thinking about archaeology

Plinth box 3

Geological core from the seabed between Shetland and Norway, showing the flint in position  (British Geological Survey)

Geological core from the seabed between Shetland and Norway, showing the flint in position (British Geological Survey)

Site: Bed of North Sea between Shetland and Norway

Date: 16,000–8000BC

What it represents: The last, sophisticated hunter-gatherers (modern humans) to possess Britain, when lower sea levels meant it was a peninsula of continental Europe

The plinth stone: A small fragment of a stone tool

Provenance: Retrieved in geological core for oil prospecting in 1981

Material: Flint

Maximum dimension: 22mm

Weight: 2.7gm

Loaned by: National Museum of Scotland, accession no. X.AB 3075

A piece of flint was found in a geological core from the bed of the North Sea in January 1981, slightly nearer Shetland than Norway. It was 143m down, covered by 28cm of a recent deposit of silty sand.

As no flint would be expected there naturally, its very presence suggests human action: but the flint is in fact an ancient worked piece, a fragmentary flake from an extensively modified core, though it is not diagnostic of any particular era or culture.

The immediate thought of the archaeologist who saw it, Caroline Wickham-Jones, was that it must have got there when someone had ventured far out to sea and dropped it overboard: something that could have happened any time through the mesolithic, neolithic or bronze age (around 10,000–3,000 years ago) – or even that a modern collector dropped it, say, in the 19th century. This would require an extraordinary piece of luck for the geological boring to have hit on a lone flint in such a vast area.

A few years later a scientist at the British Geological Survey, David Long, told her that their research was showing that that part of the seabed would have been dry land at the end of the ice age, some 18–10,000 years ago, when large quantities of water were held up in ice and global sea levels were much lower than now. This raised the possibility that the flint had been dropped by an ancient hunter, before the land was flooded when the sea rose as the glaciers melted. It would seem much more likely that the flint was one of many discarded at a camp site or small settlement, than the chance discovery of a single piece.

The site seems to have been in a delta area at the mouth of a river on the edge of a coastal plain. The find was particularly significant in suggesting that this now flooded upper palaeolithic landscape might have been inhabited by people, raising the notion that (if only we could find a way to study it) an entire prehistoric world lies down there under the sea, waiting to be explored. A camp site dating back to 12,000BC has recently been excavated in South Lanarkshire, but when the flint was studied in the 1980s nothing of this age was known from anywhere in Scotland.

Since this flint was recovered, research has revealed considerable detail of a whole submerged landscape now known as Doggerland. To the south between East Anglia and Scandinavia, many artefacts and animal bones have been retrieved in dredging dating back to at least 100,000 years ago, from older and deeper-buried land surfaces. Large parts of the submerged mesolithic landscape of around 10,000 years ago, nicknamed Doggerland, have been mapped by sophisticated use of commercial geological seismic data. That land, with large river systems, marsh and open forest, has been described as amongst the richest in Europe for the hunter-gatherers of the time. It was finally lost to the rising sea about 8,000 years ago.

British Archaeology, 2009. Flint finds point to Scotland’s first people. British Archaeology 106 (May/Jun 2009), 7

Vince Gaffney, Simon Fitch & David Smith, 2009. Europe’s Lost World. The Rediscovery of Doggerland. Council for British Archaeology

D Long, CR Wickham-Jones & NA Ruckley, 1986. A flint artefact from the northern North Sea. In DA Roe (ed), Studies in the Upper Palaeolithic of Britain & Northwest Europe (British Archaeological Reports), 55–62

A drawing of the flint (Marion O’Neil)

A drawing of the flint (Marion O’Neil)

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