Executive Summary

Why research Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland?

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology sheds light on the first colonisation and subsequent early inhabitation of Scotland.  It is a growing and exciting field where increasing Scottish evidence has been given wider significance in the context of European prehistory. It extends over a long period, which saw great changes, including substantial environmental transformations, and the impact of, and societal response to, climate change. The period as a whole provides the foundation for the human occupation of Scotland and is crucial for understanding prehistoric society, both for Scotland and across North-West Europe.

Within the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods there are considerable opportunities for pioneering research. Individual projects can still have a substantial impact and there remain opportunities for pioneering discoveries including cemeteries, domestic and other structures, stratified sites, and for exploring the huge evidential potential of water-logged and underwater sites. Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology also stimulates and draws upon exciting multi-disciplinary collaborations.

Panel Task and Remit

The panel remit was to review critically the current state of knowledge and consider promising areas of future research into the earliest prehistory of Scotland. This was undertaken with a view to improved understanding of all aspects of the colonization and inhabitation of the country by peoples practising a wholly hunter-fisher-gatherer way of life prior to the advent of farming. In so doing, it was recognised as particularly important that both environmental data (including vegetation, fauna, sea level, and landscape work) and cultural change during this period be evaluated.

The resultant report, outlines the different areas of research in which archaeologists interested in early prehistory work, and highlights the research topics to which they aspire. The report is structured by theme: history of investigation; reconstruction of the environment; the nature of the archaeological record; methodologies for recreating the past; and finally, the lifestyles of past people – the latter representing both a statement of current knowledge and the ultimate aim for archaeologists; the goal of all the former sections. The document is reinforced by material on-line which provides further detail and resources. The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic panel report of ScARF is intended as a resource to be utilised, built upon, and kept updated, hopefully by those it has helped inspire and inform as well as those who follow in their footsteps.

Future Research

The main recommendations of the panel report can be summarized under four key headings:

Visibility: Due to the considerable length of time over which sites were formed, and the predominant mobility of the population, early prehistoric remains are to be found right across the landscape, although they often survive as ephemeral traces and in low densities. Therefore, all archaeological work should take into account the expectation of encountering early prehistoric remains. This applies equally to both commercial and research archaeology, and to amateur activity which often makes the initial discovery. This should not be seen as an obstacle, but as a benefit, and not finding such remains should be cause for question. There is no doubt that important evidence of these periods remains unrecognised in private, public, and commercial collections and there is a strong need for backlog evaluation, proper curation and analysis. The inadequate representation of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic information in existing national and local databases must be addressed.

Collaboration: Multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and cross-sector approaches   must be encouraged – site prospection, prediction, recognition, and contextualisation are key areas to this end. Reconstructing past environments and their chronological frameworks, and exploring submerged and buried landscapes offer existing examples of fruitful, cross-disciplinary work. Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology has an important place within Quaternary science and the potential for deeply buried remains means that geoarchaeology should have a prominent role.

Innovation: Research-led projects are currently making a substantial impact across all aspects of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology; a funding policy that acknowledges risk and promotes the innovation that these periods demand should be encouraged. The exploration of lesser known areas, work on different types of site, new approaches to artefacts, and the application of novel methodologies should all be promoted when engaging with the challenges of early prehistory.

Tackling the ‘big questions’: Archaeologists should engage with the big questions of earliest prehistory in Scotland, including the colonisation of new land, how lifestyles in past societies were organized, the effects of and the responses to environmental change, and the transitions to new modes of life. This should be done through a holistic view of the available data, encompassing all the complexities of interpretation and developing competing and testable models. Scottish data can be used to address many of the currently topical research topics in archaeology, and will provide a springboard to a better understanding of early prehistoric life in Scotland and beyond.


A photograph of antler shaped and perforated to form a mattock head

Antler-beam mattock from Meiklewood ©NMS

“Archaeologists should engage with the big questions of earliest prehistory in Scotland, including the colonisation of new land, how lifestyles in past societies were organized, the effects of and the responses to environmental change, and the transitions to new modes of life.”

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