Late Mesolithic, Early Neolithic and Late Neolithic activity from excavations at Musselburgh Primary Health Care Centre, Inveresk Road, Musselburgh

by Ann Clarke and Magnus Kirby

A large assemblage of more than 9,800 flaked lithics was recovered during excavation of a lithic scatter by CFA-Archaeology Ltd at the site of the former Brunton Wireworks in advance of the new site of a Primary Health Care Centre in Musselburgh (PPCM) NGR: NT 3428 7224 (Clarke and Kirby in prep).

Finding and recording

The extensive spread of  flaked lithics was exposed in slope-wash deposits located at the base of a steep embankment which sloped up towards the site of Inveresk Roman Fort. Along the southern boundary the slope-wash was 0.9m deep, gradually reducing in depth and eventually petering out as it extended northwards into the site.

In order to record the lithic scatter fully two grids of test pits comprising of 202 metre squares were placed over the area of the deposit. The lithics were recovered by hand sieving 100% of the contents in 0.1m spits using sieves with a 5mm mesh. This allowed for the recovery of the smaller fraction of debitage (<10mm in maximum dimension) which ultimately accounted for around 40% of the whole assemblage.

Excavation image of six people in high-vis and helmets in the left mid-ground of a large open trench, excavating between two long rows of metal fencing. A checkered pattern is seen in the earth in the foreground, where the trench has been excavated in blocks.
Excavating the grid squares © Ann Clarke and Magnus Kirby
(Note the change in depth of the slope-wash from the deeper deposits at base of the slope and how they peter out to the right. The distribution of the lithics shows they moved vertically through the accumulations of slope-wash but not horizontally. This indicates the prehistoric occupations were located on the flatter land in front of the base of the slope)

Different materials

The lithic assemblage is particularly interesting to us because of  the different materials that were employed to make stone tools. Chert and quartz  are most common whilst flint, chalcedony, agate, jasper and pitchstone are present in smaller quantities. With the exception of pitchstone, all of the materials would have been locally available to the prehistoric inhabitants.

Chert outcrops as narrow bands across central South Scotland (Ward 2010) and it is also found as nodules in drift deposits across the southern central belt. Given the amount of water-rolled pebble cortex present in the worked chert assemblage from Musselburgh (20%), it is likely that most or all of it derives as pebbles accumulated from the erosion of boulder clay deposits in riverine or beach locations.

Pie chart showing the different materials used for making stone tools at the site. The blue section is by far the largest, representing 6891 sherds of Chert, then the orange for 2190 sherds of Chalcedony, agate and Jasper. The smallest section is pale plue and represents only 29 pieces of pitchstone.
Raw materials used for making tools © Ann Clarke and Magnus Kirby

The flint also derives from a beach pebble source. Flint is present in underwater deposits down  the E coast of Scotland and is readily washed up on beaches. Within the flint assemblage there are 20 pieces of a distinctive mottled grey flint, nine of which have a characteristic ‘icing-sugar’ type cortex or soft chalky cortex in contrast to the hard rolled pebble cortex characteristic of the locally derived beach pebble flint. Fine, mottled grey flint such as this is often selected for Late Neolithic flint working (Manby 1974, Suddaby and Ballin 2011). At Musselburgh, this fine flint is used specifically for two knives, a thumbnail scraper, a side-scraper as well as three flakes with faceted platforms all of which are a feature of Late Neolithic flint work.

Water-rolled pebbles of quartz were knapped. They come from the erosion of local glacial till deposits which in turn derived from the conglomerate of Old Red Sandstone in which the quartz pebbles occurred.

Agate, chalcedonies and jasper are formed during volcanic activity and pebbles derived from the erosion of lavas in the local area are easily found on the present day beach at Musselburgh.

Pitchstone is a volcanic glass which outcrops on Arran. This island is the most likely the source for all the worked pitchstone found on archaeological sites around Northern Britain (Williams Thorpe and Thorpe 1984; Ballin and Ward 2008). This stone was therefore brought to the site to work and use.

The tools

The evidence points to a largely Late Mesolithic lithic assemblage of blades and flakes made from platform core working. Microliths, specifically backed bladelets and fine points were also manufactured as well as scrapers, awls and other edge retouched tools. Chert, flint, quartz, agate, chalcedony and jasper were all worked in this manner.

A coloured graph showing the proportion of each type of sherds, cores, blades etc found in each of the materials. The largest proportions in each case are flakes and small flakes, with the least represented being retouched tools and microliths.
Artefact types and material © Ann Clarke and Magnus Kirby

A distinctive quartz flake assemblage of robust secondary flakes or ‘segments’ was produced in an ad hoc way through bipolar working of quartz pebbles. The greater proportion of the quartz pieces show no evidence for classic Mesolithic manufacturing methods in the form of blade production, although  four quartz microliths are present.

The small assemblage of pitchstone includes flakes, blades, a scraper fragment and a small, backed blade all of which are likely to date to the Early Neolithic.

In the Late Neolithic a small group of distinctive flint tools was deposited across the centre of the site to become somewhat mixed with the earlier material by vertical displacement within the soils.

Four small groupings of quartz flakes and small blades and one larger piece or quartz placed on a gray background with a scale. The flakes are grouped by size, with the larger groups lined up and the smaller flakes place together in a small pile.
Debris from bipolar working of quartz pebbles

Mesolithic Ochre

A particularly interesting find is the lump of worked ochre which bears a worn concave face with visible bands of fine ribs and grooves. These marks have been left on the ochre by rubbing it against a narrow, ribbed shape possibly antler, bone or wood.

A piece of worn ochre with very similar wear traces to the one from this site was found during excavations at the Late Mesolithic site at Flixton School House Farm, N Yorkshire (Taylor 2009). A large collection of around 50 pieces of worked ochre comes from the Late Mesolithic site at Stainton West, Cumbria (Brown et al forthcoming).

A flake from a ground stone axehead

Evidence for the reshaping of a ground stone axehead is in the form of a thinning flake of an unidentified fine-grained stone. The manufacture and use of ground stone axeheads dates from the Early Neolithic to the Later Neolithic and occasionally into the Early Bronze Age (Edmonds 1990). The combination of ground stone axeheads (or fragments of axeheads), and worked pitchstone is frequently associated with Early Neolithic contexts and it is likely that the axehead flake from Musselburgh was deposited during the Early Neolithic period.

Where and when

The lithic assemblage from Musselburgh is all that remains of a series of prehistoric occupations or activities originally situated along the edge of a wet area, within a sand dune system near the banks of the River North Esk. The river would have been tidal and much wider beyond the broad oxbow on which the lithic scatter site is located.

No material for radiocarbon dating was present and in the absence of scientific dating evidence it is not known just exactly when or for how long the place was used. Analysis of the lithic deposits suggests that the bulk of the worked lithics was formed together and most likely at the transition period between Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic. Here, microlithic elements of the Late Mesolithic are closely associated with more classic Early Neolithic forms such as pitchstone blades and the ground stone axehead flake.

Where does the worked quartz fit in?

Large assemblages of flaked quartz are known from other Late Mesolithic sites, such as Lealt Bay and Lussa River, both on Jura; and Shieldaig, Inverness-shire. All of these assemblages show the common use of bipolar working (Ballin 2008) particularly at the Jura sites where quartz cobbles were reduced with bipolar working to produce flakes. Quartz microliths are also present at these sites together with microlithic flint assemblages.

The lithic assemblage from the Late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic shell midden site at Cnoc Coig, Oronsay comprised a combination of microlithic forms and large bipolar quartz flakes (Pirie 2006). This provides evidence that two different lithic reduction strategies were used together during the occupation of the site.

Given the precedence for bipolar quartz working at other Late Mesolithic sites it is likely that the quartz assemblage from Musselburgh is contemporary with the microlithic assemblages of chert and flint. The quartz microliths at Musselburgh, though few, demonstrates that quartz was also used for the manufacture of retouched tools during the Late Mesolithic.

Lithic assemblages which include a range of different raw materials, including pitchstone, together with microlithic tools and large flake elements could now be interpreted as evidence for a distinctive tool kit that was in use during the Late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic transition period.


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