Roses and bubbly | White Gill charcoal results just in

rose and champRoses are red, violets are blue, charcoal results mean I really like you.

shy charcoal | incarcerated in Ziplocks®

White Gill IsometricThe 2000 excavation* of a late Mesolithic activity area at White Gill, Westerdale, revealed three** fire-spots, one of which was a stone-delineated hearth. Each is associated with a distinct flint knapping and tooling event, and clearly defined by burnt flint debitage as well as tool deposition—including microliths burnt in the fires. As is typical of high elevation moorland “sites”, burnt patches tend to be ephemeral with bashful charcoal flecks that seem to vaporise just by being stared at. With no discernible stratigraphy in the leached profiles, the lenses of the fire spots sit within the sandy matrix below a layer of sticky black peat that always reminds me of death by chocolate fudge cake. It was fortunate to discover the hearth that had been somewhat protected by the stones around it—an area where stones had been piled up, presumably to create some clear areas that are also respected by the lack of flint waste. This is a place where time was invested in creating “flat-surface” features around which various focus activities took place (e.g. scraping hides and/or wood, boring holes in things, cutting meat and maybe veg), and clearing areas—the placements for tents or huts? But that’s another story.

* 20 square metres of excavation overall.
** A fourth, close by, is assumed by surface collection where a concentration of burnt flint was apparent and where there are close raw material matches with the excavated area.

tell me your secrets | through the keyhole

Image_WhiteGill_samplesEach of the fire-spots was sampled even though it was virtually impossible to recover any chunks of charcoal. You take a soil scrape from the burnt context in lieu of digging up the whole thing and micro-excavating it in a lab, as they did in the West Yorkshire project (Penny Spikins). The charcoal is so fragile that it fell apart if you tried, and I did try. Labeled-up and triple-sealed in ziplock bags, they sat in boxes until Spring this year, holding back their secrets. As part of this voluntary project, lithics without context are just broken stones. Lithics in undated contexts are interesting broken stones that begin to tell a story—provide a through-the-keyhole view of activities at a moment in time sometime a long time ago. Ah, time? Could the charcoal not only fix the human activities in calendar time, but also say something about the immediate environment, perhaps even the selection of wood and tinder, when the only other artefact survivals are the broken stones?

I’m especially fortunate in having had assistance from an archaeological consultancy firm who have just completed the preliminary analysis of the charcoal. The results are mixed, but there’s a chink of light that may take us forward into radiocarbon dating (AMS fine resolution) that itself might just give us the first reliable ageing and, after statistical calibration, calendar dates for this period in north-east Yorkshire (Jacqui Huntley, English Heritage NE). The whole field of radiocarbon aging is full of pitfalls and not for this space yet. One of the biggest challenges is to understand not just the integrity and context of the charcoal, its association with human activity and artefacts, but then to understand exactly what you are dating.

love nuts | like twigs | bad old wood

Bad young oak

Lovely young oak | behaviour gets worse in old age

What you want, in addition to an impeccable archaeological context, are bits of carbonized material—the stuff that charred slowly in the fire—from things that had a short life. Hazelnut shells, being a favourite of our Mesolithic friends, are ideal. Young twigs and wood from plants and trees with short lifespans are also ideal, if rare to find. You need enough that’s big enough to be able to identify the species, and that is often not the case. And then there’s the bad old wood problem. So let’s imagine that the charcoal is from a fallen branch or trunk that was already sitting around for years. And it comes from a tree like oak that itself might be hundreds of years old. Some trees in the wildwood could be older! You’re not dating the fire episode and the human activity around it, you’re dating a very elderly tree. Similarly, dating Medieval buildings, even by dendrochronology (tree ring dating), is problematic if the timber was re-used, like an old ship timber built into a structure.

rose-tinted glasses | old oak blues

Can we have a drum-roll for the results? I said they were mixed, so in reverse order:

  • One fire-spot produced a modest amount of charcoal in a sandy matrix, with burnt flint. However, under the stress of being un-ziplocked, in an emotionally charged moment, it fell apart: nothing big enough for species identification nor dating.
  • The stone-delineated hearth produced the biggest sample with macro pieces of charcoal. The only species identifiable is—you guessed it—most likely quercus (oak, large pores). There may be other species in there, but none can be extracted.
  • The chink of light? The fire-spot that, ironically, was the best sealed (under half a metre of peat) produced a modest amount of charcoal and—a bit exciting—a fragment from the rosaceae family. That’s rose! It could also be ligustrum vulgare (privet) but this is less likely: wild privet has a southern British and southern European distribution and prefers chalky soils; the berries are also poisonous to humans.

HawthornWell, not quite rose. The rosaceae family includes things such as hawthorn, crab apple, sloe, berry plants such as bramble and raspberry—mostly thorned but with edible fruits too. Yes! Even hawthorn fruits are edible, although benefitting hugely from preparation. Ray Mears has produced something called “fruit leather” tasting of liquorice that would last two years—or through a harsh winter | » have a watch!

privet privacy | fruity delight

Crab appleIt’s a shame to discount the charcoal as privet because that does conjure up some interesting pictures in my mind’s eye around headlines like:

“the oldest privacy hedge in Britain…”

from the days before twitching net curtains and shower screens? However, while completely conjectural, it is interesting to consider the possibilities of this being from the rosaceae family of edible fruits. The family is also an indicator species for regeneration and its pollen occurs in the Bramblepaleo-environmental samples from the North York Moors where microscopic charcoal seems to indicate periodic burning of the forests—whether by people or natural wild-fires—and the steady regrowth of the clearances. Crab apple too is not only edible, if very sour unless prepared, but the wood is an excellent material for tools and arrow shafts, once seasoned.

Take this to extreme conjecture, indeed fantasy, impossible to prove—but could the fragment of charcoal be from a crab apple-wood arrow shaft with broken microliths (scalene triangles) embedded in it, after the hunt, and deposited in the camp fire as a blood-tainted or failed or venerated tool? Was it a hunting trip for sustenance and calories, or a competition with the folks in the next camp over the hill? Might it have been from a test for the not-yet-men in their passage to adulthood? As I said, flights of entire fancy, but fun to imagine. However, the burnt microliths from the hearths are all broken, and in roughly the same place, some with tentative impact fractures.

I think they were depositing spent arrow shafts (or tools) in the fires and not just casually discarding them into the flames.

age is how you feel | a date with the mesolithic is a thrill

Realising that “old wood” is a bit of a taboo these days, and I’m one nut short of a hazelnut festival, I’m consulting the experts on the next best steps—English Heritage and radiocarbon dating scientists. However, fingers crossed that there is at least something to start with. This could be the first (or first series) of AMS dates for the later Mesolithic in north-east Yorkshire, outside Star Carr and lake Flixton, and the fish weir/trap at Hartlepool to the north. It’s too early for champagne, but a couple of bottles and a few chocolates did find their way to the folks who became intimate with my samples.

The rose? It sits in a ziplock bag for now!


Away damned typologies | I want landscapes : behaviours : motives

The only way to spot the unexpected is to lay out all the flints!

At this point, if you have no idea what I am talking about, you are probably a dear colleague from my prior life in hi-tech sales operations, maybe working far too hard. But aren’t you curious—about your very ancient heritage?

Which one is the microlith?

Which one is the microlith? Only one has shaved recently.

This has been another weekend unusual for several kinds of weather in the space of a day. I’ve been in the meso-office again after an unusual week for lithic analysis. In short, I have moved away from the White Gill excavated assemblage for a short while, to looking at those recovered as eroded surface finds a few kilometres to the south at Esklets[1]. These are a mix of true assemblages, small groups of a dozen or more flints, a few clusters of utilised pieces and tools in two’s and three’s—in unusual damp places, and so all the more interesting.

This is not the unusual bit for either of us.


Lithoscape | everything laid out

There are essentially two approaches I could take:

  • I could treat each “assemblage” as a separate entity, analyse and catalogue it in isolation to the others
  • Alternatively, I could lay out all the flints, carefully separated (and labeled!) in an attempt to become intimate* with them—meaning that anomolies, patterns, commonalities and differences are much easier to spot

* Richard Bradley famously talked about a mesolithic inclination to ecological relations with hazelnuts, but I am not a proposing anything other than an uber-analytical and research-based relationship with broken stones—behave!

To an analyst, and a mesolithic one at that, I think it also looks quite attractive. White Gill didn’t give me the same aesthetic buzz because it was laid out according to excavated grid squares, although this also allowed patterning to be spotted. I chose the option to lay everything out on 1 inch thick polystyrene insulation blocks that were a bargain at a local DIY store.

So what was unusual about last week? Why did I lose a couple of nights of precious sleep? Well I tell you, it wasn’t learning to use a new macro lens or spiralling out of raster control with Corel® PaintShop photo pro™—I’m not very disciplined at reading the manual (RTFM as they say in IT) and expect things, perhaps unreasonably, to be more intuitive than they are. No, not those challenges.

flint is sexy | red-brown and pink-mauve

Spotted it yet?

Spotted it yet?

It’s only by laying out all the flints—there’s probably a couple of thousand or more—that I made the oddest observation. While a few assemblages are from sites* not far apart, the largest are hundreds of metres apart, and recovered as surface scatters at different times since 1982 through to about 2006. One evening before heading home, taking some joy out of three days of achievement and a fine array of microliths (and the rest!) I cast my eyes over the raw material. As usual for the North York Moors, the majority of flint is across a tiresome spectrum of grey, fawn, speckled, mottled—riverine, coastal or glacial erratic sources. There’s the odd admix of “Wolds” cream-white, the very occasional bit of black-brown chert (more usual in the Pennines). And then there’s the toffee-brown or red-brown flint—generally of fine quality and rather “sexy” to look at, likely also secondary deposits; there’s some occasional pretty pink-mauve stuff too.

But it’s not that common as a rule**, especially the finest translucent reddish sort. It really was time to turn off the lights. However I noticed half a bladelet in one assemblage, and another half of identical colour in another. At this stage I didn’t take note of the site locations. “I bet they don’t fit together” I assured myself. Click—an exact fit! Within a few minutes of rapid checking I realised that the two sites were exactly 170 metres apart.

* I’m using the term “site” guardedly; I would rather say “activity area” or “landscape node”.
** There’s an assemblage from Glaisdale High Moor that has a significant proportion of this lovely stuff.

paranoia | beautiful ziplocks

The evidence

The evidence | honestly better than an episode of CSI Miami (where they show the passage of the bullet)

I’ll spare you the whole story about the anguish and self-doubt that then ensued. Had I messed up when collecting the flints many years ago? Or since? Or while laying them out? I spent the remainder of last week re-checking all the bags, labels, boxes and records. If there’s one thing I have always been clinically paranoid about it is the end to end process from collecting a flint, through washing, individually ziplock-bagging and storing. Indeed, all these assemblages have remained separately boxed and stored.

3D Terrain Map | Km squares

3D Terrain Map | Paleolake to the right, see text later | Km squares

Moreover, the items are listed on cards for their respective sites, and the find dates are a decade apart. There are, of course, other factors—post-depositional taphonomic processes—that could have operated here: walkers along the footpath dropping a piece of flint from one “site” upon another—there are many reasons as to why I think such risks of “pollution” are remote, not least that the two or three “sites” in question were not substantially visible for long, at least in last few hundred years, and one is really only partly eroded and virtually invisible to anyone plodding past. Site 2 in particular was recovered extremely rapidly after heavy winter storms leaving little subsequent surface flint, and Site 1B is only marginally revealed and easily missed.

phone a doctor | prognosis

When an apple a day doesn’t work—phone for help! I have the good fortune to be in touch with Dr Paul R Preston, a gentleman who is beyond familiar with Mesolithic assemblages in the Vale of Pickering (Star Carr) and the south-central Pennines, where his latest doctoral research was focused.

“Should I be paranoid? Has this happened to you? In the Pennines?”

The evidence close up

The evidence | close up | macro lens first attempt!

The answer, actually by email, has been entirely calming, comforting and reassuring. Site “pairing”, while rare, has been noted and is a phenomenon that should be expected. Having an actual rejoin/refit between my two sites is extremely rare, but is not an accident. Closer scrutiny of the Esklets assemblages also shows a few other bits and pieces that substantiate the story:

  • We have the two re-joining halves of a utilised bladelet | 170m apart (Site 1B east and Site 2 west)
  • Site 1A has a scalene triangle (that might be a re-tooled backed bladelet) in identical raw material | 18m east of Site 1A
  • Site 2 has a scalene triangle in the same raw material, but also has some micro-debitage, possibly a couple of other utilised bladelets, in the same raw material
  • Otherwise Sites 1A and 1B have no matching red-brown debitage
  • Sites 1A, 1B and 2 all have a similar microlithic component | scalene triangles as the majority, straight-backed bladelets, a very few micro-tranchet forms and one or two double-backed rods, along with proximal and distal microburins and bladelet segments
  • One small observation is that the scalene triangles at Site 1B are marginally different in style from 1A and 2 (or even White Gill)—they’re more like isosceles triangles with the blunted edges closer to equal in length versus the usual “medium-short-long” configuration
  • Site 1A was around 40 sq metres (1982-96) | 1B is only partially eroded (1996-2006) | Site 2 (1984-86) was a circular scatter of about 4 sq metres with evidence for a central fire-spot (Quercus / oak charcoal) | Recovery of flints included all pieces and even the tiniest chips and spalls

better as a pair | even triplets?

Site pairing has been noted for the earlier Mesolithic as long ago as Roger Jacobi’s pivotal work on the British Mesolithic[2]. Francis Buckley and Pat Stonehouse[3] noted the same in the Pennines. Allegedly paired sites include:

  • Pennines: Warcock Hill South and Turnpike | 19m apart
  • Pennines: Waystone – Hassock 1 and Hassock 2 | 20m apart
  • North York Moors: Pointed Stone 2 and 3 (Jacobi, unpublished in detail)

so what does it mean?

Esklets today | heather moorland, no trees

Esklets today | heather moorland, no trees | across site 1A to 1B facing east (2010)

The possibility is surely that these two or three “sites” or activity areas were occupied at the same time, perhaps for different purposes, by the same group or family, or by different groups who came together in the same area, one summer-autumn between 6,000 and 9,000 years ago. Alternatively, was Site 2 exploited for discarded or “cached” flint after its abandonment, taken back to Sites 1A / 1B in hard times? Analysis continues! As mentioned, Site 2 yielded some oak charcoal that may be submitted for expensive AMS aging/dating (although “old wood” problems are noted—where you may be dating a piece of timber already a few hundred years old, in the case of oak).


Esklets back then? | might the paleolake have looked a bit like this, with some oak, elm, lime and alder? | Carr Pond, Eston Hills (2010)

Interestingly, Dr Jim Innes of Durham University (pers. comm.) has noted a paleolake—or at least a modest, long-standing pool—in the vicinity during paleo-environmental investigations over the last few years. Diatoms and open-water indicators show an area of standing water over millennia. Here too the late and venerated Raymond Hayes, doyen of north-east Yorkshire archaeology, recovered a couple of assemblages, effectively on the lake edge, in the mid twentieth century[1]. The 3D terrain map, above, indicates how close it was to the present Esklets activity areas.

equipotentiality™ | toward landscapes : behaviours : motives?

It was reading Dr Preston’s thought-provoking paper Cache and Carry: lithic technology and Mesolithic mobility[4] that has helped shift my own mind away from categorisations and typologies—artificial normalisations that mask variation, patterning, function and the potential for artefact biographies.

I have deeper and richer things laid out on my tables than a corresponding table of artefact types in an archaeological report or, dare I say, a passive chaîne opératoire flowchart in the appendix? How do I present the real complexity and nuance—empirical observations as well as conjectural?

White Gill apprentice piece

White Gill apprentice piece | a rushed scalene triangle that breaks all the rules, or a juvenile’s practice on a bad piece of flint?

By example, is the conjectural apprentice microlith from White Gill a rushed, informal scalene triangle on terrible flawed flint that so does not conform to the mental template norm as we perceive it might be, or evidence of juvenile apprenticeship and the transfer of know-how? My belief that we can engender and populate the Mesolithic, and that localising it is not necessarily a taboo, means that restrictive typologies constrain—you wouldn’t see the apprentice piece in my lithics table because I made a judgement about what it was intended to be and its closest interpreted best fit—how much are we missing?

In a soundbite, I personally read equipotentiality as:

the expedient re-use / re-tooling / curation / caching of resources and artefacts, of which flint is but one, the most durable ahead of roasted hazelnuts—reflecting the relative ease or difficulty in procuring the raw materials (e.g. availability, accessibility, distance, quality) in the context of social factors and behaviours (e.g. mobility, territoriality, ownership, exchange, value, reciprocity, spirituality and memory in a dynamic landscape of persistent and memorable places, significance of topography, phenomenology, perception and risk.

While we span thousands of years here, climatic, environmental, and commensurate resource changes—perhaps sometimes rapid and generational—are also at play. Britain becomes an island with rising sea levels, and wetter too with the formation of peat bogs, and forests get denser with questions about how and where mobility operated (through river valleys?)

Importantly, if I understand the model, equipotentiality may involve a change in the function of an artefact or different treatment of an existing blank flake, from its original mental design template or indeed the use of “waste” material—garbage.

By example, a way-back flat-mate of mine used to use pan lids as platters when all the plates were unwashed in the sink. It was a pan lid one day, a plate or dish the next. Similarly, cutlery became multi-functional. None got washed up, so I moved out. But this is a change in function (and the exploitation of) a pan lid contrary to its original role to speed up cooking—the pan lid has a biography. It came close to becoming a weapon.

In the Mesolithic, the presence of “combination” tools—tools for multiple functions on the same blank—may represent not one expedient use of a blank, but its adaptation and changing function over time; similarly microliths as a “composite” tool – plug it in, take it out (like drill bits), may have had multivarious functions; it’s only the lack of reliable microwear analysis and overlaying of functional evidence that frustrates/tantalises us—plus microwear analysis is slow, arduous, inexact, multiple-attribute-based and a pain in the proverbial butt to do—but it can provide exceptional surprises!

the evidence | re-fitting for purpose?

While analysis of the Esklets and White Gill assemblages continues, it is noteworthy that the Esklets Site 1A scalene triangle, that features in this story, may be a re-tooled backed bladelet, because the terminal retouch is much cruder than the norm. As composite tools, microliths may have had many functions beyond that of projectile armatures. A few scraper rejuvenation flakes, definitely not core platform trimmings, are also present. Re-use of cores as scrapers is complemented by some expedient combination tools and likely imported items—very long and long-used utilised blades (heavy use wear and gloss) and “exotic” raw materials (chert).

Furthermore, at White Gill there seems to be a greater proportion and diversity of tools, many exploiting primary and secondary blanks versus conforming to the standard mesolithic toolkit templates. Here there’s also an investment in durable features—flat top working surfaces, seat/anvils, areas cleared of stones that were piled up, and a stone-delineated hearth. Overall, the volume of expediently utilised pieces (bruised edges and some gloss) is more than you tend to gather from legacy reports. There’s notably less debitage than one would expect overall, perhaps more debitage from tertiary re-tooling, with more informal tools at White Gill along with a significant diversity of raw materials with few re-fit sequences—these are all attributes embodied in the equipotentiality portfolio of distinct and varied activities, a spectrum of constraints, behaviours, choices and evolving practices. Above all, high elevation assemblages are definitely not all equal!

If nothing else, I suspect this overall shift in thinking might call upon us to recover, record, engage with, curate and question a dataset comprised largely of broken stones, in a more creative way. New thinking needs new questions, recursively.

if you don’t get it by now | lithoscapes

This is one of the most fascinating periods in the occupation of our recent islands, by function of being one of the least well-preserved, explored or understood, where most evidence—artefactual and ecofactual—is gone, segmented, or interrogated incorrectly. I’d only ask how well and questioningly we are interrogating what does survive. Do we want general mush in neat tables or specific intimacy, specificity, insight and empathy? I honestly believe we can do so much more with the data we have, certainly the way we present it, and the things we might look for anew. My frustration is that there is no overall holistic / systematic approach to these things:

  • How we deal with vast existing archival data | and accessibility to it
  • Assemblage analysis and consistency | terminology, categorisation, metrical consistency at detail and summation levels
  • Guidelines about how to engage with or archive an assemblage analysis | i.e. future proofness
  • Absence of a joined-up approach to raw material characterisation and reference

This list extends, and our model-oriented analyses are inherently heuristic in a way that negatively influences the way we record, archive and curate our data.

integrity of the data record | meta vs para

And therein is a constant challenge, if I also understand this ambiguous terminology correctly. As archaeologists we aspire to metadata as an empirical acquisition and recording of vanilla data that can be stored and used for many or any purpose—now and forever. The output can often be paradata, that is, the result of selective, interpretive and judgemental processes that, by proxy to our own views of significance and world-experiences without the empirical “core data” backbone, are not durable when it comes to full academic scrutiny. I’m still chewing this over in the work I am doing. I suspect most archaeologists are and do too?

Woof! You can also post your views on the Mesolithic Miscellany Facebook page, gently.


Any naivety and all opinions posted here are obviously of my own construct.

selective references

[1] Wilson, P. R. (1988) North-East Yorkshire Studies: Papers by Raymond H. Hayes, Yorkshire Archaeol. Soc. RAS monograph.
[2] Jacobi, R. M. (1978) Northern England in the eighth millennium bc: an essay, in Mellars, P. (ed.) The Early Postglacial Settlement of Northern Europe: Duckworth.
[3] Stonehouse, P. B. (1992) Two Early Mesolithic Sites in the Central Pennines, Yorkshire Archaeol. J. 64, pp 1-16.
[4] Preston, P. R. (2009) Cache and Carry: lithic technology and Mesolithic mobility, Internet Archaeology 26,

Teesside Archaeological Society | eNews | June 2012

Durham Cathedral and CastleThe latest edition is out—packed with news and summer events! Join us for the field trip around Durham, a World Heritage city, Sunday 8 July. Make a weekend of it and see what else you can do.

Love the rich, distinctive heritage of north-east England