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Understanding Mesolithic Settlement and Environments

The most significant areas for early Holocene archaeology in England are those landscapes where settlement material may be directly associated with palaeoenvironmental evidence.

Probably the best known is the site of Star Carr in North Yorkshire, where excavation, supported by Historic England, is ongoing. We have also commissioned projects to map the potential for stratified Mesolithic sites on the wetland/dryland edge in a number of key locations.

The Mesolithic of the Middle Kennet Valley

The Kennet Valley in Berkshire contains one of the most important concentrations of Final Upper Palaeolithic and Early Mesolithic hunter-gatherer sites in Britain, associated with a high-quality palaeoenvironmental record.

But it is also an area of high development pressure, so protecting this resource requires better understanding of where buried land-surfaces and remains of these periods are likely to survive.

The project, which is being undertaken by Wessex Archaeology, initially brought together data relating to archaeology, sediments, palaeoenvironment and geochronology in a GIS, allowing spatial relationships between archaeological remains and sedimentary units to be assessed.

A predictive model of where archaeologically rich deposits may be found within the study area is now being tested and refined through borehole and geophysical survey, accompanied by a programme of radiocarbon dating. It is due to be completed in summer 2015.

Photo of two people trowelling a buried land surface in a confined space
Test-pit excavation to investigate Mesolithic deposits at Victoria Park, Newbury, as part of the Kennet Valley project. © Historic England and Wessex Archaeology: Photo by J Last

The Mesolithic of the Somerset Levels

The Somerset Levels is one of England’s largest lowland wetland areas and has great potential for the preservation of well-stratified prehistoric sites and palaeoenvironmental remains. Until now, however, the Mesolithic archaeology of the area has received little attention except from those studying lithic artefacts.

This project, carried out by Reading University, has undertaken small-scale investigations at three key sites. The aims are to integrate evidence from boreholes, geophysics, test pits and radiocarbon dating in order to model the sedimentary sequence and establish whether occupation horizons and peats of Mesolithic date are preserved.

Alongside this, palaeoenvironmental studies of animal and plant remains and sediments aim to show the changing character of the wetlands beside the sites and look for evidence of Mesolithic communities’ impact on their environment.

Land-use on the Levels is changing in various ways and the study will identify potential threats to the Mesolithic resource and make recommendations for its future management. The results will also be used to develop a methodology for investigation which can be applied elsewhere.

Photo showing general view of excavation area in field with spoilheaps, sieves and other excavation paraphernalia
Test-pits investigating Mesolithic deposits were excavated alongside the line of the Sweet Track at Shapwick in Somerset. © Historic England and Reading University: Photo by J Last

Environmental change and human activities at the dryland-wetland interface

Historic England is supporting a PhD project at Reading University which aims to improve understanding of the landscape setting of Mesolithic sites in Surrey and of the context of human activities by looking at small wetland areas such as pingos and valley mires.

The research has compiled a fully integrated archaeological and palaeoenvironmental database permitting analysis of spatial and temporal relationships using GIS, while field investigations have collected samples for laboratory analysis from wetlands adjacent to key Mesolithic sites.

Photo of two people carrying equipment walking on a boardwalk in a wetland area
Preparing to take a core from Thursley Bog, Surrey, April 2013. © Mike Simmonds

North-East Yorkshire Mesolithic Project

Mesolithic flint tools are common in the upland landscape of the North York Moors and the adjacent Tees valley lowlands, but many collections were poorly documented.

This project aimed to improve knowledge and management of the Mesolithic archaeology of the region through re-examination of existing data as well as fieldwork to to provide new archaeological evidence, radiocarbon dates and palaeoenvironmental information.

A phased programme of research was carried out by Tees Archaeology in partnership with the North York Moors National Park Authority. More information about the project, which was completed in 2014, can be found on the Tees Archaeology website.

Colour photo of volunteer sitting by a test-pit in a field overlooking the sea
Test-pitting during the North-East Yorkshire Mesolithic project was undertaken by volunteers working with Tees Archaeology. © Tees Archaeology and North York Moors National Park
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