Project overview


The aim of the Stone Dead project is to explore why stone tools - artefacts often associated with utilitarian activities - were so often placed with the dead in Mesolithic Europe.


  1. To establish the life histories of stone tool grave goods placed in funerary contexts at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov and Zvejnieki.
  2. To compare/contrast non-mortuary and mortuary tool biographies and integrate biographical information from different classes of grave goods
  3. To interconnect the biographies of the grave goods with existing human biological data.
  4. To assess variability in the composition and treatment of Mesolithic stone tools from grave assemblages in order to understand their social role in mortuary rites.

Why Mesolithic stone tool grave goods are interesting and important

A large hammer stone is used to break animal bones.

Stone tools are the most ubiquitous artefact found in prehistoric archaeological excavations globally. Due to an absence of rich cave art and monumental architecture seen in earlier (Palaeolithic) and later (Neolithic) periods, the Mesolithic is often regarded as synonymous with stone tool studies. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, little attention has been given to their role in funerary contexts. Lack of attention to the social and symbolic dimensions of stone tools has given them a reputation as less spectacular than other Mesolithic artefacts, notably the personal ornaments frequently found in the same graves.

Stone Dead aims to challenge conventional boundaries of stone tool research for the Mesolithic period, historically defined by stone tool typologies, but often limited in recognition of the social and symbolic role that stone tools played in the lives (and deaths) of Mesolithic hunting and gathering societies.

The objects placed in graves within Mesolithic cemeteries have played a dominant role in key debates about the emergence of social complexity, social stratification and inherited wealth within Holocene European hunter-gatherer societies.

Previous studies have focussed on the personal ornaments, often interpreted as “prestige items” given to privileged members of society: resulting in a bias towards this class of grave good as a means of understanding symbolic mortuary behaviour, status, social identity and society more generally.

Despite their frequent occurrence in Mesolithic graves, lithic funerary offerings have received comparatively little attention compared to personal ornaments and other grave goods. This has created a false dichotomy whereby personal ornaments in graves are perceived as symbolic markers of identity, wealth and status and tools as incidental/less symbolic inclusions: the residual debris from everyday life.

Yet ethnohistoric accounts reveal the rich symbolic significance accorded to stone tools amongst different societies: from associations with the world of the dead to living beings with their own life course.

Research on stone tools in mortuary contexts is therefore a vital step in moving beyond current ideas that stone tools, the most ubiquitous prehistoric objects, were simply mundane/functional objects.  By bringing new understandings of the role of lithics within mortuary practices the Stone Dead Project aims to fill a critical gap in research on early mortuary behaviour, moving beyond monolithic interpretations of grave goods as “prestige items” relating to social status.

Interconnecting human and artefact biographies

Life history data generated for the buried individuals will be integrated with the biographies of the grave artefacts. What sort of patterns emerge in tool use (as determined through microwear and and other functional analyses) between children compared to adults, or between men and women, graves interpreted as belonging to shamans compared to those with no perceived religious status? How does tool use vary depending on the circumstance of death? For individuals who died from trauma, will the biographies of tools be the same as those who died at old age?

A black and white photograph of hands holding stones.

By integrating life histories of stone tools and bioarchaeological data on skeletal remains we will draw together science and theories of materiality to bring new understandings of variability in human attitudes to death. In doing so, the Stone Dead Project hopes to generate cross-disciplinary conversation around the role of objects in hunter-gatherer mortuary practices and rituals.

Historical context

As early as the sixth millennium BC hunter-gatherer societies in Northern Europe were laying out their dead in carefully organised rows, constructing formal bounded areas and furnishing graves with goods. These sites are now regarded as the first evidence for cemeteries in Europe and have played a dominant role in key debates about the emergence of social stratification and inherited wealth within early Holocene European hunter-gatherer societies.

Hands hold a flint blade whilst working a small object.

While the social and symbolic role of tools is frequently accepted for later prehistoric farming societies, there has been a comparative lack of scientific research exploring the social meanings of stone tools for hunter-gatherers. This is arguably a by-product of the greater emphasis on economic determinism more readily associated with non-pastoral/egalitarian societies.

A strong historical tradition of typochronology/ functional analyses of specific tool types within prehistoric hunter-gatherer studies is perhaps a key reason why the social/symbolic aspects of sourcing, production, use and deposition of stone tools have rarely previously been considered.