Mesolithic sites and Assemblages

Mesolithic occupation lasted over five thousand years, from around 9500BC to around 4000BC years. Evidence of hunting and gathering communities from the period, predominantly in the form of remains of chipped stone industries, are found across the region, ranging from ‘findspots’ of a few surface flints to larger assemblages which must have been larger or more frequently occupied locations. Findspots are particularly concentrated in two main north-south ‘bands’ however (see figures 1-3 and also figure 4 – records from Tim Cockrell’s recent PhD, which expands the HER record). These two main concentrations of findspots relate to millstone grit geology of the Pennine uplands in the west and the magnesium limestone to the central-east portion of the county (marked grey and blue respectively on the HER plots). Elsewhere differing reasons influence the relative lack of Mesolithic material – large urban development such as around Sheffield and Doncaster is likely to have destroyed deposits from the Mesolithic, whilst large areas of alluvium along river valleys will conversely have covered deposits. There may also be parks or wooded areas where sites remain undisturbed (Cockrell 2016), potential high integrity sites under peat (Spikins 2010), and possibilities for organic preservation in any low lying waterlogged deposits.

Figure 1. Non findspot HER data (larger assemblages or evidence from excavations)
Figure 2. All HER data (predominantly findspots)
Figure 3. Portable Antiquities Scheme data (urban areas in black), note two concentrations which mark the focus of particular individuals
Figure 4. Tim Cockrell’s PhD dataset (yellows triangles are provisionally dated as Mesolithic, blue triangles are of a broader date range including the Mesolithic)

Finds from the Pennine uplands have been particularly significant in the history of the Mesolithic as a period. Peat in these uplands began to erode from the end of the 19th century, as a result of a combination of industrial pollutants from nearby cities and overgrazing by sheep. This erosion revealed Mesolithic artefacts previously sealed under peat, with collection from erosion patches and excavations in the early 20th century onwards contributing the main body of the Mesolithic assemblages and findspots in the HER record. Flints tended to be recovered eroding from sites particularly located at plateau edges with good views to the lowlands. Substantial quantities of flint were found eroding from under peat deposits, sparking an interest in the period, but however with only a very small minority of such finds reaching public records (Mellars pers. comm). ‘Flinting’ on the moors, became a popular hobby in the 1960s and 1970s and included active digging, with no real appreciation that flints may be eroding from coherent sites with spatial integrity.

At ‘Flint Hill’ (Broomhead Moor) for example the Radley, Tallis and Switsur comment in 1974:

This latter name derives from a time when flint was collected on now-healed exposures for the making of grit, once used in the rearing of grouse. Three Mesolithic sites have been found on Flint Hill…There are four distinct chipping floors with a scattering of artifacts between them. The area is almost 200 yds. by 150 yds., and much of it is still peat covered. Both flint and chert have been taken from under the peat’

(Jeffrey Radley, Tallis, and Switsur 1974)

The relationship between findspots and areas of landscape with significant peat erosion is not immediately clear from large scale distribution maps. However rather than being recovered from the most denuded areas of central blanket peat (figure 5), findspots in the southern Pennines are associated with marginal peat face erosion (figure 6) (Penny Spikins 1999). The tendency for marginal face erosion to expose a large area of past land surface is one explanation for this patterning, however a preference for repeated occupation of plateau edge locations also associated with the heads of rivers in the Mesolithic is also an important contributory factor.

Figure 5. Distribution of Mesolithic findspots from 1977 gazetteer in relation to areas of most severe peat erosion of the main body of blanket bog in the southern Pennines (after (Penny Spikins 1999)).
Figure 6. Distribution of Mesolithic findspots from 1977 gazetteer in relation to marginal peat face erosion in the southern Pennines (after (Penny Spikins 1999)).

Historically the most important site in the region is probably that at Deepcar, found at a slightly lower elevation overlooking the confluence of the Porter and the Don. Here over 22,000 flints and the remains of a structure were excavated, with Deepcar becoming the ‘type site’ for Deepcar industries which were identified across the country (Radley and Mellars 1964), and found predominantly in river valley locations (Barton and Roberts 2004). Deepcar, as well as other Mesolithic sites in the southern Pennines, formed a key part of the highly influential synthesis by Roger Jacobi and in the dating of the period, with the identification of the early and late phases (Switsur and Jacobi 1975; Jacobi 1978) which remain the main defining distinctions today (Barton and Roberts 2004).

Peat erosion in the southern pennines has been amongst the most severe on a global scale, with large areas being denuded (figure 7). This raises the issue of what mesolithic evidence remains in the uplands and its nature. Much of this marginal peat where findspots tend to concentrate has been destroyed by 20th century erosion (as is clear from the quote above), and it remains unclear whether the small numbers of finds recorded in the more recent PAS record (figure 3) reflect a lack of remaining material, or peat regeneration over remaining sites.

Figure 7. Eroded peat on Bleaklow (source: Moors for the Future, moorsforthefuture.org.uk)

Trial excavations at March Hill in the early 1990s only a short distance north of the border with South Yorkshire aimed to address the question of whether intact Mesolithic sites remained at the marginal peat face, the nature of such sites, and the threats to them. Large areas had been destroyed by erosion, antiquarian excavations and more recent diggings by amateur collections (many of which for private collections which remained undisclosed) at this site. However in two of four locations excavations revealed surviving deposits with extraordinarily spatial integrity, at one of these with most finds having moved less than a cm from their original position, the highest recorded integrity of any Palaeolithic or Mesolithic site (Spikins et al. 2002). The explanation for the minimal movement of finds most probably lies in incipient peat formation at the time of deposition which will have restricted the normal agents which disturb finds (such as burrowing animals and plant roots). Although a common observation is that Mesolithic artefacts are found below, rather than within, the peat (Garton 2017) in the case of site A March Hill finds were vertically distributed across the peat/soil interface with exceptional integrity (from coordinate modelling and refitting). Mesolithic occupation can therefore occur not long prior to peat formation, both the ease of finding artefacts from erosion patches where peat has already eroded and the difficulty in finding artefacts within the peat itself probably contributing to the idea that finds within the peat are rare. Excavations at site A March Hill revealed a series of hearths, and the seating locations of individuals around the hearths knapping flint, and has been interpreted a ‘snapshot in time’ of Mesolithic occupants, whilst further to the south at Lominot different phases of occupation (dating to the early and late Mesolithic) were stratigraphically identifiable ( Spikins 2002). Given regeneration of the upland moors due to a reduction in grazing and changes to drainage any remaining similar sites in the southern Pennines were judged to be best preserved in situ. The effects of climate change on upland peat may warrant a re-appraisal (see ‘threats and management’ section).