Day of Archaeology | Come up to the lab and see what’s on the slab

Dear Microburins,

I SEE YOU SHIVER WITH ANTICIPATION?

doa-noyear-200pxIt’s Friday the 11th of July and the international Day of Archaeology! This is the day when hundreds of archaeologists around the world share their secrets, their pleasures and their work in a blog post (web diary). You can follow it on the website or on the Twitter with hashtag #dayofarch. Why wouldn’t you?

Is that a rod microlith in your ziplock or are you just happy to see me?

My own contribution requires you to observe the Captain’s illuminated seat belt sign, place your tray tables in the upright position and strap yourself in for some Mesolithic turbulence (sic) ahead. I hope you also enjoy the lithicist’s toolkit, clamps, slabs, scales, calipers (digital don’t you know), a protractor and a neat little USB x200 microscope. I also won £1.50 on the illustrated Lotto ticket and I shan’t be sharing.

Mesolithic Spence

Lithoscapes Mesolithic project receives National Park grant | Radiocarbon dating

LS_logo_web_750wideI am delighted, as a researcher at Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation, to have received full grant funding for a final round of radiocarbon AMS determinations of charcoal samples from the Mesolithic excavation at White Gill, Westerdale, North Yorkshire.

NYMNPAThe North York Moors National Park Authority has provided almost £1000 to allow processing of the samples by the AMS labs at SUERC, University of Glasgow. Seven radiocarbon determinations achieved so far indicate a multi-period activity area in a ‘persistent place’ associated with diagnostically Late Mesolithic artefacts—from at least 5000 cal BC. While the Mesolithic presence at White Gill has been known since at least the mid-20th century, the area has been plagued by largely unrecorded and unsystematic flint collecting and minor excavations (unpublished). The detailed excavation, together with the first reliable radiocarbon determinations for the Mesolithic in north-east Yorkshire, will provide a unique reference point for, and insights into, this period and region—and possibly also for the transition to the early Neolithic.

Image_WhiteGill_samplesThis present and final tranche of three samples, all Coyrlus avellana (Hazel), will allow clarification of a burning event (one of two fire-spots plus a stone-ringed hearth, all with burnt lithics) that have yielded very late dates so far—with a number of possible taphonomic factors and interpretations. Detailed analysis of the flint assemblage, characterised by discreet knapping events across the 20m² excavation area, is still in progress.

Acknowledgements | Thanks are extended to Dr Seren Griffiths for ongoing advice, Dana Challinor for species identification, and Graham Lee, Senior Archaeological Conservation Officer at NYMNPA.

Spence

Wild Things 2.0 Palaeolithic-Mesolithic Conference 2014 Abstracts | Lithoscapes posters

wild20Abstracts are now available, including two poster presentations from Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation! That’s Paul Preston and me. There’s an exciting line-up of paper presentations with renowned national and international speakers. And a pub.

IMG_4469Unpicking the Palimpsest: A late Mesolithic upland activity area in North East England

Spencer Carter, Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation | p30

This poster will outline the emerging results from on-going analyses of artefacts recorded during a systematic rescue excavation of a typologically Late Mesolithic upland lithic scatter at White Gill, Westerdale on the North York Moors, UK. The excavation and lithic assemblages are described and evaluated, including unequivocal evidence of hearth features with associated, discrete knapping events surrounding them, artefact associations with flat-stones, and a tentative structure. The early results of the lithics analysis are elucidated and reveal the complex lithic chaînes opératoires including the possible expedient use of legacy lithic material, and the possibility that one of the knappers was a juvenile or ‘apprentice learner’.

WGW2000-conjoining-microlithThe poster will also outline interesting evidence for site “pairing” suggested by lithic re-fits between neighbouring sites in the proximity of a palaeolake, the transport of raw materials, including the presence of finished Pennine chert tools. The project therefore affords a rare opportunity to analyse potential coeval activity and mobility over distance. Being the first comprehensive study of its kind in an area hitherto ignored or largely unrecorded, the micro-scale of the analyses described in this poster provides a keyhole view that not only confirms a rich data set, but also opens up new research questions that allow us to begin unpicking a persistent, palimpsestual, complex Mesolithic taskscape in a largely over-looked period and region. It also highlights implicit warnings about the damage that well-meaning or illicit “flinting” activities can wreak on a fragile archaeological record.

IMG_9690Everything We Know is Wrong? The MESOlithics Project: Charging lithics into the Mesolithic Canon

Paul Preston, Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation | p42

Many researchers have set ambitious goals in attempting to create social narratives from Mesolithic lithic scatters in a landscape context or to derive socio-cultural/stylistic meaning from. While laudable, and recognising the rich debate that emanates from the research, such attempts have been arguably impeded by their reliance upon referential frameworks that fail to integrate adequately their theoretical base with systematic methodologies in support of their conclusions. As a result British Mesolithic studies — and concomitantly the so-called ‘Mesolithic Canon’ — have been hampered by the lack of three fundamental analytical foundations:

  1. a consensus definition of the Mesolithic, its phases and its geographic variation;
  2. an accurate, calibrated, sufficiently granular chronology, and;
  3. an explicitly defined, standardised, replicable lithic analysis methodology and typology.

KnapperThe most important of these is the third: it underpins the other two. However, this issue is especially acute since there are no agreed minimum standards for analysis and there remain a number of incompatible, unsystematic non-technological methodologies. It is therefore difficult to compare assemblages analysed by different lithicists, to derive reliable conclusions from past analyses and literature, and to communicate interpretations with universal clarity. Hence, interpretations tend to be subjective, result in para data rather than meta data, and are difficult to test in a replicable way.

As a consequence, this poster considers best practice in lithics analysis and how it can impact on current definitions of the British Mesolithic and its chronology. It then proposes a way to ameliorate many of the highlighted problems and outlines how a standardised technologically-based lithic methodology—with explicitly defined types, attributes and analytical protocols—can be developed and integrated with current theoretical paradigms.

About the conference

See you there!

Spence

Bio updated | 2013 fieldwork and Lithoscapes added

Spence-at-SHF13Dear Microburins, I’ve just updated my bio in case you’re interested in the latest fieldwork and a joint archaeological venture in-the-making with my colleague Paul Preston. I have also uploaded a summary paper about the Intertidal Prehistoric Peat Beds at Redcar in Cleveland, North-East England which is available to view on academia.edu. I’m grateful to Francis Pryor and Maisie Taylor for commenting on the pictures of possible stone axe marks and coppicing/copparding. The majority of the peat beds are now (October 2013) covered with beach sand again.

You can learn more about the peat beds north of the Tees Estuary in an earlier post

Spence

Summer reflections | Semaphore archaeology | Mesolithic hazelnut season

SummerMicroburin looks back at summer 2012 fieldwork and forward to autumn activities. The excavation work near Whitby didn’t happen due to the late harvest and other complications—but field-walking, disciplinarian B&B landladies, Mesolithic pollen coring with professional palynologically qualified palaeo-ecologistical botanists, and more Early Mesolithic discoveries in museum boxes—all did. Oh, and some sublime fish & chips from a man who has worked in the chippy since I was a kid in shorts. That’s an awfully long time and an awful lot of battered cod ago, and remains a top-secret location.

When summer’s end is nighing
And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
And all the feats I vowed
When I was young and proud.

From hill and cloud and heaven
The hues of evening died;
Night welled through lane and hollow
And hushed the countryside,
But I had youth and pride.

So here’s an end of roaming
On eves when autumn nighs:
The ear too fondly listens
For summer’s parting sighs,
And then the heart replies.

Selected verses from When summer’s end is nighing by AE Housman

Summer journal | Wettest on record | In no particular order

Themes to inspire:

  • Hand of PeatHow to get a partridge from field to oven – via the sky
  • Edicts from the Lord – of the manor
  • Archaeology by semaphore – with flags
  • Pollen in chocolate cake peat – with flint trimmings
  • Pushing Teesside’s heritage back to the eighth or ninth millennium BP – in-a-box
  • Troublesome students, mapping by sextant, very good morale – with a hint of paranoia
  • Carb calendar date – September 20th is the ripening kickoff for hazelnuts, a favourite focal for foraging Mesolithic folk

Field-walking with Total stations | Semaphore finds

HazelnutsWhile the London Olympics—and the superb Paralympics that followed—remained largely rain-free for the duration, looked upon favourably by a meandering jet stream, the rest of Blighty (Great Britain) was less fortunate. It was indeed a wet summer. Mum had the heating on int’t North and cars became submersibles on several occasions. Andy Murray’s Wimbledon tears only added to an overall sense of moisture. BrambleSo it was a very late harvest. The viability of the proposed geophys surveying and trial excavations—the third phase of the North-East Yorkshire Mesolithic Project—hung on both the harvest timetable and the impending shooting season, not for grouse here, but a veritable car-boot-sale swarm of partridges all hiding under-cover in a portion of the field especially planted with artichokes.

Be thankful you’re not a partridge

PartridgeThe point about partridges—a Microburin favourite needing a very hot oven—is that they somehow have to get from the artichokes into the sky and then down again into the hot oven. The received wisdom is that this is best achieved by hosting a party of rather wealthy people, of the blue-blooded and merchant banking kind (or Lord Mandelson), armed with shot guns, pointing in the right direction (upwards), and somebody running with flails through the artichokes—over a good six month season. Any self-respecting partridge, you would think, would have the common sense not to sit around for that long. And so there cameth an Edict from the Lord. The chap at the very big house understandably didn’t want an anorak of archaeologists (and likely tree-huggers and sock knitters) messing about in his artichokes. Nor do I think a vortex of heritage-hungry volunteers would want to be in the sights of so many double-barrels, if you’ll forgive the pun? So, birds, lordships, artichokes, rain and the late harvest all conspired.

Surveying flagsHowever, all was not entirely lost. Between combine harvesters and bales, a window of a few days allowed the tribe—from Tees Archaeology plus a baking tray of volunteers—to field-walk looking mainly for flints although a few bits of jet were found too. Despite malevolent downpours on day 2, the mission was rather successful. On top of prior geophys results, clear distribution clusters were evident with good indications for Mesolithic activity as well as Neolithic to Bronze Age.

Semaphore_positions

Flag waving | Naval semaphore

Each find was placed in a ziplock bag, marked with a flag, and then surveyed in using a frighteningly expensive prismatic GPS total station—if you were married to one, you wouldn’t let him or her out on their own.

The partridges snoozed oblivious to über-quiet walky-talky coordinate gathering and a bit of flag waving. The hope is to reconvene in the spring to complete the project, corpses allowing and kind lordships permitting.

Waterlogged siteChocolate peat | Pollen nougat | Flint chippings

Dear microburins, if you recall earlier posts, the intention was to drag two doctoral experts up onto the high moors at Westerdale, to extract some pollen core columns from a Late Mesolithic site with flints seemingly situated in the peat. This is a very rare, if not unparalleled situation. Most Mesolithic flint lay at the interface between the peat and underlying sandy mineral soil and so is not associated with the peat—which began to form in the very Late Mesolithic and early Neolithic as the climate became wetter.

NYM_Westerdale

Mesolithic activity | Westerdale

The microscopic pollen preserved in peat acts as a proxy indicator that allows the prehistoric environment to be reconstructed and disturbance events, such as burning and clearances, whether man-made or otherwise, to be identified. With luck, pollen sequences can also be dated. Having flint artefacts in the peat starts to provide a direct correlation between human activity and the local paleo-environment.

Lion Inn

Lion Inn, Blakey | April 2012

All this was supposed to happen back in April 2012. The week before was so warm and sunny that T-shirts were the order of the day. It was truly like summer, even above 400m altitude. And then the storm. Powerlines and broadband were blown away. It snowed. And it snowed. The drifts at the infamous Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge were over ten feet deep. And the beer ran out.

Perseverance wins

Jeff-and-Jim

Jeff (left) and Jim

As luck would have it, it has been possible to amass a column of palynologists—well two of them—a car full of shovels, tins, guttering, ranging poles, tin foil, cling film and a trowel or two. The fantastic local game-keeper arranged for gates to be opened, and off we drove around the head of Farndale on the old ironstone railway trackbed. It’s an awesome drive, dodging walkers, sheep, grouse, but not partridges.

ECW06_Flint

Flint in peat!

Doctors Jim Innes from Durham and Jeff Blackford of Manchester, proved great company. Mum arranged with “certain powers” to have the torrential rain turned off at 11am on the last day of August and, after building dams and removing sticky gloop, flints-in-peat is exactly what we found. We managed to remove four pollen columns with flints embedded in each. Over the coming several months, these will be cleaned, analysed and assessed for AMS dating potential. A sample taken in 2009 about 10m further up-slope dated the base of the peat to the Late Mesolithic (Innes, pers comm).

ECW06

Water in 3m² trench!

I returned to the site the a few days later to re-clean about 3 square metres of the section and explore a timber fragment protruding from the peat with some vertical birch stems sitting to the side. Over the entire day, thankfully a dry one, the area was cleaned up, planned and photographed. The vertical “stakes” proved to have nice little root systems and so, with the clay laying around, seem to have been growing in a damp hollow—one could see the tiny sections of reeds as black flecks in the clay.

ECW06-2

Yellow markers for the flints underneath the timber.

The timber remains somewhat elusive (and is now protected and back-filled). It could be a root, a fallen trunk, but retains an odd profile and rather bulbous right (exposed) terminus, although exposure and erosion (this is a footpath) could account for this. It lay in the peat too and had a layer of flints, mostly debitage but potentially one microlith, directly beneath it. These join about 100 flints previously recovered and are in the process of being catalogued as part of the White Gill and Esklets project. So far, the microliths are only straight backed bladelets (not rods) and the debitage overall is homogenous, with several refits, suggesting little large scale movement of flints since deposition although the site is located on a gentle slope. I’m writing up* the coring and excavation exercise for HER and ADS archives and ready for the palaeo-environmental analysis results as and when those become available.

Caution

Gated Road

After this exercise, in mid-life, none of my body parts would function for a week, and I developed a very big and painful spot on my nose (named Jehovah). Back-filling is a moral duty that exacts a heavy price on the physical being. The following day, in lovely sunshine, I was met by a local farmer—sheepdog attached to the back of his trike—who shared his flints, spoke in rich “Nordic” Yorkshire dialect, and whose sheepdog, named Ben, shook paws with me. Treasured moments. We talked to several local picnicers about ancient people, long-gone forests and beasts of the woods. I don’t think anybody would want to upset a bos longifrons?

* Same format as a commercial “grey literature” watching brief / excavation record, hopefully uploaded into the OASIS project repository managed by the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) based in York. North York Moors National Park Authority pre-approved the work (core extraction and section recording) and permission was gratefully received from the Farndale Estate who provided access.

Teesside is older than you think | It is now | Mapping by sextant

Mesolithic Tees Basin

Mesolithic activity in the Tees Basin | North-East England

My earlier post in June offered the first inklings of a suspicion that Teesside—the strangest and not always comfortable blend of industry, sea-faring and natural beauty—might have the first evidence for Mesolithic occupation in the earlier phases after the melting of glaciers over 12,000 years ago. Ironically this harks back to my undergraduate dissertation on the Mesolithic in the Tees Basin, unpublished in 1987 at the University of Durham. Early Mesolithic activity is scant in north-east Yorkshire, excepting the world-renowned Star Carr and Vale of Pickering landscape. Much else undoubtedly sits, moistly, under the North Sea. There are probably under a baker’s dozen assemblages (excepting a few isolated finds of diagnostic tools–mostly microliths*), none fully documented or published, including:

  • Pointed Stone | three sites in the Taylor private collection only summarised by Roger Jacobi in his 1978 article “Northern England in the eighth millennium bc: an essay” in The Early Postglacial Settlement of Northern Europe by Mellars, P. (ed.) published by Duckworth (Star Carr type microliths)
  • Money Howe (Star Carr type microliths)
  • Scugdale area (Deepcar type microliths)
  • Danby Beacon (Deepcar type microliths)
  • Highcliff Nab, Guisborough (Deepcar type microliths, the closest to the Eston Hills)

* If you’re new to British prehistory and flint technology, I’d highly recommend Chris Butler’s Prehistoric Flintwork (Tempus 2005, affordable and widely available) is an excellent one-stop reference. The Mesolithic section is especially useful with a summary of microlith and major tool form typolologies. The rendition of Roger Jacobi’s microlith typology is covered on pages 94-6 and there’s a good summary of Early Mesolithic and Late Mesolithic chronological patterns—including the “Star Carr” and “Deepcar” types.

Roseberry Topping

Roseberry Topping | April 2012

What we can do now is add, with increasing confidence, the northern-most activity area that is immediately south of the Tees basin, on the Eston Hills c. 200m altitude that quite dramatically overlook the Tees Estuary and south Durham coast—perhaps offshore wetlands and forests in the Mesolithic, for which there is published evidence. On clear days you can see as far as the Pennines to the west, and southwards towards Highcliff and the North York Moors escarpment. Roseberry Topping would, as it does today—albeit after historical landslips that precipitated a fine Bronze Age hoard (in Sheffield Museum)—appear prominently in a Mesolithic vista even given heavy deciduous forestation at the time. I guess that’s why it appeared in a recent branded wholesome bread advert on TV last year?

CPE82_1

CPE82 | Author’s 1982 finds

Our postulation, in summary, was that a particular assemblage recovered by your dearest Microburin writer in 1982 (site CPE82), contained an Early Mesolithic “Deepcar” type microlith of broad blade form. This is in addition to blades (and virtually no debitage—most stuff seems to show utilisation and edge wear) whose characteristics are not only different to the general Later Mesolithic assemblages but had much more in common with other early finds in north-east England and the Pennines, if not farther north —Clive Waddington’s landscape work in the Millfield basin and the Borders. Colleagues have, meantime, confirmed the microlith typology, and more is to come. Excited? Do please read on.

A lone and gentle mapper | a sensitive man with a sextant

CPE82_DuffyMap

H. Duffy’s map of Eston Hills | Site CPE82 shown as “Sandy Knoll”

A central aspect and enjoyment in any archaeological exercise is researching the activities of our immediate antecedents—the people who have walked the hills and recovered artefacts, here flints, no matter what their interest point. Much of our archaeological record and museum collections bear homage to the wanderings of curious people (by nature and outlook) within the wild landscapes they enjoyed. Historiography—recording these earlier adventures—is as interesting as making sense of what they discovered. From 18th and 19th Century antiquarians who dug barrows for treasure and sought proof of evolution by way of pejorative views on human and cultural development (small flints were made by small pygmy people), to the ladies and gentlemen who have enjoyed their hills and valleys up to the present, all of these explorers have picked up things that have seemed odd. Some recorded their find spots, some still do extremely well. Others leave vague records, but ones that can still build up a storyboard of human presence and activities over millennia. We cannot undo the foibles of our friends in the historical past, only make the best of what they have bequeathed to us.

CPE82_4

Duffy’s Late Mesolithic flints | Compare with the CPE82 Early assemblage

Enter Mr. H. Duffy from Redcar of which nothing is known except a box of flints, a map made with a sextant, two diaries and a photograph, all in the Kirkleatham Old Hall Museum*. He seems to be an eccentric gentleman who very much preferred his own company—he notes “troublesome student types” with binoculars (one being of non-caucasian complexion), a vicar, a birdwatcher, nuisance security guards at the ICI Wilton Castle headquarters. His map was completely home-made over probably a decade from the mid-late 1970s to 1984. He also, partly endearingly and partly frustratingly, made up names. He gave street names to footpaths, called the burnt area where most flints came from “The Paddock” and invented “Stonegate Farm” which doesn’t exist as a farm—it’s two stone gateposts (stonegate) and a ploughed field (farm). But Microburin knows the place and gate posts very well. “Rosebay Heap” is where he built a small cairn as his central “datum” point. It was constantly “vandalised” by the wandering youths, poor chap.

CPE82_2

CPE82 | Duffy’s microliths and microburin

This was also a time, remembered by Microburin himself, when some devastating fires removed huge areas of vegetation and peat. From the sandy mineral soil he picked up flint artefacts, but unfortunately didn’t plot all the find spots. Nevertheless, his collection provides evidence for prehistoric activity from the Early and Late Mesolithic to the Bronze Age. He also picked up shrapnel and bits of discarded clothing—anything out of the ordinary. He records his moods too, varying from “Felt much better after MGN [unknown: mighty good nap?] and a rest” (Tue 5 July 1983) to “Morale very low… old paranoia again” (Sat 27 Aug 1983). It also took extremely bad weather to put him off.

* I’m extremely grateful to Peter and the gang at Tees Archaeology for allowing me to look at the Duffy archive, make records and take photographs. Peter also kindly provided a scan of the Duffy map.

Early Mesolithic match

CPE82_3

CPE82 | Compare Duffy’s flints (top) with the author’s (bottom) | Good match?

In addition to a fine array of Late Mesolithic “narrow blade” microliths—bladelet cores, blades and debitage too—a series of lovely Neolithic leaf-shaped arrowheads plus a very fine, large ripple-flaked oblique arrow, an extremely beautiful and large Bronze Age barbed-and-tanged arrowhead, and wide selection of scrapers, retouched tools and the like (perhaps for a later post)—one particular group of flints stand out. Whilst he didn’t record the exact location, there’s another broad-blade microlith (or two), this time a slightly irregular rhomboidal obliquely truncated blade, with backing retouch on both margins. Again, it has close parallels in Deepcar type* assemblages. This is accompanied by blades and flakes, many with utilisation wear, and microburins virtually identical to my CPE82 assemblage. The raw material, largely white “Wolds” flint and some patinated Drift flint, is all identical to CPE82.

* A quick scan of the literature shows similar examples at Warcock Hill North (Pennines), Oakhanger VII and Wawcott III amongst others.

Mr H Duffy

Mr H Duffy | Nothing else is known about him

As the evidence grows, I don’t think the Early Mesolithic folks were here at Carr Pond very long, at least in this place. It doesn’t so far seem to be a “persistent place” as we have in the high uplands, and as we may have in the Later Mesolithic on Eston Hills and Upleatham. It does not seem to be a spot of primary flint knapping either. There’s little debitage, a majority of used blades and flakes. But there’s enough evidence by way of three or four microburins that they’re perhaps repairing toolkits using blank blades or prepared-and-tested pebbles—you don’t want to be carrying around heavy cobbles of dubious quality, not through forests and scrub.

More to come? | Don Spratt Collection

Don Spratt

Donald Spratt | Original from the Northern Echo

Don Spratt (1922-1992) was an enthusiastic “amateur” archaeologist who spent his retirement years working in Cleveland and the North York Moors with the likes of Raymond Hayes. His most visible achievement, the Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology of North-East Yorkshire, remains a central resource for anybody studying the north-east of England. With friends he recovered and published the Upleatham Mesolithic assemblages and his excavations over many years at Roxby Iron Age settlement, published in PPS, won a major award. A good deal of his Cleveland finds are in the Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough and include artefacts recovered by field-walking on the Eston Hills.

Microburin is heading to the museum next week to follow-up on previous observations that some broken broad blade microliths are present in his collection. The ploughed fields at Barnaby are very close to CPE82. It’s going to be very interesting to see if this adds to the unfolding story of early post-glacial Teesside.

Summer epilogue | “Love” on the beach | Flamborough Head flint

Flamborough

Flamborough Head | Beach messages

The final ritual act of this summer was a visit to Flamborough Head, East Riding of Yorkshire, to scramble around the coves, cliffs and boulder clay in search of reference sample flint pebbles. There’s no problem finding them in the same way there were no problems for our Mesolithic friends. What Microburin found is identical to much of the material from the high moors, but missing some of the brighter coloured material—the reds, oranges, deep browns, pinks and finer translucent flints thought to occur more on the Durham coast. The layer of opaque cream-white flint in the chalk is very similar to the CPE82 assemblage. Interestingly, only very small pieces of stained flint occurred in the glacial till, and some of the larger cobbles that would be considered drift flint look like they’re in a primary deposit or derived from offshore chalk beds in the immediate vicinity. I’m sure there’ll be more on raw material sources in 2013.

CPE82_5Epi-lithic-logue

Let me leave you with a final picture of more later prehistoric artefacts in the Duffy collection.

Spence

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!

Spence