2.2.2 The Lowland Mesolithic

As the Tay estuary gradually cleared of retreating ice from the Late Devensian glaciation around 15,000 years ago, the emerging landscape of Perth and Kinross and its natural resources became accessible for hunter-gatherer communities. The earliest dated Mesolithic activity comes from a pit alignment at Wellhill, Dunning (MPK7184) which suggests that transient groups were successfully navigating up the River Earn into Strath Earn from the Tay estuary during the Late Mesolithic (Wright and Brophy forthcoming). Wellhill is situated around 1.5 km south of the main postglacial shoreline and sufficiently inland to indicate that early hunter-gatherer activity extended beyond coastal subsistence camps near the estuary. Although no lithic artefacts were recovered from Mesolithic contexts, radiocarbon dates of 8205 and 7525 cal BC indicate that activity was broadly contemporary with the Mesolithic pit alignments at Stonehenge, Wiltshire and Warren Fields, Aberdeenshire (see Pollard 2017, 176 for discussion on the chronological connection between Stonehenge and Warren Fields). At around 40m above sea level, Wellhill is considerably higher than the maximum of the Main Holocene Transgression. This was a rapid rise in sea level estimated at between 9 and 12m (Dawson and Cressey 2010; Dawson et al 2014, 15) that occurred towards the end of the Mesolithic period around 5630–5440 BC (Ballantyne and Dawson 1997, 39). It has been suggested that it could have destroyed evidence of earlier Mesolithic activity (Dawson et al 2014, 18; Nicol and Ballin 2019, 13). Wellhill therefore demonstrates the potential for Early Mesolithic material to survive at higher elevations in non-coastal contexts which are still within close proximity of the shore. At another inland site just 4km west of Wellhill, Forteviot, carbonised material, found in Neolithic to Bronze Age and early medieval contexts, has produced four Late Mesolithic radiocarbon dates ranging from 7510 to 6680 cal BC (Brophy and Noble 2020, 113).

Line drawing of multiple flint blades and lithics, each drawn from four different angle. They vary in shape and size, with the larger pieces at the top.
Lithic assemblage from Freeland Farm ©️ Leeanne Whitelaw

The extensive lithic assemblage discovered at Freeland Farm (MPK20049) as well as indications of Mesolithic activity from assemblages at Pitroddie (MPK20194) and East Inchmichael Farm (MPK20193; Nicol and Ballin 2019, 13) offer the first detailed insights into the activities, material exploitation and lithic technology of the hunting, gathering, fishing communities that were active along the shores of the Tay estuary in the later part of the Mesolithic (8400–4000 BC). The linear spread of lithic debitage, cores and tools parallel to the southern bank of the main postglacial shoreline at Freeland Farm provides the first confirmed evidence of a coastal settlement in the region. Such a position would have provided the transient community with access to multiple biotopes, namely the water for fishing, fowling, shellfish gathering and hunting marine mammals, and the coastal hinterland for general hunting and gathering (Nicol and Ballin 2019, 32). Freeland Farm is notable for the wealth of information which the assemblage provides for lithic raw material procurement, core preparation and tool production activities. The evidence indicates that jasper/carnelian geodes, sourced from local igneous rock, was the predominant material exploited for the manufacture of diagnostic Late Mesolithic tools types such as microblades, microburins and burins (Nicol and Ballin 2019, 30). Further east on the northern shore at Pitroddie and East Inchmichael Farm in the Carse of Gowrie, the situation is slightly different with chalcedony and agate found to be more common within the assemblages than jasper/carnelian (Nicol and Ballin 2019, 35).

Map of the locations mentioned in the text, including Freeland Farm and Pitroddie Farm. The map is in green and blue, showing the postglacial shoreline using a dotted blue line.
Location of Freeland Farm at the edge of postglacial shoreline (Ballin 2019) © Archaeology Reports Online

This is  comparable to the Mesolithic community at Morton in the Tentsmuir area of Fife where chalcedony was used extensively alongside flint (Coles et al 1971). The exploitation of jasper/carnelian is an important regional distinction which may prove to be a very localised signature of the coastal communities along the Tay estuary and a diagnostic trait of the Mesolithic period in this area (Coles et al 1971). Whether the distinction occurs for entirely pragmatic reasons such as material availability remains open for discussion, however. Nicol and Ballin (2019) suggest an appealing interpretation that the brown colouring of the jasper/carnelian had particular meaning to the communities of the Tay as a visual symbol of social identity. Just as black pitchstone may have had on Arran in the Firth of Clyde, green bloodstone on Rum in the Inner Hebrides and indeed quartz in the uplands of Perth and Kinross.

Finally, a single microburin is noteworthy here for its discovery south of the Ochil hills at Kilmagadwood (MPK20304) near the shore of Loch Leven in Kinross-shire. This example was one of 34 chipped stone artefacts recovered during community fieldwalking in 2018 (Engl 2018).