Meeting Report: Scotland's Earliest People

9 October 2015
Tam Ward (Biggar Archaeology Group)

Cumberland Street Day Centre was the venue for the AGM and inaugural meeting of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. Mr Liam Murray, President, introduced the speaker for the evening, Tam Ward, a founding member of the Biggar Archaeology Group, who now resides in Helensburgh.

Mr Ward listed the considerable achievements of the Biggar Archaeology Group, including major work on Bastle Houses and finding many Neolithic and Mesolithic sites but he said that nothing could have prepared them for the site he was going to talk to us about.

Mr Ward proceeded to describe a site at Howburn Farm adjacent to the A702 about 4 miles north of Biggar in Lanarkshire. It lies between the upper reaches of the River Clyde and River Tweed close to Melbourne crossroads where Roman routes running north to south and east to west intersect. Previous fieldwalking by the Group in the vicinity had produced Neolithic material so it was an area of known prehistoric activity.

Fieldwalking commenced in ploughed fields on Howburn Farm and the finds picked up were meticulously recorded. Large numbers of finds were made especially of flint and local chert which seemed to span all prehistoric periods. A small excavation revealed two pits containing charcoal but this dated by radiocarbon to the Iron Age so these features were not related to the stone finds. Some large flints had been found in the ploughsoil which did not match any prehistoric tool types previously found in the area. Experts looked at these and found two pieces which had been broken and separated during ploughing, but pieced back together they formed a tanged projectile point, a diagnostic late Upper Palaeolithic tool type dating to 14,000 years ago and giving the earliest evidence for people in Scotland. Previously it had been thought that due to ice coverage in the north from the last Ice Age, Palaeolithic people probably had not ventured much further north than what is now the Midlands of England. The site at Howburn Farm was now considered to be of national importance.

The flint experts asked for more evidence in case these very early finds had got into the field by accident at a later date. An appeal went out for volunteers and over 150 people of all ages responded to take part in an excavation on the site starting in 2009. The large flints were concentrated in two areas and nearly every square metre dug in two large trenches and various test pits produced more finds. In fact so many were retrieved that the excavation was stopped so that researchers in the future could come back and excavate.

The finds included a huge range of tanged points, used as projectiles, scrapers, used for preparing animal skins, and burins, used to work antler and bone. This tool kit matched that used by the Hamburgian culture previously recognised in what are now north Germany, southern Denmark and the Netherlands. These people were reindeer hunters and lived 14,000 years ago. Their culture has been dated from the bone of reindeer skeletons found with projectile points embedded in them. Unfortunately the acidity of the soil at the Howburn site did not allow for the preservation of bone or any other organic material. At this period in time the North Sea, English Channel and Irish Sea did not exist as the sea level had not yet risen due to the melting of the ice sheet at the end of the Ice Age, so reindeer herds could migrate westwards overland from Europe following valleys in the landscape while grazing on the tundra vegetation of mosses, lichens and dwarf plants which covered the area. The Hamburgians who were hunter gatherers would have kept up with the herds and utilised them for food, clothing etc. They would have brought the flint with them as it was not available locally and manufactured their tools on site but they were also exploiting the local chert.

The excavation produced tools which were bedded into the natural subsoil, below the level of biological activity by earthworms, moles or roots. The only process which could account for this was cryoturbation where freezing of the soil produces fissures which the objects can fall down. For this to happen, the tools would have to be present on the soil surface before the Loch Lomond readvance of the ice sheet which happened approximately 12,000 years ago and would have made the Howburn site uninhabitable so this provided a corroboration of the early date. The Group helped researchers from Stirling University with taking a 13 metre deep core from the valley floor and the results of this work are reshaping our understanding of the Ice Age in the area including the fact that there must have been a major glacier in the Moffat Hills.

The amazing site at Howburn Farm had not only produced the earliest evidence for people in Scotland from the Upper Palaeolithic, but it also produced finds from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age and had features dated to the Iron Age making it unique as a focus for human activity covering millennia.