Howburn Farm and the Scottish Hamburgian

by Torben Bjarke Ballin, Lithic Research

In 2005, Biggar Archaeology Group, led by the late Tam Ward, discovered a discrete lithic scatter at Howburn Farm, Biggar. The site lies just outside the South East of Scotland Archaeological Research Framework area, but is an important site at the far end of the upper Tweed Valley and it is almost these certain the hunters would have travelled down the Tweed Valley to reach the site. The concentration of lithics was situated on a small terrace, and it included finds of mainly chert and flint. The chert artefacts were defined by diagnostic specimens as dating to the Federmesser period (12,000–10,800 BC) or the Mesolithic (9,800–4,000 BC), supplemented by some Early Neolithic pieces, whereas the flints – first thought to be Middle/Late Neolithic (3,500–2,500 BC) – turned out to be of Late Hamburgian, or Havelte period, date (12,300–12,000 BC). The Hamburgian elements would have arrived through a contact network stretching across the then dry North Sea bed generally referred to as Doggerland (Ballin 2016). Today, Howburn Farm is still the oldest prehistoric site in Scotland and the only Hamburgian site in Britain.

Following two excavations, in 2006/2009, analysis of the flints confirmed their assumed early date and, inter alia, the 5,070 lithics (2091 of which were flint) included the following Hamburgian elements: 50 en éperon flakes and blades, 35 opposed platform cores, 29 tanged points (plus several combined tools with a tanged end), 120 flint scrapers (many based on en éperon blanks and with acute working-edges), three Zinken, five becs, 34 burins (16 of which on truncations), and 13 combined tools (combining arrowhead, scraper, burin, piercer, Zinken/bec, truncation and strike-a-light functions) (Ballin et al 2018).

Analysis of other Scottish Late Upper Palaeolithic assemblages (LUP) (eg Milltimber Zone 4 in Aberdeenshire, Lunanhead in Angus, Guardbridge in Fife and South Cuidrach on Skye; Ballin 2019b; 2021; forthcoming; Hardy and Ballin 2024) supported the impression from Howburn that Scottish LUP industries aimed at producing broad blades mainly from large opposed-platform cores (Fig 1), where for example Mesolithic industries aimed at producing small broad blades or narrow blades from conical single-platform cores  (cf Ballin 2019a). Opposed-platform cores from Mesolithic sites tend to represent redefinition of conical cores.

The Hamburgian blade industries are characterised (along with Late Magdalenian and Creswellian industries) by the application of en éperon technique (Fig 2), that is, the preparation of finely faceted platform-edges with a small spur (éperon) at the centre (Barton 1990). Furthermore, these industries are also characterised by a much more vigorous form of core preparation, producing substantially higher numbers of crested pieces and platform rejuvenation flakes than for example Mesolithic industries (Ballin 2019a).

Digital line drawing of a stone showing it from four angles - top, bottom, left and right. It is drawn with black lines on a white background.
Fig. 1. Opposed-platform core from Howburn, South Lanarkshire (Ballin et al 2018; artist: H. Martingell)
Digital line drawings of two stones side by side, showing them from four angles - top, bottom, left and right. They are drawn with black lines on a white background.
Fig. 2. En eperon blades from Howburn, South Lanarkshire (Ballin et al 2018; artist: M. O’Neil)

The tanged points of the Havelte phase are defined by being relatively large, with asymmetrical tangs and a lateral ‘notch-and-spur’ feature, as well as an obliquely truncated tip (Fig 3). As mentioned above, Hamburgian scrapers tend to have acute working-edges (Fig 4). Interestingly, the few Zinken from Howburn are slender blade-based specimens with a single tip, whereas the Continental ones are more numerous, more robust, and they tend to have a curved tip at either end (Weber 2012), giving them an outline resembling a paragraph sign (§).

In Hamburgian industries, combined tools tend to be more numerous than in all post-Palaeolithic industries. At the present time, it is uncertain whether the low number of Zinken at Howburn, and the different appearance of these pieces compared to those from contemporary Continental sites, is a regional feature, or whether Howburn may represent slightly different activities (for example a different economy) than other Hamburgian sites, and that Scottish Hamburgian assemblages to be discovered in the future may therefore include higher numbers of Zinken as well as the ‘ultra-diagnostic’ double-Zinken should these assemblages represent more traditional Hamburgian economies.

Digital line drawing of a pointed stones, showing it from four angles - top, bottom, left and right. They are drawn with black lines on a white background.
Fig. 3. Typical Havelte point from Howburn, South Lanarkshire (Ballin et al 2018; artist: M. O’Neil).
Digital line drawings of three oblong shaped stones side by side, showing them each from four angles - top, bottom, left and right. They are drawn with black lines on a white background.
Fig. 4. Typical blade-scrapers with acute scraper-edges from Howburn, South Lanarkshire. The two specimens to the left are based on en eperon blanks (Ballin et al 2018; artist: M. O’Neil).

Distribution analysis was carried out in connection with the processing of the lithic finds from Howburn, and the artefacts seemed to indicate the presence of of two dwellings, probably tent-like structures similar to those associated with present-day reindeer herders in Arctic Siberia (eg the Nenets; Nelson 2014). Distribution analysis of a Hamburgian/Federmesser site in southern Jutland (Slotseng) created a star-shaped figure indicating the presence of stakes, identifying the likely structure as a tepee (Holm 1991). A similar figure was formed in connection with the distribution analysis of the blades from the probably Ahrensburgian site at Guardbridge in Fife (Ballin forthcoming).

In Saville (2004), a piece from Fairnington in the Scottish Borders was presented as a possible Creswellian angle-backed point, but when this analyst at a later time discussed the piece with the late Alan Saville, the latter suggested that he now found the object ‘dubious’ and that corroborating future evidence was necessary to include the Fairnington piece as a LUP artefact. Two pieces from different sites in Aberdeenshire (Clarke in Wickham-Jones et al 2021) have been presented as Early Hamburgian shouldered points, but the present analyst disagrees with this suggestion – one of the two Aberdeenshire pieces has the outline of a shouldered point but not the necessary basal modification and the other piece is more likely to be an Early Mesolithic isosceles triangle, and most certainly not a shouldered point (Ballin 2022). Present evidence indicates that the northwards expansion of the Hamburgian began around the Early/Late Hamburgian transition (several Havelte sites are known from southern Denmark but as yet no Meiendorf/Classic Hamburgian sites). However, more evidence is clearly needed to increase our understanding of the earliest settlers in Scotland.

Most likely, the settlers at Howburn were reindeer hunters, following herds of reindeer from Doggerland and into southern Scotland. With Howburn being located in the so-called Biggar Gap, between the Tweed and the Clyde, it is almost certain that these groups of hunters reached Howburn via the Tweed Valley. This suggests that Hamburgian (as well as later Federmesser and Ahrensburgian) sites may be present along the Tweed, probably located on small terraces allowing the settlers to keep an eye on moving herds of reindeer. Identifying Hamburgian and other LUP assemblages and individual diagnostic artefacts in Tweed Valley museum collections is a distinct possibility but this process is associated with a number of problems. The main problem is that the raw material preferred by Middle/Late Neolithic settlers (usually referred to as Yorkshire flint; eg Ballin 2011b) is similar to that exploited by for example the settlers at Hamburgian Howburn, and that the Middle/Late Neolithic Levallois-like technique (Ballin 2011a) produced blades with platform-remnant attributes (fine faceting) like the Hamburgian en éperon blades, the only difference being that the en éperon blades have a small central spur in addition to the fine faceting.

But it is this analyst’s conviction that more Late Hamburgian camps are to be discovered along the Tweed. When the analyst examined the lithic collection of Hawick Museum (in connection with his investigation of Middle/Late Neolithic assemblages in southern and central Scotland) he identified a substantial proportion of the flints as probably Middle/Late Neolithic, but it cannot be ruled out that some of these pieces could be of a Late Hamburgian date. Other museum and private collections from sites along the Tweed should also be examined.


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