East Islay Mesolithic Project - Coastal Survey and Overview

Coastal survey along the Sound of Islay
The coastline directly south of Rubha Port an t-Seilich has numerous terraces at the same elevation and consequently which may also have been the location of Mesolithic activity. A walking survey over these terraces, searching for artefacts wherever the ground surface had been disturbed, such as by pigs or erosion. Six possible sites were discovered in the distance between Rubha Port an t-Seilich and Fionnphort, approximately one kilometre to the south . These were scatters of either flint artefacts or pieces of quartz that had likely been worked, and in some cases both materials together. No artefacts diagnostic to the Mesolithic were identified, but there is every reason to expect that these locations may have a similar sequence of deposits as discovered at Rubha Port an t-Seilich and hence would warrant an archaeological evaluation.

The lack of finds south of Fionn-phort may simply be a consequence that this was beyond the limit of foraging by the pigs because this appeared to be the source of the disturbance leading to the other finds. Several caves exist on this coast line and were inspected for their potential to contain prehistoric deposits. This appeared unlikely in all of those considered because they were low lying and would have been flooded by the rise in sea known to have occurred around 6500 BP on Islay. This would have washed out any Mesolithic deposits from the caves before the sea level fell to its current level.

The fieldwork at Storakaig and Rubha Port an t-Seilich has established that both sites have stratified, in situ archaeological remains of the Mesolithic period; both sites have rich and diverse stone artefact assemblages, features, preserved animal bones and charred plant materials. As such they provide important additions to the archaeological record of the Mesolithic period. Their significance is enhanced by the contrast in dates: Rubha Port an t-Seilich falling at the earlier phase of the Mesolithic and Storakaig towards the end.

The period covered at Rubha Port an t-Seilich, 9400-7710 cal BP, overlaps with Mesolithic activity at numerous sites elsewhere in the Hebrides: at Bolsay, Gleann Mor and Coulererach on Islay, at Staosnaig on Colonsay, at Fiskary Bay on Coll and Creit Dhu on Mull. Each of these sites has evidence for a different range of activities: fishing at Fiskary Bay, plant gathering at Staosnaig and the initial stages of flint knapping at Coulererach. As such, Rubha Port an t-Seilich provides a further element of the early Mesolithic settlement pattern in which hunter-gatherers moved between the islands to exploit different resources at different times of the year. It appears to have been a locality where a mix of activities occurred including hunting deer, fishing and gathering plant foods - but the samples are too small to draw any strong conclusions. The survival of mammal bones makes the site especially important, indeed unique for a site of this period. When a larger sample of these has been acquired one ought to be able to ascertain not only the full extent of hunting and fishing activities but also the season in which these occurred.

The importance of Rubha Port an t-Seilich also lies in the presence of deeply stratified deposits. While only the lowermost horizons have so far been dated, it appears likely that the deposits cover the entire duration of the Mesolithic period and the transition to the Neolithic. This would also make the site unique in western Scotland and provides an opportunity for making a detailed analysis of changing stone technology across this crucial prehistoric boundary.

Storakaig has been shown to be of equal significance to Rubha Port an t-Seilich. The radiocarbon dates indicate that its Mesolithic activity occurred at the end of this period, 6000-5600 cal BP. This is contemporary with and slightly after the Mesolithic coastal foraging activity on the island of Oronsay that led to the creation of shell middens. This is the first discovery of a site contemporary with the Oronsay middens showing that people remained mobile between the islands in this late Mesolithic period rather than living all year round on Oronsay, as others have argued. Storakaig provides unique opportunities to not only make a detailed comparison between its artefact assemblages and those from Oronsay but to also recover a substantial collection of animal bones and plant remains to investigate the hunting and gathering activity of the late Mesolithic period, and to contrast it with that from the earlier Mesolithic as represented at Rubha Port an t-Seilich.

The potential value of these two Mesolithic sites is further enhanced by the peat deposits in Loch Bharradail. Although the test-core did not reach the base of the peat deposits, it demonstrated that this basin has deep deposits of rapidly accumulating peat that can enable an environmental history for the region to be determined at a fine chronological resolution. The woodland that had surrounded Rubha Port an t-Seilich between 9400 and 7100 cal BP and then Storakaig between 6000 and 5400 cal BP can be reconstructed, and an evaluation made of the relative significance of climate change and human interference on the changing composition and eventual loss of the woodland.

In summary, the evaluation of Rubha Port an t-Seilich and Storakaig has demonstrated that these are especially important Mesolithic sites. With their well preserved artefacts, animal bones and plant remains, the existence of features and their dates at either end of the Mesolithic period, along with the nearby sediments from Loch Bharradail, they have enormous potential to inform us about the lifestyles and landscapes on Islay and western Scotland in general during the Mesolithic period. To do full justice to these sites a substantial research project is required, involving area excavation at both sites over a three year period followed by a further three years of post-excavation study and publication. Such a project would make a seminal contribution to our understanding of Mesolithic settlement in western Scotland and the long-term human and environmental history of the Dunlossit Estate.

Main Sections of the East Islay Mesolithic Project

Islay History | Standing Stones | Finlaggan | Islay Carved Stones | The Campbells | Walter Campbell | John Francis Campbell | Islay Clearances | Leaving Islay | Islay Genealogy | Islay in 1703 | 1869 Baptist Letter | Islay Shipwrecks | Exmouth Tragedy | Troopship Tuscania | Otranto and Tuscania | Dougie MacDougall | Ferry History | Cultoon and Ballinaby | Sunderland Flying Boat Tragedy | Kilchoman Bards


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