11. Discussion

This analysis provides clarity and greater resolution to the suggestions made by Reynier (2005) that there was a temporal dimension to the use of different Early Mesolithic assemblage types. This has been demonstrated by this study, as has overlap between their uses also suggested by Reynier. These results have a number of important implications. First, this modelling indicates that the use of Long Blade assemblages may have continued well into the Early Holocene. The faunal associations of Long Blade sites (mainly horse) are likely to indicate occupation in the earliest part of the Holocene when relatively open landscapes still persisted. The model also suggests that some Long Blade sites date to the Terminal Pleistocene. The presence of reindeer at Three Ways Wharf might support this. Currently our understanding of the chronology of Long Blade sites in Britain is very limited; our model here is based on two sites, widely separated in space, and the dating of Flixton II is not straightforward. We cannot currently say whether northern and southern Long Blade sites shared similar settlement chronologies and histories. Our different models for Long Blades suggest different scenarios for the temporal relationship between Long Blades and the Earliest Mesolithic industries; there may have been a hiatus or a period of overlap, either would have been of short duration. The only site where there is a stratigraphic relationship (Flixton) would suggest a short gap between the two, though obviously we cannot say there was no activity spanning this gap elsewhere.

The earliest Mesolithic industries do not belong to the very start of the Holocene (c. 9700 cal BC) as often presumed, but begin two or three centuries later. The earliest dated sites, all Star Carr type, are found in Northern England, with the only dated southern Star Carr-type site, Broxbourne 104, falling in the mid-ninth millennium cal BC (Q-3033; Figure 4), This is probably later (85% probable) than the earliest Deepcar-type site in the south at Eton Rowing Course (OxA-14088; Figure 5). These two sites, however, are not the earliest for Mesolithic activity in the south of England; earlier dates exist, but these do not have good associations with microlith types. For example, a humanly modified red deer bone from the lowest context (layer 5) of Thatcham V dates to 9265–9915 cal BC (64% probability; OxA-26540, Table 2; Stuiver and Reimer 1993) or 9075–9055 cal BC (1% probability) or 9015–8910 cal BC (24% probability) or 8910–8845 cal BC (6% probability), probably to 9245–9135 cal BC (57% probability) or 8975–8940 cal BC (11% probability). This is probably earlier than the current dating of both Broxbourne 104 and Eton Rowing Course (90% probable). It is, of course, extremely improbable that OxA-26540 dates the very earliest Mesolithic activity in southern Britain and, without formal modelling to account for the sample of data, it is difficult to determine whether Mesolithic groups really reached northern England first.

These earliest Mesolithic sites are associated with a more varied suite of fauna than Long Blade sites. Reindeer and horse were no more; instead, red deer, elk, aurochs and pig are all found in contexts pre-dating 9000 cal BC. The environmental evidence suggests occupation occurred in lightly wooded landscapes, in contrast to the more open environments of Long Blade groups. Mesolithic groups are present earlier than in Britain further to the east, for example at Bedburg Königshoven in Germany (see Milner et al. in press, chapter 6). These sites are associated with a varied range of faunal resources, and it may be that Mesolithic groups were sufficiently economically and spiritually intertwined with these animals, that movement into new areas depended on their presence.

The temporal overlap of these types demands some comment. Star Carr and Deepcar types overlapped, possibly for a millennium, and these two types also overlapped with basally modified types for several hundred years (Figure 8). However, geography also needs to be considered. The latest dates for Star Carr-type sites derive from the Welsh sites. At this time, in the last centuries of the ninth millennium cal BC, there is no evidence for Star Carr-type sites in southern England and the Star Carr-type occupation of the Vale of Pickering was ending (Figure 4). There does seem to have been overlap in the south of England in the early ninth millennium cal BC, as outlined above, with the Deepcar-type site from the Middle Thames at Eton Rowing Course and the Star Carr-type site at Broxbourne 104 on the Lea (85% probable). At Thatcham III, however, the patinated (and undated) Star Carr assemblage appears on stratigraphic grounds to pre-date the Deepcar material, so it may be either that in the south there was also chronological difference between the two assemblage types, just on a more local level.

These hints at regional difference, which cannot yet be teased apart reliably with the few dated sites we have available currently, may have important implications. In northern England, groups who made Star Carr assemblages represent pioneer colonisers moving along the coast, who became established in the Vale of Pickering and made rarer forays into the adjacent uplands of the North York Moors and Central Pennines. These groups may have had a similar role (though at a later date) in south Wales. Star Carr-type sites are rarer in southern England and may represent small-scale pioneer incursions that did not become fully established. The earliest groups using Deepcar-type microliths would initially have been pioneers in southern England, moving along the major river valleys before becoming fully established in these areas, and spreading into adjacent upland areas a few hundred years later (e.g. at Oakhanger; Figure 5). Deepcar sites in the north are poorly dated, but in the Vale of Pickering appear to post-date Star Carr-type sites on stratigraphic grounds. If this is also the case in the Pennines, the relatively sporadic Star Carr-type visits to the area were succeeded by groups with Deepcar assemblages, for whom the Pennines became a familiar place, repeatedly visited, with Deepcar sites both larger and more numerous in the area.

Jacobi (pers. comm.) saw these varying microlithic styles as indicative of different Mesolithic groups, colonising Britain from disparate areas of Europe. This is not an unreasonable proposition to explain Star Carr and Deepcar types, given that Britain was either completely or mostly unoccupied immediately prior to the early Mesolithic, and these represent the earliest populations in the north and the south respectively. The appearance of basally modified microliths, which appear in Britain in the middle of the ninth millennium cal BC (Figure 6), however, may represent something different. There are indications that these types relate to improvements in projectile technologies (Reynier 1997, 539). In this case, we may be seeing the incursion of new groups, or the take-up of advantageous or desirable technologies by existing groups, or perhaps a mixture of the two. A good case can probably be made for the latter, with the appearance of sites in the Midlands for the first time, but elsewhere the new projectiles were differentially adopted across Britain: as has long been noted (e.g. Clark 1934) groups on the Greensand were extremely enthusiastic in their take-up of these new forms, whereas these projectiles form a more minor component in assemblages from the north and south-west.

Finally, for the purposes of this study, assemblages with small scalene triangles, which traditionally mark the appearance of the late Mesolithic in Britain, appear in the first centuries of the eighth millennium cal BC (Figure 7). It not possible to discern any geographical trend in their appearance across Britain on the basis of the data currently available (contra Waddington 2015), with these types appearing simultaneously in both north and south Wales and in north-east England. Given the more-or-less contemporary disappearance of both Star Carr-type and Deepcar-type assemblages at this time (Figure 8), however, scalene triangles appear to have been adopted swiftly. The appearance of small scalene triangles has been seen to represent the appearance of refugees from Doggerland, pushed into Britain by rising sea-levels (Waddington 2007). However, small scalene triangles have also been argued to represent improvements in projectile technology (Myers 1986), as the increase in number of components and use of smaller lithic elements in a single projectile that occurred at this time represented a technology that was both reliable and maintainable. Myers argues this was more suited to the shift from encounter to intercept hunting, which occurred as denser woodland developed and which led to a reduction in the time available for gearing up hunting equipment. In this context weapons that would not be rendered redundant if a single element became damaged would be an advantage. The decrease in microlith size also permitted a shift to smaller, poor-quality local raw material sources, also an advantage when less gearing up time was available and denser woodland might have inhibited travel. The rapidity of the appearance of smaller scalene triangles is more likely to support this latter interpretation, aided perhaps by perceptions of desirability - an early eighth millennium mania for scalene triangles.

Currently assemblages with small scalenes display temporal overlap with basally modified assemblages, entirely on the basis of the suite of late dates from Kettlebury 103. These measurements, on charred hazelnuts, have been re-run and clearly date these hazelnuts accurately. However, on typological grounds one might expect the lithic material from Kettlebury to pre-date Longmoor. Without Kettlebury, there would be a strong case for relatively little overlap between traditionally early and late Mesolithic industries. With so few dates we have no way of understanding the significance of Kettlebury, yet it makes a major difference to how we periodise the British Mesolithic. If Jacobi's suspicions are true, and the dates from Kettlebury do not relate to the lithics, we can retain our current divisions of the Mesolithic, with a rapid shift between early and late Mesolithic at the start of the eighth millennium cal BC. If, however, the charred hazelnut shells do belong with the lithics we perhaps need to revise our terminology, and argue for the presence of a British Middle Mesolithic, similar to adjacent regions of Europe.

The issue of Kettlebury 103 highlights the problems of relying on so few radiocarbon dates, with interpretations shifting substantially on the basis of a single site, or even a single radiocarbon date. The paucity of dates also means that regional differences in chronology cannot yet be adequately explored. We have hints of regional patterning in the radiocarbon dates for different assemblage types, which have important implications for how we understand these in human terms. While we have made what we can of the corpus of radiocarbon dates available to us, the current situation is inadequate. A new dating programme is urgently needed to provide the rich historical detail of Mesolithic lifeways that equivalent work has revealed for the Upper Palaeolithic (Jacobi and Higham 2009; 2011) and Neolithic (Whittle (et al. 2011).


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.

University of York legal statements