PALAEO2020 Conference | London 19 May 2016

◊ Dear Microburins,

Palaeo2020_19May16The Society of Antiquaries of London, with Dr Matt Pope and Prof Clive Gamble at the helm, are hosting a day conference.

“Progress made in the first decade of the 21st century is now under threat in the current climate of austerity. Planning provision and expertise within local authorities are being dramatically eroded by cutbacks, research funding from traditional routes such as UK grant awarding bodies and Historic England are increasingly restricted. Within our own discipline the established pathways for career progression and the development of effective expertise are increasingly limited.

The conference seeks to address these urgent challenges as well as develop a new and radical approach to Palaeolithic research. Central to the meeting will be how we can optimise the resources available to us to deliver a new, deeper understanding about our deep past while maintaining effective and consistent protection of the resource.”

Hopfully see you there!


Mesolithic Salvage | What the flint collector left behind

◊ Dear Microburins,

Update | I have added a Reporting Finds page to this blogsite. The guidance has been adopted by the Prehistoric Society on their Facebook page as a new rule of engagement.

After last week’s post about a walkover survey of a Mesolithic landscape in Yorkshire, something I do annually with permissions—and about the persisting evidence of unrecorded flint collecting¹—I’m glad to say that just enough has been left behind since 2013-14² to be able to tell some kind of story. Stones tell stories—but context is key!

The image here is rather rough-and-ready but shows, after gentle cleaning, 62 flints from the different disturbance locations, ahead of detailed analysis, cataloguing, HER submission, and archiving in a local museum. Very detailed grid references (GPS) have also been recorded. This is clearly a very small collection, but sits within a much larger archive, in the context of recent recording and volunteer regimes as part of a Historic England project, and the ongoing random activities of some participant(s) for their own various motives or habits.


Some highlights amongst the sixty-two include:

  • Four very small cores which have been reduced with difficulty due to flaws (blue);
  • At least two microliths: a tiny and damaged microscalene triangle top R, and a possible krukowski (broken) backed bladelet, bottom L (red);
  • A burin/scraper (rare) top L, and a retouched bladelet top C (red);
  • A few other pieces show possible use-wear;
  • Burnt debitage indicating likely hearths.

However, we don’t know what the collector(s) have removed, including any possible Early Mesolithic artefacts—which are extremely uncommon in this area and are usually broad-blade microliths (projectiles)—or indeed early Neolithic artefacts such as leaf-shaped arrowheads, attractive to collectors. We’re in an area where the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition (the overlap) hints at being potentially later than other northern locations.

Glaisdale_EMThe image above was found on the Internet some years ago, posted under a pseudonym, and shows a collector’s Early Mesolithic microliths from Glaisdale. There were also images of microscalene triangles and backed bladelet forms. The area was frequently visited by collectors throughout the 20th century until recent work by Natural England to re-vegetate and re-wet an extensively eroded moorland area.


The saddest news is that many 20th century collections, and very extensive collections amounting to tens-of-thousands of finds (if not more), ultimately ended up in land fills after the collectors’ deaths. Some ended up in museums, but mixed-up and not well documented, often the result ‘of a weekend walk’ over many years. There are a number of extensive private collections today, some known, many suspected, that may end up with a similar destiny—I know of at least four, filling garage-sized spaces that would take a generation to process. Even with recent developments in best-practice recording advice (PAS, HER, MoRPHE, CIfA and otherwise) by virtue of standards frameworks, an incredible amount of data—research data—remains out of reach, off-record and hence at risk.

The Narrative So Far

  • This is a Mesolithic landscape, or ‘taskscape’, a palimpsest, a persistent place returned to repeatedly for thousands of years.
  • The lithic technology and a few diagnostic tools confirm a Late Mesolithic ‘narrow-blade’ date with activity extending a considerable distance, over 150m or more, across the moorland—dense deciduous woodland with clearances in the later Mesolithic climatic optimum—below a spring line, and farther downslope than previously recorded.TVA_LateMes
  • My own recent radiocarbon age determinations (thirteen in all, from well-defined features) suggest discreet hearth-based knapping and tool manufacture/repair can span considerable date ranges even within a few metres of each other. The calibrated dates from a rescue excavation show activity around 5300-4800 cal BC (with possible re-use of a stone-ringed hearth together with a possible structure and ‘flat stone’ features) and perhaps even 3800-3770 cal BC (at least a discreet corylus burning event), and c.4300 cal BC elsewhere—these will all be published in due course. Our understanding of the palaeo-environmental prehistory of this area is much better researched and documented than the archaeology: see References in the previous post.
  • There are also some suggestions, overall, for varying raw material procurement sources (over considerable distances), reduction stages and activities at different times and locations, although previous removals on a vast scale into the tens of thousands, when the area was much more eroded, will have compromised at least some of the surviving archaeological record.
  • When legacy references and HER records talk to ‘an assemblage composed only of debitage’, one must wonder if that is true or a function of selective flint collecting along with other taphonomic (post-depositional) processes. Our record will always be a sample of a sample of a sample.

I’ll post more, with images, when the analysis and cataloguing is complete.


¹ Evidence comprises regular sightings by the gamekeepers and farmers of at least one collector, the same gentleman each time (he used to quote my name as a legitimiser), known to leave small piles of debitage (taking the tools) and characteristic footprint patterns in all the eroding or disturbed areas where lithics are revealed. Some of his finds have been summarily recorded in the past but lack specific provenances in many cases.
² When the shooting butts and tracks were constructed.

The Mesolithic Bogs are Drying | StoneAgeBogs Group Website

Mesolithic archaeology surviving in wetlands (bogs) is an increasingly rare resource, as evidenced in the rapidly deteriorating—drying and acidifying—remains at Star Carr since the original excavations in the 1940-50s.


Star Carr, North Yorkshire | Image comparison between 1950 and 2010 showing shrinkage of the peat due to land drainage. Source: StoneAgeBogs website.

The StoneAgeBogs group has been established

“with the intention of bringing together specialists who work on bog sites across Europe to discuss cutting-edge scientific methodologies and to evaluate the threats to this valuable cultural resource with a view to future action and collaboration.”

The website includes useful illustrated summaries and references for the most important sites across northern Europe and western Russia:

More UK sites and finds in the media »
Mesolithic Miscellany website »


Mesolithic Videos | Cramond, Edinburgh in the Mesolithic: 5min video

Cramond◊ Cramond in the Mesolithic era | Open Virtual Worlds in association with the Cramond Association and Cramond Heritage Trust | 11-Apr-2016 (Oct-2015 Vimeo) 5min

Val Dean talks about Cramond (near Edinburgh) in the Mesolithic era (c.10,000 – 4500 BC), exploring what life was like for the population at this time; what people ate, how they lived, the tools they used and what traces remain for archaeologists to explore.


Walkover Survey of Mesolithic Archaeology at Risk in North Yorkshire | Damned Flint Collectors

Since at least 2000, I’ve been monitoring the state of upland areas where Mesolithic lithic scatters are located (e.g. Carter 2016). We also have Mesolithic–Neolithic archaeology in the lowland zone too, generally revealed on agricultural land (fieldwalking). In addition to updating Historic Environment Records (HER) as an ongoing exercise, I note and photograph various factors such as increasing or decreasing erosion, and land management practices which can jeopardise the archaeology or, indeed, help protect it if undertaken sympathetically. Our moorland peat landscapes are also critical as carbon-capture environments.

Shooting butts and trackways | Scale: 0.2m units.

Damaging regimes include drainage ditch and track construction, shooting butt construction (with wide ‘scrapes’ and disturbance), annual heather burning in sensitive locations and, conversely, revegetation and peat re-wetting (e.g. Brightman 2014). Peat deflation—shrinkage—since the 1980s has been marked, severe in places, leaving only a shallow covering above the fragile archaeological horizons. It’s a fine balance between the needs of the landowners and farmers in a working landscape, and a desire to record and preserve our shared heritage.

Mesolithic flints in a cut drainage channel | Scale: 0.2m units.

Mesolithic flints in a cut drainage channel | Scale: 0.2m units.

Drainage channel for a shooting butt cuts through archaeological horizons: peat overlying a leached palaeosol with lithics at the interface (podsol profile). Palaeo-environmental research (e.g. Albert & Innes 2015) has provided radiocarbon date ranges for the landscape and vegetational changes happening since the last ice age (Holocene period) | Scale: 0.2m units.

Drainage channel for a shooting butt cuts through archaeological horizons: peat overlying a leached palaeosol with lithics at the interface (podsol profile). Palaeo-environmental research (e.g. Albert & Innes 2015) has provided radiocarbon age ranges for the landscape and vegetational changes, as well as likely human interference, happening since the last ice age (Holocene period) | Scale: 0.2m units.

Flint collectors and damage to the record

This flint collector (we know who he is) leaves small piles of debitage, bottom centre, after removing the ‘pretty’ artefacts (from Brightman 2014 with the author).

Sadly, evidence persists for unrecorded selective removal of flints (‘cherry-picking’ the best) which then prevents any accurate characterisation of the various sites — removing ‘pretty’ diagnostic artefacts. In reality, the entire landscape appears to have been a Mesolithic persistent place, repeatedly visited by hunter-gatherers over a period of five thousand years (c. 9000–3800 BC).

Thankfully there are just enough fragments, and debitage, to offer some insights. We know who one of the culprits is, with a large private collection, but he has since broken off contact with archaeologists. However, the estate field managers and farmers are on the look-out, and assertively discourage such behaviour.

Analysis of the lithics, GPS-plotted, is ongoing as part of my own research. Ultimately, the lithics and full records will be deposited with a local archive-accepting museum (an increasingly rare thing these days) and summarised in a regional publication or periodical. For background information, see Tees Archaeology 2006–12 (References, below).


As always, the landowners and field managers have been generous with access permission. The catch-up conversations in the wilderness are also a delight.


Albert, A. & Innes, J. 2015. Multi-profile fine-resolution palynological and micro-charcoal analyses at Esklets, North York Moors, UK, with special reference to the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. Vegetational History and Archaeobotany 24(3): 357–375.

Brightman, J. 2014. Peat Restoration Historic Environment Survey and Palaeoenvironmental Assessment: Westerdale Common (Final Report). Unpublished report by Solstice Heritage for Yorkshire Peat Partnership and North York Moors National Park Authority.

Carter, S.D. 2016. Monitoring of Mesolithic Lithic Sites at Esklets, Westerdale, North York Moors, England: Field observations made in August 2015 with interim archaeological summaries | [Last accessed 07-Apr-2016].

Tees Archaeology 2006–12. North-East Yorkshire Mesolithic Project | [Last accessed 07-Apr-2016].

Mesolithic North East Yorkshire | Free Tees Archaeology Report

◊ Dear Microburins,

Meso_NEYorks_TeesArch2Tees Archaeology and Historic England have just published a summary report about the North-East Yorkshire Mesolithic Project that completed recently. The report is aimed at a general readership and accompanies an illustrated e-booklet aimed at kids, as well as a guide to prehistoric lithics (flint).

Although Teesside is perceived as a recent industrial landscape, the natural history and archaeology is all around. We have definite evidence for the early post-glacial pioneer colonisers, reindeer hunters, around 8500 BC—the Early Mesolithic—as well as evidence for the filling out of the landscape in the later Mesolithic into the advent of Neolithic farming communities and monument builders. This is a long six-thousand year epoch and one of rapid climate change, warm-and-cold events, rising sea levels, a tsunami, and the creation of today’s Island Britain.

Microlith_EMDC_TeesEarly Mesolithic flint projectile point, Deepcar type, c. 8500 BC (a little later than Star Carr) from Eston Hills, Teesside. White flint has sources in East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, many tens of kilometres away. These rare but characteristic tools are found along river valleys.

TVA_LateMesLate Mesolithic flints from the North York Moors, c. 8000-4000 BC. Left are geometric narrow-blade microliths, usually used as projectile arrow barbs but also for other tasks; Top right are microliths and utilised flint blades; Bottom right is a core from which blades have been removed for working into tools. Coloured and speckled flint comes from beach and glacial till deposits on the NE coast and can still be picked up today. Some has been dragged over from Denmark and chalk beds now under the North Sea.