Mesolithic Shell Middens

 Image copyright AOC Archaeology

2017 Data Structure Report.

Significant Mesolithic evidence has been found at Tarradale. Eight shell midden sites, comprising spreads of marine molluscs, were recorded by the project team at locations found along the top and base of the landscape’s raised beach shoreline to the east and west of Tarradale House. The raised beach represents a former shoreline that now appears further inland due to sea level changes associated with isostatic rebound after the last ice age. Project volunteers undertook augering at the sites to reveal that the shell midden layers survived below the plough soil.

One shell midden site 500m to the west of Tarradale House contained a denser spread of shell. Test pits in the area were previously excavated by project volunteers, revealing that a shell midden layer survives in this location, deepening towards the downslope (SW) side. Analysis of the shell layer showed that mussels and periwinkles predominated the assemblage. Charcoal and antler samples were also recovered from these test pits, and radiocarbon dates obtained from two of the antler and charcoal samples provided dates of 6500 and 6100 BCE.

The project team also recovered significant quantities of flint, quartz, and chert debitage, including struck flakes and microliths, during several years of field-walking across the ploughed fields in the landscape surrounding Tarradale House. The majority of the lithics comprise flint, most of which appears to represent Mesolithic flakes, scrapers and cores on the basis of the small size (less than 50mm) and there may be some bloodstone present in the assemblage. Particular concentrations seem to be associated with the locations of the shell middens.

In 2015 a second shell midden site was investigated at the base of the possible castle site terrace located to the east side of Tarradale House. A shell midden layer was uncovered at 9m OD above a gravel/cobble layer along the former shore. The small trench evaluation recovered one lithic within the marine mollusc shell midden, which also contained an antler tine, butchered animal bone and fish bones of pollock/saithe, herring and flatfish, although some of this material may have mixed in from later deposits.

2017 Excavations

In 2017, excavation by Tarradale Through Time extended that initial trench for some metres to the west and towards the base of the steep bank. The shell midden layers were investigated by excavation using a grid system for the recovery of small finds and wet-sieving and flotation of samples. Hand-retrieved material included frequent fragments of worked and unworked bone, tooth and antler, some struck quartz flakes and three pieces of struck flint. At the base of the upper midden, a number of possible stone settings indicate that structural evidence may be preserved on the site. Significant artefacts recovered from within the shell layers included two antler T-axes (one fragmentary), of which only three are currently known from Scotland (all from central or western Scotland). Other important finds included a fragment of a biserial barbed antler point (i.e. spear or harpoon) and a handle manufactured from a red deer antler tine. These finds indicate that the Tarradale Mesolithic site is of considerable significance not only in Scotland but within the British Isles and Europe. The addition of two further T-axes to the Scottish inventory changes the finds map by bringing northeast Scotland into a distribution that extends from eastern Europe through central Europe, the low countries and Denmark to Scotland.

Above: Harpoon from Tarradale. Below Left: Distribution map of T axes in Europe. Below Right: One of the Tarradale T axes.

On a promontory ridge approximately 300m to the east of the site described above, the location of a second possible shell midden site was evaluated by trenching and test pitting in 2017. These excavations showed clear survival of shell middens at both the top of the promontory and its base, located on the lower and upper raised beaches (c 9 and 17m OD respectively). On top of the promontory, test pits uncovered the location of a shell midden up to 20cm thick at the southeast end.  Distinctive horizons were observed below the upper shell midden, suggesting different periods for the formation of the shell midden. Excavation was undertaken in 10cm spits for the recovery of artefactual and environmental material and sieving. A small amount of animal bone and quartz was recovered from this area, while, more significantly a collection of large struck stone flakes and a stone core were found. At the base of the ridge, two trenches examined the lower raised beach where extensive shell middens were again revealed, including upper and lower shell midden layers separated by a gravel and cobble interface. The shell consisted of mostly small fragments of mussel, oyster and scallop, with cockle shell present in the lower layer, and a thick deposit of whole oyster shells. Within the lower shell layer, a thin charcoal and ash layer was thought to represent in situ activity. Small finds comprised mainly worked and unworked mammal bone and antler and several struck quartz flakes. The paucity of lithic finds from both these complexes of sites suggest that the occupants were short of flint and resorted to using quartz and coarse stone, possibly supplemented by artefacts of antler, bone and teeth in lieu of flaked stone tools.

See our blog post for further information on the radiocarbon dating results (shown in table below) and photos of the antler tools found following conservation.  

2023 Activity and Excavations

In April 2023, Professor Astrid Nyland from the University of Stavanger and Drs Jen Harland, Ingrid Mainland and Ben Elliott from UHI Orkney examined Mesolithic sites at Tarradale to see if they would be suitable to include in their overall project looking into the effects of the Storegga tsunami on the east coast of Scotland. This team returned in Autumn 2023 to undertake scientific analysis of the “2D” shell midden site in the barrow cemetery field. Test pits on this site in 2011 yielded radiocarbon dates from the seventh millennium BC.

The Tarradale Archaeological Team (TAT), the sucessor to Tarradale Through Time, carried out excavations in late Sept/ early Oct 2023. Site 2B, last excavated in 2017 but not completed, was reopened and extended. Analysis is currently taking place, but part of another antler "T axe" was recovered (see below). Steve Birch once again directed the excavations.

Above: Mesolithic Life as imagined by Dominic Andrews. Below: Illustration by Pat Haynes for Tarradale Through Time.

See also the 2017 excavation photo gallery, 2023 excavation photo gallery and pre-conservation photos of the antler tools

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