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.

The anatomy of hunting

A modern take on becoming the animal, from Lunar Festival 2015
A modern take on ‘becoming the animal’ from Lunar Fest 2015

I’m reading Richard Nelson’s little book of stories about hunting in the north, Shadow of the Hunter.  It makes fascinating reading; the stories are gentle, nothing too gripping, but it evokes a powerful sense of landscape, of different types of snow and ice, and of the decisions made by those who rely on their own senses to make a living there.

It brings home the way in which a successful hunter has to ‘become’ the prey, relying on empathy with the targeted animal in order to anticipate its movements and make a kill. Indeed he discusses this aspect as part of the everyday round.

I’m also struck by the way in which those who hunt and butcher in order to bring  meat and other materials home must have a detailed knowledge of the anatomy and workings of the animals they seek. I know this is blindingly obvious, but it has never sunk in before. It got me thinking about the detail we see on Palaeolithic Cave art and other representations like some of the Pictish designs. Rather than being surprised at the apparent anatomical knowledge displayed by the artists it seems to me that the surprise is when they don’t depict it. The motivation behind more stylized illustration must have been interesting.

Another element of the book is the way in which the stories are played out by men. Women have little role in most of the chapters. This is largely due to the author’s own aims: he set out to record specifically hunting techniques. I know there are other books that record the role of women, like Daughters of Copper Woman and now I must go and revisit them.

Thoughts about sea crossings

Prehistoric Lakedwellers with a boat
‘Lakedwellers’ from an anonymous illustration in 1937

I’m interested in the relationship between people and the sea. Perhaps it is something to do with living on an island and looking out at the sea every day. And with my research interests in hunter-gatherers and their mobility.

Visiting a local exhibition by Patty and Ralph Robinson on ‘Allegories of Migration’ in aid of the Scottish Refugee Council, I was very struck by some of the pieces and the thoughts they inspired. What role, for example, will the current sea-crossings in the eastern Mediterranean play in the stories that are told hereafter? Although we often see the sea as a boundary (we are an island nation after all), in many of our stories journeys across the sea act as gateways to adventure. Of course the classic tale is the Odyssey, but the theme holds good closer to home as well. From the the account of Rognvald’s journey to the Holy Land in the Orkneyinga Saga to Treasure Island, there is something about setting out by boat that we know in advance will serve to test our abilities with the possibility of great reward at the end.

But reading these stories at home is a very safe pastime.  We rarely think of them as threatening. Perhaps we should. I listened fascinated (and horrified) to an interview on Radio Four the other day as a Syrian refugee family spoke calmly of the boat crossing they were about to make, of the fact that the boat would be sunk before they reached land, and of the fact that most of them could not swim. The dangers are huge. And yet the reward is so great, and their present situation so bad that the chances of being rescued make the journey worthwhile.

I wonder about the sea stories told by our Mesolithic ancestors. And whether the crossing of water has always been so laden. I suppose it probably has, from the moment we left Africa. It is very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security today, when one has a warm fire, a mug of tea and a good book. Even more so when our sea crossings are done in the comparative comfort of a modern ferry. Few of us in the UK set out across water in the knowledge that we might not return, or make it to the other side. Perhaps we should look differently at our tales of the sea and the way in which we write about past sea crossings, and we should remember that it has not always been so.