Still far from crystal clear, but researchers are making progress. In a study published in early July 2022 in the Cambridge Journal of Archaeology, a team of British archaeologists provide answers about the role and still very little known symbolism of rock crystal pieces found in very large numbers at the excavations of an ancient Neolithic site. , between 2011 and 2019: Dorston Hill in Herefordshire, United Kingdom. Formed as a collection of wooden halls, mounds and enclosures, it is believed to have been used as a burial ground around 6,000 years ago when agriculture was introduced to Britain.
This set of 337 cut rock crystals is by far one, if not the largest, of the Neolithic period in this northern part of Europe. For the University of Manchester researchers behind the work, it is highly likely that men and women living in Britain at the time moved these crystals over long distances to mark their burial sites and create a link between the world through them. the living and the dead.
Rock crystal – a unique prehistoric material
In general, in prehistoric Europe, rock crystal, or hyaline quartz, was a rarely used raw material. And for good reason: this transparent mineral, in the form of large hexagonal crystals, forms “alpine-type cracks” – a geological phenomenon observed in only a few places. In the United Kingdom, its deposits are especially noticeable on the fingers of one hand. It is also a very recalcitrant mineral when it comes to carving, which probably explains the fact that objects known to archaeologists are overwhelmingly very small, such as arrowheads or other miniature tools. However, a few items are exceptions: in Tolos de Montelirio, a megalithic tomb found near Seville, Spain, an impressive rock crystal dagger was discovered along with several large arrowheads, also carved from a crystalline mineral.
Sample #017 showing the ability to refract light. Credit: Nick Overton/University of Manchester.
Some researchers who have contributed to the small body of literature on the subject have suggested that in the regions of the Old Continent the use of rock crystal may have been due to a shortage of flint. Others, on the contrary, saw in it an undeniable symbolic dimension that could be explained by the special physical properties of the mineral. “In a time before glass existed, these pieces of hard and completely transparent material must have been special to humans,” archaeologist Nicholas Overton, a funerary context specialist at the University of Manchester and lead author of the study, told Science et Avenir. the study. Today, the latter’s work supports the hypothesis that this mineral was more than just a utilitarian material, especially in the area of present-day Britain.