Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
A few miles to the north of Liverpool, on a sandy spur of land on the floodplain of the river Alt, is one of the most significant archaeological sites in Britain. At Lunt Meadows, Ron Cowell, Curator of Prehistory at the Museum of Liverpool, has been directing excavations on a patch of land where some 8000 years ago bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers would regularly pitch camp at different times of the year. Buried deep for thousands of years, the traces left by those people are suggesting new interpretations about the way people of the Mesolithic era organised themselves, and the beliefs that bound them to the natural world and to each other.
One morning this week, as part of this year’s Festival of Archaeology, Ron Cowell showed a group of us around the Lunt Meadows site, spending a generous four hours explaining the significance of his team’s findings and answering questions.
Today, Lunt Meadows is has been transformed into an extensive wetland environment, though until fairly recently this was the familiar west Lancashire landscape of flatland intensively-farmed for arable and salad crops. But, after extensive flooding in July 2010 when the river Alt burst its banks, and with the realisation that continued draining and ploughing of the peat soils was unsustainable, the Environment Agency and the Merseyside and Lancashire Wildlife Trust collaborated on a project to reduce the risk of flooding by creating a mosaic of reed-beds,ponds, hay meadow and marsh into which floodwaters from the Alt can be released in future.
As Ron Cowell pointed out, these changes mean that the landscape that now surrounds the excavations has returned to something like that which the stone-age hunter-gatherers who camped here would have experienced. As we listened to Ron’s account of the dig lapwings, martins and swifts swooped above us, and we were enveloped in the song of a thousand birds hidden in the reeds around.
For Ron Cowell, the Lunt Meadows dig is the culmination of a lifetime’s work. After digging prehistoric sites across Merseyside and beyond for 30 years, and, as he put it, walking thousands of hectares of ploughed farmland seeking signs of the distant past, this is the big one: his most significant dig, the last one before retires.
He has spent long days at the site, often working until sunset, and hearing him speak you sensed the extent to which the place and its past had entered his soul. Emphasising why bands of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers chose to bivouac here, he recalled autumn evenings when the sky would be thick with migrating birds. Here was a place where these people had access to a rich range of resources: fresh water streams, the Mersey estuary and the Irish Sea for different types of sea food; marshes and rivers for fish and water fowl; woodland for nuts, fruit and animals including boar and deer.
Watching programmes like Time Team on TV, I’ve often been impressed by how archaeologists are able to conjure the beliefs and lifestyles of prehistoric peoples from a nondescript piece of ground, some traces of daily routines, and a few shattered objects. To the uninitiated, Mesolithic sites can seem almost not there: at Lunt it was just a matter of colour changes in the soil or small holes that offered clues to what we were looking at, and what had gone on here.
A scientist he may be, drawing his inferences strictly from the evidence, but just as a shaman can summon spirits from a realm beyond the comprehension of ordinary folk, so it seemed Ron Cowell was able to evoke the world of lost lives from the sands of Lunt Meadows.
Explaining the origins of the dig, Cowell told how he and his team from the Museum of Liverpool had been involved as soon as the flood relief plan had been agreed. He described how, walking the ploughed land at the beginning, he was able to pinpoint the exact spots where Mesolithic remains were most likely to be found: near to patches of lighter, sandy soil that contrasted with the more general darker, peaty soil. These patches were places where the farmer’s plough had exposed the older, sandy deposits in which the Mesolithic remains were likely to be found. Often, he would find shards of flint scattered on the surface to reinforce his assessment.
As the map of Lunt Meadows below reveals, there are several places in the reserve where Mesolithic remains have been found. But it was this site with its evidence of a Mesolithic settlement suggesting generations or even centuries of occupation of the same place. Like finds at coastal sites in Yorkshire and Northumberland – thousands of years older than famous Neolithic villages like Scara Brae on Orkney – the Lunt Meadows finds challenge the traditional view that Mesolithic people were entirely nomadic, leaving almost no trace on the landscape, and constantly moving on.
The Lunt Meadows site is, therefore, one of only a handful where evidence of permanent settlement from over 8000 years ago still exists. It was situated on a low sandy promontory, less than a foot above the water level of the nearby lake. The stone age level was preserved under layers of silts and deposits, showing that the site was flooded repeatedly over the succeeding millennia.
As for the settlement site itself: it is, remarked Ron, the find he had been hoping to make throughout his career. What is rare about the site is that it is one of a very few places in Britain where evidence has come to light of a settlement in the hunter-gatherer period (roughly the 5000 years from the end of the Ice Age to the beginning of farming after 4000 BC). The Lunt Meadows excavations have found traces of Mesolithic buildings – simple huts constructed from willow branches that were probably used and re-used several times. Radiocarbon dating of burnt timbers on the site has given a date of around 5800 BC.
Ron’s team found evidence of several huts being built on the site, three of them fairly substantial structures around 19 feet across, discernible from a series of post holes in the sand which he pointed out to us. This suggests a much more permanent place to live for this period of ‘nomadic’ hunter-gatherers, a place to which groups of families might have returned at different seasons, and year after year.
The settlement seems to have been well organised. Ron demonstrated how the structures made use of small sand ridges and banks to form the entrances and walls, and showed where the lines of the hut walls was marked by curving lines of holes left by wooden posts and branches.
The investigations at Lunt Meadows have also recovered evidence of tools being shaped at the site with remains of coarse stone tools and thousands of shards of worked stone found inside and outside the huts. This represents the first evidence on Merseyside for this kind of activity. Many types of stone have been brought to the site as hand-sized pebbles, some of them to be used as hard surfaces on which to shape cutting tools and arrow heads. These small, very sharp stone blades were hafted to wood shafts to make spears or harpoons.
Ron also pointed out small areas where the greyish sandy soil was stained red – something easily overlooked by anyone not in the know. These provided the team with evidence that red ochre was used at the site, probably for body decoration.
Many of the stone pebbles found so far have come from pits dug into the floor of the huts or just outside. The most common types of stone found at Lunt are flint and chert, both of which would have been hard to come by locally. Some pieces from Lunt are very similar to pieces found at Mesolithic sites on the Wirral, some of which have been traced to the chert outcrops on the Welsh side of the River Dee – at least 30 miles away from Lunt. Cowell also suggested that some chert could have come from the Pennines, involving a journey of twice the distance.
Ron often referred to insights gained from observing modern hunter-gatherer groups, for example when trying to determine the belief systems of these Mesolithic people – or their patterns of mobility. On this basis it seems likely that groups like those at Lunt were used to travelling considerable distances as the seasons and sources of food changed.
A high point of the event was being allowed to handle some of the material found at the site. I felt a definite frisson at holding in my hand pieces that had last been handled (excepting the archaeologists) some 8000 years ago by the people who used this site. Ron handed round pieces of knapped flint, chert, and handfuls of material – wood and hazel nuts – burnt on the site.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery at Lunt was a number of carefully arranged groupings of pebbles which centred on a lump of iron pyrites or fool’s gold that would surely have had some symbolic significance, bright and sparkling at the centre of a series of small curves of pebbles, each forming part of a larger, curving design. (The piece of fools gold is now on display in Southport’s Atkinson Museum, part of a new permanent exhibition called Between Land and Sea – 10,000 years of Sefton’s Coast.)
Ron explained that these pebbles appeared to have been placed carefully, and the series of small curves were probably repeated over a period of time, suggesting some ritual or symbolic significance.
The Lunt site was abandoned, probably after it was flooded about 7500 years ago making it too wet to continue living there. After having been at the bottom of a shallow lake for several hundred years the site was then inundated by the sea as the estuary of the River Alt spread inland. Sand and peat deposits then sealed the site at depth, protecting it from ploughing.
Naturally, many of us were keen to ask Ron Cowell about the relationship between the finds at Lunt Meadows and the unique Mesolithic footprints found not far away on Formby beach, preserved in layers of sand and rock. The footprints are more recent – by hundreds, possibly a thousand years or more. Cowell reckoned the ‘Formby Beach People’ might possibly have been descendants of the Lunt Meadows crew.
Nevertheless, they might have shared a similar lifestyle. At the time the Lunt site was occupied, the coastline would have been only a little further out than it is today, so, although as yet there is no evidence that the people at Lunt were visiting the coast to forage, it seems very likely that at least some of the Lunt people would have visited the coast at certain seasons – or they might have had other base camps closer to the sea. What is lacking at Lunt is bone, which has not survived because of the acid sandy soils. If it had it might have provided evidence of how much fish featured in the Lunt diet.
After four hours we left Ron Cowell to sift for more evidence until sundown. A contented man, I can’t help feeling. Back in 2012 he told the Guardian:
We’re far from the nearest farm, there’s no traffic noise, and we’re very close to important wintering grounds for flocks of birds – sometimes when the sky is full of swans and geese, and all you can hear is their calls, there’s a real feeling of what life was like for these people.
He must have despaired at the way in which, that same week, the Telegraph reported and illustrated his work.
BBC North West Inside Out episode on Lunt Meadows, November 2012
- Evidence of a hunter-gatherer settlement (Museum of Liverpool)
- The finds: Mesolithic ways of life (Museum of Liverpool)
- Mesolithic man find could rewrite Stone Age history (BBC News)
- Stone age nomads settled down in Merseyside, flints and timber suggest (Guardian)
- ‘Prints’: 6000 year-old footprints in the sand, possessed of the future (this blog)
- Ancient footprints (this blog)
- After the Ice: the blessings of civilisation? (this blog)