Highland housing in the Mesolithic

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The excavations at Caochanan Ruadha revealed an oval-shaped lithics scatter. It is thought that this might represent the confines of some sort of temporary Mesolithic structure. (PHOTO: Graeme Warren)

Excavations at Caochanan Ruadha, a previously identified Mesolithic site in the Cairngorm Mountains of the Scottish Highlands, have revealed evidence of a possible small structure surrounding a central hearth – an intriguing find, as the identification of Mesolithic buildings is quite rare. The dig was part of the first phase of the Upper Dee Tributaries Project (UDTP), through which an interdisciplinary team from institutions across the UK and Ireland is exploring the early prehistory of Mar Lodge Estate – owned and maintained by the National Trust for Scotland.

In one trench, the 2013- 2015 excavations (directed by Graeme Warren, UCD School of Archaeology) uncovered a scatter of over 130 pieces of non-local worked flint, most likely from the coast (see CA 306). Post-excavation analysis of these artefacts suggests that many had been used for a variety of purposes, including for shooting as well as for processing plant and animal materials. Additionally, examining the distribution of these flints, the team identified a noticeable concentration around a pit filled with charcoal and burnt stone. There is then a sudden drop-off in the density of lithic finds outside an oval area surrounding this possible hearth, covering an area measuring approximately 3m by 2.2m.

It is thought that this oval area might represent the confines of some sort of temporary dwelling. Due to the lack of any identifiable structural evidence, such as post-holes, it may have been a tent or other light construction – although the soil characteristics are such that more permanent features may have been lost. Overall, these characteristics suggest that occupation of the site may have been short-lived – possibly no more than a night or two.

Radiocarbon dates from yew twigs excavated from the fire pit (an interesting discovery in itself, since the natural presence of yew in Scotland during this period is contested) indicate that this site was probably used sometime between 8,161 and 8,011 years ago. Intriguingly, these dates overlap with a major abrupt climatic event (ACE) approximately 8,200 years ago (see CA 339), which is likely to have made this region quite cold and possibly glacial. Another trench that was opened during this excavation, slightly north of the first and revealing another lithics scatter, was dated to between 8,023 and 7,958 years ago, indicating that this site may have been used by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers on at least one other occasion.

Overall, the evidence from Caochanan Ruadha lends support to the theory that the use of upland or mountainous environments increased in the Mesolithic, indicating these locations may have played an important part in hunter-gatherer life during this period. Previous research has largely shown that this was true of Alpine populations, but this project suggests that it may have been true of British groups as well.

This article appeared in CA 340.

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