in search of seasonal transit routes | nine thousand years of hunting
rivers flow | people tread | materials move
Now, here’s the thing. If Mesolithic folks visiting the upland forests, let’s say from late spring through early autumn—in search if game, gathering fruits and nuts (hazelnuts, a major Mesolithic fad, ripen in September and are often found over-roasted, carbonized, preserved), perhaps joining with other bands for discourse, union, exchange:
- where did they come from and return to during the leaner, challenging winter months?
- to what degree and how repeatedly did they move around their landscape?
- how and where? How big was their territory, if they understood such a concept?
- what did they carry in and out, how long did they stay, would they always return to familiar “persistent” places that held significance in the same way old haunts do for us today, or in very different ways?
Little work has been done on these dynamics in north-east Yorkshire. The ongoing discussions about earlier Mesolithic seasonality based on the organic evidence preserved at Star Carr are, well, ongoing, with precious little evidence from either the high moors or from the lost lands now drowned by the North Sea or covered with meters of alluvium and hill-wash. But here are the other two other things:
- People carried flint to manufacture tools. Flint does not occur naturally on the moors, but occurred then in glacial deposits, riverbeds and beaches (such as they were accessible as the sea rose), with sources as far away as the Yorkshire Wolds (maybe even further south toward the Humber and Ouse), perhaps chert from the Pennines a hundred kilometres away. In the absence of organic survival, perhaps more than 99% of the potential record, flints are generally all we have to interrogate.
- This project touches on many questions, intractable to varying degrees, but aims at the very least to query the apparent biases in the evidence—where there is little known outside the distribution maps of “sites” on the watersheds and springs of the highest elevations. Is it that people haven’t looked?
The span of the Mesolithic heralds not just major environmental changes, but suggestions of:
- increasing interventions with the landscape—management of the wild-wood
- degrees of sedentism
- technological and stylist changes to toolkits—broad blade to narrow blade, regional styles, survivals, overlaps, dissemination and transitions
- and at the terminal end of this contrived period (the name is our imposition), experiments with resource control, domestication (ad hoc or otherwise) and expressions of identity, relations, place, ownership, security and ancestry
North Yorkshire has a rich heritage of both amateur and professional archaeological research, but not necessarily with the same coverage as other regions. Small though it is, this project also aims to identify “sites” that might merit further investigation. Remember what we need:
- directly datable features and activities
- patterns or incongruities through space and time
- in a dream world, the potential for organic survival and waterlogged deposits
welcome to the project
In an effort to look at a particular river system, from the high watersheds to lowland areas, I have selected the River Dove. The river is the principal drainage of Farndale where both early and late Mesolithic flint assemblages are on record—the NE Yorkshire Mesolithic Project conducted test pits too between 2009-10. White Gill and the Esklets sites are not far away. Some lower elevation assemblages are recorded in the upper reaches of the steep dale in the HER and CBA Gazeteer—unfortunately the assemblage compositions are not recorded. While some finds are better known to the east (Rosedale and through Hutton le Hole), little else is known for the area where the river flows through the escarpment of the limestone Tabular Hills with their dry valleys, and then into the Vale of Pickering.
field walking | grid squares
Field-walking in April 2012 in a large riverside field at Lowna yielded late Mesolithic bladelet cores, a small amount of debitage, including a possible microburin and microlith, a rare tranchet adze fragment and a concentration of scrapers and burnt flint “pot boilers”. Some flints are likely Neolithic-Bronze Age “hard hammer” pieces, although activity on the sandy ridge above the flood terrace is in distinct clusters—knapping events are on the ridge above the river while scrapers, burnt flint and pot boilers are behind the ridge in a sheltered area. A Neolithic greenstone axe and flint blade are previously recorded but now lost. | See what was found →
At Keldholme, where the Dove exits the steep-sided, heavily wooded Douthwaite Dale, again a late Mesolithic bladelet core, trimmings, scraper and bladelet attest to some activity directly above the flood terrace. A semi-circular Whitby jet fragment is strangely reminiscent of a similar find from White Gill.
Similar to excavation, it’s important to map where finds are coming from during field walking. Laying out a grid, usually in 20m squares and subdivided into 10m squares if there are finds. Walking systematically in 3 to 4m spits gives reasonably good visual coverage. However, you can easily clock up several kilometres in just one field!
The aim, into 2013, is to extend field-walking further south towards Great Edstone, a prominent hill, or island, in the wetlands that would have had areas of open water and marsh during the Mesolithic. The project will involve consulting both HER records as well as asking farmers along the Dove if they’re aware of any finds—I’ll create a pictorial guide.
background to the project
The distribution of the Late Mesolithic sites in north-east Yorkshire is biased towards the high moors where they are interpreted as seasonal hunting camps. Many factors influence this perceived distribution. There are significant gaps—both locational and temporal—in connecting the undoubted and widespread lithic distributions of the high moors and watersheds with Mesolithic activity at lower altitudes, in different micro-environments such as in association with springs and rivers, and more especially with the Vales of Pickering (south), Mowbray (west) and the carr-lands below the Cleveland Hills (north-west). “Transit” corridors remain largely elusive.
The present distribution portrays a picture of activities in persistent places over the several millennia of the post-glacial Mesolithic. Assemblages are comprised, in the majority, of microliths—scalene triangles and rods in the Later Mesolithic, with smaller proportions of scrapers, burins, awls, and an absence of tools such as picks and tranchet axes. However real this picture is, there are factors which skew our understanding in a fuller landscape, and through time—selective erosion of surface peat, intensive, selective historical collecting and collector location, colluvial and alluvial masking at lower levels, coastal loss due to erosion and rising sea levels, and intensive agricultural activity over long periods at the fertile margins of the North York Moors.
A few documented assemblages, some very large, indicate that activities did take place at lower altitudes, for example, Upleatham in Cleveland, recent discoveries in the Leven Valley near Stokesley (Great Ayton Community Project, I. Pearce pers comm.), around Loftus (Street House) and Goldsborough close to today’s coastline, and along today’s eastern coast of northern England. Assemblages contain a greater variety of artefact types—proportionately fewer microliths and more scrapers. Organic preservation is restricted to Star Carr, with isolated non-anthropogenic finds at Seamer Carr, Stokesley (deer with paleoenvironmental data, isolated early Mesolithic oblique point), Billingham, Tees Estuary (deer, undated) and in the inter-tidal zone in submerged forest deposits at Hartlepool (wattle fish weir or trap c. 3,900–3,660 calBC).
Indeed, suggested models for Mesolithic activity (e.g. Waddington 2007, Howick), using the evidence available, tend to assume seasonal movements between upland forests (summer and autumn)—perhaps following deer herds or exploiting a diverse range of smaller game—and lowland “base camps” (winter and spring) for optimal exploitation of resources during the harsher months. Territories are assumed to be modest in size, whereas ethnographic examples like the pacific west coast imply much larger territories. Models also postulate a network of “core” and “extraction” or “exploitation” activity-based locations: hunting, fishing, gathering plants, procurement of resources such as flint/stone, preparation of derivative products such as hides, bone and sinew, tree bark, wood, resins and the many intangible bi-products missing from the majority of the archaeological record but no doubt valued and perhaps curated.
My premise is that the incomplete picture, together with many aspects of modelling, are testable and addressable, at least in part. This project is a very small contribution and an example that evidence is still available for discovery, analysis and to throw-up more questions about Mesolithic dynamics in micro- and macro-landscape contexts.
This document is a status update for ongoing field-walking and assemblage analysis and is intended as a component contribution to the final stage of the NE Yorkshire Mesolithic Project and the regional Historical Environment Record (HER). Illustrations and interpretations included here are provisional.
In the coming weeks and months I’ll add more to this and the other project pages—tantalising finds, interpretation. The ultimate goal is to produce a Mesolithic Walking Trail guide with some feisty visualizations care-of the Time Team artist, Victor Ambrus.
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