The late Mesolithic landscape around Blick Mead, an archaeological site within a chalkland spring area near Stonehenge, was not densely forested, but covered by open woodland, according to a new study by scientists from the universities of Southampton, Buckingham, Tromsø, and Salzburg.
University of Buckingham-led excavations at the site have revealed traces of a significant Mesolithic ‘home base’, including evidence of extensive flint-tool manufacturing and major feasting events, along with a detailed radiocarbon dating range of c.8000-4000 BC (see CA 325, 324, and 271). Now, the scientific research described here has produced an environmental history of the site from the late Mesolithic to Neolithic periods (5500-4000 BC), by combining optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and radiocarbon dating with analysis of organic material recovered during past and recent fieldwork, including pollen, fungal spores, and traces of DNA preserved in ancient sediment (sedaDNA). These analyses yielded results which indicate that late Mesolithic Blick Mead existed within a deciduous woodland landscape with forest clearings and areas of marsh and meadow.
As lead researcher Samuel Hudson, of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Southampton, and site director David Jacques, of the University of Buckingham, explained: ‘Past theories suggest the area was thickly wooded and cleared in later periods for farming and monument-building. However, our research – which connects artefactual and archaeological features from the site (such as a substantial late Mesolithic laid platform and very late Mesolithic occupation area) with the latest cutting-edge science – positions pre-Neolithic, hunter-gatherer inhabitants in open woodland which supported aurochs [an extinct kind of giant cattle whose preserved hoofprints are shown above at Blick Mead] and other grazing herbivores, including red deer, elk, and wild boar.’
Such activity would have resulted in the suppression of natural woodland regrowth and the persistence of open habitats, leading the team to suggest that late Mesolithic environmental conditions may have contributed to the development of Neolithic farming and monument-building in the area. Stonehenge itself, the researchers note, was constructed at a site where archaeologists have previously found evidence of Mesolithic activity. Traces of timber posts near the monument are from the earliest dates found at Blick Mead, and were thus probably built by people living there and in its environs, David said.
As the team conclude in their paper, which was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266789): ‘This all raises the possibility that the creation of Europe’s largest monumental landscape not only had spatio-ecological continuity with the late hunter-gatherer landscape, but was in many ways a development of it.’