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Mesolithic Musings and the Howick Home

22 Dec

I ventured up to a dreary and drenched Newcastle today and whilst there I visited the delightful Great North Museum, formerly the Hancock Museum, located near the University of Newcastle.  This a free, engaging and entertaining museum- an ideal place to help soak up an introduction to the natural and historical wonders of northern England.  A proposed near 100% cut in the £2.5 million cultural funds by Newcastle-upon-Tyne city council will likely force a number of cultural institutions (including art galleries, museums, and music centres amongst others) in the city to either close, let go of staff, and/or lose precious objects and artefacts, not to mention a potential loss of knowledge.  Thankfully the Great North Museum receives some funding from the nearby University, but it will remain to be seen what damage across the city the cuts will do.  The Great North Museum houses a number of important collections including over half a million objects from the fields of the natural world, geology, library archives and world cultures.  However it was for the section on archaeology that I was particularly interested to see, especially so the sections on the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods.  It would be fair to say that these sections are not particularly expansive, but they are interesting.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on the Mesolithic in the Tees valley and North Yorkshire Moors, Northumberland has evidence for one of the earliest houses in Britain at Howick, located just on the coast of the North Sea.  On display at the museum were some of the artefacts found from the site including sea shells, burnt hazelnut shells, and microliths.  The site at Howick was discovered and excavated by a team based at the University of Newcastle during the summers of 2000 to 2002.

The Mesolithic hut at Howick, Northumberland, dated to 7800 BC,  overlooking the modern day coastline, (Source).

The Mesolithic hut at Howick, Northumberland, dated to 7800 BC, overlooking the modern day coastline (Source: University of Newcastle Howick Project).

They uncovered 3 distinct phases of a single circular hut building, with construction starting from 7800 BC and in-habitation potentially lasting a century or more, with evidence of post holes and successive lenses of debris.  It is not yet known whether the site was occupied permanently, semi-permanently or seasonally.  A total of 18,000 pieces of flint were recovered from the site, and whilst only a small fraction of these were on show at the Great North, it was nonetheless stimulating to be looking at the evidence and artefacts from one of the earliest domestic sites in the UK.  A large amount of burnt hazelnuts were found with a small number of hearths, indicating that this food group were specifically targeted for food, alongside probable food sources such as seals from along the coastal area.  The site was carefully investigated during the excavation period and subsequent analysis; this included test pitting, sediment coring, soil analysis and geomorphological characterisation, as well as extensive radiocarbon dating of various deposits found in the main extensive open area excavation.

Careful excavations such as this help to add to the picture of Mesolithic life in Britain.  In a recent article written by the project team at Star Carr, a famous waterlogged Mesolithic site in the Vale of Pickering in North Yorkshire, Conneller et al. (2012) suggest that the site was actually quite extensive with evidence of a least one hut, and a significant amount of work had gone into constructing the site.  They also suggest that the long held view of the European Mesolithic as proliferated with ‘small groups’ of people may have had their rationale in the small excavations of archaeologists’ themselves (Conneller et al. 2012: 1004).

These are interesting projects, especially in highlighting the varied archaeological finds of Northern England.  In my hometown alone I have a petrified Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic forest located just off the coast, a complex of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British centres spanning nearly a thousand years nearly on my doorstep, an important early Anglo-Saxon centre of Christianity near the coast, not to mention the important Medieval and Post-Medieval trading sites.  It should be remembered that museums are integral to displaying and housing a wide range of collections for the benefit of both the public and the researcher, not to mention commercial construction companies.

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