5.2.7 Conservation

It has not been perceived as within the main remit of the ScARF Palaeolithic/Mesolithic report to investigate matters of conservation. It will have to suffice to mention, with regards to artefact conservation, that scientific techniques for investigating and preserving organic remains, such as freeze-drying, have advanced considerably. In the event of a major new discovery of waterlogged Palaeolithic or Mesolithic artefacts, however, there could be resource and capacity issues requiring recourse to facilities outwith Scotland, since institutions and commercial concerns within Scotland probably lack sufficient equipment, personnel, and expertise. Otherwise, because Palaeolithic and Mesolithic artefactual remains from Scotland are for the most part lithic and to all intents and purposes inert, preservation in a museum context is not normally problematic (Holgate 1994), although there are continuing discussions about the most appropriate way in which such artefacts should be cleaned, marked, bagged, boxed, and stored. These discussions revolve in particular around the question of not compromising potential microwear and residue traces, and it has to be admitted that no single best practice has yet been established because of the different preferences held by the various interested parties. As with archaeological finds of all periods, there are issues concerning storage capacity since the residues from Mesolithic excavations can be prolific; for example the recent Scotland's First Settlers Project (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009) produced, after post-excavation, some 80 large boxes of shells requiring museum storage. 

As for conservation of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites, there are very few in Scotland which have any statutory protection. The relevant scheduled ancient monuments comprise (with their Ancient Monuments number in brackets):

  1. Caves, Creag nan Uamh, Assynt, Highland (606)
  2. Garleffin standing stones and Mesolithic settlement, Ballantrae, South Ayrshire (5379)
  3. Middens (two) 350m WSW of Seal Cottage, Oronsay, Argyll (6288)
  4. Midden 250m NW of Seal Cottage, Oronsay, Argyll (6289)
  5. Nether Kinneil shell middens 400m ENE of Inveravon, Bo'ness, Falkirk (6917)
  6. Shell midden 350m W of Kinneil House, Bo'ness, Falkirk (6918)
  7. Morton Mesolithic settlement, Forgan, Fife (7641)
  8. Risga, shell midden and related structures on SE side of island, Ardnamurchan, Highland (7829)
  9. Shell midden 1050m NNE of Staffin House, Skye, Highland (7848)

Of these sites, the Creag nan Uamh caves have not, strictly speaking, produced archaeological evidence earlier than the Neolithic period, but they are a very important repository of Quaternary fauna with a bearing on the environment for Lateglacial human inhabitation. The scheduled shell middens have all been mentioned at various points earlier in this report, and their key importance for Mesolithic studies needs no further emphasis (but their over-representation is obvious). Morton is a key Mesolithic site, known from fieldwalking and excavation to have both earlier and later Mesolithic settlement evidence, including a shell midden. The Garleffin site is the only one on this list to have been included on the basis of surface finds of Mesolithic artefacts, but probably has only been included because this is the same location as the standing stones.

Otherwise all known Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites in Scotland, almost all of which are primarily represented by lithic artefact findspots / concentrations / scatters, are in the normal course of events without protection other than having the possiblilty of archaeological conditions being imposed if threatened by development. This would depend upon their existence being known and their value appreciated, which is dependent in the first place upon their representation in local HERs or the RCAHMS database. The experience of ScARF Panel members with national and local records suggests that this representation is low (see also the 24KB .pdf ScARF download: SMR and NMRS issues). Since by definition the existence of a lithic artefact scatter means that it either is or has been on arable land, such sites are very vulnerable to continued plough damage. It cannot be expected that all, or indeed many, Mesolithic sites known in this way should receive full statutory protection, but there is a strong case for very rare and important occurrences, for example of Upper Palaeolithic and Early Mesolithic sites, becoming scheduled ancient monuments, or in some other way actively being managed to protect them. The addition and consolidation within the existing national and local records of known information about all Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites should be a matter of priority, as should a much more informed appreciation of the potential of artefact scatter sites (e.g. see Smit 2010).


5.2.6 Site investigation

Until recently, geophysical survey and remote sensing were not used routinely for the detection and investigation of Mesolithic sites and features (but see Marshall in Mithen 2000 for use of resistivity at Staosnaig Mesolithic site). The Scottish Mesolithic Geophysical Survey Project was established in 2002 by the Department of Archaeology at Glasgow University, in order to research the application of geophysical survey techniques to Mesolithic archaeology, and sites with different topographic and pedological characteristics were used as case studies. Geophysical survey has also been used as a general prospecting tool as part of the Inner Hebrides Mesolithic Project led by Steven Mithen. With the exception of Sand, Applecross, Highland, the results of these surveys have not yet been published in detail. At Sand a fluxgate gradiometer survey was undertaken of an area c. 500m2 directly in front of the rockshelter, with the primary objective of exploring the geophysical response of the shell midden deposit and establishing its extent. A sampling interval of 0.25m was adopted and the instrumentation was set to detect features up to 1m below the ground surface. The magnetic anomalies detected could be linked mainly to geological features, metal objects in the soil, or recent disturbances of the site, but no clear magnetic response was obtained from the midden deposit (Finlay 2009).

Archaeological geoprospection has seen limited application in Scotland, but has proved useful elsewhere (Carey et al. 2007).

Table 3 lists some common science-based techniques and the extent of their use in Scottish Mesolithic studies. With the exception of radiocarbon dating, there have been relatively few applications of these techniques. This is further highlighted by a survey of papers with a specific focus on the Scottish Mesolithic published in the Journal of Archaeological Science between 1975 and 2010 (Table 4). If archaeobotanical, archaeozoological, geoarchaeological, and palynological studies are excluded, which fall more within the realm of environmental archaeology, only three papers published in the Journal of Archaeological Science over the past 35 years are concerned with the scientific analysis of archaeological materials from Scottish Mesolithic sites. While the Journal of Archaeological Science does not represent the total picture, it is probably a fair reflection of past and present trends in Scottish Mesolithic research and highlights both the paucity of science-based research and the imbalance between environmental archaeology and archaeometry in what little research has been undertaken. While the lack of human remains from Mesolithic sites in Scotland probably accounts for the dearth of archaeogenetic research and stable isotope studies of diet and population movements, it is more difficult to explain why there have been so few applications of archaeometric techniques to the study of artefacts and ecofacts. One reason perhaps is the lack of specialist degrees in archaeological science at postgraduate (Master and PhD) level in Scottish Universities. Therein lie objectives and opportunities for the future.

Table 3: Applications of archaeometric techniques in Scottish Mesolithic studies

Area of Investigation Technique Applications
ISOTOPIC DATING Radiocarbon Numerous
NON-ISOTOPIC DATING Luminescence Bolsay Farm (Islay), West Voe (Shetland)
STABLE ISOPTOPES Dietary tracing Oronsay
Population movements Seasonality (molluscs, fish)
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ARTEFACT STUDIES Lithic use-wear Bolsay Farm, Gleann Mor (Islay), Smittons, Starr (Dumfries and Galloway)
Bone use-wear 'Obanian' shell middens, bevel-ended tools
Residue analysis Sand (Applecross) bevel-ended tools
Trace element provenancing Pitchstone sources (Arran)
SITE INVESTIGATIONS Remote sensing and geophysical survey Sand, Applecross, Newton (Islay), Port Lobh (Colonsay), Tiree, East Barns (East Lothian)

Table 4: Articles with a focus on the Scottish Mesolithic, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science between 1975 and 2010

Methodological emphasis No. of articles J Arch Sci ref.
Archaeobotany 1 vol 28(3), 2001: 223-34 (S Mithen et al.)
Archaeozoology 1 vol 34(3), 2007: 463-84 (E.H. Fairnell, J. Barrett)
Geoarchaeology 1 vol 17(5), 1990: 509-12 (A.G. Dawson et al.)
Geochemical fingerprinting 1 vol 11(1), 1984: 1-34 (O. Williams Thorpe, R.S. Thorpe)
Growth-line analysis of shells 1 vol 10(5), 1983: 423-40 (M.R. Deith)
Palynology 4 vol 11(1), 1984: 71-80 (K. Edwards, K. Hirons);
vol 16(1), 1989: 27-45 (A.H. Powers et al.);
vol 32(3), 2005: 435-49 (K. Edwards et al.);
vol 32(12), 2005: 1741-56 (K. Edwards et al.)
Radiocarbon 1 vol 37(4), 2010: 866-70 (M. Collard et al.)
Stable isotopes 2 vol 13(1), 1986: 61-78 (M. Deith); vol 26(6), 1999: 717-22 (M.P. Richards, R.E.M. Hedges)
Total 12