6.2 The manufacture and content of the lithic assemblage

Whatever the explanation of the features, the lithic assemblage from Fife Ness indicates that those who visited the site were able to use local flint in order to satisfy their needs for flaked stone tools. Small pebbles were worked into cores with a single platform, these cores were carefully prepared and from them an assemblage of blades and flakes was made. Many of these would have been quite suitable for use without modification, but some were selected for alteration into two principal types of artefact. The most numerous artefact type is the microlith, of which there are 36, principally crescents, and there are also 20 larger tools, of which the most common are scrapers, of which there are 10 of various forms.

The assemblage includes debitage, cores and regular blades and flakes as well as modified tools. Nevertheless, it is likely that it has principally resulted from the use, rather than the manufacture, of stone tools. Debitage amounts to 74%, which is comparable with many other mesolithic sites, but it has to be remembered that at Fife Ness the soil residues were sieved through 1mm sieves and this is a smaller size than that used for standard lithic recovery on many mesolithic sites. The sieve size has undoubtedly inflated the quantity of tiny lithic debris recovered. At the same time, however, it resulted in the recovery of many of the tiny fragments of broken microliths, and it is also interesting to note that blades make up nearly 5% of the assemblage while regular flakes comprise 17%, both of which are quite high in contrast to other mesolithic sites. On the other hand, there are relatively few cores, only nine (less than 1% of the assemblage) and most of them came from one particular feature, F46. Retouched artefacts make up 4% of the assemblage, which is relatively high. Even with such a small sieve size the assemblage contains relatively high proportions of blades, flakes and retouched tools, while there are few cores and the debitage is no higher than other sites, despite a more complete method of archaeological recovery.

Altogether the assemblage is small, even for such a small site. Mesolithic sites generally produce prolific lithic assemblages; densities of well over 1000 pieces per square metre were recorded at Kinloch on Rhum (Wickham-Jones 1990). Kinloch was a large site with a palimpsest of early occupation, but even on other smaller sites, high densities of lithic material have been recorded; for example at Gleann Mor, a small short occupancy site on Islay, where over 12,000 lithics were recovered from a 4mx4m trench (Mithen and Lake 1996), or Bolsay Farm on Islay, a larger site with more complex stratigraphy where over 300,000 artefacts were recovered after three years of excavation culminating in a 20mx15m trench in 1992 (Mithen and Lake 1996). At Fife Ness the excavation covered c.35m2 and yielded only 1516 flaked artefacts. Clearly, something very different was going on here.

The working of even nine cores should result in sizable quantities of debitage and so, while many pieces are likely to have come from these cores, it is also likely that some tools, whether blades and flakes or modified pieces, and possibly the cores themselves, were brought on to the site ready-made. Nevertheless, much of the flint is so similar as to suggest that individual pieces might re-fit, though no re-fits were found during analysis. This would add weight to the idea that a local, homogenous source of flint was used, and might indicate that manufacture took place not far away from and within a relatively short period of time of tool use.

The lithic analysis did not include any detailed functional work so it is not possible to give further information on likely percentages of used tools, modified or otherwise. It may be relevant, in this respect, to note the high proportion of broken blades and flakes: 81% in both cases. Breakage may be due to many things only one of which is use, and the possible use of breakage to modify blades has already been mentioned. Macroscopic edge damage, which may also be a sign of use was noted on very few pieces, but it may well have been masked by the heavily burnt or corticated nature of much of the assemblage.


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Last updated: Wed Sep 30 1998