Ranting About Dating

Narrow blade microliths. They might not look like much but these little stone tools were like the penknife blades of prehistory – they could be used for many different tasks and were easily replaced if they broke or blunted. They were important for the Mesolithic communities in Scotland about 9000 years ago, and they are important for archaeologists because they direct us to the rough age of the site we are excavating.

One of my bug bears in 2016 came to be the way in which archaeologists use artefacts as archaeological type fossils. So, I am going to allow myself a little rant.

In order to understand the past, we need order. For this, we have constructed a framework into which we place different stages of human activity. So, we go from Mesolithic, to Neolithic to Bronze Age and so on. We have three ways by which we can identify where any one site sits on the chain of events.

  • We make use of fashion: the use of type fossils
  • We undertake radiocarbon and other forms of dating
  • We examine the economic basis of life –not all aspects of the chain of events are sequential, so it can be helpful to investigate the use of farming as opposed to hunting and gathering, or the possible access to metal and other technologies.

But, these techniques each have their complications, and they don’t always agree with one another. For that reason, we tend to try to use more than one aspect of a site in order to assess how it relates to other sites and the ‘grand order of things’ that were taking place in that region at the time.

Type fossils are identified when a particular (usually notable) artefact recurs frequently enough for us to be able to judge it a preferred choice among members of a specific community. We are very aware today that people have preferred ways of doing things and that this tends to be a personal choice that is influenced by culture. Fashions in clothing provide one obvious example, though they change very frequently. Other examples range from the flashy, such as cars, to more subtle things, like the ways we decorate our houses. The goods we use, our material culture, help to define us and the groups with which we identify.

The same holds good for the people of the past. Of course, clothing rarely survives, so it is hard to pick out trends there, but we do have other things such as arrowheads and pottery, even styles of flint knapping.

Over the years, archaeologists have built up ‘pattern books’ of type fossils and they look out for them on sites in order to identify the period (and sometimes type) of site that they are investigating.

Sometimes, this can have unintended consequences. For example, when I was planning excavations I tended to look for a specific type of stone tool known as a ‘narrow blade microlith’ in order to identify a site as Mesolithic. When I found narrow blade microliths in a collection of stone tools from field walking I could be pretty certain that the site related to the period in which I was interested for my research. Now, the Mesolithic is a long period, in Scotland it lasted for roughly 5,000 years before the introduction of farming about 6000 years ago. So, I was surprised to find that all the sites I excavated turned out to have very similar dates: Kinloch, Rum – c. 8500 BP; Fife Ness – c. 8500 BP; Long Howe, Orkney –  7900 BP. Thinking of an explanation, I suspect that I must be biasing my choice of sites somehow, and the most likely way is that the specific microliths that I perceive as interesting conform to the type of microliths that were popular around that precise part of the Mesolithic in Scotland. There are other dates from sites with microliths like that that would seem to confirm this – though the picture is, of course, not simple.

It is important to remember that type fossils are a tool that speaks to us, rather than one that we should force to fit in. We need to look at our finds and think carefully about what they might mean. I’ve been surprised recently to find people complaining that the type fossils don’t fit the accepted archaeological pattern; they then try to make them conform to their preconceptions. What they are forgetting is that archaeology grows as we excavate more sites and get more information. Our narratives change. We need to remember this and be prepared to be flexible and think our way around new interpretations, new stories. That is one of the attractions of the discipline for me.

For example, we don’t tend to find those narrow blade microliths on many sites towards the end of the Mesolithic. Some archaeologists, considering that a site can only be Mesolithic if they occur, have asked me whether I think that this could mean the abandonment of parts of Scotland in the millennium preceding the introduction of farming. Of course, it might, but we would have to find some explanation for this. Personally, I think it more likely that, due to a change in technology, we have not been able to identify the everyday culture in use right at the end of the Mesolithic. I suspect that microliths become less common and people are using stone tools that just don’t stand out – there are many sites with nondescript stone tools that we have not been able to fit into any pattern, and I wonder if they date to this period. Their locations conform to Mesolithic find spots, but as we don’t tend to excavate ‘nondescript’ sites we have yet to find out.

Another example relates to finds of Grooved Ware style pottery across the UK. In the past, we have tended to assume that technological and cultural developments took place first in the south, then spread gradually across the country. So, it came as something of a surprise to find that sites with Grooved Ware in the north, specifically in Orkney, were earlier than those in the south. In this case, it has prompted a closer examination of the evidence with the result that many people are now working on an exciting theory related to the development of a dynamic cultural movement, evidenced by henge sites such as The Stones of Stenness in Orkney as well as finds of the pottery and other things, and its spread away from the islands to form other centres of power such as the Boyne Valley Neolithic and the Stonehenge area of Wessex. Perhaps these places were already significant, but the developments that took place in later Neolithic Britain seem to spring out of the north and turn existing geographical perceptions of remoteness on their head.

The archaeological evidence does not always do what we expect. It is interesting to think about how we make sense of the archaeological material that we find. We were given the tools by generations of archaeologists before us, but they did not expect us to follow them blindly, they expected us to use our nous…