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