Navigating the coastal Mesolithic of Western Scotland.

by Graeme Warren

Page design by Jonathan Bateman

This piece started life as an essay on paper, comprising a number of juxtaposed self-contained sections. It seemed that this would be an ideal project with which to explore the potential for creating a non-linear piece in hypertext. This article is the result of those explorations and as such it represents our early experiments in this field, and so should be read and navigated with this in mind.

The article consists of thirty six individual, potentially autonomous sections, divided on screen by horizontal lines. It is possible to read the majority of the text in a linear manner, simply by scrolling down past these breaks to the section below (but you will miss out on the pretty pictures Anna Badcock donated!). Each section is, however, hot-linked to a number of other sections through themed routes, represented by the red words in each passage. By clicking these, you can navigate your way through the seascape and create your own unique narrative. You will probably re-cross your path a number of times, but read again and consider each section in the light of where you have already travelled. To leave the seascape use the button panel prompts within the text.

We would greatly appreciate your comments on this exercise. You may email Graeme, Jon or assemblage.

Click for the acknowledgements, bibliography and 'about the author'.

Start here!

The Atlantic Ocean does give way to land, but slowly. First the Kilda isles rise, a shock of green after the open sea. Then, continuing East, the Outer Hebridean breakwater: Lewis, the Uists, Barra. Here waves gnaw ceaselessly at the soft machair, cutting away at the West coast, edging ever East: the sea has already reclaimed much and our present contours are only historical. Then, named waters, the Minch, the sea of the Hebrides, the Sounds of Canna, Rhum and Sleat. But the sea cares little for names. Waters that are one day Atlantic are the next Hebridean; fish move from the Little Minch to the North Minch without passport controls. Our named places are arbitrary – simply human. From these seas a number of smaller isles rise, Canna, Muck, the Ascrib Isles, as well as Skye with the vertical mass of the Cuillins. Finally the long fingers of the mainland. Here the sea appears reluctant to be defeated, inlets and fjords, islands and lochs legacy to the ocean, but the Atlantic is finished here for now. On these soils human communities live and work, and, if they desire, may turn their back upon the sea. The land, in our twentieth century, is home: the sea, rather more alien.

On these shores, now called Scottish, where the excesses of the weather or agriculture cut the seemingly timeless surfaces of our landscape, small scatters of stones may be uncovered. As they lie, glinting in the sun, or (more frequently) washed and gleaming after rain, these blood-stones, pitch-stones, flints, cherts, and quartzes help chip away at the edges of our 'natural' landscape. Unfortunately, when faced with the dry, prosaic language of typology it is easy to forget just what these stones are. This is very problematic, for what the plough has unearthed, the farmer recognised and the archaeologist mystified are, at least partly, the results of the work of human hands. Stones were held, weighed, tested, felt, listened to, talked about, laboured over, loved, hated, a source of pride (in a good tool), or of embarrassment (in a failure). Stones were fully entangled in the web of social life, in the ways in which human communities inhabited these places where land and sea met and meet. Stones, seemingly so functional, were part of the ongoing transformation of spaces into human places. This study is an exploration of some of the aspects of this transformation.

There is a different approach to understanding the distribution of materials. This suggests that rather than transparently reflecting economic needs, the archaeological map of bloodstone records the movement of stones by people who were joined in relationships of friendship, kin and power. This suggests that to set sail carrying bloodstone was not so much an economic decision as an act in a long game of interpersonal relationships. this suggests that bloodstone was not a tool but a highly distinctive way of negotiating personal relationships.

There is much that is interesting in such an analysis but it still rings somewhat false. Too alienated, too exact, too structural. I do not want to suggest that bloodstone was just a symbolic token akin to Kula jewellery (Malinowski 1922). I am suggesting that it was caught up in human lives, passed from hand to hand as a gift, or a loan, a tool, a repayment. Any scheme explains some aspect of this movement, the trick is to remain aware that no scheme is sufficient explanation. A tool can have meaning. And bloodstone was never just a tool.

Lacaille appeared to belie his own evidence when he suggested that 'Larnian' stone industries, developed in response to woodland, were unsuitable for `felling and shaping large timber` for boats (Lacaille 1954, 159). He had already recorded dug-outs found in carse clays in the Forth and Clyde estuaries as well as in Perth (ibid., 66). Whilst he questioned the Boreal date of the latter, some, at least, of his cynicism may be misplaced. Dug-outs are known in Mesolithic contexts in Scandinavia, indeed Andersen describes them as a `common` feature of coastal sites (Andersen 1993, 60-2). These boats are large, up to 9.5m long, shaped from lime and often including a fire setting at one end (ibid.). Scandinavian communities were adept deep sea fishers in the Mesolithic, catching ling in some quantity (Mithen 1994, 107), these boats were more than adequate for sea-faring. Whilst lime was not present in Scottish woodlands (Tipping 1994, 11) pine was available from at least the sixth millennium BC (ibid.) and was later utilised for canoes (Lacaille 1954, 66). A poplar dug-out, recently discovered in Ireland, dates to 4 800 BC (Guardian 20/2/1997). Boats need not have been dug outs anyway: hazel frames covered with birch bark or animal skins are viable alternatives.

The technologies of boat building are not really my concern. Suffice it to say that the technology was there. It is much more interesting to consider how boats, and the ability to cross the sea, were caught up in peoples' identities: mother, wife, husband, fisher, farmer, brother, aunt, leader, led…

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In fact, economic rationality and common sense undercut their own logic when applied to prehistory. Let us look at the proportion of bloodstone found in Mesolithic scatters off of Rhum in comparison to Rhum itself.

(after Wickham-Jones 1990)
SitePeriodPercentage of Bloodstone
Sheildaig, Wester RossMesolithic1.1%
Risga, Loch SunartMesolithic0.5%
Pollach, SunartMesolithic4.1%
Acharn, MorvernMesolithic0.4%
Arivegiag, ArdnamurchanMesolithic7.0%
Allt Lochan na Caraidh, SunartMesolithic6.0%
Cul na Croise, ArdnamurchanMesolithic (?)3.5%
Kinloch, RhumMesolithic>50%

Whilst some mixing of bloodstone and flint may have occurred in earlier analyses, consequently under-representing bloodstone on sites other than Kinloch, it still appears notable that, away from Rhum, bloodstone was not utilised as a large part of the prehistoric tool kit. This has two implications, firstly: why should we still agree with the excavators that the distribution of stones is a reflection of mainland communities with direct access to Rhum, undertaking sea journeys for such small amounts of a low quality material (Wickham-Jones 1990)? And secondly, that the sea was not a barrier.

Bloodstone is very convenient for the archaeologist. A visually distinctive cryptocrystalline silica it is source specific, outcropping only on the slopes of Bloodstone Hill, Rhum (Wickham-Jones 1990). Given this, the fact that bloodstone, from the Mesolithic through to the Bronze Age, is found alongside other flints, away from Rhum, on other islands and on the mainland, tells us one very simple thing: that prehistoric people moved between these places – over the sea. This seems mundane, after all most models of coastal Mesolithic communities assume such mobility. I suggest that whilst this may be mundane it is also absloutely fundamental to understanding Mesolithic life: that a seascape must be written for this period. If archaeology does not concern itself with the day-to-day character of past societies alongside the exotica then it consigns itself to remaining as an aesthetics of the past. What was once mundane was also fundamental and may now be alien.

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This study owes much to a paper by Gosden and Pavlides on Pacific prehistory (1994). Their examination of the Arawe islanders demonstrated that the Lapita culture, characterised by shared material culture over a large geographical area, is best understood, not as isolated communities linked by dispersed trading networks, but as 'a mobile way of life' (ibid, 169), where populations continually returned to certain points in the seascape. I am not suggesting that this is a model for the Scottish Mesolithic. It is much more significant that by viewing the sea as a bridge rather than a barrier a more cogent story results. Gosden and Pavlides conclude that:

'The sea is not necessarily either a bridge or a barrier: it is what people make it. Just as the land can be made and remade by human influence, so can the sea.' (ibid, 170)

Whilst I agree with this statement I would add a proviso.

'The sea is not necessarily either a bridge or a barrier: it is what people make it. Just as the land can be made and remade by human influence, so can the sea. And in this process of making and remaking, of understanding the world they inhabit, so too are human communities made and remade by their interaction with the world.'

The excavators at Kinloch, Rhum, through their analysis of the proportions of cortical flakes in mainland and island industries, suggested that direct access to the Bloodstone hill was enjoyed by mainland populations (Wickham Jones 1990). They argued that at Rhum preliminary testing and working would take place before cores were carried back over the sea. Their argument is interesting, and revealing. Bloodstone is a poor quality stone. Indeed Wickham-Jones considered it so recalcitrant that prehistoric populations were required to utilise a bipolar reduction technique. This relationship may not be so straightforward, I suggest that bloodstone is best understood in a rather different way – perhaps explanations for its treatment could move beyond practicality. Human lives, thankfully, are not this simple.

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Islands may appear very attractive to archaeologists for here problems of territory seem to have been resolved by nature. After all, a bounded space should be the perfect laboratory for studying human societies. We can monitor which resources are moving, and from this, gain a clearer indication of human priorities in the past. An island is considered to be isolated, the sea perceived as a barrier to be overcome. This is particularly apparent in studies of Pacific prehistory where isolation is often adduced in order to legitimise studies of genetic adaptation (Terrell 1986). Interestingly, even the geographical scales of the Pacific do not seem to lead to isolation (Gosden and Pavlides 1994). There seems little reason to suspect that this is different on the Atlantic fringes.

"The role the sea plays in coastal habitation is … not purely a question of food resources, but also to a large extent a question of communications, transport, seasonal movement and social contacts, particularly in a country covered by deciduous woodland. This aspect of coastal habitation is often forgotten in the literature, but it must have been highly significant for the prehistoric population." (Andersen 1993, 41)

Bloodstone was not the only material being moved in the Mesolithic. Bill Finlayson has cogently argued that 'limpet scoops' are better understood as tools involved in manufacturing prestige hides (1993). Food may also have been carried, prime joints of meat, or antlers for use as tools (this is perhaps evidenced by the Oronsay middens (Mellars 1987)).

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©Graeme Warren 1997


©assemblage 1997