat pink pigs either," she said. "You're looking at wild boar here, and they're massive through the neck and shoulders, with tough hides, sharp teeth and a nasty disposition. There's a reason why they're depicted so ferociously throughout the ancient world."
"I imagine that, were I actually going to hunt something, I would stick to smaller, far less dangerous prey. Red deer might be my limit," Peter said. At least they didn't have tusks. The thought of some of the larger animals - aurochs for example, or bears - terrified him. It was a primeval terror, and he could see why cave art depicted them with such awe and devotion. As well as being an age to shape the world around you, it was one to deliberately record what you saw, too, and leave things behind that those after you were meant to see and respond to, not just incidental evidence that you existed.
"Well, the same principle applies for most larger prey," said Mary. "We have this modern concept of the clean kill, but I don't think that was really true for our ancestors. We know early hominids and modern hunter-gatherers practice persistence hunting, and I think we would have too, at this time."
"Even in the woodland?" asked Peter, gesturing at the autumnal woods around them. They'd been sent to a seasonal camp right on the edge of one of the few vast areas of woodland left, specifically to see what it was like, and he couldn't imagine persistence hunting in here. The examples he knew of it relied on open land and the heat of the day to exhaust their prey, combined with tracking on the part of the pursuer. "The change from open grassland to woodland would have made that strategy much harder. We just couldn't chase over open ground any more, and tracking is much harder in a forest."
"That's true," said Mary, "but, by this point in the Mesolithic, we would have come to terms with this wooded world - and, unlike an open plain, woodlands only allow free running for larger animals along certain well-defined tracks. And there are other variations on pursuit hunting. African Wild Dogs, for example, will split their pack - some initiate the chase, others wait ahead of the prey, to give the first pursuers a rest. I think we would see something similar here: ambush and wound as much as possible, maybe ambush again on a well-used deer path and inflict more damage, and finally track and kill. The arrows, too, aren't just there to kill outright. They're also tangling on things, tearing at the flesh, and causing blood loss."
"I can see why domesticating dogs was so important," said Peter. "They would make this whole process much easier - even with more mouths to feed, we would all get fed more. Messy and time-consuming, though."
"Eating always is," Mary said.
"So what job would Henry and I have, since I'm rubbish with a bow?" asked Peter. Henry looked up at his name and thumped his tail, but showed no inclination to get up. He was an old dog now, and chasing prey seemed like far too much work.
"Henry is every inch a pastoral dog, isn't he?" said Mary, laughing. "But he can help with tracking and ambush, and you can have a spear."
She handed a few over, and Peter hefted one experimentally. "Hey, where's my stone tip?" he asked.
"Oh, I hear Alex is making one for you," she said. "But it seems likely that stone, while vitally important and necessary, would not have completely pushed out older technologies. A flint spear is an investment of time and expertise. A fire-hardened wooden spear doesn't take long, and it won't matter if it gets broken or lost, but will still do damage."
"I see where I am on the hunting pecking order," said Peter, "right near the bottom! Making do with fire-hardened sticks and Alex's first attempts! We'll be lucky if we get any dinner at this rate, even if Ruth does find watercress." He hefted his hardened wood spear. Here was the age of wood, then, still relevant, hopefully, even in this beautiful, sharp age of stone.
"Before you set out to find anything," said Ruth, sitting on a flat patch of ground next to their beautiful neat little mesolithic hut, "you need to know how to get it home, and I can't imagine we just set out willy-nilly just hoping to stumble across the things we needed. So how would my Mesolithic self have carried what I found?"
"There would have been a range of options by this late in the Mesolithic," said Ciara, "but most likely, a basket."
"It seems very domestic, doesn't it?" said Ruth. "We still take a basket down to the market to do the shopping, and a good cane one will last if you look after it. Is that the sort you mean?"
"It's one of the options," said Ciara. "We know string was invented long before, so possibly a string bag would be used, though not practical for anything small like fruit that you happened to find while looking for something else. And you have your fur pouch, but that won't hold much, though useful for small things. There are remains of vertical, warp-weighted heddle looms in central Europe around 5500BCE, so it's not impossible that people here, in this seasonal settlement, were weaving linen."
"I suppose that explains my tunic," said Ruth. "I thought it was a delicate anachronism, to spare me from a fur loincloth. I doubt any of us would have wanted to wear those." Indeed, she definitely would have drawn the line at a loincloth, though she suspected that a little cajolery would persuade the boys to try them at least once. Possibly not on camera, more's the pity.
"Furs and leather have been worn, but we would have made yours a tunic," said Ciara, smiling. "We have some modern sensibilities! And when we roll round to winter proper you'll be wearing furs, of course, even though you'll likely move on to a different winter seasonal site that will hopefully be a bit warmer."
"Thank goodness," said Ruth. "I do like the shoes, though." She admired the soft leather wrapped round her foot, laced front and back. Simple, but effective, and very welcome given that the ground was still a little cold, though the sun was promising a warm afternoon.
"Yes, and it makes sense that shoes were much nicer and better crafted than clothing, doesn't it?" said Ciara. "A cut to the foot would be worse than a cut to the bum, even with people having such tough soles from walking across rough terrain all the time. Not to mention chilblains."
"These are so comfortable, and actually remind me of some I've seen in the high street with decorative lacing like this, though they had an elastic gusset. Of course, our mesolithic ancestors are modern humans. They look like us and make noise like us, though who knows what language they spoke, and have the same creative and thinking capacity - why wouldn't they be interested in fashion?"
"That is hard to prove from the archaeological evidence of the time, though we do have evidence of jewellery and other art. A lot of the historical record is missing, of course," said Ciara. "Made from materials that just don't last." She sounded regretful, to Ruth's ears, and she understood. She wanted the satisfaction of complete understanding, perhaps, that then she would know these people.
"I think the desire to adorn oneself, whatever that means, is something you see a lot in the historical record," said Ruth thoughtfully. "We have this very functional view of our stone age ancestors - it's even in that heavy, rough name, isn't it? - but there would have been dancing, singing and art alongside that. I hope my ancestors felt the joy of being alive, not just the satisfaction of surviving. If there were stone beads, there would have been wooden ones, and if mesolithic me is anything like modern me, I would have loved to wear them," said Ruth, "so I think we can extrapolate. I mean, we are these people, aren't we, at our hearts? Not that different. Let's make the basket in the spirit of the mesolithic. Show me our materials!"
"These, at least, will be familiar to you!" said Ciara. "Easy access to twigs and vine would have made these baskets pretty easy. Lay out your twigs and start lashing them together."
She demonstrated and Ruth watched carefully before starting on her basket. The vines were young and supple and the basket took shape quickly.
"It's like a log holder, isn't it?" said Ruth. "Curved sides, no ends - easy to bring back any good wood you find along with all your other treasures!"
"Yes, and you'll need it today, for we need to find some more vine - both for more baskets, and because you need to make some repairs to the hut," said Ciara. She surveyed Ruther's work critically as she bent and lashed the last of the handle. Good work. Now put some nice big leaves in the bottom and we'll go - I believe there is watercress to be had, at the very least, along with our vines."
Ruth hefted her basket and stamped her feet in their simple little leather shoes. She rather thought she might look for a nice piece of wood while out. If Alex was flint knapping, perhaps he'd make something to shape it with and she could start a nice pendant of her own tonight while the food cooked. She just hoped Peter bought something back from his hunting, because watercress alone wouldn't cut it.
"This is much, much harder than it looks," said Alex, "And it looks really, really hard."
"There's a knack to it," said Duncan, demonstrating with his flint. "Unfortunately, it's a really difficult knack to master."
"That's encouraging," said Alex, watching the careful turning and tapping. It was hypnotic, and easy to imagine what this little flint outcropping had been like all those years ago, when it would have been an essential hub of industry.
"It's all mathematics, isn't it?" Duncan asked. "The stone always fractures at 50o from impact. Therefore, turn your stone, get the angle right, and then strike downwards." He demonstrated again, and Alex thought he could see the connection between the flat surface of the stone and the angle of impact.
"It sounds very simple, rather like billiards sounds very simple," said Alex. "And I never really mastered all the angles involved in that, either."
"This is much easier than billiards," said Duncan. "Apart from anything else, neither of us have been drinking, and the archaeological record isn't clear about when we'll be able to."
"Perhaps I would better at billiards if I didn't have alcohol," admitted Alex, turning his platform and tilting it on his thigh to what he hoped was the correct angle. He struck downwards, and a gratifyingly large flake sloughed off.
"There you go," said Duncan, in a voice he probably thought was encouraging, "now just do that a few dozen more times with increasing delicacy and you'll possibly have something you can shape into a blade when you're done."
Alex picked up the flake and considered it from all angles. "I can see why this was the technology of the day," he said. "I can already see a nice sharp edge. Why wouldn't this be suitable for an arrowhead or spearpoint?"
"That one's too large for an arrowhead, though put it neatly to one side, as you can practice shaping on it later."
"I thought that would be the right size for one of those leaf-shaped arrowheads?" Alex asked, surprise colouring his voice.
"No, hush your mouth. Leaf shapes are for those Johnny-come-lately neolithic flint knappers," said Duncan, though he smiled in a way that was probably meant to show no offence was meant. "We're firmly in the age of the microlith now, when small, precision stone tool making was at its peak. We can make composite tools, which are lighter and more convenient, and the microliths can be replaced easily. More skills is involved in shaping such tiny flakes, of course. As we move into the neolithic, stone knapping changes dramatically, partly because hunting is no longer as important as husbandry."
"That's fascinating," said Alex. "I mean, we think of stone tools as pretty much the same from the Olduvai gorge right on down to what we find in neolithic settlements, but it changes dramatically over time in response to the needs of the time."
"Just like everything else," said Duncan. "There is no irresistible tide to time, no particular end goal where we can say, 'there, stop, we're perfect now'."
Privately, Alex thought it would be rather more that we had to stop for mass extinction reasons than for anything else, because he couldn't see what else would make people stop wanting to change things. While he preferred to look back to the past and try to figure out those long ago stories to tell again to new ears, he could see the desire to always move forward, whatever direction that was.
"Humans do seem a particularly restless species, don't they?" he said. "Never satisfied, driven by that peculiar mix of wanting life to be easier, and willing to put in an awful lot of effort to make it so. Like these microliths, really. How long will it take for me to master it?"
Duncan shrugged and spread his hands. "You can never tell," he said. "Some people have a feel for the stone, and can easily pick up the way the grain runs and the particular nuance of hitting antler to bone. Some people take time to learn it. It's a subtle language." Alex was rather grateful at the suggestion that mastery was a personal process, rather than Alex's practical skills lacking something.
He continued to chip flakes off his stone, holding each one up and considering it carefully. At last, Duncan must have seen one he approved of, for he took it from Alex and held it up.
"This one will make a lovely little blade," he said. "Maybe a little knife. So practical and multipurpose, the knife."
"I'd love to make one," said Alex. "If we're to survive as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, we'll need to be prepared for all sorts of small tasks we haven't quite thought of yet. It's all well and good hunting and gathering, but it's all the other things that go with it, isn't it? Shelter and curing skins and goodness knows what else."
"You can see why humans needs must be restless," said Duncan.
"Oh, the modern concept of an active relaxer is such an odd one, considering the necessity to be active throughout history. And now we have a special name for it, as if it's an unusual state," said Alex.
Duncan handed him a smaller piece of antler. "No time for relaxing yet," he said. "Let's try some pressure flaking to give it some shape. And, of course, you're putting all this effort into microliths, but in just a few thousand years they are completely gone, and we're firmly in the neolithic."
"Yes, and we would have started to see the first signs of it now, right?"
"Entirely possible," said Duncan. "Our restless ancestors were spreading technology and new ideas left and right, and Britain was by no means a fortress."
"Very true," Alex agreed, though he shuddered slightly at the thought of mesolithic channel crossings. "We've been more cut off in the recent past by wars and politics that we ever were in the past by technology. Perhaps I can have that beer soon, then."
"If you're lucky," said Duncan.
Their fire that evening was convivial, as it always was at the end of the day, no matter what era they found themselves in. The autumn evening wasn't cold yet, and the fire was burning merrily, crisp and clear. Peter had brought in a big armload of wood, along with some pork he openly admitted had been nicked from their target hog in his archery lesson.
"I'm terrible at archery," he said. "I'm sure I've actually gone backwards. It will have to be snares, I think, and fishing."
"Well, Duncan says that, if I practice flint-knapping every chance I get, I could be a quite acceptable beginner in a year or two," said Alex. "It's a wash for both of us, so all our hope for success is on you, Ruth."
"I have had a very successful day so far, actually," said Ruth. She produced her basket with something of a flourish, delighted that it had stood up well to the foraging she'd done. She had a small blister from her shoes, but she was not about to admit that now.
"What have you got there?" Peter asked.
"I found watercress, nettles and birch nuts and mushrooms, which I've put in with your pork, and some beautiful sloes. What a shame we're too early for the invention of gin! They're in with the pork too. But I found raspberries too, and they'll do for a sweet bite after our pork and greens. I was looking for vines to repair that weak patch in our hut, but it's amazing what else you can find when you're looking for it."
"When you say you put them in with the pork, where, exactly, have you put it?" asked Alex, looking round as if expecting a barbeque to appear, or the pork on a spit. The repairs on the hut were all well and good, but the food was surely the most important thing now.
"Ah, a firebox?" hazarded Peter.
"You might not be much of an archer," said Ruth, "but you're usually quite right about food. As soon as you came in with that lovely hardwood, I heated up some stones and dug a little pit. The meat's in there, wrapped in some wet straw, and I'm hoping very much that it has worked. We can't have all of us failing at once. That would not be an auspicious start as we prepare for winter."
"I'm hoping to redeem myself tonight making a burn bowl, actually," said Peter. He produced a nice big burl of wood, helpfully flattish already. "If I spread hot coals over the surface of this and let it char the wood, I can then scrape away that layer. With repeated layers and layers of coals, I can shape a bowl or a plate or whatever we need."
"Very good," approved Alex. "I'm afraid I'll need to get back to my flint knapping as soon as we've eaten if I want to have any chance of producing anything at all useful this year."
"I'm going to check the food once more, but then I'll be making string," said Ruth. "I was hoping Alex would prove to be a natural mason and have a nice little knife I could use to shape some beads, but I can see I might have to wait. It's alright, though, it's a beautiful night, and we'll hopefully have some delicious food soon, and making string is good way to spend my time. It's good to know it's not all going to be scraping by and worrying about death, and we can, in fact, be quite happy with companionship and making things both pretty and sensible."
"I'm going to have to be driven by my restless human spirit," said Alex. "It seems such an extraordinary amount of work to get good at this knapping, but it's something I must master to get the ease and comfort later. Humans are such an odd mix of hard work and comfort, aren't we?"
"We are," agreed Peter. He arranged a couple of small stones to make the base of his bowl steady, the better to shape the top. "And we cling to the old ways, even as we move on to the new - I'm not going to give up my wooden bowls, thank you very much, not even for all the new-fangled pottery that's going to invade my life any moment now, give or take a thousand years."
"And it is a thousand years, isn't it?" said Ruth. "We've got a year, but we've also got all this time, stretching out before us. Generations, and we're still impatient for dinner."
"How close is dinner, thinking of that?" asked Alex. "I don't like to be rude, but we don't want Peter to fade away to a shadow, do we?"
"You can help me open it up," said Ruth. "If it doesn't come out steaming, we're done for - no fish and chips to get out here!"
The earth was moved off, and it did come out steaming, cooked perfectly.
"A good omen," said Peter. "Let's drink some plain water in celebration!"
"Cheers!" echoed Alex and Ruth.