Rubbish dump reveals time-capsule of Scotland's earliest settlements

Submitted by Andy B on Tuesday, 05 June 2001  Page Views: 20025

DigsArchaeologist's chance discovery leads to vital evidence of human life on west coast 9,500 years ago

John Ross and Alastair Jamieson

?It is interesting because of the astonishing level of preservation?

?We had not expected that it might go back this far?

THE rubbish tip next to a public car park went largely unnoticed, except by those who were unwittingly dumping on history.

It was only when Steven Birch, a scallop fisherman doing a distance learning course on archaeology, came ashore to root around in this remote part of Scotland?s west coast one day three years ago that the site was identified as an important time capsule of early life.

The scale of exactly how important became clear yesterday when it was confirmed the dump was once used some 9,500 years ago, making the site one of the earliest dated human occupations in Scotland.

A team from Scotland?s First Settlers, an Edinburgh University project, has been excavating for two years at the shell midden at the front of a rock-shelter at Sand, near Applecross in Wester Ross. Samples of worked bone from the site were sent to Oxford University for radiocarbon dating and the results show that people were living at the site during the Mesolithic period, about 7500BC.

It follows confirmation that an encampment at Cramond, near Edinburgh, has been dated to 8500BC, which proved that there were inhabitants in Scotland some 500 years earlier than previously thought.

The result from Sand has delighted Karen Hardy and Caroline Wickham-Jones, the directors of the project.

"This is very exciting", said Dr Hardy. "We knew from the types of tool we were finding that the site dated to some of the earliest settlements in Scotland, but we had not expected that it might go back this far.

"The site looked particularly promising and has turned out beyond our expectations. It is interesting because of its age and also the astonishing level of preservation."

Although no human remains have been found, discoveries at the site have helped archaeologists to build up a picture of life in the area at the time. The early inhabitants did not grow crops or keep cattle, but were nomads who moved from places to place, using rich resources from the land and sea for clothes, food and tools.

The team, which now includes Mr Birch, has discovered bones from red deer and birds, bevel-ended tools used for processing shellfish such as scallops, mussels, clams and limpets, and an antler harpoon for catching a wide range of fish, including cod, mackerel, haddock, herring and salmon.

There are also stone, bone and antler tools and evidence of fine shell beads and other items that may have been used for jewellery, such as a boar?s tusk.

Other finds, including lumps of ochre from which a colourful paste could be made, and a type of dog whelk from which a purple dye might be extracted, suggest that people had time to make other adornments. The settlers would have lived in rock-shelters with a wood and animal skin covering, which possibly doubled as a coracle in which they travelled and fished.

While evidence of life in Scotland from such an early period is extremely rare, it is known that settlements of people were established in the west of Scotland at this time from another site, at Kinloch on the island of Rum. Stones found at the Sand site suggest the people there had travelled to Rum and Staffin in Skye.

They would also have faced a time of considerable climate change. Just after the end of the last Ice Age, not only were there fluctuations in temperature, rainfall, and sea level, but the land was unstable and minor earth tremors would have been relatively common.

Ms Wickham-Jones said: "The people who used the rock-shelter at Sand to make their homes, even if only for a short while, would have been familiar with climate change much as we are today, and their response to this is something that the project hopes to document."

The dates from Sand show a concentration of activity in the seventh millennium BC. Other dates indicate activity at about 5500BC. These seem to relate to a time when the main midden had been abandoned for a while and perhaps became unstable.

Ms Wickham-Jones said the team has also found a small, polished stone axe which would not normally be associated with Mesolithic occupation but with the Neolithic farmers who later cleared and settled the land.

"Is it possible that this axe relates to some of the earliest clearance for agriculture in the area? Further work, on both the archaeology and early vegetation of the area, may help to clarify this."

The Scotland?s First Settlers project, which is funded by a range of bodies and private donations, has targeted the Inner Sound area for study and work this year will concentrate on laboratory analysis of previous finds. In future, the archaeologists hope to carry out more excavation on other sites in the area.

Last week, amateur archaeologists have discovered the earliest known evidence of human settlement in Scotland - dating from 8500BC. The remains of a temporary camp at Cramond, on Edinburgh?s foreshore, were uncovered with more than 3,000 artefacts, including about 300 stone tools and fragments.

Tiny fragments of discarded hazelnut shells were the crucial evidence that the inhabitants of the Mesolithic site were the earliest known people to have lived in Scotland - pushing the starting date for Scottish civilisation back about 500 years. The find appeared to prove the theory that people began to recolonise Scotland almost immediately after the last Ice Age.

Cramond now contains links to all periods of human occupation in Scotland.

Previous excavations have uncovered a Roman fort, a Roman lioness sculpture and a medieval church and village.

A team of archaeologists began digging trenches in an area close to a Roman bath house in 1995. The team expected to uncover further Roman remains but it quickly became apparent the group, from the Edinburgh Archaeology Field Society, had stumbled upon a Mesolithic site.

Analysis of the findings, with the assistance of the local authority and the National Museums of Scotland, has taken six years and it is only now archaeologists have been able to confirm the significance of the discovery.

The Scotsman

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Cornovia: Ancient Sites of Cornwall and Scilly, Craig Weatherhill


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"Rubbish dump reveals time-capsule of Scotland's earliest settlements" | Login/Create an Account | 3 News and Comments
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Re: Rubbish dump reveals time-capsule of Scotland's earliest settlements by Anonymous on Thursday, 01 May 2014
Good! Nice!
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Re: Rubbish dump reveals time-capsule of Scotland's earliest settlements by Anonymous on Tuesday, 04 December 2007
Very good! Excellent writer! You have eliminated jargon thereby making the story to the point of interest.

The 7th millennium Before Pisces (BC) was after the 8200 BP world flood. I did not know the 5500 Black Sea Flood effected the Nordic lands.

Thank you for info,
signed: R.D.
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Re: Rubbish dump reveals time-capsule of Scotland's earliest settlements by Anonymous on Sunday, 19 June 2005
a rather intriquing story
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