Academic journal article Antiquity

Microliths and Maritime Mobility: A Continental European-Style Late Mesolithic Flint Assemblage from the Isles of Scilly

Academic journal article Antiquity

Microliths and Maritime Mobility: A Continental European-Style Late Mesolithic Flint Assemblage from the Isles of Scilly

Article excerpt

Introduction

The notion that Britain is an 'island nation'--that its status as an island has always been a defining feature of the British sense of identity--is something of a cliche; it is true, however, that from Shakespeare's evocation of 'this sceptred isle' to Churchill's calls to 'defend our island home', Britain's insular character has often played a prominent role in constituting the modern national psyche at a general level (Lavery 2005). Equally, it has influenced our archaeological understandings of interaction in the past (Bradley 2007: 1-26). One of the strengths of archaeology in the contemporary world is that it is able to place these assumptions and stereotypes in the context of deep time, often providing a very different perspective or critique. Britain has not, of course, always been an island. Palaeogeographic modelling indicates that Britain was joined to continental Europe until c. 7000 BC (Sturt et al. 2013: 3972). Archaeology also reveals that becoming an island is not synonymous with isolation. In many periods, connections across the water with the European mainland were regular, intense and--as we will see below--sometimes took unexpected routes.

The period we are primarily interested in here is the Mesolithic, during which Britain's current island status was formed. Prior to its separation from the continent, southern Britain shared many affinities with northern France and the Low Countries in terms of material culture, a pattern first discussed in detail by Jacobi (1976). Ghesquiere (2012: 107) has recently demonstrated clear stylistic parallels between Middle Mesolithic (c. 8000-6500 BC) 'Horsham-type' assemblages in south-east England and the Picardie region of France, and 'Honey Hill-type' assemblages that occur across southern England and the Nord-Cotentin region in France. It is important to note, however, that at this time, travel between 'France' and 'England' was not completely straightforward. These regions were separated by the Channel River estuary, and any contact between them was probably maintained by boat, involving journeys across several kilometres of open water. In the Late Mesolithic (c. 6200 BC onwards), after the full formation of the Channel, distinctly different microlith industries did develop on either side (trapeze-dominated assemblages in France and micro-blade rod/scalene triangle assemblages in southern Britain). This is most simply seen as an indication that cross-Channel contact diminished or ended entirely (Jacobi 1976); as frequently noted however, contact does not necessarily result in either an exchange of material culture or in any material convergence (Hodder 1982: 21; Garrow & Sturt 2015).

In terms of the long-term narrative of this period, the centuries between Britain becoming an island c. 7000 BC, and the beginning of the Neolithic on that island c. 4000 BC, are crucial. Domesticated plants and animals, and Neolithic ideas such as the manufacture of pottery, were certainly imported from the European mainland. The processes by which these arrived have been much debated. Some see migration from the continent as the primary driving factor, others see the indigenous population of Britain as having caused the change, and others still have suggested a combination of both (see Whittle et al. 2011; Thomas 2013 for recent reviews). Whatever the mechanisms may have been, it is arguably more important to understand the length of time that it took Neolithic practices to cross the Channel following their arrival in western France and the Channel Islands c. 5200-5000 BC (Marcigny et al. 2010; Garrow & Sturt forthcoming). This delay of approximately a thousand years is interesting, given the previously fairly consistent spread of 'the Neolithic' across Europe (at a macro level) and the relatively short distance that the Channel represents. As a result of that delay, it becomes especially important to try to understand the nature of cross-Channel connectivity in the crucial 'interim' period between 7000 and 4000 BC. …

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