Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland in a nutshell

Structural remains from Rum
Elusive remains of Mesolithic structures from the excavations at Kinloch, Rum, drawn by Alan Braby.

I’ve been asked to provide a five-minute summary of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland. It is an interesting exercise, but it is difficult. I’ve not done it entirely to my satisfaction, but here is the ten-minute version!

The period between 14,000 and 6000 years ago was a time of considerable environmental transformation. Change was very much the norm for those who lived in Scotland at the end of the Palaeolithic and into the Mesolithic.

Perhaps the main transformation was the ending of the last great Ice Age and in some ways all things lead from this so we need to understand it. Another, relevant to the mobile hunter-gatherers of northwest Europe, was the generally rising sea-levels that led to the loss of Doggerland. But to highlight these masks a dynamic world that encompassed a wide range of change, all of which was relevant to the communities seeking to survive in Scotland – we can’t separate people from their environment. When considering human activity at any time we have to be fully aware of the world in which people lived and of the long-term and short-term challenges they faced. Among the relevant challenges for this period are the climatic deterioration known as the 8.2 ka cold event, which had widespread impact including a drop in temperature, increased windiness, and decreasing rainfall, though it was short and sharp – lasting for around two hundred years.

It is also important to remember that broadscale accounts mask specific events such as bad winters, droughts, winds and storm surges, and we do need to hold these in mind because it is precisely these events that impact upon the lives of individual communities. The single event that has received perhaps the most attention in recent years is the tsunami associated with the Storegga Slide. Dated with increasing precision to around 6150 BC it would have had devastating impact. Tsunami deposits have been found at heights over 20m in Shetland and it is likely that there was a knock on effect everywhere, compounded by the fact that it was unpredictable and occurred during the height of the 8.2 ka cold event.

Moving to the people: the inhabitation of Scotland during the Late Glacial has been a matter of some debate characterised by increasing evidence from finds of stone tools, of periodic human activity prior to the Younger Dryas (the re-establishment of glacial conditions between roughly 10,500 BC – 9700 BC), and culminating in the on-going excavation by Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks of an Ahrensburgian type assemblage (about 12,000 years old) from Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the west-coast island of Islay. The precise arrival of Mesolithic communities in Scotland is equally shrouded in uncertainty. We follow the stone tools because they have survived but do we always understand them? Broad blade microlith technologies of a type used to identify the earliest Mesolithic communities in England do occur in Scotland but they are rare and, as yet, not securely dated so that interpretation of the activity that led to them is weak. Narrow blade microlith technologies are more common and, in general, may be dated from the mid ninth millennium BC onward. Setting aside the theoretical weaknesses of equating tool technology with cultural community, the overall picture is one of increasing evidence for hunter-gatherer groups, and probable diversity between communities, from this period onwards.

A challenging aspect of the evidence for Mesolithic Scotland is the way in which the majority of sites are coastal, and we have to ask ourselves whether this reflects archaeological reality? The existing evidence suggests the presence of highly specialised communities well able to exploit the marine and littoral resources, and for whom water-born transport may have facilitated coastal mobility, but how much did they penetrate the uplands? We assume they did: emerging data illustrates the use of the montane interior even during times of climatic stress such as the 8.2 ka event. Are these the same groups? In some places it may well be that a single group made use of a particular river system, but in other areas research suggests that separate coastal and inland groups existed.

One aspect is notable: the growing evidence for structural remains excavated over the last 30 years. Much has been made of the traces of post-built circular structures that are interpreted as semi-permanent. In Scotland these occur within the ninth millennium BC, though that at Mount Sandel in the north of Ireland has recently been re-dated to the early eighth millennium BC. They seem to have been in use during a time of stable climatic conditions, yet at a time when relative sea-level change (and concomitant land loss) was likely to have been most rapid. Their occupation occurs prior to the 8.2 ka cold event and to the Storegga tsunami. Many, but not all, occur in close proximity to the present coast.

These structures are not the only evidence we have for Mesolithic habitation however, other remains include light shelters and foundation slots. They occur across Scotland from Orkney to the Solway Firth. Most are found near to the coast (perhaps reflecting the evidence in general), but inland sites are being discovered (most recently at high altitude in the Cairngorms). With the exception of the site at Morton (where the interpretation is difficult), all yielded narrow blade microliths. Many sites have early dates, back to some of the earliest evidence for the Mesolithic in Scotland, but there are sites with later dates such as Cnoc Coig, though in general the later Mesolithic archaeology is less well represented and less well understood. On some sites a combination of different structural remains has been recovered.

Interpretation of the more robust structures has proved challenging to Mesolithic archaeologists seeking to validate paradigms of a mobile society. One solution has been to tie them to evidence of environmental instability; are they associated with increased competition for resources as the Doggerland landmass diminished? Actually I think it is more likely that they are a result of stability. Be that as it may, if we wish to create a more complete understanding of this period then it is necessary to consider all the evidence and not select specific ‘interesting’ elements.

Physical evidence apart – what about the people? There is very, very little skeletal evidence for Mesolithic Scotland. So, how many people were there? Estimation of population size where the archaeological record is demonstrably patchy is fraught with difficulty. In 1962 Atkinson suggested a total population for Scotland of about 70, but this has long been considered an underestimate. Tolan-Smith suggested that by the end of the seventh millennium BC population had reached maximum carrying capacity, but he does not actually say how he calculated this, nor give any numbers. More recently Wicks and Mithen have tackled the problem in a different way, using radiocarbon dates as a proxy; they don’t provide absolute numbers either, but their work is interesting because by postulating the possible reduction of population in western Scotland during, and after, the 8.2 ka cold event they are suggesting that population density was large enough to be challenged by the deterioration in environmental conditions.

To close, it is very easy to present the Mesolithic as some sort of utopia. But we have to be wary of this. We are dealing with a long period, a long time ago. Ethnographic work on hunter-gatherers should remind us that there is no average community, no average territory and no average life-style. Nevertheless, what we do see is that life as a hunter-gatherer is finely balanced. Sophisticated knowledge of the environment is weighed against all sorts of issues such as population density, environmental stability, and mobility in order to build a viable long-term lifestyle. This can be knocked out of kilter. Change, in any one part of the system, invariably affects all other aspects. It is an exciting aspect of modern archaeological studies that rather than simply gathering data we can now start to play around and look at elements such as this. We assume that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were consummate survivors (how else would we be here), life was undoubtedly difficult, but we have started to see examples of adaption and that is very gratifying.

High Fashion – Meso Style

Mesolithic Life in Orkney as imagined by Dominic Andrews
Artist Dominic Andrews made this reconstruction of Mesolithic Life for the Mesolithic room at the Tomb of the Eagles Heritage Centre in Orkney. He spent a long time discussing the details and I love it! As you can see we went for some serious clothing.

Last week I was alerted to a new publication on the Mesolithic, namely a little booklet about Mesolithic Teesside. You can download it for free.

It is a nice piece of work that discusses a wide range of things with lots of great illustrations. It introduces the reader to the concept of the Mesolithic and some of the ways in which we collect data about the period. The problems of researching a period in which settlements were often transitory and the material culture was by-and-large made of organic materials that have long since disappeared are well presented. There is a good introduction to the environment in which our Mesolithic ancestors lived, including past changes in relative sea-level and to the natural world which provided the resources from which people lived. Everything is related to local sites and there is information about sites and locations that would once have been considered obscure such as the fish trap from Seaton Carew and the submerged landscape there.

Of course, there are bits with which I take issue such as the description of Doggerland as a land bridge, or the confusion of tsunami and tidal wave, but these are minor in relation to the overall value of the booklet as a whole. Given the general invisibility of the Mesolithic in recent archaeology it is just brilliant to see something like this, which discusses such a wide range of information in clear well illustrated text and relates it to a specific area. All for free!

One aspect of the booklet in particular got me thinking. The cover is a striking image of a Mesolithic family set against local cliffs. It is very twee and clearly views the Mesolithic through the eyes of the modern, nuclear, family, but perhaps this is no bad thing if it can be used to introduce discussion about how we gather evidence, how we know what we think we know, and the biases that we bring to our understandings of the past. It is another aspect of the image that re-awakened one of my mental conundrums.

It is the clothes. Whenever we draw reconstructions of the Mesolithic we provide clothing for everyone. I do it myself when working with artists to illustrate Mesolithic life. But, there have been societies living in similar or worse climates that made little use of clothes. The Yamana of Tierra del Fuego, for example, had problems with keeping skin clothing dry and supple; for them, to wrap yourself in wet furs would be a quick way to catch cold. So they used fat to provide an insulating layer over their bodies and they took fire wherever they went in order to be able to provide warmth when necessary. It might seem like a strange lifestyle choice, but it was the helpful attempts of the London Missionary Society to hand out clothing collected in the UK that led to problems with hypothermia and cross infection. Think of the rural photographs of nineteenth century Scotland. The children are often barefoot even in circumstances that we would regard as challenging today.

I’m not saying that we should assume that folk in Mesolithic Britain went naked, but I am saying that we need to think about our assumptions. What archaeological evidence might we expect for clothing? Do we find it? I’m not sure that we have had the debate, but it would be good to start it. Meanwhile, I will continue to give my Mesolithic people clothing for now!

And if you have an interest in the Mesolithic I would urge you to download the Teesside Archaeology team’s excellent publication.

 

Mesolithic Eden?

This cartoon was published in 1986 by the Architect's Journal in response to the excavation of a Mesolithic site on the island of Rum
This cartoon was published in 1986 by the Architect’s Journal in response to the excavation of a Mesolithic site on the island of Rum

I’m fascinated by the recent publicity regarding the discovery of evidence for a Mesolithic structure at Blick Mead. It is not the discovery itself that interests me (though it is an interesting site), it is the aspects of it which the press release seeks to highlight.

The recovery of evidence for a Mesolithic structure at a site some two kilometres to the east of Stonehenge is interesting and important, but hardly surprising given the elements of Mesolithic archaeology that have come up from the vicinity of the site (summarized in the English Heritage Research Report), not least the specific evidence for a series of substantial post holes found in the area of the Stonehenge Car Park and the more general evidence for activity inferred from palaeoenvironmental investigations.

The Blick Mead press release draws our attention to the nature of the Mesolithic settlement: ‘an ‘eco’ home’, its age, and the suggestion that activity here was continuous for 3000 years, from 7600 BC to 4246 BC. It indicates that this is a major challenge to the traditional interpretation of the Mesolithic as nomadic, and goes on to suggest that the site is crucial to our understanding of the first human occupation of Britain.

I know that press releases are not the place to search for scientific detail, but they are important for our communication to the world at large, so we need to get them right. Here, I am at a loss to identify what it is that makes the Blick Mead structure any different from existing evidence for Mesolithic structures. A range of Mesolithic ‘houses’ now exists across Britain, from the Northern Isles to southern England. Some incorporate hollows, some hearths, some cobbled areas; some have post holes, some slots; some are interpreted as skin covered, some may have used turves, others grass. All could be described as ‘eco’ in today’s terms (though I am at a loss to imagine a non-eco Mesolithic house).

The age of the finds is early but not unusually so. It fits nicely with the evidence that we have for Mesolithic activity from a number of sites across the UK. It is a good Mesolithic site. In a paper published last year in the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine the team note that they now have radiocarbon determinations from every millennium throughout the Mesolithic and this, seemingly, is the foundation for the interpretation that activity here was continuous into the Neolithic and the age of Stonehenge. I’m curious about this, surely most excavations produce a range of dates, often from different millennia? I’ve been involved in one recently where the dates range from the seventh millennium to the fourth millennium BC. But we would never take this as evidence for continuity of activity.

Of course, I am old-fashioned, but challenges to the ‘mobile Mesolithic’ have been trotted out for a while now. To my mind they simply expose an unsophisticated thought process wherein the full range of flexibility inherent in any mobile society is not properly understood, or presented. We can get this depth of information over to the public, in general people are interested. It is always going to be difficult to uncover the smaller, less ‘permanent’ sites, but we need to remember that just because a structure is more robust that does not mean that it was occupied all year round, or indeed by the same members of a community on every occasion.

With regard to the ancient human occupation of Britain, this seems to be something of a red herring. I’m not sure why the press release chooses to ignore the Palaeolithic, I thought that kind of thing only happened in Scotland and then a while ago now.

Overall, I am also concerned at the ‘Mesolithic Eden’ viewpoint that the piece promotes. As archaeologists we are quite good at self reflection. Unsophisticated interpretations like this are generally avoided these days, or I thought they were.

I find the press release quite misleading. Most of the ‘headlines’ in the piece have been used in the past and any reporter writing this up will quickly realise that it is not so much news as old hat. So, apart from the accuracy of the interpretations, I’m upset because we rely on a good relationship with the media to tell people about archaeology. Perhaps we just needed more information.

Blick Mead is a significant site. It is in an interesting location and given the general state of our knowledge any evidence of a Mesolithic structure is good. It is not really surprising to find evidence of Mesolithic activity here, but it does fill a gap and helps us to understand the story of this part of England. Whether or not we can relate it directly to Stonehenge remains to be seen, but there are other places in the UK where significant Neolithic ceremonial centres occupy a landscape that was also active during the Mesolithic, so that is definitely something to explore. Lets not undersell ourselves. It is perhaps a bit more time consuming to write a press release that presents the real value of the site, but surely it is worth doing. If we keep rehashing the same old information people will wonder what we are doing and whether we are a profession that is worth supporting.

I have seen some big changes in archaeology in my time. Perhaps the time has come to include a module on popular communication as a compulsory element of any archaeology degree.

The Emotional Fallout of Loosing Doggerland

Morgan Scheweitzer's image of Doggerland for the New Scientist
This image of Doggerland by Morgan Scheweitzer for the New Scientist sums up the twenty-first century attitude to this ancient landmass

I’m working up a paper about the drowning of Doggerland. I’m amazed by the way in which this is described in highly emotive language by archaeological academics. To coin a phrase the ‘tags’ are all negative: devastating; killing zones; abandonment; vulnerability; increased tensions; disaster; instability; risk; stress, I have deliberately avoided assigning word to author.

At its height, at the end of the last great Ice Age, Doggerland comprised a considerable landmass and different areas of the terrain are likely to have been used by various hunter-gatherer groups. The inundation that led to the loss of this landscape took place over about six thousand years between c. 10,000 BC and c. 4,000 BC and was one of a suite of palaeoenvironmental changes that occurred at the time. It was not a steady process, at times people would have been well aware of the encroaching seas but at other times, particularly towards the end of the period, the rate of change slowed.

Our evidence suggests that many of the groups who would have been affected made use of the coastal zone and were highly sophisticated in their use of marine resources. The changes to their environment meant a rebalancing of the division between water and land. Groups in the interior may have been less flexible, as may their prey. It is interesting to ask ourselves to what extent these people felt vulnerable, or threatened, by the transitions that were taking place.

I think it unlikely that they did. Given the fact that these societies were living through a long period of environmental change, instability was their norm. They had many strategies for flexibility built into their annual lifeways and they were well equipped to survive. Low density populations; inherent mobility; sophisticated understanding of the world around them, including the coastal and marine environment; social adaptability: all of these equipped people to live in this changing world. Of course there would always be individual problems and disasters such as a particularly harsh winter, or the tsunami set off by the Storegga Slide around 6200 BC, but my interest lies in their response to the long-term transformation.

Which leaves me wondering – why the emotional reaction today to the drowning of Doggerland? Could it have more to do with our own fears? We are more populous and less flexible than our ancestors and we are very preoccupied with climate change, in particular sea-level rise and the loss of dry land. A millennia or so of perceived stable conditions have made us complacent about our lifestyle and we are suddenly worried that we may not be able to continue into the future in the way to which we have become accustomed.

It seems to me that the general theme, that surviving the loss of Doggerland must have been problematic, may relate more to our present times than to the peoples of the Mesolithic. This has been discussed in an interesting paper by Karla de Roest which is available online here and at other sites.

Whatever: Doggerland is now part of our national consciousness, depicted in a great poem by Jo Bell.

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.