The Mesolithic: 12,000 – 6,000 years before the present

The Mesolithic as a period has been re-engaging public interest in recent years. South Yorkshire has played a key role in the early recognition of the period in Britain and in establishing a chronology for the period. However evidence in South Yorkshire is particularly challenging to research and manage. The period in this region is poorly understood as interpretations are largely based on a few limited excavations dated prior to the 1970s as well as many ‘findspots’ (which largely reflect patterns of differential survival and visibility). Despite excellent quality research into existing collections, interpretations have been constrained by the nature of the record and tend to recycle debates over comparisons between ad hoc assemblages dating back over half a century. As a result surprisingly little is understood about the distribution of Mesolithic activity across the region or what surviving evidence remains. There is nonetheless potential for a much improved understanding in the future, particularly through research into undisturbed sites of high integrity and/or those with organic preservation in certain locations, and for a much greater public interest and engagement with the distinctive character of the Mesolithic in the region. There are however serious threats. South Yorkshire, lying at the southern limit of upland bog formation, is uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change on blanket peat. The subsequent influence of changes in vegetation and increased erosion on Mesolithic sites under peat will have an impact on research and management.

Microliths, the characteristic artefact of the Mesolithic period, are notoriously difficult to find, even in modern commercial contexts (source: Wikimedia commons)

What makes the Mesolithic particularly challenging period to research and manage? In general terms:

  • this was a period in which occupation of the region was by hunter-gatherers, the archaeological evidence left from their minimal material culture can appear unimpressive compared to later periods, with the small size of flints in particular meaning that they are often overlooked.
  • unlike visible crop marks or buildings typical of later periods, evidence for Mesolithic occupation is ‘hidden’ unless the past land surface is exposed.

These challenges are particularly acute in South Yorkshire because:

  • the large number of apparent ‘findspots’ gives a misleading impression of a plentiful archaeological resource, whilst in most cases these represent erosion, ploughing or other destruction of existing sites
  • research on the period in the region is largely based on material collected in an ad hoc way from sites destroyed by peat erosion or lowland land use, limiting the types of interpretations and public engagement
  • Mesolithic stone tools used were exceptionally small in the Late Mesolithic in this region (amongst the smallest in the world, sometimes only a few mm in length) making them easily overlooked, and in lowland context ‘sites’ are often not identified due to the small size of finds and ephemeral nature of deposits

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