What’s in the Pipeline? | The Mesolithic and the lithic in two major infrastructure projects

Two major infrastructure development proposals in north-east England involve onshore and offshore interventions with ongoing assessment of the archaeological impacts:

  1. York Potash Mineral Transport System | Sirius Minerals
    Whitby, Redcar & Cleveland, Teesside, North York Moors National Park
  2. Dogger Bank Wind Farms and Offshore/Onshore Cabling | Forewind consortium
    North Sea, Redcar & Cleveland, Teesside, East Yorkshire, Humberside

How will the Mesolithic fit into the archaeological and palaeo-environmental assessment protocols (desk-based and fieldwork), prospecting-sampling strategies, mitigation-preservation decisions and, if these projects happen, recovery-dissemination-curation? Geophysical prospecting and macro-sampling strategies, for example, are either developing practices for our period and the nature of its archaeological footprint, or are unlikely to be suitably granular for identifying Mesolithic/Neolithic past activity areas. So what happens when the bulldozers go in?

There are two significant development proposals in the Teesside and North/East Yorkshire areas at the consultation/investigation-assessment stages of the planning process. Both involve pipe trenches—one for the transportation of potash-in-solution from near Whitby to a processing plant on Teesside (Wilton) and the second to carry electrical cables from a proposed offshore wind farm on Dogger Bank, landing between Marske and Redcar and progressing to Lackenby (also Wilton). Both projects are required to consider risks to both the natural (ecological) and historical (archaeological and built) environment.

You might be interested to learn more and become involved in the consultations, as a local stakeholder or as an advocate for our heritage.

Major developments challenge us to get involved throughout the process and to balance the prospect of economic & social benefits—proposed and realised—with a conscience around our archaeological assets. While we care about conservation and preservation, we might also see major new discoveries. Can we help manage those through to something which adds perspective and value to an engaged and interested community?

I would only ask what that “community” looks like and why it cares.

1. The York Potash Mineral Transport System | A Sirius Minerals Project

There has already been considerable press coverage, and some accompanying controversy, about Sirius Mineral’s proposed new mine-head at Sneatonthorpe, a few kilometres south of Whitby. For example, listen to the BBC Radio 4 programme “Potash of Gold” (April 2013, audio). Unlike the rail-transported potash from the Boulby mine, Sirius propose a pipeline carrying two steel pipes up to 700mm in diameter buried at a minimum depth of 1.2m that will carry potash in solution under pressurised conditions. Having rejected rail, road and offshore pipelines, the proposed inland route, 44.5km in length, traverses the North York Moors National Park, following the A171 Whitby to Guisborough road for a significant portion, then towards Upleatham (with known Mesolithic presence) to a processing plant on the Wilton industrial complex south of the Tees.

Archaeological impact

The Summary of Proposals Document, which has been sent to communities along the route, reflects an assessment of archaeological impacts conducted by Cotswold Archaeology in 2012. The Sirius proposal document states, in the only reference to archaeology (page 7):

“A heritage assessment has been undertaken to highlight areas of potential archaeology. To date, there are no areas of significant findings that affect the mineral transport system route. Further monitoring* during construction operations is recommended.”

*by which they mean geophysical survey, watching briefs and selective excavation.
 
The archaeological assessment (unpublished) states “A number of undesignated assets are either crossed by the pipeline route, or have the potential to fall within the working width.” 71 out of 257 identified through HER or field survey are specifically called out, spanning the Late Neolithic-Bronze Age through to post-Medieval.

Many will be aware of the stream of unusual, often unique, sometimes nationally important discoveries in a region considered an archaeological ‘backwater’ in the not too distant past.

Consultation

“The pipeline proposal falls within the remit of the National Infrastructure Directorate at the Planning Inspectorate (formerly known as the Infrastructure Planning Commission). More information can be found at: http://infrastructure.planningportal.gov.uk. York Potash is already in advanced discussions with local landowners along the route that the pipeline will take from the mine to Teesside. There will be a separate consultation period specifically on the pipeline before any planning application is submitted.” (From the York Potash Project website, see below.)

Find out more

The Summary of Proposals Document (booklet) can be requested from Sirius Minerals on the York Potash Project website. More information about the entire project can also be found there and there is an invitation to submit comments and questions, although your editor had to wait some weeks for a reply. See also the North York Moors National Park Authority press release (Jan-2013) although the mine-head and pipeline proposals are separate projects.

2. Dogger Bank Wind Farms and Offshore/Onshore Cabling | A Forewind Project

Click to visit websiteForewind is a consortium comprising four international energy companies which joined forces to bid for the Dogger Bank Zone Development Agreement as part of The Crown Estate’s third licence round for UK offshore wind farms. The proposals comprise three elements:

  • An offshore element (the wind farms) located on the Dogger Bank in the North Sea, some 125 to 290km from the coast and covering 8,660 km² with a sea depth of 18 to 63m.
  • An offshore cabling element to bring power to the coast (landfall): (1) Fraisthorpe to the south of Flamborough Head; (2) Between Redcar and Marske near Teesside
  • Cable lines connecting landfall sites with the National Grid at two points: (1) Creyke Beck near Cottingham in East Yorkshire; (2) running to the industrial areas between Teesport and Lackenby (there are four ‘projects’ with two ‘connection points’).

Archaeological impact

There are extensive resources available on the Forewind website including a comprehensive Zonal Characterisation Document (ZCD) (v2 Dec-2011, 21Mb PDF) which includes a full analysis of geology, ecology, archaeology (including wrecks and aircraft) and many other aspects of the onshore and offshore catchments. It is well-structured with copious references and worth a read, irrespective of the proposals.

Dogger Bank, or Doggerland, is part of a post-glacial land-bridge between Britain and continental Europe, probably (with some evidence) intensively occupied and exploited by Mesolithic communities until the North Sea inundation around the seventh millennium BC. The ZCD is skeptical about the survival of offshore archaeological deposits (due to “scouring” during sea-level rise), but acknowledges the significant archaeological and palaeoenvironmental potential of the offshore wind farm zones.

According to the website, Archaeological field surveys and trial trenching along the proposed onshore pipeline routes will be conducted by URS (a US commercial company with UK presence) during May-June 2013.

Consultation

Consultation on Dogger Bank Teesside is being carried out in two formal phases.

Phase One (May-June 2012) | During this phase, “Forewind explained the site selection work done to date, including the process to narrow down the locations of the offshore wind farms, landfalls and converter stations.  Stakeholders were invited to provide comments on the proposals while local people were specifically asked for information on issues to be considered when choosing the precise locations for onshore and offshore elements of the project.” The Preliminary Environmental Information 1 documents and other consultation materials are available to download here and hard copies are available locally from the locations listed here.

The consultation period for these documents is now closed. However, comments may be given consideration if possible. They can be submitted by Email: info@forewind.co.uk | Freephone: 0800 975 5636 | Freepost RSLY-HKGK-HEBR, Forewind, Davidson House, Forbury Square, Reading RG1 3EU

Phase Two (anticipated to be 2013) | During this phase Forewind will ask the local community for comments on the detailed proposals for Dogger Bank Teesside.

Development schedule

Q2 2012 First stage of statutory consultation
2012 – 2013 Environmental surveys and reporting
Q3 2013 Second stage of statutory consultation
Q1 2014 Submit applications for development consent order(s)
Q2 2015 Application(s) determined
2015 – 2017 Pre-construction phase
2016 – 2021 Construction
2017 onwards Operation

Recent feedback and status

Forewind very kindly responded (and gave permission to quote) this statement (April 2013):

“We are working with Wessex Archaeology Coastal and Marine to assess the impact of the Dogger Bank wind farms to offshore archaeology. This comprises the archaeological assessment of both geotechnical and geophysical data aimed at an in depth analysis of the palaeo-landscape and palaeo-environment and the potential for prehistoric archaeology, as well as the assessment of maritime and aviation archaeology. In addition Forewind is working closely with The Crown Estate to record any finds under the ORPAD protocol (Offshore Renewables Protocol for Archaeological Discoveries) as a result of our extensive survey programme.

Onshore, the baseline archaeology assessment is being undertaken by the heritage team at URS www.ursglobal.com and is currently on-going.  We have consulted English Heritage and the archaeology advisor to Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council – Phil Abramson and his colleagues at NEAR, who will no doubt be known to TAS members.  The suitability for geophysical survey was discussed and agreed with Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council.  Subsequently a programme of detailed magnetometry for the onshore cable routes has been carried out, and the interpretation plots are currently being processed.  The results are very clear and several areas of enclosure and trackways have been identified which are indicative of late prehistoric and Roman settlement-related activity.  In addition, the surveys have identified anomalies relating to First World War practice trenches at the landfall.  The fieldwork is being undertaken by Archaeology Services University of Durham and all reports will eventually be uploaded to OASIS and submitted to Tees Archaeology (for their records) and to the council.

We are planning to consult on a draft version of the environmental statement for Dogger Bank Teesside, which will cover both onshore and marine archaeology, in the autumn.  We will send you details of this consultation nearer the time and would appreciate any comments or feedback that Teesside Archaeological Society and the Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire may have.

If you are interested in seeing the level of detail our assessments go into, you could take a look at the draft Environmental Statement for our Dogger Bank Creyke Beck project.  This is on our website at http://www.forewind.co.uk/downloads/dogger-bank-creyke-beck-downloads/phase-two-consultation.html and we are inviting comments from any stakeholder.  The deadline for responses is 11 June 2013.”

Spence

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

Dirty-snow

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-SC-Kev

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

Image_Goldsborough_Fieldwalking

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.

Microliths_Scalene_Triangles

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:

◊ Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, why not Like at the end or share on Facebook and Twitter?

Spence

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.

Search for Mesolithic campsite continues | NE Yorkshire Coast | PastHorizons News

Microburin Goldsborough flint findenjoying lithic finds during 2012 fieldwork at Goldsborough near Whitby on the north-east coast of Yorkshire.

Could this be the site of another Howick or more?

Discover more | Past Horizons article 17-Dec-2012 » | UK Mesolithic Sites and Finds

PastHorizons homepage »

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?

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!

Roses and bubbly | White Gill charcoal results just in

rose and champRoses are red, violets are blue, charcoal results mean I really like you.

shy charcoal | incarcerated in Ziplocks®

White Gill IsometricThe 2000 excavation* of a late Mesolithic activity area at White Gill, Westerdale, revealed three** fire-spots, one of which was a stone-delineated hearth. Each is associated with a distinct flint knapping and tooling event, and clearly defined by burnt flint debitage as well as tool deposition—including microliths burnt in the fires. As is typical of high elevation moorland “sites”, burnt patches tend to be ephemeral with bashful charcoal flecks that seem to vaporise just by being stared at. With no discernible stratigraphy in the leached profiles, the lenses of the fire spots sit within the sandy matrix below a layer of sticky black peat that always reminds me of death by chocolate fudge cake. It was fortunate to discover the hearth that had been somewhat protected by the stones around it—an area where stones had been piled up, presumably to create some clear areas that are also respected by the lack of flint waste. This is a place where time was invested in creating “flat-surface” features around which various focus activities took place (e.g. scraping hides and/or wood, boring holes in things, cutting meat and maybe veg), and clearing areas—the placements for tents or huts? But that’s another story.

* 20 square metres of excavation overall.
** A fourth, close by, is assumed by surface collection where a concentration of burnt flint was apparent and where there are close raw material matches with the excavated area.

tell me your secrets | through the keyhole

Image_WhiteGill_samplesEach of the fire-spots was sampled even though it was virtually impossible to recover any chunks of charcoal. You take a soil scrape from the burnt context in lieu of digging up the whole thing and micro-excavating it in a lab, as they did in the West Yorkshire project (Penny Spikins). The charcoal is so fragile that it fell apart if you tried, and I did try. Labeled-up and triple-sealed in ziplock bags, they sat in boxes until Spring this year, holding back their secrets. As part of this voluntary project, lithics without context are just broken stones. Lithics in undated contexts are interesting broken stones that begin to tell a story—provide a through-the-keyhole view of activities at a moment in time sometime a long time ago. Ah, time? Could the charcoal not only fix the human activities in calendar time, but also say something about the immediate environment, perhaps even the selection of wood and tinder, when the only other artefact survivals are the broken stones?

I’m especially fortunate in having had assistance from an archaeological consultancy firm who have just completed the preliminary analysis of the charcoal. The results are mixed, but there’s a chink of light that may take us forward into radiocarbon dating (AMS fine resolution) that itself might just give us the first reliable ageing and, after statistical calibration, calendar dates for this period in north-east Yorkshire (Jacqui Huntley, English Heritage NE). The whole field of radiocarbon aging is full of pitfalls and not for this space yet. One of the biggest challenges is to understand not just the integrity and context of the charcoal, its association with human activity and artefacts, but then to understand exactly what you are dating.

love nuts | like twigs | bad old wood

Bad young oak

Lovely young oak | behaviour gets worse in old age

What you want, in addition to an impeccable archaeological context, are bits of carbonized material—the stuff that charred slowly in the fire—from things that had a short life. Hazelnut shells, being a favourite of our Mesolithic friends, are ideal. Young twigs and wood from plants and trees with short lifespans are also ideal, if rare to find. You need enough that’s big enough to be able to identify the species, and that is often not the case. And then there’s the bad old wood problem. So let’s imagine that the charcoal is from a fallen branch or trunk that was already sitting around for years. And it comes from a tree like oak that itself might be hundreds of years old. Some trees in the wildwood could be older! You’re not dating the fire episode and the human activity around it, you’re dating a very elderly tree. Similarly, dating Medieval buildings, even by dendrochronology (tree ring dating), is problematic if the timber was re-used, like an old ship timber built into a structure.

rose-tinted glasses | old oak blues

Can we have a drum-roll for the results? I said they were mixed, so in reverse order:

  • One fire-spot produced a modest amount of charcoal in a sandy matrix, with burnt flint. However, under the stress of being un-ziplocked, in an emotionally charged moment, it fell apart: nothing big enough for species identification nor dating.
  • The stone-delineated hearth produced the biggest sample with macro pieces of charcoal. The only species identifiable is—you guessed it—most likely quercus (oak, large pores). There may be other species in there, but none can be extracted.
  • The chink of light? The fire-spot that, ironically, was the best sealed (under half a metre of peat) produced a modest amount of charcoal and—a bit exciting—a fragment from the rosaceae family. That’s rose! It could also be ligustrum vulgare (privet) but this is less likely: wild privet has a southern British and southern European distribution and prefers chalky soils; the berries are also poisonous to humans.

HawthornWell, not quite rose. The rosaceae family includes things such as hawthorn, crab apple, sloe, berry plants such as bramble and raspberry—mostly thorned but with edible fruits too. Yes! Even hawthorn fruits are edible, although benefitting hugely from preparation. Ray Mears has produced something called “fruit leather” tasting of liquorice that would last two years—or through a harsh winter | » have a watch!

privet privacy | fruity delight

Crab appleIt’s a shame to discount the charcoal as privet because that does conjure up some interesting pictures in my mind’s eye around headlines like:

“the oldest privacy hedge in Britain…”

from the days before twitching net curtains and shower screens? However, while completely conjectural, it is interesting to consider the possibilities of this being from the rosaceae family of edible fruits. The family is also an indicator species for regeneration and its pollen occurs in the Bramblepaleo-environmental samples from the North York Moors where microscopic charcoal seems to indicate periodic burning of the forests—whether by people or natural wild-fires—and the steady regrowth of the clearances. Crab apple too is not only edible, if very sour unless prepared, but the wood is an excellent material for tools and arrow shafts, once seasoned.

Take this to extreme conjecture, indeed fantasy, impossible to prove—but could the fragment of charcoal be from a crab apple-wood arrow shaft with broken microliths (scalene triangles) embedded in it, after the hunt, and deposited in the camp fire as a blood-tainted or failed or venerated tool? Was it a hunting trip for sustenance and calories, or a competition with the folks in the next camp over the hill? Might it have been from a test for the not-yet-men in their passage to adulthood? As I said, flights of entire fancy, but fun to imagine. However, the burnt microliths from the hearths are all broken, and in roughly the same place, some with tentative impact fractures.

I think they were depositing spent arrow shafts (or tools) in the fires and not just casually discarding them into the flames.

age is how you feel | a date with the mesolithic is a thrill

Realising that “old wood” is a bit of a taboo these days, and I’m one nut short of a hazelnut festival, I’m consulting the experts on the next best steps—English Heritage and radiocarbon dating scientists. However, fingers crossed that there is at least something to start with. This could be the first (or first series) of AMS dates for the later Mesolithic in north-east Yorkshire, outside Star Carr and lake Flixton, and the fish weir/trap at Hartlepool to the north. It’s too early for champagne, but a couple of bottles and a few chocolates did find their way to the folks who became intimate with my samples.

The rose? It sits in a ziplock bag for now!

Spence