Hopes that Stronsay flints could represent earliest evidence of human activity in Orkney

 

The discovery of two tiny flint arrowheads in Stronsay could represent the earliest evidence of human activity found in Orkney – if not Scotland – to date.

Naomi Woodward, of Orkney College, found the tanged points – thought to have been used between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago – in a flint scatter collected during the Stronsay Archaeological Survey in April 2007.

Flint experts Caroline Wickham-Jones and Torbin Ballin subsequently identified them as very early forms of prehistoric arrowheads – a type derived from a classification known as Ahrensburgian, found across the plains of north western Europe.

The flints were probably used by the mobile, hunter-gatherers of the period, perhaps on a hunting expedition, or temporary camp, on what would eventually become Stronsay.

Naomi explained:  “We think its either very early Mesolithic or late Paleolithic, dating from around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. They’re incredibly rare, especially for Orkney.”

“There’s been two other finds of this sort of point from the 1920s but they’ve been lost. One came from the Ness of Brodgar, while the other came from Stronsay. In fact, the latest finds came from an area a mile, or a mile and half, from where the 1920s example was picked up.”

Although this type of arrowhead has been found before, they have generally been without context – in other words, lying loose in the ploughsoil with nothing around about to fix a date. But it is hoped the Stronsay flints could indicate the presence of a site – in which case it could be incredibly significant to the archaeology of Scotland, let alone Orkney.

Naomi said: “Although these are just surface finds at the moment, we’re hoping that with this collection there could actually be an assemblage of them which would make it a very early site for Orkney, if not Scotland.

“We want to go out and try test trenches over the area they were found. Traces of any activity would be quite ephemeral, just post holes, charcoal, temporary shelters and the like.”

The Ahrensburgian link could indicate these early settlers were from the northern European plains. A mobile population, they would have travelled around the area, setting up temporary camps for their hunting and fishing expeditions.

But the interesting question is what type of landscape and climate did these hunters have to deal with.

Caroline Wickham-Jones, an expert in the early settlement of Scotland, said: “The problem with the Ice Age is that there is no actual research as to when Orkney deglaciated. So we don’t actually know what happened in Orkney”

However, going on research from elsewhere in Scotland, we can make some guesses.

After the Ice Age, and around 12,000 BC, much of northern Scotland – and presumably Orkney – was free of ice, with temperatures rising to levels similar to today. Two-thousand years later, however, around 11,000 BC, the climate began to deteriorate again. Temperatures began to drop, marking the start of the period known at the Loch Lomond Stadial around 9,000BC. Arctic conditions returned to northern Scotland, where glaciers reformed in mountainous areas, permafrost was widespread and winter temperatures fell to 20 or 30 degrees below current levels.

Caroline added: “If the flints turn out to be from the Upper Paleolithic, we could have settlement in the period prior to the Loch Lomond Stadial. This would be really exciting because it pushes back the known settlement of Scotland by several thousand years.

“Alternatively, if they date from the early Mesolithic, the flints would represent human activity in the period soon after the Loch Lomond Stadial, when temperatures were rising and the climate improving.  We know nothing of the very first inhabitants of Scotland after the Ice Age and it is exciting to think that some may have had northern links.”

 

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