The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 109

Issue 109

Nov / Dec 2009



Museum calls for fund to study treasure finds

Missing Stonehenge circle did not come from Preselis

with Important revision to Stonehenge bluestone theory
An interim note on the latest developments, by Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins

Found: "The great lost monument of Cambridge"

in the press

in brief & phase 2


Staffordshire Gold

Nevern Castle – Castell Nanhyfer

Tracking Hunters and Gatherers on the Continental Limits

with Bibliography

Remembering the Great War with Lutyens

Extending the British Museum


your views and responses

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones looks at excavation websites

Matt Ritchie introduces Forest Heritage Scotland

CBA Correspondent

Don Henson looks at the Marsh Award shortlist


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Tracking Hunters and Gatherers on the Continental Limits

New surveys have shown that Scotland has much to teach us about the Mesolithic – the final hunter gatherer era that ended after four or five thousand years around 4000BC. But how to understand the curious remains? In search of answers, Karen Hardy and colleagues are turning to Patagonia and Senegal.

As humans we have depended on hunting and gathering for 99% of our existence. Today as our lives are entirely bound up with our new subsistence method, earning money to buy what we need, we have become largely independent from seasonal change. We have lost the way to think as a hunter gatherer might. Our link with this lost past lies in the archaeological remains that survive, sometimes in areas remote from the modern centres of civilisation.

Sandwiched between the better known Palaeolithic and Neolithic, the Mesolithic period – whose name literally means "middle stone age" – is in fact one of the most significant: the time when humanity loses forever its continuous hunting and gathering heritage. In Britain it is also a time of major climatic and environmental upheaval that caused large scale isasters. These included the catastrophic flooding of Doggerland, forming the present North Sea; the massive outbursts of the deglaciation seas, as the ice melted; and the Storegga tsunami, which must have hit people all along the North Sea shores some 8,000 years ago.

Many early–mid Holocene coastlines (c 12–5,000 years ago) now lie underwater. However in the west coast of Scotland, which has largely risen as the land has recovered from the weight of glacial ice, raised beaches offer excellent opportunities to study coastal occupation during this phase. In addition to the lithic scatters (stone artefacts that can be found on the surface), archaeological material, both Mesolithic and later, can be found in many of the numerous caves and rock shelters along parts of this coast. Perhaps uniquely for Europe, here is a very extensive, largely undisturbed record of marine exploitation and coastal occupation from the earliest to most recent times.

Middens everywhere

Between 1997–2005 the Scotland's First Settlers project, funded largely by Historic Scotland and directed by the author with Caroline Wickham-Jones, surveyed the east coast of Skye, the islands of the Inner Sound and the Applecross peninsula. We found and recorded well over 100 new shell middens and lithic scatters.

Though many of the middens proved to be of mixed age, a database of sites, many wholly or partially prehistoric, was created. To address questions relating to the early human occupation of this area, we test pitted a range of sites, and conducted a larger excavation of a Mesolithic midden at Sand in Applecross. However it soon became clear that the extent of potential information was far greater than had previously been thought; a larger, long term project was required to do justice to the archaeological resources. As part of a new project I have begun investigating the west coast of Skye – and here too shell middens appear to be abundant.

Shell middens, accumulations of discarded marine shells, are possibly the most important archaeological remains from the Mesolithic, significant for both the cultural and palaeoenvironmental information they contain. Such middens are found in many places across the world, and may have meaning beyond the simple economic result of creating piles of food waste. They can grow to be vast, and some are known to have significant social importance as territorial markers.

In north-west Scotland they are found in caves and rock shelters as well as in the open air. The calcium carbonate in the shells acts to preserve organic material that would otherwise be destroyed by the region's acidic soils. Consequently we find artefacts made from bone and antler, evidence of food in the form of hazelnut shells and animal and fish bones, charcoal and even seeds and snail shells. These can be used to reconstruct aspects of the Mesolithic way of life and environment.

But middens can be difficult to interpret and many questions remain. Why are they there? How did they accumulate? Do they represent seasonal exploitation of a marine resource, were they visited occasionally or did the shells accumulate quickly? Were limpets eaten or were they used as bait? Equally, as the middens are so large and rich in artefacts and micro-organic remains, processing excavated material is time-consuming and expensive. But shell middens are important.

The edges of the world

Another archaeological study of hunter-gatherers has additionally been able to take advantage of recent observations of the people who left the shell middens behind. And though at the opposite end of the earth, the location has a latitude, climate and environment similar to north-west Scotland.

A group of Catalan archaeologists based in Barcelona set up a long-running project in Argentina, in the Beagle Channel and Tierra del Fuego. They have tested their archaeological methods and theories against the extensive ethno-historical record of the region's hunter gatherer groups. Social and ritual aspects of life are particularly difficult to study in the Mesolithic. One focus of their work has been to explore ways to detect such areas that are not directly evident from material remains.

The Tierra del Fuego middens provide the same protective environment that we found in Scotland, with a similar record of organic preservation. Like the western isles of Scotland, Patagonia, marginalised by location and climate, escaped the heavy industrialisation that has destroyed most traces of our hunter-gatherer past elsewhere. Patagonia's ancient coastlines are also accessible as raised beaches. Again, a long record of human occupation of the coast has survived: but unlike Scotland, the indigenous community never adopted farming. The hunter-gatherer-fisher subsistence base continued until the population was wiped out by disease and persecution, finally disappearing less than 100 years ago.

The travellers, scientists and the early missionaries who settled here, founding the well known town of Ushuaia, wrote important accounts of the various groups of coastal and inland hunter gatherers. Though none is exempt from the prejudices of the day, these accounts form an outstanding source of information on hunter-gatherer-fisher populations.

There are many similarities between the west of Scotland and Patagonia. The latitudes are almost identical: Ushuaia – Tierra del Fuego – is at 54º 47' south, and Portree – Isle of Skye – is 57º 40' north. The climate is somewhat harsher in Tierra del Fuego and the mountains are higher, but the geography is similar, with mountains giving way to sometimes steep shorelines, inlets, channels and a heavily forested interior, much as Scotland would have had when Mesolithic people lived there.

They are both continental edges; in times past, they were the edges of the world. During the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, when lowered sea levels made continental peninsulas out of today's islands of Britain and Tierra del Fuego, these locations, even more so than today, represented limits, the western edge of the great Eurasian landmass and the southernmost tip of the American continent.

These similarities all gave rise to strikingly similar traditional subsistence patterns. We know that hunter gatherer groups in both places exploited marine and terrestrial resources: both groups constructed shell middens, both exploited a range of raw materials including stone, bone, shell and plant materials, and both were highly maritime. The inhabitants of the Beagle Channel moved around by canoe and lived near the shoreline in circular huts. Around the huts, middens built up as they collected shellfish for food, and then used the shells and other waste material as a buffer around the outsides of their dwellings.

In Tierra del Fuego inland populations have also been studied. An understanding of the way they interacted with coastal groups, and where and how they lived, will help us to focus on likely locations to search for Mesolithic sites in Scotland.

Mangrove oysters

We have turned to Senegal for further help. The Saloum delta is the most northerly part of the extensive mangrove swamps that stretch from here southwards round to the Ivory Coast. These places are home to some of the last traditional transient shellfish gatherers in the world. We combined a preliminary visit to the region with a conference on shell middens in April 2008.

People spend around six weeks each spring living in huts constructed on their middens. Their homes and lives during this period are simple and they conduct no ritual activities. The shell mounds slowly accumulate; the village we visited had extensive middens, which suggests repeated visits over a very long period of time. The men collect oysters (Crassostrea gasar) which grow on the stems of the mangroves, and fish for food. The women and children remain in the camp and process the shellfish. Mangrove oysters are bivalves, and they are heated to open them. The shells are discarded and the meat is taken to market.

In collaboration with researchers from the Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, Senegal, we have set up a project to study these shell middens and the lives of the people who create them. Though this is a stand alone project, our results will feed directly into our new project, in which the Tierra del Fuego and UK teams will explore the Mesolithic occupation of west coast Scotland. This will build on the previous work in the Inner Sound and Isle of Skye. We will explore how to extend information conventionally accessible for the northern European Mesolithic, using insights and methodologies from Tierra del Fuego and Senegal.

Return to Scotland

The Mesolithic of Scotland is important not only locally but also in the wider European context. But there is much we do not understand about the lives of these early inhabitants and their world. An international team of researchers with their different perspectives should bring significant advances to addressing this problem, particularly with regard to questions hat up to now have been obscure in Scotland.

Specific objectives include locating living and burial or ritual sites near shell middens; finding inland sites and assessing relationships between coastal and inland groups; and elucidating the role of plants in the diet, and the use of plant materials in the construction of culture items. Exploitation patterns of the region's wide range of available raw materials will also be addressed, and palaeoenvironmental reconstruction will be a major aspect of the project.

We are hoping to understand whether the shell middens were used at certain points in the year or at random moments. Studies of the growth rings in limpet shells may provide information on possible seasonality (see Science, May/Jun). We will also work with a sea level team to search for pre-Mesolithic sites, and we will use geocomputational techniques to conduct detailed micro and regional spatial analyses.

The lifestyle has long gone, but hunting and gathering pursuits have never stopped on Scotland's west coast. We are currently compiling a database of the use of natural resources in the region, including historical information about plant use and modern marine and terrestrial exploitation, something that continues to be widespread. Our interest covers all aspects of hunting and collecting, ranging from the annual gannet harvest on Sula Sgeir to the night time outings during fish runs and the seasonal shellfish collectors from Loch Kishorn. All of these examples, and many more, represent uses of wild resources that may have their origins in our earliest times.

Though the Mesolithic of west coast Scotland has been studied for over 100 years, we still have a great deal to learn about our last hunting and gathering ancestors. We hope that with the new perspectives provided by specialists working in Tierra del Fuego and Senegal, we will achieve new levels of insight and understanding of the early inhabitants and their use of the landscape.

The south American team includes Raquel Piqué, Jordi Estévez and Joan Anton Barceló (lecturers in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona), and Xavier Terradas and Assumpció Vila (researchers in the Institució Mila i Fontanals, CSIC Barcelona). The Senegal team includes Abdoulaye Camara and Moustapha Sall (Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar). Martin Wildgoose (director of Archaeological and Ancient Landscape Survey, Skye) is a key member of the Scottish team. Thanks to Alison Macleod, Applecross.

The new project is funded by the Generalitat de Catalunya. Karen Hardy is an ICREA research professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. See Mesolithic & Later Sites around the Inner Sound, Scotland: the Work of the Scotland's First Settlers Project 1998–2004, ed K Hardy & CR Wickham-Jones (Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports #31 2009,, and for a reading list about the shell midden work discussed here.

extra material

Tracking hunters and gatherers on the continental limits, feature by Karen Hardy: references and further reading.

Barceló, Juan A, Ma Florencia del Castillo, Laura Mameli, Eduardo Moreno & Blanca Videla 2009. Where does the south begin? Social variability at the bottom of the world. Arctic Archaeology 46

Bridges, L 1948. Uttermost Part of the Earth. Originally published by Hodder & Stoughton, London. Re-issued Century, London, 1987.

Estévez, J 2008. Catastrophes or sudden changes. The need to review our time perspective in prehistory. In Buchet, L & Séguy, I (eds), Vers une Anthropologie des Catastrophes (Éditions APDCA, Antibes), 83–99.

Estévez, J & A Vila. 2006. Variability in the lithic and faunal record through 10 reoccupations of a XIX century Yamana Hut. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 25(4) 408-423.

Estévez, J, A Vila et al 2007. Twenty years of ethnoarchaeological research in Tierra del Fuego: some thoughts for European shell-midden archaeology. In Milner, N et al (eds), Shell Middens in Atlantic Europe (Oxbow Books. Oxford), 183–195.

Gusinde, M 1931. Die Feuerland Indianer. Band II: Die Yamana. Mödling, Wien.

Hardy, K & D Caldwell. Under review. Caves and rock shelters on Scotland's West Coast: an embarrassment of archaeological riches.

Hardy, K & CR Wickham-Jones (eds) 2009. Mesolithic & later sites around the Inner Sound, Scotland: the work of the Scotland's First Settlers project 1998–2004. SAIR 31 (Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports).

Hyades, P & Deniker, J 1891. Mission scientifique du Cap Horn, 1882–1883. Tome VII. Anthropologie, ethnographie. Gauthier-Villard, Paris.

Orquera, LA & Piana, EL 1999a. Arqueología de la Región del Canal Beagle (Tierra del Fuego, Argentina). Publicaciones de la Sociedad Argentina de Antropología. Buenos Aires.

Orquera, LA & Piana, EL 1999b. La Vida Material y Social de los Yamana. Ed Eudeba & IFIC. Buenos Aires.

Weninger et al 2008. The catastrophic final flooding of Doggerland by the Storegga Slide tsunami. Documenta Praehistorica XXXV.

Wickham-Jones, CR & K. Hardy 2004. Camas Daraich: A mesolithic site at the Point of Sleat, Skye. SAIR 12 (Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports).

CBA web:

British Archaeology

Jan/Feb 2005
Mar/Apr 2005
May/Jun 2005
Jul/Aug 2005
Sep/Oct 2005
Nov/Dec 2005
Jan/Feb 2006
Mar/Apr 2006
May/Jun 2006
Jul/Aug 2006
Sep/Oct 2006
Nov/Dec 2006
Jan/Feb 2007
Mar/Apr 2007
May/Jun 2007
Jul/Aug 2007
Sep/Oct 2007
Nov/Dec 2007
Jan/Feb 2008
Mar/Apr 2008
May/Jun 2008
Jul/Aug 2008
Sep/Oct 2008
Nov/Dec 2008
Jan/Feb 2009
Mar/Apr 2009
May/Jun 2009
Jul/Aug 2009
Sep/Oct 2009
Nov/Dec 2009
Jan/Feb 2010
Mar/Apr 2010
May/Jun 2010
Jul/Aug 2010
Sep/Oct 2010
Nov/Dec 2010
Jan/Feb 2011
Mar/Apr 2011
May/Jun 2011
Jul/Aug 2011
Sep/Oct 2011
Nov/Dec 2011
Jan/Feb 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

CBA Briefing

Courses & lectures
CBA Network
Grants & awards

CBA homepage