A small mesolithic site at Fife Ness, Fife, Scotland

Caroline Wickham-Jones & Magnar Dalland


Introduction and Location

The site was examined as part of general archaeological work in advance of the construction of a new golf course. The mesolithic remains comprised a spread of discoloured soil and pits, together with carbonised hazelnut shells and flaked flint, including microliths. The site lies 8m behind the edge of low cliffs on the present coast-line, and it is 15m above the sea.

Structural evidence

The remains included an oval pit with burnt hazelnut shell and worked flint in the fill. Some 4m to the north-east of this lay a spread of dark loam, also rich in artefacts and hazel shell and below this layer a series of cut features, probably pits or post-holes, were found. There was also a small oval area of reddish subsoil that may have been a hearth. Interpretation is difficult, but some of the features may have related to a small structure or windbreak.


A series of fourteen samples from seven contexts were sent for AMS dating both to test the hypothesis that the site was a short-term camp as well as to determine a general age for the site. A Student-t test suggested that there was no significant difference between the different dates, and they were then calibrated to provide a likely date for the site of between 7400-7600BC.

The Lithic Assemblage

1516 pieces of flaked flint were recovered from the site and there were two cobble tools. The flint assemblage contained relatively little debitage and appeared to have resulted mainly from the use and repair of tools. There were 56 retouched pieces, of which the majority, 36 pieces, were microliths - principally crescents. Many of the flints, particularly from certain features, were burnt. The cobble tools comprised a small hollowed stone and a faceted hammerstone.

Past Environment

There has been considerable sea-level change in post-glacial Scotland. There are no detailed records for Fife Ness, but the date of the site is very close to the age of the Low Buried Shoreline. Extrapolation from elsewhere would place the sea level at the time of occupation between +2m and -3.5m OD. Environmental data is similarly lacking, but it is likely that the immediate environs of the site were clear of trees, while the hinterland would be covered in forest.


The site at Fife Ness is interpreted as a short-lived activity site, possibly involving the construction of a small shelter. There was a hearth, and some of the pits were subsequently infilled with burnt material. The lithic assemblage is small and relates primarily to the use and repair of stone tools, many of which were apparently brought to the site ready made.

Cultural and chronological comparisons

Fife Ness is particularly small in relation to other mesolithic sites in Scotland. As such it occupies an important place in current theories of the mesolithic life-style. The dates indicate that it lies at the outset of the known post-glacial settlement of Scotland and there are few related sites in the area. Wider comparisons suggest that assemblages like that found may derive from specialised sites. This would be quite in keeping with the evidence from Fife Ness, where the specialisation on crescentic microliths is very unusual.

The Final Picture

The actual interpretation of the activities that gave rise to the site at Fife Ness is difficult, but a short-lived, task-oriented occupation would seem likely. The location suggests that this may have involved the exploitation of marine resources, and today this is a well-known spot for migratory birds. The features may have derived from a small structure, nothing substantial, and fire was certainly involved. The site at Fife Ness opens a new window on to Scotland's ancient past.

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Last updated: Wed Sep 30 1998