KS2 and Mesolithic Britain: “what did they eat?”

In this peek into the Mesolithic of Britain we are going to look at how the archaeology of the period can tell us how how people subsisted – that’s to say how they supported themselves in terms of food. For the most part, the general picture of life in the Mesolithic was that people lived a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, living off the land hunting, fishing and foraging for edible plants.

One feature which has been found in a number of sites from the Hebrides to Dorset are middens or rubbish mounds. Examples have been found from Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides to Culverwell on the Isle of Portland (Dorset) and these point to the widespread nature/character of activity at coastal sites and the reliance on marine resources such as a wide range of molluscs, although very often fish bones are absent.

Non-marine species can also be found in the mounds with bones and antler of deer present in some sites for example. For the most part these coastal middens contain large numbers of shellfish, such as limpet and periwinkle.  Why are these middens important? Well ethnographic studies have suggested that, traditionally, shellfish have been harvested for five main reasons, as food, bait, raw material for tool/utensil manufacture, ornamentation, and currency. So archaeologists use these studies an analogies to think about how people in Mesolithic thought about and used this rich resource.  At Culverwell for example, picks made from local chert were found on the site and archaeologists think they may have been used to remove limpets from rocks or perhaps for extracting more chert from outcrops.

Other midden sites in the South West also highlight the importance of coastal resources during the Mesolithic period. The finds from the midden site of Westward Ho! in Devon have been radiocarbon dated to between c6,000-5,000 BC and archaeologists have used a range of environmental evidence such as snail shells, plant and insect remains to show that the midden was situated within damp woodland with some pools, set a little back from a sandy shore. The evidence for subsistence strategies includes vertebrate fauna from the midden (cattle, pig, red deer, roe deer, and fish), marine molluscs (dominated by those species named above). Not everything that was found in a midden means that it has been eaten of course. At some of the midden sites in Scotland the articulated skeletons of otter were present and this suggests that the animal’s pelt was used or that the flesh of the otter was in some way taboo.

Mesolithic harpoon head -Found nr Thrumpton, Notts. Courtesy of NCM&G.
Mesolithic harpoon head -Found nr Thrumpton, Notts. Courtesy of NCM&G.

On dry land our Mesolithic forebears hunted a range of both animals and birds. Larger animals such as auroch and deer would have been hunted using spears/lances as well as bows and arrows. It is very likely that large prey animals produced a significant amount of meat and unless a feast was planned much of this was probably preserved in some way – perhaps dried or smoked. Smaller animals such as otter, marten or badger were probably caught using snares – probably because they are difficult to ‘shoot’ and also as this would not damage the pelt which may well have been valuable. Birds too were probably on the menu and their feathers were used for arrows at the very least. We know from some European sites that they were also used in burial rites!

Unlike the remains of animals, evidence for the types of plants used in the Mesolithic has been rather harder to find. This is mainly due to factors affecting the preservation of plant tissue in the ground. However, we do know quite a bit from both Britain and mainland Europe that can tell us about plants in Mesolithic people’s diet! A range of plant material recovered from excavations has been found which has led archaeologists to find a number of ‘commonly used’ species, including hazelnut, wild berries, tubers of lesser celandine, dogwood nuts, water lily seeds and grasses/sedges. There has also been some evidence of the processing of the foodstuffs such as grinding stones. How these foods were cooked is more difficult to answer, but it is generally assumed that fire/heating was involved. This could have been in fire pits or even the use of ‘pot-boilers’ – stones that are heated in a fire and then dropped in a container/pit of water to heat the water and hence boil the water.

Organic remains such as hazelnut shells are very useful to archaeologists for another reason – dating. Many of you have heard of radiocarbon dating and may wonder what it is. Briefly, when animals and plants are alive they acquire small amounts of an isotope of Carbon – Carbon14 – when the organism dies this isotope begins to decay at a known rate and has a ‘half-life’ of 5,730±40 years. The variation is due to environmental changes and can be accounted for by a process known as calibration. One advantage of using hazelnut shells is they are short lived, unlike trees which may live for hundreds of years, and therefore give a narrower date range. Hazelnut shells from a site near Howick in Northumberland produced dates which centred around 7,800 bc¹. These were important as they were associated with what has been shown to be one of the earliest houses yet found in Britain!

This sort of evidence suggests people in the Mesolithic made use of a range of resources, a mixed economy if you will, that could overcome seasonal shortfalls in some resources. There are a number of websites etc which can give you much more detail on the period as a whole or on specific sites. Mesolithic lifestyles is an excellent source of information on the Mesolithic of Scotland and Starr Carr will of course tell you more on this famous site!

Our next blog on Mesolithic Britain will look a another aspect of life in these islands over 6,000 years ago.

¹You can read more about the Howick house and the excavation in Waddington, C (Ed.) (2007) Mesolithic Settlement in the North Sea Basin: A Case Study from Howick, North-East England, Oxford, Oxbow Books.

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