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The Mesolithic of the wetland/dryland edge in the Somerset Levels

Bell, M., Brunning, R., Batchelor, R., Hill, T., Wilkinson, K., Banerjea, R., Young, D., Morandi, l., Brown, A., Carson, S., Maslin, S., Jones, L. and Foster, J., Bell, M., ed. (2016) The Mesolithic of the wetland/dryland edge in the Somerset Levels. Historic England Reference 6624. Project Report. Historic England (In Press)

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The project has involved an audit and updating of existing HER data for the Mesolithic in Somerset, leading to a 40% increase in entries. Field techniques have been developed and applied to locate two stratified final Mesolithic sites with palaeoenvironmental and palaeoeconomic potential. This involved a combination of borehole surveys, geophysics and test pits to examine the evidence for Mesolithic and early Neolithic activity at the wetland / dryland interface in the Somerset Levels. Palaeoenvironmental studies provided evidence of the changing character of the wetlands beside three known Mesolithic sites, each situated on sandy burtle sediments of Pleistocene date, at Greylake, Chedzoy and Shapwick. The environmental evidence provided by these three sites is mainly of the late Mesolithic and early Neolithic. There is a fourth case study of Queen’s Sedgemoor where a long peat sequence was examined which dates to 5600-200cal BC, but with an unfortunate gap of non-preservation at the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition. There were additional small-scale test pit investigations of other burtles in Shapwick parish in the Brue valley. The project also provided the opportunity to synthesise borehole evidence from four geoarchaeological projects in the middle Parrett valley carried out prior to engineering works. These data provide a basis for reconstruction of the palaeotopography and palaeoenvironments of the valley in the early and middle Mesolithic, thus complementing the later Mesolithic focus of the three case study sites. Previous records of site distributions and lithic artefacts from Somerset, and particularly the Levels, have been synthesised while the lithics from our own excavations are also reported. The palaeoenvironmental methods employed varied according to the intensity of investigation and the potential of each site. All investigations at the four case study sites involved pollen and plant macrofossil analysis. Other palaeoenvironmental techniques employed at selected sites included non-pollen palynomorphs, charcoal, diatoms, ostracods, foraminifera, molluscs, insects, sediment micromorphology and particle size analysis. The chronology of changing environments and Mesolithic and Neolithic human activity is provided by 58 radiocarbon and two optically stimulated luminescence dates. The development of dating models at an early stage in the post-excavation process facilitated the targeting of palaeoenvironmental analysis at the horizons most relevant to research questions and project objectives. The chronological model has facilitated comparison with the results of the Somerset Levels Project which involved outstandingly important investigations of Neolithic to Iron Age sites but did not excavate any Mesolithic sites. The results of our investigation demonstrate that Mesolithic sites at Shapwick and Chedzoy, previously thought of as mainly early and middle Mesolithic respectively, and thus predating the development of peats in their area and of limited potential for organic preservation, both include artefacts and biological evidence of the final centuries of the Mesolithic. It is notable in this context that sites representing the last millennium of the Mesolithic are rare in England. A significant outcome of this project is that, with the long established evidence for early Mesolithic, recent evidence of middle Mesolithic and this new evidence of final Mesolithic assemblages at the burtle sites at Shapwick and Chedzoy, there is the potential on both sites for evidence relating to each of the key stages of the Mesolithic as well as the transition to the Neolithic. There is some evidence for Mesolithic burning from around 6000 cal BC at Shapwick and Queen’s Sedgemoor in addition to that previously reported in intertidal coastal contexts at Minehead and Burnham. There was limited evidence for human activity around the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition but there is clearer evidence of activity, probably relating to pastoralism from pollen and insects at Shapwick and from pollen and non-pollen palynomorphs at Chedzoy, in both cases from c 3300 cal BC. Test pits at Brickyard Farm on Shapwick Heath produced evidence of stake and postholes associated with charcoal dated to the Mesolithic- Neolithic transition, suggesting that such small islands of dry ground may have been foci for activity at this date. Deeper peat sequences dating back to 6000 cal BC were investigated at Queen’s Sedgemoor, Greylake and the middle Parrett Valley. None of the sediments encountered were as early as the Greylake human burial evidence of the ninth millennium cal BC. The topography of the early Mesolithic in the Parrett Valley is now much better understood and it is suggested that some of the techniques employed in the present study (pollen, charcoal and non-pollen palynomorphs) would help to locate deeply buried Mesolithic sites if used in future borehole investigations. Recommendations are made for the maintenance of year-round high water tables in the Brue valley to maintain suitable conditions for both surviving trackways and the Mesolithic sites especially at Shapwick Burtle. Fortunately the Brue Valley sites are largely in Nature Conservation ownership. Our excavations at Shapwick showed good wood and peat preservation above the level of the Sweet Track which is 20 m east, thus indicating that preservation conditions may be more favourable than was indicated by recent water table monitoring. In the Kings Sedgemoor area, three sites with high potential, and in need of sensitive future management, are identified at (i) The Chedzoy- Sutton Hams – Mount Close Batch area, where this survey has demonstrated survival and significance at Chedzoy, (ii) the wetland between Chedzoy and Westonzoyland, not investigated by us, but indicated by previous work, (iii) the wetland north of Greylake where this project investigated a peat sequence of high potential. The project has contributed to raising the public profile of the Mesolithic period locally and nationally and it is argued that a state of the art research-led excavation, perhaps on a modest scale, is the logical way of building on the success of this project and advancing our understanding and awareness of the Mesolithic and the transition to farming.

Item Type:Report (Project Report)
Divisions:Faculty of Science > School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science > Scientific Archaeology
Faculty of Science > School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science > Department of Archaeology
ID Code:67597
Publisher:Historic England

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