2. Background: the Northern Irish Sea basin

The northern Irish Sea basin and parts of southern and western Scotland (see Figure 1) have seen a significant flourish of research in the latter part of the twentieth century and more recently, and as a result a great deal of information about the period in the area now exists. This has in part been amassed as the result of a series of excavations of major sites such as Newferry (Woodman 1978) and Mount Sandel (Woodman 1985) in Northern Ireland, Rhendoo (McCartan 1994), and Billown (Darvill 2005) on the Isle of Man, and Eskmeals (Bonsall et al. 1989, 1994) in Cumbria. In Scotland major sites in the study area that have been excavated over the last three decades have included Starr and Smittons (Affleck 1986, Finlayson 1990) in Dumfries and Galloway, Auchareoch on Arran (Affleck et al. 1988), the Lussa Bay sites on Jura (Mercer 1980), Newton (McCullagh 1989), Glean Mor and Bolsay Farm (Mithen 2000) on Islay, the Oronsay middens (Mellars 1987), Staosnaig on Colonsay (Mithen 2000), Carding Mill Bay (Connock et al. 1992) Lon Mor, (Bonsall et al. 1993) and Raschoille Cave (Connock et al. 1985) around Oban and Ulva Cave on Mull (Bonsall et al. 1994).

But as well as site specific work, each of these areas has also seen regional surveys and detailed reappraisals of lithic collections and typologies, such as the work by Woodman et al. (2006) with the Knowles collection in Northern Ireland and Sinead McCartan's extensive research and consideration of the lithic collections from the Mesolithic period on the Isle of Man (McCartan 1992, 2003, 2004). In Cumbria and south west Scotland fieldwalking by local experts such as Jim and Peter Cherry and Tom Affleck have also made significant contributions (for a detailed overview of Affleck's contributions see Edwards 1996), as have a series of projects throughout the Scottish parts of the study area. These include some recent survey work on Bute by the University of Glasgow, the current South Kintyre Project run by the University of Central Lancashire (Cummings and Robinson 2006), and the Southern Hebrides Mesolithic Project in the 1990s on Islay and Colonsay (Mithen 2000). Indeed this is really only a brief summary of what is now a substantial body of work which has been undertaken in the area.

Moreover whilst my study area must be necessarily limited, the quantity of recent work just outside of the study area has also been extensive. For example to the north of the study area work at sites such as the Mesolithic midden on Risga on Loch Sunart (Pollard et al. 1996, T. Pollard 2000), on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula more generally (e.g., on Rhum (Wickham-Jones 1990) and on Skye and the Inner Sound (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2002, 2003) has all served to provide, or is in the process of examining further, detailed evidence for the Mesolithic.

Clearly then, the northern Irish Sea basin and the area of western Scotland just to the north of this has been subject to an enormous amount of investigation over the last few decades and as a such a significant amount of information regarding the period in the area has been produced. Yet why, if this is the case, have I chosen to study this area? What could I possibly contribute towards what is already an area abounding with detailed information about the Mesolithic period? In response I argue that there are three key issues which underlie much of this body of knowledge that are potentially problematic and that need to be explicitly addressed. The first of these is the nature of the research concerns that dominate enquiries into the Mesolithic of the northern Irish Sea basin. These, like those for the Mesolithic throughout north-west Europe, are most typically dominated by a drive to establish predominantly environmental and economic aspects of the period alone. Such research concerns are symptomatic of an often held belief that the nature of the Mesolithic record compels us to examine only these areas. Thus stone tools for example, which comprise much of the record both in the case of in situ deposits and surface scatters, are predominantly considered in terms of their mechanical production, and economic function alone. In more general terms the procurement of most resources by the prehistoric hunter-gatherers in the area is discussed as something that such populations may have sought to optimise, to increase intake, production and consumption, whilst selecting paths of least resistance. Such arguments appear common sense, but spelled out as they are here in such stark terms, it is clear that they make sense predominantly in a modern framework of capitalist economics. In contrast there is now a growing critique of these notions as they apply to hunter-gatherers, and a plethora of recent approaches that I will return to in more detail have begun to illustrate that to reduce past people's material interactions to such terms is highly problematic. In fact people's interactions with their material worlds are imbued with meanings at numerous and intersecting levels. Consequently no technical act is ever simply mechanical and no resource is ever a simple economic commodity. As such the socially impoverished accounts of the period that exist in the northern Irish Sea basin are fundamentally limited to a framework that is specific only to the modern West and the implications for the interpretations that arise from this are clearly highly problematic.

The second issue that I argue warrants a reconsideration is the way in which the northern Irish Sea basin as a whole has been considered. Here I have briefly reviewed the numerous projects that have sought to investigate the Mesolithic in the area, yet whilst so many of these projects exist, few have sought to situate the site, area, region or island that they have considered within its wider context of the Irish Sea basin as anything other than a footnote (although see Cummings and Robinson 2006, and various other regional syntheses such as Woodman 2004, Schulting 2004). As such locations and sites that are intervisible today, that potentially would have been linked by "land bridges"1 during lower sea levels in the earlier Mesolithic, and that would have been easily traversable by boat where sea levels were higher, are nonetheless often excluded from discussions. Although often only implicit by the lack of wider discussion, I argue that this derives from an imposition of modern geo-political boundaries onto the study of the area. Consequently, neat modern boundaries and the discrete modern regional entities that they encompass dictate that accounts of the Mesolithic in the area remain largely regionally discrete. Thus for example in reporting the small earlier Mesolithic hearth site at Redkirk Point, on the Scottish side of the Solway Firth (but just under 2km from Cumbria), Masters notes that "[t]he sand dune location of the [site] invites comparison with the coastal Mesolithic sites of Cumbria" (Masters 1981, 113). Yet subsequent discussions that have touched upon the site have confined discussion to its relevance to the Scottish Mesolithic alone (e.g. Edwards and Ralston 1984, 16; Warren 2005, 125-126; Woodman 1989, 7).

The imposition of such modern geo-political boundaries upon Mesolithic studies have clearly then both impacted upon and in turn been further influenced by accounts that have considered the Irish Sea basin as a whole, because such accounts have been dominated by the idea that the hunter-gatherer populations in the basin lived in largely regional insularity (e.g. Woodman 2004, McCartan 2003, 2004). Much of this regionally insular picture can clearly be linked to what are distinct regional differentiations in lithic traditions. In Northern Ireland for example, the use of microliths in the early Mesolithic was then replaced by broad blade and flake technologies in the later Mesolithic. A similar pattern, but with some stylistic differences is also present on the Isle of Man. However in contrast in Scotland and Cumbria the use of broad blade non geometric microliths in the early Mesolithic is replaced by the use of narrow blade geometric microlith forms in the later Mesolithic. Although there has been some recent discussion over the validity of these distinctions as chronological indicators in England and Scotland (see Barton and Roberts 2004, Saville 2004). Nonetheless, whatever their validity as chronological indicators, they do still represent clear differences in lithic tradition to those in the Mesolithic of Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. Furthermore, in contrast to the following Neolithic period, there appears to be relatively little movement of either raw materials or other tools around the area (Figure 2). Consequently accounts that have addressed Mesolithic material traditions in the Irish Sea basin have concurred with the regional divisions under which the area has been studied and this has further contributed to narratives of the populations in the area as regionally insular.

Figure 2: A traditional account of the movement of goods around the area in the Mesolithic (left) compared to the Neolithic (right) (After Woodman 2004, 295).
Figure 2: A traditional account of the movement of goods around the area in the Mesolithic (left) compared to the Neolithic (right) (After Woodman 2004, 295).

The dominance of both socially impoverished and regionally insular accounts of the Mesolithic populations in the Irish Sea basin in turn contribute to the third and final issue that I argue has been highly problematic for studies of the area; the question of the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. Put simply, the approaches that have been taken to the Mesolithic populations contrast significantly with the majority of approaches that have been taken to examine the Neolithic populations in the area. For the Neolithic the considerable evidence for the production and exchange of prestige items and elaborate mortuary practices have been used to develop more socially complex interpretations of the period (for example Fowler 2001, Fowler and Cummings 2003, Thomas 2000). As such the resulting interpretations of both periods simply do not "match up" and in turn we are faced with an image of insular, simplistic hunter-gatherers in the Mesolithic and ideologically complex, widely mobile populations in the Neolithic. In turn approaches that have attempted to rectify this and develop a socially situated interpretation of the transition are restricted by such an uneven "playing field". Consequently, attempts to highlight the socially complex nature of the transition are ultimately undermined by the limited types of sites, such as middens, that they are able to consider (e.g. Cummings 2003, J. Pollard 2000).

Clearly then, the Mesolithic period in the northern Irish Sea basin has received a significant and intensive amount of study during the past few decades. Yet such accounts have been problematic in their research emphasis and have consistently provided both socially impoverished and regionally insular narratives of the period, which in turn contribute to an increasing difficulty in providing socially situated interpretations of the critical period of transition from hunting and gathering to farming. Each of these critiques is understandably presented here in a more brief form than is satisfying, yet it is nonetheless clear that some form of response is required to address these problems and attempt to provide a more theoretically interpretive account of the Mesolithic in order to explore the transition to farmining more thoroughly. As such, in the following section, I will discuss the variety of ways in which my doctoral research is seeking to address these issues.

Note 1: I recognise that the solidity of the term "land bridge" is often relatively problematic and detracts from what in reality in the case of parts of the northern Irish Sea basin may well have been more likely to be a series of tidal mud flats and salt marshes.


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