Yorkshire 9000BC | Fly around Mesolithic Lake Flixton : experience the sounds

Hello Microburins,

Yorkshire9000BC_VimeoHere’s a great short video fly-through the Mesolithic landscape of Lake Flixton, Vale of Pickering, North Yorkshire, England. Ongoing excavations at Star Carr and Flixton Island are the current manifestation of research since the 1950s. This CGI video incorporates  recordings of what the the post-glacial landscape may have sounded like 11,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers shared their environment with wild ox, bears, beavers, horses, boar, wolves and a hazelnut or two.

“The model is based on pollen cores and archaeological excavations (including the currently active ones). It was created for the Yorkshire Museum’s new ‘Prehistoric Yorkshire’ exhibition in partnership with members of the Star Carr Project at the University of York Department of Archaeology. Sound design is by Jon Hughes.”

Watch and listen now (1m 35s, silent intro) »

Related stuff

Spence

After the Ice | Major Star Carr exhibition opens at Yorkshire Museum | Mesolithic

Updated 24 May 2013

Star Carr new excavations 2010Coinciding with the publication of a new popular book, the Yorkshire Museum is hosting a major exhibition of artefacts and interpretations of the UK’s most famous and finds-rich Mesolithic landscape at Star Carr in Yorkshire, England. The exhibition is open from 24 May 2013 for a year and is widely covered in the archaeological and regional media.

Bringing together the artefacts previously scattered across many museums and repositories since Clark’s excavations in the 1950s, the exhibition aims to present the most recent investigations in context—the landscape, the re-colonisation of Britain (or expansion of the late Glacial “epi-Palaeolithic” long-blade communities such as those at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire), the environmental transformations, human beliefs, behaviours, mobility and the material culture that give hints to a complex hunter-gatherer-fisher society. These were modern humans, just like us.

On Thu 30 May 8pm there will also be a UK television Time Team special on Star Carr (Channel 4).

Acid Attack

IMG_4349Current archaeological research and interventions in the eastern Vale of Pickering, recently under the leadership of York and Manchester Universities, acknowledge the very short remaining lifespan of previously waterlogged organic remains. What were hard, crisp and tangible testaments to Mesolithic lifestyles—barbed points, supposed “head-dresses”, the working of antler, bone and wood, shale beads, birch rolls and more—are now feeble ghosts of their former selves, if they survive at all in the peat. Drainage and agricultural activities have desiccated and acidified the waterlogged matrix: it often has the pH of stomach acid today.

Image | Star Carr excavations 2010 (Microburin)

Where did they go?

StarCarrReconOn the other hand, fieldwork since the 1980s and more recently has proven that Star Carr and the Early Mesolithic lakeside activity areas were far more extensive than previously thought, at around 9000 cal BC. Hoof prints from undomesticated horses have been discovered on Flixton Island—perhaps their last stand? Mobility across a forested, watery landscape becomes apparent by looking at the lithic (flint) distribution and operational chains, from sourcing the raw material, knapping reduction strategies, caching-curation, re-usage and discard behaviours. There’s also now evidence for structures* of some sort and repeated returns to the area over generations. Unlike corollaries in southern Scandinavia, linked by Doggerland across what is now the North Sea, only human burials remain entirely elusive at Star Carr—for now.

*Conneller, C. et al. 2012. Substantial settlement in the European Early Mesolithic: new research at Star Carr. ANTIQUITY 86 (334), 1004-1020.

Click to viewIf not left to the elements, perhaps the dead were deposited in the lake, or on islands now denuded, or far “offshore”? Watery places retained significance throughout the prehistoric period—were the many barbed points deposited rather than discarded? Do we even know what we are looking for? Within a few thousand years the North Sea inundation separated Britain from Europe, and a rather different material culture evolved—the so called Late Mesolithic. One can argue for evolution or revolution, but much more research and dating is needed from the post glacial into the Neolithic where communities with very different life-strategies may have co-existed (northern European evidence hints at this).

The exhibition is a once-in-a-generation chance to see the most comprehensive and intimate story about our earliest post-glacial ancestors. People just like us, and yet so different. Or perhaps not? How many of our “instinctive” behaviours today bear testament to our hunter-gatherer-fisher past? Maybe we just live longer and refined the BBQ experience? I promise a review when I have seen it.

Archives

Also coinciding with the exhibition, the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) in York have published the online Star Carr Archive, funded by English Heritage, “with the primary aims of locating and cataloguing as many of the finds and excavation records as possible in order to enable further research”.

“Moore’s paper archive is missing. There is no known paper archive from Clark’s excavations and it is thought that all records must have been destroyed once the monograph (Clark 1954) had been published.”

Inevitably over the last 60 years, and more so with the separation of many of the written records, artefacts and ecofacts, some materials have been lost or misplaced. This initiative identifies, records and consolidates what remains into a single report.

Recent Press Coverage

Image top | Courtesy University of York

Star Carr Project Lecture | Prof Nicky Milner | Stockton Library : Tue 30 Oct 7.15pm

StarCarrProf Nicky Milner of the University of York will present Recent Mesolithic Discoveries in North-east England, details of the Star Carr Project research design and the latest discoveries from Flixton Island in the Vale of Pickering after a successful excavation season this year.

Star Carr is an internationally important Early Mesolithic site near Flixton, Scarborough, North Yorkshire. The site was first discovered and excavated from 1948-1952, producing a staggering array of rare and important artefacts, the quantity and quality of which have not been matched since in Europe. Recent excavations revealed further important evidence: the discovery of a structure gained global media coverage as the ‘oldest house in Britain’; and a 30m wooden platform represents the earliest evidence of systematic carpentry in Europe. This talk will highlight the discoveries made in both the past and present research projects, and will outline the aspirations for the coming years.

StarCarrBookletThe lecture is hosted by Teesside Archaeological Society at Stockton-on-Tees Central Library TS18 1TU (NE England). Guests are welcome for £3 each on the door. Refreshments are available afterwards. For directions and more information read the latest TAS newsletter.

This is also a chance to purchase The Story of Star Carr booklet after the lecture for £2.50. Proceeds contribute to ongoing research, fieldwork and post-excavation finds conservation. Find out more about Star Carr | www.starcarr.com

Love the rich, distinctive heritage of north-east England

Spence

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

Microlith

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?

Thanks to Peter Rowe (Tees Archaeology) and Dr Paul Preston (Pennine guru) for a fast appraisal of the finds images. All fantasies remain my own foibles.

Spence

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!

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

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).

Wetland

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.

Spence

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, http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue26/preston_index.html

Welcome to microburin’s humid mesolithic heritage

adders and bogs | hunter-gatherers | shipping forecasts | clean sections | tidy spoil heaps |

British Addermicroburin is my space for idea sharing. It’s also a space where I want to present the projects I am working on, and get your feedback. It will be evident very quickly that I walk on and in peat bogs, dales, valleys and rivers, wet places, that I love the wild landscapes of north-east England, and that I sometimes get bitten by adders, fall down holes or griffs.

Participate in HeritageThat’s where the White Gill project began.

I hope it’s also evident what I am doing with my time on a career break, using it well. I have a gazillion questions of the past—our ancient ancestors, our cultural heritage, the way we manage, promote or destroy it—as well as questions of myself in the present, of my generation and of the aspirations that many of us share.

sustainability | debate | shipping forecasts

Seamer Carr 1985

A wet place |  Seamer Carr, Vale of Pickering, 1985 (Tim Schadla-Hall). Mesolithic, close to Star Carr. It rained every day, portaloos were full, a force 9 storm wiped out tents, but the food and team spirit were fantastic (food c/o Helen Patterson and gratefully eaten in shed-loads). » Star Carr today

For today, my personal excitement and commensurate trepidation is not knowing entirely what happens next. In this difficult era of attrition, when heritage communities seem to be the forefront of debate, cutbacks, some successes—the National Trust and RSPB are doing very well indeed—the heritage sector is compromised by a lack of our society’s overt willingness to invest in longer term, sustainable initiatives. For me, the Stonehenge landscape debacle is a good example of procrastination and short-termism. It seems to be Heritage Lottery Fund or nought, and yet media coverage has never been so visible, engaging, entertaining. But how much does archaeology bring upon itself? The academic-public-community debate is still a hot, humid weather front—overcast with sunny intervals, windy showers, chance of thunder (or listen to a BBC Radio 4 shipping forecast).

asking | listening | investing | dogma

Replica Iron Age house

Replica Iron Age house built by young offenders on community payback | Ryedale Folk Museum

I hope that my questions, my micro-projects and my passion about the past are enjoyable, occasionally taxing, sometimes funny.

I’ve made a primaeval step into video too, and the YouTube! See what you think? Friends on the Facebook want me in tweeds doing a hand-held guide to the Mesolithic. Nice friends!

The more I do fieldwork, the more I find people who are simply fascinated to know what their forebears did, why they did it, how and what they felt about it, and what we can learn from them. Everybody ate, pooped, itched, argued, smiled, smelt and danced in a funny way, like today.

Archaeology, its allied sciences and specializations can only answer so much. However, whomever you are, we can all surely ask questions of our ancestors through what they left behind. We can care about them, their achievements, their legacy to us and its preservation, and therefore about ourselves, our descendants.

A Wicked Section

Seamer Carr, 1985 | Wickedly clean section.

Through the many thousands, indeed millions of years, of hominid and human creativity we could do a lot worse than pause, listen to, question, learn from them. If we do we might add new energy to—and investment in—an innate curiosity about our collective selves, diversifying communities, the wild outdoors such as it still exists, the human unknowns? We might do worse than question our persistent assumptions too, maybe think outside of a dogmatically “free-market” constrained box.

Tidy Spoil

A tidy spoil heap |  somewhere early Iron Age in Poland, 1987.

If everything else fails, do please always present a good clean section, a tidy spoil heap and be attentive when watching the venerated Time Team. There may be a test afterwards.

PS do you subscribe to Francis Pryor’s archaeo-agri-gardening blog? Always a good read—In The Long Run. See some other recommendations

 Spence