Howburn Farm: Excavating Scotland’s first people

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At Howburn Farm in South Lanarkshire, a scattering of flints, discovered by the Biggar Archaeology Group, turned out to be evidence of the earliest human habitation in Scotland. Tam Ward and Alan Saville explain.

How far north did Palaeolithic people settle in Britain? The general belief is that they did not go much further than the Midlands, with Creswell Crags often considered the northern limit of Palaeolithic settlement. Now, new evidence from Howburn Farm, near Biggar, Lanarkshire, proves that Upper Palaeolithic people ventured into what is now known as Scotland.

Towards the end of the last Ice Age, around 13,000 BC, the temperature warmed very rapidly. All over northern Europe people re-colonised lands freed from the ice, and from northern Germany (the Hamburgian culture) to Creswell Crags (the Creswellian culture) and beyond, a Late Upper Palaeolithic culture flourished. Temperatures declined again at around 11,000 BC (the Younger Dryas phase), when Britain was probably only sparsely populated, if at all. It was not until around 10,000 BC that the climate warmed up again, and we entered the warm phase in which we currently bask. It is to this earlier Late Upper Palaeolithic warm phase, probably at around 12,000 BC, that the remarkable new finds at Howburn Farm belong.

The finds in context

After 30 years in action, the Biggar Archaeology Group (BAG) has found evidence from nearly every period of Scotland’s history, from the Mesolithic to the modern. In 2005, we were walking a field at Howburn Farm, about 4 miles north of Biggar, when we found two concentrations of unusually large flints, of which a high proportion were tools such as scrapers. Such distinctive flint had not been noticed the previous year in the same field, when a range of lithic artefacts and pottery dating from the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age had been discovered.

The original trench, showing features which proved to be Iron Age.

We continued to walk the field for four more years, recording all the surface flint accurately by GPS. In the process, we ended up accumulating the largest collection in mainland Scotland of Arran pitchstone — a black, volcanic glassy stone used in the early Neolithic, for some, as yet unknown, purpose. Torben Ballin had published a major work on the entire collection of pitchstone from Scotland (BAR British series No 476), and it was during consultations for this project that we asked him to look at our ‘unusual’ flint.

Torben also recognised the peculiar nature of this material and consulted Alan Saville of National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. They were both amazed, as it appeared that the flint could belong to the Upper Palaeolithic period, for which suspected random finds had been made before in western and northern Scotland but never a site with an assemblage. The ‘clincher’ was a tanged flint projectile point which had gone unnoticed, since it was in two parts that, amazingly, were found separately on the surface of the field.

The two experts then asked us to do further work on the site. The objective was simple: retrieve more diagnostic flint and, if possible, find datable deposits or features. In 2009, we began this next phase of the project. In all, a further 300m ²  were excavated (with every square metre producing finds) including in situ artefacts below the ploughing disturbance.

We soon realised the work would be too intensive to do alone, so we had an open call for more volunteers to join us and experience the thrill of pushing back the boundaries of human history. Over 150 people responded, including children with their parents and many who had never participated in archaeology before. Nearly everyone found numerous examples of ancient flint or chert tools.

The chief importance of the finds at Howburn is that they have demonstrated for the first time that people were present in southern Scotland in this early phase of the Late Upper Palaeolithic period, approximately 14,000 years ago. Although we  envisage there were only limited numbers of people in the hunting groups that periodically made their way across the uplands during this time, it cannot be that Howburn Farm was the only spot where campsites were made; therefore, we can anticipate further discoveries of similar finds in the future. However, the Biggar Archaeology Group is going to have a hard time topping this discovery!

The Biggar Archaeology Group

The Biggar Museum Archaeology Group was established in 1981 as a voluntary group within the Biggar Museums.

The project work of the group has provided important new evidence of the past material culture of Scotland and, in particular, the area of the Upper Clyde and Tweed valleys. They have completed several major landscape surveys, a significant series of discoveries and excavations, and have developed museum exhibits and educational resources. Additionally, Biggar Young Archaeologists Club has been running successfully since 1990.

Membership is free and is open to anyone who wishes to participate in voluntary archaeology. While most work is carried out in the field, a considerable programme of post excavation research and publication work is done in the museum. The BAG has won the Pitt Rivers Award twice (1996 and 2008), and the Heritage in Britain Award (2006).

Contact: Moat Park Heritage Centre Biggar ML12 6DT

Tel: 01899 221050


To view this article in its entirety, take a look at Issue 243 (June 2010) of Current Archaeology.

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