Results 1 to 3 of 3

Thread: Scotland's First Settlers: The Mesolithic Seascape of the Inner Sound, Skye and its Contribution to the Early Prehistory of Scotland

  1. #1

    Scotland's First Settlers: The Mesolithic Seascape of the Inner Sound, Skye and its Contribution to the Early Prehistory of Scotland

    Scotland's first settlers: the Mesolithic seascape of the Inner Sound, Skye and its contribution to the early prehistory of Scotland.

    Karen Hardy & Caroline Wickham-Jones


    The Mesolithic occupation of Scotland began soon after the end of the last glaciation, between 10,000 and 9000 years ago. Considerable research has been undertaken in the past two decades (Mithen 2000; Pollard & Morrison 1996; Woodman 1989; Young 2000); much has been published, more is awaited, and work continues apace. Mesolithic sites occur throughout Scotland, though recent archaeological activity has been concentrated on the western seaboard.

    The coastal nature of much of the Scottish Mesolithic has long been recognized, although the contribution of inland sites is becoming more apparent. The relationship between shell middens and lithic scatters and the nature of the midden sites themselves are slowly becoming clearer (Bonsall 1996; Finlayson 1998), though the make-up of the material culture remains vague, as known early sites with preservation of organic materials are few and far between and specialists remain divided over their interpretation. More widely, it is generally recognized that the Mesolithic occurred during a time of dynamic environmental change although the impact on the human population remains to be documented.

    It was in this context that the Scotland's First Settlers (SFS) project was set up in 1998. SFS chose to concentrate on an area of known Mesolithic potential: the Inner Sound--a body of water between the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland. Previously recorded sites in the area include the midden at An Corran (Saville & Miket 1994) and lithic scatters at Redpoint (Gray 1960) and Sheildaig (Walker 1973) (FIGURE 1). Although Mesolithic work has long been biased towards coastal projects, the potential of the coastal zone was so great that it was decided to target the seascape for research, while focusing particularly on issues of local mobility, resource exploitation and early Holocene climate (Finlayson et al. 1999 & forthcoming; Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2000a; 2000b; 2001a; forthcoming a; forthcoming b).

    SFS has four main strands: survey, test pitting, excavation and post-excavation analysis. Coastal survey has produced 164 hitherto unknown sites (FIGURE 2). These densities are unusual for Scotland, approaching those in intensively studied areas such as Scandinavia, but probably reflect the previous lack of work at this scale. Organic materials are preserved at many of the new sites, allowing not only the study of human activity in unusual detail, but also the environmental setting. One notable find is an intertidal peat site, on the island of Raasay, containing abundant remains of trees and some lithic material. Study of this site will assist the detailed reconstruction of sea-level change and its impact on the local population around the Inner Sound since the early Holocene (Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2001a).

    Thirty-eight survey sites have been test pitted and all have produced evidence of past human use. SFS survey is almost complete and, while it is still too early to determine how many sites are Mesolithic, there are some indications that many are of early prehistoric date. To date 30 lithic scatter sites and 21 rock-shelters containing lithics have been recorded.

    So far, one major excavation has taken place, at Sand in the Applecross peninsula. This is a rock-shelter site with an extensive midden. The excavation was designed to look not only at the midden (FIGURE 3), but also at the area around it, in order to assess the location and preservation of material both on and off the midden. The midden had very good organic preservation and finds included bevel-ended and pointed bone tools, a fragment of antler harpoon, a human tooth and a narrow blade microlithic assemblage (FIGURE 4).

    Initial interpretation shows the importance of the sea with a wide range of marine resources represented. Shells, mainly limpet, constitute the body of the midden. Fish bones suggest deep-sea and shallow-water species were exploited. The presence of many bird bones, crustaceans and the shells reflect the use of the intertidal and coastal resources, while the harpoon fragment provides further evidence of exploitation of marine resources. An assemblage of bone, antler and burnt hazelnut shell shows that land-based resources were also used. Numerous burnt stone fragments and pot boilers, throughout and near the midden, suggest food processing. Within the midden there is also evidence of other activities. A substantial amount of lithic debitage, together with a harpoon fragment that appears to have broken during manufacture, suggests tool production. Three worked pieces of scallop shell show that other activities, possibly relating to jewellery manufacture, were also taking place, and perforated cowrie shells may have been used for decorative purposes (FIGURE 5). Several pieces of ochre suggest the use of colour (Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2000c; 2001b).

    With regard to the wider marine and environmental context of the site, geomorphological work around Sand has identified three new palaeo-shorelines (Cressey 2000). These suggest that at 7700 BP the sea level reached up to just below the rock-shelter with a brackish marsh leading to exposed rock pools some 30 m away (FIGURE 6).

    There are two clusters of radiocarbon dates from Sand (FIGURE 7). One, between 7600 and 6260 BC, shows it to be the earliest known shell midden and earliest occupied rock-shelter in Scotland. The second cluster, between 5620 and 5320 BC, indicates a recurrence of activity which may relate to the Neolithic, as a small ground stone axe was also found. The early Mesolithic dates are very interesting in view of slightly later dates from other nearby sites such as An Corran (Saville 1998), Loch a Sguirr (an SFS site), Camas Daraich in southwest Skye (Birch et al. 2000; Wickham-Jones & Hardy forthcoming b) and Kinloch on Rum (Wickham-Jones 1994) (FIGURE 8).

    The distribution and nature of sites in the Mesolithic

    The work of the project can already be used to throw light onto one vexed question in Mesolithic archaeology: the relationship between middens and lithic scatter sites. Unusually, middens and lithic scatter sites dated to the same general period have both been recorded within the study area and the recovery of narrow blade microliths both within and beside the midden at Sand has confirmed that some midden sites do have lithic assemblages that are directly comparable with the open air microlithic sites. Not surprisingly, as more evidence is unearthed, we find that the picture is more complex than that put forward previously (Bonsall 1997; Finlayson 1995; Woodman 1989).

    Another long-standing issue is the nature of the midden sites. Some of the earliest Mesolithic sites to be studied were middens. Over the years midden discoveries have been few and far between, with little recent excavation and less publication. The place of middens within the Mesolithic has therefore been the subject of debate: do they represent a specific response to precise environmental conditions, or are they sites that have resulted from one specific function; or do they represent a cultural or chronological development? The work of the project has made an important contribution to the discussion by reinforcing the idea that midden sites do not represent a single phenomenon nor a feature of a single restricted period, something that Mesolithic archaeologists have been slow to realize. It appears that there are not only broad chronological differences (for example Oronsay and An Corran) but also differences in the nature of middens of a similar date. This demonstrates that use of the coastal zone varied considerably throughout the Mesolithic, with consequent differences in the composition of shell middens, even within the SFS study area.

    Of the three main middens investigated within the project area, An Corran, at Staffin, northeast Skye is a large, deep, predominantly limpet midden, occupied on and off at least into the Neolithic (Hardy et al. forthcoming). Like Sand its occupants exploited a range of coastal niches, but it may have been given specific importance by its location beside two important lithic sources. A nearby cluster of lithic scatter sites found during the survey may also be related to local raw material exploitation.

    In contrast, the midden at Sand may represent a more short-lived episode and appears to be related to a particularly varied and productive local subsistence resource environment. The rock-shelter faces east and affords substantial protection from the weather. It lies adjacent to a sandy bay with a long tidal range and very large intertidal area with a good supply of shellfish even today. The tidal range and intertidal zone are likely to have been at least as large during the Mesolithic, making the site ideal for harvesting resources within a protected marine environment. Like An Corran, the site is well placed at the head of various routes into the mountainous hinterland. While there are no local stone resources of the quality and quantity of An Corran, local cherts and quartzes are plentiful though material for stone tools was also obtained from further afield.

    Loch a Sguirr, on Raasay is different again, lying at the top of a cliff well away from the type of shallow water deposits exploited at Sand. Midden deposits are shallow and it is unlikely to have been an intensive shellfish-processing site. There are, however clear signs of Mesolithic activity--indeed Loch a Sguirr may provide an idea of a more common type of Mesolithic midden where it does not represent the central focus of activity but is rather an indication of an unusual state of organic preservation. On most Mesolithic sites poor organic preservation would destroy remains such as those preserved here. Loch a Sguirr is however a spectacular site, the grandeur of the rockface and its geographical setting may have been a factor in its use, but another element must surely have been its central location in the Inner Sound. From the hill above the site there are clear views around the Inner Sound on all sides. Whether the central island chain, where Loch a Sguirr is situated, provided a hindrance to travel across the Inner Sound or facilitated it, has yet to be determined, but the site at Loch a Sguirr is a clear indication that the Mesolithic seafarers made use of it. That those who used this site were mobile is shown by the fact that they, like those at An Corran and Sand, were obtaining stone from the island of Rum and from Staffin.

    The nature of midden sites is thus a point of prime interest and uncertainty in the coastal Mesolithic. Do they represent home bases or seasonal exploitation camps? Were they a common feature of the Mesolithic economic landscape or do they result from unusual conditions such as famine? An interesting point to note is that the first episode of occupation of Sand correlates with an 8200 BP environmental cooling episode and this may be relevant to its occupation.

    Midden sites, however, clearly formed only one part of the settlement suite of the Inner Sound. As well as several other middens of uncertain date, the survey has located 30 lithic scatter sites. Given the duration of the Mesolithic and the subsequently limited and non-destructive use of the land within much of the study area, a question must be why there are so few middens. Even given that some may lie below present high tide, or under subsequent rockfall, it could be that the traditional equation between Mesolithic and midden may be misleading, something that is becoming apparent in Ireland (Woodman 2001).

    Mobility and distribution

    A fundamental tenet of the interpretation of the Mesolithic in Scotland has been that of mobility, but so far traditional research has been able to throw little light on this (with the exception of Morton) (Coles 1971). In this respect SFS has much to contribute. By turning around the traditional view from the land a picture of a much more fluid seascape can be offered. The sea was important as a highway which both united and separated different areas and islands and it allowed for wider vistas and a clear sight of other lands.

    There are now a number of other
    Mesolithic sites in the area which all have dates in the 8th-6th millennia BC and although it is not possible to relate one site directly to another all are linked by various aspects of the material culture. Not only are there close similarities in the types of tools found at the sites, there are also similarities in the specific areas exploited by the inhabitants of each site in order to obtain raw materials for their tools. Although each site makes use of local raw materials, the people were also obtaining stone from certain specific, more distant sources, namely Rum bloodstone and baked mudstone and chalcedonic silica from Staffin. While it is not possible to say how these stones were moved around the Inner Sound, we can be sure that it did not happen by natural processes; people were moving them and this provides clear evidence for mobility.

    Contribution of the Scotland's First Settlers Project

    So far, the SFS project has demonstrated the survival of a remarkable density of sites around the Inner Sound. Whether or not this is representative of Mesolithic Scotland as a whole, it opens up certain issues for study. What were the attractions of this area in the early Holocene? How far did people range? What were the bases for the necessities of life? How was the area affected by contemporary climate change and how did its inhabitants cope with this?

    The marine topography, with its numerous islands, no doubt facilitated travel and settlement both of which are central to the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life, as envisaged for the Scottish Mesolithic. This topography also provided a rich resource base from which various niches could be exploited, including salt and fresh water, shallow and deep water, coastal, lowland and upland land units. There were also several routes both by sea and overland outside the area. For a people dependent on local resources for their survival, the Inner Sound would have provided an excellent environment and for the 21st-century archaeologist it provides a wealth of hard evidence against which to test our various theories.

    The SFS project has confirmed the existence of a well-established Mesolithic presence further north in Scotland than previously thought. It has also added weight to a diverse Mesolithic that we have only just begun to recognize. As more sites are found, so the picture becomes more complex. The precise date of the initial colonization of Scotland after the end of the last glaciation may never be known, but perhaps it should not be a serious academic goal. Our picture of the Mesolithic in Scotland has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades and it could be argued that we should be occupied with more general interpretation such as the likely source areas and influences on early settlement; material culture, mobility, and economic interpretation; changes with time and assimilation or isolation as the Neolithic took hold. In these fields we feel that SFS has an important contribution to make and we hope that this will become more apparent as the project continues.

    Acknowledgements. SFS has received funding from many different sources. The following are to be thanked for their contributions: Applecross Estates Trust; British Academy; Centre for Field Archaeology; Department of Agriculture, University of Newcastle upon Tyne; Department of Archaeology, University of Edinburgh; Historic Scotland; Leader II; Munro Fund, University of Edinburgh; Percy Hedley Charitable Trust; Prehistoric Society; Private donations; Ross and Cromarty Enterprise; Russell Trust; Society of Antiquaries of London; Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Any project like SFS relies on the work of many people. Although they have not been individually listed we thank all those who have kindly offered their expertise and assistance.


    BIRCH, S., K. HARDY, G. KOZIKOWSKI, C.R. WICKHAM-JONES & M. WILDGOOSE. 2000. Camas Daraich, Discovery and Excavation in Scotland n.s. 1: 56-7.

    BONSALL, C. 1996. The Obanian problem, coastal adaptation in the Mesolithic of Western Scotland, in Pollard & Morrison: 183-97.

    1997. Coastal adaptation in the Mesolithic of Argyll. Rethinking the `Obanian' problem, in J.N.G. Ritchie (ed.), The archaeology of Argyll: 25-37. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

    COLES, J.M. 1971. The early settlement of Scotland: excavations at Morton, Fife, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 37(2): 284-366.

    CRESSEY, M. 2000. Geomorphological reconnaissance at Sand Bay, in Hardy & Wickham-Jones (2000c): 71-7.

    FINLAYSON, B. 1995. Complexity in the Mesolithic of the Western Scottish Seaboard, in A. Fischer (ed.), Man and sea in the Mesolithic: 261-4. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

    1998. Wild harvesters. Edinburgh: Canongate/Historic Scotland.

    FINLAYSON B., K. HARDY & C.R. WICKHAM-JONES. 1999. Inner Sound, Survey and trial excavation, Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 1999: 49-50.

    Forthcoming. Scolland's first settlers: Work on the early settlement of the Inner Sound of Skye, Scotland, Mesolithic Miscellany.

    GRAY, A.F. 1960. A collection of stone artefacts from Redpoint, Loch Torridon, Ross-shire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 93 (1959-60): 236-7.

    HARDY, K. & C.R. WICKHAM-JONES. 2000a. Inner Sound: survey and excavation, Discovery and Excavation in Scotland n.s. 1: 44-5.


    2000c. Scotland's First Settlers. Data Structure Report. Unpublished. University of Edinburgh.

    2001a. Inner Sound: survey and excavation, Discovery and Excavation in Scotland n.s. 2: 61-2.

    2001b. Scotland's First Settlers. Data Structure Report. Unpublished. University of Edinburgh.

    Forthcoming a. Scotland's First Settlers: an investigation into settlement, territoriality and mobility during the Mesolithic in the Inner Sound, Scotland, in L. Larsson, H. Kindgren, A. Akerlund, K. Kuntsson & D. Loeffler, Mesolithic on the move: Proceedings of the Meso 2000 conference. Oxford: Oxbow.

    Forthcoming b. Scotland's First Settlers. The study of an archaeological seascape, Proceedings of the Scottish Archaeological Forum 2001: Modern views--ancient lands: new work and thought on cultural landscape.

    HARDY, K., R. MIKET & A. SAVILLE. Forthcoming. An Corran, Staffin, Skye: a rockshelter with Mesolithic and later occupation.

    MELLARS, P. 1987. Excavations on Oronsay: prehistoric human ecology on a small island. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

    MITHEN, S. (ed,). 2000. Hunter-gatherer landscape archaeology. Cambridge: McDonald Institute.

    POLLARD, T & A. MORRISON (ed.) 1996. The early prehistory of Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

    SAVILLE, A. 1998. An Corran, Staffin Skye, Discovery & Excavation in Scotland 1998: 126-7.

    SAVILLE, A & R. MIKET. 1994. An Corran, Staffin, Skye (Kilmuir Parish): rockshelter, in C.E. Batey & M. King (ed.), Discovery and excavation in Scotland 1994: 40-41.

    STUIVER, M., P.J. REIMER, E. BARD, J.W. BECK, G.S. BURR, K.A. HUGHEN, B. KROMER, F.G. MCCORMAC, J. VAN DER PLICHT & M. SPURK. 1998. INTCAL 98 radiocarbon age calibration 24,000-0 cal BP, Radiocarbon 40: 1041-85.

    WALKER, M. 1973. Archaeological excavation of a microlithic assemblage at Shieldaig, Wester Ross, Scotland, 24/iii/ 73-6/iv/73 reliminary Report. Unpublished.

    WICKHAM-JONES, C.R. 1990. Rhum, Mesolithic and later sites at Kinloch: excavations 1984-86. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Monograph 7.

    WICKHAM-JONES, C.R. & K. HARDY. Forthcoming. Camas Daraich: A Mesolithic site at Point of Sleat, Skye.

    WOODMAN, P. 1989. A review of the Scottish Mesolithic, a plea for normality!, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 119: 1-32.

    2001. Mesolithic middens from famine to feasting, Archaeology Ireland 15(3): 32-5.

    YOUNG, R. (ed.) 2000. Mesolithic lifeways, Leicester: Leicester University Press. Archaeology Monographs 7.

    Antiquity, Sept 2002 v76 i293 p825(9)

  2. #2

  3. #3

Similar Threads

  1. Hi From Scotland
    By FormalRS in forum Introductions & Greetings
    Replies: 6
    Last Post: Friday, August 26th, 2011, 06:50 PM
  2. Hello from Scotland
    By alang in forum Introductions & Greetings
    Replies: 8
    Last Post: Thursday, July 29th, 2010, 08:44 PM
  3. Hello from Scotland!
    By MacNčill in forum Introductions & Greetings
    Replies: 12
    Last Post: Saturday, May 31st, 2008, 04:44 AM
  4. Norse Origin of Scotland's First Settlers
    By Frans_Jozef in forum Germanic Diaspora, Enclaves, & Influences
    Replies: 4
    Last Post: Friday, May 20th, 2005, 10:22 PM
  5. Replies: 13
    Last Post: Wednesday, January 12th, 2005, 11:42 AM


Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts