Extraordinary news | Flixton mesolithic landscape for sale

Dear Microburins,

ForSaleExtraordinary news from the Star Carr project team (University of York) is that part of the Vale of Pickering, containing Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic wetland archaeology, is on the market for £550,000 or as four lots* – see the links and image below.

*Lots 3 (£125,000, 25 acres) and 4 (£305,000, 61 acres) contain Flixton Island and No Name Hill respectively.

The pasture, under a short-term stewardship agreement, is the location of Flixton Island and No Name Hill which were indeed islands in the post-glacial palaeo-lake Flixton. This is a beautiful landscape and wildlife habitat sitting between the Yorkshire Wolds and North York Moors in an area where tourism is a major economic component. Recent excavations have proven organic preservation under surviving peat that includes a horse butchery site and several Early Mesolithic activity areas. As the project team point out, the risk is that the future owner or owners will not be sympathetic to this special archaeological resource and that, at the end of the stewardship cycle which brings in a modest annual income, agricultural practices may revert to arable, destructive activities. I do note that the archaeological assets are hardly mentioned in the PDF brochure and that only the nearby Star Carr is an archaeological scheduled area – and rapidly drying out.


Microburin comment

Is there any hope that the partnership capabilities of charitable organisations, perhaps with sympathies from national and governmental bodies, might come together in order to purchase the land and secure it for the broader public? The Vale of Pickering is a rich natural (if managed) resource as evangelised by the likes of the Carrs Wetland Project. £550,000 is a modest sum in terms of Heritage Lottery and land management initiatives that receive support. Indeed, compare with the considerable sums raised to rescue treasure trove finds in recent years and the success of crowd-sourcing projects that enable public access to heritage, nature and learning. The Crosby Garret Roman parade helmet sold, regrettably, to a private bidder for £2.3M and yet the Tullie House Museum was able to raise £1.7M in an attempt to secure it. £0.55M seems less daunting?

StarCarrReconWould the very special habitat – and its development as a public asset – not garner the interest of the National Trust and RSPB? After all, they also bring the relevant land management expertise and oversight to conserve complex living landscapes? Is a campaign out of the question?

There is already a Vale of Pickering Trust that supports the archaeological ventures and has done so for many years – so is the coordination vehicle already there?

If only I had the savings, I’d jump at this in a second: more lottery tickets I guess!

Stop Press – Nature offers a great ROI!

Just published today by Natural England, a new report demonstrates the value for money delivered by investing in the natural environment – wetland habitats being an important one – including carbon storage, resilience to climate change, health and well-being, and attractiveness to future investment, tourism and recreation.

“The Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment survey demonstrates that in 2012-13, 2.85 billion visits were made to the natural environment with expenditure totalling from £17.6 – £24.5 billion.”


#FlintFriday | A little small talk between friends?

If you’re a Twitterer and ‘into’ archaeological lithics and flint, why not join the weekly #FlintFriday celebration of beautiful flint—as well as good fieldwork, recording, curation and sharing? Do you have a favourite in your local museum or archive?

This week’s latest from @microburin


Late Mesolithic narrow blade microliths from North Yorkshire archaeological excavation.


Please always ask permission to take photographs, and a scale is useful! Always report finds to the landowner (who remains the legal owner), the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and Historic Environment Record (HER) or seek advice | See useful contacts and links »

Remember | if an artefact isn’t accurately recorded, it’s lost its context and much of its meaning for everybody else.

Photography, Diplomacy and Grub | 1986 archaeology on a moor in Yorkshire

Dear Microburins.

Danby RiggI was flipping through some old (scanned) pictures from the prehistory of my archaeological past and thought you might enjoy these. It’s 1986 throw-back time, the second season investigating the Bronze Age upland landscape on Danby Rigg in the beautiful Esk valley on the North York Moors.

Aerial photography | On-site diplomacy | Sectioned lunch

The Bronze Age triple dykes subsequently radiocarbon dated to the Viking period, which was a surprise. The Durham University project included re-examination of a Bronze Age ring cairn with a large monolith, proving it to have at least one cremation burial.

Ring cairnThe landscape survey plotted the entire network of field systems and cairns hidden under the heather—certainly one of the most comprehensive surveys of its kind in north-east England, and executed before the advent of GPS or Total Station technology, but we did have an EDM. This was all dumpy level and back-sighting. I’m proud to be able to set up a theodolite in five seconds, while sleeping!

There is a tenuous Mesolithic connection in that, on the long walk up to the moor each morning, Microburin discovered a small Mesolithic assemblage at relatively low altitude. It included some blades and a scraper with edge gloss from processing plant materials, but no microliths. A large Mesolithic core was, inevitably, lying at the bottom of the deepest Viking ditch (residual). It’s a bit like the “token” sherd of Roman Samian Ware (posh dinner service crockery) found most other places, no matter what period you’re digging.

AF Harding Danby RiggHarding, A., Ostoja-Zagorski, J. 1994. Prehistoric and Early Medieval Activity on Danby Rigg, North Yorkshire, Archaeological Journal 151, 16-97.

The plans and sections are mostly mine, but some cheeky rascal got the credit.


Name three things you find in the Whitby Gazette | Mesolithic?

Sea-faring news | Adventure archaeology | The best fish & chips in the world

Image_Goldsborough_FieldwalkingDear microburins,

I’m teasing slightly, but glad to see archaeology in local news in North Yorkshire—and a new scoop-it mesolithic news item from the Whitby Gazette.

The North-East Yorkshire Mesolithic Project is completing its current funded phase in 2013 by looking at a ‘coastal’ site near Whitby where flints recovered from volunteer and professionally led field walking suggest activity from the Mesolithic through the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Nearby locations complete the story through to the Roman period (farms, villas and signal stations), IMGP1251Anglo-Saxons (royalty) right up to the present. It’s also a stunning location today, right above cliffs (near Runswick Bay) with views southwards towards Whitby, north over some of the highest sea cliffs in England, eastwards toward Denmark and The Netherlands over the dark North Sea (there since only around 6500 BC).

I’m chuffed I made it into the volunteer field-walking pic (I’m the one in the middle) and may be able to eat Whitby fish & chips off myself? More seriously, the Mesolithic in NE England is compelling—a nexus of chronological, social and territorial themes—and back to the end of the last glaciation (Late Devensian) over 13,000 years ago.
Read more | Summer 2012 adventures


Leading edge retouch | could this be Early Mesolithic on Teesside?


The flint bits are white, a very pale hue. Is this the sign of an earlier crew?

They’re bigger indeed, if I may be so bold. Is this the sign of something more old?

Dear microburins, I promise work is proceeding on cataloguing the Late Mesolithic assemblages from White Gill, Westerdale and Glaisdale | see the previous post on “laying it all out“. It’s a slow process and some recent advice from a distinguished Pennine lithic guru—there are such things—means I need to do a little bit of back-tracking to add detail to some of the typological work.

birch | bikers | woodpeckers

FootpathHowever, in a moment of nostalgia, I remembered a small, modest assemblage I found back in 1982 (while still at college) from a sandy rise next to some beautiful wetland ponds hidden amongst regenerating birch woodland, reeds and heather. It’s also great for woodpecker spotting when the off-road bikers allow some peace. It’s an odd spot. I find this place reminiscent of what the forested uplands might have looked like in the Mesolithic, and today deer roam amongst the trees and clearings—I’m the only wild boar. It’s all the more remarkable for being a nat’s whisker (a very short distance) from the outer edges of industrial Teesside—where the sky never grows dark: oil, gas and petro-chemical services vie for survival in an economically challenged region that never really recovered from the Thatcher years (1980s). How different (or not) from the 1880s when iron was forged and steel smelted. Sydney’s Harbour Bridge was made here, the place where the first commercial public steam railway ran from Stockton to Darlington.

spotting the early mesolithic | north-east England

For whatever reasons, and there are many potential ones, the distribution of Early Mesolithic activity—whether assemblages or chance finds—in north-east England is not an onerous one on the eye. They are modest in number, away from the hubbub of Star Carr, Flixton and Seamer in the Vale of Pickering near Scarborough. There are a few noteworthy sites from the high moors, like Pointed Stone (Jacoby, in the Taylor collection but unpublished) and Money Howe (unpublished). Hints of earlier activity at Highcliff Nab, Guisborough (published) and some other “prominent” places in the landscape. These sites are characterised by “broad blade” microliths and obliquely blunted/truncated points.

Compared to the veritable explosion of activity in the later Mesolithic—many hundreds of find spots—the earlier “period” is a rather spaced-out and ephemeral affair. The Late Mesolithic is itself typified by an increasingly diminutive “geometric” microlith toolkit. This included micro-scalene triangles, micro-backed bladelets, micro-tranchets and rods—some so incredibly small (hence “micro”) that you wonder if the folks were on high-strength herbal tea most of the time. Or something stronger. It all goes a bit strange compared to our bretheren in Nordics, Denmark, Netherlands and Belgium—perhaps as it remains to this very day?

TeesNow, part of the distribution bias will inevitably relate to taphonomic, survival, visibility and collecting factors. However, some folks comment upon how much attention Star Carr and Lake Flixton have received over the years as (dis)proportionate to the amount of attention given to the greater catchments, including the space between the lowlands and high moors—transit routes. My view is that we haven’t been looking systematically enough so far, but I also suspect that we wouldn’t change the maps radically, moreso because so much landscape sits under the sea, certainly south of Scarborough, or under millennia of alluvium and hillwash, or Teesside’s thick paleolake clays and steaming industry.

teased on the Tees | it’s white | it’s big

Assemblage sample

What do you think?

Back, dear friends, to this little assemblage from a sandy mound in a quiet place. It would be great to have your opinions too—I’m going to let you look at my artefacts. Steady as she goes. Here are the things that seem to make this a bit odd and stand out from the other Mesolithic activity in the area:

  • The flint is more than 60% white, thought to originate from primary and secondary sources on and immediately around the East Yorkshire Wolds (south of Scarborough and Vale of Pickering) and the Lincolnshire Wolds (south of the Humber). Most assemblages from the north-east comprise of drift flint—battered beach pebbles (not beer battered as in fish & chips) and rolled rubble from river gravels. White flint is usually a small proportion of the North York Moors material. White flint on its own is not an indicator of Early Mesolithic by any means, but it is very unusual for the Tees area, and one of several suggestive indicators.
  • The microlith and microburin, indeed the blades and flakes overall, are somewhat larger than what you normally find. Later microliths (and bladelets) are tiny affairs of only 3-5mm width, with occasional exceptions. This one is 11mm wide.
  • The microlith has a distinctive “non-standard” shape with steep retouch along the entire upper left edge and, importantly, similar retouch at the top of the leading (opposite) edge. It almost looks “shouldered” or tanged. And it’s white flint, not burnt. What I’m saying is it’s non-standard from a Late Mesolithic perspective. When compared with the individual and “large” straight-backed bladelets (only one edge), one each from White Gill, Esklets and Glaisdale, it is still broader by a few millimetres and significantly different in overall morphology.
  • You might also notice the cheeky chunk of chert? There are two chert pieces in an assemblage of 48 pieces. Chert is extremely rare (exotic) in NE Yorkshire. Given that the uplands were not glaciated in the Late Devensian, a glacial till origin is less likely perhaps than some kind of human transience between the Pennines and North York Moors. Banded chert sources include Critch Hill in South Pennines Peak District (Derbyshire), Nidderdale in North Pennines (Yorkshire Dales), and is also noted in upper Weardale assemblages in County Durham with suggestion of a local source. The point is that all these places are many kilometers away. Even the Wolds are 30-40 km to the south.
  • The site location is at a lower elevation than the high moor sites that are generally above 320m OD. Our sandy hummock is about the same elevation and not a disimilar topographic position as Deepcar (see more later)—coincidentally of course, but also occupies a locale not disimilar to those noted for Early Mesolithic presence in the Millfield Basin (Passmore & Waddington), with a preference for ponds, wetland catchments and escarpments. Carr Pond is close to a prominent escarpment overlooking the Tees estuary, similar to Highcliff Nab, and towards Hartlepool on the south Durham coast with its evidence for peat and forest beds in the intertidal zone—and dated evidence for later Mesolithic activity off today’s shoreline. There is a tendency for early Mesolithic “sites” to be in very prominent positions in the landscape, where distinctive topographic features are termed “handrails”—easier to find and remember as the forests took hold.

Star Carr | Deepcar | Carr Pond

MossNorthern England is host to two broadly (if you’ll forgive the pun?) distinctive Early Mesolithic typologies, with an underlying emphasis on white flint. The two traditions, or technological preferences, are largely similar but with diverging patterns. Their labels come from the two principal type sites of Star Carr (first excavated in the 1940s) and Deepcar in south Yorkshire (excavated in 1962). Both are “broad blade” technologies. However:

  • Star Carr has a microlithic toolkit dominated by obliquely truncated, isosceles triangles and trapezoidal forms with retouch on one edge, not the leading edge.
  • Deepcar also has obliquely truncated forms but with two general differences: there’s retouch also on the leading edges towards the tip and the microliths are generally more slender and longer, with fewer triangles and trapezes.
  • Chronologically, and still challenged by a lack of fine resolution radiocarbon dating, it looks like Star Carr assemblages are earlier, with some overlap. So where could the Tees flints fit in? Could they be from this early “pre-Boreal” Mesolithic phase, something intermediary, or is this purely a flight of fancy?

PPS 30 1964Checking the literature, I’ve been looking for possible affinities, and what better than to go back to the original excavation reports. Assuming that our microlith is not a broken straight-backed bladelet, there are parallels in both Star Carr and Deepcar assemblages:

  • Slender obliquely blunted points with leading edge partial retouch at Deepcar, Yorkshire | Radley, J. & Mellars, P. (1964) A Mesolithic Structure at Deepcar, Yorkshire, England, and the Affinities of its associated Flint Industries, PPS 30, 1-24. Fig 5 No 47 (tanged), also 48-50. 95% of assemblage was white flint with small proportion of black shiny chert and brown flint. Similar types from Central Pennines at Lominot (Fig 8 No 18) and Warcock Hill North (No 19).

    Deepcar Fig 5

    Deepcar microliths

  • Star Carr 1954Slender obliquely blunted points, but without leading edge retouch, from Star Carr, North Yorkshire | Clark, J.G.D. (1954) Excavations at Star Carr, an Early Mesolithic Site at Seamer Near Scarborough, Yorkshire, Cambridge University Press. Fig 35 No 30 (scalene triangle, noting the tapering distal “tail”) and the “irregular” No 27.
Star Carr microliths Fig 35

Star Carr microliths

what do I think?

To be honest, the Deepcar similarities, and dimensions, are closest, and closer than a Late Mesolithic typology. My submission is that this is a Jacobi Type 1b microlith | Early Mesolithic Deepcar Obliquely Truncated Point (the backing has modified the shape of the original blank). It’s missing 1mm from proximal tip, 3-8mm or more from distal “tail”. Original max length could have been 35-40mm. Compare with the largest Late Mesolithic straight-backed bladelets (SBB), e.g. Esklets, where the retouch is gently oblique to form a sharp point: L 32mm, W 7.5mm, D 2mm. The normal SBBs with a bit of leading edge retouch don’t normally form a “point” at one end, and typical dimensions would be L 20mm, W 2.5mm, D 1.5mm. Leading edge partial retouch on SBBs is not very common.

am I early | am I late | what do you think?


PS | if you’re new to the Mesolithic, or British prehistory, here’s some good reading:

  • Adkins, R. and Adkins, L. 2008. The Handbook of British Archaeology (latest edition). Constable. Paul R Preston’s chapter on the Mesolithic is a good concise summary.
  • Bailey, G. and Spikins, P. (eds) 2008. Mesolithic Europe. Cambridge University Press. Britain in context and full of good follow-up reading too.
  • Conneller, C. and Warren, G. 2009 (reprint). Mesolithic Britain and Ireland: New Approaches. The History Press. Good summaries of where we’re at, and some frustrations about shifting the agenda forward to new places.
  • Finlayson, B. 1998. Wild Harvesters: The First People of Scotland. Historic Scotland. A gentle journey through the knowns and unknowns. It looks like Scotland had visitors well before the Mesolithic. Visitors from continental Europe!