In Britain, during the Mesolithic period (10,000 BC to 4,000 BC), people lived exclusively as hunter-fisher-gatherers, marking the last time this way of life was prevalent. A significant archaeological discovery at Linmere, Bedfordshire, is now challenging historians’ previous understanding of life and society in that era.
The excavation revealed twenty-five large and impressive Mesolithic pits arranged in linear alignments. These pits, measuring up to 5 meters in width and 1.85 meters in depth, extend beyond the currently excavated area. Through radiocarbon dating of associated bones, such as deer, marten, and auroch (massive extinct wild cattle), it has been determined that these pits were dug approximately 8,500 years ago. The purpose of these pits remains a mystery, but intriguingly, there are signs of repeated digging and re-excavation over many centuries, indicating their sustained importance.
Traditionally, Mesolithic archaeology in Britain has heavily relied on stone tool finds, providing insights into a period of significant environmental changes spanning 6,000 years. These changes included the thawing of glaciers, reforestation, and the separation of Britain from the continent due to rising sea levels following the last ice age.
In recent times, discoveries of other materials like wood and bone at sites such as Star Carr in North Yorkshire and Bouldnor Cliff off the Isle of Wight’s coast have offered a clearer understanding of Mesolithic life. However, such sites are rare and limited in number.
The findings at Linmere offer a unique opportunity to reevaluate and expand our understanding of the Mesolithic period in Britain, shedding light on the ancient societies that thrived during this fascinating era of human history.
The Mesolithic’s image problem
Recent archaeological investigations have aimed to provide a more nuanced understanding of the Mesolithic period. Unfortunately, the influential statements made by early archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler in 1954, depicting Mesolithic people as “squalid” marsh-dwellers, have unjustly cast a shadow over this era.
In contrast, the Neolithic period (4300 BC to 2000 BC) marked a significant shift towards farming and the construction of monumental architecture. This transition brought changes in economy, settlement patterns, and relations with the broader world, setting it apart from the preceding Mesolithic period. As one archaeologist aptly put it, Neolithic farmers developed social relations with each other, while Mesolithic hunter-gatherers primarily had ecological relations with their natural surroundings, like hazelnuts.
Nowadays, mounting evidence challenges the belief that substantial built structures were rare during the Mesolithic period. For instance, excavations at Star Carr have uncovered houses dating back to the 9th millennium BC, indicating a level of sophistication not previously acknowledged. Structures found at Howick, Northumbria, suggest they might have served multiple generations, providing new insights into Mesolithic communities’ longevity.
Reevaluating previous interpretations, the alignment of four large Mesolithic pits near Stonehenge, initially thought to be totem pole holes, may not be as peculiar as once believed. These pits were deliberately arranged and maintained for centuries, unlike many smaller, individual pits found elsewhere.
Even more fascinating is the discovery of the curved pit alignment at Warren Field, Aberdeenshire. Dating from 8210 BC to 6690 BC, these 2.5-meter-wide pits seem to be connected with the midwinter solstice. Such practices were previously associated with sedentary farming communities, making this finding intriguing and challenging previous assumptions.
The pits at Warren Field, having been re-excavated and maintained for thousands of years, could potentially represent the longest-operating prehistoric structures in Britain. Initially assumed to be Neolithic, both the pits at Warren Field and those at Linmere were later proven to be from the Mesolithic period through radiocarbon dating. This raises the question of how many similar features might currently go unnoticed due to the presumption that they belong to a later historical period. The true extent of such overlooked structures remains a matter of speculation.
What Linmere tells us about Mesolithic people
The discovery of the Linmere site, like many other significant archaeological sites in Britain, was made possible through commercial archaeology conducted before construction and development projects. While Britain excels in this field, limited resources prevent a complete understanding of the full extent and nature of the Linmere pits.
Nevertheless, these pits offer valuable insights into the diverse uses during the Mesolithic period, highlighting that some were distinct in their structure, size, and enduring significance. The fact that these pits received repeated attention and use over several centuries suggests the presence of enduring symbolism and underlying worldviews, characteristics that were previously associated mainly with farming communities rather than prehistoric hunter-gatherers in Britain.
Although the exact purpose of these pits remains elusive, they contribute to a growing body of evidence that showcases the unique, intricate, and captivating social and belief systems of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer communities living on the fringes of Europe. The significance of these findings challenges preconceived notions about the capabilities and complexity of ancient societies and encourages us to continue exploring and reevaluating the rich history of our ancestors.
Source: The Conversation