Digging deep to meet stone age ancestors

Rachel Grahame and Spencer Carter at the site at Goldsborough  w131105a
Rachel Grahame and Spencer Carter at the site at Goldsborough w131105a

When asked to showcase the result of a two-week dig at Goldsborough, archaeologist Rachel Grahame holds up a brick of charred sandstone and several pieces of flint no bigger than a fingernail.

They may not seem like much, but for the team from Tees Archaeology, these artifacts offer vital clues about the people who inhabited our area over 8,000 years ago.

Flint expert Spencer Carter    w131105b

Flint expert Spencer Carter w131105b

“It’s quite rare to be able to do this kind of dig,” said Rachel. “Most of the archaeology that happens in the UK is driven by development, because someone is building a housing estate or supermarket. So it’s quite a luxury to be able to do research-based archaeology, to say ‘here’s some questions, we want to answer them’.”

The people of the stone age were fully-developed humans and could be called the “first” truly British residents. They lived at a time when glaciers and ice caps were melting, causing the rising North Sea to cut Britain off from the rest of Europe, around 6,400 BC.

The traditional view of them has been of a nomadic race, following food across the landscape throughout the year. However, recent evidence has suggested they may have settled on a permanent basis in some areas, and Goldsborough appears to have been a prime location. Rachel explained: “The kind of thing you might have is a circular wooden building with a thatched roof. This project was designed to look for exactly that sort of evidence.”

A post hole found in one corner of the field hints at a building, while towards the top of the site they discovered a layer of burnt sandstone, teasing at the presence of a hearth or campfire. Flint tools found among the stones allow the site to be dated.

Flint, a fragile and sharp stone, is one of the few artifacts that survives to the modern day as the rest of their culture was primarily biodegradable. Tools would be made of bone, clothing was fur. Flint does not occur naturally in our region, so if found here it has been brought by human hands. A popular source appears to be Lincolnshire - a journey of 70 miles, through dense woodland.

Flint discovered on site is small, just a couple of centimetres long, and many would be used to create barbed weapons, easier to repair than one single statement arrowhead. “It’s like a Swiss Army Knife,” explained on-site flint expert Spencer Carter. “Big arrowheads are lovely but not very practical. You shoot one big fancy arrow and it breaks, well that’s it, so smaller ones are a very sensible thing to do.”

The Mesolithic - middle stone age - is over 4,000 years before metal tools were developed, and 2,000 years before the first pottery.

Once the British Isles became cut off from Europe the tools become much smaller - like “plug-in” multi-purpose drill bits that could be used for many different purposes such as arrow barbs, needles, drills and knives. Spencer added: “Our ancestors had the best DIY kits, perhaps even better than today.”

The next task for the archaeologists will be to clean and assess all their finds, around 700 in total. Soil samples will also be examined under microscope to discover evidence of seed or other food. When all this is complete, and a report published, the artifacts may be placed on display in a museum, giving visitors the opportunity to come face to face with our stone age ancestors.

To learn more about the project, which has been funded by Tees Archaeology, visit www.teesarchaeology.com