Unpicking The Palimpsest
Rescue excavation of a Late Mesolithic activity area | persistent places
Please note that I am no longer associated with Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation.
off piste | on peat
Like the known hazards of skiing off-piste, walking on peat bogs (vs blogs) has its predictable risks, and certainly unexpected outcomes. You would be ill-advised to wander into a shoot during “the season” on the moors, if buckshot is not your thing. Well, some people have strange tastes and a hunger for danger? You’d be equally well-advised to avoid the moors during the controlled burning by gamekeepers to replenish the heather and bilberry. You’d be a fool to walk in sandals when there are adders about—my boots have felt their fangs more than once, more foolish still to walk after heavy snow, even in April. The drifts this year were 10 feet deep, when two weeks prior it was over 23ºC and T-shirts. I’ve also more than once succumbed to overgrown gulleys and disappeared up to various elevations of anatomy. Plus—no mobile phone signals on the high moors. You can wave, but not from a deep hole (they’re called griffs). So it was in the early warm summer of 2000 I was wandering upon a peat bog. Known risks in mind, I didn’t expect to find what became the genesis of this project.
rain | crime | pygmies
The high moors are renowned for rapid erosion. Heavy rain opens up water channels that gush down steep slopes slicing through millenia of peat growth and sand. Sometimes they reveal the remains left behind by our ancestors. A Roman purse lost by some poor wanderer (or early crime victim), flint arrowheads as evidence of a near miss, or a delayed kill—the final resting place of limping aurochs, bear, beaver boar, deer, elk or wolf. Sometimes, they reveal our most distant past as tiny flint chippings, knife blades and arrow barbs—microliths that were actually multipurpose composite tools.
Some are so diminutive they were called “pygmy flints” in the 19th Century, thought to have been made by very small folk indeed. These are the vestiges of hunter-gather-fisher people who camped, wondered, worshiped, sang, celebrated, squabbled, competed and lived their complex lives, at least some of the year in the forested uplands, between about 9,000 and 3,500 BC. That’s more than 400 generations ago if you want to count back.
It’s one such episode that I came across in an area where Mesolithic flints have often been recovered but seldom excavated and, even more rarely, systematically recorded to the nearest centimeter. Rarer still, on the North York Moors, are recorded features and fine-resolution radiocarbon dates from carbonized material directly associated with flint artefacts and activity.
Welcome to the White Gill project.
background to the project
Discovered in a rapidly eroding moorland area at 391m altitude, permission to excavate a surface lithic (flint) scatter was granted by the Faccombe Estate owners and North York Moors National Park Authority and was conducted over a week in July 2000.
The White Gill and Farndale areas have yielded many flint scatters, especially around the mid 20th Century, but few if any have been systematically recovered, recorded, dated or securely archived to preserve integrity. Indeed there is a relative hiatus in Portable Antiquities Scheme records for this period on the moors despite known “flinting” activities. Environmental data from pollen cores is far better represented although not directly associated with lithic finds.
excavation | fires | holes
A 3 x 5m trench, in addition to 5 sq m of adjacent sampled areas, revealed three fire-spots (samples retained), including a stone-delineated hearth with an adjoining area of piled stones.
A series of distinct flint knapping, tooling and tool deposition episodes are associated with each fire-spot and a stone “anvil” or seat.
Other features include a flat-topped stone with packing that appears to be associated with scrapers, “scraping” tools and microliths. There is also a tentative post hole, or small pit, in an area devoid of knapping debitage (waste) except for a few tools—microliths, blades and utilised pieces. No stake holes were in evidence.
refits | childsplay?
The lithic assemblage is of Later Mesolithic character and includes scalene triangles in the majority, backed rods and a small number of micro-tranchet forms, all with strong raw material correlations, or “pairing”. There is one refit of proximal-scalene-distal segments.
A pseudo microlith “scalene” triangle—flake not blade on very poor, heavily flawed flint, very wobbly retouch but as if somebody was concentrating extremely hard, likely with their tongue out, discarded near a camp fire—is suggested as an “apprentice” piece perhaps hinting at the presence of juveniles. Of course, it may not be, but imagine the story if it were?
There is also a substantial number, and high proportion of, clustered scrapers and scraping tools, awl/piercers, utilised flakes and blades and one large blade truncation.
Surface scatters to the N of the trench include burnt debitage and identical raw material indicating a wider local distribution or palimpsest of hearths or fire-spots. However, refits from a bladelet chaîne opératoire distributed between different fire-spots implies fires within short intervals or perhaps simultaneous. A modified semi-circular jet fragment with incision marks and edge gloss is a later surface find from the debitage-free area where the tentative post hole was located.
The “site” vicinity continues to erode, and has been subject to historical erosion and surface burning. No flints are currently in evidence and most of the stones and the deeper peat areas have been washed away. This is an ex-site.
plotting | behavioural change
Every flint was plotted to the nearest centimetre and by context layer. The smallest chips, less than 10mm, were recorded by 25cm squares. While behaviour-changing—you definately go slightly potty, this provides key information about activity patterns. For example, you can see where knapping, tooling and discard were taking place. The microburin technique was happening around one fire, produced a scalene triangle microlith and the two waste bits, the proximal and distal microburins. Let’s say the scalene triangle was an arrow barb—it ended up in another camp-fire, perhaps after “the hunt”, discarded or respectfully deposited, tainted by failure or perhaps by the spiritual blood of the wild. Many of the burnt microliths are broken in the same places, the bits glued into the arrow shaft survive, as if the whole arrow was placed in the fire.
Similarly you can see where a knapper emptied his or her apron into a dying fire, where they tossed bits of flint over their shoulder or in front of them (“toss zones”), where bad flint pebbles were thrown—maybe at the dog or kids, where knives were left—with edge gloss from cutting—after carving a joint, or an exciting vegetable, for dinner. There are a couple of spots where scraping of hides or vegetable matter were taking place, away from the fire-smoke but close enough for warmth and the disposal of any nasty “goo”.
In addition to trying to add high-resolution radiocarbon (AMS) dates to the record, the scope of this voluntary project includes a comparative study of surface lithic scatters recovered by the author in the late 1980-90s at Esklets to the S and Glaisdale High Moor several kilometres to the SE, where the microlithic content (rods, tranchets and scalenes) are of differing ratios. One Esklets site includes a Neolithic leaf-shaped arrowhead and matching pink debitage, with some spatial patterning in evidence. A paleo-lake seems to have existed in the direct area (J. Innes, pers comm.)
A further site at Esklets is situated in a permanently waterlogged bog area with deep peat and macro vegetation (birch and possibly hazel). Traversed by a major footpath, flints are gradually eroding (2010-12) and appear to sit within the lower peat horizon well above the interface with the mineral soil, also understanding taphonomic displacement processes. There may be significant potential for further pollen core analysis and dating (with flints in situ). The base of the peat has been dated to a little older than 6100 bp (radiocarbon). It may also merit conservation attention to mitigate erosion, such as footpath re-routing. Plans are underway to take further pollen core samples, hopefully with flint inclusions, with the Durham University Geography department (J. Innes, pers comm.)
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