A1 Leeming to Barton: Little Holtby

North Yorkshire


Carillion/Morgan Sindall Joint Venture (CMS JV) on behalf of The Highways Agency (now Highways England)






In 1994, evaluation fieldwalking for a proposed upgrade of the A1 in North Yorkshire identified a scatter of lithic material in a field at Little Holtby, just to the north of Leeming. A trial trench excavated the following year recovered over 3000 Early Mesolithic worked flints. These lay within a hollow cut into the top of a ridge of glacial sands and gravels (the Leeming Moraine), which provides a dry route for the modern road in this area. The proposed road improvement was subsequently cancelled but was revived in the early 21st century, with construction work on this section of new motorway beginning in 2014. NAA, as the archaeological contractors for the scheme, fully excavated part of this Mesolithic site, which lay within the development area.

The earliest feature was a hollow, probably created as a result of a tree-throw, which only partially lay within the excavated area. After it had infilled it was cut to the north by a larger hollow, which was the feature originally identified by the trial trench. This shallow feature, presumably also an eroded tree-throw, measured 12m by 7m. Cut into the base of the hollow, and also in an area beyond its north-eastern edge, were a series of small stake-holes, mostly arranged into short lines or arcs. Similar features found elsewhere have been suggested to represent small, temporary windbreaks rather than more permanent roofed structures. Careful hand-excavation of the deposits filling the hollows, together with sieving of the resulting spoil, recovered 6291 pieces of worked flint and chert in addition to the material found earlier in the 1990s. Three-dimensional plotting of the lithics allowed for spatial analysis of the site’s use. Much of the lithic material consisted of flintknapping debris, which occurred in distinct clusters at several points around the south-eastern edge of the main hollow, suggesting a series of separate knapping episodes. In some cases, one edge of a cluster coincided with one of the stake-lines, demonstrating that the windbreaks were contemporary with the knapping activity. Another group of flint debris lay directly in front of a line of three stones placed on the edge of the hollow, and it is tempting to interpret the stones as an improvised seat built by the flint-worker. Towards the western side of the hollow, a small pit or posthole and a patch of clay (presumably imported since the site lay on sand) were both located adjacent to a large earth-fast boulder located in an area containing little worked flint. These features could represent a more ‘domestic’ area kept clear of sharp debris.

Radiocarbon dating of charred hazelnut shells found amongst the flint shows that activity was taking place within the larger, later hollow around c.8500–8300 cal BC, making the site one of the earliest to have been excavated in northern England. At this time, only a few thousand years after the last glacial retreat, local evidence suggests that the landscape was covered by dense hazel and birch woodland, although oak and pine forests were beginning to return. Little Holtby would have been surrounded by a range of wetland areas, including an extensive wetland to the west, ponds to the north and the River Swale to the east, and had easy access to the nearby Pennine uplands, all of which would have been regarded as rich resources by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers.

The relatively restricted suite of flint tools found at Little Holtby, with an emphasis on microliths (which were probably mounted on projectiles), suggests an emphasis on hunting, although smaller numbers of other tools indicate that a range of other activities was being carried out. The apparently episodic deposition of the flint, combined with an absence of the more substantial structures found at some other Early Mesolithic sites, suggests that Little Holtby was probably used by a group of hunters for repeated short visits rather than representing any longer-term settlement.

You can read a full account of the site in our article, which is freely accessible:

Speed, G. P., Rowe, P., Russ, H. and Gardiner, L. F. (2018) A game of two (unequal) halves: the Early Mesolithic site at Little Holtby, near Leeming, North Yorkshire. Mesolithic Miscellany 26(1), 49–87.

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