New Publication – Lithic Scatter Sites

Mesolithic Deeside.
This evocative image by Ali Cameron gives a good idea of the joys of fieldwalking a lithic scatter site. Mesolithic Deeside members at work fieldwalking the prolific sites along the River Dee in Aberdeenshire.

Lithic scatters are one of the most common archaeological sites relating to Prehistory. What are they, how to investigate them, how to manage them? All is revealed in this new guidance document written with Scotland in mind. Thanks to the many people who consulted on this and helped with information and images. Although the document was written for those working on Scottish material, hopefully it contains information that will be of interest to those elsewhere.

It is free to download from the ALGAO website

Significant Sites?

Fieldwalking groups such as Mesolithic Deeside, here photographed by Ali Cameron, have a real contribution to make with regard to picking up the tiniest signs of life in the past.

I’ve been thinking about the significance of archaeological sites in connection with a project I’m working on just now. I’m concerned in particular with lithic scatter sites: fields, or other areas, where a spread of worked stone is visible on the surface of the ground.

Some lithic scatter sites have many thousands of pieces of worked stone (usually, but not always, flint), but others may have only a few hundred, or even a handful. Some sites cover a wide area, some are smaller, some more concentrated. By classifying the types of worked stone found it is possible to get an idea of the chronological periods represented. The fashion for some things was, thankfully, different in the Mesolithic to the Neolithic and so on. Arrowheads are particularly vulnerable to fashion. The range of pieces can also provide a rough idea of activity: whether there is debris from the manufacture of tools for example, or perhaps mainly points, blades or scrapers left from the completion of some tasks. It is very rough and really, in order to understand any site better, some sort of more invasive archaeology is necessary to investigate the preservation of in situ features and other material. But often the collection and classification of a surface assemblage is the best way to obtain a basic understanding of the archaeology.

What bothers me, however, is how to assess the significance of these places? In the past we have tended to judge them by size and, where present, date. Big sites, with lots of material, would be regarded as more significant than small sites with only a few pieces. Sites with pieces that relate to earlier or less well-known periods also tend to be regarded as significant. But this is all very crude.

For starters, it is patently, only a register of the significance of a site in the present day. We are assessing the significance to modern archaeologists. Is it not, in fact, an unreliable evaluation to base the significance of a site in prehistory on the amount of debris that people left behind? By that measure the most significant places in post-war Britain would be old landfill sites. Weird (or maybe not).

Size may come into it, but it is a complex equation. Occupation sites generally contain a diversity of evidence: traces of shelters, hearths, storage, and waste. Our homes are certainly significant. But are they the most significant places in our lives? What about the wooded hillock a mile away where we know we can always be sure of bagging some game for the pot? What about the crystal-clear waterfall that leads to the burn running past our fields? It ensures life-giving fresh water throughout the year. What about the farm where we grew up, where our sister still lives with her family – we have never returned but it is always in our hearts. How about the tombs of the ancestors? The great oak where everyone congregates when we need to gather? You get my gist. One thing about our 2020 lockdown – it has changed the way we view the places on which we rely. Significance is not stable.

Some archaeologists are lucky. They have records, or even informants, to discuss the way in which the landscape worked for other communities. Opportunities like this open up new worlds, new interpretations. But they don’t exist for those of us concerned with the early Prehistory of Europe. The life of an archaeologist is devoted to interpreting other communities, but, of necessity, our first-hand experience is always limited to ourselves.

It occurs to me that we are wrong to dismiss the teeny-weeny lithic scatters as insignificant. We cannot ever know. While archaeologists focus on definable sites, the people of the past did not operate in discrete boxes; their behaviour took place across the landscape. There is, thus, a geographic gradation of detritus relating to any activity or life. Centres, known as sites, are likely to contain the highest density of detritus (in this case lithic assemblages), but it is unlikely to stop completely between centres. In order to understand human behaviour, therefore, it is important to record and investigate the less prolific areas of lithic material as well as the higher density spreads. This has long been an issue for archaeologists, and it is, of course, complicated by the geomorphological and other taphonomic processes that also impact on archaeological survival. Foley considered it, very eloquently, in 1978. Archaeology focusses on clearly defined sites with large numbers of finds, but those with fewer finds are likely to be just as interesting (and significant) in terms of ancient human behaviour. How to investigate and interpret the less clearly defined site, where a handful of lithics may be the only indication of prehistoric activity, is more of a problem, but we can, at least, record them and make a start.

Higher density sites may be significant in terms of archaeological resource and past human behaviour, but it is perhaps through examination of lower density sites that archaeological fieldwalking really comes into its own. In this way it offers a real contribution towards interpretation of the behaviour of the prehistoric communities. These are the places through which people passed: the routeways, overnight stops, hunting blinds, kill-site butchery areas, all the little everyday places that completed the web of human activity.

Without the small, and apparently insignificant, as well as the large, our archaeologies will always be incomplete.

Using your voice

The Barberellas in concert at the Stones of Stenness, Orkney. How did the original users of the monument sound?

A few months ago I  spent a week working on voice and communication with Kristin Linklater. It was a fascinating experience that got me thinking about all sorts of things. I never set out to be an academic (if, indeed, I am one). I was just Continue reading Using your voice

The Nature of the Beast

The evidence for Palaeolithic activity in Scotland is slowly coming to the fore when we find related artifacts at sites like this one: Nethermills on Deeside.

Successful archaeology depends on the collection and study of evidence. It has developed over the years into a multi-faceted profession in which few grasp the full details of more than a handful of the possible specialisations into which we Continue reading The Nature of the Beast

Why Study Archaeology?

Why spend the time (and money) to study archaeology? It is not a simple picture.

Over the years many people have asked me about the advisability of studying archaeology. Sometimes it is those who look to develop a career in it. Sometimes it is parents who are worried that their child has apparently decided to pursue a career in some fringe subject. Occasionally it is someone who wants to find out more about their long-term interest. Continue reading Why Study Archaeology?

Archaeology: the Pick and Mix Profession

submerged forest Nova Scotia
The submerged landscape is something that touches us all, wherever we work. The traces of this submerged forest in the Minas Basin, Nova Scotia lie below some 12m of water at high tide.

When I studied archaeology, it was a very different topic. We learnt about cultural change through the examination of specific artefact and monument types, often assuming that the pieces that we found were finished and perfect. Continue reading Archaeology: the Pick and Mix Profession

Is fiction really fiction?

Fiction
There is nothing like a good book: some of the novels that have been published about Skara Brae

I’ve been working on a paper about the benefits to the archaeologist of exploring fiction. It is a hotly debated topic just now. Afficionados of the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ might have come across Hugo Vickers fascinating breakdown of the accuracy of the series. Readers of The Guardian, may have read Simon Jenkins’ Continue reading Is fiction really fiction?

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

Searching for the Scottish Late Upper Palaeolithic

Intrigued by the emerging evidence for Late Upper Palaeolithic activity in Scotland, Torben Bjarke Ballin and I have put together a short paper which was published earlier this week in the Journal of Lithic Studies. We are particularly Continue reading Searching for the Scottish Late Upper Palaeolithic