New Publication: Prehistoric Communities of the River Dee.

Mesolithic Deeside.
A classic evocation of Mesolithic Deeside at work and the sort of evidence they are finding, by Ali Cameron.

Mesolithic Deeside are a voluntary community archaeology group who walk the ploughed fields along the middle reaches of the River Dee around Banchory in order to record the prehistoric archaeology by collecting worked stone from the surface of the field. In the three years from 2017 – 2019 their work resulted in the recovery of over 11,000 lithics representing at least 15 archaeological sites dating from around 12,000 BC to c.2,000 BC. Their work is exciting because it is shedding light on a period of Scottish archaeology about which very little is yet known: the Late Upper Palaeolithic right at the end of the last Ice Age. It also provides an unparalleled glimpse of the extent of human activity along the river.

While others were perfecting their sourdough recipes, or embroidering replicas of the Bayeux Tapestry, I was working with the members of Mesolithic Deeside and various associated archaeologists to produce a publication of the first three years of work of the group. The final words might be mine – but the hard work was undertaken by many others. I had a wealth of reports and field notes, all supplied by the team, from which to hone our document. There were also extensive photographs, maps and drawings – all put together through the talent of others.

Did we succeed in producing an informative but readable account? Download it from the link here and judge for yourself. I think it is a fascinating story, but then I am biased.

The other thing to note here is all the help and expertise we have received from others. From the National Lottery Heritage Fund who provided the funding that got the group going, to Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service who were always there with support and advice, and Historic Environment Scotland who have supported the final publication, as well as many, many other funding bodies along the way. Then there was the fantastic team at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland who edited and published the final report as part of their wonderful Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports series (wonderful not just for the content but also because it is freely available – not a paywall in sight). And so many people along the way. Community archaeology is a brilliant evocation of the variety of skills that can be brought to bear on unravelling the past when people care.

I won’t say that there were not moments when I woke up in the middle of the night and despaired at the size of the task I had taken on. But for me the end result justifies those odd moments of reflection (and I do love writing).

The work of Mesolithic Deeside continues. No matter how much we know about the work of the past, there is always more to learn. If you want to join in, get in touch with them. It is fun – and healthy! And hopefully there will be more volumes like this one: the finds, and sites, since 2019 are already beginning to mount up!

Woman of Labrador

landscape pic
The north coast of Newfoundland from the air. A landscape not unlike that occupied by the trappers’ and their families.

I’ve just been reading a wonderful book and I thought I’d write about it. I don’t often feel that I want to push a single publication, but this has really got me thinking.

The book is Woman of Labrador by Elizabeth Goudie. It was first published in 1973.

Elizabeth Goudie lived among the trapping communities of Labrador in the early twentieth century. Despite only having some four years schooling, she set out to describe her life there, because of the changes that she saw taking place around her as the decades progressed. It is a straightforward account. Compassionate, unrelenting, and yet never complaining. Elizabeth was just as much part of the twentieth-century as my own grandparents in central London, and yet she provides an intimate glimpse into a life that was so different. Despite talking about the past, her memories are so vivid that she often talks in the present tense, adding a sense of immediacy to the world she describes. I don’t think she meant to, but she has given us a beautiful evocation of the life of a hunter-gatherer.

The book is full of quotes that highlight the ethos of the community where she lived:

‘Then there would be no more hunting because the birds would lay their eggs and people would not hunt birds anymore until September. That was the custom of the country. Everybody kept it’ (p48).

Of course, you cannot extrapolate one person’s thoughts to another, never mind the customs of one community to another, much less the present to the past. But reading her book provided me with a strong sense of how it was to live from the land in a way that most of us will never experience.

There is a strong idea of community. Despite the fact that individual families occupied isolated houses in separate bays, they clearly felt together. Help was not refused, food was shared in times of hardship, and beds were always available for those who might turn up.

The care taken to conserve resources is clear. There is a time and place for everything and the families lived to a strict annual round. February was a month of rest, March for catching rabbits and partridges, in April trout were to be caught, and in May people caught smelts to use as fertilizer on potato patches, there were seals to be caught in June, while in July and August the winter wood pile was replenished and work started to repair canoes and equipment for the winter, September was busy with berry picking, October with drying and preserving, November was the time to make and repair clothing, it took a whole month just to prepare the kit for the men to leave for their trap lines which they did in December, returning home in January. As she said: ‘Our months were not wasted and we had little time for reading or any kind of pleasure’ (p119).

It is a highly mobile life, from salmon camps to winter houses and so on. Journeys were mostly undertaken by canoe or dog sled, though long journeys on foot also took place, making use of snowshoes. She describes long treks with the family, often over several weeks, and sometimes in sub-zero temperatures, spending the nights with the families who lived en route. ‘A team of dogs can be great company when you are alone’ (p89).

It was a hard life, something Elizabeth only acknowledges in the later passages, where she describes the easier life they had from the 1940s onwards. More or less everything, from clothes, to furniture, fuel and food, had to be made or prepared at home. In several locations fresh water required an arduous walk, and sometimes had to be brought home as blocks of ice. Very little was bought: mainly flour and fat. There is an interesting description of the problems caused when the flour supply fails on one occasion.

Much of the daily work is undertaken by the women, men were away at the traplines for long periods of time. For this reason, women were obviously as skilled with a rifle as they were with needle, frying pan, or axe. Although there were medical services, these were not always easy to access and home remedies as well as first aid knowledge were much in demand. I now know how to make an effective poultice from juniper stems. It is also interesting to hear her talk of the problems of mosquitos and flies. One of the enduring questions relating to the earliest settlement of Scotland regards the presence (or not) of the Scottish Midge and its likely impact on life and general morale – not good, if her feelings are anything to go by.

It is a resilient society. Struggles and hardship are depicted in detail, and yet with a mundane tone that belies the emotions that must have come to the fore. Life was not easy, or comfortable. Food shortages, temperatures of thirty or forty below zero that would leave us gasping, debts to the company store, illness and injury. There is a moving account of the problems of digging a grave for a toddler in frozen ground. People had to develop a way around it all, often moving on when times got too hard.

Of course, everyone knew and understood the land in considerable depth. This is clearly demonstrated, though there is little overt discussion of the landscape within which lives played out. In some ways it appears a passive backdrop. True appreciation of the world in which people lived is seen on the few occasions when there was time for leisure and the writing becomes positively lyrical to express deep feelings for the surrounding beauty of the mountains and coasts.

Elizabeth’s community were not the only people to live in the region. There were also ‘Indian’ families, most of whom did not speak English. Though there was mutual respect, there seems to have been little contact between the two groups except when help was needed. It was a different world.

All things change and by the 1940s the construction of a military air base in Goose Bay precipitated the arrival of the end for the mobile lifestyle. Paid work was soon followed by chocolate, movies, roads and electricity. This book is just one of a suite of publications that describe bygone ways of life around the world, but it is one of the most vivid. I’m so glad she wrote it.

‘I would rather live back fifty years ago, because today you turn on your radio or television and you hear all sorts of news about going to the moon or war or whatever and you feel afraid that something fearful is going to happen’ (p 192).

Living in Mesolithic Scotland

The lives of our Mesolithic ancestors were very different to ours. What can they teach us?

I’ve been working on a text about life in Mesolithic Scotland for a teaching resource. It has got me thinking about one of my favourite subjects: the ways in which our life differs so much from that of our Mesolithic ancestors and yet we still value skills that would have been very familiar to those who made their home here eight thousand years ago. Continue reading Living in Mesolithic Scotland

Neanderthals on TV

programme clip
Neanderthals: Meet Your ancestors, clip from the BBC Two series page.

I have much enjoyed a couple of programmes on television recently: Neanderthals – Meet Your Ancestors. Presented by a new name (to me at least), Ella Al-Shamahi, the series gets over some serious concepts and is a good example of the way in which it is possible to use modern technology (and expectations) to put forward detailed points without dumbing down. Continue reading Neanderthals on TV

The challenging of preconceptions

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Reconstruction of the face of Cheddar Man: Channel 4.

One of the reasons I love archaeology is the way in which it challenges us to recognise and rethink our preconceptions. It is very easy to live in the cosy world of today and focus on reassuring feelings of stability. Practices of mindfulness, among others, encourage us to ‘live for the moment’ and, amidst the insecurites of the present, this is not something with which I would wish to disagree. Continue reading The challenging of preconceptions

New Paper Published: Mesolithic in the Cairngorms

The upper reaches of the River Dee in the Cairngorm Mountains

For the past few years I have worked with a number of colleagues (and friends) to examine the traces of Mesolithic activity high in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. Excitingly, one of the sites, excavated by Graeme Warren and colleagues with a team from University College, Dublin, yielded evidence for a small structure, occupied around 8200 cal BP. This is particularly interesting Continue reading New Paper Published: Mesolithic in the Cairngorms

Lion Man

The Lion Man sculpture captured in a photo on Wikipedia

I have much enjoyed Neil MacGregor’s BBC Radio Series ‘Living with the Gods’. It is so nice to hear information from prehistory discussed alongside that from historical sites, all put into the context of everyday life today. Or, rather, everyday lives – his outlook has a chronological and geographical scope that is truly impressive. Continue reading Lion Man

The northern reaches of Doggerland

Shetland
The island mass of Shetland, stretching out  south from Unst, is just the tip of the iceberg of the land that may have been experienced by early hunters.

If you travel to Shetland today you will find a rather beautiful island chain that essentially comprises a series of steep hills. The topography is abrupt and dramatic; the landscape is gentler towards the coast, but in most places Continue reading The northern reaches of Doggerland

The Invisibility of Women

cwj knapping
Women flintknappers – breaking the gender barriers of prehistory? Or just a modern misconception – maybe the gender barrier was never there? Maybe it varied from place to place? Can we tell?

A recent paper in The Conversation, a news platform based on academic writing and research, asks ‘Where were all the women in the Stone Age?’.

It is a good question and the author is to be credited for posing it. Unfortunately, the ensuing text is full of contradiction and occasional bias. Nevertheless, it is a topic that should, perhaps, be required thinking for all of us who work in prehistory at least once a year. To approach it, we need to go back to the basics.

Continue reading The Invisibility of Women

Significant Places

Blick Mead
The main spring at Blick Mead has a very special atmosphere, though it lies in modern woodland.

Much has been written of the way in which natural places are significant to hunter gatherers and we assume that this was the case for those who lived in the British Isles in the Mesolithic. Not for them the dominance of the green earthen bank, the white quartz (or chalk) façade, the grey stone megalith. Instead we imagine that they related to locations that were more a part of the natural world. Locations where familiar things (water, trees, rocks), took on unfamiliar form.

The problem with this is that it can be hard to prove. In many cases, the very nature of the place will have been unlikely to survive the passage of the millennia since they were in use. Where they have survived, it goes against the archaeological grain to investigate a potential site that may, to all intents and purposes, ‘not be there’.  There are, however, a few locations that seem to tick the box and I know of two that are under investigation. I have been lucky enough to visit both.

High in the Cairngorms, at the point where the path climbs up into the exposed pass that we now call the Lairig Ghru, a waterfall, known as the Chest of Dee, cuts across an exposure of rock to fall to a series of dark pools. From here the River Dee makes its way eastwards out of the mountains and through fertile woodlands to the sea at Aberdeen. Footpath maintenance below the waterfall in 2005 revealed a handful of flint tools among which narrow blade microliths were recognised.  Since then excavation by students from the Universities of Aberdeen and Dublin (under the direction of Gordon Noble and Graeme Warren), has discovered plentiful evidence of Mesolithic activity.

At the opposite end of the topographical spectrum, at the southern edge of the Wiltshire Downs, the River Avon connects to a natural pool in the chalk, known as Blick Mead. Today, the pool lies within relatively recently planted woodland, but visitors are stuck by the atmosphere. It is a weird, yet peaceful place. The water is apparently still, yet it moves in an endless series of animated circles. This is not the action of fish, it is the result of bubbles as warm spring water comes to the surface. Excavation by students from the University of Buckingham and local volunteers (under the direction of David Jacques) has yielded abundant Mesolithic stone tools and other evidence.

In both cases these sites are linked in to a wider landscape. Mesolithic evidence extends to other sites in the close vicinity. Curiously, both have associations with great Mesolithic pit features: Blick Mead lies just over 2.5km from Stonehenge where a series of pits close to the henge site are interpreted by English Heritage as totem pole-like posts erected between 8500 and 7000 BC. Slightly further from the site at Chest of Dee, but along the same river, is the site at Crathes, where a line of carefully curated pits has been dated to around 8200 BC. Though these pits lie some 75km from the waterfall site, half way between the two is the narrow Pass of Ballater, where mineral deposits shine in lurid colours high in the rocks. Traces of these minerals were linked to the materials within the pits.

Our understanding of the way in which our Mesolithic forebears saw the world and their place in it will always be hazy. But there is increasing diversity in the sites that we recognise and this is exciting. Not only do we need to refine the ways in which we study the traces they left behind. We also need to distance ourselves from our twenty-first century appreciation of the world around us. At sites like these, we can start to enter a different state of awareness.

You can read more about these sites here:

Jacques, D. and Phillips, T. 2014. Mesolithic Settlement near Stonehenge: excavations at Blick Mead. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural history Magazine, 107, 7-27.

Stonehenge Mesolithic Posts

Chest of Dee – we have submitted a paper to Antiquity, but in the meantime here is a video of the work on the site.

Crathes Mesolithic Pits