Archaeology: The Mesolithic Age

Pages 21-28

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 1, Physique, Archaeology, Domesday, Ecclesiastical Organization, the Jews, Religious Houses, Education of Working Classes To 1870, Private Education From Sixteenth Century. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.

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The foregoing section has described the industrial products of man in the Lower Palaeolithic stages of his cultural development. So far as the evidence and available records allow, it has been shown how these relics have presented themselves in Middlesex. For comparisons and correlations, however, it has been necessary to consider data from neighbouring counties. In these, as in Middlesex, the dominant importance of the Pleistocene deposits laid down in the Thames Basin has been stressed in the two preceding sections.

The sediments referable to the last phases of the Pleistocene epoch and to the fluctuating passage from Late-Glacial times to the Holocene, or geological Recent, are well known for their yield of vestiges of plants and animal bones. (fn. 1) Many of these represent species commonly linked with man of the late Old Stone Age and his Upper Palaeolithic industry. To this period, however, no artifact can so far be assigned confidently. Yet these beds have long been studied, particularly in the tributary valleys, especially locally along the Lea (fn. 2) and Colne which delimit Middlesex to the east and west respectively.

Products of Flint Industry from Dewe's Farm, South Harefield

1-5, flakes and blades; 6-10, scrapers; 11, graver; 12, core; 13-14, trimmed cores; 15, lower part of tranchet.

While the ascribing of any artifacts to the handiwork of Upper Palaeolithic man must in the meantime be at best tentative, it is otherwise with implements fashioned by his Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age successors who continued in the old Palaeolithic economy. Many of their industrial products have been recovered in Middlesex in datable conditions from Holocene beds overlying late Pleistocene deposits. For comparative material, however, it is again necessary to go outside the county. This permits the assessment of some past discoveries, until quite recently too readily dismissed or forgotten. The most decisive relics are clutches of flint implements found stratified in the Lea valley at Broxbourne (Herts.), (fn. 3) and beside the Colne at Sandstone in Iver parish (Bucks.) (fn. 4) The aspect of these groups and the distinctiveness of some of the included forms suggest that the origins of the producing industries do not lie in the Upper Palaeolithic of England but in that of eastern Europe, which developed into the Maglemosean culture of the Baltic region between c. 7000 and 5000 B.C., towards the end of the Pre-Boreal and during the succeeding Boreal climatic phase.

The Mesolithic Maglemosean culture comprised the stone, bone, and wood industries of hunters, fowlers, and fishers who pursued their activities and camped in the fens along the shores of the great fresh-water Ancylus Lake. (fn. 5) This water-body occupied the Baltic depression about the end of the Pre-Boreal and for the whole of the Boreal climatic phase. With the concomitant lowering of sea-level outside, the bed of the North Sea was upraised, thus extending the European plain and man's hunting-grounds, as well as bringing into being land connexions between the Continent and Britain. True, there were water-courses and marshes, but in so familiar and uniform an environment these were negotiated by migrant Maglemosean bands using boats of bark or skins on light frames of wood. Some of these food-collectors reached the coastal tracts north of the Humber and pushed up our south-eastern estuaries and rivers. Among these the Thames and its tributaries, with their lower reaches of undrained fens and swamps, provided all the game and fish that the colonists needed, while the ridges and islands of gravel were good spots for camping.

There then obtained a dry continental climate of warm summers and cold winters. Pollen-analysis of the peat overlying the Mesolithic remains from our tributary valleys shows remarkable conformity with statistics from beds in Baltic lands. It indicates that the principal trees during the Boreal climatic phase were pine, birch, and hazel.

Just within Buckinghamshire, in Denham parish, a little over a mile north-east of Sandstone, and so near Uxbridge for the site to have been long and erroneously referred to this Middlesex town, A. S. Kennard (fn. 6) and F. N. Haward (fn. 7) bared a prolific and varied flint industry that compares strictly with the collections found in much the same circumstances at Broxbourne and near Iver. Farther north in the valley of the Colne at West Hyde, in Hertfordshire but close to the Middlesex boundary, there have also been found similar specimens under and in the lower part of a compact, clayey, peaty layer resting upon the flood-plain gravel of late Pleistocene age. (fn. 8)

Entirely in Middlesex the immediately neighbouring Harefield Moor adds its important quota of Mesolithic relics to testify to the occupation of gravel ridges, fens, and ancient lake-margins by bands of hunters, fowlers, and fishers. (fn. 9) Sites here have yielded assemblages of facies identical with those from this reach of the Colne valley upstream in Hertfordshire and downstream in Buckinghamshire.

One set, probably earlier than Late Boreal, was collected from under peat in Dewe's (now Hartley's) Pit, a short distance south of Harefield Wharf within the bounds of the Moor. Another (fig. on page 22) comes from a little farther south on the now intensively cultivated and deeply ploughed, narrow, flat strip belonging to Dewe's Farm, between the base of the sloping ground to the east and the much enlarged or reformed mere. Characteristic artifacts are plain, utilized, and edge-trimmed flakes and blades, various scrapers and gravers, residual cores, and tranchets in Maglemosean style with typical waste trimming-flakes therefrom. Shapely microliths, such as those from Broxbourne, Iver, and Denham (Boyer's, the so-called Uxbridge site), have not been found, but simple blades dressed in the microlithic manner serve to range the series from Harefield with these other industries.

Artifacts of Flint and Other Stone from Hackney Brook

1-3, blades; 4, graver; 5-8, scrapers; 9, multi-purpose implement; 10 quartzite pebble with countersunk hollows.

Yet another place in Middlesex provides stratified stone implements of Mesolithic date. A point of peculiar interest is that they are from alluvial deposits bordering one of the buried streams of London (fn. 10) The discovery was made near the Hackney Brook about eighty years ago by J. E. Greenhill (fn. 11) who frequently collaborated with Worthington Smith in the field of Stone Age inquiries. Found under peat and over gravel beside this credibly geologically late minor feeder of the Lea, the suite of artifacts includes fine parallel-sided blades, a good range of scrapers, cores, and a quartzite pebble with a countersunk hollow ground in each of its opposed flat faces (fig. on page 24). (fn. 12) The last exactly matches Maglemosean examples from western Baltic lands.

Worked flints from another riparian site must be noticed because more satisfactorily datable. They were recovered by W. J. L. Abbott seventy years ago from an old landsurface revealed near the Admiralty in Spring Gardens at the north-east corner of St. James's Park, (fn. 13) where there flowed a distributary channel of the Tyburn. The artifacts, which were found with floral and animal vestiges, peat, and snail shells, are demonstrably of Mesolithic age. They occurred well above the late Pleistocene floodplain gravel and underlay a deposit containing animal remains that can be assigned only to the climatic optimum of the Atlantic phase, after 5000 B.C. Hence the implements are referable at the latest to early Atlantic times, although more probably they were fashioned during the preceding Boreal climatic phase. (fn. 14)

These groups of implements from the tributary valley of the Thames are not the only evidence of the Maglemosean penetration into the area in Early Post-Glacial times. Distinctive stone, red deer antler, and bone objects show this as well as the survival of Mesolithic tradition therein. Although the relics in museums and other collections usually lack stratigraphical indications, their number suggests a wide distribution and the persistence into Late Atlantic and Sub-Boreal times of the technological influences that first reached our region during the Boreal and early in the Atlantic climatic phase. Most were retrieved in the 19th century when the navigation channel of the Thames was being widened and deepened by dredging, (fn. 15) but utilitarian excavation has also revealed deposits near the main and tributary streams. Many may well derive from sites of the kind suggested by the comparable artifacts found stratified. (fn. 16)

The right bank of the Thames has also yielded Mesolithic remains, the most significant items being the pieces of barbed bone points from Wandsworth and Battersea. (fn. 17) Hardly less important, however, are the characteristically scarred flint tranchets which are identical with those belonging to the industries under peat in the valleys of the Lea and Colne. The definitely Maglemosean forms (fig. on page 26), as from Brentford (no. 1) and Staines (no. 2), are discoloured brown and show glazing on the scars and roughening of the ridges. These alterations distinguish the implements from the virtually unchanged 'Thames picks' recovered from the bed and margins of the river, and even from stratified sediments.

Many of these artifacts, being no doubt later than Boreal, suggest that they are the products of Mesolithic riparian industries that arose during the Atlantic climatic phase, from about 5000 B.C. Land-sinking and the submerging of the territory previously reclaimed from the North Sea severed connexions with the Continent and, deprived of reinforcing elements from abroad, the exponents of Mesolithic culture in southeastern Britain developed their own independent industries. In the Thames Basin this growth would belong to the complex represented by artifacts found under peat of Late Atlantic age in the estuary of the Medway at Lower Halstow (Kent), (fn. 18) and regarded as the counterpart of the Ertebølle kitchen midden culture evolved from the Maglemosean on the shores of the Litorina Sea. This body of increasing volume and salinity, eventually to become the Baltic Sea, was formed towards the end of the Boreal period when the waxing outside sea broke down the sill enclosing the fresh-water Ancylus Lake at its western end. With the concomitant marine transgression of our coasts, the distension of the lower reaches of main and tributary rivers in south-eastern Britain, and the resulting creation of the English Channel, our present island history began.

The pollen-analysis of peats accumulated at this time, including some that in Middlesex and Hertfordshire record the submergence, evidences the contemporary rise of such deciduous trees as oak, lime, elm, and alder to the detriment of pine and birch in a warm and damp oceanic climate. The subsequent drier and less warm Sub-Boreal phase, from about 2500 B.C. onward, witnessed the coming of food-producing and pottery-making Neolithic and early metal folk, who fashioned tools for dealing with forests and for building much heavier boats than those used by their lightly equipped Mesolithic food-collecting predecessors.

Flint tranchets dredged from the Thames at Brentford (no.1) and Staines (no. 2)

The dating of antler and bone artifacts (fn. 19) is precarious because specimens contrast in hue from grey to brown, vary in condition from hard and mineralized to powdery and flaky, and may look ancient or quite fresh. Small groups and trimmed atypical implements occur, but adze- and axe-like implements of red deer antler perforated for hafting follow Baltic precedents (fig. on page 27, nos. 1, 2). An exceptional specimen still retaining a stick inserted handle-wise in the hole bored for it was found in the Thames at Hammersmith. (fn. 20) Among other rarities there is the greater part of a heavy holed tool improvized in the bone of the extinct great ox (fig. on page 27, no. 3). It is believed to have come from the Thames at Kew Bridge together with an adze of red deer antler. Twickenham has produced a similarly executed axe-like tool. Recorded specimens of possibly later date include an antler adze with an elliptical perforation from a site excavated near the Walbrook at Finsbury Circus. (fn. 21) Other places from which such implements have been reported are Staines, Eel Pie Island, the backwater at Brentford Ait, Strand-on-the-Green, Putney Bridge, and Crab Tree.

To these can be added a few perforated tools in short pieces of red deer antler comprising the crown or burr, socketed to hold a component (fig. on page 27, no. 4), or unscooped and intended for use simply as a hammer (fig. on page 27, no. 5). There are such specimens from the Thames at Eel Pie Island, Twickenham, and similar Baltic Maglemosean forms have been noted from Kempton-Hampton, Isleworth, and Brentford. A horn hammer plugged in its open end with bits of the same material is known from Hampton Court. Preparatively notched pieces of antler and other partlymade bony implements have also been frequently retrieved from the main river.

Mesolithic Antler and Bone Artifacts

1, supposedly from Kew Bridge; 2, Twickenham; 3, Kew Bridge; 4, Thames at Eel Pie Island; 5, Thames at Isleworth

Much more spectacular is a cylindrically perforated holder from Hammersmith (fig. on page 28). Executed in the radius of an ox, probably aurochs, this object emphasizes still more strongly the peculiarly Baltic Mesolithic facies evident in series from the Thames. Outstanding by reason of the characteristic chevron ornamentation incised on the body, it is paralleled in Britain only by a piece of red deer antler found at a great depth near Romsey (Hants). (fn. 22)

Ornamented bone holder dredged from the Thames at Hammersmith

The left bank of the Thames, thus credited with one of the few true works of Stone Age art in Britain, has yielded other ornamented objects made in thick pieces of stag's horn. They are a hammer from Teddington, and a sleeve or holder believed to have come from the alluvium at Brentford, together with another which is not scooped out but perforated for a haft. All three bear a geometrically faceted lattice pattern, (fn. 23) apparently achieved by pecking and rubbing. It resembles the designs scratched on some bone and antler objects from Maglemosean sites in south Sweden and Denmark, and thought to be the work of fishers inspired by their nets. The scheme is of Baltic origin, but the age of these small implements from the Thames cannot be determined exactly. On the analogy of comparably decorated ground stone hammers from various places in Britain, a Neolithic or even Bronze Age ascription would be quite reasonable.

Odd artifacts labelled 'Mesolithic' have been noticed in museum and private collections of Middlesex finds. Inquiry, however, shows them to have been selected from unassociated flints turned up by the plough and spade. Few are more than merely suggestive, although there can be mentioned a fine end-scraper on a parallel-sided blade from Enfield and another steeply trimmed blade-tool from Winchmore Hill, Edmonton. These are forms often noticed in clutches that exhibit traits of Mesolithic workmanship and tradition from open and upland areas. Such relics indicate that food-collecting bands did not restrict themselves to fens. Wandering over higher and treeless areas, the hunters would tend to make smaller and lighter implements than they did in wooded parts. These high grounds in our region had not yet been subjected to any important natural alteration since Mesolithic strains were first developed in the Early PostGlacial period. Hence stratified beds were not formed, and it is clear that relics of successive peoples became mixed on the surface. Of course in this generalization such distinctive discoveries as working-floors and dwelling-sites are excluded. Were it a rule, however, that objects found out of their proper context should be dismissed, then much of archaeological value would be lost. In this connexion one takes into account some relics of undoubted Neolithic and Bronze Age manufacture that testify to the adoption of Mesolithic forms and methods. Among other things such products imply the contacts of a native food-collecting population with food-producing people and their new arts.


  • 1. Mems. Geol. Survey, Lond. District (1922), 51-52.
  • 2. Quart. Jnl. Geol. Soc. lxvii. 32-63; lxviii. 213-51; lxxi. 164-82; lxxix. 603-5.
  • 3. Jnl. Royal Anthrop. Inst. lxiv. 101-28.
  • 4. Southern Beam (Portsmouth, 1959), x (7), 18-21; x (8), 10-14.
  • 5. J. G. D. Clark, Mesolithic Settlement in N. Europe, 86.
  • 6. Proc. Geol. Assoc. xviii. 188-90; xix. 95.
  • 7. J. G. D. Clark, Mesolithic Age in Britain, 67; Record of Bucks. xvii (3), 143-81.
  • 8. T.L.M.A.S. xx (3), 103, 117.
  • 9. Ibid. 117-23.
  • 10. Proc. Geol. Assoc. viii. 336-43.
  • 11. Ibid. ii (1883); typescript copies of lectures to Hackney Microscop. & Nat. Hist. Soc. in Hackney Central Libr. P. 89. G.
  • 12. T.L.M.A.S. xx (3), 124-5.
  • 13. Proc. Geol. Assoc. xii. 346-56.
  • 14. T.L.M.A.S. xx (3), 126-8.
  • 15. Arch. Jnl. lxxxvi. 69-98.
  • 16. Proc. Soc. Antiq. xxx. 31.
  • 17. Clark, Mesolithic Age, 18.
  • 18. P.P.S.E. Anglia, v (1), 73-78; v (2), 217-23; v (3), 288-96.
  • 19. For detailed consideration of these bony relics see Arch. Jnl. lxxxvi. 69-98; T.L.M.A.S. xx (3), 132-9.
  • 20. Acquired long ago by the City of Liverpool Museums, this piece was lost in an air-raid.
  • 21. Archaeologia, lxxi. 94.
  • 22. B.M. Quart. 121, viii (4), pp. 144-5.
  • 23. Archaeologia, lxix. 1-30.