5. The Early Prehistory of Argyll: The archaeological record, research themes and future priorities for the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Earliest Neolithic periods (12000BP – 6000BP) (10,050BC – 4050BC)

Steven Mithen1

1 Department of Archaeology, University of Reading, Reading, RG6 6AB

With contributions, images, feedback, critical comment and participation at workshops from: Darko Mariečević, Alison Sheridan, Richard Tipping, Caroline Wickham-Jones, Karen Wicks

Brief Summary:

At the end of the last ice age around 11,500 years ago Scotland was slowly colonised by vegetation and animals. Humans followed, hunting, fishing and gathering plants, and utilising a range of resources other resources including stone for making tools and the natural topography for shelter and fish-traps. One of the earliest sites of human occupation in Scotland has been found at Rubha Port an t-Seilich on the Isle of Islay, where 12,000 years ago, people set up a temporary camp, to fish, and hunt, possibly during the summer of a warm period towards the end of the ice age. Archaeologists call this time period Palaeolithic (old stone age).

People continued to come to Argyll, initially for short exploratory visits, and then becoming a resident but mobile population after 10,000 years ago and during the Mesolithic period. Judging by the archaeological record, these people tended to favour island and coastal locations. They moved around, making temporary camps, using the resources of both the land and the sea – and that critical interface, the extraordinary coastal fringe of Argyll. Stone, wood and other natural materials were used to make tools. These hunter-gatherer fisher people did not keep domesticated animals, except possibly dogs (although not direct evidence has been found in Argyll). Around 8,200 years ago, archaeologists detected a decline in the numbers of people living here, which they think was related to a marked drop in temperature. This cold period lasted to around 6,600 years ago, when warming temperatures seem to have enabled population growth and/or resettlement. Argyll has some of the most prolific Mesolithic archaeology of anywhere in Scotland, partly due to the availability of resources here in prehistory, but also because there has been a lot of archaeological work on this time period in Argyll. However, most of the evidence we find is in the form of stone tools, which are only part of the story of the lives of the people who visited Argyll and who lived here between 12,000 and 6,000 years ago.

Throughout this section the term BP is used. BP means Before Present where ‘present’ is defined as AD 1950. BP is a dating convention often used when discussing early chronological period. To work out the BC date minus 1950 from the BP date. For example 11,500 BP is the same as 9550 BC.