5.2.6 Site investigation

Until recently, geophysical survey and remote sensing were not used routinely for the detection and investigation of Mesolithic sites and features (but see Marshall in Mithen 2000 for use of resistivity at Staosnaig Mesolithic site). The Scottish Mesolithic Geophysical Survey Project was established in 2002 by the Department of Archaeology at Glasgow University, in order to research the application of geophysical survey techniques to Mesolithic archaeology, and sites with different topographic and pedological characteristics were used as case studies. Geophysical survey has also been used as a general prospecting tool as part of the Inner Hebrides Mesolithic Project led by Steven Mithen. With the exception of Sand, Applecross, Highland, the results of these surveys have not yet been published in detail. At Sand a fluxgate gradiometer survey was undertaken of an area c. 500m2 directly in front of the rockshelter, with the primary objective of exploring the geophysical response of the shell midden deposit and establishing its extent. A sampling interval of 0.25m was adopted and the instrumentation was set to detect features up to 1m below the ground surface. The magnetic anomalies detected could be linked mainly to geological features, metal objects in the soil, or recent disturbances of the site, but no clear magnetic response was obtained from the midden deposit (Finlay 2009).

Archaeological geoprospection has seen limited application in Scotland, but has proved useful elsewhere (Carey et al. 2007).

Table 3 lists some common science-based techniques and the extent of their use in Scottish Mesolithic studies. With the exception of radiocarbon dating, there have been relatively few applications of these techniques. This is further highlighted by a survey of papers with a specific focus on the Scottish Mesolithic published in the Journal of Archaeological Science between 1975 and 2010 (Table 4). If archaeobotanical, archaeozoological, geoarchaeological, and palynological studies are excluded, which fall more within the realm of environmental archaeology, only three papers published in the Journal of Archaeological Science over the past 35 years are concerned with the scientific analysis of archaeological materials from Scottish Mesolithic sites. While the Journal of Archaeological Science does not represent the total picture, it is probably a fair reflection of past and present trends in Scottish Mesolithic research and highlights both the paucity of science-based research and the imbalance between environmental archaeology and archaeometry in what little research has been undertaken. While the lack of human remains from Mesolithic sites in Scotland probably accounts for the dearth of archaeogenetic research and stable isotope studies of diet and population movements, it is more difficult to explain why there have been so few applications of archaeometric techniques to the study of artefacts and ecofacts. One reason perhaps is the lack of specialist degrees in archaeological science at postgraduate (Master and PhD) level in Scottish Universities. Therein lie objectives and opportunities for the future.

Table 3: Applications of archaeometric techniques in Scottish Mesolithic studies

Area of Investigation Technique Applications
ISOTOPIC DATING Radiocarbon Numerous
NON-ISOTOPIC DATING Luminescence Bolsay Farm (Islay), West Voe (Shetland)
STABLE ISOPTOPES Dietary tracing Oronsay
Population movements Seasonality (molluscs, fish)
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ARTEFACT STUDIES Lithic use-wear Bolsay Farm, Gleann Mor (Islay), Smittons Bridge, Starr (Dumfries and Galloway)
Bone use-wear ‘Obanian’ shell middens, bevel-ended tools
Residue analysis Sand (Applecross) bevel-ended tools
Trace element provenancing Pitchstone sources (Arran)
SITE INVESTIGATIONS Remote sensing and geophysical survey Sand, Applecross, Newton (Islay), Port Lobh (Colonsay), Tiree, East Barns (East Lothian)

Table 4: Articles with a focus on the Scottish Mesolithic, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science between 1975 and 2010

Methodological emphasis No. of articles J Arch Sci ref.
Archaeobotany 1 vol 28(3), 2001: 223-34 (S Mithen et al.)
Archaeozoology 1 vol 34(3), 2007: 463-84 (E.H. Fairnell, J. Barrett)
Geoarchaeology 1 vol 17(5), 1990: 509-12 (A.G. Dawson et al.)
Geochemical fingerprinting 1 vol 11(1), 1984: 1-34 (O. Williams Thorpe, R.S. Thorpe)
Growth-line analysis of shells 1 vol 10(5), 1983: 423-40 (M.R. Deith)
Palynology 4 vol 11(1), 1984: 71-80 (K. Edwards, K. Hirons);
vol 16(1), 1989: 27-45 (A.H. Powers et al.);
vol 32(3), 2005: 435-49 (K. Edwards et al.);
vol 32(12), 2005: 1741-56 (K. Edwards et al.)
Radiocarbon 1 vol 37(4), 2010: 866-70 (M. Collard et al.)
Stable isotopes 2 vol 13(1), 1986: 61-78 (M. Deith); vol 26(6), 1999: 717-22 (M.P. Richards, R.E.M. Hedges)
Total 12

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