PALAEOLITHIC AND MESOLITHIC: Settlement and activity areas

Historically, the region has produced late Upper Palaeolithic lithic material, mainly from excavations in caves and rock shelters (Hodgson and Brennand 2006, 24-5). During the last ten years, however, fieldwork across the region has produced no new discoveries of Upper Palaeolithic cultural evidence in situ. The lack of such finds and the absence of open-air sites in particular is troubling, since the evidence from High Furlong in the Fylde (Hallam et al 1973) demonstrates that we should anticipate finding late Upper Palaeolithic evidence from open air locations.

There is an established tradition of surface artefact collection, mainly focussed upon upland peat environments, and individuals or local archaeological societies undertake much of this work. In certain areas substantial lithic assemblages have been and continue to be amassed, but only a handful are analysed in detail or prepared for publication by analysts with the experience, knowledge and confidence to recognise occasional Upper Palaeolithic artefacts. Consequently, most of these upland, open environment assemblages are assigned to the Mesolithic or later periods. It is therefore a concern that for want of the necessary expertise we may be overlooking such evidence from lithic scatters.

Stephen Poole, who is experienced with lithic technology and typology, is currently undertaking research for an MPhil at the University of Manchester. His research involves re-examining some of the existing museum collections in and around the central and southern Pennines. He has already identified (Poole pers. comm.) at least two previously unrecognised examples from the Rochdale area of late Upper Palaeolithic flintwork including a classic Creswellian point.

Late Upper Palaeolithic Creswellian Point from Rochdale area, Greater Manchester

Similarly, re-examination of cave assemblages has produced new information from old archives. Many contain material evidence of past human activities from a range of different archaeological periods, and useful summaries were prepared for a joint Quaternary Research Association and British Cave Research Association field excursion to the region in 2012 (O’Regan et al, 2012, Smith & O’Regan, 2012).

Barton (2009) provides a summary of Upper Palaeolithic finds from caves around Morecambe Bay including Lindale Low (C), Bart’s Shelter (C) and Kirkhead (C) in his national overview, and some of these sites are thought to have produced further (unpublished) lithics of this period.

The recent increase in interest in the limestone caves that encircle the Lake District (particularly in the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in north Lancashire/south Cumbria), has demonstrated that there is much new evidence to discover, both from new excavations and from re-interrogation of existing materials and archives. Historiographies of cave exploration mention some of the key sites and early investigators (see O’Regan et al 2008, Willkinson et al 2011).

An example of new information obtained from archived finds concerns the late glacial skeleton of an adult male elk found in association with two Late Upper Palaeolithic barbed bone points at Poulton le Fylde (L). Hallam (et al. 1973) identified several marks on the bones and concluded that the elk had been attacked on at least two separate occasions. The original analyses demonstrated that the elk was deposited in a small open-water pool surrounded by a thicket of birch. Initial bulk sample radiocarbon dating of the detritus muds in which the elk’s body came to rest indicated an age of 11,665 ± 140 BP (St-3836) and this date has since been supported by an ultrafiltrated AMS radiocarbon measurement of 11,660 ± 60 BP (OxA-11151). These are in good accord with a date of 11,715 ± 50 BP (OxA-13075) on the elk itself, and calibrate to c 13.8 – 14 ka cal BP i.e. the earlier part of the Allerød/Windermere Interstadial (Jacobi et al. 2009).

For several decades, the skeleton was on display at the Harris Museum, Preston. Subsequent renovation and renewal of the museum’s archaeological galleries in 2013 allowed full access to the elk and harpoons for fresh analysis, and also provided an opportunity to take samples of a tooth, rib and antler for isotopic measurement of strontium (Sr), carbon (C), nitrogen (N) and oxygen (O). The isotopes indicate that the animal remained within a restricted home territory, browsing in an open birch environment. It died in winter and was about 3.5 to 4.5 years old.

Reanalysis of the remains by Pettitt et al (2017) concluded that most of the unhealed surface marks were caused by the tools of the excavators, not by flint-tipped projectiles. They thought that the animal had been shot in one or both hind feet by bone points and suggest that the points were hafted together (as a leister) and the wound inflicted as the animal fled or, perhaps more likely, as it dived or swam in the water. The lack of any indication of butchery suggests that this was an unsuccessful hunting event- the animal was injured and it died, but its body could not be accessed under the water.

Since the publication of the Resource Assessment in 2006 there have been a number of highly significant   projects for our understanding of the Mesolithic period in the north-west region. One critical aspect of this emerging body of research has been that it includes locations from the uplands, river valleys, lowland wetlands and coastal environments. In so doing it is demonstrating the potential offered by the region for investigating and understanding the role and use of contrasting environmental and topographical locations within the landscape strategies of Mesolithic groups.

It also illustrates how fieldwork prompted by developers, government agencies, volunteer individuals or groups, and university researchers are all making contributions to our understanding of the period. Many of the key sites discussed here are the subject of a forthcoming publication of the 2013 CBANW conference held at the University of Salford on the Mesolithic of the North West Region (Myers and Preston forthcoming).

Multi-season community excavations in the Vicarage Garden, Mellor (GM), run by Mellor Archaeological Trust (MAT) supported by the former University of Manchester Archaeological Unit (UMAU), were primarily focussed on a large Iron Age enclosure. But lithics from several earlier periods were also recovered, indicating repeated use of this prominent hilltop location. A significant Mesolithic component includes a small, distinctive Early Mesolithic assemblage. The excavations and finds analyses have been written-up for publication (Arrowsmith forthcoming).

Post-excavation work on material from Greasby (M) on the Wirral sandstone ridge, confirms an early Mesolithic date (mid-ninth millennium BC) for charred hazelnuts from three contexts. Although the disturbed stratigraphy of the site precludes complete confidence that the charred hazelnuts are associated with the Mesolithic lithics, these are diagnostically of Early Mesolithic type (Cowell in prep.).

In Cheshire, major excavations of an Iron Age settlement overlooking the confluence of the Pulford Brook and the River Dee at Poulton (Ch) have also recovered evidence for earlier phases of activity from residual contexts. The majority of these finds comprise flint and chert tools and debitage, totalling 275 items. Blades, cores, flakes with retouched edges, general debitage and various types of scraper have so far been identified. Although a significant proportion of the assemblage cannot be attributed to a specific period, there is a marked occurrence of diagnostically Early Mesolithic items, suggesting that this may have been the site of a temporary or seasonal camp. There are also tentative identifications of Late Mesolithic material (Cootes et al, 2016).

Perhaps the most spectacular contribution to Mesolithic research has come from the developer funded investigations undertaken by Oxford Archaeology North at Stainton West in association with the Carlisle Northern Development Route (CNDR) (Brown and Clark 2011 a, b, Brown et al in prep). At a point where the River Eden bisected the proposed road corridor with a large meander, the site for the northern landing of a new bridge was subject to open area excavation between October 2008 and December 2009. This followed an evaluation phase that had revealed a dense and extensive lithic scatter on the low lying (9m a.m.s.l.) floodplain spatially associated with two relict river channels.

Flooded river channels at Stainton West, Carlisle, Cumbria (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)

The time pressures upon the development combined with the scale of the archaeological evidence and the logistics of excavating the site sediments gave rise to a truly industrial scale excavation applying procedures and technologies to recover the lithic assemblage that were both innovative in this country and efficient in time and recovery rates. A significant proportion of the lithic assemblage was incorporated into the boulder clays and alluvium of the floodplain covering the site. This material was excavated in systematic units, placed in tubs and transported to a processing area on-site where it was passed through a bank of powered water sieves. As soon as layers or features were identified these were excavated contextually.

In this manner a lithic assemblage of over 300,000 artefacts was recovered, making Stainton West one of the most prolific Mesolithic sites in Britain (and Europe). A dedicated team of lithic analysts was organised to process the assemblage. The overwhelming majority of lithics date to the Late Mesolithic or Neolithic periods. The excavation revealed the assemblage was associated with and, in part, incorporated into a series of features including tree throws, hearths, pits and possible structures.

It appears that Stainton West site was visited and revisited by groups on multiple occasions and that the site remained a focus for a specific and limited range of tool-using activities.  In this sense, within the movements of local Mesolithic groups the site may have represented a ‘persistent place’ (Barton et al. 1995) visited many times over many years.

Stainton West provides a good example of collaboration between an academic institution (the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN)) and a commercial contractor (Oxford Archaeology North, OAN). Two PhD theses began in 2016, to study targeted aspects of the palaeoenvironmental deposits and lithics in further detail than was possible in the commercial project, and to consider these in a much wider geographical context.

Other sites and areas that appear to have received sequential visits were investigated along the route of the new Highways England link between the Port of Heysham and Junction 34 of the M6 motorway (Bradley & Howard-Davis 2018). Dispersed findspots of prehistoric lithics and burnt organic material show repeated visits within the valleys of the Howgill Brook and the Lower Lune valley.

Adjacent to a palaeochannel, a mid-5th millennium lithic scatter at Slynedales Culvert (aka SMR 3) (L) was investigated by OAN in the same manner as Stainton West, with gridded collection of material for bulk sieving in an open area strip, map and record (SMR) excavation. The site included some negative features and was buried beneath colluvium.

Analyses of the lithic technology indicated that stone tools were made and used at the site, whilst re-fitting studies showed that the three concentrations of lithics represented three different visits rather than contemporaneous activities. The lithic technology and one of the radiocarbon dates indicate a Late Mesolithic date, slightly post-dating an underlying linear group of features that may be natural (Bradley & Howard-Davis 2018, 30-32).

A community-based scheme at Brackenber Moor, Appleby-in-Westmoreland (C ), has been involved in excavations at a Bronze Age ritual and burial site (Railton 2011, 2018). The Altogether Archaeology Project was sponsored by the Area of Natural Beauty Partnership and overseen by North Pennine Archaeology. During the investigation of an Early Bronze Age barrow a significant lithic assemblage dating to the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic was recovered. This earlier material had originally been deposited in the sandy soils, only to be later incorporated into the mound during its construction. This could have been deliberate or incidental reuse of earlier sites, but the location (close to the Iron Age enclosure known as The Druidical Judgement Seat) was clearly a persistent focus of people’s activities.

The co-occurrence of Mesolithic and Neolithic lithics has been noted at several sites in Britain. Although these could be conflated due to plough disturbance and residuality in some sites, it has led to some discussions that the lithic industries may not be entirely sequential chronologically (or culturally), emphasising the need to consider exact stratigraphic provenances of finds.

In 2012, when the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside (LWT) supported by the Environment Agency were in the process of creating a wetland wildlife reserve and flood storage facility at Lunt Meadows near Sefton (M), important Mesolithic remains were discovered (as predicted by the North West Wetlands Survey: Cowell & Innes 1994). A team from the National Museums of Liverpool (NML), together with community volunteers, have been excavating the site directed by Ron Cowell.

It has evidence of two substantial dwelling structures, one of which has been radiocarbon dated to 5800BC (Cowell forthcoming). Measuring 4 – 6m in diameter the walls of these circular buildings combine lines of posts with banks of sandy soil. The structural forms are not the typical Late Mesolithic types found at Howick, Mount Sandel and East Barns.

The cut features provide evidence for multiple phases of occupation suggesting repeated visits and use for settlement. There are indications that this particular area of settlement extends beyond the current excavations.  Different types of raw materials were deposited in different parts of the site, possibly enhancing the suggestion that the site was periodically re-occupied. Inundation by rising sea levels in the late sixth millennium BC probably saw its final abandonment.

During the groundworks for the new wildlife ponds, Mesolithic lithics were noted at two other sites located on slight sandy elevations several hundred metres away from the main site, indicating that the whole area had been a repeated focus for hunter-gatherer activities at a time of rapidly rising sea levels. Palaeoenvironmental analyses by a team from Exeter University’s Geography Department indicated various periods of peat formation.

One of the sampling sites produced charcoal, cereal-type pollen and other indicators of small-scale landscape alteration that date to the late Mesolithic period (Cowell in prep). This site (and probably several others in lowland wetlands of NW England) has good potential for further investigations of possible evidence of cereal cultivation by Mesolithic people. This is a topic that has been unresolved for several years, but can now benefit from refined laboratory techniques, a better understanding of radiocarbon dating and Bayesian statistical modelling, and new breakthroughs in the identification of some cereal pollen types from those of other large grasses (eg Albert & Innes in press).

The archaeologists from NML are collaborating with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, who manage the site. They are developing the visitor experience and educational facilities to highlight and integrate the past and present environments.

Not far from the Lunt Meadows site is the remarkable foreshore site at Formby. The recognition of animal and human footprints preserved in the silts and muds has provided a rare opportunity to look at direct evidence for spatial behaviour of people and animals in the prehistoric past, including the Late Mesolithic. Building upon the earlier work of Gordon Roberts (Roberts et al., 1996) the Formby and Sefton foreshore has, over the past ten years, seen a lot of work undertaken for the Sefton Coastal Landscape Partnership & the National Trust by Alison Burns of the University of Manchester (Burns 2019). The process of surveying and recording the wide range of prehistoric animal and human footprints being exposed and eroded has continued.

Analysis has demonstrated how coastal saltmarsh environments served as route ways, hunting and foraging environments. It has graphically reminded us how habitually terrestrial prey species, such as red and roe deer, were drawn to this environment, simultaneously providing hunting opportunities for human groups. It emphasises how many coastal environments may have been exploited for their terrestrial rather than exclusively coastal resources and highlights normally hidden details of people/ animal interactions. The evidence provides important information on social groupings, footwear, physiology, gender, age and health. This work has also provided a vehicle for valuable public outreach (Burns 2014).

In Greater Manchester, Tameside Archaeological Society (TAS) have undertaken significant fieldwork at three sites located at varying altitudes, ranging from a lower level valley site at c 200 m.a.s.l. at Grange Farm, Mottram, (GM) (TAS in prep.) to two moorland sites above Swineshaw Reservoir at  c. 350 m.a.s.l. at Boar Flat (GM) and at c. 450 m.a.s.l. at  Irontongue Hill (GM) (Cowell 2009; Leeming and Cookson 2009; Milne 2009 a, b; Wright 2007, 2012). These Pennine fringe sites have yielded a range of Late Mesolithic lithic material and cut features. At Irontongue Hill there is evidence for the re-cutting and re-use of hearth pits.

Upland Iron Tongue Hill excavation, Tameside, Greater Manchester (courtesy of Tameside Archaeology Society)

The site at Grange Farm (GM) is located on a ridge formed by free draining glacial outwash sands within a valley forming one of the main routes from the lowlands in the west up into the Pennines. As such the location could be considered as intermediate between upland and lowland environments. The site is close to fresh water springs and benefits from excellent visibility of the surrounding landscape. It was visited in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, and the proximity of the features and lithic distributions of the two periods suggests that specific attributes of the location persisted, and continued to attract people, even if the earlier anthropogenic features were no longer visible. An amorphous hollow feature contained a fill that held Late Mesolithic lithics stratified securely with charred hazelnut shells that yielded two radiocarbon dates spanning 6620-6470 cal BC (TAS in prep).

Adjacent to the nearby site of Shaw Cairn (GM), Mellor Archaeological Trust (MAT) together with a small team from the University of Sheffield also found evidence for a Late Mesolithic scatter possibly associated with a series of stake holes (Noble, 2010; Noble et al, forthcoming)

Late Mesolithic lithics were found during excavations at Junction 6 of the M62 in Merseyside, associated with a pit containing burnt hazelnuts and burnt oak wood, both radiocarbon dated to the 5th millennium BC (Cowell in prep.). Situated on a low sandy terrace next to a stream, the site also produced Late Neolithic occupation material.

Commercially, there has been little to report in Greater Manchester. The exception has been work undertaken in advance of a flood defence scheme at Castle Irwell, Salford (GM), initially by the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit (UMAU) and then by Salford Archaeology. The site consisted of a low-lying (c.20 m.a.s.l.) peninsula of sandy soils projecting into an extensive area of wetland through which runs Salteye Brook. Evaluation trenching revealed a multi-period site including a very small Late Mesolithic lithic component consisting of flakes and blades with little or no cortex, a core and a single microlith.

Similar finds have been made previously on lowland wetlands within a 10 mile radius, including possible temporary camps on Radcliffe E’es (GM) and at Nook Farm on Chat’s Moss (GM); and an excavation in Barton (GM) in 2012 produced a Mesolithic flint blade (Reader and Roberts, 2016; Salford Archaeology, 2018, 10-11).

The new evidence supports the previously reported impression (Cowell 1991, 1996; Cowell and Innes 1994; Cowell and Philpott 2000) that Late Mesolithic sites of lowland Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Cheshire and north Merseyside tend to cluster on patches of better drained ground adjacent to wetlands and/ or stream courses. These sites consist predominantly of small, low-density lithic scatters with few recognisable retouched forms and little in the way of structural evidence. The flaking evidence suggests little or no primary flaking. Prepared cores and/ or flakes and blades were carried to the sites and used, with some eventually being discarded.

The evidence is in marked contrast to the multi-phase structural and substantial finds evidence from Lunt Meadows. This may reflect a significant contrast between Late Mesolithic archaeology of the inland coastal plain and certain coastal and/or estuarine locations which have previously been noted as producing significant artefact concentrations (Cowell 1996) and activities repeated over long time periods (as at Stainton West).


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