Palaeolithic and Mesolithic

The original Specialist Group consisted of John Davies (independent scholar), Peter Rowe (then Tees Archaeology), Penny Spikins (Dept of Archaeology, University of York), Chris Tolan-Smith (independent consultant), Clive Waddington (Archaeological Research Services Ltd.), Mark White (Dept of Archaeology, University of Durham), and Rob Young (Northumberland National Park Authority). The current text has been substantially re-written and revised by Dr. Rob Young with detailed comments by Clive Waddington, Don O’Meara and Keith Elliott

Introduction

Perhaps, due to the relatively low visibility of Mesolithic remains when compared with the monumentality of later prehistoric periods, or the spectacular nature of Roman features in the north-east, very little work was carried out on the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology of the region, before the 20th century.

Certainly, until the development of the Durham Archaeological Survey in 1983, (Haselgrove et al., 1988; Haselgrove and Healey, 1992) and the Tyne-Solway Ancient Landscapes Project in 1992-3 (Tolan-Smith, 1997a), it would be fair to say that there was hardly any regional, academic, institutional, interest in the earlier periods of prehistory.

This situation is clearly borne out by the fact that no large scale, regional, synthetic, publications relating to these periods were produced before the 1980s, and it is also reinforced if one was to look in the north east’s two leading archaeological journals for published articles that mention Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology. In the Transactions of the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland/Durham Archaeological Journal for 1973-2014, some 161 archaeological articles and substantial notes were published. Of these only four dealt with aspects of the period under study here. In Archaeologia Aeliana from 1976-2017, of the 466 archaeological articles and Museum Notes, only nine dealt with, or mentioned, earlier prehistory.

Since the late 1980s, however, early prehistoric studies in the north-east region have seen a burgeoning of interest and development, manifested in the development of some large-scale, landscape-based, projects and their resultant monograph publications (e.g Tolan-Smith, 1997; Passmore and Waddington, 2009, 2012; Waddington, 1999a, 2007, 2014;Waddington and Bonsall, 2016; Waughman et al., 2005; Young, 1987.) These are discussed in detail below.

The north east is currently one of the main areas of active Mesolithic research in the country, with the excavation and publication of both nationally and internationally significant sites, such as those at Howick and Low Hauxley. Fieldwalking, other recent excavations and detailed palaeoenvironmental research programmes (discussed in detail below), have also revealed a plethora of new data such that from having a single radiocarbon dated Mesolithic site in the region pre-2000 we now have over 50.

In particular, because of the crucial position of this region in relation to the coastal palaeogeography of the North Sea Basin in the period, the north east coast has come to international attention. When Doggerland was extant and joined to what is now the British mainland, the landmass extended from what is today the Dogger Bank, south of the Outer Silver Pit, and then back north to Flamborough Head. This meant that the area from Flamborough Head northwards provided the first area of coastline across the sea to the west of northern Doggerland and what, today, are the areas of drowned Mesolithic landscape around the German Bight, the west coast of Denmark and southern Norway. As a result, it was a key zone of contact with the emergent mainland Europe as it fronted on to the North Sea Basin.

Furthermore, the British north east coast is also the coastline that faced the full force of the Storegga Slide Tsunami, caused by the largest underwater megaslide so far recorded on the planet, and an event that is, increasingly, seen as having had a profound effect on the course of Britain’s Mesolithic history (Waddington and Wicks, 2017).

Northumberland also occupies the geomorphological ‘hinge’ where the effects of relative sea level rise have oscillated during the Holocene. This, again, makes this region a crucial area for studying Mesolithic landscapes and settlement patterns in addition to human responses and adaptations to key geomorphological, climatic and vegetation changes. 

In light of all of these recent developments, the study of early prehistory in the region is now in a very healthy state and the future of the discipline is being constructed on a firm basis of increasing knowledge.

Current developments apart though, if one looks, in general terms, at the history of Palaeolithic / Mesolithic research in the region one can clearly see that, in the period before the First World War, both the uplands and coastal areas received almost equal amounts of, low-level, attention. After the First World War, and certainly until the 1950s, the fieldwork emphasis was focused on the current coastline of Northumberland and Durham and from the 1950s until the late 1980s the uplands and inland lowlands were the main areas of research activity.

The State of Knowledge

The results of regional research before World War One

As early as 1880, the Rev. W. Howchin had recorded what we would now call Mesolithic lithic material from Allendale in the North Pennines (Howchin, 1880). These finds inspired the geologist C.T. Trechmann, who was  an avid flint collector on the Durham coast (see below) to visit the region. He was intrigued by Howchin’s reference to the context of his Allendale finds. The Allendale site was in an area of vegetational erosion caused by fumes from a nearby lead-smelting chimney. The finds that Trechmann made on his visit to the location prompted him to seek out other upland areas with similar brick-built flues, or chimneys, used to take the poisonous fumes away from lead smelting sites and thus producing similar areas of vegetation erosion (Trechmann, 1905; 1912). From Allendale, Trechmann explored the area around the Blackton Smelt Mill chimney in Teesdale, and in 1905 he discovered an amazing array of material. He recorded at least eight  arrowheads of both barbed and tanged and leaf -shaped form, denticulated blades, (the equivalent of prehistoric saw blades), Mesolithic microliths, around forty scrapers, dozens of flakes and thousands of chips and only six or so flint cores. He also recorded cores, flakes and chips of locally available chert in the assemblage and, on the strength of these finds, he progressed into Weardale and to the site above Rookhope from which he recovered a barbed and tanged arrowhead.

Trechmann’s upland researches may well have inspired the Weardale antiquarian and local historian William Morely Egglestone to visit the site, located on Redburn Common near Rookhope, and to collect further material. Indeed from 1910-16 Egglestone was actively involved in tracing previous discoveries of flint and stone tools in Weardale. He published papers on lithic material from the Redburn Common site and on a range of stone axes and perforated stone tools that had been found in the dale. He actually went to the site and collected new material himself (Egglestone, 1909-1910; 1911-1912a; 1911-1912b).

The first manifestation of an archaeological interest in the present coastal area came in 1905 with the publication of a paper by C.T. Trechmann entitled ‘Neolithic Remains on the Durham Coast’. Most of the material that he reported on would now be classified as Mesolithic, and Trechmann was the first scholar to note the tendency of scatter sites to be located in sheltered spots on the edges of coastal denes, the steeply incised stream valleys which are a common feature of the contemporary Durham coastline. These scatters were also usually protected on the seaward side by low dunes. More importantly (though he did not really comment on the fact), Trechmann recorded, for the first time, the association of microlithic flint types with typologically later material (Trechmann, 1905, 361-363). He also noted that flint material occurred less densely on the coast north of Sunderland, and suggested that this distribution was probably more apparent than real, reflecting differential coastal erosion and weathering. Throughout his long and distinguished research career Trechmann was one of the few early researchers to consider the possibility that the present coastline was not as it had been in the Mesolithic (Trechmann, 1936)

Seven years later he published a further paper on ‘Neolithic Chipping Sites in Durham and Northumberland’ (Trechmann, 1912). This included a discussion of lithic material from the uplands of County Durham as well as the coast, and it was the first attempt by a local archaeologist to discuss the relationship between Mesolithic and later material from upland and lowland/coastal locations. This is a theme which still features in discussions of the Mesolithic in the north-east of England (e.g. Simmons, 1996; Young 1987; 2000b).

This paper was important for a number of reasons: it included, for example, the first published mention of a site at Crimdon Dene, north of Hartlepool which, as we will see, was to become an important archaeological location as the early years of the twentieth century progressed. Trechmann also speculated about sources of raw materials, suggesting that the upland flint came from the Yorkshire Wolds, while the ‘coastal’ flint artefacts were mainly made on pebbles from the local boulder clay. He also put forward a relative dating scheme for sites in both upland and lowland areas and concluded that whilst the material may or may not have been contemporary ‘there was no intercourse or exchange of materials between the two areas’ (1912, 81).

His discussion of the Northumberland coast was slight and he noted that lithic material was ‘practically absent from that part stretching from the mouth of the Tyne northwards to Whitley Bay. The only definite ‘chipping site’ that he recorded was at a location ‘a mile north of Newbiggin’ which produced some 400 pieces of flint (1912, 82).

The results of regional research after World War One – 1950

After World War I, however, a new generation of independent archaeologists showed a closer interest in the seemingly ephemeral remains of early prehistory. In 1922 Francis Buckley produced a small note in the Antiquaries Journal on a ‘Pygmy Industry on the Northumberland Coast’, and another in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle -upon-Tyne on ‘Early Tardenois remains at Bamburgh’, later noting material from the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne in further articles. The contributions noted above discussed finds from Bamburgh and Craster, and, for the first time, clearly identified Mesolithic material in the area. Buckley linked the finds with the Belgian Tardenoisian industries (1922a; 1922b) and he followed this work up in 1925 with a more detailed discussion of the material. This paper on ‘The Microlithic Industries of Northumberland’ employed typological analysis to separate the coastal material into an ‘early Tardenoisian’, characterised by small scrapers and pointed blades and a ‘developed Tardenoisian’ which included semi-geometric microliths (Buckley, 1925, 42-47). Over the next decade Buckley’s study prompted much discussion of the nature of the coastal finds in Durham and Northumberland.  Buckley’s unpublished notebooks held in the Tolson Memorial Museum also records the finding of lithic material on the Belford Chatton Moors and near Lucker (Gilks, 1993, 1).

In 1933 Arthur Raistrick and T. S. Westoll reported on a prolific site at Crimdon Dene on the Durham coast, first recorded by Trechmann in 1912 ( Trechmann, 1912; Raistrick and Westoll, 1933, 139-144; see also Raistrick, Coupland and Coupland, 1936 discussed below). Five thousand pieces of lithic material were recovered from beneath sand dunes on a spur of land between the shore and the burn. Some 230 cores were recorded, along with many blades and flakes with secondary working and over 100 microliths. The latter comprised mainly scalene triangles and rods of later Mesolithic form. Scrapers also occurred in large numbers. Projectile points of Neolithic- and Bronze Age type were also recorded in the assemblage.

In the same year, Raistrick also produced a detailed discussion of the distribution of Mesolithic sites in the north of England in general (Raistrick, 1933a, 141-156). In a study clearly influenced by Buckley’s work, Raistrick speculated that the coastal sites of County Durham and Northumberland were earlier than those in the northern uplands and that they had more affinities with material from Belgium. He believed that the microlithic sites of the Pennines were the product of a later, inland, movement of people from the coast (1933a, 150 -152). Raistrick’s ideas about relations with the continent were further developed in a 1934 paper with G. Bennett-Gibbs, entitled ‘Prehistoric Invasions of Northumberland and Durham’.

1934 also saw Raistrick’s publication of one of the most detailed discussions of ‘Mesolithic Sites of the North East Coast of England’. In this contribution he discussed material from the area between Newbiggin and Lyne Hill and recorded flint scatters from three main locations; near Newbiggin itself; near Element Head and Sandle Holes on Newbiggin Moor; and north of the River Lyne at Lyne Hill.

All the lithic material recovered from these sites came from the palaeosol formed over the till (boulder clay) cliff surface beneath layers of blown sand, a phenomenon that was noted at Nessend on Lindisfarne and to which we will return below. A possible ‘limpet hammer’ or bevelled pebble was recovered in association with the Newbiggin material (Weyman, 1984, 42), while at Sandle Holes near Spindleston, Raistrick recorded two discrete layers of material separated by ‘three inches of soil’ (Raistrick, 1934, 188). Just above the boulder clay at this site he noted microliths, chips and small blades, and in the upper layer he observed ‘larger cores and bulky chips and flakes of Neolithic type’ (1934, 188). Unfortunately all of these locations have now been eroded away either by the action of the sea or by quarrying.

At Lyne Hill Raistrick recorded two scatters of flint material ‘about 15 yards diameter and 100 yards apart’ (1934, 188). These were areas of high lithic concentration with some 3000 pieces being recovered in ‘two days’ work’ (1934, 188). We can only guess at the total number of finds made at these two locations, but Raistrick hints at the size of the assemblages in his comment that ‘in a collection of over 5000 fragments from one site without any selection, over 12% show careful workmanship’ (1934, 192). He also says that the ‘principle area of the site was completely cleared, chips, implements, and every piece of flint present being collected, in order to get a census of the various types present in the culture as a whole’ (1934, 194). Table 1 is based on a collection of 2000 fragments from a 5yard (c. 15m) diameter area of the site. Eighty six percent of the total material recorded in this sample comprised ‘flint fragments and chips and a few small nodules from which odd flakes had been taken, leaving 14% worked flakes’ (1934, 194). It is this 14% of the sample that can be broken down as follows:

Type%
Cores10
Core scrapers2
Scrapers20
Blades29
Points20
Microliths16
Gravers2
Others1
Total100

Table 1:  A sample of lithic finds from Lyne Hill. Some categories have been amalgamated.

Raistrick noted that ‘the same proportions are maintained on other sites, except for the relative scarcity of microliths. These are still present everywhere, but reduced in numbers’ (1934, 194).

The remainder of Raistrick’s paper gives a detailed account of other coastal and inland locations where flint scatters were recorded. The author drew attention to the potential relationship between ‘coastal’ and upland Pennine sites, but never developed the point and he was convinced that sites like Lyne Hill ‘had a fairly wide distribution along the coast, from Hartlepool to Bamburgh, everywhere resting on boulder clay and being covered by blown sand’ (1934, 197). On the basis of pollen analysis of peats at the mouth of the River Lyne and their relationship with the stratum in which the Lyne Hill lithic material was found, Raistrick suggested that the coastal sites may have been of late Boreal/early Atlantic date and that they were occupied into the ‘middle Atlantic or true Neolithic period’ (Raistrick, 1934, 197). He further suggested that the upland sites, especially those in the Pennines, were slightly later in date. Finally, Raistrick found no stratigraphical support for Buckley’s earlier suggestion of two phases of ‘Tardenoisian’ activity on the coast (1934, 195). The implications and shortcomings of this kind of typological ‘dating’ has been discussed elsewhere (Young, 1990).

In 1936, twenty-four years after it was first noted, Raistrick produced a detailed account of the context of the Crimdon Dene site, in collaboration with Mr and Mrs G Coupland (1936). This was another of those important, but largely ignored, contributions to the evolution of Mesolithic studies in the north-east of England.

The paper points out that a further 9000 flints had been recovered since the 1933 statement on the site mentioned above, and this may have been one of the earliest Mesolithic ‘rescue’ programmes in the region (Raistrick, Coupland and Coupland, 1936, 207). The paper indicates quite clearly that the flint distribution was ‘most prolific at one or two restricted spots, a few yards in diameter’ (1936, 207). Again, as at Newbiggin, Lyne Hill, Element Head and Sandle Holes, and at sites like Filpoke Beacon discussed below, ‘The flint can be seen to be associated mainly with a thin grey sand layer, resting directly on the boulder clay surface and covered by the yellow sand of the sand dunes’ (1936, 207). The authors speculated that the grey sand ‘seen in places along the coast’ was residual material from a line of smaller sand dunes (1936, 207). The paper suggests that the site had been a ‘manufactory’ for small implements, as the greater part of the material is chipping debris, ‘ either smallish chips or fragments of spoilt or broken blades and tools, all classified together as ‘roughs’ and numbering in the present collection about 6,500 (1936, 208). The rest of the site description is worth repeating verbatim here, as it gives us an insight into just how much material has been lost from this location (some of the finds are still preserved in Sunderland Museum):

‘Along with this is an abundance of cores, about 230, mostly of the typical nearly parallel sided type, and a large proportion of blades, of flat triangular or trapezoid section, nearly 1500 in all. Of the blades about half are broken, mostly at the end remote from the bulbar portion, and evidently rejected. Occasionally the broken blades, if the break is at all diagonal have been re-trimmed to make fairly serviceable points. In a separate category are the blades that have received secondary working along one or both edges, and the blades sometimes described as ‘batter back’, one edge being very effectively blunted by chipping, the other being a sharp edge not usually chipped. Microliths are present, rather more than a hundred being recorded, and are of the usual ‘harpoon barb’ form, long and well sharpened triangles, and ‘rods’ with secondary working over one or both long sides. In addition, to this material which is typical of all coastal sites, there is present a small percentage of larger artefacts, which include several beautifully worked arrow points of ‘leaf shape’ and ‘barbed ‘ form, formerly accepted as typical of Neolithic and bronze age cultures respectively. There are five leaf shaped arrow points and four barbed and tanged points, along with a few very heavy cores and points that on a usual surface site would be called Neolithic’.

(Raistrick, Coupland and Coupland, 1936, 208)

The paper then presents a fuller discussion of each major artefact type (1936, 208-212), and makes much of the fact that the Mesolithic and later artefacts were recovered from the same few inches of grey sand, under the recognisably different blown sand (1936, 212). This is an observation to which we will return below.

This contribution was also important because, for the first time, we have some discussion about potential functional variation between sites on the coast.  The authors distinguish between ‘factory’ sites like Crimdon Dene, occupied for long periods of time and smaller locations where the lithic component is not large but dominated by microliths and blades. These latter sites were seen as ‘of much more occasional character, advantageous fishing points particularly, being marked by a number of tools (mostly broken) on an old soil level, but not having the quantity of chips, often running into thousands, and the high proportion of cores’ (Raistrick, Coupland and Coupland, 1936, 214).

There was also much discussion of the typological affinities of the material from Crimdon Dene, and in the spirit of the times it was linked closely to the late Tardenoisian industries of continental Europe, particularly Belgium and Germany. The authors contrasted this situation with that prevailing in West Yorkshire and the Peak District (1936, 215) where the typological links were said to be more with the early Tardenoisian, however in another first, the paper does point out that the material from Weardale and Teesdale in the North Pennines had typological links with the Durham coast and not the Central Pennines. Again then this early contribution raised an issue that continues to be debated by researchers into the North-East’s Mesolithic archaeology- what was the relationship between the ‘coastal’ area and the inlands and uplands (see Simmons, 1996; Young, 1987, 2000). C.T. Trechmann’s continued interest in coastal County Durham next led him to examine the submerged forest beds around Hartlepool (1936; 1946). He recovered possible early Mesolithic flint from the interleaved beds of peat and clay, and also recorded the discovery of a tranchet axe in this area in 1864. A radio-carbon date of  8061 -7422 cal. BC has been obtained from red deer antler from these same beds (Harrison and Mellars, 1970). Trechmann also recorded lithics in some profusion from Hart, near Crimdon Dene. Weyman examined these in detail and believed them to be mainly early Mesolithic in date (1984, 39). Her classification of the material (now in Sunderland Museum) is shown in Table 2.

Implement TypeNo%
Cores529.9
Core rejuvenation flakes295.55
Flake and blade waste22543.10
Utilised flakes and blades13525.86
Retouched flakes6512.45
Scrapers71.34
Borers30.57
Microliths30.57
Burins30.57
Total52299.9

Table 2: Lithic material from Hart (after Weyman, 1984). Some categories have been amalgamated.

In 1948, George Coupland recorded an important lithic assemblage from a small plateau, Filpoke Beacon, again only some 400m. to the north of Crimdon Dene (Coupland, 1948). His final report was privately printed and is now difficult to obtain, but it shows that the site was some 3m. in diameter and that the flint finds were associated with burnt material, ‘dirty sand’ and burnt hazelnut shells. Beneath this layer was a deposit of burnt bone that included cattle, pig, small mammals and a bird. A total of 1887 flints was recovered, with some 190 coming from the topsoil. Coupland believed that the lithic material had been obtained locally from nearby gravel deposits. Twenty eight cores and 56 complete and 17 broken microliths were also recorded. There were few scrapers (only two now survive in the collection at Sunderland Museum) and one micro-burin and one notched blade were noted. The site is nationally important because a radio-carbon determination on the hazelnut shells produced a date of 6810+120 uncal. BC – Cal. BC 8270-7540 (Jacobi, 1976). Along with the dated material from Howick, Low Hauxley, East Barns, Echline and Cramond (see below) this is one of the earliest radio-carbon determinations in Britain for a largely later Mesolithic flint assemblage (Waddington, 2015).

The results of regional research 1950 – present

Of particular importance in any historical review of research into the Mesolithic of Northumberland and Durham that deals with the inland and upland aspects of the period after the Second World War, must be the contribution of Edward Hildyard.

The Hildyards were a family with aristocratic connections and Edward Hildyard lived at Horsley Hall in Weardale, Co. Durham, where he was effectively a squire-type figure- a landowner with a private income and a lot of leisure time. He left Weardale in the 1950’s to return to his family seat at Middleton Hall, near Pickering. From 1945 to 1954 however, he published an annual summary of his archaeological researches in Weardale, which covered all periods. He also excavated at the site of the Bishop of Durham’s hunting lodge at Cambokeels in Weardale and at Roman sites across the country (Hildyard, 1947; 1948; 1949a; 1949b; 1955; 1957; Hildyard and Charlton, 1947).

Edward Hildyard carried on the regional tradition of data collection and recording begun in the latter half of the nineteenth century. When he turned his attention to the archaeology of Weardale he found the region comparatively neglected ‘in this as in all else’ (Fell and Hildyard, 1953, 99). As a result his first care was to try and examine, and if possible collect, ‘any past finds that could still be traced to individual hands and to secure them for posterity’ (Fell and Hildyard, 1953, 99) and this he did with some success. His most important contribution however came about as a result of his field walking activities in Weardale and these were engendered as the result of two accidental circumstances. First in 1946, and again 1947, he was engaged in the excavation of the Medieval episcopal hunting lodge at Cambokeels and in the course of his work he was surprised to find a large number of flints in the excavated area. This led him to examine the spoil heaps of the water pipeline then being laid down the dale from Burnhope Reservoir to Sunderland and again the results showed the presence of flint in some quantity. As a result he organised the first ever, systematic, survey of ploughed fields in Weardale and when the results were finally published he had discovered some 36 new flint scatter sites (Fell and Hildyard, 1953, 1956).

This was innovatory work and the two papers that he published with Clare Fell in 1953 and 1956 and the catalogue of sites, formed the basis for Rob Young’s doctoral field work in the upper sections of the Wear valley (see below). Most of Hildyard’s material is still preserved in the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s there was very little work published on the Mesolithic period in the North-East region though Mesolithic material was encountered in the excavation of later period sites such as Goatscrag (Burgess 1972). In 1970 Harrison and Mellars published their discussion of the Whitburn harpoon (Harrison and Mellars, 1970) and Joan Weyman also published two flint reports in 1975 (Gallowhill Farm, Corbridge) and 1978 (Kennel Hall Knowe- where the excavation of a later prehistoric site revealed lithic material). 1975 also saw Robert Young commence his doctoral research on ‘Aspects of the Prehistoric Archaeology of the Wear Valley’  which re-examined material from the valley in the major regional museum collections and also continued Hildyard’s programme of field walking in Weardale to good effect (Young, 1984). In his excavations of the Bronze Age rock shelter cemetery at Goatscrag in Northumberland, the late Colin Burgess also demonstrated the potential of these sites as locations of Mesolithic activity (Burgess, 1972). A similar phenomenon was noted by Beckensall in his excavations at a similar site at Corby’s Crags near Edlingham.

The mid -1970s was also an important time for the development of Mesolithic studies in the Cleveland area, with the Don Spratt reporting on lithic material from Yarm and Thornaby and from the very important lithic scatter site at Upleatham (Spratt et al.,1976). Three large flint scatter sites are known along the north ridge of the Upleatham Hills (Spratt, Goddard and Brown, 1976; Rowe 1994). Study of the Upleatham material recovered by Spratt (Spratt, Goddard and Brown, 1976) demonstrates the range of inferences about human activity that it is possible to make from the analysis of surface scatters. In this instance Spratt suggested that the lithic material indicated that the occupants of the sites were undertaking a wide range of domestic activities such as food processing, flint knapping and tool production while maintaining hearths. He thought, therefore, that the flint scatters might be interpreted as base camps.

 Much Mesolithic material was also encountered in the excavations that were carried out on later period sites between the 1950s-80s. This material was often published at a much later date than its original discovery e.g. Red House and Shorden Brae (Weyman, in Hanson et al. 1979), Apperley Dene (Weyman , in Greene 1978), Housesteads (Waddington in Rushworth 2000), Binchester (Young), Barnard Castle (Young 2007), Monkwearmouth and Jarrow (Young), Thirlings (Weyman and Miket 2008), Middle Hurth (Young 1997) and Thrislington (Young 1987) amongst others.

Throughout the 1980s there was a resurgence of interest in things Mesolithic within the region.

In 1983 John Davies produced an important gazetteer of Mesolithic sites in

Northumberland (Davies, 1983) and this was followed in 1984 by Joan Weyman’s magisterial review of the Mesolithic in the North-East of England, which included the results from her field-walking activity undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly in advance of work on the A68 and A69 road developments. Her work also included visits to sites identified by other local fieldworkers, extending from the western outskirts of Newcastle (Dewley Hill at Throckley) to just beyond the confluence of the rivers North and South Tyne (Warden Hill). She also reviewed other known major sites and placed an emphasis, for the first time, on the study of available raw materials and their location within the region (Weyman, 1984). In the same year Tim Laurie  published a review of early post-glacial settlement data from the Tees and Swale Valleys (1984) and this was to complement, and stimulate, the production of a further review of Mesolithic data from the North Pennines in 1989 (Coggins,Laurie and Young, 1989).

This paper brought together data from Young’s doctoral research in Weardale, Denis Coggins’ fieldwork in Teesdale (published in a BAR volume in 1986) and Tim Laurie’s work in the south-western area of the North Pennine uplands. This research described some 97 Early and Later Mesolithic sites in the area and documented the first potential evidence for a Late Upper Palaeolithic presence in the North Pennines at the site of Towler Hill in Teesdale.

The early-mid 1980s also saw the first developments in a landscape-based approach to the study of early prehistory in the area. From 1983-87 the Durham Archaeological Survey, based in the University of Durham, attempted to fill gaps in our knowledge about Mesolithic and later activity in the region. Its broad, multi-period, objectives were to obtain information about settlement pattern change over time, and, in the east of County Durham, an area of 1,255 hectares of ploughed land was surveyed. The general results appeared in a monograph in 1988 (Haselgrove, Ferrell and Turnbull, 1988), and the lithic finds were published in 1992 (Haselgrove and Healey, 1992). On first consideration, the area covered in this survey seems large, but in terms of the total ploughed land available for study in the region it was, in reality, a small-scale survey. Only 882 lithic finds came from 81 of the 207 fields walked, and diagnostic Mesolithic material was very thin on the ground.

This contrasts with the results from Newcastle University’s multi-disciplinary Tyne-Solway Ancient Landscapes Project which began life in 1985 as the Stone Age Tynedale Survey (SATS). This work initially included the western outskirts of Newcastle, but did not extend beyond Corbridge (Tolan-Smith, 1996a; 1997a; 1997b; 1997c). In 1996, however, the work was extended into the catchment of the Devil’s Water, a major south bank tributary of the River Tyne, in order to address issues relating to the relationship between activity in the valley and the surrounding uplands. The overall aim was to examine the human use of the Tyne-Solway corridor from the earliest prehistoric periods to medieval times and some 34% of the 400 hectares walked produced stone artefacts. Tolan-Smith studied these from a landscape archaeology perspective, rather than simply concentrating on typology, and he suggested that certain parts of the corridor were more or less important for certain activities at certain times. Indeed, he argued that contrasting, almost mutually exclusive, patterns of land-use were emerging in the area for the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, with an increase in the amount of the land used by Neolithic farmers. From the distribution of Neolithic axes and other material, he suggested that this increase was the result of farmers moving up the Tyne Valley, and that evidence for Neolithic activity fell off with distance up the valley from the east coast (Tolan-Smith, 1996). This work also led to the discovery of the Birkside Fell Mesolithic site at a height of around 380m in the North Pennines (Tolan-Smith, 1997d; 1997e).

There are no purely archaeological radiocarbon dates for the Mesolithic in the Tyne Valley, but typological considerations imply that most of this activity should be dated to the Late Mesolithic, from about 7,000 BC onwards. Although such types also occur in Late Mesolithic assemblages, the discovery of a putative Late Upper Palaeolithic artefact from Eltringham near Prudhoe (Tolan-Smith with Cousins, 1995) leaves open the possibility of a human presence in the Tyne Valley as early as the Pleistocene/Holocene transition (see below).

Building on Weyman’s 1984 research and similar work in Scotland, carried out by Wickham -Jones and Collins (1978), Young examined potential sources of flint and chert in the North-East of England (1985). In the following year he also assessed the formation processes that have produced the Mesolithic and later archaeological record of County Durham and other parts of the region (1986). This was followed by a detailed analysis of lithic finds from the Wear Valley in particular and the North-East in general (1984; l987) and in 1990 he also published a discussion of what he termed ‘mixed lithic scatters’ in the north east of England. This raised the possibility of identifying the latest Mesolithic sites in the region at the point of the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition (Young, 1990; Young and Kay, 1989).

1983 saw the preliminary excavation of what was to prove an exceptional multi-period site, with an important Mesolithic element, at Low Hauxley on the Northumberland coast. Clive Bonsall examined Mesolithic material eroding from the sand dunes at the site, and Innes and Frank also made the first assessment of the intertidal peat deposits exposed at low tide at Low Hauxley (Bonsall, 1984; Frank, 1982; Innes and Frank, 1988). This site is discussed in more detail below.

The 1980s also saw several new Mesolithic sites recorded in the East Cleveland Plain area, building on Don Spratt’s earlier research. Mesolithic lithic material was recovered during the excavation of later prehistoric ritual monuments at Street House, Boulby (Vyner, 1984, 187; 1988, 188), and stray finds also demonstrated Mesolithic activity on the Eston Hills (Healey and Jelley, 1988; Healey, 1988, 40-41) No significant concentrations of Mesolithic material have been recorded in the Eston until the inception of the ‘Ice and Fire’ project in 2017 (see below).

John Davies made important discoveries of Mesolithic settlement sites in the Bolam and Shaftoe area of Northumberland in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Davies and Davidson, 1990; Davies, 1995; 2004).

The area is upland and riverine, and dominated by the Shaftoe escarpment which has a maximum altitude of 219m. Recorded sites, in both open air and rock shelter locations, occur at altitudes varying between 110 and 190m. These sites also vary in lithic density from a few finds from ‘campsites’ to more permanent or probably re-used locations and most of the raw material present is flint, though there are also agate and chert pieces recorded. Importantly in this context, truncated blade forms, which are probably Early Mesolithic, have been recorded from all of the locations.

The Shaftoe Crags, is an  Ingoe Grit escarpment that contains a series of sites which are mainly rock shelters running east-west along a melt-water channel. Rock shelters with Mesolithic forms face south (3), west (1) and north (2). There is only one east-facing shelter. Finds from these sites have been recovered from erosion scars and eroding rock shelter floors, and include a suite of diagnostic Mesolithic pieces mainly microliths or microburins, and to a lesser degree denticulates and scrapers. 

One south facing rock shelter site, designated Area 1 (altitude 189 m OD) was partially excavated over three seasons. From an area of 29 square metres, 1,410 pieces were recovered, including 70 microliths, 70 microburins, 5 scrapers, 15 cores and core dressing flakes.  Assessment of the material has shown some diagnostically Early, Later andLate Mesolithic microliths and microburins.The sample of Early Mesolithic,broad blade, microliths,includes an isosceles triangle, and also some obliquely blunted points and truncated blades that are similar to those recovered from sites such as Star Carr, North Yorkshire and Morton, Fife, Scotland. Thelater scalene triangles probably correspond to Waddington’s Intermediate phase circa 8000 cal BC for coastal sites like Howick, Low Hauxley and elsewhere along the North East coast (see below)

There are also some later backed blades and narrow blade microliths in the assemblage and typologically later lithic material has also been recorded, including a large blade, a barbed and tanged arrowhead and a possible late Neolithic cup marked stone.  Blades and flakes make up the highest number of lithics recorded. The site also had evidence of use during the early 20th century. 

An open air, valley bottom, site, designated Area 2, and located at 181m OD, close to Area 1 was also excavated.  From an area of 24 square metres 1402 lithics were recorded.  These included 48 microliths, 8 of which could be early forms, 21 narrow blades, 2 scalene triangles and 15 fragments which included burnt points, obliquely blunted points, butt retouched blades and broken backed blades. The 8 possible early microliths were all incomplete and therefore not totally diagnostic. The 2 scalene triangles could be of alater phase (see Area 1). The remaining 38 microliths were all Late Mesolithic forms. In addition, some 20 cores and core fragments and 20 keeled blades were recorded, but no micro-burins were noted. Twenty-eight Neolithic/Bronze Age and 3 plano-convex knives of the same period were also recorded.

Test pitting was also carried out around Area 2 but this produced very few lithic finds indicating that significant quantities of lithics probably only occurred in the immediate vicinity of the site.  Final publication of this site is awaited.

In 1993, O’Sullivan and Young produced a detailed interim report on work at Nessend on Lindisfarne in Northumberland. (O’Sullivan and Young, 1993) (see also  Beavitt, O’Sullivan and Young, 1985; 1986; 1988; 1990). They discussed this in the context of the so-called ‘coastal’ Mesolithic of north-east England, and in 2000 Young developed this coastal Mesolithic research in a paper that examined the relationship of ‘coastal’ sites with inland and upland locations of Mesolithic activity (Young, 2000b).

Throughout much of the 1990s Mesolithic research in Durham and Northumberland concentrated on inland locations. Important Mesolithic data was recovered during excavations on later period sites e.g. a later prehistoric ‘ritual’ site at Middle Hurth Edge (Young, 1997) and Barnard Castle Medieval Castle both in Teesdale (Young, 2007a), and excavations on the Iron Age /Romano British site complex at Bollihope Common in Weardale (Young, Webster and Newton, 2008, 2011). The latter material was found beneath the later prehistoric deposits in two locations. The material reported on in 2008 was associated with a curving ‘wind break’ style of temporary shelter.

In 1993 Spratt documented lithic scatters on the northern fringes of the North York Moors (Spratt, 1993), and rescue excavations on a flint scatter site at Highcliff Nab in Cleveland indicated the level of information that was potentially available from such surface sites including, in this case, a sealed Mesolithic horizon associated with flint-working (Waughman, 1996). Hearths thought to correspond to this layer were identified and produced further flint-work and calcined animal bone and the material  may also have been associated with evidence for a possible Mesolithic ‘wind break’ type shelter (potentially similar to that identified at Bollihope Common) (Harbord, 1996).

In 1993 Clive Waddington established the Milfield Basin Archaeological Landscape Project in Northumberland (Waddington, 1995). This was a field walking project, set up to compare and contrast Stone Age land use within a broad transect across the basin from the western to the eastern watersheds, encompassing five distinctive geomorphological zones. This landscape-scale analysis, expanded upon in subsequent years, revealed the reliance of Mesolithic groups on locally available stone sources despite only being a short distance to the coast where beach pebble flint was probably readily available. Although Mesolithic activity was most concentrated on the raised gravel terraces of the valley floor, Mesolithic activity locales were clearly evident on both the Cheviot uplands to the west and around the outcrops of the sandstone escarpment to the east. The areas of till appear to have been less intensively used. Waddington demonstrated that palaeo-lake shorelines and the raised ground around them formed important locales for Mesolithic activity.

The period from 1996-1997 saw the publication, in detail, of the results of Chris Tolan-Smith’s fieldwork in the North Tyne Valley. In 1996 he discussed a landscape-based approach to understanding the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in the area (Tolan -Smith, 1996,a, b, c) and in 1997 he produced and important work, synthesising data relating to the prehistoric aspects of the North Tynedale Project and in particular the results of his field-walking programme (Tolan-Smith, 1997a).

Clive Waddington’s doctoral research in the Milfield Basin in Northumberland and its subsequent publication in 1999 as a BAR Volume entitled A Landscape Archaeological Study of the Mesolithic-Neolithic in the Milfield Basin, Northumberland  further highlighted the important contribution of a ‘landscape’ based approach to earlier prehistory (Waddington, 1998c;1999a; 2000a). The results of this work have had important implications for the development of survey projects in the region and for field walking methodologies and the interpretation of surface artefact scatters generally.

Waddington dealt with the Mesolithic and Neolithic of the Milfield area, concentrating on the evolution of the landscape, and available settlement and palaeoenvironmental data, integrating all of these strands to produce an interpretation of aspects of settlement, subsistence, ideology and the changing nature of people’s relationship with the ‘natural’ world. He employed a wide range of methodologies, working closely with geomorphologists and other specialists, and he developed new fieldwork practices that will benefit all fieldworkers in the region. He also produced an impressive analysis of the collected lithic data and an overall archaeological synthesis for the area. More than half of the Mesolithic stone tools recovered were of locally occurring agate, chert and quartz, whilst the flint that was used appeared to be mainly of glacial origin, although occasional beach flint material was present. Some flint also appeared to have been imported from north-east Yorkshire, suggesting that inland exchange networks of some kind were already well established.

Waddington assessed the biasing factors which may have led to the under-representation of the volume of lithics recovered during field-walking. Detailed analysis of the field-walking results showed that approximately 3.3% of the total lithic population of the plough-zone is located on the surface and that the part of the plough-zone containing the highest percentage of lithic material is the top 10cm below the surface which accounts for 41%. He argued that the overall distribution of lithics recovered from the surface was broadly representative of the spatial sub-surface distribution when the results of different environmental zones in the Milfield Basin were compared.

The work also demonstrated that substantial quantities of lithics had been removed from slope environments and re-deposited in colluvial and lynchet environments where they could not be sampled through surface survey alone. He also showed that different slope environments affect lithic distributions in different ways.

At the interpretive level Waddington argued that Late Mesolithic settlement of the Milfield Basin was far more intensive than has previously been thought. Settlement, he believed, was focused on the raised gravel terraces of the valley floor and a pattern of logistical activities was thought to have been structured around the base camps of this focal area. Rock shelters in crag lines, spring heads and areas close to streams formed attractive upland locales for episodic visits.

Waddington also speculated that the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in the region was characterised by a range of continuities and contrasts. The continuities evident in the pattern of settlement, e.g. extensive systems of land-use, continued reliance on wild resources, and the special attachment to the same prominent natural features of the landscape, were considered to indicate that the Neolithic population of the basin was descended from the Mesolithic population rather than being ‘colonizers’ who displaced the indigenous hunter-gatherer groups. Waddington has subsequently revised this view on the basis of new data (e.g. Passmore and Waddington, 2012; Waddington and Bonsall, 2016). The changes, he believed, occurred most noticeably in the way people thought about the world and in their adoption of new physical routines and practices. These, he believed, were evidenced by new burial traditions, the emergence of the cup and ring mark tradition, new forms of material culture, the construction of the monumental Coupland Enclosure and drove-way, the herding of livestock and the growing of crops, all of which are thought to indicate an important transformation in the way people thought about and dwelled in the world.

Waddington further developed his ideas on the Mesolithic in the Milfield Basin in 2000 (Waddington, 2000a), and he suggested that, during the period, the area was exploited relatively intensively by ‘semi-mobile extended family groups’, from which small task groups would be formed to undertake specialised activities in certain parts of the landscape as required. Some such groups would, presumably, have travelled into the wild wood of the Cheviots on hunting expeditions.

2000 also saw the publication of a detailed discussion of the ‘coastal’ Mesolithic of the North-East of England. Here, the material recovered from Nessend on Lindisfarne was placed into a wider regional context and Young tried to develop models for coastal/inland relationships in the later Mesolithic (Young, 2000). This work was further developed in 2007 (Young, 2007b).

In 2002 John Davies recorded the first Mesolithic material from Simonside in the Northumberland National Park (Davies, pers. comm.) and in 2003 Waddington et al. produced a preliminary discussion of their work at Howick which had commenced in 2002. This is the most comprehensively dated Mesolithic site in the British Isles and it has produced a unique and detailed history of occupation (Milner and Waddington, 2001, 6; Waddington et al., 2003a; 2003b; Waddington, 2007). It was the first recognition of a ‘pit house’ in Britain and the findings gave rise to the possibility of permanent Mesolithic settlements.

Three huts were constructed at the Howick site, all on the same footprint, with no gap between occupations. Whether the site was occupied on a seasonal basis or as a permanent residence remains open to question. A fourth, short lived, phase of

occupation was also identified, occurring after the hut had been abandoned.

The Howick site was subjected to a comprehensive radio-carbon dating programme, producing 33 radio-carbon dates, and the results were modelled using a Bayesian approach to produce an important chronological sequence. Initial hut construction began around 7850 cal. BC and the final abandonment took place around 7650 cal. BC. A central arrangement of hearths suggests that the hut sequence was clearly of residential function. This was further borne out by the presence of much burnt animal bone and well over a million fragments of hazelnut shells, with discrete activity areas represented by the distribution of stone implements. A hazelnut roasting pit also suggested the implementation of strategies associated with food storage.

The lithic material from the site is the most accurately and precisely dated assemblage from any British Mesolithic site and it is a classic narrow-blade industry associated with the micro-triangle techno-complex. Scalene triangles were the most common microlith form recorded. Typically, for Britain, these sites had previously been dated to around 7500 cal. BC but the Howick dates indicate an earlier start for this type of industry in the centuries around 8000 cal. BC – a finding that correlated at the time with the date from Filpoke Beacon (see above). Since then earlier dates still have been obtained for narrow blade assemblages in north east Britain from the sites at Cramond (Saville 2008) and Echline (Robertson et al., 2013) and other sites contemporary with Howick have been dated at Low Hauxley (Waddington and Bonsall, 2016) and at East Barns (Gooder, 2007). The discrete worked stone assemblage from Howick was all made on local beach pebble flint and fits into the wider pattern of localised raw material acquisition by groups elsewhere in the north of England.

As indicated in the tables below, a wide variety of tool types was present within the hut. Evidence for task diversity is further attested by a large bevelled pebble tool assemblage, large amounts of charred hazelnuts, ochre fragments and a wide ranging animal bone assemblage, which included the important evidence of grey seal exploitation.

TypeCount% of assemblage
Hammerstones1
Nodules110.1
Test pieces210.2
Un-retouched flakes10,09376.4
Un-retouched blades2,37618
Cores1070.8
Retouched flakes920.7
Retouched blades510.4
Utilised flakes140.1
Utilised blades390.3
Notched flakes and blades4
Scrapers1090.8
Awls10+1 poss.0.1
Burins4+1 poss.
Microliths2752.1
Microburins90.1
Crested bladelet1
Total13,219

Table 3: Summary of Artefact Types from the Howick Huts (Waddington, 2007, 81)
PhaseLithic count
1A1,609
1B4,462
22,883
34,253
412
Total13,219

Table 4: Summary of Lithic Counts by Phase (Waddington, 2007, 81).

The discoveries at Howick have had a profound effect on Mesolithic studies in Britain and elsewhere around the North Sea Basin and raised areas of new discussion and debate. As Waddington has said, ‘The Howick excavations have forced a re-think of the scale and nature of Mesolithic settlement in North East England, as well as the relationship between this and other regions around the North Sea Basin’ (Waddington, 2007, Summary).

As early as 1983 excavations had also taken place at the sand dune dominated site of Low Hauxley, again on the Northumberland coast. This amazing, multi-period, site saw a comprehensive programme of excavations carried out in 2013 and 2014 by a team of local volunteers, professional archaeologists and university students led by Clive Waddington. The results of this work were published in 2016 and a popular account of the work also appeared in 2014 (Waddington and Bonsall, 2016; Waddington, 2014).

The main site at Low Hauxley (Site 1) is positioned on a slightly raised knoll which was surrounded for several thousand years in the Middle Holocene by a fresh-water mere that eventually became a marsh. The edge of this wetland, immediately north of the knoll has also produced archaeological remains intercalated with the palaeo-environmental deposits and this forms Site 2. Both sites are located in an eroding cliff face subject to the impact of each tide and both are buried within complex sediment stacks of up to 5 m in depth including alternate layers of buried soils and wind-blown sand, together with an in-filled wetland and a late Mesolithic inter-tidal peat. This has meant that multi-period archaeological remains survive in defined sediment units, resulting in each period of archaeological activity retaining considerable integrity. The depth of deposits has also ensured the protection of most archaeological features from subsequent disturbance and land use. The calcareous sand has produced a relatively benign geo-chemical environment allowing some organic material, such as un-burnt bone, to survive.

The archaeological remains consist of a multi-phase Mesolithic settlement site spanning the 9th to 6th millennium cal BC which has produced over 20,000 lithic pieces, together with a Late Mesolithic intertidal peat that has produced a detailed pollen profile. The peat deposit has also produced evidence for human footprints, animal hoof-prints (including those of red deer, wild boar and aurochs), and evidence for a possible laid timber track-way on its surface. The radiocarbon dates indicate that most of the recorded Mesolithic activity dates to the ‘Middle Mesolithic’ in the early and mid-8th millennium cal BC, although there is evidence for reoccupation of the site after the Storegga Slide tsunami c.6225–6170 BC. The site has also produced Neolithic, Beaker, later Bronze Age, Iron Age Roman and Medieval material.

Further important, primary, field work in north Northumberland was reported by Passmore and Waddington in two volumes produced under the imprint of Oxbow Books – Managing Archaeological Landscapes in Northumberland: Till Tweed Studies vol. 1 (2009) and Archaeology and Environment in Northumberland: Till Tweed Studies vol. 2 (2012). These two volumes are the end products of a landscape based approach to understanding human activity in the study area that followed on from Waddington’s PhD and initial geoarchaeological work undertaken by David Passmore and others. Volume 1 presents the results of a detailed fieldwork programme, involving palaeo-environmental research, and a detailed multi-period, landscape based, evaluation of the archaeological resource in the Till-Tweed area.

Chapter 3 contains the results of a detailed field walking and test pitting programmethat combined the earlier work from Waddington’s PhD research with a large quantity of additional new data. This work produced some 512 lithic pieces of Mesolithic date and a further 77 of potential Mesolithic/Neolithic date. Thirteen possible Palaeolithic artefacts (discussed in more detail below) were also identified (Waddington, 2009, 78). In this chapter, Waddington discussed field work methodology, sources of raw materials present, and the range of identified artefact types. He also set the field-walking study in its regional context. (Waddington, 2009, 123-124).

Volume 2 integrates the palaeo-environmental data and the archaeological evidence to tell the human story of the development of the Till/Tweed area. Part 2 of this volume presents a detailed chronological narrative. Chapter 4 deals with Hunter -Gatherer-Fishers c. 13,400-3,900 BC (Waddington and Passmore, 2012, 112 – 140). Various sections deal with a general introduction, the potential for Palaeolithic activity in the region, the Mesolithic Background, Technology and Material Culture, Subsistence, Settlement and Economic Organisation (which sets out a detailed argument relating to the settlement of northern England by Mesolithic groups, based on a detailed analysis of available radio-carbon dates), and Peopling the Land.  Both volumes are a substantial contribution to the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology of the region.

For the southern part of the North-East region Mags Waughman produced a seminal volume in 2005 on the Archaeology and Environment of the Submerged Landscapes of Hartlepool Bay (Waughman et al., 2005). This volume integrated archaeological evidence for Mesolithic and other finds from the submerged ‘forest’ at Hartlepool with detailed palaeo-environmental investigations (Waughman, Innes and Tooley, 2005, 121-142). 2006 saw the publication of the first report on the three phase, North East Yorkshire Mesolithic Project, directed by Mags Waughman, and carried out under the aegis of Tees Archaeology after a commission by English Heritage. The project had four major aims:

  1. To examine interpretations of existing data 
  2. To clarify the chronology of the Mesolithic in this area, investigating the relationships between early and late forms of microlith and with the succeeding Neolithic
  3. To investigate the relationship between exploitation of the uplands and the adjacent lowlands
  4. To reappraise the existing models of Mesolithic occupation and subsistence in north east Yorkshire

The project area was defined to the north by the river Tees, to the west by the river Leven and its catchment and by the escarpment of the Cleveland and Hambleton Hills, and to the south by the North York Moors National Park boundary and the southern edge of the Tabular Hills, taken as the 50m contour to the east of Kirbymoorside and 70m further west. On its western edge the National Park (NP) includes an area of up to 1km beyond the escarpment, so for consistency this margin was included within the project area and extended where the NP boundary ran close to the foot of the escarpment (Waughman, 2006,a and b).

The project ran until 2015 when the final report was published (Waughman, 2015). In her summary of the results of the work Waughman discusses in detail (amongst other issues) the nature of Mesolithic settlement in the study area, highlighting the importance of sites like Upleatheam,  and Goldsborough  to our understanding of Mesolithic landscape development and land use, sources of lithic raw material, changes in chronological understanding, and the nature of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. This work has gone a long way towards assessing the Mesolithic resource of the project area and has improved our understanding of Mesolithic activity in the uplands in particular, but there are still a number of key issues which need addressing for the area, and these are outlined in an important appendix (Appendix 1: Potential for future work on Mesolithic sites in the North York Moors and adjacent Tees valley lowland) which also details all of the excavation interventions carried out during the project’s lifetime (Waughman, 2015, 35).

2011 also saw the publication of Richard Hewitt’s general overview of existing knowledge relating to the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods in the eastern part of County Durham. This was undertaken as part of the research for an archaeological assessment of the aggregate producing areas of the county, commissioned by Durham County Council, and produced by Archaeological Research Services Ltd.

In 2015 the first targeted excavation on a Mesolithic site in County Durham for some 60 years was undertaken on the shore of the Cow Green Reservoir by the Altogether Archaeology Group under the field direction of Dr. Rob Young. The work took place from 1st-9th  August, 2015, in response to a direct threat to the site by erosion of the reservoir banks. The work included a detailed excavation of the eroding site along with a survey of the ‘beach’ immediately below the small cliff on which the site was located. As the table below shows the main raw material recorded was grey chert, readily available in the Carboniferous Limestone.

Raw materialNo% total finds
Chert183895.67
Flint583.01
Natural stone251.30
Total192199.98

Table 5: Range of Raw Materials recorded at Cow Green

Table 6 (below) indicates the range of artefacts recovered from the site. The 35 microliths, (1.8% of the total material recorded) in the assemblage are all of later Mesolithic type, chiefly scalene triangles and possible rod-like forms. They can be closely paralleled at a range of sites in the Pennines e.g. the Teesdale and Swaledale sites of Briar Dykes, Middle Hurth, Spring Heads, Barningham Moor, The Butts, Barningham Moor, all Teesdale, and Sleigill-Windegg, (The Hut), in Swaledale.

Weardale has also produced similar microlith forms (e.g. Howel John West Field, and Police Field, Eastgate). The 76 complete and fragmentary cores are mainly opposed platform, bi-polar, types, utilised in the production of both blades and flakes. Again, they can be paralleled at most of the North Pennines sites referred to above.

The lack of other recognisable tool types at Cow Green e.g. only six scrapers (0.3 % total finds recovered), eleven retouched pieces (0.6% total finds recovered), and two drill bits (meche de foret) (0.1% total finds recovered) indicates that a limited range of tasks (in addition to microlith manufacture) was being carried out at the site. In light of this the Cow Green site can be interpreted as either a logistical camp or a specialist extraction site.

Artefact typeTotal% total artefacts
Cores764.0
Primary flakes40.2
Secondary flakes623.3
Inner flakes55929.0
Scrapers60.3
Microliths351.8
Blades/Blade-like flakes1256.6
Micro-blades/Bladelets1136.00
Retouched/Utilised pieces110.6
Burin spall40.2
Retouched and tanged pieces10.05
Drill bits20.1
Blade segments1105.6
Flake segments60.3
Core rejuvenation flakes593.1
Detached bulbar ends1206.3
Detached distal ends482.0
Chunks and chips58130.6
Total1897100

Table 6: Range of Artefacts Recovered at Cow Green

A full report on these excavations was published in 2016 and can be found at:

https://altogetherarchaeology.org/Reports%20and%20Proposal%20Docs/Cow%20Green/CowGreenMesolithicExcavationReportpdf.pdf

Most recently (July 2017) a community based field project has been initiated in the Eston Hills (https://estonhillsproject.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/ice-and-fire-hail-and-hearths/). So far this has identified potential Mesolithic material in association with the Carr Ponds wetland. In August 2017 further details of the work were posted on YouTube in a film by Marc Barkman-Astles of Archaeosoup Productions. This can be accessed via the link below:

Also in 2017 Robinson and Foulds published the discovery of late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic lithic material on Barningham Moor in Teesdale (Robinson and Foulds, 2017, 32-39).

Factors influencing the survival of the archaeological resource

  • As with other periods, the existing record has been significantly influenced by patterns of research. Prior to the 1990s there have been more researchers focusing on the Mesolithic in the Durham/Teesside and North Pennines areas than to the north of the Tyne, but since the 1990s this pattern has reversed. In Northumberland, work has focused on the valleys of the Tyne, Till and Tweed together with the coastal zone. Little progress has been made in the Cheviot Hills however. Fig. 1 is instructive here as it shows how the historic distribution pattern of Mesolithic sites in the region can be broadly correlated with the spheres of activity of various lithic collectors/field workers in the past. This problem has been addressed in detail by Young (1986; 2000b; 2002; 2007b).

The early prehistoric archaeological resource is greatly affected by post-depositional factors.

  • The sheer length of time between deposition, submergence and/or exposure as highlighted below,and archaeological recording also means that large-scale geomorphological factors, which are not significant for later periods in this region, play their part in producing the known distribution of Mesolithic sites. For example, only by understanding the patterns of coastal change can we appreciate just how ‘coastal’ the Mesolithic sites of the North-East might have been (Young, 2000b, 184). Our current understanding has been enhanced considerably by the detailed work in the ‘white ribbon’ at both Howick and Low Hauxley (Waddington and Bonsall, 2016; Bickett et al., 2017) and by the broader-scale, off-shore, work in the southern North Sea as part of the North Sea Palaeo-landscapes Project (Birmingham University, 2005 – 2006) (see below).
  • During the 1930s and 1940s most early researchers did not recognise that there had been any significant coastal change, though it was clear from Trechmann’s work on the submerged forest at Hartlepool (1936; 1946) that there had been important shifts in the coastline. In fact, there have been two main influences on the coastline of the North-East: global sea level rises and isostatic uplift following the retreat of the ice sheets. This has led to significant coastal erosion. In an early piece of research on this topic, it was suggested that in the south of the region, around Saltburn, up to three miles of coastline had been lost through erosion since c. 8,000 BC (Agar, 1954). There is still the potential, however, for the survival of Mesolithic material in a submerged context in the North East, as the recent discovery of as yet unpublished, potentially Mesolithic, remains at Brown’s Bay near Tynemouth, indicates. It must be remembered, however , that this material may also prove to be ballast derived flint.
  • It is only to the north of the ‘hinge’, which lies around Lindisfarne, that uplift has had a more dominant influence than sea-level rise, and there is potential for dry-land beach sites, such as the undated deposits around the Castle on Lindisfarne (Hogg, 1972). Ultimately, any consideration of the changing coastline brings into sharper focus the position of the North-East in relation to the post-glacial land bridge, the so-called ‘Doggerland’, which lay between Britain and Europe.
  • Recent research would suggest that, during the upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, the North-East coast did not look onto an expansive grassy plain, as the current East Anglian and the Lincolnshire coasts would have. It was probably separated from ‘Doggerland’ by an inlet of the North Sea. The nature of coastal change in the North-East is probably the least extensive for any area of England during the Holocene where aside from the loss of Doggerland most of the other coastal regions of England lost tens of kilometres to the advance of sea levels (Sturt et al., 2013).
  • In her major survey of ‘Doggerland’, Coles suggested that the final separation of the British mainland from Doggerland occurred around 5,800-3,800 cal BC (Coles, 1998, 67), while more recent studies using more up to date sea level index points and glacio isostatic adjustment (GIA) models indicate that it occurred around 6,200 cal BC or slightly before (Shennan et al., 2000; Weninger et al., 2008; Sturt et al., 2013).
  • While the land bridge was inundated by the mid – Holocene, the presence of an inhabited landmass perhaps only 100km to the east must not be forgotten (Coles, 1998, 72-75), especially as areas of dry land at the beginning of the Neolithic (c.4,000 cal BC) have now been documented 80 km off-shore from Skegness (Smith et al., 2017). Coles’ work has also been enhanced by that of Coit-Fleming, 2004; Gaffney, Thompson and Fitch, 2007; Gaffney, Fitch and Smith, 2009 and Murphy, 2009).
  • A more subtle problem in the recognition of coastal prehistoric sites is that caused by the large-scale, Medieval and especially Post Medieval practice of dumping ship’s ballast (comprising stones and gravel from elsewhere in the country, north and south) which is relevant in County Durham and south east Northumberland but not further north. For example, large ballast dumps are known from the mouths of the Tees, Wear Tyne and Coquet , and this practice may well have led to the re-deposition of Mesolithic objects from elsewhere in the country further south, down the North-East coast. To complicate matters further, seaweed was traditionally taken from the coast to use as a fertiliser, potentially moving this newly introduced material still further inland.
  • In lowland areas there is a range of threats to the archaeological resource. The region’s gravel terraces, such as those in the Milfield Basin, from which much Mesolithic material has been recovered, are under significant threat from gravel extraction. This includes not just the removal of archaeological features, but also valuable palaeo-environmental deposits in the form of kettle hole fills and palaeo-channel fills. The latter not only include early records of the past environment but also have the potential to contain waterlogged Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeological remains. The archaeological implications of aggregate extraction in County Durham have recently been discussed in detail by Hewitt (2011).
  • There is also a more general threat to sites from ploughing, which is particularly destructive on light, sandy soils, and thinner soils on steep hillsides. Various flint scatters in Teesside have been tested by trial trenching through the development control process (e.g. Carne, 1997) but all have proven to be severely truncated by Medieval and Post-Medieval ploughing. Another distorting factor is the 18th- and 19th-century practice of liming fields which introduced burnt flint onto the plough-soil and this appears to be particularly problematic in the south of the region.
  • In the uplands, peat growth has had a major impact, with up to 4m of peat covering Mesolithic surfaces in some areas. This has clear implications for the visibility of early prehistoric activity (Young, 1986; Tipping, 2010). Nonetheless, in some locations peat is eroded through chemical damage, animal or human activity, or it may be subject to wider-scale degradation through longer-term processes, such as de-watering and wholesale drainage as at Prestwick Carr. This can lead to the higher visibility of Mesolithic remains, though these processes also threaten to destroy them and any associated palaeo-environmental deposits.
  • Despite post-depositional factors and the inherently ephemeral nature of early prehistoric remains, there are still occasional discoveries of intact Mesolithic surfaces in unexpected locations. At Darlington Market Place, for example, an intact Mesolithic or Neolithic land surface with artefacts and possible structural remains was found to be preserved around 1m below the modern ground surface (ASUD, 1994, 14-15). Elsewhere, Mesolithic tools and an Early Neolithic ditched enclosure, with pits, were identified beneath the Roman fort at South Shields (Waddington in Hodgson et al.,2001) and more recently a preserved old land surface with Mesolithic artefacts was recorded at Cow Green (Young, 2016: https://altogetherarchaeology.org/Reports%20and%20Proposal%20Docs/Cow%20Green/CowGreenMesolithicExcavationReportpdf.pdf).
  • A further serious problem is the relatively low profile of Mesolithic archaeology with members of the general public. Unlike remains from later periods, which can be distinctive and easily recognisable, early prehistoric remains can be fragmentary and difficult to recognise without training. The consequence of this is the relatively small number of early prehistoric chance finds reported by the public.
  • A final issue affecting known distributions is a potential bias in the identification of raw materials. Most fieldworkers can identify flint without difficulty, and this may have led to an over-representation of flint finds to the detriment of other raw materials exploited, such as quartzite, chert. agates, chalcedony and pitchstone. Nonetheless, it must not be assumed that the absence of Mesolithic material is purely due to a lack of research in a particular area; despite extensive work by experienced archaeologists in the central section of the Wall Zone, for example, little Mesolithic material has so far been recorded there.

Existing research frameworks

There are a number of existing research agendas for early prehistory written at the national level (e.g. Prehistoric Society 1999 superseded by Blinkhorn and Milner, 2013), as well as those for more specific regional issues (e.g. Adams, 1996; ASUD, 1993; Frodsham, 2000; Brooks et al., 2002; Harding et al.,1996; Young, 2002; Young, 2004a). Research Frameworks are also under production by the ‘Altogether Archaeology’ Community Archaeology Group for the North Pennines generally (Frodsham, in prep.) and for the Roman Fort at Whitley Castle, Northumberland (Carlton and Frodsham, in prep.).

Environmental background

Geomorphology

The presence of pre-Holocene material in the region needs to be understood in the context of the glacial and post glacial processes which both eroded older deposits in the region, and which deposited sediments during de-glaciation; thus either removing them, or burying them under re-deposited sediments. These processes have the potential to destroy, but also protect, pre-Holocene deposits and need to be considered via deposit modelling. The presence of Pleistocene/Palaeolithic deposits of this nature can be seen at Hutton Henry, Co. Durham where a peat raft of Ipswichian data has been the focus of a palynological study (Beaumont et al. 1969).

The period of the later Palaeolithic-Mesolithic transition and the effects of de-glaciation (amelioration of the climate, rising sea levels, isostatic rebound of the land) also needs to be considered from contexts within the North Sea. This has been highlighted in the maritime archaeology research agenda where a geoarchaeological approach is explicitly encouraged for the period under discussion here (Dix and Stuart, 2013). Various researchers have observed and recorded submerged landscapes in the region from the late 19th century (Howes, 1864), and this has been further added to by the advent of radiocarbon dating which have provided a range of prehistoric, Holocene dates. This includes a number of Mesolithic dates (Barker and Mackay, 1961; Shennan et al., 2000). The current database of these sites has been collated and maintained by Historic England as the Intertidal and Coastal Peat Database:

https://historicengland.org.uk/research/current/heritage-science/intertidal-peat-database/

Following the end of the last Devensian glaciation and the beginning of the Holocene interglacial, the landscape of the North-East was free of ice by c. 15,000 BP though the retreat of the ice sheets continued to have major impacts. In many areas great depths of till were dumped in the lower valley regions, with sand and gravel outwash terraces forming in areas of the South Tyne valley and eastern flank of the Cheviots. In parts of the Cheviots and the North Pennines meltwater torrents cut channels that are now preserved as dry valleys. In higher areas, high energy flows cut deep into valley floors leaving relict river terraces. These rivers have often shifted their course across their valley floors and terrace surfaces, leaving palaeochannels, while in lower lying areas the decreasing energy of the rivers led to the deposition of large quantities of alluvium and other water-borne sediments. In the Milfield Basin, which has been the focus of much research, a series of interleaved layers of Holocene alluvial fills and valley floor peats have built up to a thickness of 4m (Tipping, 1998). Evidence for the latest major phase of sediment deposition has been dated to c. 7,500 cal BP to c. 4,000-3,500 cal BP, earlier than elsewhere in the region (Tipping, 1998).

Further detailed work has also been carried out in the Milfield Basin area of the Till-Tweed catchment by Passmore, Waddington and Houghton (2002), Passmore and van der Schriek, (2009), Passmore and Waddington, (2009b, plus appendices), Passmore and Waddington, (2012, see also Appendix A).

Detailed reviews of geomorphological processes and impacts and their relevance for human activity in the early Holocene period have been produced by Macklin et al., (1992a; 1992b; 1998), Passmore, (1994) and Passmore and Macklin (1997) in relation to the formation of the Tyne Valley.

Tipping has also continued to make a major contribution to the study of Holocene landscape evolution in the Borders region, (1992; 1994a; 1994b; 1994c; 1994d; 1996; 1998; 2010).

Vegetational history

Since the 1970s it could be argued that pollen diagrams in the British Isles generally have been constructed to document the impact of human communities on their contemporary vegetation cover. Prior to this time they were mainly produced to give botanists and ecologists an understanding of ‘natural’ ecology and forest history. This can be clearly seen in the history of palynological research in Northumberland and Durham.

With the exception of the site at Low Hauxley there is nowhere in Northumberland and Durham where Quaternary research has been enlisted as a means of establishing the age of Mesolithic lithic assemblages. This is largely the result of the almost mutually exclusive distribution of lithic scatters and pollen sampling sites within the region. What quaternary research, especially pollen analysis, has done is to indicate a Mesolithic presence in our uplands that was particularly active in terms of its impact upon the prevailing vegetation cover. It has also provided a palaeo environmental context for Mesolithic communities in the region. The general vegetational history of the region has been well documented in recent research papers and monographs (e.g. Innes, 1999; 2002a; 2002b; 2017; Jones, 2000; Young, 2004b; Waddington and Bonsall, 2016).

The impact of Mesolithic Groups on the contemporary vegetation

From the late 1960s it became obvious that pollen analyses had great potential for documenting pre-Neolithic anthropogenic impacts on the prevailing vegetation cover. There is now a massive literature on this topic and it is too vast to discuss here. Readers are referred to Ian Simmons excellent book, The Environmental Impact of Later Mesolithic Cultures: The Creation of Moorland Landscape in England and Wales (1996) for a good overview, together with the work of Jim Innes. Also of relevance to the North-East region is Kathryn Pratt’s 1996 Durham University doctoral dissertation on the ‘Development of Methods for Investigating Settlement and Land-use using Pollen Data: A Case-study from North-east England, circa 8000 cal. BC – cal. AD 500’. This sets out a full review of the pollen record for the period under study and the work also presented new methodologies to the region which encouraged the integration of pollen analyses with archaeological data to reconstruct past patterns of settlement and land-use. Chapter 7 ‘Pollen-only approaches for reconstructing settlement and land use, circa 8000 cal. BC – cal. AD 500’ is of particular importance in the present context.  Section 7.1: ‘The Mesolithic, circa 8000 – 4000 cal. BC’ (pp. 180-195) presents a detailed review of material used to reconstruct a complete picture of the Mesolithic vegetational matrix and the potential for Mesolithic human groups to impact upon it.

Currently there is broad agreement that Mesolithic groups, probably using the medium of fire, began small scale but repetitive clearances, certainly in upland locations, as a hunting aid. The temporary burning and clearing of trees created small-scale clearances that were initially re-colonised by grass and herbs and which became important and easily accessible food sources for the range of animals hunted by our Mesolithic people. It is argued that the animals would be attracted to these intentionally created clearances and that they would ultimately be easier to kill as a result.

In 1974 at Valley Bog on the Moor House National Nature Reserve, Teesdale,  in the North Pennines in  County Durham, Carl Chambers identified an unsteady and temporary decrease in Elm (ulmus) pollen accompanied by a slight increase in herb, Rosacea, Umbelliferae, Filipendula and Cruciferae and also a peak of Hazel pollen (Chambers, 1974, Fig. 19, 20 and 21, pp 71-73). He argued that this type of vegetational change could only have been brought about by anthropogenic activity in the area, evidence for which comes from Mesolithic flint and chert material found at six locations on the Reserve. Two radio-carbon dates, 4960 – 4700 cal. BC(SRR-92) and 4933 – 4752 cal. BC (SRR-93), were associated with this vegetational disturbance (Chambers, 1974, 82) and these would tie in well with the idea of a late Mesolithic interference with the vegetational cover. Further evidence for pre-Elm Decline interference with the woodland in this part of the North Pennines may also come for Fox Earth Gill in Teesdale (Squires, 1970, 130).

Waughman et al. have discussed the evidence for Mesolithic impacts on the vegetation cover of the Hartlepool Bay area. This has implications for Mesolithic activities on the Magnesian Limestone of the East Durham Plateau (Waughman et al., 2005). Recent high resolution pollen analysis of the late Mesolithic inter-tidal peat at Low Hauxley has shown evidence for multiple burning episodes immediately around the settlement site that also has a corresponding C14 date indicating human settlement a few tens of metres away at the same time (see various chapters in Waddington and Bonsall, 2016).

In the north of our study area, Richard Tipping’s work in the North Cheviots, and the work by Passmore, Waddington and colleagues in the Till and Lower Tweed valleys has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the Mesolithic/Neolithic period in terms of vegetational history and this research has also been instrumental in reinforcing the idea that human impact is regionally and temporally varied (Tipping, 1996, 2010).

In the late 1990s, the Northumberland National Park Authority commissioned palynological work at Bloody Moss on the Otterburn Training Area (Moores, 1996; Moores and Passmore, 1999) and at Caudhole Moss in the Simonside Hills (Manning, 1996; Moores and Passmore, 1999). The site of Broad Moss was also re-cored with a view to obtaining radiocarbon dates for the sequences first documented by Davies and Turner in the 1970s (Passmore and Stevenson, 2001).

A major contribution to the environmental history of Northumberland came in 1998 when Andrew Moores completed his doctoral thesis on ‘Palaeoenvironmental Investigations of Holocene Landscapes in the North Tyne Basin, Northern England’. This incorporated a range of research techniques and produced data from a series of sites in both upland and lowland locations that allowed for a diachronic discussion of human impacts on the region’s environment. In particular, this work has enhanced our understanding of regional scale human interference with the vegetation cover, through the production of a series of radiocarbon dated pollen diagrams. Special emphasis was placed on Mesolithic impacts, but also the development of arable and pastoral farming in his research area, the impact of Bronze Age, pre-Roman Iron Age and Romano-British populations on their environment and post-Roman vegetation dynamics and later human activity. In addition the research also highlighted the importance and potential of riverine palaeo-channel sediments for the reconstruction of flood plain environments using pollen analysis.

The main thrust of much of this Northumberland-based research is to implicate Mesolithic communities, in part, in the onset of peat formation in the uplands. The processes that lead to peat formation have been discussed in detail by Moore (1973, 1975; 1987a; 1987b; 1988; 1989) and the fact that peat seems to have developed in many upland locations in Northumberland (and northern Britain generally), at the time of the Later Mesolithic, has led many workers to speculate on the potential impact of human forest manipulation as a catalyst for the initiation of peat growth (Simmons, 1996). This should, however, also be seen against the backdrop of climatic changeat the Boreal/Atlantic transition and the recognition of the various ‘neo-glacials’ that have occurred throughout the early to mid Holocene and their effect on sea-level and river basin hydrology.

Moores and Passmore (1999) have pointed out that peat development may also be very closely related to ‘local topographic and hydrologic conditions …and prevailing climate’ (1999, 19). Indeed their work at Bloody Moss and Caudhole Moss has illustrated the potentially complex web of interrelated activities that may have come together to promote peat growth. At Caudhole Moss peat growth was initiated around 7000 cal. BP while at Bloody Moss peat did not start to develop until c. 5000 cal. BP and Moores and Passmore put this 2000 year difference down to localized variation in site conditions. Caudhole Moss occupies a basin that is more likely to become waterlogged, due to relatively impeded drainage, while Bloody Moss is on a spur with fairly free drainage.

Indeed, at Caudhole Moss, Moores and Passmore suggest very strongly that peat growth may have been initiated as a result of climatic downturn, documented in ice core evidence and in the evidence for increased river meandering and down-cutting activity recently recognized in Redesdale and North Tynedale (Moores, 1998; Passmore, 1994).

Pine stumps have been found at the base of the peat in Caudhole Moss, but there is little direct evidence of anthropogenic activity in association with them. They have been dated to c. 7000 cal. BP, precisely at the time of the documented, small-scale, climate fluctuations referred to above. However the complexity of the situation is shown when Moores and Passmore say:

‘These short lived …processes have been linked to later fluctuations in Pinus woodland elsewhere in Great Britain, as worsening edaphic conditions and hydrological change caused the species to become waterlogged and then buried by accumulating organic matter. The possible influence of humans cannot be completely discounted, however, as clearance of the pine woodland may have led to the edaphic changes necessary to bring about peat formation.’

(Moores and Passmore 1999, 20)

At Sells Burn around 260m O.D. the onset of peat development occurred around 3975 cal BC. Moores has suggested that at this site the impact of Mesolithic groups may have been instrumental in promoting peat formation (1998, 191). The tree cover still remained quite substantial in this area despite the onset of peat growth.

In the North Cheviots, just across the Scottish border, Tipping has documented openings in the woodland at Sourhope and at Yetholm Loch after 6500 – 6600 cal. BP. At Sourhope he has recorded decreases in alder and a concomitant rise in grass pollen, accompanied by evidence for the presence of open country herbs not previously recorded. Tipping suggests that this is all evidence for anthropogenic interference with the forest cover, possibly using fire as the major tool and promoting increased grazing activity by wild animals. The evidence for similar activities at Yetholm Loch is, he believes, more tenuous, but still evident (1996, 23).

He has argued that the synchronicity of these early anthropogenic episodes indicates that there was a human presence throughout the course of the Bowmont Valley in the Later Mesolithic period, but that the real impact of human intervention was only felt in a significant way in the upper reaches of the river. He has suggested that the Oak – Elm- Hazel woodlands of the lower reaches might not have been as ‘sensitive to change’ as the Hazel – Birch – Oak woods deep within the valley. The woodland in more upland locations may have been easier to manipulate (1996, 23 – 24).

Tipping is quick to point out that in the Southern Uplands of Scotland we have even earlier dated episodes of potential anthropogenic interference with the forest cover e.g. at The Dod, south of Hawick in the Scottish Borders, c. 8500 cal BP (1996, 24), though no Mesolithic finds have been recorded in the immediate area of this site either.

By the same token, Moores and Passmore (1999, 21) noted an increase in heathland plants and heather at both Bloody Moss and Caudhole Moss during the late Mesolithic and into the Early Neolithic periods. They have suggested, in line with Waddington’s arguments for the sandstone uplands on the eastern side of the Milfield Basin, that these plants are indicative of small scale clearances that may have been linked with grazing either by wild or domesticated animals.

Work by Moores on valley floor sites in the North Tyne area also holds out the fascinating possibility that forest manipulation was going on during the later Mesolithic in order to encourage the production of plant food, especially hazelnuts (Moores, 1998, 193 -198). This was clearly evidenced at the site of Drowning Flow (Moores, 1998, 202). Also of particular importance here is the work carried out at Brownchesters Farm, near Otterburn, just outside the National Park boundary. Here a series of cores from the river terrace deposits has shown clear evidence for anthropogenic activity in the Mesolithic period. The core from Brownchesters Terrace T3 may even have some very early evidence for the occurrence of cereal pollen i.e. pre-7500 cal. BC which, if correct, would be incredibly early for experimentation with cereal agriculture.

Early pollen identifications of this nature have, however, been treated cautiously (Davies, 1997). As yet there is no unequivocal evidence for cereal use or cultivation in the North-East during the Mesolithic period.

In the pollen diagram from Ford Moss on the Fell Sandstones of Northumberland, Passmore and Waddington (2012, 50; Appendix B, 333-337) have documented a period between 6000 – 5500 cal. BC which saw two possible phases of woodland disturbance (both associated with a marked decline in tree and shrub pollen).

The well-dated pollen sequence taken from the coast near the mouth of the Howick Burn contains an important vegetation sequence that goes back to the very early Holocene. However, the sequence has been punctuated by an erosional and depositional event before the pollen sequence resumes for the later Mesolithic and beyond. This means that the part of the sediment sequence co-eval with the occupation of the nearby Howick settlement has been removed. This hiatus has, however, provided one of the most important pieces of Mesolithic evidence from Northumberland to date. The deposit was evidently that left by the Storegga Tsunami, the tidal waves caused by the largest underwater megaslide so far recorded on the planet. The tight dating of the Howick sequence has provided what are considered to be the tightest and most accurate dates for this event, showing that it post-dates the earlier 8.2 ka event (see Waddington, 2007; Boomer et al., 2007; Weninger et al., 2008).

Elsewhere on the coast the inter tidal peats at Low Hauxley and Cresswell, have produced late Meoslithic radiocarbon dates of post-Storegga date and the peat at Low Hauxley has provided a detailed insight into the vegetational sequence immediately adjacent to the settlement site. The peat has also produced evidence of the footprints of children and adults as well as the hoof prints of red deer, aurochs and wild boar. At Cresswell the peat has also produced human footprints together with those of deer and the scratch marks from Brown Bear (Waddington and Bonsall, 2016).

A number of pollen samples were taken during work on the A66 road-widening scheme on Stainmore. These showed peat formation from 6289-5949 cal BC and, until the early 4th millennium BC, mixed woodlands, including Betula (Birch), Quercus (Oak), Ulmus (Elm), and Tilia Llime) stood on well-drained slopes. The presence of charcoal suggests anthropogenic forest clearance, although this did not last long and the levels for Betula, Quercus and Tilia had returned to their earlier levels by 5,117±68 BP. The Elm Decline at this site appears to be dated to 4,728±52 BP (Gear and Turner, 2001, 33.

Charcoal is often present in mid-Holocene vegetation pollen diagrams from Teesdale and adjoining areas. Sometimes this occurs in discrete bands, and clearly records the destabilisation of the woodland by fire. As Innes has suggested (2017, 83) this burning could have been of natural origin but it may reflect the role of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in opening up the woodland. In either case the clearings created would have been centres of enhanced plant food resources during their regeneration to woodland, and would have attracted game animals because of their increased grazing and browsing potential (Simmons and Innes, 1985, 1987). In Upper Teesdale Squires (1970) recorded disturbance at five sites, with clear charcoal layers at Fox Earth Gill and Mire Holes, accompanied by mineral in-wash that suggests burning was intense enough to expose bare soils and encourage erosion. At Mire Holes, a spring-head site, the charcoal was recorded at the base of the peat and fire disturbance could well have promoted peat formation. Chambers (1978) recorded charcoal layers within the mid-Holocene peat near the head of the Tees at Valley Bog, at 4933 – 4752 cal. BC, and at Wheelhead Moss, at 4840 -. 4440 cal. BC Simpson (1976) at Howden Moss and Rendell (1971) at Rookhope Head found similar evidence of disturbance in Upper Teesdale and Upper Weardale. Sturludottir and Turner (1985) also recorded Late Mesolithic charcoal and disturbance at Pawlaw Mire on the upland above Teesdale to the north-east, as did Rowell and Turner (1985) in the uplands above Weardale to the north. Again, as Innes points out (2017, 83) deliberate burning of woodland by Mesolithic people cannot be proven, but he believes it is clear that in and around Teesdale the mid-Holocene woodland was influenced by fire in several places in the period before 5000 BP, which would have affected its composition and may have deflected plant successions into heath or grassland and even promoted the formation of peat.

As we have seen from the available pollen record, in Northern Northumberland and County Durham, one important impact of even a temporary opening up of the forest cover would have been the promotion of grass growth and the increase in browse availability to animals such as red and roe deer, wild cattle (aurochs) wild pig etc. which roamed the Holocene forests. There is the suggestion that this clearance was effected by burning of the under-storey vegetation and experiments in the USA by Dills et al. have shown that by using fire in this way a small group of people can have a disproportionate affect on the vegetation cover, producing some quite amazing figures for increased grazing and browse resource as the burned areas regenerate (Mellars, 1976).

Alternative interpretations of regional pollen diagrams can be proposed.  Some of these key issues for England generally which may have significance for the north-east region have been highlighted by Brown (1997). Reassessment of older data, and a reassessment of the corpus of radiocarbon dates may resolve some of the regional inconsistencies, and lead to new questions to be addressed by Mesolithic archaeology in the region.

The elm decline and the nature of the Mesolithic / Neolithic transition period

The elm decline is a phenomenon that has been discussed in detail by both palynologists and archaeologists. Since it was first identified as a pan-European occurrence, the Elm Decline has traditionally been seen as the key marker for the introduction of the Neolithic way of life (arable/pastoral farming). This position has been radically altered over the last 25 years or so.

Across the British Isles, Parker et al’s 2002 survey of 139 radio carbon dated pollen sites has shown that the elm decline was broadly synchronous, lasting for some 130 years and taking place between c. 6343 -6307 cal. BP and ending c. 5290 and 5420 cal. BP (Parker et al., 2002). Batchelor et al. (2014) have suggested that currently there would appear to be six current and competing potential causes of the elm decline:

 ‘1. Human interference is one of the most favoured explanations because the timing of the decline coincided with the transition into the Neolithic…..

2. Since the first discovery of Scolytus scolytus in Neolithic deposits at Hampstead Heath (Girling and Grieg, 1985; Girling, 1988), the London area has provided a rare example of possible fossil evidence for elm disease in Britain (see Parker and Robinson, 2003; Clark and Edwards, 2004). These finds are significant because, when coupled with a reduction in elm pollen, they enhance the argument for disease as the key cause of the Neolithic decline in elm populations. The hypothesis proposes that S. scolytus was a vector for the fungus Ophiostoma (Ceratocystis) ulmi, the cause of Dutch elm disease in modern populations…….

3. A shift towards more continental climatic conditions is also thought to have contributed to the decline of elm (Parker et al., 2002)……

4. Soil deterioration during the early- to mid-Holocene may have contributed to the decline of elm at certain sites because of leaching and a decrease in quality/ nutrient content (Turner et al., 1993)…….

5. Competition has also been proposed as a contributory factor for the Ulmus decline, since taxa such as Fagus can eventually out-compete elm (Parker et al., 2002). This theory has received little support, due to the abrupt and broadly synchronous nature of the decline in comparison to the slower and asynchronous process of competitive exclusion…….

6. A multi-causal model for the Ulmus decline including human interference with natural vegetation succession, disease and sometimes climate change is also proposed (Girling and Grieg, 1985; Peglar and Birks, 1993; Parker et al., 2002; Lamb and Thompson, 2005). A combination of factors has been strongly argued on the basis that any single factor is unlikely to explain the widespread and catastrophic nature of the decline……..’

(Batchelor et al. 2014, 264-266)

Opinion would now seem to favour the multi-causal model set out in 6 above as the main driver that led to such a rapid period of decline, rather than a single cause (Parker et al., 2002; Batchelor et al., 2014; Robinson 2014).

Over the last twenty years or so in the northern region Tipping and others have suggested that the elm decline may not be as uniform, or synchronous as the received view implies (Tipping, 1996; Simmons and Innes, 1987; Kenney, 1993) and Tipping has shown quite dramatically that the northern Cheviot region bears this out.

At Yetholm Loch the decline in elm pollen is dated to 4686-4582 cal. BC, while no decline can be seen at Sourhope as the tree was not locally present. At Din Moss, also Scottish Borders however, the Elm Decline is a prominent feature on the diagram and it is dated by three radiocarbon dates to between 4450-4080 cal. BC (Hibbert and Switsur, 1976). Thus the Elm Decline at Din Moss occurred approximately 3-500 years earlier than the one documented at Yetholm Loch. The two locations are only 4km apart and one is forced to agree with Tipping when he says, that such a ‘degree of diachroneity over such a short distance is perhaps hard to equate with the idea of a rapidly disseminating disease’ (1996, 25). Minerogenic sediment in the Yetholm Loch profile, which occurs directly after the elm decline, may well be related to soil erosion that followed general tree clearance (Tipping, 1996, 25).

The decline at Fellend Moss occurred around 4000 – 3900 uncal. BC and that at Steng Moss, both Northumberland, occurred at c. 3400 – 3300 uncal. BC (Davies and Turner, 1979).  Both of these sets of dates are estimates based on estimated rates of peat growth and they should only be taken as broad indicators of when the phenomenon occurred. That said they are fairly late when compared the general range of dates available for the elm decline (Smith, 1981; Kenney, 1993).

An interesting phenomenon, deserving of more research, is the pattern of radio-carbon dates available for the Elm Decline in the County Durham area. Here we have an early range of dates from the east of the area:

Neasham Fen  4460-4080 cal. BC  (Bartley, Chambers and Harte-Jones, 1976, 429); Morden Carr 4310-3990 cal. BC  (Bartley, Cambers and Harte-Jones, 1976, 446); Bishop Middleham  pre-4250-3720 cal. BC (Bartley, Cambers and Harte-Jones, 1976, 449); Hartlepool Bay after 4238 – 3945 cal. BC and 4235  3907 cal. BC (Tooley, 1978, 75).

Dates are later in the uplands, however, with the elm decline occurring between 4840 – 4400 cal. BC and 4330 – 3780 cal. BC at Wheelhead Moss, Teesdale. (Chambers prefers the later date as being closer to the elm decline itself, due to a hiatus in peat development ( Chambers, 1974, 98)). At Valley Bog, the elm decline occurred between 3690 – 3380 cal. BC (Chambers, 1974, 99).

Thus there would seem to be a tendency for the Elm Decline to occur earlier in the lowlands of County Durham than in the uplands, and Chambers and other workers originally suggested that this was linked to selective anthropogenic influence coming from the east of the area in the form of a ‘new culture’ from the lowlands into the uplands. This proposed ‘movement’ it was thought may have been due to population pressure in the lowland areas (Bartley, Chambers and Hart-Jones, 1976, 463).

As Chambers pointed out (1974, 99), ‘if a fall in temperature or leaching of base rich soils were the cause one would expect the dates to be in reverse order’. Chambers has also suggested that the time difference between uplands and lowlands in terms of the occurrence of the elm decline might be explained by a lag in an indigenous development of new food collecting/production techniques among a more or less sedentary population (1974, 99). The implications of this kind of data linked with the variable results of field survey for the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition in the region, have been discussed in detail by various researchers in the last twenty years or so (e.g. Young, 1990; Tolan-Smith, 1996, a, b, , 1997c; Waddington, 1998c;1999a; 2000a; 2000b).

Clearly there is massive scope for further research on this issue in a regional context.

Faunal remains

Faunal assemblages relating to Palaeolithic and Mesolithic activity are incredibly rare in the north-east region. Stalibrass (1995,a), has produced the most recent broad overview of the available material, and Bridgland produced a detailed discussion of Pleistocene material in 1999 (Bridgland, 1999).

Palaeolithic material

There are, however, a number of isolated faunal finds that relate to the Palaeolithic periods. These include; vertebrae from an elephant identified as Archiskodon Meridionalis and supposedly of Middle Pleistocene date from sediments recorded in a fissure in the Magnesian Limestone at Blackhall Rocks (Johnson, 1995; Bridgland, 1999), a hippopotamus molar thought to be of Ipswichian date from Stockton-on-Tees, woolly mammoth remains from Hartlepool Docks, and a Devensian woolly rhinoceros bone from West Brierton near Hartlepool (Stuart 1982; Trechmann, 1939).

A number of Late Glacial elk and deer finds include discoveries of elk at Neasham (Co. Durham), the River Skerne in Darlington (Co. Durham), and Giant Irish deer from South Shields, Seaton Carew (Teesside) and Mainsforth (Trechmann, 1936; 1939; Huntley and Stallibrass, 1995, 89; Johnson, 1995).

Mesolithic Material

Bos horn cores of possible Mesolithic date are known from a number of locations. Johnson and Dunham have discussed a number of finds sealed by peat deposits on the Moor House National Nature Reserves on the watershed above the River Tees (Johnson and Dunham, 1963, 159-161). Of particular importance here are the finds from Hard Hill and Teeshead which were associated with Later Mesolithic microliths.

Four fragmentary horn sheaths, possibly from aurochs, were found by game keepers in the peat on Burnhope Seat at the head of Weardale. The exact grid reference is unknown but the area is in excess of 2000 ft. O. D. (616 m approximately), while on Ireshopeburn Moor (NY 829 357) at 2150 ft. O. D. (661 m approximately), a single horn sheath was found eroding from a peat hag. Some debate surrounds this piece as Johnson and Dunham identified it as being of bos taurus taurus (domesticated oxen), while Grigson believes it to be bos primigenius (aurochs) (Grigson, 1978, 54). The piece was recently subject to radio-carbon dating and it produced a date of Cal. BC 2030 to 1880 making it Beaker period in date and thus possibly one of the last aurochs in the North Pennines and nationally (Jones, 2008, pers. comm.).

A very deeply stratified, but undated, auroch horn has been recorded from Hedgehope Hill (Northumberland) (Berthele Collection), and a red deer antler pick has been found at Hatfield House, North Bailey, Durham (Howse, 1861,116 -118).

In 1988, aurochs foot bones were recovered from the foreshore at Seaton Carew in Cleveland and these have been AMS radio-carbon dated to 7,330 BP (Stallibrass, 1995a, 97; Gidney, 1990).

Howse (1861, 112) records the finding of Wild Boar skulls in alluvial sands in the North Bailey area of Durham City (NZ 274 423), and from wind-blown sand at Trow Rocks near South Shields (?NZ 382 667). These may well have been of Mesolithic date.

A small but important assemblage of both terrestrial and marine animal remains has also been recovered stratified in sealed hearth fills inside the Mesolithic pit house at Howick, which produced burnt bone fragments, including identifiable remains of Grey Seal, Wild Boar, dog or wolf, bird and fox (Bailey and Milner, 2007, 137-141). The excavations also produced evidence for the Mesolithic exploitation of Dog Whelk, Flat and Edible Periwinkle, Limpet, Cowrie, Mussel, Barnacle, Crab, and Oyster (Bailey and Milner, 2007, 141- 146).

Palaeolithic activity?

In the history of regional research outlined above much of the emphasis has clearly been on work related to the Early and Later Mesolithic periods. Most recently however, there does appear to be some slight evidence for a Palaeolithic presence in the region.

Pre- Devensiansediments (pre-the last Ice Age) are certainly present within the region and Hewitt, writing in 2011, has highlighted the potential for the survival of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic material within these deposits. He has suggested that the Durham Coast, especially, may have the potential to yield such information, especially from sediments within the in-filled denes of the East Durham Plateau.

A supposed Lower Palaeolithic, quartzite, tool from Warren House Gill was reported on by C. T. Trechmann in 1928, though this identification has always been thought of as tenuous. More recently Peter Rowe (2007) has recorded what appears to be part of an Aecheulian hand-axe, washed up on the shore near the South Gare at Redcar.

Rowe suggests several possibilities as to the original provenance of this piece. The artefact may have been eroded from a submerged offshore deposit from anywhere in the North Sea Basin or it could have been disturbed during offshore dredging, specifically targeted to retrieve fossil and artefactual remains for sale on internet auction sites (Mark White, pers. comm.). Rowe points out that a more intriguing possibility is that it derives either from a broad palaeo-channel that lies approximately 250 metres to the east of the South Gare, identified in a recent offshore geophysical survey (Entec UK Ltd, 2004) or it has eroded from beneath glacial boulder clay deposits and associated sand and gravel beds of the local coastline (Agar, 1954, 239). Alternatively the piece may have formed part of a dumped ballast cargo from a 19th century collier sailing back either from the south-east coast or the continent.

Recent work at Howick has suggested the presence of an Upper Palaeolithic element in the lithic assemblage. Waddington has identified previously chipped, patinated and beach rolled pieces which had later been modified into artefacts used in the Howick hut (Waddington, 2007, 108). A possible Ahrensburgian element has also been identified in the lithic assemblage from Low Hauxley (Waddington and Bonsall, 2016), and a similar suggestion was put forward after the analysis of lithics from Middle Warren, near Hartlepool (Waddington, 1996).

Waddington’s work in the Till-Tweed catchment has also introduced the possibility of an Upper Palaeolithic presence in this area, (Waddington, 2009, 78). This presence has been confirmed further up the valley and in the Tweed-Clyde ‘Biggar Gap’ at the Howburn Farm excavations (interim published in Prehistory without Borders). An earlier re-analysis of material in the collections of what is now the Great North Museum has also suggested the possibility of re-used Palaeolithic material at Spindleston near Bamburgh and Bywell in Tynedale (Waddington, 2004, 68 and 79). A possible Upper Palaeolithic flint blade has also been recorded from Eltringham Farm, near Prudhoe (Northumberland) (Tolan-Smith with Cousins, 1995) and further south in Teesdale, a number of possible Late Upper Palaeolithic artefacts (including at least one point and a scraper)  have been recovered at Towler Hill near Lartington (Coggins, Laurie and Young,1989) . There is, as yet, little other convincing Upper Palaeolithic material in the region.

Museum collections

Mesolithic lithics can be found in many of the region’s museums. The largest collection is in the Great North Museum (now comprising the Museum of Antiquities and Natural History Society of Northumbria collections), Newcastle, which holds material from Birtley, Tyne and Wear and  Corbridge, Bolam Lake,and  Bywell all Northumberland, and Clive Waddington’s work at Howick, Low Hauxley and the Milfield Basin. It particularly features the collections made by Cocks and Weyman as well as the Whitburn harpoon. A gazetteer of lithic collections of all ages from the museum has recently been published (Waddington, 2004). Francis Buckley’s collections of flints are also held there, though his notebooks and drawing books are held at the Tolson Museum, Huddersfield (West Yorkshire). Other major collections include those held in the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle (County Durham), which has material from Finchale (County Durham) and Hildyard’s collections of flints from Weardale. The Sunderland Museum holds assemblages from Old Durham, Finchale, Monk Hesledon, Crimdon Dene and Filpoke Beacon. Much material collected by Raistrick is now held by the Craven Museum in Skipton (North Yorkshire) (Croucher and Richardson, 2003). The collection of lithic material from Northumberland, made by former forestry worker Mr Fritz Berthele is now housed in Chillingham Castle, Northumberland.