Little Holtby and the Mesolithic of northern England




Greg Speed

This week, our esteemed Senior Project Officer, Greg, is back to answer another question regarding our excavations as part of the A1 scheme. This week, Greg's been looking at the Early Mesolithic site we uncovered at Little Holtby...


Q. How does Little Holtby compare to other Mesolithic sites in the north of England

Most evidence for the Early Mesolithic period in northern England comes from disturbed lithic scatters. Flint assemblages are only rarely discovered where prehistoric people dropped them, or what archaeologists term ‘in situ’. Sometimes. such assemblages can be associated with other cultural evidence including pits and structures. It is thought that most of this evidence represents seasonal forays into the ‘highlands’ from base-camps located in lower-lying areas now submerged beneath the North Sea. In northern England, most known Early Mesolithic sites are concentrated on the North York Moors, in the Vale of Pickering and along the Northumberland coast, in areas nearest to the North Sea, although a few occur in the Pennine Dales to the west. 

The site at Little Holtby, located just to the north of Leeming in North Yorkshire, is one of a series of Early Mesolithic flint scatters located on a raised glacial ridge called the Leeming Moraine. In the Mesolithic period, this would have formed a dry route from north to south along the Vale of Mowbray, flanked to the east by the River Swale and to the west by a large former wetland area called Crakehall Ings. The other two excavated Early Mesolithic sites in northern England—Star Carr in the Vale of Pickering and Howick on the Northumberland coast—were also located close to wetland areas.

Excavations at Little Holtby in the 1990s and in 2014 for the A1 project recovered over 9000 lithics, predominantly made of flint with some chert. The lithics were found within several intercutting hollows that were most likely originally formed by tree-throws and subsequently eroded and widened by human and animal activity. Careful excavation of the hollows, including three-dimensional plotting of individual lithics and sieving of spoil from 1m squares to recover smaller debris, provided a detailed plan of the distribution of different tool-types and knapping debris across the area. This meticulous work enabled a spatial analysis of the Mesolithic activity, which meant we were able to build up a picture of how Mesolithic people were using the site.

This approach also allowed identification of structural features associated with the lithic assemblage. In some cases, lines of small stake-holes, interpreted as possible windbreaks, delimited the edges of spreads of knapping debris and were contemporary with the knapping activity. A line of three stones placed at the edge of one of the hollows may have formed an improvised seat, with flint-knapping debris directly in front of it. One area in which there were almost no lithics contained an earth-fast boulder, a posthole and a patch of clay of uncertain function. This could have been a ‘domestic’ area that was kept clear of sharp debris.

Two radiocarbon dates obtained from fragments of charred hazel nutshell indicated that the camp at Little Holtby was in use around 8500–8300 cal BC, which is relatively early in the Mesolithic of northern Britain. The date lies midway between those obtained for Star Carr, which was in use for perhaps 200 years around c.9000 cal BC, and Howick, which was occupied intermittently for up to 280 years from c.7800 cal BC.

The evidence from Little Holtby suggested that the location had been used for short periods as a seasonal hunting base. This contrasts with the evidence from Star Carr and Howick, where more substantial circular huts had been constructed for shelter, and which had therefore presumably been occupied in the longer term. Star Carr and Howick, with their roofed houses located nearer to what is now the North Sea coast, can perhaps be seen as ‘base camps’, from which smaller groups travelled further inland to hunt and create temporary campsites, such as that at Little Holtby.                 

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