Mesolithic Transitions


Late Mesolithic Hunter-Gatherer Transitions at Esklets, Westerdale, North York Moors 5000-3800 BC

This is presently a research project but with future potential for community engagement based on analysis and dating of peat and sediment samples, presently at a grant-request stage in early 2020. This phase aligns to existing and ongoing research by Spencer Carter on the North York Moors, supported here by Dr Jim Innes (Durham University Geography, right) and Prof Jeff Blackford (University of Liverpool, left).

   

Aims and Objectives

The aim of this project is to reconstruct the cultural and environmental history at Esklets, on Westerdale Moor on the watershed plateau of the North York Moors in North Yorkshire, which is undergoing severe erosion of the blanket peat that covers the moors, exposing several ‘narrow-blade’ Late or Terminal Mesolithic activity areas (“sites”). These sites are under threat, and are being destroyed by erosion, by land management, by heavy use of adjacent footpaths and by unrecorded flint collecting by the public. The project is trying to research the sites through excavation and scientific analysis before they are destroyed. Several are already badly affected.The project has no direct funding and relies upon personal expenditure and applications to grant-awarding bodies. Earlier phases of the project have included excavation of Late Mesolithic hearths and flint scatters, with all due permissions, scrutiny and professional standards. The current phase concerns an eroding blanket peat profile at Esklets site ECW6 which contains microliths and other diagnostic artefacts that are stratified at one level within the peat, rather than lying upon the mineral soil that underlies it as is almost always the case, and where the flints cannot be directly dated as there will have been a potentially long hiatus between flint deposition and peat formation. A few radiocarbon dates are available on charcoal from hearth features in the vicinity (site ECW2), but these dates are likely to be only approximate because of the ‘old wood’ effect, although some Quercus (oak) sapwood has been dated. The activity areas, noted since the 1950s here, are also in close proximity to an open-water wetland (during the Mesolithic) – also a rare occurrence in an upland.

The flint stratification within organic sediments at Esklets is exceedingly rare, and has only been observed in one other place on the North York Moors, where a single flint was found sealed within a detached small peat block (published). The flint-bearing peat profile at Esklets has already been degraded by erosion, although excavation of the remaining peat blanket might reveal further flint artefacts and features ‘in situ’ at the same level in the peat. This flint site preserved within peat is a priority of the project, and short monoliths of peat containing flints were retrieved from the peat face before its erosion (2012) and safely stored pending analysis. We wish to radiocarbon date the peat at the flint horizon in the monoliths, to establish precisely the age of the Late or Terminal Mesolithic occupation and flint deposition. This would be a first for the North York Moors, one of the classic areas for Late Mesolithic flint sites, and a major research achievement.

Background

Scatters of Late Mesolithic flint artefacts are common in the uplands of northern England, mainly comprising assemblages of microliths and scrapers, and there is a particularly high density of such flint sites in the North York Moors upland of North Yorkshire, where most have been revealed by erosion of the blanket peat that covered them. Download the report (PDF) »

Although they are many, radiocarbon dating of only two flint sites in this upland at White Gill and Esklets site ECW2, has been possible due to the presence of hearth charcoal, but the wood burned to create the charcoal might well have been old and therefore would give a date for the Mesolithic occupation which would be imprecise, perhaps too old by well over a century.

At almost every flint site the artefacts lie within or upon the mineral soil which underlies the blanket peat, with an hiatus of an unknown length of time between site occupation and the start of peat formation above them so that radiocarbon dating the base of the peat that seals the flint site would give a date later than the site’s occupation, perhaps by several hundred years or even much more. We also now know that many “sites” (artefact-based) are in fact palimpsest (overlapping, periodic, ‘favoured’ persistent places) multi-period activity areas spanning thousands of years, even in very small spaces, and therefore differing through time – socially and relationally.

It follows that, although the North York Moors is a classic area for the study of Late Mesolithic archaeology, there is no precise dating of individual flint sites, and only the broadest chronology for this important cultural period based on data from outside the region. Only once before has a Mesolithic flint been found stratified within organic deposits in this upland, in a secure context which allows their precise dating through radiocarbon analysis of the peat at the exact level of the flints. That one example is at Botany Bay on East Bilsdale Moor where a date of 5956±51 BP (Wk-15138) was obtained on a flint-bearing detached peat sample (Innes et al. 2012, Journal of Wetland Archaeology 12, 48-57).

A further benefit of finding flints stratified within peat, as well as providing a secure date for their deposition, is that it allows reconstruction of the local vegetation through palynology and other analyses and so places the flint artefacts, proxy to people-activity, into a palaeo-environmental context. An important aspect of research into the activities of Late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in Britain has been their possible connection to vegetational changes. Palynology of many peat profiles on the North York Moors has revealed a consistent pattern of woodland disturbance of Mesolithic age, often with macro- or micro-charcoal peaks and with an increased abundance of open ground indicators and hazel pollen, which together can be interpreted as evidence of deliberate human manipulation of the upland vegetation by fire to set in train vegetation successions and so improve game and plant food resources. Such inference remains circumstantial without its direct association with flint artefacts that would link environmental change to hunter-gatherer presence.

The discovery of flints stratified within an exposure of blanket peat at Esklets ECW6 on Westerdale Moor (NZ 660 005), well above the peat-soil interface, provides an opportunity to date a Late Mesolithic occupation precisely, and to reconstruct its palaeoenvironmental context, including any impacts upon its local vegetation. That the flints include ‘rod’ microlith shapes and backed bladelets suggests a date late in the period, perhaps similar to the date from Botany Bay, but direct dating is needed to test that. Also, the site is only a few tens of metres from the location of a pollen core that contained charcoal and clear evidence of woodland disturbance of Late Mesolithic age (Albert and Innes 2015, Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 24, 357-375), with which the new pollen analyses from ECW6 could be correlated.


Status

Four grant application requests have been made (2020) to regional and national archeological organisations. These are to cover the palynological (pollen) analysis of three sample monolith samples and preparation for AMS radiocarbon aging across multiple samples. Two samples have flints within the podzol sediments. The first organisation has already approved in principle.


Further Reading


Albert, B. & Innes, J. 2015. Multi-profile fine-resolution palynological and micro-charcoal
analyses at Esklets, North York Moors, UK, with special reference to the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. Veget Hist Archaeobot 24: 357–375 | DOI https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-014-0488-5

Carter, S.D. 2014. Unpicking the Palimpsest: a late Mesolithic upland activity area in North East England. Poster presentation at Where the Wild Things Are: Recent Advances in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Research Conference, 8-10 Jan 2014, University of Durham [Online paper: academia.edu, includes handout with bibliography*].

* Please note that the most recent radiocarbon determinations from White Gill (corylus avellana) are not included, pending Bayesian modeling and further analysis of the lithic material culture. The very latest dates are at c 3780 cal BC and overlap with dates from the earliest Neolithic at Street House, Loftus several kilometers away on the coast.