THE PAN-WALES RESOURCE AUDIT ASSESSMENT FOR THE PALAEOLITHIC AND MESOLITHIC PERIODS

 

 

Introduction

The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods in Wales cover some quarter of a million years of human history. Not only have the cultural changes associated with the different periods of archaeology taken place, but also the climate and the landscape have changed and even the humans themselves have evolved. This is a period where the archaeological evidence for human presence is completely entwined with the geological and palaeoenvironmental evolution of Wales.

 

The remit for undertaking a resource audit assessment for the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods follows the recommendation made at the Aberystwyth Conference that the exercise be undertaken on a pan-Wales, as opposed to a regional, basis. The sub-group, therefore, appraised all four audit documents together. Discussions were undertaken by letter, telephone and email. No meetings have been held owing to the difficulty of assembling a widely dispersed group in the same place at the same time. The work has been co-ordinated by Elizabeth Walker, National Museums & Galleries of Wales with contributions from George Smith, Gwynedd Archaeological Trust; Professor Stephen Aldhouse-Green, University of Wales College Newport; Louise Austin, Cambria Archaeology; Nick Barton, Oxford Brookes University; Dr Dr Martin Bates, University of Wales Lampeter; Dr Andrew David, English Heritage and Dr Roger Jacobi, The British Museum.

 

One difficulty faced by the group in appraising the regional documents has been the lack of a standard format to the reports. Whilst three Trusts followed more or less the same lines, north-west Wales took a completely different approach and did not produce lists of key sites, radiocarbon dates; sites with environmental data and recent research projects that would have enabled us to draw comparisons between the regions. The assessment presented therefore has drawn not only on the resource audits themselves but also on the experience and expertise of the team who have local, national and international knowledge of these periods.

 

The pan-Wales summary has been divided into the two traditional divisions of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. It is hoped that discussion following the presentation of this paper will focus on the possible applications of the recommendations at regional level.

 


The Palaeolithic Resource Audit Assessment

Strengths

·        Wales has sites of international significance e.g. Paviland Cave and Pontnewydd Cave.

·        Many sites have been subject to relatively recent or current detailed investigation.

·        Many important cave sites that contain archaeology of this date exist in the limestone regions of the country.

·        Amateur work has enhanced our knowledge of caves containing Palaeolithic data e.g. Llandudno area and Gower.

·        There is good environmental data for many of the known cave sites.

·        Many sites are published in some form and thus data is available.

 

Weaknesses

·        Distribution maps highlight the gaps in coverage. They demonstrate a need for detailed consideration of why such gaps exist.

·        The knowledge base is spatially biased and patchy – it is also of a highly variable quality.

·        There is a geographical bias towards sites and findspots on the present day coastline and in caves. There is thus little known about inland sites, sites in upland areas and open-air sites.

·        Caves are important for the preservation of deposits, particularly for deposits dating before the last-glacial maximum. More sites containing such deposits need to be identified and those with potential require further palaeoenvironmental investigation. 

 

Opportunities

·        Areas of relevance in the existing document Research Frameworks for the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic of Britain and Ireland should be applied within Wales.

·        Capitalise on the fact that Wales has sites of international significance by incorporating these into broader European wide studies and research initiatives.

·        Recent developments in scientific techniques need to be applied, e.g. Bayesian analysis for the refinement of chronologies and better prospection techniques to locate new sites.

·        There should be more emphasis on inter-tidal and submarine deposits. In England the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Funding is being used to assess the archaeological potential of submarine aggregates off the southern English coast and greater use of this fund should be made in Wales.

·        The National Assembly for Wales is encouraging partnership schemes between institutions within Wales. Field projects could be developed that address gaps in our knowledge of the archaeology and palaeoenvironmental history of this period e.g. with CCW.

 

Threats

·        It is rare in Wales for Palaeolithic sites to be affected by development proposals, so new primary data rarely emerges from this system.

·        Developer funded archaeology is not pre-disposed favourably towards the geological deposits in which most archaeology of this period is found.

·        Gravel and aggregate extraction, both on land and off-shore are threatening the survival of deposits potentially containing Palaeolithic archaeology and palaeoenvironmental data.

·        There is a tendency for archaeological organisations to consider the Palaeolithic in isolation within Welsh regions.


The Mesolithic Resource Audit Assessment

Strengths

·        Current work on the Severn Estuary Levels is of international importance.

·        There is detailed palynological data for the late-glacial-Holocene environmental transition in Wales.

·        The present day coastline of the southern regions of Wales has many findspots/sites that provide a good picture of the Mesolithic archaeology of these areas.

·        The north-east Wales region appears to have a greater representation of findspots/sites that date to this period that have been discovered during the investigation of sites of other periods.

 

Weaknesses

·        The knowledge base is spatially biased and patchy – it is also of a highly variable quality.

·        There is a geographical bias towards sites and findspots on the present day coastline. There is thus less known about inland sites, particularly those in upland areas and the archaeology off-shore.

·        There is a lack of chronological control, and investigation of well-stratified sites.

·        We currently have a poor understanding of sea-level change.

·        There is a lack of organic preservation.

 

Opportunities

·        Areas of relevance in the existing document Research Frameworks for the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic of Britain and Ireland should be applied within Wales.

·        Capitalise and develop upon existing successful projects e.g. the Lithic Scatters Project.

·        Recent developments in scientific techniques need to be applied, e.g. Bayesian analysis for the refinement of chronologies and better prospection techniques to locate new sites.

·        An expansion in off-shore activity should be capitalised upon in order to increase our understanding of what are now submerged deposits.

·        To build upon the foundations of the recent Cadw coastal survey and increase our understanding of the threat posed by erosion of coastlines and inter-tidal deposits.

·        To use the existing database to develop our understanding of raw materials.

·        The National Assembly for Wales is encouraging partnership schemes between institutions within Wales. Field projects could be developed that address gaps in our knowledge of the archaeology and palaeoenvironmental history of this period e.g. with CCW.

 

Threats

·        It is rare for Mesolithic sites to be affected by development proposals, so new primary data rarely emerges from the present system.

·        Developer funded archaeology is not pre-disposed favourably towards the geological deposits in which most archaeology of this period is found.

·        Gravel and aggregate extraction, both on land and off-shore are threatening the survival of deposits potentially containing Mesolithic archaeology and palaeoenvironmental data.

·        Coastal erosion is threatening the survival of deposits containing important Mesolithic archaeology.

·        There is a tendency for archaeological organisations to consider the Mesolithic in isolation within Welsh regions.
Recommendations for the Future

Improvement of our databases

       Artefact collections and site archives provide a wealth of information on the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. While considerable work has been undertaken by some individuals on museum collections, it is clear that museums are generally an under-used resource. Much material also resides in private collections. The analysis and creation of a database of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic collections held in regional and local museums requires a concerted and co-ordinated effort, overseen by suitably qualified specialists. Results need to be standardised and the information produced to a common standard.

       The Wymer and Bonsall (1977) CBA Gazetteer of Sites of Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic date is in need of urgent updating. This could easily follow on from the current desk-top studies by the regional units as well as the expansion and completion of the Lithic Scatters Project. There are concerns about the level of ‘quality control’ in the current data. Databases produced should be made accessible as a searchable digital archive with lists of sites, references, dates backed up by accompanying lists of artefacts recorded to a common standard.

       Checking and updating of the database should be undertaken. This should also include accurate mapping of sites using high-resolution survey. Such studies would help pinpoint areas where little work has been undertaken, as well as helping to highlight areas of exceptional future potential.

       Completion of the list of recent and current projects that has been undertaken for some regions in this resource assessment will help play a key role in identifying research themes. Future research needs to build on earlier work by developing themes or answering new questions raised by this work. None of the lists we have seen are at all comprehensive.

       There is a need for further field collection and investigation of all surface lithic scatters in order to understand lithic typologies better. At the same time we need to be identifying sites with associated environmental evidence in order to develop our chronologies for this period.

 

Targeting specific landscapes

       Mapping - the mapped data should be expanded to cover earlier sea-levels, solid geology, drift geology, past, present and future areas in which gravel extraction is taking place, intertidal deposits, peat deposits and colluvial/alluvial deposits. These should be linked to the data contained within the SMRs in order to provide a better foundation for both resource and development control. Carefully constructed distributions of environmental data, e.g. pollen sampling sites, sites with faunal remains would also be very useful to identify where primary data is available or has been collected.

       Coastal peat beds – a lot of work has been carried out on these in the last fifty years. Most of the investigations have concentrated on the palaeoenvironmental record where there is little associated archaeology. Areas with high archaeological potential in the intertidal and dryland zones now need to be properly surveyed and evaluated. Coastal erosion means that these areas should be given a high priority.

       Raised beaches of the Holocene – north-east Wales (e.g. Prestatyn). This region has a very high potential for locating Later and Latest Mesolithic sites which are otherwise exceptionally rare in Britain. The sites are important for filling a gap in knowledge concerning the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.

       Uplands - the relatively high concentration of Mesolithic sites around upland lakes e.g. Waun Fignen Felen are indicative of the existence of other concentrations of this kind. Upland peats with pollen evidence could be identified and earmarked for future research and fieldwork to search for Mesolithic sites.

 

 


Application of recent advances in science and technological studies.

       AMS dating of fauna and artefacts – the chronology is still poorly understood for the Welsh Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic and the identification of good secure samples for dating is necessary.

       There needs to be a specific consideration of the contributions that scientific and technical advances can offer to academic objectives. There is a case for including separate sections on the potential of the different scientific disciplines for none of these get specific treatment in the research audits. There ought to be assessments of scientific dating methods, biomolecules, isotopes, geochemistry, geophysics, geoarchaeology, palaeobotany, faunal analysis, statistics, mathematical modelling and GIS analysis.

 

Planning Archaeology

       Ideally, planning archaeologists should be aware of the necessity of conducting impact assessment whenever there is a likelihood of Pleistocene or early Holocene deposits with or without archaeology even if these lie below the expected level of development. In areas of deep alluvium these will require careful investigation strategies. We must not forget the impact that sea level changes may have either directly through inundation of now dry land and through coastal defence structure. Modifications to ground water tables to control flooding and for water abstraction are also potentially going to impact on the record from river floodplains.

       The SMR’s do hold more data in a better format than the audit indicates. The SMRs require upgrading to make the information more useable, accurate and consistent for use as a research tool.

       With a few exceptions most of the curators and staff involved in contract archaeology are not familiar with the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. Consequently education is required both to describe how one would adequately design fieldwork strategies, in particular the scale of investigation that would be required to have a chance of recovering the evidence. This would give projects a better chance of finding archaeology.

 

Academic considerations

       We should be promoting projects that will produce good primary data. We need to enhance the methods of collecting and quality of primary data. We have reached a stage where new surface collection or excavation may be necessary in order to further our knowledge.

       It is important for us to understand the relationship between sites or findspots and their abandonment. We need to be able to assess what the data tells us about the likely total record.

       There has been little research activity undertaken in Wales by those based in the country, with the exception of that being done in the National Museums & Galleries of Wales and more recently by the University of Wales College Newport. This research has been insular. Archaeologists working in Wales should consider contributing to wider projects beyond Wales to place sites in their British and European context.

       There is a need for broader studies to take place, e.g. for the Mesolithic we might look at the Irish Sea region and assess the relationship between the various regions.

       Once a fuller database is available we need to look at a number of blank areas, address questions of gaps in the coverage and seek to understand why it is that one region (north-east Wales) has such a greater Mesolithic coverage than elsewhere in the country.