School of History, Classics and Archaeology

Peter Topping

Peter Topping

The Social Context of Prehistoric Extraction Sites in the UK.

Subject area: Primarily the UK, but drawing in comparative material from Ireland, Europe, the Americas, Australasia and the Pacific.
Supervision team: Dr Chris Fowler & Dr Jan Harding

Personal profile

My background is in multi-period landscape analysis. Previously I worked as a Government archaeologist for 28+ years (RCHME & EH), undertaking various projects ranging from:

  • Neolithic flint mines and causewayed enclosures
  • the Stonehenge World Heritage Site landscape
  • Marden henge
  • Silbury Hill
  • Medieval settlements
  • industrial monuments
  • Second World War defence sites

I have also undertaken more than 40 years of fieldwork and excavation in Northumberland and the Borders, and participated in excavations and fieldwork led by the US National Park Service in Ohio and Minnesota.

In the past I have been involved in field projects in both Scotland and Wales, and I am currently co-directing a multi-year project on the Middle-Late Iron Age hillfort and its environs on Wether Hill in the Northumberland Cheviots.

My research interests in prehistoric extraction sites have led to previous collaborations with documentaries by the BBC and various TV companies.

Currently I am assisting with a project under development – to be fronted by Neil Oliver - which will focus upon prehistoric ritual life as manifested at various types of site around the country.

My involvement in this new project will be with the Neolithic flint mines at Grime’s Graves, for which I researched and wrote the site guidebook.

I am an experienced archaeological tour guide, researching and leading tours both in the UK, France and the USA (Southwest & Midwest).

Précis of research topic, current work and research interests

My research topic focusses upon Prehistoric mines and quarries which have often been characterised by technology, scale or chronology.

However, such traditional interpretations fail to address the equally important issue of social context – the big question of why did extraction take place. In many cases the answer is simply functional: the winning of raw material to craft artefacts or build structures.

However, in some cases the underlying reasons are obscured and embedded in magico-religious beliefs, particularly where mining is ritualised because the raw material has a deep cultural significance and underpins various social conventions, as at the Native American pipestone quarries in Minnesota.

Similar motivations underpin many Aboriginal Australians procurement strategies where ritualised journeys of 1,000 kilometres or more are undertaken to important quarries for particular types of stone or minerals which embody the spirit of the Ancestral Beings of the Dreamtime.

In contrast, male competition underpins much of the axe crafting and use in Papua New Guinea.

In the well-documented Wieliczka Medieval salt mines in Poland the galleries and tunnels are decorated with large amounts of religious iconography, illustrating the deliberate links between a dangerous pursuit and the creation of a metaphysical support mechanism based upon the prevailing religion.

The mythological beings known as the ‘knockers’, associated with the post-Medieval Cornish tin mines, also evidence a ritualised dimension embedded in European extraction.

Consequently, ethnography demonstrates that cultural drivers and the uselife trajectory of artefacts crafted from ‘special’ mined or quarried stones can have a range of social applications which are specifically non-functional, underpinning social renewal, cultural histories and mythologies.

This PhD seeks to address this fundamental issue and develop a deeper understanding of prehistoric extraction sites in Britain, and explore the motivations that lay behind their exploitation and the uselife of their products.

Analysis and interpretation will be assisted by a review of the literature drawn from Europea, the Americas, Australasia and Pacific ethnography and archaeology and then compared with the patterning in the archaeological record from Britain.

The aim of the PhD is to develop an interpretative framework which will enhance our understanding and contextualise prehistoric extraction in all its forms and help define the research and heritage values of these fragile archaeological sites - it will create applied research and engage public interest in what were our first ‘industrial’ monuments.

This research will primarily focus upon the flint mines and stone axe quarries of the Neolithic Period in the UK.

It will draw upon the writer’s own collaborative research which produced a national corpus of surveys of Neolithic flint mines and the data from five of the better preserved stone axe quarries, alongside the published stone axe corpus of the Implement Petrology Group (IPG).

As the physical remains of many axe quarries have yet to be studied in detail, a small amount of targeted fieldwork will address this issue to record evidence of locational preferences, extraction technique and scale/intensity of the workings. Material statements about gender, age and status will be gleaned from excavation accounts.

My personal research interests include Neolithic archaeology, prehistoric extraction sites, the Northumberland Cheviots, prehistoric field systems, upland archaeology and Native American archaeology, ethnography and ethnohistory.

Academic qualifications

University of Durham, St. Cuthbert's Society
BA (Hons) Archaeology

Shenstone New College (Birmingham University)
Certificate in Education, History

Conference papers

I have attended conferences since 1973 and personally organised many conferences and symposia.

Examples include:

  • Henge Monuments (6 November 1989)
  • Domestic Settlement and Landscape (14 November 1994)
  • the Spring Field Meeting in Sussex which focussed upon Neolithic flint mines and causewayed enclosures (16-18 May 1997) for the Neolithic Studies Group
  • many symposia based upon extraction sites for the Society for American Archaeology since 2003
  • Neolithic Causewayed Enclosures in Europe jointly for RCHME/EH, the Prehistoric Society and the Neolithic Studies Group.

I have presented papers to national and regional societies at conferences in the UK, and at international conferences in Dublin, Madrid, Vienna, Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Chillicothe, Denver, Lincoln (Nebraska), Montreal, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, San Juan and Vancouver.

Honours and awards

Winner of the Prehistoric Society's Baguley Award in 1989.

Teaching experience

For a number of years I gave lectures at adult education classes for Newcastle University, and was previously an honorary lecturer at both Newcastle and Durham Universities, giving lectures on multi-period landscape archaeology and providing fieldwork opportunities to undergraduates.


  • Member of the Institute for Archaeologists.
  • Member (and former Vice President) of the Prehistoric Society.
  • Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
  • Member of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne.
  • Member of the Lithics Studies Society.
  • Member of the Society for American Archaeology.
  • Member of the Neolithic Studies Group.
  • Archaeological Director of the Northumberland Archaeological Group.


I currently have a number of publications spanning the years 1977-2011 and covering subjects such as Neolithic extraction sites, cursus monuments, Neolithic houses and enclosures, Cheviot prehistoric archaeology, henge monuments, stone circles, Native American Moundbuilder sites, hillforts, burnt mounds, red hills, multi-period cultivation remains and Roman signal stations.