Palaeolithic explorers in Orkney

tanged point from Brodgar
The tanged point from Brodgar – one of three exciting finds that have pushed back our understanding of the early settlement of Orkney

I put together a wee lecture for Radio Orkney last night on the findings of Late Upper Palaeolithic tanged points in Orkney and how they push our understanding of the earliest human exploration of Orkney back to some 13,000 years ago. It lasts for about half an hour. You can listen to it here. Please note that the image Radio Orkney has used to illustrate it is of a handaxe that was found on the beach some years ago and is not actually appropriate to the lecture (it is not likely to be an in situ find, and would be many millennia earlier if it was). I did put together a few images to go with the lecture, they have not been posted with the lecture, but if you would like to get them then just email me and I will let you have a copy – they might relieve the tedium of listening to me droning on for half an hour!

The Power of One

north sea flint
Illustration of the North Sea flint by Alan Braby. Can we really postulate the population of an extensive landmass on the basis of one, small, artefact?

Publication of the tanged point from Brodgar, Orkney, by Torben Bjarke Ballin and Hein Bjartmann Bjerck in the Journal of Lithic Studies has made me ponder on our attitude to isolated finds. The authors suggest that this flint arrowhead adds weight to the body of evidence for Palaeolithic activity in Scotland. To understand the significance of this you have to realise that tanged points occupy a semi mythological status in Scotland, adding apparent weight to elusive evidence for the earliest human activity in the country.

This particular piece was originally published (with two others from separate sites) as Palaeolithic by Livens in 1956, but as it was subsequently lost it has been impossible to investigate his claims. Recently, however, it has been rediscovered, mis-catalogued, in the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow (have a look at it here).

When I studied archaeology, the idea that Scotland had an antiquity that stretched back to the Mesolithic was considered doubtful for the north – to suggest even older occupation during the Palaeolithic was truly daring. I’m happy to say that we now have a respectable number of tanged points from various sites across Scotland, and, though none comes with an associated in-situ assemblage, there is increasing evidence for activity during the Palaeolithic, including the on-going excavation by Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks of an Ahrensburgian type assemblage at Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the west-coast island of Islay.

But, how much evidence is evidence? Single finds, from any other period (and perhaps in any other place) would rarely be considered compelling. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great fan of the single find – a good part of my archaeological reputation has been built on a single find; one that sits in stately isolation in an even greater landscape than the Brodgar point. In 1986 I co-authored publication of a small and insignificant scraper that has since become known as ‘the North Sea Flint’. It was found below some 134m of sea water in the upper sediments of a core recovered during oil prospection roughly half way between Shetland and Norway. At first we toyed with the idea that this represented some prehistoric tragedy as a lone fisherman was swept out to sea and drowned. Or perhaps it had been lost from the hand of a Victorian collector, proudly displaying it to friends on board a North Sea steamer. Soon we realized that the location from which it had been retrieved would have been dry land and available for settlement towards the end of the last great Ice Age. So, we postulated the early population of a whole land mass (later to be named Doggerland by Bryony Coles) on the basis of a single flint. There were, at the time, no other finds from the northern part of Doggerland and though in recent years there is increasing evidence from the southern North Sea, the northern section is still, largely, unexplored.

core with North Sea flint
Core from the northern North Sea with the flint scraper showing clearly in the sandy deposits to the left

There are many reasons why archaeological evidence might be thin on the ground for the Upper Palaeolithic in Scotland. Population density was small and communities were highly mobile. Some sites may have been short lived; some may not have resulted in the deposition of artefactual material. Much of what we know about the communities elsewhere in north west Europe suggests that people were at home on the plains, following and hunting herds such as reindeer. Scotland, with its mountainous terrain was right at the edge of the territory in which they were most comfortable. And, of course, it was a long, long time ago: sites have been affected by a multitude of geomorphological and taphonomic processes since then which will have worked to dismantle the evidence.

So, perhaps we should congratulate ourselves on the way in which our archaeological skills have been honed to the extent that we can recognise and recover any evidence at all, patchy though it is. But I’m not sure about this. There is a good Palaeolithic record from England and Wales and I don’t think archaeologists there make excuses for a paucity of sites. No one nowadays doubts that groups of Upper Palaeolithic hunters did roam across Scotland (or I don’t think they do). So, what is going on? Perhaps we should start by looking at the way in which we undertake our Palaeolithic investigation. Or rather, perhaps we should consider the way in which we don’t do it. ScARF highlighted the problems with finding and managing sites that comprise mainly stone tools and they were focussing on the Mesolithic. I don’t think we have come to terms at all with the possibility that there might actually be a Palaeolithic record here.

Until we do we shall continue to idolize the power of one, by creating a Palaeolithic that is truly ‘join-the-dots’ archaeology as we try to (re)create whole landscape(s), with chronological and geographical depth, out of isolated finds and occasional serendipitous scatters of broken and abandoned flints.