Professor Andy Jones, Reader in Archaeology
University of Southampton

Monkton-up-Wimborne Neolithic Chalk Block under Reflectance Transformation Imaging.  Image: Marta Diaz Guardamino.

The chalk block from Monkton Up Wimborne, Dorset is a remarkable object. The block, measuring 34 cm by 25 cm and with a thickness of 20 cm, is an irregular lump of chalk. Several of the faces of the chalk block are worked with parallel lines and U-shaped grooves; designs typical of the passage tomb art of eastern Ireland. Some of these surfaces have been flaked and erased at some point during the block’s history. The reverse of the block has a large hole drilled into its surface, suggesting the object may have been briefly mounted on a wooden post.

The archaeological context of this block is almost as remarkable as the object itself. Excavated in 1997 by Martin Green, the Monkton Up Wimborne site is unique and comprises a large central pit surrounded by a ring of smaller pits. To one side of this pit is the burial of a Middle Neolithic family: a mother and several children, dating to c.3500 BC. Isotopic analysis of their Mendip hills, Somerset. Close to this burial a shaft 7m deep was dug into the chalk. The shaft is filled with plentiful evidence for mortuary feasting activities, including several bones of cattle and pigs and one piglet, as well as several bone of an adult male.

The chalk block was deposited at the very base of the shaft. It seems likely that the block was carved from the chalk at this depth, briefly mounted on a post, and then fairly rapidly deposited back into the shaft.

Neither the site, nor the chalk block, has a parallel in the British Neolithic. This makes the block an especially intriguing artefact for archaeologists as the discipline continues to be motivated by the scientific imperative to categorize. Working the chalk block is both an act of transformation and assembly: bringing together a group of designs on its surface, and altering it from unworked chalk. It seems likely that this transformative process was ongoing and part of a flow of activities associated with the site. Is the block complete, or simply a moment in a process of transformation? How are we to comprehend the purpose of this unique carved chalk block in the face of its radical otherness? Is this a deeply significant cult object or totem, is it simply debris from constructional activities at the site? How can archaeological recording methods – whether traditional or digital- illuminate its purpose and significance?