Over the last few years, OA has uncovered a wealth of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic remains. Indeed, since 2008 we have discovered more of these early prehistoric sites than at any other time in our 42-year history.
Upper Palaeolithic campsites
Recently, OA has excavated three highly significant Late Upper Palaeolithic lithic scatters. The earlier of these, at Guildford, Surrey, includes around 5,500 struck flints, derived from sediments that have produced dates through optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) of 16,570-13,110 years before present (BP) and 16,870-14,110 BP. Owing to the pristine nature of the flint, further analysis is likely to provide fresh insights into the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers in the late Ice Age.
The other two scatters are later in date and both contain material typical of the Terminal Upper Palaeolithic ‘long blade’ industries that straddle the late glacial/early post-glacial boundary. One of these was uncovered in the Beam River Valley, Dagenham, and potentially relates to a short-stay kill site, perhaps associated with a floodplain crossing point. The other ‘long blade’ lithic scatter was discovered during the final weeks of an excavation at the Hinxton Genome Campus, Cambridgeshire. This scatter comprised more than 5,000, largely undisturbed, flints, and associated sediments have been OSL dated to 12,120 BP. Given the importance of this site, options are currently being explored to identify the most appropriate means of analysing the assemblage and disseminating the data.
Lost landscapes of Palaeolithic Britain
OA’s other main contribution to Palaeolithic archaeology has been through its design and management of Historic England’s Lost Landscapes of Palaeolithic Britain project. This forms part of the National Heritage Protection Plan (NHPP), with outputs comprising an update of The English Rivers Palaeolithic Survey (TERPS) artefact database and a report to inform relevant research activities undertaken as part of the NHPP. In addition, a peer-reviewed OA monograph has been produced, which is due for publication in autumn 2015.
An increasing focus of OA’s work has involved the discovery, excavation and analysis of Mesolithic sites. The majority of these are defined by lithic scatters, at times associated with ephemeral structural remains, hearths, or tree-throws, although we have also excavated a highly significant Mesolithic burial and a rare example of an early Mesolithic house.
Camps and activity areas
The majority of the lithic scatters derive from southern England. Indeed, the bulk of these were discovered during the construction of the Bexhill to Hastings Link Road, which uncovered around 20 early Mesolithic scatters, two of middle Mesolithic date, along with between 110 and 140 later Mesolithic scatters. Although post-excavation analysis has only just started, the scatters and associated environmental evidence will certainly enhance our understanding of the early Holocene in south-east England.
Other recent southern discoveries include early Mesolithic flint scatters from Didcot, Oxfordshire, and the Beam River Valley, Dagenham, both potentially associated with short-stay camps, and late Mesolithic scatters from Gill Mill and Bicester Village Coach Park, the latter of which included around 4,500 flints that were associated with tree-throws. A small Mesolithic scatter was also discovered during work along the A21, in Kent.
Turning to northern England, excavations at Stainton West, near Carlisle, led to the discovery of a significant late Mesolithic site. The site produced Mesolithic wooden artefacts, palaeoenvironmental evidence and around 300,000 pieces of worked stone. The stone finds relate to an encampment that was repeatedly occupied over several centuries until the mid-5th millennium BC, and that was perhaps associated with catching migratory salmon. Interestingly, detailed lithic analysis has demonstrated that the activities undertaken at the encampment occurred within the same zones over its history, and that they were constrained by interactions with a midden, watercourses and woodland vegetation. The sources of the lithic materials also suggest that the site lay at the hub of a hunter-gatherer network extending to the west coast and 100km in other directions.
Early Mesolithic house
At Ronaldsway Airport, Isle of Man, the remains of an early Mesolithic house were uncovered by OA in 2009. This house contained large quantities of charcoal, indicating that it had burned down, and dates to the final centuries of the 9th millennium BC. It was set within a depression and defined by a ring of postholes. It was also associated with hazelnut caches and c 19,300 pieces of struck flint. The lithics indicated blade manufacture, with narrow blades being the most frequent form (a type often associated with late Mesolithic assemblages), and some of the microliths related to hunting, butchery and working of organic material. Analysis is ongoing and will provide fascinating insights into the form and nature of the early Mesolithic in northern Britain, and beyond.
Apart from lithic sites, a Mesolithic cremation was also recently discovered during pipeline excavations at Langford, Essex. This cremation lay in a shallow pit and represents the remains of at least one adult or older juvenile. It dates to the mid-6th millennium BC and, significantly, represents Britain’s first example of Mesolithic cremated human remains.
Taken together, OAs continued, and often unexpected, discoveries of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites, and our ongoing programmes of analysis, are making significant inroads into early prehistoric archaeology. These remains are fairly varied, comprising lithic scatters, together with remarkable evidence relating to burial and settlement, and as such they will greatly contribute to wider knowledge of these distant periods.