Case Study: The Obanian

The term 'Obanian' was coined by Movius (1940; 1942) and elaborated upon by him (1953) and by Lacaille (1954), as a cultural designation for the coastal, bone- and antler-tool using, apparently non-microlithic, facies of the Scottish Mesolithic, represented at sites in and around Oban, at Risga (on Loch Sunart), and on the island of Oronsay. The Obanian was thereby conceptualized as a localized, atypical, and very late manifestation of coastal, niche-adapted foraging groups -strandloopers- who did not manufacture microliths or other 'refined' tools but 'made do' with a scalar-core flake industry. For several reasons this picture has now been revised. Firstly, the direct radiocarbon determinations which have been made on Obanian bone and antler tools have revolutionized understanding of the duration of the Obanian, which now extends from at least c.8340 BP (c. 6390 cal BC) to ostensibly well beyond 5000 BP ( 3000cal BC). Not only does this echo almost the full known extent of the Mesolithic in Scotland, it is the Obanian dates themselves which contribute substantially to infill this timespan. Secondly, the excavation of open-air sites both at Oban and on the island of Colonsay has demonstrated the existence of conventional microlith-using Mesolithic groups in close geographical proximity to the classic Obanian sites (an association which had always seemed a possibility from the evidence at Risga). Thirdly, a rockshelter site with a midden deposit with Obanian-type bone points and bevelled tools (one dated to c.7590 BP) was found at An Corran on the north-east coast of the Isle of Skye (Saville and Miket 1994 a and b; Saville 2004). Together with the evidence from Ulva Cave, off the island of Mull (Bonsall et al. 1992), and now that from the First Settlers Project in the Inner Sound region (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009), this considerably extends the geographical range of the Obanian. In addition, the An Corran Obanian bonework was apparently associated with a rich lithic blade industry with microliths.

View across an Oronsay shell midden to the Paps of Jura in the background, ©RCAHMS

In combination, these factors now make it highly plausible to see the Obanian as distinctive from the rest of the Scottish Mesolithic only in that: a) conditions for preservation of bonework are enhanced at the shell-middens; b) the middens result from specific processing tasks only appropriate in certain coastal locations; and c) those processing tasks require a specialized toolkit, not the full artefactual repertoire. This position, which has been thoroughly examined by Bonsall (1996; 1997), reunites the Obanian with the rest of the Scottish Mesolithic; it is a time-transgressive functional variant, not a cultural offshoot, and the designation 'Obanian' is now of historical interest only.

Return to Section 2.2 Mesolithic

Case Study: Chronological developments - ‘Broad’ and ‘Narrow Blade’ technologies

In Scotland, analysts found that the vast bulk of Mesolithic lithic assemblages related in form to the English Later Mesolithic, narrow blade, template. Moreover, the few sites which did produce typologically Early Mesolithic, broad blade, artefacts in English terms, such as Morton A in Fife and Lussa Bay on Jura, lacked reliable stratigraphy and contexted 14C dates to confirm their supposed status (Saville 2004b). The situation was further complicated by a series of 14C determinations obtained from the site at Cramond, Edinburgh, in undoubted association with a chert industry characterised by narrow blades (i.e. conventionally Later Mesolithic in English terms) , which proved to be the earliest dates in Britain for such material (Saville 2008; Waddington 2007). These dates show that people with a developed narrow-blade technology were in Scotland by c. 8400 cal BC (Saville 2008: 211–213), and they are backed by other, early, dates for material that would be regarded as conventionally  ‘later’ were it to be found in England. 

This situation provokes several questions, such as: how do the broad blade  sites relate to the Scottish Mesolithic?  There are undoubtedly sites with conventionally ‘broad blade’ industries in Scotland; when were they in use; and what was the relationship between broad-blade technology and narrow blade technology.  With regard to the narrow-blade microlithic technology, at what date did  it arrive or develop in Scotland? In general how did lithic technology develop over the 4000 years to the end of the Mesolithic period?

Microliths from Cramond ©NMS

The early existence of narrow-blade technology in Scotland may help to explain the relative dearth of broad blade associated Mesolithic sites, if we conclude that the actual time-span into which broad blade assemblages might have occurred is quite restricted (cf. Waddington et al. 2007, 219-223).  Or it may be that the two industries have a quite different relationship in the north of the British Isles.   Nevertheless, it is difficult to offer a similar explanation as to why there appear to be so few Mesolithic sites (whatever the type of industry) from the end of the period, at the time when Neolithic economy and technology were becoming established. All things being equal, one might have expected there to be an expanded population and thus significant settlement evidence after so many millennia. Had Later Mesolithic people been so profligate with their resources that population decline becomes an explanation? Or was there a change in technology (particularly lithic technology) that has as yet not been fully identified, as suggested by some (e.g. Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2009)?

Blades from Lussa Bay ©NMS

Current evidence suggests the incursion of peoples from several ‘homelands’ (in interesting similarity to current theories of the arrival of the Neolithic) and the picture will undoubtedly be refined as knowledge of the prehistoric populations of Doggerland increases. The precise incursion/s of people into Scotland in the early Holocene is still the subject of much debate, and the likely paucity of evidence for any colonisation phase represents a challenge. With regard to the end of the period, models, such as Lacaille’s of a Mesolithic way of life enduring in some regions need to be tested.  It is clear that chronology and typology have still to be refined. 

Clarification of the position of broad blade sites is one research priority: validation and understanding of the broad blade assemblages of Scotland in general is needed. Excavation to better understand broad blade sites, in the Tweed Valley for example, would be very useful.  Another priority must lie in clarification of the relationship, if any, between broad and narrow blade sites.  Finally, identification and excavation of industries representative of the later, pre-Neolithic period of the Mesolithic is undoubtedly important.

Return to Section 2.2 Mesolithic