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 agricultural land is concentrated into small pockets. Numerous islands, of varying size, surround the main landmass.

Curiously, the islands have no indigenous land mammals. The evidence suggests that all, including otters and ponies, have been introduced by the earlier communities of Shetland. The early islanders were canny folk, well able to adapt their lifestyle and farming methods to make the most of the climate and conditions out on this north-western edge of the Atlantic landmass.

The history of the very specific conditions in Shetland brings to mind some pressing questions. If we go back far enough, to the millennia immediately after the Last Glacial Maximum, which ended in the northern hemisphere around 19,000 years ago, then a combination of lower relative sea-levels and land adjustment due to the weight of the ice mean that a great expanse of dry land connected Britain to the Continent. We call this land Doggerland and it is currently the subject of some serious research including work to investigate the topography, flora and fauna of the landscape.

Large quantities of animal bone have been recovered from Doggerland, from a variety of sources including fishing trawls and aggregate extraction. Much of this is Pleistocene, ie dating to before the present era, and it comprises the remains of mammoths, woolly rhinos, bear, lions, hippos, bison and so on. There are also elk and reindeer. And, of course, though they are rare, the remains of people have also been found.

Several of these species of animal were prey species that also occur on excavated archaeological sites in the countries that surround Doggerland, and there is a general assumption that the human inhabitants of Doggerland will have hunted them. It is, in fact, impossible to understand the early settlement of those bordering countries without taking in to account the hazy, but very real, idea that the hunter-gatherer communities who occupied them extended their ranges across lands that have since disappeared beneath the waves.

Indeed, when considering the recent re-discovery of tanged points in Orkney, the general impression is that they provide evidence of the fleeting presence of hunter-gatherer groups from Doggerland who, some 12,000 – 13,000 years ago, were keen, for whatever reason, to explore the north-west fringes of the landmass.

Which brings me back to Shetland. If it was possible for the Late Upper Palaeolithic hunters to access Orkney from Doggerland (whether across a stretch of open water or not), was it also possible for them to access Shetland? When, exactly, did Shetland become islands? If it was possible to get to Shetland overland, then it was also possible that Shetland was home to the animal species that flourished in Doggerland. Of course, you may say – there is no evidence for large mammals in early Shetland, but, I would reply – absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. There has been little research in deposits of the right age in Shetland so it may be that the bone has just not been found. I’m not sure that we even know where to look. The dramatically lower sea-levels of the period mean that the Shetland we experience today is only part of the resource, only the tops of the Shetlandic mountains that the explorers of Doggerland would have known. It may well be that the best pockets of evidence lie underwater.

This is not just some fanciful questioning. If we really want to understand the nature of Shetland and its earliest population, then we need to understand its relationship with Doggerland. Although the arrival of the early farmers by boat and the animals they brought with them in fairly recent times, is well attested, it is possible, even probable, that there was an earlier Shetland, a place where herds of reindeer, or even mammoth, occasionally grazed and where, when they did, there were small groups of Palaeolithic hunters ready to make the most of the bounty of the land.

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 interested in the potential of existing lithic collections to yield finds that went unrecognised in the past. There are several reasons for this. Often, it was just not possible to examine large field collections in the detail necessary. But also, current paradigms do exert a very real bias on the way that we think, with the result that identifications can be missed. Many years ago I worked on a flint assemblage from Lunanhead, Angus. It looked vaguely Late Upper Palaeolithic, but because I knew there was no evidence for Palaeolithic in Scotland, I worked hard to make it fit into Early Neolithic paradigms. To have published it as Palaeolithic would have required a very strong argument because it went against the accepted wisdom of the time, and I was just not courageous enough. Torben has recently been re-examining that assemblage and, I am pleased to say, that he feels able to confirm my initial hunch, that it might be early. I’m hoping that he will have time to publish a new version of the flint assemblage in due course.

Meantime, you have to make do with our new paper, which is available to download here.

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.