Mak­ing his­tory

Writ­ten by Steven Mithen, chair­man of Is­lay Her­itage and Pro­fes­sor of Ar­chae­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Read­ing.

The Oban Times - - Front Page -

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.

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