9 October 2007
Orkney find points to Scotland's earliest settlement
They may look like just a collection of broken stones, but the finds made in a field in Orkney might be evidence of the earliest settlement in Scotland. Two flint 'tanged points' or arrowheads found on the island of Stronsay are thought to have been used by hunters between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, just after the Ice Age.
The arrowheads were found among a collection of scattered artefacts, including bladed tools, on a farm by Naomi Woodward and a team of MA students on an archaeology course at Orkney College. The discoveries were made during a two-week research trip in April, but have just been made public. Two points from the late upper Paleolithic period (13-10,000 BCE) had previously been found in Orkney, at Ness of Brodgar, and on Stronsay - but both were lost in the 1920s.
Ms Woodward said: "The tanged flint points are signs of a very early archaeology, which at this moment is not particularly understood in Orkney or Scotland. They are probably hunting implements, most likely mounted and used as projectile points. We think they could be early Mesolithic or late Paleolithic, so maybe from 10,000 to 12,000 years ago."
In 2001, a team from an Edinburgh University project called Scotland's First Settlers confirmed that a shell midden found at Sand, near Applecross in Wester Ross, was used 9,500 years ago, making the site one of the earliest dated human occupations in Scotland.
An encampment at Cramond, near Edinburgh, has also been dated to 8,500 BCE. It is also known that settlements of people were established in the west of Scotland around this time from discoveries at another site, at Kinloch on the island of Rum.
Ms Woodward is reluctant to claim that the Stronsay site is the earliest, but said: "At the moment, they are only surface finds - although it seems we have an assemblage of pieces from individual chance finds that relate to each other. The next step now is to see if we have actually got a site beneath this."
Those ancient settlers braved the elements and they shared a common ancestor with the first Norwegians, meaning that some people of Scottish descent could be distantly related to modern Norwegians. "So often we hear that conditions in Scotland during the late Paleolithic and early Mesolithic would have prohibited human settlements because the landscape was cold and icy, but now we have to wonder what was actually going on and why people appear to have been living in the area during what is thought to have been a glacial period," Naomi Woodward said.
The northern European plains location suggests Scotland's first settlers were reindeer hunters from the Ahrensburgian culture. Reindeer exist in Scotland, but the researchers suspect the hunters also went after more prevalent deer and other large herbivores. If attached to spears, the points could have also been used to stab fish and marine life.
Caroline Wickham-Jones, an honorary research fellow in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, is an expert on early Scottish settlements. She suspects the Ahrenburgians hunted mammals and tapped marine resources, island hopping and moving by boat around the region. A more northerly trip likely took them to Norway, where they are believed to have established yet another settlement. The finds may also explain the island's attraction and the origin of the name Stronsay, which means "Star Island" in Old Norse. "The island juts out in points so, to the early boaters, it would have looked like an actual star," Woodward said.
Source: Discovery Channel News, The Scotsman (5 October 2007)