Case Study: Tarradale Mesolithic Shell Midden

Susan Kruse

On and below a raised beach at Tarradale, Muir of Ord in Easter Ross, evidence of a series of Mesolithic shell middens has been emerging over recent years. Yearly fieldwalking by North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NoSAS) revealed a range of lithics, including microliths. Flint is the most common material, in contrast to western Scottish sites, although it is possible quartz is under-represented. The material includes Mesolithic debitage, showing that some working was taking place on site.

Ploughing also revealed areas of shell middens. Midden sites are relatively rare in Scotland, and particularly so in the eastern Highlands. Test pitting in one of these in 2015 showed good preservation of bone, charcoal and shell, with radiocarbon dates from the 7th millennium BC. It also showed that the midden had stratified layers.

As part of the multi-period Tarradale Through Time community project, also supported by NoSAS, two further middens not affected by ploughing were investigated in 2017 by test pitting and trenches. The deep midden at site 2B revealed a range of shellfish (mainly oysters, mussels, cockles and periwinkles) and animal bones (mammals, birds and fish), some showing traces of butchery. Bone tools were also found, including fragments of two T-axes made from deer bone and a harpoon. The T-axes are particularly important, with only four of this type found in all of Scotland, the others from central or western Scotland. The Tarradale finds suggest these were also being made in the Highlands. Some lithics were also uncovered, interestingly mainly of quartz. Radiocarbon dates from this midden were Late Mesolithic to Early Neolithic in date. One part of the excavated trench revealed a cobbled layer, without shell midden, suggesting the possibility it was used as a working area. Ephemeral remains of stone settings, possibly for tent-like structures, were also identified but not investigated further.

The second area investigated (2A) was a midden situated to the east, on a raised promontory. Its dates were wider than the first, and again spanning Mesolithic and Early Neolithic. This raises questions about the Neolithic activities at the site: were they part of a foraging group or a settled farming group which collected and processed shellfish?

Other radiocarbon dates in the fields around have shown further evidence for early activity. They indicate activity on the site from at least the 7th millennium BC, but it remains unclear if the episodic occupation had a gap, or whether other middens in the area (of which there are at least eight) were used at different periods.

Drawing of a camp site with a hide tent near a hill with fish strung up to dry nearby. Three people sit around a fire, two people are pulling a boat on near the water, and two other people are carrying out craft activities.
Illustration of Mesolithic life at Tarradale, for Tarradale Through Time by Pat Haynes.
Drawing of a man in the forest using a bone axe on a tree.
Illustration showing how an antler tool may have been used, for Tarradale Through Time by Pat Haynes.

Charcoal analysis from the test pit showed a range of wood burnt at the site including alder, birch, hazel, oak, ash, pine, elm and willow, suggesting a varied local woodland.

The results from the trenching were exciting, and post excavation results and a final report are awaited. The area investigated is only a fraction of activity on the site, and shows the potential for further work which could shed light on activity throughout the Mesolithic, subsistence, procurement of raw materials, especially flint, and structural evidence. The excavations did not reveal much evidence of the manufacture of stone tools hinted at from the fieldwalking finds, but this may have taken place elsewhere on site or be preserved under the lithic scatter. Past work on sea level changes in the Moray Firth could also be integrated, with further geoscience work to shed light on the landscape and environment at the time of occupation. Excavations at Castle Street, Inverness preserved evidence of the tsunami event c. 6200 BC, and it would be interesting to determine whether there are deposits from the tsunami run up at Tarradale as well. Further work would provide good comparison with the better known western Scottish middens. The site also has potential to shed light on the Mesolithic-Neolithic interface in this area.

Further information

Peteranna, Mary and Birch, Steven 2017c ‘Tarradale through Time 2017. Mesolithic shell middens at Tarradale, Muir of Ord. Archaeological Evaluation and Test Pitting. Data Structure Report’, AOC DSR available from Tarradale Through Time website.

Grant, Eric 2020 ‘Secrets of the Black Isle’, Current Archaeology, issue 360, March 2020, 18–27.