Scotland's First Settlers: The Mesolithic Seascape of the Inner Sound, Skye and Its Contribution to the Early Prehistory of Scotland

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Background

The Mesolithic occupation of Scotland began soon after the end of the last glaciation, between 10,000 and 9000 years ago. Considerable research has been undertaken in the past two decades (Mithen 2000; Pollard & Morrison 1996; Woodman 1989; Young 2000); much has been published, more is awaited, and work continues apace. Mesolithic sites occur throughout Scotland, though recent archaeological activity has been concentrated on the western seaboard.

The coastal nature of much of the Scottish Mesolithic has long been recognized, although the contribution of inland sites is becoming more apparent. The relationship between shell middens and lithic scatters and the nature of the midden sites themselves are slowly becoming clearer (Bonsall 1996; Finlayson 1998), though the make-up of the material culture remains vague, as known early sites with preservation of organic materials are few and far between and specialists remain divided over their interpretation. More widely, it is generally recognized that the Mesolithic occurred during a time of dynamic environmental change although the impact on the human population remains to be documented.

It was in this context that the Scotland's First Settlers (SFS) project was set up in 1998. SFS chose to concentrate on an area of known Mesolithic potential: the Inner Sound--a body of water between the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland. Previously recorded sites in the area include the midden at An Corran (Saville & Miket 1994) and lithic scatters at Redpoint (Gray 1960) and Sheildaig (Walker 1973) (FIGURE 1). Although Mesolithic work has long been biased towards coastal projects, the potential of the coastal zone was so great that it was decided to target the seascape for research, while focusing particularly on issues of local mobility, resource exploitation and early Holocene climate (Finlayson et al. 1999 & forthcoming; Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2000a; 2000b; 2001a; forthcoming a; forthcoming b).

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SFS has four main strands: survey, test pitting, excavation and post-excavation analysis. Coastal survey has produced 164 hitherto unknown sites (FIGURE 2). These densities are unusual for Scotland, approaching those in intensively studied areas such as Scandinavia, but probably reflect the previous lack of work at this scale. Organic materials are preserved at many of the new sites, allowing not only the study of human activity in unusual detail, but also the environmental setting. One notable find is an intertidal peat site, on the island of Raasay, containing abundant remains of trees and some lithic material. Study of this site will assist the detailed reconstruction of sea-level change and its impact on the local population around the Inner Sound since the early Holocene (Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2001a).

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Thirty-eight survey sites have been test pitted and all have produced evidence of past human use. SFS survey is almost complete and, while it is still too early to determine how many sites are Mesolithic, there are some indications that many are of early prehistoric date. To date 30 lithic scatter sites and 21 rock-shelters containing lithics have been recorded.

So far, one major excavation has taken place, at Sand in the Applecross peninsula. This is a rock-shelter site with an extensive midden. The excavation was designed to look not only at the midden (FIGURE 3), but also at the area around it, in order to assess the location and preservation of material both on and off the midden. The midden had very good organic preservation and finds included bevel-ended and pointed bone tools, a fragment of antler harpoon, a human tooth and a narrow blade microlithic assemblage (FIGURE 4).

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Initial interpretation shows the importance of the sea with a wide range of marine resources represented. Shells, mainly limpet, constitute the body of the midden. …