4.4.2 Material Culture

Far more than other periods, the identification and interpretation of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic activity depends largely on artefacts. Some, such as Palaeolithic points and Mesolithic microliths, are key diagnostic indicators. Increasingly however, excavation from dated contexts are providing information on the range of other objects and their uses, together with insights into procurement of raw materials and workmanship (see also section 4.7).


Much of the evidence for Palaeolithic and Mesolithic activity in the Highlands is dependent on the recognition of diagnostic lithics. The general overview of material culture for these periods has been discussed by Saville (2004a). Lithic identification and analysis was also discussed with references in the ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sections 4.1.1, 5.4, together with a good discussion of microliths as a case study ‘Chronological developments – ‘Broad’ and ‘Narrow Blade’ technologies’ and a download on ‘ScARF Lithic identification and analysis’. Further work since the National ScARF on Scottish and Highland material includes work by Torben Ballin (2019; 2021) who argues that archaeologists need systematic terminology for lithics as this is essential to discussions and consistent comparisons. A broad consensus on terminology is now emerging, though there is still some individual nomenclature, and the need to understand historic terminology remains (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 5.4). Training is necessary to allow more people to identify significant types of lithics, to enable the classification of material from fieldwalking as well as to reassess museum collections. In Aberdeenshire the successful programme organised by Mesolithic Deeside bears testament to the value of this sort of programme (http://www.mesolithicdeeside.org/; Wickham-Jones et al 2021).


Evidence for Palaeolithic activity in the Highlands is slim, and confined to distinctive lithics. The find of an Ahrensburgian tanged point, from Shieldaig, Wester Ross (MHG7704) is one of only a few lithics of this type from recorded excavations across Scotland. Although the tanged point was recovered from a disturbed surface layer – along with Mesolithic microliths and two Neolithic arrowheads (Ballin and Saville 2003) – this type of lithic from a Scottish context has been dated to 10800–9800 cal BC (Ballin 2021). Recent lithic finds from An Corran (MHG35899; Case Study An Corran) and South Cuidrach, Skye (MHG59071) also appear to date to this early period (Hardy et al 2020). Further ongoing analysis and investigation with radiocarbon dating is in progress at South Cuidrach.

Shieldaig tanged point. Duncan Anderson ©National Museums Scotland


With the advent of the Holocene, changes in artefact assemblages occurred across this corner of northwest Europe, where they manifested as the introduction of microlithic industries. These changes are generally interpreted as representative of the introduction of new hunting technologies, namely the bow. Microliths are made by a process of working small blades, the manufacture of which requires very specific knapping techniques. In general, when a site contains evidence for the manufacture of blades rather than flakes, it is regarded as a possible Mesolithic site; larger blades can also be an indication of Palaeolithic or Neolithic material.

8 microliths in various sizes
Microliths from Inverness (Castle Street excavations), Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. ©Michael Sharpe

Microliths, and the blade industries on which they are based, can be divided into two types: broad (>8mm wide) and narrow (<8mm wide).  In England, broad blades predate narrow blades and the change to narrow blades has been argued to relate to increasing isolation, and local development after the loss of continental connection via Doggerland sometime before 7500 BC (Jacobi 1976). Current thinking, however, suggests that the picture may be more nuanced. Broad blade assemblages do occur in Scotland, including in the Highlands, but the interpretation of the evidence has been problematic, not least because broad blades often postdate narrow blades (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 4.1.1). Nevertheless, increasing finds of broad blades across the country, including at An Corran and South Cuidrach on Skye, mean that it is no longer possible to dismiss the occurrence of broad blades in the Highlands.

While microliths are the most diagnostic lithic find for the Mesolithic, the exact way they were used is still being discussed (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 5.2.2). They are thought to have been used in arrows, but may also have been hafted (attached to a handle or pole) for other tasks; one explanation is unlikely to account for the number of artefacts found. Micro-wear analysis should be a more standard tool for the examination of well contexted assemblages (Saville 2004a, 187–188).

Archaeologists tend to identify Mesolithic sites through the presence of narrow blade microliths (Map 4.1, Datasheet 4.1). The scarcity of later sites suggests that researchers are not recognising the later stone tools. Many lithic scatter sites have prolific lithics but lack microliths; for example, the lithic scatters at the edge of the raised beach at Staffin in Skye. Sites such as these are often dismissed as ‘nondescript’ in the quest for type fossils, though they may well help to fill some of the gaps in knowledge. These sites, however, are precisely the type of site that should be excavated in order to understand just where they fit into the picture of prehistoric activity. The absence of microliths may depend on site function, particularly in later Mesolithic midden sites (National ScARF Case Study The Obanian), and/or on the development of regional styles in response to raw material availability, as suggested for the Western Isles (Piper 2016).

The complete disappearance of all that is recognised as Mesolithic within a few centuries of the appearance of recognisably Neolithic material has long been noticed. But in actual fact, in many places, it may have started to take place earlier; but archaeologists do not currently recognise what happens to the Mesolithic evidence over time. Not only is there a need to identify more sites, there is also a need to re-examine some of those poorly understood generic lithic scatters.

Bone and Antler

An antler spear or harpoon from Tarradale. By Michael Sharpe ©NoSAS

Bone and antler only survive where conditions are favourable. In the Highlands Sand, Wester Ross, Risga, Lochaber and Tarradale all have produced barbed points and harpoons: characteristic but not common Mesolithic finds (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009; Grant 2020). A bone harpoon was also found at Gorton Sands and is currently on display at the West Highland Museum which awaiting Treasure Trove allocation. The Risga example preserves a basal perforation which would have allowed it to be fixed to a shaft. The function of these points is debated, but they could have been for thrusting or as throwing weapons, used in both fishing and hunting. Dates have been obtained elsewhere in Scotland, from 7th and 6th millennia BC, but none from Highland have been dated so far (Saville 2004, 197–198).

At Tarradale two T-axes (antler mattocks) were also found. Together with the example from Risga, Lochaber. The Highlands now has three of the seven known mattocks from Scotland; the others are from central and western sites (Saville 2004a, 198–200; Peteranna and Birch 2017c; Grant 2020). The functions of these tools are also debated; woodworking, digging and butchery have all been suggested (Saville 2004a, 199–200). The Risga example has been dated to 5250–4600 cal BC (OxA-2023; Saville 2004a, 201). The Tarradale examples have not been dated, but bones and charcoal in the same area produced late Mesolithic dates (Grant 2020; see also Datasheet 2.1).

An antler T-axe from Tarradale. By Michael Sharpe ©NoSAS

Other bone and antler objects such as points and bevel-ended tools, as well as coarse stone tools, have a wider chronological range and cannot be ascribed to specific parts of the Mesolithic (Saville 2004, 204). The radiocarbon dating of the bevel-ended bone tools from An Corran, Skye, indicates their continued use in the Neolithic and Bronze Age (Saville et al 2012, 74).

While a number of lithic and bone/antler tools survive, identifying function is fraught with problems. Micro- and macro-wear analysis can help to resolve this and was recommended in the National ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic panel 5.2.2. Steven Birch’s (2009) experimental archaeology work based on material from Sand, Wester Ross was able to provide useful insights into using bone tools for the processing of plants, the working of hides and the procurement of shellfish. For example, the bone bevel-ended tools were unlikely to have been used as limpet scoops, but may well have been for hide working. Though results were sometimes difficult to interpret, the study of residues on bone tools from Sand and Loch a’Sguirr was pioneering work (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 5.2.2 , Hardy 2009).


The worked remains of some cowrie and scallop shells at Sand show these items were also utilised for non-food purposes.  A few cut scallop shells were found, and one pointed shell shows evidence that it was used for cutting. The discovery of perforated cowrie shells clearly indicates a deliberate act even if the reasons are not clear. For example, they could have been used for decoration, but ethnographic evidence shows potential for wider uses, for example as fertility amulets (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009 9.4.7), Other perforated cowrie shells from Scotland were found in Oronsay, Ulva and Oban. They are also found throughout northwestern Europe (Saville 2004, 200–202), Future excavations and reassessment of archival collections should play close attention for worked and modified shell.

Cut scallop shell from Sand. ©Scotland’s First Settlers Project

Wood, Plants and Hides

No examples of Scottish Mesolithic art survive, but it is possible that artwork was carved into wood or made of other organic materials (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 6.1; Saville 2004). Evidence of surface wear on nodules of haematite and ochre from Sand suggests that these objects were used for the manufacture of pigments. Several bevel-ended tools from this site had chemical traces of iron or manganese oxide both of which could have been used to add colour. Dogwhelk was possibly used for dyes (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2004a, 9.4.8).  More work is needed on pigments in the Mesolithic.

The perforated cowrie shells mentioned above could have been used for jewellery, but as is the case elsewhere in Britain, there is little evidence of other artefacts which have been interpreted as items of decoration. No stone beads similar to those known from the Mesolithic in England and Wales have been found in Scotland (Saville 2004a, 202; ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 6.1). Organic materials could have also been used.


Case Study: An Corran

Case Study: The Obanian

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