Palaeolithic and Mesolithic

The first hunters

Scapa Flow - 8000BC

Scapa Flow in 8,000BC — a landlocked bay accessible only by a narrow passage between what would become Stanger Head, on Flotta, and Hoxa Head. (Caroline Wickham-Jones and the Rising Tide Project)

Until fairly recently, it was thought the human history of Scotland began around 6000BC in the time period known as the Mesolithic (9000-4000BC).

Archaeological advances and discoveries have now shown this to be far from correct. In Orkney, for example, we have evidence of human activity many thousands of years earlier — around 11000BC in the Palaeolithic (14000-9000BC).

At this time, Scotland was just coming out of the Ice Age and the evidence shows that groups of explorers had made their way as far as north Orkney. This evidence is arrowheads, or points.

There are three – two from the island of Stronsay and the other from the Ness of Brodgar peninsula – and they appear to be typical of a style found in northern Europe and southern Scandinavia between 13,000 and 9,000 years ago.

Research has led to the suggestion the Brodgar point may be as much as 13,000 years old (although recent research may question this early date) dating from a time when Orkney was one large island encircling a wide, sheltered bay.

This bay, which was accessed from the south (at what we now call Hoxa) by a single narrow gap between steep, high cliffs – is what we now know as Scapa Flow.

These early visitors may not have stayed long, and their forays north were perhaps not frequent.

They were hunters, living in small mobile communities and following herds of reindeer or the mammals such as seals along the coast. But in the millennia that followed the end of the Ice Age, it is likely that people came to Orkney on many separate occasions.

Over time, rising sea levels saw Orkney reduced in size as lower ground was claimed by water. Around 8000BC, it had separated into two large islands and 2,000 years later, around 6000BC, it was beginning to resemble the Orkney we know today.

Mesolithic Orkney
c9000-4000BC

Compared to the later prehistoric periods, evidence of Mesolithic activity in Orkney is scant – a handful of spreads of worked stone across the islands.

The reason for this scarcity is twofold.

Orkney 8000BC

Orkney c8000BC (Wickham-Jones et al 2018. Fig 16.4*)

First and foremost, as we have seen above, Orkney in the early centuries of the Mesolithic was not the cluster of small, low-lying islands we know today. The sea-level was up to 20 metres lower.

Britain was still connected to Europe and today’s green, rolling Orkney hills were the highest points of two landmasses. These islands together with numerous other islets and skerries formed the archipelago.

The lowland areas frequented by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers are now submerged along with any evidence of Mesolithic activity.

Orkney 4000BC

Orkney c4000BC – the start of the Neolithic in Britain and Ireland (Wickham-Jones et al 2018. Fig 16.4*)

Secondly, the people of the Mesolithic were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in mobile groups that shifted according to the season and availability of food. Unlike the stone constructions of the Neolithic (4000-2500BC) the short-term Mesolithic camps made little or no lasting impact on the landscape.

Constructed from timber and animal skin, their organic components have simply not survived.

There is abundant evidence for Mesolithic hunter-gatherers throughout Scotland and there are several sites in Orkney.

Although we knew these wandering hunters had made their way to Orkney, it was not clear when they arrived until the discovery of a charred hazelnut shell in 2007. The shell, from the Orkney East Mainland, was radiocarbon dated to 6820-6660BC, showing that people were in the islands from at least 7000BC.

Questions remain, however. Was Orkney inhabited before 7000BC? Did these people live in the islands long-term or did they migrate back and forth to mainland Scotland? How many people were there? Were they all from one group or tribe? How far did they travel?

What is clear is that Mesolithic Orkney, with its many sheltered bays and inlets, would have been an inviting place for early settlers. Fresh water, a sheltered shore with access to the sea, and somewhere to fish and hunt, would have all been priorities for these people — and Orkney provided these in abundance.

Mesolithic microliths from Ness of Brodgar

Mesolithic worked flint from the Ness of Brodgar (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Although there is no doubt the Ness of Brodgar structures date to the Neolithic, excavation has revealed evidence of Mesolithic activity. These hint at people living and moving across the landscape at least 1,500 years before the construction of this massive complex.

In 2019, for example, three Mesolithic microliths were found in samples taken from three areas of the excavation site. Their presence in the much later Neolithic buildings is due to disturbance and redeposition during the lifetime of the complex.

While the Mesolithic activity on the Ness needs further investigation, it is tempting to imagine that the site was considered significant in some way long before it was monumentalised – in the same way that archaeological research has uncovered evidence of Mesolithic activity in the area around Stonehenge, such as Blick Mead.

Further reading

 

(*Wickham-Jones, C. R., Bates, R., Dawson, S., Dawson, A. and Bates, M. 2018. The Changing Landscape of Prehistoric Orkney. In Persson, P., Reide, F., Skar, B., Breivik, H. M. and Jonsson, L. (eds.) The Ecology of Early Settlement in Northern Europe. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 393 – 414.)