Case Study 10: North East Yorkshire Mesolithic Project
By Mags Waughman (Head of Historic Environment, North York Moors National Park Authority)
The North East Yorkshire Mesolithic Project (2006-2014) was initiated to reappraise the Mesolithic archaeology of north-east Yorkshire, within an area focussed on the upland landscape of the North York Moors and the adjacent Tees Valley lowlands. The intention was to further a better and more complete understanding of the Mesolithic in the project area which could be used to inform the management of Mesolithic sites, principally within the North York Moors National Park.
The project was a partnership between the National Park Authority and Tees Archaeology, with English Heritage (now Historic England) as the main funding contributor and it consisted of a phased programme of research: data gathering and resource assessment followed by selective field evaluations.
Prior to the start of the project, it was known that there was a substantial body of data from both surface collection of lithics, principally from the uplands of the North York Moors (Wymer 1977; Spratt 1993; Manby 2003; Waughman 2017), and from extensive palaeoenvironmental work (Simmons 1996; Innes and Blackford 2003). The starting point for the project, therefore, was a desk-based exercise to collate all the available evidence for Mesolithic activity within the project area, from private collections and museums as well as the information held in the area’s three Historic Environment Records.
A number of previously unrecorded private collections were identified, some of which contributed significantly to the body of known data (Waughman 2006). Analysis of the collated data suggested that Mesolithic ‘sites’ within the project area occurred largely within six types of topographic location.
The second phase of the project set out to evaluate a number of these locations and zones of activity, with a view to identifying those with the greatest potential for detailed excavation to provide new evidence, in particular features, radiocarbon dates and palaeo-environmental evidence (Waughman et al. 2012). An important element of this phase was public engagement, which included volunteer participation in the field investigations as well as a programme of monitoring moorland and footpath erosion using volunteers.
From an examination of the existing data, it appeared that most of the lithic finds made on moorland in the project area were surface scatters exposed at the bottom of eroding peat deposits and in the top of the underlying mineral soil (Fig 10.1), and that there was a strong correlation between collection sites and the footpath network across the area.
Since the footpath network is extensive across many of the moors in the National Park it was decided that the footpaths in effect provided a rough sample of the landscape as a whole and that by monitoring footpaths it might be possible to get an indication of which areas of Mesolithic activity were being actively eroded and where there might be new sites becoming exposed.
It was also thought that where flints were still being exposed from known sites there might be an opportunity to clarify details of recorded location, particularly where the original records had only six-figure grid references.
Volunteers for the monitoring programme were drawn from the National Park Authority’s existing Archaeology Volunteer group but also included other individuals who had responded to publicity about the project. About 40 volunteers were trained, both on and off-site, including handling the sort of lithics they might expect to find (Fig 10.2).
Initially, volunteers were asked to target areas of moorland where there were known concentrations of previously recorded finds, but they were also asked to look out for and record exposed flints from any other areas of the moors during the course of other activities (Fig 10.3), particularly those volunteers who were also National Park Voluntary Rangers.
As the project progressed, the more successful and experienced volunteers were also asked to target particular areas as prospection in advance of the proposed evaluation fieldwork.
Although very enthusiastic, only a handful of the original group of volunteers were successful in finding significant numbers of exposed flints on the moors. However, the finds made by this small number were extensive: over 4000 flints were collected during the course of the project, demonstrating that even where sites were known and had initially been recorded many years ago, they are still liable to damage from erosion.
That these sites had not been destroyed either by erosion or the extent of past collection suggested that the patterns of known scatters could be used as an indicator for the survival of more extensive remains.
The volunteer work also showed that many sites, or clusters of sites, are much more extensive than the scatters of flint which are exposed along eroding footpaths. Although many of the volunteers’ finds were small lithic scatters, twenty-six larger concentrations were identified, three of which were investigated in the evaluation phase of the project, and eight more through extensions to these evaluation areas (Fig 10.4).
Of the remainder, seven sites were completely new, including one Early Mesolithic site. The volunteer data showed that although Mesolithic sites are often found in prominent locations, they rarely occupy the highest ground in the moorland landscape above 400m OD. Generally, sites can be found clustered around springhead basins and upland watercourses, principally between the 350m and 400m contours, with the greatest density of occupation at around 360–380m OD.
Together, data from the volunteer monitoring means that we now have a more accurate picture of Mesolithic activity across the North York Moors and a better idea of where the most vulnerable (to erosion) ‘sites’ are which we can use to inform moorland management.
Moorland restoration is a particularly important area where knowledge from the project has been put to use. It has been a key theme in the conservation of the North York Moors landscape for more than a decade and there have been archaeological implications for a number of restoration projects as there is a direct correlation between the areas with drainage grips where these projects are generally located (often close to watersheds and around spring head basins) and patterns of recorded Mesolithic activity. A bias in the recording of sites may partly account for this correlation, where excavation of grips in the past and the development of large areas of exposed mineral soil led to the exposure and discovery of flint scatters, but it appears that the topographic locations which seem to have been favoured by Mesolithic groups are just those locations with networks of drainage grips.
While moorland restoration may have a beneficial effect on Mesolithic sites in the long term, through re-vegetation, reduction in erosion and re-wetting, the execution of projects can cause ground disturbance, although at the same time offers opportunities for archaeological recording. By using the North East Yorkshire Mesolithic project’s volunteers to carry out rapid reconnaissance prior to proposed moorland restoration projects, the National Park Authority has been able to provide a more informed response to moorland restoration projects (both re-vegetation of eroded areas and grip blocking) based on a greater understanding of the nature of Mesolithic lithic scatters and where they are found (Fig 10.5).
Although conceived primarily to research the Mesolithic in North East Yorkshire, this project has had a number of wider benefits in terms of outreach, through volunteer participation, public talks and information leaflets, and in terms of conservation within the North York Moors National Park (Waughman 2015).
Volunteer involvement in the monitoring programme was particularly successful, not only in identifying eroding lithic scatters, but also in generating interest and enthusiasm, and shows the potential of the volunteer resource.
In an area such as the North York Moors, where evidence of Mesolithic activity is exposed on publicly accessible land crossed by an extensive network of paths and tracks, the use of volunteers for site prospection offers a model for public engagement and participation which goes beyond excavation of individual sites to encompass investigation of Mesolithic activity on a landscape scale.
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