The early Holocene coastline was a dynamic environment providing a rich source of foodstuffs and other materials throughout much of the year. There have been substantial changes, however, to the shape and extent of the coast including the drowning of the land bridge between Britain and the Continent. A more detailed understanding of the migration of the coastline and the taphonomic processes relating to the preservation of the archaeological record must be achieved in the locality and there is a need to address the ongoing process of coastal erosion and its impact upon post-glacial archaeology. A better understanding of wider content of know coastal and sites (e.g. Howick, Low Hauxley, Hartlepool and Redcar submerged forests, Tynemouth off-shore flint scatters) would be useful. The English Heritage Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment (ARS, 2008) has provided a baseline for further research and has helped to identify key areas at risk. Refinement of existing coastal conservation measures would be achieved. A detailed reporting scheme for recovered ‘offshore’ finds should be developed.
Many basic issues relate to the chronology of Mesolithic occupation in the North-East, including the process of post-glacial re-colonisation, the extent of Early Mesolithic activity and the Mesolithic -Neolithic transition remain to be fully addressed and resolved. Waddington and Passmore (2012) have addressed the issue of re-colonisation, using available radio-carbon dates to put forward innovative suggestions for this process in the region (see also Waddington, 2015). As Waddington has shown, progress could be made through a programme of radiocarbon dating, but this can only be achieved if more Mesolithic sites are found with deposits still in situ which contain material suitable for dating. The discovery of such sites through the development control process is rare, although the site at East Barns near Dunbar (Gooder, 2007) as well as that Killerby, North Yorkshire, shows that this is possible. Alternative dating techniques e.g. OSL could also be applied to potential Mesolithic material, albeit with caveats around broader probabilistic standard deviations.
Lithics are the most common surviving component in the Mesolithic archaeological record. There are excellent collections of material in the region, obtained from research excavation, fieldwalking and development-controlled fieldwork, but there is still much research to be carried out on these data. To aid this process, a code for best practice for the analysis of Mesolithic lithic material could usefully be established including a standardised spreadsheet (‘Excel’ format) for recording material from fieldwalking and from excavations. One prime requirement is a basic re-assessment of the region’s lithics assemblages. There is a need to develop regional typo-chronologies and assess the relationship between these and established national chronological schemes. This re-appraisal would comprise an examination of the main lithic types as well as knapping strategies and further research into the raw materials used for the manufacture of Mesolithic stone tools. This should include provenance studies, research to locate stone sources, and an evaluation of the extent to which material of Late Upper Palaeolithic and Early Mesolithic date might have been re-used. There must be a comprehensive re-examination of existing collections of lithics in the region’s museums and an improvement in the analysis and reporting of assemblages derived from development-led fieldwork. This should include a consideration of tool types (acknowledging microwear analysis results from Star Carr (Milner et al., 2018) that have shown that seemingly unmodified lithics, which would previously have been described as debitage, actually form a majority of utilised and multi-functional artefacts). It should also involve a re-examination of the materials ustilised, and aim to answer specific questions about the chronology of Mesolithic occupation and procurement strategies. Much development control/planning condition-related work has taken place outside of those geographical areas which have, traditionally, seen the bulk of research on Mesolithic archaeology; this proposed new work has the potential to fill gaps in the archaeological record. Linked to this should be an overhaul of regional museum retention policies, and the proposed re-examination of museum and private collections would add value to both. These research topics would be best explored through a combination of commercially funded, commissioned, projects and post-doctoral fellowships. AHRC collaborative studentships offer the potential for joint projects between the region’s universities and museums, though much of the re-assessment involved in this research would have to be carried out by experienced specialists because of the distinctive regional nature of the artefact assemblage. Training of flint specialists remains a priority and it is essential that the results of the re-assessments of the region’s flints are widely dissemination. This research has great potential to re-assess known Mesolithic sites. This may impact on decisions about conservation and site management. It will also help place Mesolithic assemblages, recovered through development-control process, into their regional context, as well as feeding back into conservation and management decisions.
New approaches to the field archaeology of the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods must be developed. An essential prerequisite for this would be a re-assessment of current approaches to lithic scatter sites. Further work on the characterisation of lithic scatters should be a priority, and a project is needed to identify those scatters which might overlie surviving sub-surface deposits. The methodology of recent test pitting exercises in areas like the Till/Tweed Valley, and recent strategies on the Eston Hills, Teesside, tied to prior geophysical surveying, (Carter et. al., 2018) could provide a template for such projects elsewhere in the region (Waddington, 2009).The potential of geophysical survey and aerial photographs for this purpose should be re-assessed (see Carter et al., 2018). For example, the use of aerial photography to identify upland erosion scars in blanket peat may reveal previously masked early prehistoric land surfaces. Landscape features with potential for the preservation of Mesolithic deposits must be targeted. Kettleholes, rock shelters and potential midden sites are all topographic locations and, as yet, over-looked palaeo-wetlands which need to be carefully mapped within the northeast region. Finally, a reconsideration of the conservation and management of lithic scatters would be welcome, recognising baseline advice from English Heritage/Historic England (Schofield, 2000). Scheduling is now a possibility but other alternative ways of protecting these important elements of Mesolithic archaeology need to be sought, including the establishment of sympathetic management regimes in both agricultural and upland/peatland zones.
Since the last iteration of the NERRF, exciting work has been undertaken that highlights the importance of the North East region in the colonisation and re-colonisation of northern Britain during the Mesolithic period (Waddington and Passmore, 2012; Waddington, 2015; Bicket et al., 2017).This work needs to be built on in the light of the influential studies that have been conducted in recent years in NW Europe and future activities could include the dating of more inter-tidal land surfaces, the dating of artefacts in museum collections, comparison of the North East’s Mesolithic settlement structures with those emerging in the Scandinavian archaeological record, and comparisons of north eastern lithic scatters with sites in the Netherlands and Belgium. An improved understanding of the offshore Mesolithic archaeology of the North Sea will also help resolve the extent to which the re-colonisation took place through displacement of populations from the North Sea lowlands (see Waddington, 2015; Balin, 2017; Waddington and Wicks, 2017).
The chronology of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition is still poorly understood, and the process is likely to have shown chronological variation across the region. At the same time, it is now clear that the move to agricultural economies did not exclude the continuation of hunter-gatherer strategies. The extent to which these two approaches to subsistence might have co-existed should be explored, acknowledging a potential fine-resolution overlap between, for example, Early Neolithic activity at Street House, Loftus (East Cleveland) and watershed, terminal Mesolithic, activity, as indicated by AMS dating on the North York Moors. Did agriculture arrive in the region through population expansion, bringing new technologies? Or did it develop through indigenous hunter-gatherers, with access to new materials, making a conscious choice to change their way of life? Or was it a little of both? (Behind the possibilities, and asked rather less frequently, is a further series of questions about why this should have taken place). It is clear from broad-based, European–wide, research that evidence and theory are inseparable in deliberations over this issue and that the resolution of current debates will only arise through developments in both fields. A way forward? To move nearer a better understanding, if not resolution, of the nature of the transition requires new research in a number of different fields. Further fieldwork in wetland areas may be central here as they have a high potential for good organic preservation. But new data alone will not help to resolve the main issue unless it is aligned with broader, theoretical, approaches to social processes that might also have driven the transition.
i) Chronology – A better, more finely honed, chronological sequence is essential to the development of any understanding of the transformation processes that our regional communities were involved in in the late fifth or early fourth millennia BC. As the work of Waddington and Passmore (2012) has shown, advances in dating techniques, including the routine use of AMS dating and Bayesian analyses of available (and future) radio carbon dates, offer significant potential for substantially increasing the fine resolution of our chronological schemes.
ii) The development of models – Some key areas where models are needed include: The nature of population movement and networks of exchange in the Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic of northern Britain. The degree to which northern Britain was/was not isolated from continental Europe in the Late Mesolithic and its relationship with other areas of the British Isles. The nature of seafaring technology and the possibility/constraints this provides for the transition. Social processes in the Late Mesolithic The nature of social change in the northern Mesolithic is poorly understood and appears to play little substantive role in most models of regional interpretation. In Europe, social models centre on the notion of the development of regionally varied ‘complexity’ over time. Small or larger-scale interaction with potential colonisers is also an important issue to address. If this process was the mechanism for the transition was it a rapid phenomenon? What caused it? What happened to pre-existing indigenous Mesolithic groups? Anthropological analyses suggest the possibility of interaction in multifarious ways and these all need to be fully explored and, if possible, integrated into archaeological analysis.
iii) Changes in Subsistence Patterns This is a central area of discussion and greater attention needs to be paid to the nature of the scant subsistence evidence in both Mesolithic and Neolithic contexts in the region.
iv) Understanding the impact of the 8.2 ka Event and the Storegga slide Tsunami on Mesolithic populations – There is a need to address these phenomena, as they form topics of international interest and debate, and the North East region is probably the most appropriate place in which to study them given its palaeo-geography and position in relation to the tsunami. The archaeological community needs to become more literate in the earth science and palaeo-geographic studies which are driving this research forward. Further work needs to be undertaken, both as field and desk-based research, to combine the earth science and palaeo-geographic data with the existing archaeological record to understand the human dimension of the impact of these phenomena. This is an incredible story and one that has gone a long way to making us the island nation/s that we now are. This should form one of the key foci of research attention over the life of this research agenda.
The distribution of the known Mesolithic archaeological resource is profoundly influenced by geomorphological processes at both a micro- and macro-level (e.g. Passmore et al., 2002; Passmore and Macklin, 1997; Passmore and van der Schriek, 2009; Passmore and Waddington, 2009). For example, erosion scars in peat beds in the North Pennines and Cheviots could be identified using aerial photography and other remote sensing techniques. Any new sites should be visited on foot. An improved understanding of the dynamics of site formation processes would feed directly into conservation practices. Identifying areas of threat will allow problems to be anticipated and appropriate measures to be put in place before damage can occur. For example, the identification of erosion of the archaeological resource could feed into increased monitoring of upland archaeological remains required in the wake of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000).
The majority of the archaeological evidence for the Mesolithic period in the North-East is thought to be of Late Mesolithic date, with notably little earlier material. This may be a genuine pattern, or a function of post-depositional factors, biases in fieldwork or lack of effective typological schemes. If the absence is real, then the reasons for this late colonisation of the region must be explored. If there are surviving earlier Mesolithic sites, their locations should be characterised to create a predictive model that may help locate further sites. The creation of a predictive model for the location of potentially Early Mesolithic sites should feed directly into the development control process, ensuring that foci of possible early activity are investigated. Once early sites have been located, appropriate conservation and management regimes should be implemented. The discovery of new Early Mesolithic sites is central to our understanding of early prehistory in the region. It is important that this feeds through into available interpretative material.
More dated, high-resolution, pollen cores should be obtained from contrasting environmental settings. Specific areas highlighted for investigation include: the Tees estuary carrlands, Cleveland plain and foothills, Prestwick Carr, Shildon Lough, and the Wansbeck, Blyth, Till and Tweed river systems. Among the upland areas that remain poorly understood are Weardale (Co. Durham), Allendale, the Cheviots and the Fell Sandstone escarpment (Northumberland). More pollen cores are required fromall coastal areas; the possibility of obtaining further cores from the offshore peats off Redcar should also be explored. The evidence from lithic scatters, and other aspects of material culture, needs to be examined in relation to environmental context. Until now, most pollen cores have come from upland locations in the North Pennines and the landscape around the Milfield Basin in Northumberland; this must be balanced by an enhanced understanding of the pollen record in other areas, in an effort to understand the earliest phases of Mesolithic occupation in the region and the advent of farming and the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition. This project should involve the identification of potential lowland peat deposits and should include both survey and map-based analytical work. All pollen cores should be adequately dated using AMS techniques. Sites of high palaeoecological potential cannot currently be protected through Scheduling. Instead alternative means of preserving them should be put in place, either through their designation as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or the implementation of management plans. Such sites should be recorded on HERs/SMRs and on available data bases held by Natural England. An understanding of long-term environmental change is an important element of Geography in the National Curriculum. There is potential for the creation of appropriate educational and interpretative material drawing on this research. A focused campaign of research into the lowland pollen record would make an appropriate subject for a PhD thesis and particularly in the coastal zone.
The distribution of known Mesolithic sites is heavily influenced by the pattern of earlier research. It is crucial that the gaps in the distribution of sites are filled in. Fieldwork should be focused in areas outside the main foci of activity by earlier researchers identified by Young (1994a).Further research may provide a record of off-site hunter-gatherer-fisher activities at the landscape scale and a predictive model for identifying likely sites of permanent/semi-permanent settlement where structural remains may be found. Further evaluation on rock shelter sites should be carried out to characterise the type and extent of their use during the Mesolithic.The discoveries of the sites at Howick and Low Hauxley indicate that the coastal zone is one of high potential for new sites. There should be a coastal survey to establish the potential for survival of Mesolithic deposits. Any new sites recorded should be passed to regional HERs/SMRs and where necessary, protected through Scheduling or management agreements. Work on the coastal zone may take place in the context of wider management surveys. Field-walking surveys are necessary to identify potential Mesolithic sites and would provide ideal projects for local amateur archaeology groups.Many of these research topics would make ideal post-doctoral projects, though the evaluation of rock shelter sites (this would require comparative work in southern Scotland and North-West England) and predictive modelling of lithic assemblages is better suited to commissioned work.
There are no recorded Mesolithic burials in the region, a situation mirrored in most other parts of the British Isles. This may be linked to the acid soil conditions in the region, but could equally reflect the use of burial practices that leave no archaeological trace. Discovery and detailed recording of Mesolithic burial remains should be accorded utmost importance. Nothing is known of even the basic details about Mesolithic populations (for example, age of death, height, pathologies, etc). There would also be scope for more advanced analysis, including isotope investigation. Any undated prehistoric human remains must be radiocarbon dated; this includes the undated humans skulls found beneath the peat at Middlesbrough. Middens may provide suitable soil conditions for bone preservation. Any future midden sites should be investigated with this in mind. Any burials revealed through future fieldwork will be of utmost importance and should be fully analysed and published. Advice should be taken from the English Heritage Regional Science Advisor as soon as possible and where necessary, additional funding should be available for additional analysis.
The archaeological record has much to tell us about the ways in which the landscape was exploited for food and raw materials. The raw materials used in stone tool production require closer definition; this work should form part of any re-assessment of lithic assemblages. More broadly, there is a need to identify, and map, existing sources of early prehistoric raw materials in the region. Such research has the capacity to enable major advances in the study of ancient technology, socio-economic relations, mobility, past geographies and landscape use and perception. Existing lithic collections in the region’s museums must be revisited (See PM3. above). Any re-assessment of the importance of known Mesolithic sites will impact on conservation and site management. It would help place Mesolithic assemblages recovered through development control process into their regional context, feeding back into management decisions. There is need for a major project to study Mesolithic use of raw materials, both in terms of the categorisation of materials found in assemblages, and the identification of raw material sources. This would make a suitable project for commissioned research or as a joint project between a university archaeology and geography/geology department, and could be a suitable subject area for several PhD or post-doctoral research projects.
Given the lack of early faunal evidence from the region, it is important to exploit what little material does survive. For example, the analysis of the isotopic composition of shells might shed light on issues of seasonality. Despite occasional spot finds of animal bones, preservation of faunal material is very poor in the North East, though it is clear from discoveries at sites such as Howick that, in certain contexts, bone survival might be quite good (Waddington, 2007). Any faunal material recovered must be dated using high-precision radiocarbon techniques. It is important that all spot finds of animal bone are adequately recorded on local HERs/SMRs. Where such finds are recovered in non-development control/planning situations, funds should be available to carry out analysis and radiocarbon dating.