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Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Somerset

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Academic article about ancient sites in the county of Somerset, UK.

Text of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Somerset

  • Palaeolithic and Mesolithic


    Palaeolithic and Mesolithic

    Robert Hosfield, Vanessa Straker and Paula Gardiner with contributions

    from Anthony Brown, Paul Davies, Ralph Fyfe, Julie Jones and Heather


    2.1 IntroductionThe South West contains a diverse variety of Palaeo-lithic and Mesolithic archaeology of differing degreesof significance. This reflects the nature of the arch-aeological material itself, the histories of researchin different parts of the region and, with regard tothe Palaeolithic period, the differential preservationof Pleistocene landforms and deposits throughout theregion. One of the key features of the Palaeolithicarchaeology is the presence of a significant cave-basedresource in south Devon and northern Somerset,which is unquestionably of national significance (seefor example, Campbell and Sampson 1971; Tratmanet al. 1971; Bishop 1975; Harrison 1977; Straw 1995;1996; Andrews et al. 1999).

    In terms of an open-landscape Palaeolithic record,there is an inevitable bias towards those areas withboth appropriate deposits and a history of activeresearch and collection. For example, the Pleistoceneriver deposits of the upper reaches of the now extinctSolent River and its western tributaries (Allen andGibbard 1993; Bridgland 2001) in Dorset and Wilt-shire provide a key (albeit secondary) context forLower and Middle Palaeolithic archaeology and collec-tion in these areas has been extensive (Wymer 1999;Hosfield 1999). In contrast, the Pleistocene depositsfrom the west of the region (river valleys such as thoseof the Exe, the Otter and the Avon) have receivedrelatively little attention (but see Bates 2003; Hosfieldet al. 2005).

    The Mesolithic archaeology of the region is alsogeographically variable, with a particularly rich recordin the Somerset area (reflecting a strong researchfocus upon both the Mendip caves and SomersetLevels) when compared to the more minor recordfrom the west of the region (Devon and Cornwall).

    For the Palaeolithic periods the open-landscapearchaeology is dominated by lithic scatters (predom-inantly of deeply buried artefacts, frequently in fluvialdeposits, and particularly true in the Lower andMiddle Palaeolithic), although occupation sites such asHengistbury Head (Barton 1992) and Kents Cavern(Campbell and Sampson 1971) are also present.For the Mesolithic, there are greater numbers ofexcavated sites (especially from Somerset), althoughsurface or shallow sub-surface lithic scatters are stillcommon, especially in the west.

    Overall, the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archae-ology of this region is generally rather poorly known,reflecting an absence of robust geochronologicalframeworks, the predominance of research into ahandful of cave and open sites over the lithic scatterresource (whether located on the surface or deeplyburied) and the absence of any major syntheses.It is hoped that this resource assessment will gosome way towards addressing the last of these issues.The report is divided into period-based sections(Lower and Middle Palaeolithic, Upper Palaeolithic andMesolithic), each of which provides an overview ofthe archaeology of the period and a summary of thekey characteristics of the archaeological resource forthe South West region. Preceding these is a shortsummary of the geochronologies of the Palaeolithicand Mesolithic and a review of the palaeoenviron-ments of the South West region, as currently known.

    2.2 ChronologyThe Palaeolithic and Mesolithic fall within the Quater-nary Period, the most recent subdivision of thegeological record. The Quaternary is divided intothe Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, and theLate Upper Palaeolithic to Early Mesolithic transi-


  • The Archaeology of South West England

    tion at c.10,000 BP broadly marks the start of theHolocene. The chronology of the British Palaeo-lithic and Mesolithic is discussed here in terms ofoxygen isotope stages (OIS, also known as marineisotope stages, MIS) for the Lower and Middle Palaeo-lithic (c.700,00040,000 BP), while the Upper Palaeo-lithic and Mesolithic periods (c.40,0005500 BP) arediscussed with reference to named sub-stages of theDevensian and the Holocene, reflecting the nature ofexisting geochronological schemes.

    The earliest occupation of Britain has typicallybeen considered to date to c.500,000 BP, primarilyreflecting the accepted chronology from Boxgrove(Roberts and Parfitt 1999). However, recent discov-eries from the Cromer Forest-bed formation at Pake-field on the Suffolk coast (Parfitt et al. 2005) have indi-cated that the earliest hominin presence dates back toeither c.680,000 BP (OIS 17) or c.750,000 BP (OIS 19).A date of c.700,000 BP is therefore accepted as thebeginning of the British Lower Palaeolithic for thepurposes of this resource assessment. The begin-ning of the British Middle Palaeolithic (and end ofthe Lower Palaeolithic) remains uncertain (reflectingdating difficulties and the varying criteria, includinga decline in handaxes and the increasing frequencyof Levallois technique, used for defining the start ofthe Middle Palaeolithic) but is taken here as c.250200,000 BP (after Stringer and Gamble 1993, 148).The key periods can therefore be defined as follows:

    Lower Palaeolithic 700,000250/200,000 BPMiddle Palaeolithic 250/200,00040,000 BPUpper Palaeolithic 40,00010,000 BPEarly Mesolithic 10,0008500 BPLater Mesolithic 85005500 BP

    Table 2.1 on the next page outlines the OISchronology for the Lower and Middle Palaeolithicperiods, while Table 2.2 on page 26 outlines the sub-stage chronology for the Upper Palaeolithic and theMesolithic. The tables also outline the main episodesof environmental change during these periods, withregard to the broad climatic and vegetational charac-teristics of the oxygen isotope stages and the sub-stages of the Middle and Late Pleistocene, and theHolocene. The major climatic fluctuations which char-acterise the Quaternary resulted in a series of warmand cold periods. Global sea levels were loweredduring the coldest phases (dominated by glacial andperiglacial conditions) when water was locked upin terrestrial ice-sheets, whereas the increases inmelt-water during the warmer periods (interstadialsand interglacials) caused the global sea levels to rise(eustatic sea level rise). These fluctuations continue tobe the focus of research, particularly for the Holocenewhere they provide a time dimension for currentpredictions of the effects of global warming.

    The Middle Pleistocene (c.780125,000 BP) is char-acterised by a series of glacials (even-numbered OIS)and interglacials (odd-numbered OIS) with conditionsgenerally alternating between wooded environments(associated with full interglacial conditions), open-steppe grasslands (associated with early glacial condi-tions) and glacial tundra (associated with full glacialconditions). The Late Pleistocene (c.12510,000 BP) isslightly more complicated, reflecting the higher reso-lution records available for this period, as demon-strated by the recent Stage Three Project (van Andeland Davies 2004). In general the Late Pleistocene canbe summarised as follows (after Stringer and Gamble1993; Barton 1997):

    Stage 5e (128117,000 BP) Full interglacial condi-tions (oak/elm woodland, hot summers and mildwinters).

    Stages 5d5a (11771,000 BP) Generally cooltemperate conditions with oscillations betweenwarm interstadial (5c and 5a with forest habitats)and cool stadial environments (5d and 5b withtundra-type habitats).

    Stage 4 (7159,000 BP) Very cold conditions(although Britain was predominantly ice-free,open tundra habitats were dominant, with short,mild summers and long, cold winters).

    Stage 3 (5924,000 BP) Generally cold and dryconditions, although the period is characterisedby sharply oscillating climates (indicated by ice-core records: see below), ranging betweenmilder periods (featuring woodland development,although on a reduced scale compared to OIS-5c and 5a) and short cooling episodes, in whichdry, grassland mammoth-steppe environmentswere dominant.

    Stage 2 (24-13,000 BP) Full glacial conditions, withextensive ice sheets in northern England, Walesand Scotland, and barren, polar-desert type envi-ronments.

    The glacial and interglacial cycles of both the Middleand Late Pleistocene resulted in dramatically fluc-tuating sea levels. For example, at the height ofthe last Late Pleistocene cold stage (the Devensian)around 21,00018,000 BP (the Last Glacial Maximumor LGM), during which glacial conditions existedover much of Northern Europe (though not most ofsouthern England), mean sea level was in the order of130140m lower than present (Heyworth and Kidson1982). With specific regard to the South West,however, it is likely that there would always havebeen a significant barrier to the south, whether asea barrier as in the present day, or a substantialChannel River system (including the tributaries that


  • Palaeolithic and Mesolithic

    OIS Years BP British Quaternary Stages Climate Archaeological Period(approximate)

    2 24,00013,000

    Devensian Predominantly ColdUpper Palaeolithic

    3 59,00024,0004 71,00059,000

    Middle Palaeolithic5ad 117,00071,0005e 128,000117,000 Ipswichian Warm6 186,000128,000


    Cold7 245,000186,000 Warm8 303,000245,000 Cold

    Lower Palaeolithic

    9 339,000303,000 Warm10 362,000339,000 Cold11 423,000362,000 Hoxnian Warm12 478,000423,000 Anglian Cold13 524,000478,000 Cromerian Warm

    Table 2.1: Chronology for the Lower, Middle and Upper Palaeolithic (Middle and Late Pleistocene), after Wymer (1999,table 2), Barton (1997, figs 15, 3537) and Gamble (1999, fig 4.2).

    would have extended current rivers such as the Exeand the Axe out onto the coastal plain: see Antoineet al. 2003 for further details of the palaeogeographyof the Channel River). Recent ice-core research (forexample Meese et al.

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