2.1 Palaeolithic

Scotland was largely immune to the excesses of eolith-mania other than those of the Revd Frederick Smith (e.g. Smith 1909), which, however, never inspired widespread credence. Finds of genuine Lower Palaeolithic handaxes have been made in Scotland, but in every case source criticism suggests these are relatively recent introductions which have been lost and rediscovered (Saville 1997; 1998b). There has never been any claim for in situ evidence of Middle Palaeolithic or Early Upper Palaeolithic activity in Scotland, and it is only in the case of the Later Upper Palaeolithic that there is any background of studies to consider.

In the 1920s there was a flurry of speculation about evidence for Palaeolithic activity at the Creag nan Uamh bone caves near Inchnadamph in Sutherland (e.g. Cree 1927). In the absence of any definitive publication of the 1926-7 excavations or the artefacts therefrom, such speculation faded until a revival of interest in the 1980s was fuelled by new studies of the extant faunal (especially reindeer) remains and their initial 14C dating (e.g. Lawson and Bonsall 1986). Subsequent 14C dating and re-evaluation of the reindeer antlers (Murray et al. 1993) and the human remains (Hedges et al. 1998), together with the rediscovery of the artefacts from the 1920s excavations, allowed a thorough reconsideration of the facts which concluded there was no positive evidence for any human presence at the bone caves prior to the Neolithic (Saville 2005).

A further strand of speculation began in the 1950s, following an initial suggestion that isolated finds of flint tanged points could represent Late Upper Palaeolithic activity (Livens 1956). Further similar suggestions were made on the basis of flint artefacts from Jura (Mercer 1980). This general concept was subsequently given support, amongst others by Morrison and Bonsall (1989), and elaborated upon following the identification of further possible examples of tanged points (Edwards and Mithen 1995). A review by Ballin and Saville (2003) determined that at least two of the then known tanged points – those from Shieldaig and Tiree – were identifiable as likely Late Upper Palaeolithic Ahrensburgian points, potentially datable to the later stages of the Younger Dryas Stadial.

A photograph of single white flint point with a tang

Tanged point from Sheildaig ©NMS

Aside from the possibilities presented by archaeological evidence, palaeo-environmentalists have developed alternative arguments for Lateglacial human presence from the examination of cores taken through organic-bearing deposits of the period. In particular they have suggested that relatively high occurrences of microscopic charcoal from Lateglacial horizons could be a proxy for local human activity (Edwards 2004; Edwards et al. 2000), although this remains speculative.

However, the recent recognition of an actual early Lateglacial site in southern Scotland has changed the knowledge and perception of human presence in Scotland at this time (Ballin et al. 2010a; Pitts 2009; Ward 2009; Ward and Saville 2010). Fieldwork by the Biggar Archaeology Group at Howburn Farm, Elsrickle, in South Lanarkshire, recovered a large and distinctive lithic assemblage with precise parallels to late Hamburgian-type industries in southern Denmark and northern Germany, which date to the later Bølling chronozone. The site appears to represent a hunting camp at which some retooling took place, and the lithic residues perhaps indicate several visits to the location spread over a long period. The most likely explanation for the presence of hunters at this spot is that it was close to a gathering point for herds of game animals, probably reindeer or wild horse. Howburn cannot be the only instance of a site of this period in Scotland, although to date there is just the single unusual and possibly ‘Creswellian’ -type flint artefact from Fairnington, near Kelso in the Borders, to suggest otherwise (Pettitt 2008; Saville 2004b).

Seven people walking in a ploughed field looking for finds

Fieldwalking at Howburn ©A Saville

Nevertheless, further Upper Palaeolithic evidence has come to be recognized as probably dating from a slightly later stage of the Lateglacial than that at Howburn Farm, the Allerød chronozone, when a cultural shift from Hamburgian to Federmessergruppen or curve-backed point tradition industries had taken place in Denmark, Germany, and other parts of what is now the adjacent European mainland. Again the evidence comes from a single site, the Kilmelfort Cave, near Oban in Argyll, where it is now clear that the best parallels for what was originally thought to be a somewhat enigmatic Mesolithic lithic assemblage lie with those from Continental Federmessergruppen sites (Coles 1983; Saville 2004b; Saville and Ballin 2009).

Now that the true identities of the Howburn Farm and Kilmelfort Cave sites, both of which were initially thought to be of Mesolithic age, have been recognised, a perceptual barrier has been lifted. This has been assisted by the prominence given in recent years to the existence of Doggerland, which has clarified the potential for connectivity and equivalence between Scotland and lands to the east in the Lateglacial (e.g. Gaffney et al. 2009). It is now possible to view Scotland as fully part of the Lateglacial world of Upper Palaeolithic hunters both before and after the Younger Dryas cold event.

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