The Archaeology Of East Lothian

Olwyn Owen

In this essay:


The last 50 years have seen an explosion in archaeological knowledge and techniques. Modern excavations can reveal a huge range of information about past lifestyles and the ancient environment, impossible to discover 50 years ago. Radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology permit the dating of organic materials (charcoal and burnt seeds, bones and wood), and therefore the sites and monuments where they were found. Systematic sampling, sieving and analysis of soil layers allow the retrieval of microscopic remains, tiny bones, seeds and insects, which tell so much about the diet, economy and way of life of our forebears, and help identify the past activities which led to the formation of the deposits; and studying finds from a range of excavated sites can show how tastes in artefact type, technology and decoration changed over time.

In recent years, analysis of pollen grains preserved in deep sediments has allowed reconstruction of the changing ancient environment through millennia. Scotland’s first settlers, for example, arrived after the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago (this is the Mesolithic period) and came into a land of mixed woodlands, with oak, hazel and elm common in the lowlands, interspersed with shrubs and open areas. These small groups of nomadic hunters and gatherers had an intimate understanding of the natural environment on which they depended. They managed the woodlands, which were home to abundant wildlife and birdlife; while the sea, rivers and lochs contained plentiful fish, shellfish, sea mammals and crustacea. The first settlers had access to everything necessary for resourceful people to sustain themselves. The weather was also on their side: the climate was a little warmer than it is today. Fifty years ago, no Mesolithic sites had been found in Scotland, and they are still rare. The tell-tale presence of Scotland’s first settlers is their stone tools, especially vast numbers of microliths – long thin flakes of flint, expertly struck from a flint pebble – used as a ‘replacement part’ in a wide variety of tools. In East Lothian, Mesolithic tools have been recovered from ploughed fields at Aberlady, North Berwick, Hedderwick, Torness and Inveresk. The gradual introduction of farming put paid to the nomadic way of life, as people began to settle in one place and became bound to the land on which they depended (the Neolithic period). By about 3500 BC farming was widespread in lowland Scotland and, with the creation of permanent settlements, the idea of owning territory was born. Farming meant the land could support a larger population and the numbers of people in individual groups or tribes began to increase. This was the beginning of large-scale human impact on the landscape, as the woodlands were cleared and there was a spread of grasslands for grazing.