The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods cover all human activity prior to the introduction of farming. Despite substantial evidence for Palaeolithic settlement in England as far back as 400,000 years ago at sites like Pakefield in Suffolk and Boxgrove in West Sussex, in the Highlands there is as yet, no secure evidence for settlement prior to the Late Upper Palaeolithic at the end of the last Ice Age. This chapter, therefore, covers a period of some 7,000 years which is over of half the period of human activity in the Highlands.
At the time of publication of the National ScARF in 2012, late Palaeolithic activity in the Highlands was only hinted at, with the only evidence being a single tanged point found in the multi-period lithic scatter at Shieldaig in Wester Ross (MHG7704; Ballin and Saville 2003), which was discovered in the 1970s in a disturbed surface layer. This evidence is hard to find; population levels were low and people left little trace of their passing. An indication that more sites awaited discovery came in 2017 when Late Upper Palaeolithic lithics were discovered at South Cuidrach on Skye (MHG59071; Hardy et al 2020), which were similar to those from the lowest undated levels at An Corran on Skye (MHG6497; Saville et al 2012; Case Study An Corran).
At another significant site, Inchnadamph in northwest Sutherland, the finds are more recent, though early faunal material, such as reindeer antler, provides a good indication of environmental conditions at the time (MHG11410; ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 2.1; Saville 2005). Studying fragile Palaeolithic archaeology is about much more than just looking for traces of human communities. The National ScARF section provides a good background for research up to 2012, including issues of dating (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 5.2.1). For the Highlands as a whole there is no overview, but key sites which feature in discussions of the Scottish Mesolithic include those on the island of Rum and those identified through the Scotland’s First Settlers project (Hardy and Wickham-Jones (2009); see Case Study Scotland’s First Settlers Project).
It is salutary to realise that, while there have been some excavations since 2012, notably the continuing work at both Camas Daraich (MHG29196) and Staffin (MHG35901) in Skye, and on the exciting shell midden sites at Tarradale, Ross and Cromarty, in actual fact our understanding of the earliest settlement of the Highland Region has advanced little since the work on ScARF in 2012. Archaeologists know little more, for example, about Palaeolithic activity in the area despite new modelling that suggests the deglaciation of the area may have commenced at least 5000 years earlier than that previously estimated (Shennan et al 2018). Many of the questions, in both this document and the original ScARF report, require targeted research projects rather than smaller-scale site excavations, and funding for research is hard to come by.
The Scotland’s First Settlers Project (SFS) highlighted the difficulties comparing sites in detail. Some investigations have just undertaken test pits and trenches, but only a few comprise the excavation of large areas. While excavations of this early period, such as those at Sand (Case Study Sand), tend to sieve all contexts, other investigations, particularly fieldwalking projects, are necessarily based on only partial collection. Furthermore, preservation varies widely. Different types of sites also create particular biases. Middens, by definition are composed of rubbish, and often lack certain aspects of settlement evidence. The SFS project also noted the value of sustained investigation over a longer period of time and different seasons. For example, the long term archaeological interest on Scalpay resulted in the identification of many more sites.
The period between 14,000 to 6,000 years ago was a time of dynamic change – those who lived in the Highlands throughout this period experienced a world that was undergoing continual changes in many different ways. Flexibility and adaption, based upon deep knowledge and understanding of the world of which individual communities were a part were key to survival. Investigations of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods focus keenly on environmental issues, which are discussed more fully in Chapter 3.2.
Sites are identified through diagnostic artefacts (see 4.4) or radiocarbon dating (4.3). Archaeologists rely on the presence of recognisable lithic type fossils across wide areas in order to date and categorise sites. Given the uncertainties over lithic use across the Highlands (which include details of different raw materials, variations in knapping strategies, local preferences, functional requirements and typological idiosyncrasies), this comprises a significant weakness. In general, the archaeological record contains many poorly understood and vulnerable find spots. For the Mesolithic, microliths and microburins are the key finds, but difficulties in recognition of artefact styles mean that researchers be missing many sites (Hardy and Wickham Jones 2009, 9.5).
While radiocarbon dating is useful for the identification of sites, there are issues relating to this period (see discussion in Ashmore 2004). Other sources of dating offer considerable potential. The identification and dating of tephra layers are also useful (Edwards 2004a), 66–67; see also 3.2). Optically-stimulated luminescence profiling holds future possibilities for relative dating (National ScARF Science section 1.4). Nevertheless, gaps in the archaeological evidence remain, notoriously between 5000 and 4000 BC (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009, 9.5). Archaeologists understanding of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland is still a picture which is emerging, and one, as highlighted in National ScARF, which needs targeted fieldwork.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Highland material for the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods
Before suggesting research questions and recommendations (see 4.9), it is useful to identify the regional archaeological strengths and weaknesses for this period and to characterise these as either ‘within reach of a solution’ (opportunities) or with ‘no obvious solution’ (threats). Many of these relate to all periods, as outlined in Chapter 3, and are relevant to this discussion.
- Broad scale surveys such as the SFS project provide a good basis from which to target research questions.
- Large scale excavations as at Rum and Sand provide important evidence for the Highlands and Scotland as a whole. Smaller scale investigations at An Corran and Tarradale show the potential for further work.
- Good preservation occurs in many places, eg Tarradale and Sand.
- Museums with pre-existing collections of lithics provide an excellent opportunity for the re-examination of primary material without costly fieldwork. This includes the fieldwalking assemblages from Easter Ross, Inverness and Caithness, as well as older excavation finds.
- A large body of environmental investigation exists and provides opportunities for integration, though with local variations.
- Coastal lands have been lost to rising sea levels, with resultant loss of archaeological evidence as demonstrated at Clachan Harbour, Raasay.
- Many sites lie below more recent peat formation as at Oliclett, Caithness.
- The picture, to date, is partial due to the small number of sites. Gaps exist particularly in some areas (eg inland), and time periods (eg Late Mesolithic).
- Large areas without development permit sustained fieldwalking and other projects.
- Increased coastal erosion threatens many sites.