Antler Pick

The antler pick is a deer antler which has been cut and shaped to be a neolithic tool used for mining. The object is lightweight and durable with a wide base for gripping, the surface is uneven with its length stretching 44.2cm and a narrow hook with a blunted end from the repetitive striking of chalk, dirt and flint.

3D model of the Antler Pick

The flint pick is likely an antler from a red deer which was repurposed as a pickaxe for the excavation of flint during the Neolithic period of 5300 – 2000 BCE (Centre Céramique, 2017). It was found in a system of tunnels in the vicinity of Rijckholt/ Sint Geertruid southeast of Maastricht.

This object belongs to the following themes:



Place of Origin
Rijckholt / Sint Geertruid,
The Netherlands

Time Period of Use (ca.)
5300 – 2000 BCE

Red Deer Antler

Dimensions (cm)
Length: 44.2

3D Model

Nikon EOS 250D

Processing software
Agisoft Metashape Professional Edition

Richard Stevenson & Amir Unda Garza

The Antler Pick : A Tool Of Transformation

From a deer’s antler to a tool of prehistoric industry. There is speculation that the antlers were collected with some degree of seasonality, as the deer would likely shed the antlers during winter only to begin growing another pair immediately. One antler could make 4 picks depending on the size and position of cuts (Clason, 1981). The properties of the antler make them perfect for a rut, as male deers compete with each other for mates and territory. 

These instruments of status and violence among deers, also made for suitable tool material for prehistoric humans given their light weight, durability and flexibility which was greater than that of bone (Serjeantson, 2012). However, they were still not immediately fit for purpose. It took the effort of skilled craftspeople who would saw and grind the antler until it had a pointed end for digging and a broader base for gripping (Bosch, 2014). Though it is not represented in our 3D model available above, antler picks were often customized with engravings for decoration and personalisation (Aarts, personal communication, March 13, 2023).

The antler pick which was captured in a light-box

The antler picks were likely used in conjunction with a wooden shovel to excavate flint (Bosch, 2014). The significance of this object is the ingenuity and resourcefulness of prehistoric humans who transformed the natural world into something resembling industry. Some other tools as examples of early human ingenuity, include hammers, chisels, arrows and spearheads (Waugh, 2018). Greater craft and precision was used in the production of tools to incorporate sharp edges and greater balance than the Mesolithic or Paeleolithic periods (Aiken, 2022). So who were these humans and what was the dominant culture of the time?

The Dominant Culture and Early Trade

The Michelsburg was the dominant culture of the time across modern day France, Belgium, southern Netherlands and  Germany (Kreuz et al., 2014). The Michelsberg were a complex society, predominantly an agricultural society who have become known for their fortifications which used ramparts and ditches as defense against neighboring towns (Kreuz et al., 2014). They were sophisticated farmers who practiced agriculture and land management. To learn more on the transition of prehistoric humans from a nomadic culture to an agricultural society watch the video below.

Video describing the evolution of humans from a nomadic to an agricultural society

The Michelberg culture transformed how flint was used and how far it would travel with Valkenburg flint (found in Valkenburg) uncovered as far away as middle Limburg, roughly 50 km apart (Brounen et al., 1992). This is an essential object for understanding the theme of Economics and Wealth as it was the beginning of trade within the region, trade that stretched significant distances.

Rijckholt Mine and The Life of Labour

To give an idea of the scale of this operation, there were over 7,000 picks just like this one found . These instruments were found in a system of over 5,000 tunnels. Even though this time period is considered pre-industry; these instruments were used by an army of miners in a large-scale operation. The tunnels were found in the vicinity of Rijckholt/ Sint Geertruid south-east of Maastricht. The size of the operation and range of tools reflects just how inventive and sophisticated these people must have been (UNESCO, n.d.).

The flint mines were a major example of the technological and cultural progress during this time (UNESCO, n.d.). The flint mines at Rijckholt reveal an operation which spanned the equivalent area of 12 hectares with the total number of shafts estimated at 2000 (Engelen, 2022).

From 1964 to 1972, the Prehistoric Flint Mines Working Group of the Dutch Geological Society, Limburg Section volunteers offered the equivalent of 3,767 working days to explore these mines. (Engelen, 2022). Calculations of  the total amount of flint extracted estimate 14-16 million kilogram’s from an area of 8 hectares (Engelen, 2022).

Illustration showing the narrow Neolithic flint mine shafts and horizontal tunnels (Center Ceramique, 2017)

The tunnels uncovered were six to sixteen meters deep with a diameter of one to one and half meters. The miners kept a standardised shaft dimension at Rijckholt, compared to other regional mines such as (Brounen et al., 1992). That’s a tight and claustrophobic squeeze, for a neolithic male with an average height of 165cm. It remains an impressive and dangerous feat, illustrated in the image above. The object is essential in understanding the theme of Daily Life and Death as a symbol of the new cultural value of labour which had become part of these peoples daily lives having now formed settlements and long-term, established households (Van Gijn et al., 2005). Clason’s 1981 article title, “the flint miner as a farmer, hunter and antler collector” reveals the diverse roles of the neolithic miner.

The Connection Through Time

The antler gives us a connection to its past as a neolithic tool, and the flint formation takes us even further back. The formation of flint deposits begins millions of years prior with the accumulation of sedimentary rocks, such as chalk and limestone, in shallow seas or marine environments. Over time, these sedimentary rocks become compacted and hardened, and the organic remains of marine organisms within them, such as shells and sponges, are replaced by silica-rich mineral (Donovan, 2013). View the slider and accompanying descriptions below to get an overview of the interplay between fossils, animals and human ingenuity.

The presence of the Mosasaurus fossils in the same area as the flint deposits in Limburg provides an example of the scope of time involved in the formation of these deposits. The Mosasaurus lived during the Late Cretaceous period, around 70-66 million years ago, while the flint deposits in the Limburg area date back to the Early Cretaceous period, around 145-100 million years ago. This means that the flint deposits in Limburg are millions of years older than the Mosasaurus fossils found in the same area. 

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Marine Fossils
Flint Formation
Deer Antlers
Neolithic Miner
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The flint mines of Rijckholt, located in the Dutch province of Limburg, are an important archaeological site that provides valuable insights into the daily life and burgeoning economics of Neolithic people. The mines are believed to have been in use for a very long time, from around 3,950 to 2,650 BCE, and were a major source of flint for communities throughout the region. The mines are peculiar in that they were excavated by hand, using tools made from antlers and bones.

The antler picks found at the Rijckholt mines are not only remarkable for their technological importance but also for their cultural significance. They represent the ingenuity and resourcefulness of early human communities, who were able to adapt to their environment, develop sophisticated tools and techniques to utilise natural resources. The antler picks are also a reminder of the close relationship between humans and the natural world, reflecting the important role that animals played in the development of human societies.

Written by Richard Stevenson & Amir Unda Garza