Ancient Scotland: pushing back the boundaries

Ancient inhabitant of Scotland
We weren’t quite taught using images like this, but it does give the impression of how the earliest inhabitants of Scotland were regarded! During my time as a student the department was clearing out old glass slides and I rescued this one. I’ve always been quite fond of him!


Archaeology has changed so much since I studied at Edinburgh. That is a good thing – at least our work is leading to new finds and new thoughts.

Earlier this month Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks from the University of Reading released a press statement about their excavations at Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the island of Islay where finds of a particular style of stone tools point to human activity in the west of Scotland towards the end of the Late Glacial Period about 12,000 years ago. Technically, we call this period the Ahrensburgian, though of course we have no idea how the people would have styled themselves.

We do have other hints that people were in Scotland at the time, but, so far there is really very little evidence from this period. Luckily, people have always been slaves to fashion and archaeologists can make use of this; characteristic stone tools from this period do turn up, but they tend to be found as isolated finds, perhaps from hunting accidents.  Rubha Port an t-Seilich provides the first opportunity to excavate a site in detail, so it is a significant find.

Conditions in northwest Europe at the time were chilly, with ice caps not far away. The landscape in this part of Scotland is likely to have comprised tundra grassland with cold winters but milder summers. Sites elsewhere show that the reindeer hunters of earlier periods had diversified to exploit the coast, and this perhaps explains the arrival of a group in Islay. Research indicates that the coasts of Scotland were free of extensive sea ice cover at this time.  The evidence suggests that individual communities might travel long distances in order to exploit the resources around their territory. These people were sophisticated hunters, well equipped to be able to survive in an environment that we would find harsh. Nevertheless, the exploration of new lands was no mean feat.

When I studied archaeology in the 70s there was no evidence at all that Scotland had been inhabited this early. Indeed, there was little evidence from the subsequent Mesolithic period, and general wisdom suggested that the north and west of Scotland would have been uninhabited before the arrival of the first farmers some 6000 years ago. One reason for the lack of Mesolithic material was the lack of archaeologists working on it. Quite apart from the fact that it was the period that interested me most, I have always thought that I made a canny move setting out to study the period that most people found boring. It meant that whatever I did was likely to make an impact. It is not quite so easy for those embarking on an archaeological career today. I’m happy to report that there is now a strong and numerous band of happy Mesolithic archaeologists and that the results of their work across Scotland (even in the north and the west) mean that Mesolithic archaeology is full of interesting discussion and theory!

Hopefully the recent discoveries in Islay mean that we are about to witness the pushing back of the boundaries of ancient Scotland even further.

You can read more about Steve and Karen’s work in their recent paper here.