East Islay Mesolithic Project

Storakaig and Rubha Port an t-Seilich Archaeological evaluation of new Mesolithic sites on Islay, western Scotland by Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks


Introduction
The Mesolithic is the most ancient and least known prehistoric period in western Scotland, lasting for almost 4000 years after the end of the last ice age, between 10,500 and 5800 years ago. Mesolithic people lived by hunting and gathering before the arrival of Neolithic communities, the first people to live by farming in western Scotland. As such, there was considerable excitement in the spring of 2009 when Donald James McPhee and Susan Campbell collected what they thought were Mesolithic stone tools from two locations on the Dunlossit Estate of NE Islay, Storakaig (NR 3985 6270) and Rubha Port an t-Seilich (NR 43035 67449). The artefacts were on the surface, those at Storakaig having been exposed in the upthrow from a ditch and those at Rubha Port an t-Seilich as a result of ground disturbance by foraging pigs. Small fragments of animal bones and charred hazelnut shell were also found at Storakaig, these being rarely preserved on Mesolithic sites.

Professor Steven Mithen (University of Reading) confirmed that both stone tool collections were of a likely Mesolithic date. A piece of charred hazelnut shell from Storakaig was submitted for radiocarbon dating and found to be approximately 6000 years old - towards the end of the Mesolithic period. These are the first Mesolithic sites to be discovered in eastern Islay and might provide invaluable information about this period. If the animal bones and charred plant remains at Storakaig could be shown to be contemporary with the stone artefacts, and if such material can also be found at Rubha Port an t-Seilich, these sites could provide precious information about the little understood Mesolithic economy and environment: what people ate, the size of their groups, their patterns of movement around the islands and the landscapes in which they lived. Moreover, peat deposits from a small lake basin located approximately one kilometre north of Storakaig, Loch Bharradail, might provide evidence for the vegetation history of eastern Islay and the impact of Mesolithic people on their environment. In light of these opportunities and with the kind permission of the Dunlossit Estate, small-scale fieldwork was undertaken at Storakaig and Rubha Port an t-Seilich by a team from the University of Reading between 21 August and 5 September 2010 to evaluate their potential for providing new information about the Mesolithic.

Main Sections of the East Islay Mesolithic Project


Archaeological Evaluation
Fieldwork was undertaken at both sites with the aims of:

  • Acquiring systematically collected samples of archaeological materials
  • Mapping the distribution of artefacts to assess the total extent of archaeological deposits
  • Identifying whether any features, such as hearths, rubbish pits and postholes are present
  • Establishing the stratigraphic sequence at both sites
  • Acquiring samples for radiocarbon dating

The excavation at Storakaig was supervised by Matt Gittins and that at Rubha Port an t-Seilich by Dr Darko Maricevic, who also undertook a geophysical survey at Storakaig, extending this to cover some of the archaeological remains of the Airigh Ghuaidhre township located adjacent to the Mesolithic site. Dr Claire Rambeau and Dr François Voisard undertook survey and photography of the sites and the coastal survey along the Sound of Islay. As a whole, the field team involved 20 archaeologists and students. Analyses of the samples acquired by the fieldwork were undertaken by Dr Anne Pirie (chipped stone), Dr Claire Ingrem (animal bone) and Dr Karen Wicks (charred plants). Analysis of the coarse stone artefacts is on-going by Dr Anne Clark. Ten samples of charred hazelnut shell, three from Storakaig and seven from Rubha Port an t-Seilich were submitted for radiocarbon dating. During the fieldwork season, Karen Wicks undertook an evaluation of the peat deposits within Loch Bharradail. A sample of the peat from the maximum depth she was able to core was also submitted for radiocarbon dating.

Introduction of Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks


Steven Mithen (Project Director) is a Professor of Early Prehistory in the Department of Archaeology and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Internationalisation and External Engagement at the University of Reading.
Karen Wicks (Field Director) is a Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology, University of Reading. She is an expert in Hebridean vegetation histories and palaeoenvironmental reconstruction.

The other members of the team

These East Islay Mesolithic Project pages are published with kind permission of Karen Wicks, Project Manager of the Project. Karen is Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology, University of Reading




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