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At the Border Archaeological Society's last meeting for 2016, Clive Bonsall, of Edinburgh University, gave a talk entitled The Obanian Problem Revisited: New Research on the Mesolithic of Western Scotland.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 17 December, 2016, 08:00

Clive has specialised in the Mesolithic era of the northern half of Britain and the Danube area of south eastern Europe. However, he remained closer to home in this talk, namely the area around the Isle of Mull in Scotland.

The landscape of central west Scotland consists of mountains, fjords and islands, with a high rainfall, cool summers and mild winters. It was similar in the Mesolithic age, although more heavily wooded than it is now, mainly deciduous, and the treeline was circa 600 metres.

Its most distinctive archaeological finds are shell middens, located in open air or caves, and are usually fairly small, averaging one metre across, although the largest is about 25 metres. Open air middens decay quite rapidly unless covered by sand so the ones found in caves are more suitable for study.

The first investigations took place in the late 1800s in Oronsay and around Oban Bay due to the coming of the railway and the fact that the sea level had retreated.

At first it was thought they were burial mounds, until it was realised they consisted of shells. As the number of finds increased, so did curiosity.

The sites were isolated from other Mesolithic finds and contained things like unretouched flakes and cores and a few retouched tools, indicating a rich bone industry. Tools were termed as “limpet scoops” and “periwinkle picks”, and some harpoon heads, as well as a few shell ornaments were also found.

The only other place with similar finds, particularly the harpoon heads, was the the Azilian culture of Le Mas d’Azil in the Pyrenees, which existed about 12,000 years ago. However, later, in the 1940s, it was decided that the Oban finds were much later and represented a distinct Scottish culture, the Obanian.

In the 1970s, five sites on Oronsay were investigated by Paul Mellars. The introduction of carbon 14 dating ushered in a revolution and it was now established that the finds were from circa 5100BC to 4300BC, towards the end of the Mesolithic era.

Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dating transformed previously held views and pushed back dates by 8,000 years, meaning the Obanian sites were not that distant from Microlithic sites. So now we could talk about “the Obanian problem”.

Clive Bonsall offered his solution.

Both the Azilian and the Obanian sites were produced by the same types of people – both were in exposed locations, food remains were fish, crabs, and shell fish, and food was obtained seasonally.

As no dwellings or remains of settlement were found in the shell mound sites, he concluded that they were field camps, where people went to collect and process fish and that the shell mounds were the waste from these endeavours, involving mostly women and children. The mounds were distributed all over and not in any one place.

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To test his hypothesis, Clive did fieldwork in the 1990s.

Firstly, trenches were dug in sheltered areas, and several Microlithic sites of settlement were uncovered, which were far away from the more remote and unprotected areas of the shell mounds.

Secondly, this encouraged a new look at the tools as 19th century theory held that the tools could have been bone scoops or hide scoops for taking the fat off skin, rather than limpet pickers. Examination and simulations concluded that the tools were more suitable for limpet picking, rather than skin scraping.

And thirdly, at a cave on Ulva, they were able to establish that there had been 2,000 to 3,000 years of shell fish activity to have such a midden as was found there. Among the finds were lots of shell fish, small fish remains, crabs, carbonised seeds, a few small bird bones, small flints and bipolar cores, and occasional bone and shell artefacts. People went to the cave to process the shell fish when the weather was bad.

The shoreline of this area was rocky and covered in limpets and periwinkles, and consisted of Giant Causeway-like terrain, with drop-offs and both deep and shallow water.

Next, Clive had his students make experimental kits and imitate fishing methods.

Hand lines, which are easy to make and don’t survive, showed that what they caught corresponded closely to what was found in the middens. Fish could also be caught from the shore during low tide. They also experimented with traps and found they were good for crabs, but not fish, meaning that there was more line fishing from the shores at the field camps.

Finally, there is the question of seasonality.

Paul Mellors was able to determine the age of the fish caught by measuring them and counting rings, but now we can determine when the fish were caught.

Clive’s interpretation is that people came to the sites for one or two days a year, say in the same month, but not necessarily the same days each year, for centuries, but didn’t live there permanently.

Paul Mellors thinks small fish were only taken in the winter, but this is only guess work.

What we do know is that there is no sign of settlement anywhere near the middens, reinforcing the idea of field camps that were worked for short periods over centuries, and this is Clive Bonsall’s solution to the Obanian Problem.