View Full Version : The Mesolithic: A Dark Age?

Sunday, December 11th, 2005, 03:40 PM
The Mesolithic is often portrayed as the `Dark Age' of prehistory in Europe" Is this view really justified?

By Chris Brown, April 2002

The most famous 'Dark Age' is the post-Roman Dark Age of Europe which is generally seen as a period of cultural stagnation. The common belief is that much of Europe exhibited a descent from an ordered stable society into chaotic barbarism. The cultural accomplishments of a previous age were discarded and replaced with something far baser in nature and cruder in execution. Whether this is a valid description of the period is a moot point.

Whatever the case for post-Roman Europe, the term 'Dark Age' has been applied to the Mesolithic, implying a backward step from the cultural heights of the Palaeolithic period. I decided to take a closer look at the Mesolithic (between 11,000 and 5,500 years ago) and question whether this opinion was accurate or fair.

It is difficult to even begin to debate such a question when the whole notion of linear cultural change is so largely discredited. To define one culture as more advanced than another is something we feel rightly uncomfortable about. Secondly a look at the archaeological record reveals that we really have very little evidence of the nature of either Mesolithic or Palaeolithic cultures.

The whole basis of the idea that there was some sort of degeneration or stagnation seems to come from the fact that while we have remarkable Palaeolithic cave paintings, we have none from the later Mesolithic period. It is true that the cave paintings from Lascaux, Altamira et al are often stunningly beautiful; however, they are unique to the Franco-Cantabrian border. [1] They are also totally sheltered from the environment and it is probable that this is the
primary reason for their survival.

This led me to my first conclusion that just because a particular local culture ceased large-scale rock painting in caves is no proof of any sort of pan-European backward slide. The ending of the rock-painting tradition could be readily interpreted as resulting from environmental change to a less hostile climate. Once the dramatic warming at the end of the Devensian glaciation began, cave dwellers set out to explore newly accessible territories, becoming more nomadic. As less sedentary people there would perhaps be fewer reasons to retain a cultural tradition of cave painting.

When we look at the classic tools of the Mesolithic, we find microliths. These appear in the recod as fingernail size flakes of stone which do look particularly unimpressive. At first glance they certainly appear cruder than the symetrical willow leaf points of the earlier period, but archaeologists now agree that microliths embeded in wood or bone handles actually represented a considerable improvement on earlier technologies.

The evidence from both 'art' and technology shows that that the we cannot sustain a definition of a Mesolithic Dark Age that is based upon any idea of cultural degradation. In my next article I examine the idea that a 'Mesolithic Dark Age' might either refer to an absence of evidence, or more contraversially, might derive from the effect of market economics in research funding allocation.


Page 74: Forde-Johnston, J. 1974 History from the Earth. BCA (Phaidon Press) London

Source: http://www.newarchaeology.com/articles/mesolithic1.htm (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.newa rchaeology.com%2Farticles%2Fmesolithic1. htm)

Sunday, December 11th, 2005, 03:41 PM
By Chris Brown, April 2002

In my previous article I showed that the evidence from both 'art' and technology shows that that the we cannot sustain a definition of a Mesolithic Dark Age that is based upon any idea of cultural degradation. Thus it is necessary to consider whether the term Dark Age refers to a paucity of evidence available to us today. The Mesolithic might be aptly termed a Dark Age simply because we know so very little about the period. This essay will therefore question whether we do know comparatively little about this period and examine why this might be. It is a fact that on the World Wide Web, there is comparatively little information categorised as Mesolithic. A comparison of three major search engines on the 18th March 2002 revealed far fewer sites resulting from the search term `Mesolithic', compared with either Palaeolithic or Neolithic. The term `Palaeolithic' averaged 3 times as many results as `Mesolthic', while `Neolithic' averaged 7 times as many results.[2] General archaeological textbooks and magazine indexes reveal the same trend for much less Mesolithic information. While accepting that these are exceedingly crude measures, they do indicate a global trend.

The Mesolithic was a time of transition. The human population was essentially a mobile, nomadic or semi-nomadic population. Star Carr, one of Britain's most famous Mesolithic finds was a small seasonal habitation site[3] in use around 9 and a half thousand years ago. The plants and animals were also in transition following deglaciation. Fluctuations in temperature meant the make-up of the forests was in transition. Coniferous forest would establish first and the mixed deciduous only much later. Dimbleby notes that any advancing human population would exists on a largely carnivorous diet in coniferous forests due to the "relatively poor flora containing few plants of use to man." [4]

These factors indicate that the Mesolithic population was small and well spread out. Having few people around; global estimates vary from 5 to 20 million;[5] means that there is less chance of us finding any remains whatsoever. Low population density also means that there wasn't the possibility for large-scale construction projects to be implemented, even if the population had wanted to do so. Because there were no large scale projects, no remains exist on the surface to point the archaeologists to further discoveries below ground. Any remains that we do find are likely to be both functional and small scale in nature. Having said that, it should be noted that the discovery of some large Mesolithic postholes in the car park at Stonehenge in Wiltshire[6] indicate some
kind of totem poles of vast size having existed there in the millennia before the henge monument was erected.

Massive shoreline changes during the Mesolithic must lead us to consider that much of what does remain to be discovered is currently is under the sea. If, as we believe, settlement had followed coastlines and waterways, then the post-glacial rising waters have covered the earliest records. The recovery of artefacts from the English Channel and other areas that were dry land in the early Mesolithic is largely beyond the capabilities of current archaeological technology. Intriguingly, we know that marine environments can contribute to excellent preservation of artefacts, which would probably not survived in soil. Perhaps in the future as technologies improve we may find that beneath the sea we have a preserved record, which exceeds any other for both quantity and

When we do search on dry land, Mesolithic remains are difficult to find because, after 5,000 years, there is so little surface evidence remaining. The flint floors found on Golden Ball Hill in the Marlborough Downs are notable precisely because there are still visible surface indentations that relate to the Mesolithic
settlement. Simon Dennison notes that this is a very rare occurrence. [7] Most Mesolithic dry land sites will be buried under deep layers of alluvial deposits.

Meer II in modern Belgium (dug by Francis Van Noten in 1967-69 and 1975-76) is another of the few examples of a complete Mesolithic site close to the surface. However, according to Renfrew and Bahn, it yielded little more than "a few fragments of erode bone and scraps of charcoal and ochre, the site comprises a scatter of stone tools in a sand dune." [8]

Modern Archaeology is further hampered in its understanding by they very lives the people of the Mesolithic lived. The population seem to have left a smaller ecological footprint on the land than succeeding peoples. Evidence of this can be found in their choice of grave goods. At Bogebakken in Denmark for instance, the body of an adult male, dating from 6,500 years ago has been discovered. [9] The body lies on two red deer antlers and there are two flint blades near his stomach, Red ochre is scattered around the head. All of these few grave adornments are natural and mostly unworked in character,
indicating perhaps a sense of communion with the rest of the natural world which was undoubtedly replaced by something else entirely when Neolithic peoples started building massive barrow cemeteries and filling graves with finely worked goods.

There are comparatively few archaeologists who specialise in the period. One problem that some academics may have with the Mesolithic is that it is in some sense arbitrary. Thomsen introduced the Three Age System and later the Stone age was split into Early and Late, based on tool typologies. Renfrew and Bahn point out that the middle stone age (Mesolithic) was added largely because of a perceived typology of microliths.[10] Now that microliths are known to span a much wider chronology than the five and a half thousand years we call the Mesolithic, there is a sense that this is a slightly fraudulent period of time. Furthermore, the flint technology of the Mesolithic does seem to change radically around 8650BP from larger non-geometric, to smaller more-uniform microliths, [11] If the Mesolithic was identified as separate because of tool typology, then any problems with the typology could be seen to pose problems for the concept of a distinct Mesolithic age. Another oddity is the willingness of Archaeologists to reassign Mesolithic events to the Neolithic when they do not fit with the perception of a Dark Age. An example of this behaviour can be found in the coining of the term `proto-Neolithic' to describe the latter part of the Mesolithic when stock breeding and agriculture begin to be seen in the Zagaros mountains of Northern Iraq. [12] Hence the Mesolithic can to an extent be defined in terms of the absence of evidence.

Whether we actually regard the delimitation of the period in question as valid or not, those 5,000 odd years still ran their course and some traces of the lives of the people who lived through them is still to be found beneath the soil and the sea. However, because so much time has elapsed since the Mesolithic, sometimes new, intensive and expensive analysis techniques are needed to get the information out of the earth. It took Paul Mellars and Michael Wilkinsons'
painstaking statistical analysis of sagittal otoliths (inner ear bones) of coalfish from Oronsay's Mesolithic middens in the Hebrides, to show the seasonal nature of the camps associated with the middens. [13] Similarly, it took Strontium Analysis of Eastern Mediterranean bones by Margaret Shoeninger to show a shift from meat eating to a more vegetarian diet in the Mesolithic. [14] It was detailed microscopic analysis of Danish deer and boar bones by Nanna Noe-
Nygaard that helped reveal that Mesolithic hunters used bows and arrows as well as simple hunting spears. [15] Since these techniques are either expensive or time consuming it is not always possible to pursue them on a limited budget and so our knowledge of the period suffers.

A further reason why people might consider the period as a Dark Age, says much more about present attitudes and priorities than it does about those of the past. Put simply, the Mesolithic is less popular with the general public than other periods. Without the art of the Palaeolithic caves or the monumental grandeur of the Neolithic Megaliths, Mesolithic finds cannot offer the same instant gratification to the lay observer. This would not be inherently problematic were it not for the influence of market forces upon research budgets. The archaeological funding bodies are under pressure to fill museums with attractive finds, which draw the general public. Because of this, they are less likely to approve funding for digs that are unlikely to provide `treasures' for display. Therefore, a lack of funding leads to less research and fewer specialists in the field, leading to a continuation of the perception that the Mesolithic period has little to offer.

Indeed, when people talk about the period, they sometimes do so only in terms of its relationship to earlier or later periods. Forde-Johnston's History from the Earth introduces the period in the following manner; "The European Mesolithic period is important because it provides the setting for the succeeding Neolithic cultures." [16] In examining all this we have failed to acknowledge just how much we do know about the Mesolithic. We know of extended trading networks,
we know of boat building, domestic dogs, the invention of fishing gear and we know of the beginnings of agriculture. For these reasons, the term Dark Age, with its negative associations should not be used to describe the Mesolithic. Furthermore, where there is still darkness shrouding our understanding of the Mesolithic we should attempt to illuminate it. No period has any greater or lesser inherent worth beyond that which we place upon it. To call a particular period a Dark Age is to dismiss it, and to dismiss a period of the past is to diminish what it means to be a questioning, explorative, thinking modern human being.


Bray, W and Trump, D. 1982 Dictionary of Archaeology. Penguin Books. London
Dimbleby, Geoffrey 1978 Plants and Archaeology Paladin Books. St. Albans
Forde-Johnston, J. 1974 History from the Earth. BCA (Phaidon Press) London
Renfrew,C. and Bahn, P. 2000 Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. Thames and Hudson. London
http://museums.ncl.ac.uk/flint/archrit.html (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fmuseums. ncl.ac.uk%2Fflint%2Farchrit.html)

Simon Denison British Archaeology, no 28, October 1997: News
http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba28/ba28news.html (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.brit arch.ac.uk%2Fba%2Fba28%2Fba28news.html)

Dr A.M.Meyers. Resource Assessment of Mesolithic Derbyshire
http://www.le.ac.uk/ar/pdf_files/07dermeso.pdf (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.le.a c.uk%2Far%2Fpdf_files%2F07dermeso.pdf)


[2] Authors own research 18/03/2002.
[3] Bray and Trump P.229
[4] Dimbleby, P26
[5] Renfrew and Bahn P.455
[6] Renfrew and Bahn P.198
[7] Denison, S British Archaeology, no 28, October 1997: News
[8] Renfrew and Bahn P.325
[9] http://museums.ncl.ac.uk/flint/archrit.html (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fmuseums. ncl.ac.uk%2Fflint%2Farchrit.html)
[10] Renfrew and Bahn P.311
[11] Meyers, P2
[12] Forde-Johnston P.82
[13] Renfrew and Bahn P.299
[14] Renfrew and Bahn P.309
[15] Renfrew and Bahn P.301
[16] (Forde-Johnston P.191

Source: http://www.newarchaeology.com/articles/mesolithic2.htm (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.newa rchaeology.com%2Farticles%2Fmesolithic2. htm)

Friday, August 15th, 2008, 08:31 PM
If I remember correctly (Anthro class was about 20 years ago, now!), the Mesolithic was marked by the extinction of the majority of the Ice Age megafauna as well as climactic changes. Examinations of Paleolithic versus Mesolithic middens reveal a massive shift in diet, from megafauna-rich diets to shellfish and waterfowl. Now, learning to hunt smaller (or, for shellies, sessile) prey necessitated a change in technology. Those massive, symmetrical spearpoints were great for bringing down a mammoth, but lousy for hunting ducks and rabbits. The smaller 'liths found at Meso sites might represent a steep learning curve for survival! That also starts to put the early origins of agriculture (more like seasonal gardening for dietary supplementation) into perspective, although I've always preferred the 'alcohol conjecture' as the reason for shifting from nomadic to settled life.

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009, 07:49 PM
If i remember correctly, Mesolithic era saw the rise of first human settlements/towns, like Jericho (9000 B.C. - now), for instance. The idea of a city, which is 11 millenia old is somewhat frightening...