The Mesolithic

c9000-4000BC

The Mesolithic, or Old Stone Age, was the period before the introduction of agriculture.

It was a time of nomadic hunter gatherers, who lived in small groups and moved around the landscape according to the season and availability of supplies.

Their survival depended on hunting and gathering food, so when one supply ran out, they dismantled their temporary shelters moved elsewhere. As a result, they left no tangible buildings or objects, other than a handful of stone flakes, as evidence of their passing.

In addition, the landscape of the Mesolithic was very different to today – the sea-level was considerably lower – up to 30 metres lower – so today’s green, rolling Orkney hills would have been the peaks of high ground. What the Mesolithic hunters would have regarded as lowland areas are now under metres of water – a fact that goes some way to explain the lack of archaeological evidence.

We know from flint scatters found across the islands that the wandering Mesolithic hunters crossed from mainland Scotland into Orkney but it is not clear when. However, a charred hazelnut shell, discovered in the East Mainland in 2007, was carbon dated to 6820-6660 BC, showing that Mesolithic people were in the islands around 7000 BC.

The hazelnut shell was found in a pocket of soil underneath a Bronze Age burial mound in Tankerness, along with stone arrowheads and other tools. These were the remains of a small Mesolithic hunting camp destroyed by the moundbuilders.