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Bouldnor Cliff

12 June 2015

This is basically an update on a post already done some weeks ago. It is derived from British Archaeology magazine of June 2015 which has an article about grain found in Mesolithic contexts below Bouldnor Cliff in the Solent 'seaway' as a result of a sharp downward cutting out of a channel along the bottom of this busy sea lane (leading to Southampton Docks). The scouring of the channel, produced by fast flowing water, uncovered a site some years ago that has received a lot of attention. The recent find of einkorn wheat is a controversial discovery that seems to knock a hole through consensus theory and time lines on how and when the UK and Ireland were colonised by early farmers – see www.britisharchaeology.org. The discovery of wheat (or wheat flour) dating several thousand years earlier than mainstream allows seems to fly in the face of Gordon Childe who wrote about the evolution of societies some 80 years ago.

It is recognised that wheat arrived with the first farmers yet evidence of it in Mesolithic contexts is puzzling – and suggests the hunter gatherer peoples of the time were more advanced, or in contact with more advanced civilisations elsewhere. Gordon Childe was what we might call in the modern world a Progressive and clearly visualised the advance of human society in increments rather than leaps, a gradual evolution with a distinct Marxist frame of thought, a series of step changes with each one more progressive than the previous. This view was highly influential in his day and dominated archaeology between the wars and in the following decades. He was a leading proponent. Academia is apparently in thrall to such concepts and they are transferred into the hard sciences – including geology  (even today). We seem to have a clear case of diffusion in this instance – but it didn't lead to advances in culture.

Mesolithic people in Britain and Ireland seem to have lived in houses, permanent settlements, and they managed herds of wild animals (such as red deer) and encouraged stands of hazel (as the nuts were a substantial part of their diet, in season), and had domesticated animals (such as the dog) which shared their diet (bones and scraps). The idea of farming was there in the Mesolithic but evidence of actual soil cultivation is lacking – if you assume hazels were reproduced by cuttings and the planting of nuts in holes in the ground. It therefore means that actual farming, with the presence of familiar farm animals such as cows and sheep and pigs, arrived as a result of a migration of new human groups into the country (several thousand years later than the Bouldnor Cliff deposit). This has recently been dated around 4200-4100BC, and the new migrants quickly reached most parts of Britain very quickly, as if driven by some unknown motivation to escape something dreadful. The fate of the Mesolithic people is currently mostly unknown but it is possible they learned to live alongside the newcomers and adopted some of the introduced practises, learning to herd cattle instead of red deer (as an example).

Grains such as einkorn and emmer wheat are usually taken as prime indicators of the onset of the Neolithic (as defined by Childe) almost anywhere in Europe. Text books show a gradual spread of farming from Anatolia into the Balkans where it fanned out through the Danube Valley or on to the steppe zone, eventually colonising the northern European Plain. The movement into Britain was quite late in the sequence. However, it is also thought that farming was also spread along the Atlantic coast, reaching western parts of the UK and Ireland from Brittany and Iberia. The big question is by what degree the coastlines have changed over the last 8000 years and was Britain still connected to the mainland in 4000BC. In mainstream this is out of the question as sea level is regarded as a gradual progression since the Ice Age, going up all the time and never going down. However, once you embrace catastrophist thinking, sea level rise can be seen not as a simple exponential and continuous upwards movement but as a result of a shift of ocean water around the ocean basins, in that the equatorial bulge would move if the axis of rotation were changed. Hence, the smooth graph of upwards rising sea levels may be a complete red herring and the seas may have been both going up and coming down.

We do know there was a major rise in sea level around 6200-6000BC as the southern basin of the North Sea is thought to have been inundated at that point in time – as a result of a massive landslip on the Storegga Shalf system off the coast of Norway. Why a tsunami like wave should lead towards a permanent flooding of the southern basin is rarely explored. It is just accepted as a matter of course. Obviously, this is a flaw in the theory – although there is no reason not to doubt the two things coincided. A realignment of global ocean water would explain the flooding – and that is no more unlikely than the idea that sea levels continue to go up, all the time, on and on. Once you get this inside your head anything is possible – and the rapid colonisation of Britain by migrant farmers almost demands a land connection (at 4000BC). Shoving cows and goats and pigs and sheep into boats would have been a very slow affair – as well as all those ox drawn carts, and the paraphinalia of a farming life. The arrival of farming was instant – the whole country became Neolithic in a blink of an eye. People were on the move – and rapidly spread over long distances on several notable occasions (even before 4000BC). The same rapid movements of people were also a feature of the event around 3000BC, the period 2300-2000BC, and at the end of the Late Bronze Age (1200-1000BC). Taking it a stage further we may note long range migration in the Late Roman period, as described by contemporary authors, and during the 7th century BC (the Scythian and Cimmerian migrations as described by the Assyrians at the height of their empire).

It seems prudent to disengage historical farming culture from the idea of farming (or managing nature's bounty) and in that respect we should not really be too surprised that einkorn DNA has been found in Mesolithic contexts in an out of the way location such as the Isle of Wight. The article describes the use of sedaDNA to retrieve information of palaeo environments from sediments so this is cutting edge research – and will be applied to other regions of Europe in due course. It has the potential to create a more in depth view of the past via micro-fossils.

Bouldnor Cliff is 12m below present sea level but was dry land 8000 years ago (and before). The site is primarily a submerged forest that was inundated and covered over by six to seven metres of marine clay. There is a peat bed dated around 7000 years ago at 5m depth (also covered by a layer of silt) and another peat bed dated 6300 years ago (around 4300BC, and very nearly the date of the arrival of Neolithic farmers) at a depth of 4m. From this it is clear the sea level changed dramatically around 6000BC – and to a lesser extent at 5000 and 4300BC. What happened after the latter is hard to say as the cliff has been eroded and no information is intact. Also, it is worth bearing in mind that only five square metres of the submerged forest zone have been investigated – a small portion of what is a large site. In spite of this over 50 pieces of worked wood has been discovered as well as numerous wood chippings, charcoal, carbonised wood, stockpiles of heated flints, burnt hazelnut shells, fragments of string made out of vegetable fibres, and a bone from an aurochs (wild ox) which was a favourite hunting prey of Mesolithic humans in Britain. The stone assemblage currently stands at 550 pieces of burnt and worked flint. Flint knapping, cooking, and boat building activities were going on, including the use of tangentially spit oak (a technology not found anywhere else in the UK until the advent of the Neolithic).

The sedaDNA technique indicates an oak forest habitat, with ash and other tree species, with herbaceous herbs and the presence of animals such as the dog – as well as the bones of game such as aurochs, deer, grouse, etc. Rodents also appear to have attached themselves to the vicinity of humans. The sediments also contain einkorn wheat and this has baffled archaeologists as it has an origin in the Fertile Crescent and is unrelated to European grasses and grains. It seems to suggest an early link with the Mediterranean world – which is not altogether surprising as the site has been described as a Mesolithic boatyard by some commentators.

Traditional archaeologists have been quick to claim the research is in some way faulty as it breaches their informed and educated stance on the time line farming was introduced into Atlantic Europe. People don't like long held views being disrupted by upstart research – and this is a classic case of that syndrome. The article quotes one archaeologist as projecting the idea C14 dating of carbonised grain was infallible evidence of the origin of farming in Britain – and therefore the discovery of the DNA of einkorn at Bouldnor Cliff must be due to contamination. In answer to that criticism the researchers point out the sedaDNA was extracted from below 7m of marine mud  with peat layers above it dated earlier (as above) indicating no vertical movement in the sediment. It was well and truly buried and could not leak out. In spite of this the researchers felt compelled to seek other samples and the manner they went about this is described, in order to avoid contamination. A stainless steel box was made and this was pushed into the deposit with some force in order to penetrate the sediment. It was subsequently sealed in situ and only reopened in the laboratory.

It seems the maritime movement of people in the Mesolithic and Palaeolithic eras is underrated – even though Britain and Ireland are situated on a well used sea-way that was frequented in later times by Phoenicians and Greeks. It is very likely that submerged site also occur off the coast of western France – yet to be discovered (and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland). See also www.sciencemag.org/content/347/6225/945

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