The Mesolithic in Britain: landscape and society in times of change

Review by George Nash.

The concept of a ‘Mesolithic’, a Middle Stone Age, has been with us since the early 1930s, and many thousands of sites dating to this period have been discovered since, some submerged under our coastal waters. Excavations at Starr Carr by Grahame Clark in the 1950s revealed a complex society that not only seasonally exploited the upland landscapes of northern Britain but also possessed a ritual life, evidenced by an assemblage of 21 red-deer antler masks, probably used in some form of religious ceremony. 

During the mid-20th century, little was still known about this 6,000-year period in British prehistory. The period is defined by a number of environmental factors: a changing landscape, a significant rise in sea level and temperature, resulting in sea inundation of vast landmasses that once occupied much of the North Sea (Doggerland) and the Bristol Channel, and the introduction to a new type of advanced hunter/fisher/gatherer and the tool kits they procured. 

This book is organised into six readable chapters. The first provides the reader with a useful chronological framework, from the Mesolithic–Late Upper Palaeolithic transition (c.10,000-12,000 years ago) to the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition (c.5,000-7,000 years ago), along with a history of archaeological discovery. The first chapter also explores the fragmentary evidence of the daily lives of advanced hunter/fisher/gatherers, in particular the changes in lithic, bone, and antler technology. 

In Chapters 2 to 6, Conneller takes the reader through at least 600 centuries of economic and social change. During this long period of early British prehistory, there was also significant climatic change, from permafrost and ice margin retreat to temperate times, both of which had a major influence on the landscape and the flora and fauna it supported. 

Conneller’s must-read book provides an invaluable reference to what the Mesolithic was all about. The comprehensive index and extensive bibliography will be useful for students, professional archaeologists, researchers, and the interested public alike.

The Mesolithic in Britain: landscape and society in times of change, Chantal Conneller, Routledge, £32.99, ISBN 978-1138790438.