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

Dear Microburins,


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

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.”


St Swithun’s cycle | Mesolithic press | CBA Yorkshire’s FORUM journal v2

Been a bit quiet on here? Microburin has been living out his own kind of St Swithun’s (or Swithin’s) cycle—forty days* in an alter ego role as Hon Editor of an archaeological journal. The Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire Group’s annual journal, FORUM Yorkshire, is about enter the second year in its new, refreshed format.

The ‘forty days’ allegory reflects this last cycle of pulling together 180 print pages for volume 2 (2013)—twelve substantial articles, seven archaeology notes, a book review and archaeological register of some commercial activities in the fine county.

*St Swithun’s day is mid-July, but hopefully you follow my drift?

The reason for bringing this up here, other than the feeling of exhilaration towards the ‘end game’ and the desire to smell brand new printed paper (a lifelong predilection), is that my friend, mentor and collaborator Paul R Preston accepted an invitation to write for the journal. Paul is director of Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation, a not-for-profit venture focused on all things prehistorically lithic:

‘Lithoscapes is an innovative, educational non-profit organisation established in 2012. As a think-tank, we research, promote and educate on best practice related to the study of lithic artefacts and assemblages, their recovery, analysis, preservation, conservation, archival storage, display and publication.’

Research agendas and new frameworks

Paul’s paper, one of two with a central Mesolithic focus—the other deals with the Late Glacial palaeoenvironmental context of a Bos skeleton from Flixton, Vale of Pickering—is important and precedes publication of his full doctoral thesis (Preston forthcoming) that deals with the Central Pennines, due later this year. With permission, here’s his FORUM abstract:

‘This paper aims to present an overview of recent research on the Mesolithic lithic scatters in the Central Pennine area. In particular, it aims to exemplify a new analytical and interpretive approach to these lithic scatters by outlining—on a broad level—the new methodology, themes and conceptual links between the artefactual evidence (including the chaîne opératoire model), and hunter-gatherer behaviour. The main conclusions are summarised including a radically new narrative that intimately links prehistoric lithic consumption and tool use with Mesolithic mobility strategies, and settlement patterns in Northern England. In doing so, the author also hopes to highlight the need for a radically different methodological and paradigmatic approach to the recovery, study and recording of the lithic heritage of the Pennines and beyond.’ – Preston (2013)

There’s more in FORUM Yorkshire

cbaylogoThere are two thematic areas in particular where I believe this second volume provides new insights and reflects trends not catered for in more formal periodicals. Firstly, I set out with an intention to showcase the growing success of community-based archaeological projects. At a time where academic-based research funding is waning, the Heritage Lottery Fund and other grant-based outlets have transformed the ability of local groups to explore their archaeology and heritage in well-planned, inclusive and entirely voluntary ventures. These inspiring projects have a canny knack of bridging between traditional stakeholders—academic institutions, commercial practices, museums and archives—to build a compelling enterprise that would be the envy of any individual party. I’m  pleased that a number of such (and often award-winning) project practitioners have also contributed here in a way that future, formative groups may learn from.

Secondly, this volume reflects a readerships’ desire to know more about the behind the scenes aspects of archaeological practice and related disciplines that seldom see, by function of their inherent complexity, a presence in more traditional periodicals—in terms of the principles, methods and human processes involved.The papers by a distinguished artisan pottery expert and by the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) will give a background to the skills (and challenges) involved and the ongoing learning process that we might otherwise not appreciate.

How do you get hold of FORUM Yorkshire?

Reserve your copy* by joining CBA Yorkshire—the student rate is £5 with the Journal! We operate a ‘green level’ Open Access policy which means that the previous volume becomes available online at no charge once the new edition is published in hard-copy print. If you want to write for FORUM Yorkshire, simply contact me at my other self:


FORUM Yorkshire vol 2 (2013) is now at the printers and will be available in early April 2014, at which point vol 1 becomes available online (via ISSUU, ADS and our website). ADS archives will be in  PDF-A format, the accepted standard for future-proof archives.


PS: More White Gill Mesolithic Project news is coming soon as the final suite of radiocarbon dating for this amazing site gains a grant funder (to be announced).


Preston, P.R. 2013. New Perspectives and Suggested Directions for Future
 Research on Central Pennine Mesolithic Lithic Scatters. Archaeological Forum Journal: CBA Yorkshire 2, 1–20.
Preston, P.R. Forthcoming. MESO-Lithics, Landscapes and Mobility: Towards a New Research Framework. BAR British Series. Oxford: Archaeopress.

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


Mesolithic dig at Goldsborough, North Yorkshire | Every conceivable type of weather


Results and finds updated 26 Mar 2013
Keywords | Mesolithic,
Microlith, Flint, Archaeology, Excavation, North Yorkshire, Britain

Rachel Grahame

Rachel Grahame, Project Director

The final phase of the North East Yorkshire Mesolithic Project, funded by English Heritage and directed by Tees Archaeology with the North York Moors National Park Authority, saw a two-week long excavation at Goldsborough, near Whitby. The research project has investigated Mesolithic sites (c. 8000 – 3600 Cal BC) for potential on the high moor watersheds and in the lowland areas like Goldsborough—including sites that might have organic preservation, provide direct palaeo-environmental data (pollen and preserved palaeo-soils), retain features such as stake or post holes, hearths, etc., and yield radiocarbon dating evidence for which there is a complete absence in the whole of north-east Yorkshire. The project aims also included the testing of various archaeological and geophysical survey techniques in the identification and recovery of Mesolithic evidence as well as reviewing assemblages recovered in historical times and through volunteer reconnaissance activities.

◊ Click images to enlarge.Weather


Aaron, me & Kev

Fieldwork in March is always going to be a somewhat tricky affair. Fieldwork in early March on the Yorkshire coast, on a cliff top, is likely to be rather interesting weather, and it most certainly was!

Distant memories of warm (if wet) summer fieldwalking soon evaporated as the snow blizzards and hail rolled in from (apparently) Russia, over huge North Sea waves.

Project director Rachel Grahame commented:

“Despite the weather we achieved everything we set out to do—we have enough shovel pit data to compare to the fieldwalking and the geophysics, we found a ditch (probably Iron Age), a small gully and post pit (could be Mesolithic?) and an area of burnt sandstone, charcoal and unusual stones which could be the remains of a Mesolithic fire. Kevin has washed and re-bagged all the flint and other finds, and they are awaiting assessment by Peter Rowe. We also have environmental samples to be processed, in the hope of finding some dating evidence, and the unusual stones will also be going to a specialist.”

Blizzards | Return of the Ice Age?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALocal enthusiasts had come across flint scatters on ploughed fields close to today’s cliff edge—on one of the most beautiful and tallest coastlines in England. Tens of thousands of flints were recovered, unfortunately without grid plotting*, and so the project aimed to identify clusters, as well as conducting a geophysical magnetometer survey to see if features (such as burning) showed up.

*The importance of plotting finds accurately (preferably to the nearest square metre or at least 2x2m grid squares) and seeking professional archaeological guidance cannot be over-estimated. Collecting artefacts, including debitage, even from ploughed fields, removes evidence and cannot be undone. Flints in boxes have little meaning. Our shared ability to reconstruct and interpret past human activities is therefore compromised—forever.

See an example of the story that can be gleaned from a fieldwalking episode →

Memories of summer


Summer stroll

Flints & flags

Flints & flags

Gridded fieldwalking and shovel pits in previous seasons were aimed at pin-pointing specific areas of activity and interest. Flints (and some Whitby Jet) seemed to reflect activity right through the prehistoric period, with a few finely retouched Neolithic and Bronze Age items. All flints were plotted exactly using a GPS Total Station—hugely expensive and amazing devices.

Provisional results and finds news

The results of this final excavation—over 90 shovel and test pits, and a long trench to test the geofizz “anomalies”—will take time to assess. Tees Archaeology will be cleaning and analysing the finds, and there was at least one charcoal soil sample taken that will need careful specialist scrutiny plus several environmental soil samples to look at.

Selection of stones from Context 116

Selection of stones from Context 116

Features included a modest post hole with adjacent “slot” or scoop (not dissimilar to one found in Penny Spikin’s March Hill excavations in the central Pennines). It’s not inconceivable that it’s Mesolithic. There was a test pit, just behind the crest of the ridge, that produced an area of stones and cobbles, and an elliptical lens of charcoal around 20cm in diameter and 3-4cm deep. It seemed to be surrounded by some of the cobbles and there was a flint blade or two and some spalls between the stones. The stones themselves were odd in that they were different to the natural eroded sandstone and not native to the area. While glacial tills (boulder clay) do exist on the coastal margins south of Whitby (their likely source) they are unusual at this elevation and must have been brought to (or at least arranged at) this spot intentionally. Some stones were heavily burnt—or indeed half burnt (stone ‘a’ in the picture) with a clear line showing where the heat had affected only one side—and one metamorphic piece displayed linear “lattice” groove marks. Whilst these could be due to historical plough or agricultural damage, none of the other stones were similarly affected. All will be submitted to a geological specialist for examination.

Late Mesolithic Microliths similar to those found at Goldsborough

Late Mesolithic microliths similar to those found at Goldsborough | Westerdale, North York Moors

Peter Rowe (Tees Archaeology) will be conducting the lithics analysis of the flint assemblage. Inspection on-site showed at least one “narrow-blade” microlith fragment, some possible microburins, faceted bladelets and blades (some with edge wear from utilisation) and a few small scrapers. Many are consistent with Late Mesolithic activity, and the microlith (a backed micro-bladelet with some opposed edge retouch, possibly the barb from an arrowhead) is diagnostic. Fieldwalking finds also included bladelet cores of conical form and similar blades, bladelets and scrapers. The soils here are acidic and so bone and shell (calcium-rich) do not survive well, if at all. Even prehistoric pottery (Neolithic onwards), usually poorly fired until the Iron Age, succumbs to the soil conditions, erosion and ploughing. Lithics such as flint are generally all that survive, but their spatial patterning, the presence and absence of certain types, can still tell a story about activities, subsistence (microwear), raw material procurement, mobility and approximate dating.

Typical Mesolithic flint core

Typical Mesolithic flint bladelet core

One further test pit also revealed a small “V” section ditch that may be of Iron Age date. The inclement weather (snow and rain) showed a low-lying area away from the flint concentrations that retained water. Could this be the remnants of a palaeo-lake (or more accurately a modestly-sized pond or pool)? Mesolithic people tended to favour sandy well-drained spots close to rivers, streams, springs and open water—not only for ease of movement through a heavily forested environment, and as familiar “handrail” features in the landscape to return to—but also as focal spots (clearings) that would have attracted game and wild fowl and made hunting easier. A similar situation exists on the Eston Hills at the edge of the Tees basin where a modest wetland area and sandy ridges seem to have attracted both early Mesolithic (Deepcar type tools) and later Mesolithic (Narrow-blade geometric microliths) hunter-gatherers. A palaeo-pool also seems to have been the reason for a cluster of campsites at Esklets & Bimshaw, Westerdale, North York Moors.

Mesolithic background

Mesolithic winter

Enigmatic huts

The stone age people, modern humans like ourselves, that we’re searching for in the Goldsborough area could perhaps be called the “first British folk”. This was the time when the rising North Sea finally cut us off from the continent—Denmark, Holland and Belgium—drowning Europe’s “lost country”, Doggerland, and we truly became the British Isles that we know today, around 6400 BC. There was even a tsunami that finished off the job about 6100 BC, sending giant waves down the east coast and wiping out the last remnants of the lowland forests, rivers and marshes. Like everything British, we did things slightly differently after that, and there’s a big change in the stone tools that people used. The Mesolithic—middle stone age—is still over four thousand years before metal tools and two thousand years before the first pottery.


Examples of tiny Late Mesolithic scalene triangle microliths | Westerdale, North York Moors

The first colonisers after the Ice Age glaciers thawed (north of the River Esk and out to sea), at places like Star Carr (Scarborough), had large and distinctive flint tools and antler harpoons. Once we were cut off from Europe the tools become a bit peculiar and get much smaller—like “plug-in” multi-purpose drill bits that could be used for many different purposes such as arrow barbs, needles, drills and knives. Our ancestors had the best DIY kits, perhaps even better than today!

It also looks like these tiny tools, some smaller than a fingernail, begin to appear first in Northern England and Scotland—places like Howick (Northumberland), East Barns and Echline (Firth of Forth) where families seem to have returned to the same places—maybe even settled—over many generations, rebuilding their turf or hide-covered huts several times. Is it the same at Goldsborough?

Final trench

The final trench

Were these the displaced people from Doggerland, victims of global warming, literally moved from their ancestral territories by ever rising tides—a second wave of settlers? One of the project’s aims is not just to find the evidence for the first “Britons” through their stone tools, but to find charcoal from their fires (and roasted hazelnuts were a particular favourite) that we might be able to radiocarbon date.

In the Press

In the meantime, here are the most recent press items:

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Suggested Reading

PS | if you’re new to the Mesolithic, or British prehistory, here’s some good, selective 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 with a chronological overview.
  • 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!
  • Smith, C. 1992. Late Stone Age Hunters of the British Isles. London: Routledge. A little dated, but a worthwhile overview of themes and evidence.
  • Waddington, C. (ed.) 2007. Mesolithic Settlement in the North Sea Basin: A Case Study from Howick, North-East England. Oxford: Oxbow. Some challenging suggestions for how we look at the Mesolithic in northern England against previous theories and models.
  • Wickham-Jones, C.R. 2004. Structural Evidence for the Scottish Mesolithic. In A. Saville (ed.) Mesolithic Scotland and Its Neighbours (229-42). Edinburgh: Soc Ant Scot. The volume itself is worth a read. Evidence for structural remains and, perhaps, even semi-permanence versus an entirely nomadic society, is constantly changing.