mesolithic

5.5.1 Raw materials identified in Scottish Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic assemblages

General references for raw material studies in Scotland include: Smith 1880; Wickham-Jones and Collins 1978; Wickham-Jones 1986; Saville 1994. Although jasper is present in some parts of Scotland, it does not form a notable proportion of Scottish Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic assemblages (Saville 1994, 59). The principal raw materials identified in Scottish Upper Palaeolithic or Mesolithic assemblages are set out in the table below.

Table 5: The principal raw materials identified in Scottish Upper Palaeolithic or Mesolithic assemblages<

   
Pebble flint Found on most Scottish beaches and, to a lesser extent, till deposits (e.g. Marshall 2000a; 2000b)
Yorkshire flint E.g. Upper Palaeolithic Howburn in South Lanarkshire (Ballin et al. 2010a)
Quartz, various forms Mainly in north, west and Highland Scotland (Ballin 2008)
Rum bloodstone E.g. Kinloch on Rum, and surrounding islands and mainland (Clarke and Griffiths 1990)
Staffin baked mudstone E.g. An Corran and surrounding islands and mainland (Saville et al. in press)
Other mudstones E.g. Shiants, Western Isles, and Woodend Loch, near Glasgow (Wickham-Jones pers. comm.; Davidson et al. 1949)
Skye tuffs E.g. Clachan Harbour (Ballin et al. 2010b)
Chalcedonic silica E.g. Skye (Saville et al. in press)
Chert Mainly in southern and, to a lesser degree, central Scotland (e.g. Ballin and Johnson 2005)
Agate and other silicious rocks Occasional use, but with higher frequencies in Fife and Angus, e.g. Morton, Fife (Coles 1971)
Pitchstone This material was used on Mesolithic Arran but, apparently, the inter-territorial exchange in pitchstone is largely limited to the first half of the Early Neolithic period (Affleck et al. 1988; Ballin 2009)
Various minority raw materials E.g. silicified limestone, basalt (Lacaille 1938)

Most commonly, the preferential use of one specific raw material led to the production of characteristic core forms, as the properties of that particular raw material determined the use of specific technological approaches or operational schemas. Pitchstone (Ballin 2009), for example, is characterized by a number of different properties, each of which resulted in the ubiquity or scarcity of certain core forms:

  1. the tendency to break into tabular pieces led to the formation of many small squat or cubic cores, frequently with a flat ‘back-side’ (this also characterizes chert);
  2. the exaggerated tendency of pitchstone blades to curve along their long axes led to the formation of small discoidal cores; and
  3. its brittleness made this raw material less suitable for hammer-and-anvil production, resulting in low numbers of bipolar cores.

Blades from the Burnetland Hill chert quarry pit near Biggar, South Lanarkshire. This picture shows how the presence of internal fault planes in chert to a degree determines the final shape of chert artefacts (courtesy of Tam Ward, Biggar Archaeology Group).

Quartz (Ballin 2008a) is generally considered a ‘difficult’ raw material, defined by intricate fracture patterns, which lead to many cores being rather chunky, and with quartz operational schemas being less sophisticated than contemporary schemas in other raw materials. One consequence of this was that, in many parts of north and west Scotland, bipolar approaches were preferred (eg, Lussa River on Jura; Mercer 1971 (‘chisels’); also Ballin 2002), although some pure or fine-grained quartzes (e.g., Shieldaig, Wester Ross; Ballin 2008) allowed more traditional platform techniques to be applied.

Where more than one raw material was available to prehistoric people, certain raw materials were commonly preferred for certain tasks or tool forms. Although ideology (like group identity and religion) may occasionally have played a role in connection with these choices, many of those preferences may simply express functionality, in the sense that specific raw materials produced particularly sharp cutting-edges (knives), or they may have been valued for their durability (scrapers). At Upper Palaeolithic Howburn in South Lanarkshire, certain raw materials were clearly preferred for certain tool forms, and those preferences may represent a complex mixture of ideological and functional choices (Ballin et al. 2010).

5.2.7 Conservation

It has not been perceived as within the main remit of the ScARF Palaeolithic/Mesolithic report to investigate matters of conservation. It will have to suffice to mention, with regards to artefact conservation, that scientific techniques for investigating and preserving organic remains, such as freeze-drying, have advanced considerably. In the event of a major new discovery of waterlogged Palaeolithic or Mesolithic artefacts, however, there could be resource and capacity issues requiring recourse to facilities outwith Scotland, since institutions and commercial concerns within Scotland probably lack sufficient equipment, personnel, and expertise. Otherwise, because Palaeolithic and Mesolithic artefactual remains from Scotland are for the most part lithic and to all intents and purposes inert, preservation in a museum context is not normally problematic (Holgate 1994), although there are continuing discussions about the most appropriate way in which such artefacts should be cleaned, marked, bagged, boxed, and stored. These discussions revolve in particular around the question of not compromising potential microwear and residue traces, and it has to be admitted that no single best practice has yet been established because of the different preferences held by the various interested parties. As with archaeological finds of all periods, there are issues concerning storage capacity since the residues from Mesolithic excavations can be prolific; for example the recent Scotland's First Settlers Project (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009) produced, after post-excavation, some 80 large boxes of shells requiring museum storage. 

As for conservation of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites, there are very few in Scotland which have any statutory protection. The relevant scheduled ancient monuments comprise (with their Ancient Monuments number in brackets):

  1. Caves, Creag nan Uamh, Assynt, Highland (606)
  2. Garleffin standing stones and Mesolithic settlement, Ballantrae, South Ayrshire (5379)
  3. Middens (two) 350m WSW of Seal Cottage, Oronsay, Argyll (6288)
  4. Midden 250m NW of Seal Cottage, Oronsay, Argyll (6289)
  5. Nether Kinneil shell middens 400m ENE of Inveravon, Bo'ness, Falkirk (6917)
  6. Shell midden 350m W of Kinneil House, Bo'ness, Falkirk (6918)
  7. Morton Mesolithic settlement, Forgan, Fife (7641)
  8. Risga, shell midden and related structures on SE side of island, Ardnamurchan, Highland (7829)
  9. Shell midden 1050m NNE of Staffin House, Skye, Highland (7848)

Of these sites, the Creag nan Uamh caves have not, strictly speaking, produced archaeological evidence earlier than the Neolithic period, but they are a very important repository of Quaternary fauna with a bearing on the environment for Lateglacial human inhabitation. The scheduled shell middens have all been mentioned at various points earlier in this report, and their key importance for Mesolithic studies needs no further emphasis (but their over-representation is obvious). Morton is a key Mesolithic site, known from fieldwalking and excavation to have both earlier and later Mesolithic settlement evidence, including a shell midden. The Garleffin site is the only one on this list to have been included on the basis of surface finds of Mesolithic artefacts, but probably has only been included because this is the same location as the standing stones.

Otherwise all known Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites in Scotland, almost all of which are primarily represented by lithic artefact findspots / concentrations / scatters, are in the normal course of events without protection other than having the possiblilty of archaeological conditions being imposed if threatened by development. This would depend upon their existence being known and their value appreciated, which is dependent in the first place upon their representation in local HERs or the RCAHMS database. The experience of ScARF Panel members with national and local records suggests that this representation is low (see also the 24KB .pdf ScARF download: SMR and NMRS issues). Since by definition the existence of a lithic artefact scatter means that it either is or has been on arable land, such sites are very vulnerable to continued plough damage. It cannot be expected that all, or indeed many, Mesolithic sites known in this way should receive full statutory protection, but there is a strong case for very rare and important occurrences, for example of Upper Palaeolithic and Early Mesolithic sites, becoming scheduled ancient monuments, or in some other way actively being managed to protect them. The addition and consolidation within the existing national and local records of known information about all Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites should be a matter of priority, as should a much more informed appreciation of the potential of artefact scatter sites (e.g. see Smit 2010).