The Mesolithic in Mar Lodge, Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland

Principal Investigators 
Dr Graeme Warren, UCD School of Archaeology
Dr Richard Tipping, Biological and Environmental Sciences, School of Natural Sciences, University of Stirling
Dr Gordon Noble, Dept. of Archaeology, Univ. of Aberdeen
Dr Shannon Fraser, Archaeology, National Trust Scotland

This project is a collaboration between UCD, Aberdeen and Stirling Universities and National Trust Scotland. The overarching aim is to explore the early prehistory, especially the Mesolithic, of the Mar Lodge estate, a huge area of uplands in the heart of the Cairngorm mountains, Scotland. Little is known of early prehistory in this area – indeed, little is known of Mesolithic settlement in uplands/mountainous environments in Scotland (for discussion, see SCARF – the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework). Three flint scatters were identified on footpaths in the estate and these have been the focus for the initial phase of the project in 2013. This has provided geomorphic maps of the main river valleys associated with the finds and preliminary archaeological fieldwork to assess the scatters. The project is providing key information about early prehistoric use of the uplands and contributing to the management of these sites on the Mar Lodge Estate.

We are very grateful to National Trust Scotland for financial and other supports, especially Shannon Fraser (Archaeologist – East) and David Frew (Property Manager, Mar Lodge Estate).

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Fieldwork in June 2013 included geomorphological survey undertaken by Wishart Mitchell & Richard Tipping which aimed to clarify the evolution of this dynamic upland landscape and assess which land surfaces might potentially have survived since the Mesolithic. The UCD team focused on archaeological characterisation of the flint scatters. These sites are difficult to access – a one hour off road landrover drive followed by a 20 minute walk. We were very lucky to have good weather.

Our main focus was on a site at Caochanan Ruadha, where four flints had been identified on the footpath. Here we excavated nearly 80 small test pits and three trial trenches, following on from geophysical survey carried out in May 2013 by Rose Geophysical Consultants.  Finds were very rare, with only ten flints recovered across an area of c 50 by 75m. However, the character of the flints was very consistent, with three fragmentary microliths – all characteristic of the later Mesolithic in Scotland (c 8300 – 4000 cal BC). This high proportion of microliths is often seen as suggesting a specialised function for the site, and a common interpretation of upland sites is that they are hunting locations. This is certainly possible for Caochanan Ruadha, which is located on a low rise above the flood plain. It is important to remember that this landscape would have been wooded at the time. Our excavations also uncovered a substantial charcoal spread, which we have sampled. We will now seek funding for charcoal analysis and radiocarbon dating.

We undertook a small amount of fieldwork at White Bridge/Chest of Dee.  Many flints have been found on footpaths in this area, although it is likely that they have been redeposited by the River Dee. The lithics indicate a rich later Mesolithic site is nearby, and show that different sites in Mar Lodge are very varied – there were many ways in which Mesolithic people used this mountainous landscape.

Further fieldwork will take place in Autumn 2013, as part of the University of Aberdeen’s teaching programme. We are currently seeking funding for another phase of fieldwork in 2014.