11th March 2014
Crossing the Water: Hunter-Gatherers
in a Changing World
At the start of the Mesolithic Period both the east and south coasts of Britain were still attached to the Continent because so much water was still locked up in the icecaps. Paula emphasised the important role of climate change in her chosen period. This situation was to endure until approximately 5500 BC when the land link with the Continent was finally severed, though the North Sea plains, known as Doggerland, became flooded somewhat earlier.
Dredging has brought up many artefacts of bone, antler and flint showing that Doggerland was a rich habitat for Mesolithic humans. The tools from the classic site of Star Carr in Yorkshire show a strong similarity with those of Scandinavia, opening up the possibility of contact between the two populations. Mesolithic tools have been assigned to two different periods and it seems that in the later period there was an increasing use of small flint blades (microliths) which were hafted to wooden handles or shafts as a composite tool. Paula referred to this as the "bow and arrow revolution" which effectively allowed humans to become more efficient hunters.
At that time land prey was quite varied, including aurochs, red deer, wild pig, and roe deer. Food remains also suggest that Mesolithic people enjoyed what the sea had to offer with a diet including shellfish; salmon, seal, dolphin and whale. Living may not have been easy in the Mesolithic but they weren't on the bread line. "They couldn't have been bread hadn't been invented yet!" quipped Paula. Having set the scene, Paula then proceeded to describe in more detail a couple of locations where she had been actively involved.
The first was in Exmoor National Park where she had dug two sites on the Moor above Porlock. These were Hawkcombe Head and Ven Combe in an area that overlooks Porlock Beach. The beach itself is interesting because at low tide the remains of a submerged forest can be seen and Mesolithic flints have been found in clays below the Forests. At both the main dig sites there are springs and masses of flints have been found in their vicinity. Both sites have evidence of occupation with hearths and stake-holes at Hawkcombe and a clay floor at Ven. The entire floor was lifted and passed through a flotation tank, which yielded tools and charcoal which was radio-carbon dated to 6390-6210 cal BC, At Hawkcombe a sole hazel nut was processed and from this came a date some 1000 years later. It thus seems possible that the site was occupied at least intermittently over a long period and formed a pivotal position within Exmoor.
Paula reminded us that the Estuary was largely a dry open plain moor the Mesolithic, with perhaps a much reduced river running through the middle of it. Exmoor from the Welsh side would have presented a Prominent and enticing prospect. It seems almost certain that people would have been able to cross from one side to the other. Although no evidence of boats has been found here, contemporary finds have been made in Scandinavia and an object strongly resembling a wooden paddle has been found at Star Carr. Boats made of skin such as coracles are a possibility.
Paula's other site is at Birdcombe, near Wraxall in North Somerset. Like the Exmoor sites it is by a spring. This one is known as Whirley Pool Spring and is one of several found along the southern slopes of the Failand Ridge. The radiocarbon dates for this site suggest very late occupation in the Mesolithic. There are abundant worked flint remains and, as flint does not occur locally, it seems probable that it was imported, perhaps from as far away as Salisbury Plain. The site was probably a base camp or field camp and several known sites, including Gough's Cave and Totty Pot. Indeed it is likely that there was a highly developed network of territories exploiting the entire Severn Estuary Region. The abundance of food afforded a relatively good diet.
Cheddar Man was a robust and healthy individual about six feet tall. The size of the overall population was likely to have been quite small though, as the non-sedentary lifestyle would have imposed a limit on the number of infants that could have been reared. If Mesolithic folk favoured the joint benefits of terrestrial hunting and maritime plenty then the Severn Estuary seems, from Paula's analysis, to have been the ideal environment. Westonians might well agree!