Mesolithic archaeology is an exciting area of study with the potential for many more important discoveries to be made in the future. The three themes of ‘Living in a changing world’, ‘Mesolithic lifeways’, and ‘Investigating change and diversity’ provide a range of questions which commercial archaeologists, academics, students, planners and the public can use to advance Mesolithic research. The ways in which we might do this are set out as strategies which are aimed at ensuring the conservation of the resource and providing wider access to the period.
Since the previous Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Framework document (Prehistoric Society 1999) was produced numerous significant discoveries have been made and fresh perspectives have been developed for the British Mesolithic. These include the discovery of a number of settlement sites with houses; the recognition of the potential of intertidal and offshore deposits following the mapping of submerged landscapes under the North Sea and elsewhere; renewed excavations at the flagship site of Star Carr which have highlighted alarming problems with drying out of the peat; and more detailed studies of the Mesolithic environment and landscape change including the creation and settlement of the British archipelago.
However, the Mesolithic is arguably still the most neglected period in British prehistory and as a consequence of its low profile and the need to assimilate new information and discoveries a project was commissioned by English Heritage to develop a new Mesolithic Research and Conservation Framework for England. This supersedes the 1999 joint framework for the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic and sits alongside the current Palaeolithic Framework, which acknowledged that Mesolithic archaeology had developed its own distinct agenda and requirements (Pettitt et al 2008, 3-4).
The aims of this Research and Conservation Framework are to: (1) improve the understanding of the Mesolithic of England; and (2) set out key issues and priorities for future work. In addition, it will aid English Heritage in its broader objectives of identifying and protecting our most important heritage, and helping people appreciate and enjoy England’s national story (English Heritage 2011), as well as contributing to the Pleistocene and Early Holocene activity of the National Heritage Protection Plan (English Heritage 2012).
This framework has been produced by undertaking broad-ranging consultation across the sector using a dedicated website to disseminate information, an on-line discussion forum to generate interactive debate, email correspondence, and a meeting of interested experts from across the sector. The framework process has been composed of three parts, as set out by Olivier (1996) in Frameworks for our Past. The first part was a resource assessment: a statement of the current state of knowledge and a description of the archaeological resource; this will be archived with the Archaeology Data Service (Blinkhorn and Milner 2012a). The second part was a research agenda: a list of the gaps in that knowledge, of work which could be done, and of the potential for the resource to answer questions (Blinkhorn and Milner 2012b). This was discussed at the expert meeting and formed the basis for the final part of the process, the production of this Research and Conservation Framework, which sets out key issues and priorities for future work as well as methods and approaches for achieving these.
In terms of geographical scope, the document aims to improve the understanding of the Mesolithic of England. It should be noted that for over half the period Britain was physically joined to Europe and consequently the maritime resource has been included. This framework partners the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Research Framework for the Archaeology of Wales (Walker 2011), the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework for the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic (ScARF 2012), and the Maritime Research Agenda (Ransley et al 2013).
The Mesolithic is generally defined as corresponding to the beginning of the Preboreal period (which follows the Younger Dryas: the last cold snap of the Ice Age) at about 9600 cal BC, and finishes at about 4000 cal BC in Britain with the introduction of farming. However, the term ‘Mesolithic’ is a modern construct, coined in 1866, and the boundaries of the period are rather fuzzy (Milner and Woodman 2005a). The ‘transition’ from Upper Palaeolithic to Mesolithic is poorly understood: the long blade sites of the Terminal Palaeolithic are poorly dated and the degree of continuity with the Early Mesolithic is not clear (Barton and Roberts 2004).
There are hints of temporal succession in the Early Mesolithic assemblage types of the Preboreal (Reynier 2005) and some indications of Middle Mesolithic developments around the beginning of the Boreal, but the chronologies require more work. In addition, the nature and timing of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition is much debated (Milner 2010). Although the general consensus is that at some point around 4000 cal BC changes associated with the Neolithic occur (see eg Whittle et al 2011), rod microlith sites have been identified as particularly late vestiges of Mesolithic behaviour, possibly extending into the 4th millennium cal BC (eg Spikins 2002, 43; Chatterton 2005; French et al 2007, 283). Overall, the lack of chronological refinement for the whole of the Mesolithic has been thrown into sharper relief by the precision now achieved for the Early Neolithic through Bayesian modelling (Whittle et al 2011).
Despite the difficulties of defining a specific beginning and end point to the period, we can say that the Mesolithic spans roughly five and a half thousand years: a significant chunk of time which covers about half of the Holocene, the geological epoch we are currently living in. One of the reasons this period has been overlooked may be because it lacks the impressive monuments and artefacts associated with later periods. Developments in lithic artefact styles and technology enable a broad Early/Late assignment to stone tools, the change occurring across the late 9th and 8th millennia cal BC, and a ‘Middle’ facies has been posited for southern and central England. Scarcity of substantial remains and associated radiocarbon dates has hindered refinement of Mesolithic chronology to a more familiar, human scale. Consequently, these five and a half thousand years tend to be conflated and the Mesolithic is often seen as a ‘timeless’ period, lacking history and change until the arrival of the Neolithic.
However, this neglect in the past arguably makes the Mesolithic one of the most exciting periods to study because there are so many questions to answer; recent work has demonstrated that important discoveries can overturn our understanding of hunter-gatherers after the Ice Age and contribute significantly to the national story. Recent research has also shown that a historical perspective is both vital and possible. Several cultural and environmental events occurred during the Mesolithic, including rapid climate change at the beginning of the period, significant changes in lithic technology and, in the 7th millennium cal BC, a cold event, a tsunami and eventually the breaching of the landscape which joined Britain to the rest of Europe. Many of these events speak to current concerns about climate change, the environment, and Britain’s place in the world.
There are a number of challenges that those dealing with the Mesolithic have to face (Spikins 2010). Mesolithic sites can be hard to find: the archaeology can be ephemeral and prospecting for sites can be difficult. There are some entrenched views on what Mesolithic sites and material should look like, which can limit exploration and consequently lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. For instance, because the human bone record is so sparse for the Mesolithic, such remains are not expected to be found. It is only through recent radiocarbon dating programmes that more have been identified as Mesolithic (Meiklejohn et al 2011).
Similarly, recent excavations at Star Carr have shown that the site is much larger than the original excavator had envisaged, which had been based on a belief that sites of this period are small (Conneller et al 2012).
Conversely, the difficulties of prospection for small sites (and intra-site archaeology) mean that the enormous potential of studying single-period events is mostly untapped. Such small sites can preserve archaeological signatures for short-term events, archaeological snapshots, and offer ‘clean’ assemblages, unaffected by the palimpsests often seen on larger scales. Their significance is inversely proportional to their size, offering huge potential to inform our understanding of the bigger picture at certain points in time.
There can also be negative expectations that Mesolithic sites will be disturbed and therefore of little value, or that structural remains such as hearths, pits, and postholes are unlikely to be found: these perceptions can mean that important archaeology is missed or incorrectly assigned to other periods (Spikins 2010).
There are also a number of threats to the resource which in recent years have come to the fore. Growing pressure on previously uncultivated land, which on the one hand presents a new opportunity to identify unrecorded Mesolithic scatters, also results in potential further damage to buried sites which have long been protected by grassland. The severe drying out of peat, at upland sites due to climate change (ibid), and on lowland sites due to changing water tables often related to drainage (Boreham et al 2011; Milner et al 2011), is also having a significant damaging effect on the Mesolithic resource.
A number of coastal Mesolithic sites are also under threat from sea-level rise, or are currently eroding into the sea (Milner 2012), such as at Low Hauxley, Northumberland (Waddington 2011; Eadie and Waddington 2013). Rapid assessments of England’s coastal zones, undertaken to inform asset management in areas affected by coastal erosion and defence, have added significant evidence for nearshore and intertidal peats and forest beds. Many of these organic deposits have dates showing that they formed during the Mesolithic period (eg Eadie 2013, chapter 6). These provide evidence of past environments and relative sea levels. A national database is managed by English Heritage and new discoveries can be added on-line at http://www.englishheritage.org.uk/professional/research/heritage-science/environmentalarchaeology/Environmental-Studies-Resources/intertidal-peat-database/.
In terms of management and protection, most Mesolithic sites found on the Schedule of Ancient Monuments are there because of archaeology of another period, since designation requires there to be evidence of buildings, structures or works. Significantly, Star Carr was designated as a Scheduled Monument in 2011 (see http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/caring/heritage-centenary/landmark-listings/star-carr) because of the discovery of a ‘house’, offering the possibility that the Mesolithic will be afforded increased statutory protection elsewhere when such features are recognised. The case at Star Carr has helped inform the rationale for designation in that it was scheduled both in order to encourage a dialogue with stakeholders over best management practices, including further excavation, and to support funding applications by official recognition of the importance of the site. A further step forward is that English Heritage has now published a ‘scheduling selection guide for sites of early human activity’ which outlines degrees of significance of various forms of evidence (see http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/dssg-sites-early-human-activity/).
A further challenge is the presentation of the period to the public. The 2008 Palaeolithic Framework identified rising sympathies with creationism as a cause for concern, to which can be added the low level of understanding of deep time and chronology amongst the public at large, and the persisting ‘caveman’ stereotype. In a recent questionnaire to members of the public in Scarborough over a period of three years, only 9% knew about the Mesolithic despite living a few miles away from the site of Star Carr (Milner et al forthcoming); although the sample size was relatively small (a total of 173 people over three years), the results were consistent each year. This lack of knowledge is hardly surprising given the relative paucity of information in the public domain: the Mesolithic is not taught in schools, it has a minimal presence in most museums and there are very few popular books on the subject. In addition, some representations of the period tend not to be the type of depictions that Mesolithic archaeologists would make: eg the film 10,000 BC bore no relation to the existing data for the period. However, other examples such as the graphic novel MeZolith (Haggarty and Brockbank 2010), and books like The Gathering Night (Elphinstone 2009), Wolf Brother (Paver 2004) and subsequent books in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness highlight what can be achieved. In sum, there is a continuing need to disseminate our understanding of the Mesolithic widely, clearly, and in non-specialist language in order to explain the story of how the repopulation of Britain took place in a changing world.
Since 1999, the shape of Mesolithic archaeology has changed significantly:
Such achievements are described within the Mesolithic Resource Assessment Document (Blinkhorn and Milner 2012a); some of the major successes are highlighted here.
Numerous sizeable research projects in England have taken place or been published within this period: eg Howick (Waddington 2007), the Severn Estuary (Bell 2007), Three Ways Wharf, Uxbridge (Lewis and Rackham 2011), ‘Doggerland’ (Gaffney et al 2007, 2009), Star Carr (Conneller et al 2012; Milner et al 2013), Bouldnor Cliff (Momber et al 2011) and most recently at Low Hauxley (Waddington, pers comm) and a project on high-resolution analysis of late-date ‘rod’ microlith sites (Jim Innes and Peter Rowley-Conwy, pers comm). Significant lithic assemblages have continued to be identified across the country from diverse projects such as infrastructure work, eg Channel Tunnel Rail Link (Foreman 2009; Booth et al 2011) and the Steppingley to Aylesbury Pipeline (Moore 2010), and aggregates sourcing, eg Tubney Wood, Oxfordshire (Bradley and Hey 1993; Norton 2008). Similar large-scale work at the Stainton West site on the Carlisle Northern Development Route in Cumbria has recovered vast amounts of Later Mesolithic lithics utilising industrial-scale sieving strategies.
Most prominent amongst new discoveries are the substantial structures that have been found. Howick, Northumberland, which featured prominently in the media as the ‘oldest house in Britain’ (Richards 2011) was the first to be identified, amongst a number of new Mesolithic structures which are of remarkably similar form and dimensions. The Howick structure featured a sunken floor with a ring of substantial post-sockets and an internal sequence of hearth pits. More recently at Star Carr a smaller structure was found, with a shallow scooped floor surrounded by postholes, but which dates to about 1000 years earlier (Conneller et al 2012). The excavations at Star Carr have also revealed that the worked wooden platform first identified in the 1980s (Mellars and Dark 1998) extends over 30m of lake shore: a major structural undertaking. The evidence from both Howick and Star Carr has suggested the possibility that hunter-gatherers invested significant time and resources into building structures and that they may not have been as mobile at certain times and at certain places as was previously thought.
Furthermore, some sites in Britain, such as Stonehenge, Wiltshire (Allen and Gardiner 2002), and Warren Fields, Aberdeenshire (Hilary et al 2009), have evidence for large posts or post-rows (usually attributed to the Neolithic) dated to the Mesolithic. Against a background of more frequent recognition of Mesolithic features, this sort of evidence is demonstrating the possible ritual use of the landscape in the Mesolithic and lends further support to the idea that people invested time and energy at certain places in the landscape (Gaffney et al 2013).
We are also beginning to understand submerged landscapes due to the pioneering work of the North Sea Palaeolandscapes Project which has firmly placed modern technology at the heart of submarine archaeology (Gaffney et al 2007). A total of 23,000 sqaure km of 3D seismic survey data was acquired and reprocessed to reconstruct Mesolithic land surfaces. This project has illustrated the significance of marine geophysical survey in identifying areas of enhanced archaeological potential. A similar project off the west coast in the Bristol Channel and Liverpool Bay areas identified former freshwater bodies that may have attracted human activity and areas with the potential for organic preservation (Fitch and Gaffney 2011). In addition, at Bouldnor Cliff in the Solent, the value of submarine exploration saw impressive returns when the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Marine Archaeology excavated twisted plant fibres, hearths, pits, burnt flint, timbers and lithics (Momber et al 2011).
Human skeletal evidence remains slight in England and new discoveries are rarely made; however, a human femur excavated from a palaeochannel at Staythorpe, Nottinghamshire (Davies et al 2001) was radiocarbon dated to the Mesolithic (the 6th millennium cal BC). Further discoveries have been made through radiocarbon dating of previously excavated bone, such as two human skulls from Greylake, Somerset (Brunning and Firth 2012). Much of this dating work has been carried out by Rick Schulting as part of a wider study to determine diet through stable isotope analyses and dental microwear, which is very important in its own right.
Possible Mesolithic rock art has been suggested by members of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, comprising two incised rows of crosses sealed by a stalagmite at Aveline’s Hole (Mullan and Wilson 2004) and similar motifs at Long Hole, Somerset (Mullan and Wilson 2005; Mullan and Wilson 2006); there is also a figurative example at Goatscrag in Northumberland (Waddington 1999). More prolific and stratified items such as portable art objects and decorated woodwork are found across Europe so it is not unreasonable to anticipate similar discoveries in Britain, especially from marine or wetland contexts.
One of the most significant scientific achievements has been the enhancement of dating precision through the use of Bayesian statistics, as carried out on the sequence of hearths from the structure at Howick (Waddington 2007). This dating programme has demonstrated the level of refinement that is possible on sites with stratigraphy. Furthermore, the association of geometric narrow-blade lithics with these early dates has allowed Waddington to suggest a north-eastern point of entry to Britain for this lithic technology (ibid, 223; Waddington and Passmore 2012), a conclusion supported by a recent assessment of the northern British evidence (Ritchie 2010). A similar programme of radiocarbon dating and Bayesian modelling is currently being carried out by Alex Bayliss for Star Carr and by Ian Bailiff and Clive Waddington for Low Hauxley. This technique is beginning to provide the historical perspective that has been so lacking for the Mesolithic. Other dating techniques, such as thermoluminescence (TL) and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), have also been used on a number of sites. Although they tend to have broad error ranges, these lesser-used techniques have helped to clarify chronologies on sites where radiocarbon dating was unsuitable, such as at Heathrow Terminal 5 where TL dating suggested a late 8th- to 7th-millennium cal BC origin for burnt flint-filled pits (Lewis et al 2010).
Interrogating source material has become much easier with the advent of OASIS (http://www.oasis.ac.uk/index.cfm) and the Archaeology Data Service’s (ADS) ‘Grey Literature Library’ providing on-line access to unpublished commercial fieldwork reports. The Archaeological Investigations Project’s (AIP) database facilitates the identification of grey literature, as does the on-line portal for Historic Environment Records (HERs) ‘Heritage Gateway’. This is complemented by the Colonisation of Britain by Modern Humans project run by Wessex Archaeology, also known as PaMela (http://www.wessexarch.co.uk/48666/colonisation-britain-project), which digitised Roger Jacobi’s archive, and Blinkhorn’s (2012) work which compiled evidence from PPG16-era archaeology. Additionally, John Wymer’s gazetteer (1977) has been digitised and made available on the ADS (Whyte 2008). As of May 2013, the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (http://finds.org.uk/database/search/results/broadperiod/MESOLITHIC/) contains almost 6000 items identified as being of Mesolithic date (see also Bond 2010). However, the system of identification and verification requires tightening to lend more credibility to the lithics in the database.
The consistent popularity of Time Team since the 1999 Framework was published has served to maintain archaeology in the public consciousness but the incorporation of the Mesolithic into its schedule has been scant in comparison to other periods: of the 256 episodes listed on the Channel 4 website only five give any coverage to the Mesolithic. However, these have included a number of special programmes on Doggerland (2007) and the Mesolithic tsunami (2013), with another being filmed during excavation at Low Hauxley in 2013. In 2003, the BBC featured Howick in a Meet the Ancestors episode on ‘Britain’s oldest house’ and on the first series of Coast. Ray Mears chose the Mesolithic for a five-part series with Gordon Hillman entitled Wild Food (Mears and Hillman 2007), in which they explored Mesolithic Britain from a dietary perspective and included contributions from academics specialising in the Mesolithic period. The BBC series A History of Ancient Britain included items on Goldcliff, Star Carr and Bouldnor Cliff alongside more extensive discussion of the Mesolithic, and the first episode of Britain BC had an item on Star Carr with special reference to the canine faunal remains. More recently, the BBC’s Digging for Britain programme also investigated Star Carr, highlighting the recent research into the site’s deterioration.
Although museum exhibitions on the Mesolithic are rare in this country, in recent years attempts have been made to rectify this. Notably, Clive Waddington has carried out two reconstructions of the Howick structure, one on the site itself and one on the Maelmin Heritage Trail near Wooler, Northumberland. In addition, the Yorkshire Museum in York installed a major, year-long exhibition on Star Carr in 2013 and the Great North Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne, is producing a display on the site at Low Hauxley.
Other initiatives to get the public involved in discovering the Mesolithic include the North East Yorkshire Mesolithic Project (Waughman 2012), which has used volunteers to monitor erosion scars in order to identify areas of Mesolithic potential in the North York Moors National Park; work at North Park Farm, Surrey, where excavations of Mesolithic archaeology by the Surrey County Archaeological Unit, Archaeoscape and volunteers (Guinness 2012) inspired Surrey County Council to organise a ‘Stone Age Summer’ (2006). Current projects at Blick Mead near Vespasian’s Camp, Wiltshire, Flixton Island North Yorkshire, and Low Hauxley all include outreach elements such as the participation of school children and volunteers in the excavations. Meanwhile Emily Hellewell has developed a number of activities for children which have been made into a freely available resource pack, Life in the Mesolithic (Hellewell 2012). This has been disseminated to Young Archaeologists’ Club volunteers in order to engage 8-16 year olds with the period.