Tag Archives: Mesolithic

A Mesolithic Tsunami & Heavenly Bodies

23 Sep

Over at Spencer Carter’s Microburin blog a recent post has discussed the possible evidence for the Mesolithic Storegga tsunami in the Tees bay in north eastern England.  Although normally concerned with Mesolithic flints Spencer has crafted a wonderfully detailed and engaging post on the archaeological and palaeo-environmental evidence for marine regressions and transgressions in the bay, helping to highlight the rich (and perhaps I’d say overlooked) archaeological record for the north east of England.  In particular this post highlights the value of researching monographs from local archaeological units, and of new vital research into the character of the Mesolithic period in northern England.

The challenging and changing nature of the Tees bay in evaluating the palaeo-environmental changes highlights the necessity to cast a critical eye over the available literature and on-going research projects.  In particular highlighting the effects of long term international events (recline of the last great ice sheets and post-glacial recolonisation) with the regional and national differences in the organisation of societal organisation during the Mesolithic, Neolithic and preceding Bronze ages.  Spencer’s post really integrates the relationship between the physical geography and the impact on the human use of the landscape and of societal organisation: this is a rich area of investigation.  The Storegga slide events, an massive slide of landmass of the Norwegian coastal shelf around 6100 BC, would have had an phenomenal effect of the communities and landscapes affected, and although the palaeo-environmental evidence at Hartlepool and the Tees bay finds no direct evidence for it (as of yet), there are indications of similar ‘surges’ of sea level in similar horizons (Waughman 2005).  This is a fruitful topic, perhaps one of the most interesting in Mesolithic studies, and Spencer’s post helps to put it in context.

Meanwhile I was recently in Sheffield to catch a guest lecture by Los Angeles based art historian and photographer Paul Koudounaris at the University’s Archaeology department.  Detailing the findings of his recently released book, ‘Heavenly Bodies’, Koudounaris expertly detailed the majestic bejeweled saints that can be found throughout Central Europe in a captivating and enlightening lecture.  The book itself details the wonderfully decorated ‘saints’ (decorated skeletons) in more detail with a lively and informative text accompanying the highly textured photography, truly bringing the so called ‘saints’ back into the limelight.

jewelledskeletons_03

The bejeweled skeleton of St Valerius in Weyarn, Germany. Note the careful attention to detail of the wire gold hair, jeweled mandible, eyes and nose, and extravagant torso decorations. The ‘saints’ were often skeletons picked seemingly at random from the catacombs and given a saints name, although there are many miracles attributed to the skeletons once they were placed in-situ in their church (Source, photograph by Paul Koudounaris).

Various Imperial Roman catacomb burials of Christians (such as Coemeterium Jordanorum & Coemeterium Priscillae) were rediscovered accidentally during the 15th and 16th centuries in and near Rome, at a time of revolt in the Christian world as the Protestant Reformation helped to split the Catholic church in Europe.  The Catholic church, sensing a possible use of the newly discovered skeletons, used the remains as examples of early Christian martyrs despite next to no evidence and only vague documentary evidence in the catacombs themselves.  Having agreed that certain skeletons represented Christians martyred during the Roman period, the church shipped many of the articulated and non-articulated remains to German speaking lands (such as Germany, Austria, Poland and Switzerland, as they represented the heart of the Reformation movement) and had the remains re-enforced with gauze, decorated with jewels and silk and displayed them in prominent positions in churches throughout Central Europe as a method of inspiring and supporting the counter reformation movement (Koudounaris 2013: 32).  Following centuries of displaying the holy relics, many of the ostentatiously decorated individuals were removed from show during the 19th and 20th centuries as they became viewed as being outdated and embarrassing motifs for the Catholic church.

heavenly_bodies_beard

The remains of St Albertus, arrived in Burgrain, Germany, in 1723. Note the particularly fine decoration of the golden hair and heavily jeweled torso, which indicate the wealth of heaven awaiting the faithful. Often the skeletons were re-enforced with gauze, silk and sometimes cardboard inside to support the torso. St Albertus clearly has a mandible which probably does not belong to the above crania, note the uneven dental wear (Source, photograph by Paul Koudounaris).

Frankly the saints that Koudounaris has managed to find in the predominantly German speaking countries of Central Europe are first and foremost works of art of a very high standard, many crafted with care and dedication over months and years by small teams of nuns and church members.  Although many are now lost to history, either destroyed, lost or hidden completely, a small platoon still survive and still on view in many churches across Central Europe (Koudounaris 2013: 174).

If you ever happen to be around Sheffield, the University archaeology department often run Tuesday dinnertime guest lectures which are sometimes (I believe mostly) open to department members and the public alike, it is well worth a look in!  Paul Koudounaris is also currently taking in a number of guest lectures with upcoming talks based in north America, further information can be found here.

Bibliography:

Carter, S. 2013. Storegga Mesolithic Tsunami: Is There Evidence in the Tees Area?  Microburin Blog. 24th August 2013.

Koudounaris, P. 2013. Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. London: Thames and Hudson.

Waughman, M. (Ed.) 2005. Archaeology and Environment of Submerged Landscapes in Hartlepool Bay, England. Tees Archaeology Monograph. Vol 1.

Mesolithic Musings and the Howick Home

22 Dec

I ventured up to a dreary and drenched Newcastle today and whilst there I visited the delightful Great North Museum, formerly the Hancock Museum, located near the University of Newcastle.  This a free, engaging and entertaining museum- an ideal place to help soak up an introduction to the natural and historical wonders of northern England.  A proposed near 100% cut in the £2.5 million cultural funds by Newcastle-upon-Tyne city council will likely force a number of cultural institutions (including art galleries, museums, and music centres amongst others) in the city to either close, let go of staff, and/or lose precious objects and artefacts, not to mention a potential loss of knowledge.  Thankfully the Great North Museum receives some funding from the nearby University, but it will remain to be seen what damage across the city the cuts will do.  The Great North Museum houses a number of important collections including over half a million objects from the fields of the natural world, geology, library archives and world cultures.  However it was for the section on archaeology that I was particularly interested to see, especially so the sections on the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods.  It would be fair to say that these sections are not particularly expansive, but they are interesting.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on the Mesolithic in the Tees valley and North Yorkshire Moors, Northumberland has evidence for one of the earliest houses in Britain at Howick, located just on the coast of the North Sea.  On display at the museum were some of the artefacts found from the site including sea shells, burnt hazelnut shells, and microliths.  The site at Howick was discovered and excavated by a team based at the University of Newcastle during the summers of 2000 to 2002.

The Mesolithic hut at Howick, Northumberland, dated to 7800 BC,  overlooking the modern day coastline, (Source).

The Mesolithic hut at Howick, Northumberland, dated to 7800 BC, overlooking the modern day coastline (Source: University of Newcastle Howick Project).

They uncovered 3 distinct phases of a single circular hut building, with construction starting from 7800 BC and in-habitation potentially lasting a century or more, with evidence of post holes and successive lenses of debris.  It is not yet known whether the site was occupied permanently, semi-permanently or seasonally.  A total of 18,000 pieces of flint were recovered from the site, and whilst only a small fraction of these were on show at the Great North, it was nonetheless stimulating to be looking at the evidence and artefacts from one of the earliest domestic sites in the UK.  A large amount of burnt hazelnuts were found with a small number of hearths, indicating that this food group were specifically targeted for food, alongside probable food sources such as seals from along the coastal area.  The site was carefully investigated during the excavation period and subsequent analysis; this included test pitting, sediment coring, soil analysis and geomorphological characterisation, as well as extensive radiocarbon dating of various deposits found in the main extensive open area excavation.

Careful excavations such as this help to add to the picture of Mesolithic life in Britain.  In a recent article written by the project team at Star Carr, a famous waterlogged Mesolithic site in the Vale of Pickering in North Yorkshire, Conneller et al. (2012) suggest that the site was actually quite extensive with evidence of a least one hut, and a significant amount of work had gone into constructing the site.  They also suggest that the long held view of the European Mesolithic as proliferated with ‘small groups’ of people may have had their rationale in the small excavations of archaeologists’ themselves (Conneller et al. 2012: 1004).

These are interesting projects, especially in highlighting the varied archaeological finds of Northern England.  In my hometown alone I have a petrified Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic forest located just off the coast, a complex of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British centres spanning nearly a thousand years nearly on my doorstep, an important early Anglo-Saxon centre of Christianity near the coast, not to mention the important Medieval and Post-Medieval trading sites.  It should be remembered that museums are integral to displaying and housing a wide range of collections for the benefit of both the public and the researcher, not to mention commercial construction companies.

Further sources:

Mesolithic Project on the North Yorkshire Moors

18 Dec

There is a nice little article on the Past Horizons website on the work of my local archaeological group, Tees Archaeology, and their continuing work on the Mesolithic project based in the Tees Valley and North Yorkshire Moors in north eastern England, carried out in conjunction with North York Moors National Park.  The Mesolithic period in this area lasted from to 8000 BC  to roughly 3800 BC, with flint tools used during this period often belonging to the microlithic tradition- specialised mini-tools.  The human population during this time were largely nomadic, often moving from place to place as season/food dictated.  However, it can be hard to make specific claims about this period as the evidence can be so scattered and diffuse.  Projects, such as this one spearheaded by Tees Archaeology, can help to unveil concentrations in Mesolithic flints and tools, and possibly even help to highlight camp sites or hearth sites, whilst also involving the public to become engaged with prehistory and heritage management.

The north east of England is generally unrepresented in the archaeological record compared to later periods (Source: Project Summary), and is certainly lesser known compared to the more well known sites of Star Carr in the Vale of Pickering, or Mesolithic houses of Howick in Northumberland.  Yet the evidence gathered from the many hundreds of flints from the project so far could indicate concentrations of Mesolithic activity on the North York Moors, with nearly 450 flints found near Goldsborough, Whitby, with evidence of burn flints which is often taken as a sign of camp fires or hearths (Source: Past Horizons).  This project helps to highlight the systematic approach to the prehistorical archaeological record, especially taking into consideration the change of environment between now and then.

The Tees Archaeology led project is split into 3 main phases, which include:

Phase 1 (completed 2006):

The collation of existing data, including the work of unpublished and unrecorded material, palaeoenvironmental evidence, and information from private collectors.  The information was entered into a database and graded accordingly to type, and from there 6 types of location were identified for Mesolithic sites.  The sites were then targeted in Phase 2 (Source: project Summary).

Phase 2 (completed 2008-2012):

Targeted fieldwork explored the 6 location types identified from the 1st Phase in order to characterise the different types of activity present, detail the chronology at the site, and provide information for future management.  The 6 location types are termed as Zone 1– low lying areas in the Tees valley, Zone 2– lowland activity in prominent locations, Zone 3– lower lying northern and eastern fringes of present moorland block, Zone 4– upland activity in prominent locations, Zone 5– upper reaches of streams in upland locations, and Zone 6– highland springhead locations (Source: project summary).

Phase 3 (projected 2013)-

The majority of finds from Phase 2 of this project included extensive field walking at a number of sites to find, record and plan flint finds, whilst the 3rd Phase aims to finish trial shoveling, pitting and field walking at specific sites in conjunction with geophysical surveying, whilst testing the methodologies used in Phase 2.  The final section will bring together the lessons learnt from the project, and help produce and inform heritage management planning.  A popular booklet will be produced to help educate and inform the public.

Further Information, Publications and Reports-

A Tees Archaeology produced series of Flint Fact Sheets can be found here.  The detailed fact sheets help to provide information on the importance of flint collections, their value and how knowledge can be attained from them.  It describes the quality and the nature of flint, how to recognise different period production of flint tools (from Mesolithic microliths to Neolithic fabricators), as well as a guide on how to recognise the different functions and type of flint tools and artifacts that can be found in the area, ranging from scrapers, burins, awls to saws, knives and leaf shaped arrow heads.

The Tees Archaeology Phase 1 Final Report, from 2006, can be found here, which describes the objectives and research design in further detail.  On the project homepage further information can be found on the specific sites that have been targeted since 2006, such as Farndale Moor in 2009 or Goldborough in 2012, with yearly reports produced for each site available on the webpage.  This brief report outline both the completed Phase 1 and Phase 2, and the upcoming Phrase 3 in 2013.  A future report is expected within a year times, whilst trial trenching and test pitting on the North York Moors will be carried out in early 2013 (volunteers wanted!).

I sincerely hope I can join in with the project in the coming spring, as this seems like a fantastic opportunity to become involved with a Mesolithic project, a period I am especially interested in.