Squeezing Blood from Stones
The archaeology of the Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic (about 12,700–4000 BC) presents a number of challenges for academic researchers and heritage professionals alike. The hunter-gatherer communities belonging to these periods have left only the most ephemeral traces, with a very restricted range of durable artefacts and an almost complete dearth of structural/architectural evidence of any kind. The vast majority of the evidence for these periods takes the form of lithic scatters and assemblages of stone tools, together with the debris deriving from their manufacture.
In the heavily populated and cultivated landscapes of southern Britain such lithic scatters have invariably seen some degree of disturbance, very often surviving only as parts of multi-period lithic assemblages within modern ploughsoil deposits.
Such assemblages are notoriously difficult to interpret robbed of their spatial and temporal integrity, and have been consistently neglected, both in the context of academic research and in terms of the management and protection of the historic environment. Instead, our understanding of these periods remains largely predicated on the results from a handful of exceptionally well-preserved sites found in very specific contexts, such as caves or wetland.
There has, however, been a growing appreciation that, in most parts of the country, these disturbed assemblages represent virtually the only evidence for such remote periods of prehistory, and are thus an extremely vulnerable resource – especially since they are not usually eligible for protection by scheduling or through agri-environment schemes.
It was, therefore, in recognition of the potential importance of this kind of evidence, and the evident challenges associated with the study, that Historic England, in collaboration with the University of Manchester, set up a collaborative doctoral studentship funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The aim was to carry out a case study of the potential of lithic scatters to contribute to understanding of landscape occupation during the Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic.
The study area was defined by the modern county boundaries of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire. This area is well-known for its later prehistoric archaeology, but features little in accounts of the period under study, with very few well-preserved sites and even less in the way of associated faunal and/or environmental remains.
The first stage of the research attempted to quantify and characterise the existing evidence for Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic lithic scatters and finds in the area. Based in the first instance on data held by county Historic Environment Records, a comprehensive database of finds assemblages of relevant lithic artefacts was created, drawing on a wide range of published and unpublished sources and records, from poorly provenanced single finds made in the 19th century to large, meticulously recorded assemblages from modern excavations.
In the course of this work the scale of the evidence became clear; across the study area almost 1,300 Mesolithic and over 200 Late Upper Palaeolithic findspots and assemblages had been recorded.
What is more – given that stringent rules were applied for the inclusion of records, with many finds of uncertain date excluded – these figures are certainly a major underestimation of the actual archaeological resource which could be attributed to these periods. Up to 80 per cent of these finds were in ploughsoil or similarly disturbed contexts, and only a fraction have seen anything more than summary reportage in Historic Environment Record entries.
The database records were classified and analysed within a Geographic Information System, allowing the distribution and character of findspots to be studied in relation to a host of other spatial datasets.
Analyses of the distribution of records has revealed striking patterns, some of which clearly relate to patterns of land use and settlement in the Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, and it has been possible to investigate the influence of topography and geology on the location and density of this prehistoric activity.
This has shown, for instance, clear preferences for Late Upper Palaeolithic sites to be located on the floodplains of the major river valleys, in close proximity to sources of high-quality flint.
Other distribution patterns, however, owe much more to the vagaries of geomorphology, recent land-use and research histories, all of which have served to bias the recognition and recovery of lithic scatters in different parts of the study area.
Beyond such large-scale distributional studies, the research was also concerned with investigating the extent to which it is possible to make robust interpretations from disturbed lithic scatter sites, and with assessing the efficacy of different methodologies for their investigation. The study of Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic lithic scatters offers particular challenges in this regard; interpretation relies heavily on the recovery of a large and representative enough sample of material to allow the composition and character of an assemblage to be confidently assessed.
A review of the methods used to approach lithic scatters in the study area demonstrated how rarely effective methodologies are applied to these sites – especially those from ploughsoil contexts. In particular, traditional surface collection/fieldwalking of ploughzone sites invariably yields small and biased samples of lithic artefacts, seriously compromising any attempt to obtain reliable information on their chronology and functional character.
These issues were fully examined by a programme of fieldwork carried out as part of the research. This focused on a ploughzone scatter in the Cambridgeshire Fens, where a tiered approach to investigation, involving two phases of surface collection followed by test pit excavation, clearly demonstrated the effects of sampling strategies on the composition of assemblages and on consequent interpretations of the data.
In terms of outcomes, the research has provided an opportunity to develop the first detailed synthesis of the Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic in this part of the country, providing a key resource for future researchers and fieldworkers in the region.
The existing record is a rich one and the potential of the area is richer still.
Isolated finds of extremely rare Late and Final Upper Palaeolithic pieces (about 12,700–10,600 BC) highlight a clear potential for nationally important assemblages to be preserved in some parts of the study area, whilst the scale and quality of evidence for Terminal Palaeolithic (about 9700–9400 BC) activity makes this part of Eastern England of special importance in the wider context of north-west Europe.
Meanwhile, analysis of the Mesolithic material from the study area has allowed a consideration of issues which are of relevance to studies of the period at a national level, including the long-term use by prehistoric people of favoured locales, and changes in the character and intensity of settlement and activity over the course of the period.
Perhaps more importantly, it has been possible to demonstrate that, given appropriate methodologies and approaches, the study of even the most disturbed lithic scatters can provide valuable evidence for Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic activity, contributing to understanding of these periods at both a regional and national level.
The enduring challenge is ensuring that appropriate resources and approaches are directed towards the investigation of lithic scatters, and that their potential, and the resulting need to protect and manage them, is appreciated by the wider archaeological community.
Post-Excavation Project Officer at Oxford Archaeology East
Lawrence Billington PhD has worked in developer-funded archaeology in Eastern England since 2004. The research described here was undertaken in the course of a collaborative PhD jointly supervised by Historic England and the University of Manchester 2013–16. Lawrence is currently working as a Post-Excavation Project Officer at Oxford Archaeology East, Cambridge.
Also of interest...
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