4.5.1 Lithics

Much Mesolithic evidence comprises lithic scatter sites – where knapping and other activities have taken place; (see Chapter 4.3, Tables 4.2 and 4.3), and several of these sites have been recorded throughout the Highlands. They leave no doubt that stone tools were manufactured and used in all of Scotland throughout the Mesolithic. The better preservation of stone in the archaeological record should, however, be remembered. The reliance on stone tends to say more about the way in which archaeology is practiced in the 21st century rather than about how people lived their lives in the past. Other artefacts, that were made of materials such as wood, bone, plant, or shell, are likely to have been just as significant to the average Mesolithic hunter.

The study of stone tools is, nevertheless, a major source of information about life in the Mesolithic. Coarse stone tools also provide a further dimension to understanding Mesolithic craft and technology (Clarke 2009). A number of studies have investigated raw materials (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sections 2.2, 4.1.1, 5.2.2, 5.5). The Scotland’s First Settlers (SFS) project not only analysed the artefacts themselves, but also visited major sources of raw materials, as well as consulting geologists (Wickham-Jones 2009a); a model approach to the issue. At Sand, Wester Ross (Case Study Sand), a comprehensive sieving policy ensured the detailed recovery of even the smallest finds. Bias in collecting can be a factor, particularly with older projects, as can the lack of expertise in identifying materials.

The main raw materials used at Sand from top left; Rum Bloodstone (x2), baked mudstone (x2), quartz (x3), with chalcedonic silica in the centre (x3) © Hardy & Wickham Jones (2009)

In general, the Scottish picture shows that raw materials and artefacts tended to be locally made and used and that this is true across the Highlands. There is, as yet, no evidence for the long distance exchange of goods or materials in Scotland at this time. People tended to use local resources, though it has to be remembered that lifestyles were mobile enough that ‘local’ is a very relative concept. Choice of material was conditioned by the needs of the task, by availability and by the ease with which specific materials could be shaped as required, as shown at Sand, Wester Ross (Wickham-Jones 2009a). It is important to remember that the period in question lasted for millennia and evidence for change over this long timescale should be expected.

Flint was generally sourced as pebble flints from both beach and glacial gravels. Gravel sources of flint are, however, scarce across much of the Highlands so alternatives had to be sought. In the west, other materials included quartz, quartzite and chert, as well as a range of localised siliceous rocks such as Rùm bloodstone, or baked mudstones. Flint is a chalcedonic silica, as are chert, agate and jasper, all of which have been used for stone tools in the Highlands (Wickham-Jones 2009a). The SFS project (Case Study Scotland’s First Settlers Project) recovered very little flint, but found a wide range of alternatives would have served just as well (Wickham-Jones 2009a). In Lochaber, a number of Mesolithic sites, such as North Barr River, did make use of flint (MHG53627; Finlay 2019; MacGregor 2019).

Flint is much more common in the eastern Highlands, and this is reflected in the local lithic assemblages. For example, at Inverness Castle Street (MHG3673; Wordsworth 1985) and at Tarradale across the firth (Grant 2020), flint dominated. At Inverness, the low proportion of core preparation and trimming waste – the remains left from the initial working of flint to create lithics – suggested that prepared nodules were brought in to the site from elsewhere (Wordsworth 1985). At the inland site of Oliclett in Caithness (MHG29867) the assemblage was predominantly flint, and the analysis suggested that cores were selected and prepared at the source before being transported to the site (Pannett and Baines 2006).

In the area investigated by the SFS project in Wester Ross and eastern Skye, baked mudstone and tuffs sourced from Skye were used for lithics (Wickham-Jones 2009a). At Clachan Harbour on Raasay, Skye, excavation revealed a small assemblage of lithics along with preserved (natural) timbers and peat dated to the 8th millennium BC (Ballin et al 2010). Raasay is now in the intertidal zone. The problems of lithic identification are flagged by this site where different opinions from geologists resulted in some doubt as to whether the material was a baked mudstone or a tuff.  New research is constantly refining our understanding of the raw materials for lithics.

Bloodstone sites. Map by Fiona Jackson ©Torben Ballin

Another chalcedonic silica, commonly known as Rum bloodstone appears in outcrops on the island of Rùm. It is not always easy to knap, though it is easy to collect and holds a good working edge. Unsurprisingly it was the most common material used at Mesolithic sites on Rum, including the site at Kinloch (MHG3987; Wickham-Jones 1990; Birch 2018a; Case Study Kinloch Rùm) but it is also found at other sites in the western Highlands, up to 80 km away, including in Lochaber (Ballin 2016, 35; 2018; Case Study Mesolithic bloodstone artefacts from Camas Daraich). Evidence of Rùm bloodstone is a good indicator of group mobility (see 4.7).

Quartz and quartzite were also used on many sites though their knapping qualities can be more unpredictable. Worked quartz can be harder to identify, suggesting that it may be underrepresented in older published assemblages (Wickham-Jones 2009a). At Shieldaig, Wester Ross (MHG7704), quartz was the main material, although the Palaeolithic tanged point was made of flint (Ballin and Saville 2003; Birch 2013).

Another diagnostic lithic raw material is Arran pitchstone a volcanic rock of limited origin in Arran. Although this was in wider circulation in later periods such as the Neolithic, Mesolithic use of Arran Pitchstone is more limited, though its findspots are spread over a wider area than other materials: up to 600km from the source (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009, 9.6.3; Ballin 2018, 251).

At Lub Dubh Aird on Loch Torridon, Wester Ross (MHG54901), a scatter of predominantly flint artefacts and cores on the beach, is one of several found on the shores of the loch. The nature of the finds, compared with other sites in the area, suggests the possibility that this was a site for gathering raw materials rather than one for domestic activities (Hardy et al 2015, 33-34). Further work into the sources and distribution of the different materials across the Highlands would be useful. To date, there is no evidence for quarrying or extraction in the Highlands – though it does occur elsewhere Scotland (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 2.2) though sites may yet be found.

Leave a Reply