Thursday, June 14, 2012

Rancombe Nature Reserve and a quick run through the prehistory of Britain

I've been mentioning Ranscombe Nature Reserve ( recently and that is because there is currently a community archaeology project occurring up there courtesy of Kent County Council. The aim of the project is to investigate the extent of a Mesolithic (10,000-5,000ish B.C.; so about 12, 000-7,000 years ago) flint scatter found in Birch Wood, a coppiced woodland, using test pits. I will quickly note that all the dates are for the British Prehistoric, the European prehistoric period tends to be a little earlier as revolutionary ideas moving up from the Middle East took a while to get to us.

The Mesolithic period is often termed the middle stone age as the 'Stone Age' is split into 3 parts; in the UK evidence for the Palaeolithic starts around 800,000 - 12,000 years ago, the Mesolithic 12,000-7,000, and the Neolithic 7,000-4,500 years ago. The Palaeolithic was when the first humans (including Neanderthals) came into Britain across the now submerged Doggerland that linked us to the continent. Britain was still mostly covered by an ice sheet that extended as far south as the Thames Estuary and the areas that weren't were not that much more habitable! The landscape at the beginning of this period was tundra, much like the Arctic Circle, and the people that lived at this time followed migrating herds of mammoth, elephants, rhinos and hippos now long extinct from these parts. By the end of this period the climate was considerably warmer and birch woodland was beginning to flourish. The ice sheets fluctuated backwards and forwards throughout this period until it finally retreated, sea levels rose and we were cut off from the rest of Europe; which in our British timescale generally heralds the beginning of the Mesolithic. By this point the climate was very similar to today and we were eating deer, hare, boar and aurochs, also this was the time where we first started domesticating dogs to help us hunt. The landscape was now wooded with pine, birch and alder forests which not only hindered the movement of the large herds seen in the previous period but also hindered our own movement and we tended to use water as route ways. We lived in skin tents, also seen in the Palaeolithic, and moved around the country exploiting seasonal resources. The Neolithic was the last phase in the stone age and is defined by the introduction of agriculture and a settled lifestyle which had been used in the Middle East for centuries before it arrived over here. It wasn't a sudden change and there is evidence of culture clashes between those who kept the traditional way of living and those who wanted to farm, but in the end farming prevailed. The forests began to be felled, the population steadily grew and we started building monuments out of stone (there were monuments built from wood in the Mesolithic). Life became something we would recognise today as normal.

So when we talk about Mesolithic sites we mostly talk about flint scatters as other finds tend to have decomposed by this point. The big important site which flaunts this is Star Carr ( in Yorkshire where antler and bone tools (mainly concerned with fishing and hunting) were found along with the skull caps of deer which have been modified and may have been worn on the head. There have been other examples, in wet areas, where evidence for wooden circular buildings have been found. Anyway, the flint scatters are made when a person knapps the flint; breaks off small bits to use as tools by striking two pieces of flint together. The scatters are the discarded debris which is left after knapping but if we are really lucky we might find an arrow head or axe. The people in the Mesolithic would have carried the flint nodules around with them and would create tools as and when they needed them. There has been and continues to be much research into how far people carried these nodules and how they got hold of them, were they traded or did they physically go to the source and in some cases that would have involved a very long walk indeed!

At Ranscombe one such scatter has been thrown into the light of day after thousands of years by modern machinery churning up a path through the coppiced wood. One local volunteer archaeologist spotted the flints on a walk and now we are trying to establish how large the site is. We've had some fab flints already; an axe, an arrowhead, and countless pieces of knapping debris. We are our second week so far and things are looking great.

1m test pit in the woods with my trusty red toolbox. Didn't get much out of it I'm afraid as I was on the edge of the test pitting area.

This is all that remains of a mouse nest, probably used during the winter for hibernation. It was full of dead leaves and looked very cozy. Trouble is there were lots of mouse holes as you can see in the left of the picture; mice don't appreciate archaeology much.

There are images of the more interesting flints at

If I find something myself I'll put it up. I'm not very good at identifying worked flint but I am learning! I'm going back next week so fingers crossed... be continued....

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