4.1.1 Artefacts

Archaeologically, material culture is most obviously expressed in the form of surviving artefacts. In some cases these will be so specific that they are in themselves diagnostic as to period, which is to say they are typo-chronological markers. In many other cases artefacts may be of multi-period type (such as most flint scrapers) or so generic (e.g. a plain bone pin) that they cannot be dated without being in a context which is otherwise datable, or by being associated with other more chronologically sensitive items, or by being capable of being sampled themselves for radiocarbon dating. In the case of these, earliest expressions of human activity in Scotland the biases of material preservation have over-emphasised the importance to archaeology of lithic artefacts. While stone tools were undoubtedly important it is necessary to remember that they were but part of a rich suite of material goods made of many materials, including wood, bone and antler, and many parts of which have not survived, or not survived in great quantity. The picture to be obtained from stone alone is therefore biased.

This section makes no attempt to give a detailed account of individual artefact types or assemblages, but provides a summary of the artefact types involved, together with key references, which themselves contain the detailed further references to relevant publications and research.

Other than isolated finds of Lower Palaeolithic handaxes introduced in modern times (Saville 1977), the only genuine Palaeolithic archaeological residues so far detected in Scotland consist of Late Upper Palaeolithic artefacts of flint, chert, and quartz. These can be characterized very broadly as comprising the following types and attributes indicative of successive phases of the Lateglacial. (Note that using cal BC dates for the time before the earliest reliable radiocarbon dates for archaeological assemblages from Scotland [i.e. the early Later Mesolithic dates from Cramond] is fraught with various difficulties and those given here must be regarded with caution)

13,000–12,000 cal BC

To this period pertain tanged points, angle-backed points, Zinken-type piercers, becs, end-of-blade scrapers, double end-of-blade scrapers, burins, en éperon preparation technique, large, platform-struck bipolar blade cores, imported flint & chert (Creswellian / Hamburgian (Havelte) / Magdalenian traditions) (Ballin et al. 2010a).

11,800–10,700 cal BC

This period exhibits curve-backed points, straight-backed points, short scrapers, microliths, local flint and other local raw materials, e.g. quartz (Federmesser / Curved-Backed Point traditions; Saville & Ballin 2009).

10,200–9,800 cal BC

Elsewhere in Britain this period is characterised by ‘small’, gracile tanged points and long blades but is as yet unconfirmed in Scotland (‘Ahrensburgian’ tradition; Ballin and Saville 2003)

Illustration drawings of small lithic blades with retouched edges ranging from around three centimetres to five centimetres in length

Lithics from Sheildaig and Balevullin ©Alan Saville

Mesolithic material culture remains are still dominated by struck lithic artefacts as in the Palaeolithic, but in a wider range of silicious raw materials. Tool types represented include: microliths, scrapers, burins, piercers (incl. meches de fôret), and with microburins an important waste element. Insofar as these are indicators of phases within the Mesolithic some diagnostic types point to Early and Later horizons as follows:

9,800–8,500 cal BC

This period exhibits predominantly broad blade production: obliquely blunted point microliths, ‘large’ isosceles and equilateral triangle microliths, microburin technology (‘Early Mesolithic’ tradition; Saville 2004c).

8,500–4,500/4,000 cal BC

This period exhibits predominantly narrow blade production, though also broad blade forms: small geometric microliths, especially scalene triangles and crescents, platform-struck cores and bipolar anvil-struck cores, obliquely blunted point microliths, microburin technology, blade technology, conical and cylindrical blade cores, scalar (bipolar) cores, scrapers of various forms, hammerstones of various types including bevel ended pieces, pyramidal bladelet cores, often very small (‘Later Mesolithic’ tradition; Mithen 2000; Saville 2004c; Wickham-Jones 1990).

It should be noted that some production techniques previously thought to be in themselves indicative of period, such as Levallois reduction and bipolar anvil flaking can be of multi-period occurrence. There is a possibility that microlith production is less common towards the end of the period and that there is a potential increase of bipolar technology towards the later Mesolithic.

A photograph showing four antler barbed points of various sizes

Barbed points ©NMS

Significant residues of other categories of stone tools and artefacts of organic materials survive from the Mesolithic period in Scotland, including those listed below. Many of these types of artefacts may also have been made and used in the Late Upper Palaeolithic, but so far none have been recovered.

  1. ‘Coarse’ stone tools: hammers, anvils, bevel-ended tools, waisted pebbles, countersunk pebbles, hourglass perforated ‘maceheads’, pebble axeheads, abraders (pumice) (Clarke 2009; Saville 2009).
  2. Bone tools: points, knives, bevel-ended tools, chopping blocks (Mellars 1987; Saville 2004c).
  3. Antler tools: barbed points, bevel-ended tools, beam ‘mattocks’ (axeheads?); Direct AMS dating so far suggests dates at around 5000 cal BC for the ‘mattocks’, between c. 7000 to 4600 cal BC for the barbed points, and c. 7500 cal BC to beyond the Mesolithic for the bevel-ended artefacts (Saville 2004c; Smith 1989).
  4. Teeth: boar’s tusk ‘chisels’ (probably used as blades inserted into antler, bone, or wooden sleeves).
  5. Shell: ornaments (‘beads’), scoops, scrapers, containers (Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2009; Mellars 1987; Saville 2004c).
  6. Ochre: ‘pencils’ (Coles 1971; possibly also used in the Late Upper Palaeolithic; see Saville & Ballin 2009, 38-39).
A photograph of an oyster shell containing around 30 smaller shell beads

Oronsay beads from a midden: © SCRAN/NMS

Types of artefact currently missing from the record, but presumably existing in the past (and evidenced from other parts of Europe and the UK), include: fish-hooks (unless the barbed point fragment from Risga was one of these [Morrison 1980, plate XIV, far right]); baskets; nets; rope / string, antler frontlets; stone / shale beads (Saville 2009); anything made from hide or skin, including clothing; amber pendants / figurines; bone / tooth / tusk beads; any artefacts of wood – including bows and arrows, paddles, logboats, fish-traps, and bark containers; and any items combining different raw materials, such as skin-covered wooden boats/canoes and hide-covered timber structures.

Raw materials

For flaked stone artefacts in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland a wide variety of types of silicious rock was exploited. In the case of the earliest Late Upper Palaeolithic, types of flint and chert not otherwise known from Scotland were brought in by hunting groups, probably in the main as preforms or finished tools (Ballin et al. 2010a). In the later Late Upper Palaeolithic and all through the Mesolithic it would appear that only locally available raw materials were exploited. Apart from the more readily available flint, to be found in redepoited form in beaches, rivers, and gravels, the southern Scottish chert, and the near ubiquitous but hugely variable quartz, Mesolithic people were adept at seeking out usable materials such as baked mudstone, bloodstone, chalcedony, pitchstone, and jasper (Coles 1971; Saville 1994a; 2003; Wickham-Jones 1986). There is a strong possibility in the case of chert exploitation from the Southern Scottish Uplands that Mesolithic people were the first to use quarrying as a technique to obtain fresh raw material (Warren 2001; 2007b; Ward 2007).

Water-worn cobbles from beach, river and gravel sources are the dominant tool blank for Mesolithic coarse stone tools (Clarke 1990; 2009; Mithen 2000). No specific source for the exploitation of naturally occurring ochre clay has been identified in Scotland, but ochre is available quite widely. Pumice was collected from beaches and would also have been widely available, though in restricted quantity in any one location. Shells similarly were collected from beaches, no doubt in most cases as a ‘secondary product’ following the harvesting of shellfish for food or bait.

Deer antler could be collected after being shed naturally, but was also on occasion taken from hunted animals, as of course was the bone, sinew, and skin of deer and other animals for use in artefact manufacture.

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