Written by Steven Mithen, chairman of Islay Heritage and Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading.
AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL excavation at the site of Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the east coast of Islay is helping to add a whole new chapter to the history of Scotland.
AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL excavation at the site of Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the east coast of Islay is helping to add a whole new chapter to the history of Scotland: it begins within the ice age and falls with the Palaeolithic (‘old stone age’) time period.
Just a few years ago, the consensus was that people first arrived in Scotland around 10,000 years ago, within the period we call the Mesolithic (‘middle stone age’). That was after the glaciers of the last ice age had melted, sea level risen and woodland spread across what had once been tundra.
Mesolithic hunter-gatherers had lived by hunting deer and wild boar, gathering plant foods and raw materials from the woodlands, and exploiting the rich resource of the rivers, coastlines and the sea.
Numerous Mesolithic campsites have been discovered and excavated throughout Scotland, revealing their characteristic ‘microlithic’ stone tools, often made from flint nodules and used for arrow tips and barbs, knife blades and awls.
The Mesolithic people survived for more than 5,000 years, until that ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle disappeared with the advent Neolithic (‘new stone age’). This most likely arose from the arrival of new people, not only bringing domesticated sheep and cattle but new attitudes to the land involving the construction of large burial monuments and standing stones.
Although some archaeologists had always suspected people may have been present in Scotland during the final stages of the Palaeolithic, the first hard evidence was only discovered in 2010.
Within an assemblage of stone tools collected from a ploughed field at Howburn in South Lanarkshire, there were the distinctive arrowheads of ice age hunters, these previously only known from archaeological sites in continental Europe, and sparsely in southern Britain.
Most likely dating to 14,500 years ago, these were the first signs that while the Scottish Highlands had still been covered by ice and Britain joined by land to the continent, ice-age huntergatherers had come to explore the furthest north-west margin of the ice-age world.
While the Howburn discovery was sensational, it was also frustrating. The ice-age stone tools were found in ploughed soil, mixed up with not only those of the Mesolithic, but also the late Neolithic and Bronze Age. There were no associated settlement remains, and hence no way to date the finds or to discover anything more about what must have been intrepid ice-age explorers.
The chance to make headway with Scotland’s ice-age past has now arisen at the site of Rubha Port an t-Selich, on the east coast of Islay. Pigs rooting among the bracken in 2009 first exposed Mesolithic stone tools at this stunning location. Small-scale test excavations were undertaken in 2010 and 2013.
These discovered Palaeolithic stone tools below the debris of the Mesolithic campsite. Although only a few were recovered within the test trench, they were sufficiently distinctive to be attributed to the Ahrensburgian culture of around 12,000 years ago.
That likely date was confirmed by the analysis of tephra – volcanic glass – within the sediments immediately above the stone tools that could be dated to volcanic eruptions in Iceland at around 11,000 years ago*. It is possible that older stone tools remain undiscovered at this site.
Unlike the Howburn discovery, the Palaeolithic stone tools at Rubha Port an t-Selich remain undisturbed where they had once been lost or discarded. As such, there is the opportunity to expose and excavate an ice-age campsite in Scotland for the very first time, although quite how much will have survived remains unknown.
An excavation and research programme by the charity Islay Her it age(www. islay heritage. org), working with the University of Reading, began in April 2017.
This opened up a large trench to start excavating the Mesolithic deposits, with their enormous quantities of stone tools and the debris from their manufacture. Charred hazelnut shells (hazelnuts were a key food source), and fragments of bones from the animals that had once been hunted were also abundant.
A large fireplace has been identified, constructed within a niche between large stone boulders. This is also likely to have been the focus for the ice-age hunters who came to Rubha Port an t-Seilich, and will be the target for the next season of excavation in the spring of 2018.
*For full details see Mithen, S. et al 2015. A Lateglacial archaeological site in the far north-west of Europe at Rubha Port an t-Seilich, Isle of Islay, western Scotland. Journal of Quaternary Science 30, 396- 416.
Above, the excavation at Rubha Port an t-Seilich, April 2017, looking eastwards across the Sound of Islay towards the Isle of Jura; and, right, a stone arrowhead from Rubha Port an t-Seilich, made in the distinctive style of the Ahrensburgian ice age culture and likely to date to around 12,000 years ago.