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c8,000 BC to c4,000 BC

Sketch showing land that has been flooded since the Mesolithic period. The coastline c6,000 BC is thought to correspond to the 10 fathom (approximately 20 metre) submarine contour (after Grinsell 1970 p16)Kent’s Cavern in south Devon was reoccupied by c11,000 BC, following the end of the last Ice Age. There have been people living in Devon ever since (1). By c8,000 BC the sea had risen to about 40 metres below its current level, but the Bristol Channel was still a river and Hele was some tens of kilometres from the sea. By c4,500 BC Britain had again become an island separated from Europe. Sea levels have been relatively stable since about 1,000 BC (2).


Early in the Mesolithic period the local landscape was mostly open heath with pockets of birch and willow but by c7,000 BC it had become thickly wooded with deciduous trees. It is thought that c5,000 BC large areas of forest were deliberately cleared by fires, creating what are now peat bogs (3). The use of the bow and arrow became widespread and flint-tipped wooden tools were developed using finely worked flints called microliths (4) which have been found at Kentisbury Down, on Lundy and in many scatters along the west-facing coast (5).


The rising sea flooded the coastal areas and it is likely that many Mesolithic sites are now underwater. There are submerged forests all around the South West coast (the nearest at Porlock and Westward Ho!). At Westward Ho!, exposed only at very low tide, is a kitchen midden (a collection of shells and flints) which has been carbon-dated to c4,500 BC (6).


< Palaeolithic        Neolithic >

(1) End of last Ice Age

"The ice caps of the last main episode of glaciation began to retreat about 15,000 BC, and by 12,000 BC all of southern Britain was again available for settlement". (Darvill 1990 p 37)


"During the Late Upper Palaeolithic, the severe weather conditions of the Devensian glaciation (from about 16,000-13,000BC) meant that Devon was probably unpopulated. Following the warming after this glaciation, the climate rapidly improved and by 11,000 BC open grassland followed by patches of birch woodland had colonised nearby Bodmin Moor. Again the caves at Kent’s Cavern were occupied" (Gerrard 1997 p 25)


(2) Rising sea levels

The melting ice led to the forming of the English Channel probably between 6000-5000 BC [now thought to be 4500 BC] (Grinsell 1970 p15) "A recent estimate [of sea level] gives 20 fathoms c8,000 BC and 10 fathoms c5,000 BC" [it is now thought that the 10 fathom level was reached c6,000 BC] (Grinsell 1970 p 16) The drawing above is based upon a drawing on p 16.


Many of the earliest sites are now on the sea bed as the original coastline of that period [Mesolithic] is now approximately the 10 fathom contour (Reed 1997 p 2)

Britain was part of the continental land mass of Eurasia until about 6500 years ago when it became an island. The sea level was -40m 10,000 years ago and rose to -20m by 8000 years ago [guess -10m by 6000, -5m by 4500, 0 by 3000]. Relatively stable sea levels, as today, were reached from about 3000 years ago (CJ Caseldine ‘Environmental Setting’ in Kain & Ravenhill 1999 p 28-9)


"From the end of the last glacial period, about 10,000 years ago, the melting of the ice caps has caused the sea level in the Bristol Channel to rise about 40 metres. It has been at roughly its present level for the last 2000 years but is still rising very slowly." (Exmoor National Park website 2002 select drift)


(3) Forestation and deforestation

"It is thought that the greater part of Exmoor was once covered in woodland, at first coniferous, but later with a large proportion of broad-leaved trees. ...Tree stumps, the so-called bog oak, are quite frequently exposed when peat is being cut, even in places as high as 1300ft. The peat bogs have preserved these relics of woodland which were fast disappearing as much as 4000 years ago. The woodlands on the higher part of Exmoor were almost certainly destroyed by man and not by climate, and they have been prevented from regenerating by mans activities." (Wybrow 1970 p 7-8)


Pollen diagrams by Simmons and Caseldine, among others, show that Dartmoor at the onset of the Mesolithic was mostly open heath with small pockets of birch and willow. As climate improved after the ice ages then there were more deciduous trees including hazel, oak and elm. By 7000 BC most of Dartmoor was wooded. This was undisturbed until about 5000 BC when there was substantial deforestation, most likely caused by fire - elsewhere in Britain such fires have been thought to have been started deliberately. Afterwards the land becomes more suitable for ungulates such as red deer, and they are more easily hunted. Simmons has suggested that the build-up of deep blanket peat deposits started immediately after the woodland was cleared and therefore it is possible to equate present-day deep peat with areas deforested in the Mesolithic (Gerrard 1997 p 25)


(4) Microliths

"There are several sites on Exmoor at which Mesolithic artefacts have been found - and, indeed, can still be found in some quantity. The tiny flint microliths, usually found at spots on or near the coast outside the National Park, notably in the Woolacombe-Saunton area, are easy enough to identify. But some of the late Mesolithic scrapers are hard to distinguish from those of the succeeding Neolithic period. It is worth looking for artefacts of both cultures at such known find-sites as the head of Ranscombe Combe near Woolhanger and at Hawkcombe head [ss843461]. Less numerous finds have been made on the ridges running north from The Chains, and one would expect scattered finds of Mesolithic implements in other similar areas - Brendon Common, Almsworthy Common for instance." (Whybrow 1970 p 10)


"By 8000 BC the development of post-glacial woodland was well advanced. Soils were beginning to mature, and pine and birch dominated the tree cover in most areas.....In response to these changes, hunting strategies and the equipment for procuring food also changed. Uniserial bone points continued to be made, but greater reliance was placed on composite tools made from small blade-based pieces known as microliths set in wooden shafts. The microliths provided sharp tips or barbs for hunting weapons. Spears remained in use, but bows-and-arrows had become widespread by this time, and were no doubt a useful innovation in the forest" (Darvill 1990 p 38-39)


(5) Mesolithic sites

"Perhaps the most interesting site of the Stone Age settlement in this district is at Baggy, Georgeham. Thanks to the research work of Dr. Thomas Young, formerly of Woolacombe, a splendid collection of Stone Age implements has been collected from a field just above Baggy Cliffs. These are now housed in the Museum at Exeter. The first flint implements and flakes were found by the late Mr. Townsend M. Hall in a small ravine just beyond the great cave at Baggy in 1863, and included a number of flint flakes and part of the upper rim of an earthenware urn. Dr. Young commenced his research in 1902, and among his discoveries were flint flakes, knives, borers, scrapers, arrow heads, spindle whorls and pigmy flints, as also hammer heads and fabricators. Mr. Frank Bagster, of Baggy Farm, has on many occasions found perfect specimens of flint arrow heads, and thanks to his courtesy the writer in 1925 was able to search the field, which at that time, after heavy rain, depicted a veritable Stone Age arsenal. Borers and scrapers were found together with chipped, flakes. The raw material was brought a long distance or washed up on the beach below. Dr. Young found flint implements at other places, including Georgeham, Morte-Hoe, Woolacombe, Braunton, Berrynarbor, Parracombe, Challacombe, and Fremington." (Slee 1935 p 6,7)


Microliths have been found at Baggy Point SS425403 (Ashm, Barn, Ilf, Exeter) Braunton Burrows SS460350 (Bidef) Croyde SS422405, SS425402, SS434387, SS434396, SS448453, SS454447 (Taunt) Georgeham SS474387, SS452414, Kentisbury Down SS632439 (Barn), Morte Bay SS452451 (Taunt), Morte Point SS443455 (Taunt), Saunton Down SS435381, Westward Ho! SS430292 (Ashm, Bidef, Exet, Ilf), Woolacombe Sands SS455414 (Grinsell 1970 p 183-185)


Mesolithic worked stone, raised beach, Westward Ho SS4229, 100/1951. Flint scatter, baggy point SS4341 93/1965, 258/1968, 40/1970, 64/1978. Worked flint at Croyde SS4339 184/1975 (Pearce 1978 p23) Map shows distribution of Mesolithic in Devon in 3 areas, the Exe, the Dart, and the North Devon west coast (Pearce 1978 p 24)


The earliest flints in Morthoe SS452451 found 2-3 feet below the ground are thought to be Mesolithic (8500-6000BC). (Reed 1997 p1)


Worked flints found on Lundy have been dated to the Mesolithic 8000-3000BC (Coulter 1993 p 48)


A field walking exercise was carried out at Baggy Point in 1992 by the North Devon Archaeology Society under the guidance of Alison Mills. The field [ss425405] is numbered Ordnance Survey 2857. The material was recorded in an unpublished paper by Anthony Gist who deduced that most of the material collected was from the Mesolithic period. Flint and chert do not occur naturally here, but are to be found in water-borne pebble form on beaches in the locality. Other sources of material include clay-with-flints at Orleigh Court near Bideford and chert sources in the Blackdown Hills. The typology of tools and waste from knapping indicates early and late Mesolithic, i.e. C7,000-4000 BC. Evidence from the Neolithic is more tenuous. The scatter plans reveal that most finds were in the south-west corner of the field where there is a level platform. This is thereby identified as an archaeological site. (Ann & Martin Plummer, NDAS issue 4 autumn 2002 p 12-15)


"The excavations, close to Porlock Hill, concentrated on the oldest archaeological site found so far on Exmoor, dating from the late Mesolithic period (7000-4000 BC). Around 1500 flints were recovered from the site, which was used by hunter-gatherer communities as a hunting base camp. The project was begun because of concerns about damage to the site caused by 4x4 vehicles driving across the moor. The project was funded by the University of Bristol's 'Widening Participation Office' which aims to encourage school students to go on to study at university. For many of the diggers on the project this was their first time away from home and their first experience of a National Park. Dr Paul Gardiner, joint director of the Field School with the national Park's archaeologist, Rod Wilson-North, said 'around 35% of the students who came on the Field School have now applied to go on to university to study architecture or a related subject" (Exmoor Visitor 2003, Exmoor National Park p 5)


(3) Submerged sites

"During a severe storm in the winter of 1864 a large tract of submerged forest, near Northam Burrows, at the estuary of the Taw and Torridge, was uncovered. Mr. Hall records that he saw the stems of between 70 and 80 large trees, chiefly oak, ash, birch and hazel, broken off about 2ft. above the peat bed. The antlers of red deer, bones of wild boar, wolf, wild ox and other extinct animals were found, while flint flakes and implements were brought to light. In recent years Mr. Inkerman Rogers has added to the knowledge of this submerged forest by careful research. He has examined some of the trees and found bones which have been identified as those of stag, Celtic shorthorn ox, horse, dog, sheep, goat, pig and man." (Slee 1935 p 7)


There is a submerged forest visible at very low tide at Westward Ho! and a kitchen midden site from there dates from 4500BC (Reed 1997 p 1-2)


" A submarine forest is present in Porlock Bay on the seaward side of the shingle ridge, but it is not normally visible except at very low tides. Old accounts describe tree trunks of alder and oak over 6m long. The trees were rooted into head and surrounded by blue mud. The forest and its associated beds are between about 7800 and 5000 years old and show that there was a steady rise of sea level over this period." (Edwards 2000 p 24)


"Between 7000 and 8000 years ago the area that is now Porlock Beach was more than five miles inland. It was a flat, low lying area and the climate was warm and wet. The area was thickly wooded and Mesolithic people lived by hunting and fishing. They probably hunted wild cattle, the bones of which have been found here. The stumps of trees were preserved in the marshy conditions in which they grew and have today been revealed as the sea has risen to erode them. At low tide can be seen tree trunks, a thin layer of peaty soil and a large amount of grey clay soil which is now inhabited by sea shells known as piddocks." (Exmoor National Park website 2006 select drift)


"Coastal erosion has led to the exposure of areas of old land surface on Porlock Beach. The earliest remains there are of a submerged forest which is 5000-6000 years old. This was first observed in 1870, but is now disappearing rapidly. Nevertheless, tree stumps, branches and organic debris can still be seen at low tide. In 1998 the remains of an aurochs (the precursor of modern cattle) were found on the beach protruding from the recently exposed blue clays of an old river channel. This animal died about 3500 years ago and is therefore one of the latest aurochs to be found in Britain (they died out here around 1000 BC). The bones are displayed in the Porlock Visitor Centre". (Exmoor National Park website 2006  


"Little survives of living and working areas and shelters with which the flints may have been associated, although we do have a radiocarbon date from Westward Ho! which dates an assemblage with geometric flints from the base of the peat deposit overlying the shell midden to 4635bc. One of the problems is that changes in the sea level and the coast line of the Severn Estuary probably means that many of the potentially most interesting sites are now drowned below the Bristol Channel." (Pearce 1978 p 8)


"At Westward Ho!, Devon, a large kitchen midden loosely dated to 4635±130 BC and comprising mostly oyster, mussel, limpet and winkle, lies well down the present beach and is sometimes exposed at low tide (Darvill 1990 p 44)


< Palaeolithic        Neolithic >