'Current Archaeology' - April 2010

12 Mar 2010

Paul and Barbara Brown have discovered, recorded and published hundreds of marked rock faces in northern Britain. The latest example comes from Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Stone number 1594 in their collection is a wedge shaped sandstone boulder with 81 cups, 16 of them surrounded by single rings and one with three rings, all incorporated within a sea (or sky?) of shallow 'pecked' grooves. It doesn't seem to have any connection with plasma or aurorae but the ring as a shape was of course reproduced in henges and stone circles, and round barrows. The stone's decoration has many parallels elsewhere on the high moorland and a good place to start might be Stan Beckinsall's book, Prehistoric Rock Art in Britain, Amberley Publishing:2009, or by the same author and publisher, Northumberland's Hidden History.

The major article of this issue has the title, 'Neolithic Temples of the Northern Isles: New Discoveries in Orkney'. People used to think the whaleback ridge between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness stone circles were a natural rock formation. It lies in the middle of a natural bowl - mostly filled with the water of Lochs Harray and Stenness. In the Neolithic era the lochs were not so extensive but exactly why the sea level has risen in this part of the world, when northern Britain is supposed to be rising out of the sea as a result of bounce-back, has not been explained to the general public. From the ridge can be seen both circles plus Maes Howe, the Watch Stone, and the Barnhouse Stone. Not far away is the Neolithic settlement of Barnhouse (excavated in the 1980s). However, the whaleback ridge it seems is an artificial mound made from monumental stone structures, dirt and rubble, and huge heaps of refuse from middens that had accumulated over hundreds of years (shells, animal and fish bones, domestic rubbish and food remains). Several thousand years of Neolithic structures make up the mound - somewhat like a Middle East tell. It is so deep the bottom won't be reached for some time to come.

The topmost monument was 15m by 10m and survived to around 1m in height. There were several phases of remodelling and re-use. It somewhat resembles the subterranean house at Skara Brae but was free standing when built. It is surrounded by large amounts of midden material - dumped outside the walls. This appears to have been an attempt to erase the building from the landscape.

A massive central building found by geophysical survey measured some 25m by 20m and had a cruciform inner chamber similar in design to the Maes Howe plan (on which it is aligned). Over 80 separated panels of finely incised geometric art have been discovered at the site - so far. These are mainly cup and cup and ring symbols. Seven earlier structures have been isolated by geophysics - and a huge double faced stone wall ran around the perimeter, 6m wide (which is much wider than Hadrians Wall). See also www.orkneyjar.com for more information on archaeology in the Orkneys.

ditto ..... another important article, as far as ancient history is concerned, is 'Diving into the Mesolithic: a submerged landscape researched' by Garry Momber. The waters of the Solent are deep and fast flowing - but it is proving to be a prehistoric mirror as the lost secrets of Bouldnor Cliff are revealed. In the 2009 excavation season a drowned substantial wooden structure was found - and it dates way back into the Mesolithic era. It was in fact a boat building facility - and they were accomplished carpenters and wood workers. It had been thought that carpentry skills arrived with the first farming communities but this find dates a couple of thousand years earlier than the Neolithic. In fact, it illustrates that we know extremely little about the Mesolithic era - apart from microliths and caches of hazlenut shells, and the odd brushwood shelter. Around 6000BC vast tracts of lowland Britain were lost to the sea. The actual level of the sea at that time changed by 12m - for whatever reason. Global warming is the usual culprit marched out of the cupboard, but the sea level change coincided with a 400 years cooling phase (a mini younger Dryas event). According to Paul Dunbavin (see SIS Book Service) a small change in the rotation of the earth hastened in the Mid Holocene Warm Period (5800-3200BC) and the geoid readjusted itself - including the oceans of the world. Stephen Oppenheimer, in Eden in the East: The drowned continent of SE Asia, Weidenfeld and Nicolson: 1998 (see review in SIS) thought a huge tectonic event in western North America sent a massive tsunami across the Pacific to drown Sundaland - most of what is now Indonesia was once a single landmass. The Dunbavin theory is a better explanation - but he is not sure what might have caused the rotation to change (it was not a displacement of the poles). What is certain is that some parts of the world were drowned - and other parts emerged out of the sea (quite unlike the idea of global warming causing a uniform sea level rise). It is significant that most of the continental shelf system around NW Britain disappeared at this time - and that means many of the Mesolithic people may have died. The same situation has been catalogued in NE Scotland, and the remains of Mesolithic settlements were overwhelmed. Conventional archeologists regard the Holocene as a fairly peaceful period of human existence in which global populations were able to grow exponentially. Clearly the natural world was not as benevolent as the conventional position allows.

The Isle of Wight in the early Holocene era was a large piece of land. In fact, the evidence is that the Channel was fairly narrow at this time and it is known that England and France were still joined, roughly from the Wash down to Kent. The Solent, as the marine archaeologists have discovered, was a dry valley - and the boat building facility was near a coastal sandbar between two freshwater streams. The cliff is in the process of being eroded away as the Solent has become a fast running deep current of water and therefore there is a need to find out as much as possible in the shortest space of time. The site was found after fishermen trawling the sea bottom brought up woodland floor material nearby - in the 1980s. The interesting thing here is that if gradual sea level rise had occurred most of this material would have been washed out to sea. The survival of such material strongly suggests the event happened very quickly - engulfing the countryside and woodland immediately so there was no time for it to be eroded by tides. Peat and timber were discovered by divers on the sea bed and they reported trees rooted into a black earthy bottom. Antlers could be seen sticking out of the eroding cliff face. In a peat shelf at the base of the cliff stone tools were found - belonging to the Mesolithic repertoire. A dendrochronological  sequence, some 285 years long, was extracted from timber, and showed occupation between 6060-5890BC, on what had been a sandbar. The geology of the cliff itself was composed of 7m of Holocene mud flat sediments. The boat building facility, however, is dated a little earlier, at 6370-6060BC. Archaeologist now understand how boats were fashioned at this time, a skill that probably goes back deep into the Palaeolithic era. The technical ability they possessed was unexpected - but archaeologists never cease to be surprised by what they unearth.