Mesolithic Norfolk

Around 10,000 BC to 4001 BC.

The term Mesolithic is used to describe the period in prehistory between the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age). During this period people were using stone tools.

The stone tools used in the Mesolithic period include an important group of flint tools called microliths. These tiny blades are one of the most common types of flint tool found dating from this period. Usually no more than 2 to 4cm long they are shaped along one edge into various forms. During the Mesolithic microliths generally became more geometric in shape and smaller. These tiny flints would be set into wooden shafts, held in place with resin from trees, and used as arrows or spears. Poison may have been added to the sharp flints to make them more effective and deadly. Heavy flint tools such as flint tranchet axeheads were also used. These were hafted into a stout wooden handle. These effective tools could be re-sharpened by removing more flakes of stone and many examples have re-sharpened edges. These larger tools were probably used for felling trees and cutting timber.  Antler and bone tools were also used during the Mesolithic, especially for barbed points, knives, awls and mattocks.

During the Mesolithic most people lived in established base camps. From these temporary settlements small groups would forage and hunt in the local area. These base camps probably supported only a few family groups. Once this area was exhausted people moved to a new base camp. This may have happened seasonally. Known sites are often close to fresh water as this would be needed daily. Cooking pits have been identified at some of these sites. Here meat could be cooked by placing it on hot stones and covering it with turf. Smaller heated stones (potboilers) may also have been placed inside containers to heat liquids. The excavation of Mesolithic sites sometimes reveal postholes, scooped hollows or pits, stone paving and hearths. These are often very difficult to interpret. Some relate to the construction of simple shelters, perhaps similar to tents or beach windbreaks. Areas naturally protected from the elements such as caves and rock shelters would also have been used. Hunting groups would sometimes follow animals long distances from their base camp and set up temporary overnight camps. One of these has been excavated at Great Melton (NHER 16753). Evidence collected during the Fenland Survey in Norfolk has identified more of these temporary hunting camps. 

The people of Mesolithic Britain had to organise their lives around procuring food. These people had a wide knowledge of the landscapes they lived in and knew where to find edible plants. They tracked herds of animals and knew the seasonal movements of birds, deer and aurochs. They also used resources from the sea. Evidence suggests that people living in these settlements may have burnt off the scrubby vegetation of the Breckland district of Norfolk to encourage grazing animals that they could hunt. In the early Mesolithic period different groups of hunter gathers lived in Britain. These groups could be identified by the types of tools they used. One had long elegant flint blades, another shouldered and tanged points and a third used more simple microliths and flint axes. Long blade groups were relatively common in East Anglia. Later in the Mesolithic flint tools became more uniform and people all used similar types. This suggests that the groups living in Britain talked to one another and exchanged ideas.

Very little is known of burial in the Mesolithic period. Very few skeletons have been excavated. Those that have been found are almost always found in caves in the Mendips. It seems to have been a local custom to leave bodies in the caves there. In other areas it is likely that bodies were not buried after death but were disposed of in some other way. They may have been exposed in isolated places. Animals and birds would scavenge the flesh and the bones and the rest of the body would chemically decay so there would no traces left for archaeologists to find.

It is during the Mesolithic period that Britain became an island, probably around 6500 BC. Whilst people in Britain continued to live nomadically, in Europe people became more settled and began to farm. In Britain the introduction of farming took a little while longer, occurring between the middle and end of the 4th millennium BC. There was some overlap with the Mesolithic way of life with some groups starting to farm whilst others continued to hunt and forage.

M. Dennis (NLA), 19 October 2006.

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