Mesolithic footprints on the coast at Howick
The fact that we have found so little from Mesolithic times is what made the
discovery that I heard about last year all the more remarkable. When amateur
archaeologist John Davies spotted flint tools eroding out of the edge of a sandy
cliff face near the village of Howick, in Northumberland, he reported his finds.
When Newcastle University archaeologist Clive Waddington went to investigate, he
realised that this wasn't just a scatter of flints on the surface, but the first
indications of something deeply buried.
A small exploratory excavation showed that this was a Mesolithic house, dating
back, on the basis of the flint tools found inside it, perhaps as much as 10,000
years. When I was told about it, this was what really intrigued me, as even at
first sight, this was far more than the expected flimsy structure; it was both
substantially built and very early in date. What could this, potentially the
oldest house in Britain, tell us about life in the Mesolithic, and would it
change some of our existing ideas?
The excavation was far from easy. The sand was either baked rock hard, in which
case all the vital colour differences that distinguished the individual layers
simply disappeared, or it was wet - good for the colours but too soft to walk
on. Boots were banned; it was either socks or bare feet. But somehow, over many
weeks, the fragile structure of the house was teased out. It consisted of a
shallow circular hollow, cut into the sand, a small segment of which had
disappeared over the edge of the cliff.
Within this lay the structural evidence - a circle of substantial post holes,
with charcoal stains in their bases, and a number of smaller stake holes, some
angled in from outside the hollow. But what were even more remarkable were all
the hearths that lay inside the house, shallow depressions filled with charcoal
and burnt nutshells, flecked with fragments of bone, the evidence for