Human stone (or lithic) technology rarely produces tool types that are chronologically distinctive. The microlith (‘tiny stone’) is one of the few diagnostic types. Early Mesolithic peoples in Europe developed them as the glaciers were retreating at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. The traditional view was that they show the poverty of these people, living at a time when the big game animals such as mammoth had become extinct and before the bounty produced by farming.
Before the 1970s, this was the standard view of the European Mesolithic. We will find out later how and why our ideas about the people of this era – from about 11,000 to 4000 BC in Britain – were wrong for so long. The first person to subdivide the Stone Age was John Lubbock who, in 1865, introduced the terms Palaeolithic (‘Old Stone Age’) for the period when stone-using peoples were hunter gatherers and Neolithic (‘New Stone Age’) for the time when the first farmers still made their tools from stone. In 1866, Hodder Westropp proposed that there was a middle period, the Mesolithic, between the end of the glacial climate and the introduction of farming.
The idea of a Mesolithic was controversial, and many prehistorians denied that it existed as a separate period. By the middle of the twentieth century, though, it had come into regular use in northern Europe, while southern European prehistorians prefer the term Epipalaeolithic (‘beyond the Old Stone Age’). The main objection to the name is that it implies a teleological approach to history: the distinction is often made that Mesolithic societies are those who later develop (or are replaced by) farming, whereas those that remain hunter-gatherers cannot be described this way. This naming of the period wrongly presupposes the inevitability of farming, as if all societies follow the same historical trajectories, and that there is an evolutionary progression; a similar objection can be made about Epipalaeolithic, as if such societies necessarily developed from Palaeolithic. These views belong in the past, in Whig interpretations of history or in Marx’s universalising approach.
Today’s object comes from Hitchin and consists of a type of microlith usually described as geometric, as it is one of several forms that resemble geometric shapes. In this case, it is a scalene triangle, a three-sided shape where each edge is a different length. Geometric microliths are typical of the Early Mesolithic (about 10,000-6150 BC), when they were one of a number of flint tools made at this time. Microliths were not tools in their own right but elements of composite tools, in which two or more microliths would be mounted in a haft using a glue such as birch resin. People also made tools from bone and antler, but these rarely survive on dryland sites.
Priscilla Ransom (1871-1951), widow of Francis Ransom (1860-1935), gave three items, including this one, to Hitchin Museum, where they were accessioned on 1 May 1939. The entry originally read ‘Flint microlith’, but someone later added an s in pencil, so perhaps she brought in two more at a later date. It also gives the provenance as ‘Local’ and ‘The Chilterns’, added later in pencil, has been rubbed out. This is where the Ransoms were living from 1910, so it is unclear if they made the finds there. The house was built in 1894 and originally called Broadview, so it is unlikely that the Ransoms or the builders found the flints while they were digging its foundations.
To complicate matters (there is always a complication with these archaeological accessions), these same three objects appear in the Letchworth Museum Accessions Register on 26 February 1940, without a donor’s name. There, they are described as ‘A. Tattooing Lance (Riddy Field, Hitchin). B. Toe Cleaning Scraper (Riddy Field, Hitchin). C. Scraper & Borer combined’. The first is a lanceolate microlith, Hitchin Accession Number 92/1, the second is the one we’re looking at today, and the third is a rhomboid microlith, 92/2. According to the card index Sites and Monuments Record maintained by the former Archaeological Service of the museum, these finds were made in Riddy Shott. This was the name of the field immediately east of The Chilterns. Other early prehistoric finds in Letchworth Museum also came from Riddy Shott or Riddy Field, which may be the correct findspot for these three microliths. The name Riddy perhaps derives from Old English ryding, ‘an artificial clearing (an assart)’.
Riddy Shott is on the east side of the most prominent hill in Hitchin, known since the nineteenth century as Windmill Hill. The western side has a steep concave scarp into the valley of the River Hiz, while the western has a gentler slope down to the River Purwell. Many of the finds of Mesolithic material across north Hertfordshire have come from higher ground, as here. Does this mean that people frequented the hills more than the river valleys? Probably not. The valleys were rich in resources – reeds for basketry and thatch, foodstuffs (both animal such as fish or wildfowl, and plants) – that would have been attractive to these people. However, we also know from environmental studies carried out by Museum of London Archaeology in the early 2000s that the Hiz valley was damp and marshy at this time. There is no reason to think that the Purwell valley was any different.
The remarkable site at Star Carr, near Scarborough, developed from the 90th century BC on the edge of a now vanished lake. People were cutting down trees to make a clearing where they built houses, using timber to make a platform on the shore and dumping large amounts of timber into the lake. Over the next 800 years, they continued to cut down trees, live on the slightly higher ground above the water level and enlarge the area of activity. They processed animals for food, skins and tools made from bone and antler, used willow and aspen to make houses and waterside platforms, some of which came from coppiced woodland, made cord from nettles and used reeds growing at the water’s edge. The people indulged in occasional feasting, which was perhaps when they wore the famous antler masks made from deer skulls.
It is now obvious from the ongoing work at Star Carr that Early Mesolithic societies were anything but simple, impoverished hunter-gatherers. They could live in permanent village-like settlements, where they managed the landscape by coppicing woodland, altering the edges of a lake and undertake a broad variety of craft activities. Star Carr is unlikely to be unique. The number of tranchet axeheads found at Weston before the 1920s – more than six exist in the museum collection – suggests that the local Mesolithic people were exploiting the woodland there. We used to believe that these axeheads dated from the later Mesolithic (after about 6150 BC), when it was thought that the first houses were built, but the research at Star Cass shows this to be mistaken. Their use perhaps spans the whole of the period. The field name Riddy Shot may show that the land was formerly wooded, so this may have been another area where Mesolithic people were coppicing trees, millennia before medieval farmers made a more permanent clearing.
As well as managing the woodland, the Mesolithic people who dropped microliths at Riddy Shott must have taken resources from the nearby streams. Whether their activity there was as complex as at Starr Carr is unknowable on present evidence However, the 2003 geoarchaeological work in Hitchin town centre uncovered an organic deposit west of Biggin Lane that contained molluscs and charred grains, radiocarbon dated to the Early Mesolithic. Charred grains likely show human agency and point to food preparation taking place close by. Perhaps there was indeed a settlement away from the marshy land surrounding the River Hiz and, as at Star Carr, people were using the wetlands to dispose of rubbish.
Ethnographic evidence shows that hunter-gatherer societies need not be ‘simple’: some North American groups lived in town-like settlements, some had aristocracies, some focused on accumulated wealth through hard work. We fall back into teleological thinking if we assume that Mesolithic peoples were merely waiting around after the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age for farming to turn up. There was nothing inevitable about the westward spread of domesticated crops and livestock from the Middle East, a process that took millennia.
Moreover, the development of microlithic technology shows a huge technological jump from early ways of using flint. In the Palaeolithic, tools were made from single pieces of flint and were unusable once they were broken. Using microliths, tools became modular, allowing the user to remove and replace just the broken or blunted element. It was also a more efficient use of flint, allowing many more tools to be made from a single core. Indeed, as the Mesolithic developed, we see the increasing miniaturisation of microliths into what is known as narrow-blade types, where individual pieces might be only a few millimetres wide.
Our view of the Mesolithic has changed dramatically over the past fifty years. We can now appreciate that these pioneer permanent inhabitants of Britain modified their landscape, created village-like settlements and had a sophisticated technology. We can only begin to guess about the sort of complex societies they lived in.
Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews