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The Mesolithic
Part III

The majority of modern excavations on sites of this period have taken place on the west coast islands, and this has tended to skew perceptions of the Scottish Mesolithic.

Circular stone rings, Lussa, Jura

One of the largest of the Scottish islands is Islay and several excavations have taken place there over the years. During the Mesolithic period there was a mix of trees on the island including hazel, birch, elm and oak. Pollen analysis has also shown that the heather moorlands that now exist only appeared at around 3000BC, well after the Mesolithic period. Another attraction for settlers would have been the high quality flint that is available in abundance on the beaches of Islay. Gleann Mor is thought to have been a camp used by hunters for only a short period, as there was no sign of postholes or other indicators of shelters, there were, however, artefacts and these have been dated to 6100BC. The site was located near the coast on a small spur. Another site, Bolsay Farm, was discovered further inland and is a lot bigger than Gleann Mor. This site did reveal stake-holes as well as pits and there was a wider range of stone tools used. North of both of these sites is Newton, which lies on a river terrace and like Gleann Mor is close to the sea. Although not completely excavated indications of a timber hut were found along with a large number of stone tools. A hearth that had been used several times was discovered inside the structure. Crop marks similar to this one are known further along the river terrace so it is possible that there is a collection of Mesolithic huts waiting to be further investigated.

Another large island is Jura and it is located close to Islay, therefore it is not surprising to find many indications of Mesolithic activity on this island as well, there is even a possibility that two tanged flint arrowheads found in gravels at the north end of the island may be from the Palaeolithic period. The sites are mainly found on the coast and in the north and some are associated with ancient shorelines. Most of the sites on Jura are collections of stone tools, usually made from flint but with some quartz, but at two, Lussa Wood and North Carn, structures were discovered also. In both cases the features are thought to be associated with food preparation, three circular stone rings, each around 1.5m in diameter, at Lussa Wood may be associated with cooking while at North Carn an L-shaped feature was interpreted as a hearth with a boulder nearby that could have been used as a seat. The rings at Lussa Wood were located were situated in the middle of a wide depression which could possibly have been the site of a tent. Inside the rings finds included hazelnuts, bones, red ochre and limpet shells and radiocarbon dates were obtained from charcoal at the bottom of the deposits around 6100BC. The flint finds included microliths and these may have been used in combination in hafts which would then have been used in obtaining and preparing vegetables (Ritchie G. & Ritchie, A. 1991, 13).

North and west of Islay lies Oronsay, which today is linked to Colonsay at low tide. It is on Oronsay that the largest Mesolithic remains are to be seen, the great shell middens which are found on the ancient shoreline. Organic material including shell, bone and other domestic debris has survived well and this has made the middens extremely important sources of information on this period. These shell middens can be very large with the mound at Caisteal-nan-Gillean measuring 30m in diameter and 3.5m in height. During the 1970's Paul Mellars led a team from Cambridge University in a series of excavations at the six known midden sites and these have produced a detailed picture of life on Oronsay from 6100 to 5400 radiocarbon years ago. The Cambridge team concentrated their efforts at the site of one of the middens, Cnoc Coig, which is located on the east coast of the island. At this site a circular arrangement of stake holes was discovered measuring 3.0 - 3.5m in diameter and with a 'very thick and heavily burned hearth' (Mellars, P. 1979, 50) at the centre. Evidence was found for many fires being lit and other hearths were also discovered, the rising mound of the midden would also have given the occupants of the camp some protection. Although a few human bones have been found in the middens, mainly those of the hands and feet with a few teeth, the people who lived here may have disposed of their dead away from the camp, possibly at sea. Although a wide range of tool types were discovered no microliths were found, this is similar to the Obanian toolkits found elsewhere. Along with the stone tools other tools have survived on Oronsay which are usually absent, these include harpoon heads, mattocks, and awls. Ornaments such as perforated cowrie shells and scallops were also found. Many animals and fish were exploited and the bones of fish such as saithe (coalfish), shellfish, birds (over 30 species) and crabs (2 species) from the coast as well as red deer and wild pig brought from other islands were present. It was thought that the red deer remains, which composed mainly of antler, were brought to the island for tool manufacture rather than as food. Seal bones were also recovered in 'large numbers'. Saithe alone accounted for over 90% of the total fish bones recovered (Mellars, P. 1979, 48-49) but as this fish is very common in Scottish waters this result is not too surprising. Analysis of the distribution of fish bones at the Cnoc Coig and Caistal nan Gillean II sites showed that certain areas were used for fish gutting and preparation. Plant remains were scarce but it was suggested (Mellars, P. 1979, 50) that seaweed could have played a part of in the diet of the Mesolithic population.

Map of Oronsay (after Mellars, P. 1979, 44)



History Books on the Mesolithic:

Author Title Published Price Order:
Feachem, R.W. Guide to Prehistoric Scotland 1992 £12.99
The numerous prehistoric monuments and sites which survive in Scotland include many that are widely known, but a great many more that are hardly ever visited. This guide, again available, contains examples of both types. Having placed these prehistoric and Pictish survivals in their human and chronological setting, the author provides fully annotated alphabetical lists under subject headings.
Complete with full Ordnance Survey map references, photographs and drawings, the guide is not only an invaluable work of reference; it will enable both amateur archaeologists and interested visitors to locate and interpret the most important visible remains of prehistoric Scotland.
Finlayson, Bill Wild Harvesters 1998 £5.99
In the HISTORIC SCOTLAND series. Provides an introduction to the key themes and periods in Scottish history and prehistory. Uses many different types of evidence from archaeology to environmental studies and takes account of recent developments. Details the story of Scotland's first people from about 8000BC to 4000BC.
Jones, C. W. Scotland's First Settlers 1994 £15.99
Scotland's first settlers arrived about 9000 years ago, once the land was freed from ice and after the climate had warmed. This book discusses the evidence that exists for this distant period, and uses it to reconstruct the lives of these ancient people.
Oram, R. Scottish Prehistory 1996 £8.99
This handbook on the archaeology of prehistoric Scotland incorporates a gazetteer of key sites and monuments. It ranges from the seventh millennium BC, through the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age, to the emergence of the early historic kingdoms after the Celtic Iron Age.
Piggott, S. Scotland Before History 1990 £6.95
Ritchie, Graham & Anna Scotland: Archaeology and Early History 1991 £15.50
An authoritative coverage of the early history of the country and the archaeological evidence that we have for the people who inhabited it. Deals with early farming communities, henge monuments, early metalworking, early Celts, the Romans, Britons and Angles, and the Picts.
Ross, Stewart Ancient Scotland 1991 £19.99
A fine popular introduction to the history of the ancient races of Scotland and the relics they have left behind them. Covers the Beaker Folk, the first Celts, the Roman invasion, the Picts and the Vikings.
Other References  
Author Title Published
Edwards, Kevin J. & Ralston, Ian 'Postglacial hunter-gatherers and vegetational history in Scotland', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 114, 15-34 1984
Mellars, P 'Excavation and economic analysis of Mesolithic shell-middens on the island of Oronsay (Hebrides)', Scottish Archaeological Forum, vol. 9, 43-61 1979