PALAEOLITHIC AND MESOLITHIC: trade, exchange and production

Evidence from Mesolithic assemblages for the procurement of raw materials from distant sources has long provoked speculation about technology and trade (Palmer 1970; Rankine 1951). Across the region, there is widespread evidence for lithic materials being deposited that may be considered exotic to their depositional context. Distinguishing between the various potential mechanisms by which specific materials may have been acquired demands suitable approaches to lithic analysis. Inter-assemblage comparisons of site reduction evidence can provide a powerful tool in understanding if materials were accessed through the mobility of groups, or whether inter-group exchange or barter mechanisms were involved.

The application of these approaches (see Myers 2015) requires that raw materials can be traced to a source location or area and this entails extensive sampling of potential source deposits. In this respect the use of laser ablation plasma mass spectrometry techniques (Evans et al., 2007) promises to be a valuable approach for source characterisation, and this is being applied to exotic material from the Stainton West assemblage (see below).

The new mid-ninth millennium BC dates from Greasby (M) are reassuringly close and coherent, and are in accord with our current understanding of dating for Early Mesolithic assemblages of ‘Deepcar type’.  If accepted, the dates would help with anchoring the chronology of these assemblages in Merseyside and the south Lancashire plain.

It would also confirm that in the ninth millennium BC Mesolithic groups in this area were obtaining lithic material for their assemblages from the limestone of north Wales.  It begs the question, during the ninth millennium BC, how did groups in these areas maintain their raw material supplies? In answering this question it may be possible to undertake an interesting comparison with contemporary activity east of the Pennines (Myers 2015).

In the Early Mesolithic period, the contemporaneous coast lay well to the west of the current North Wirral and Lancashire coastlines. By approximately 9,000 BC, the sea level had risen to 37 m below modern OD. By about 7,500BC it had risen significantly, but was still 18 m below current sea level, providing a large area of land linking Wales and north-west England during the Early Mesolithic period (Bell 2007).

The Early Mesolithic assemblage from Mellor (GM), typologically of ‘Deepcar type’ (sensu Radley and Mellars 1964), represents an interesting western outlier of this distinctive group of assemblages dependent upon the use of Wolds flint. Although Wolds flint has its primary sources in the Cretaceous chalk of Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire, Mesolithic groups probably obtained their material from secondary deposits of glacial till in the Trent valley. These assemblages are principally concentrated east of the Pennine watershed (Myers 2015) and the Vicarage Garden assemblage appears to be a western outlier. West of the Pennines, Early Mesolithic assemblages that are typologically similar (but which lack obliquely truncated microliths with opposing retouch at their tips) do occur, but they draw upon a different suite of raw materials.

There is also a substantial Late Mesolithic assemblage at Mellor, manufactured from varieties of translucent and semi-translucent flint that includes two microliths and a number of end scrapers on short flakes.

Late Mesolithic lithic assemblage from Mellor Old Hall Vicarage gardens excavation, Stockport, Greater Manchester (courtesy of Dr Andy Myers)

The Late Mesolithic assemblage at Stainton West (C) appears truly remarkable. The tool assemblage is notable for the limited range of retouched forms. There are relatively few scrapers, whilst forms such as denticulates, burins or notched flakes/ blades appear to be largely absent. Microlithic forms dominate the retouched tool assemblage, with over 5600 having been identified. These include classic Late Mesolithic varieties of rod and backed types, and scalene triangles (Brown et al in prep). 

The raw materials employed in the lithic assemblage at Stainton West reflect the site’s riverine position between the coastal plain and the uplands of the Lake District Fells and the North Pennines. The majority of materials come from deposits along the Cumbrian coast embracing a wide variety of materials. The assemblage, however, also includes cherts and volcanic materials derived from the uplands.

A most significant review of raw material use in Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic assemblages in Cumbria (C) has demonstrated how the balance of raw materials employed in site assemblages generally mirrors the topographical position of each site. Coastal assemblages are dominated by coastal raw materials. Moving inland along drainages sees the proportion of materials from upland sources increase until, in upland sites, they dominate (Dickson and Cherry forthcoming).

At Stainton West, however, the assemblage also includes materials acquired from sources at a significant distance including the southern uplands of Scotland and even from as far afield as the Isle of Arran. Analysis of patterns of raw material procurement, use and discard can provide highly informative data relevant to the discussion of Mesolithic mobility, territorial behaviour and social interaction (Middleton et al 2013, 177; Myers 2015). It is anticipated that the analysis of the assemblage will shed light upon the role of Stainton West in patterns of local Late Mesolithic settlement and mobility. It is noteworthy that flakes derived from polished Group VI tuff implements were recovered from Late Mesolithic contexts (Brown et al in prep).

At SMR 3 (Slynedales Culvert) (L) on the Heysham-M6 link route, the main source of raw material was pebble flint, augmented by chert, with minor quantities of tuff and grey flint (probably from East Yorkshire). Occasional other materials were used including unidentified sources, possibly a quartzitic sandstone. Two refitting fragments of red ochre/haematite were also found but are not definitively utilised (Dickson 2018a).

A flake from a ground and polished Group VI (Great Langdale area) tuff axe was found within a cluster of Late Mesolithic flaked lithics, including elements from all stages of a Late Mesolithic reduction strategy and several microliths (Dickson 2018b).

At Lunt Meadows (M), a lithic assemblage of c 5000 pieces has been recovered. Sources of workable flint are not found locally to the site. It appears that at least some of the material, such as varieties of grey chert, may have come from distant sources, possibly the Ribble Valley plus some from Wales (Cowell in prep).

Excavations at one of the Seven Lows barrows, Delamere (Ch), produced a range of lithic debitage and tools including microliths, flakes and blades, most of them of Late Mesolithic form. These were manufactured from pebbles and cobbles of chert and flint, probably from Irish Sea Till or gravels derived from it. Several pieces showed signs of mild heat treatment (discoloured to a pale pink), thought to have aided working of the poor quality raw material (Brooks, forthcoming).

At Grange Farm (GM), the lithic assemblage encompasses a wide variety of raw materials and retouched tools include battered back and scalene microliths with a variety of other forms. There are also a large number of pebbles and cobbles. Some may represent the gathering of raw materials for potential subsequent reduction. Some, however, show signs of wear and use as tools used for a range of activities including rubbing/ grinding through to hammering (Tameside Archaeology Society (TAS) in prep).


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