Hazelnut shell pushes back date of Orcadian site

A charred hazelnut shell recovered during the excavations at Longhowe in Tankerness (Orkney, Scotland), earlier this year, has been dated to 6820-6660 BCE.  Although Orkney has plenty of indications of early (pre-farming or Mesolithic) settlement in the form of stone tools, this is the first date to relate to this activity. It pushes back the dated settlement of Orkney by 3,000 years. 

The hazelnut shell was found in a pocket of soil that had survived underneath the Bronze Age burial mound at Longhowe and provides a context for numerous stone arrowheads and other tools, which were found both in the soil below, and in, the matrix of the mound. It is likely that the remains of a small Mesolithic hunting camp were destroyed by the mound builders. 

Caroline Wickham Jones explained: “This date relates to the earliest known period of settlement of Scotland when bands of nomadic hunters lived here.  Remains from this time are scarce and few sites have been recognised by archaeologists, especially in the north.  Longhowe is therefore important both for the light it can shed on this elusive period of Orkney’s past as well as for our understanding of the early settlement of Scotland as a whole.”

Source: Orkneyjar (3 November 2007)

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3 responses to “Hazelnut shell pushes back date of Orcadian site

  1. I was wondering what the presence of hazelnuts so far north at the dates given tells us about the climate at the time – presumably it was somewhat more clement than at present, as at the moment there hardly appear to be any trees at all up there – unless of course they weren’t grown locally, and had made their way up to Orkney by being carried there by humans.

  2. The Common Hazel (Corylus avellana) is a species of hazel native to Europe and western Asia, from the British Isles south to Iberia, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, north to central Scandinavia, and east to the central Ural Mountains, the Caucasus and northwestern Iran. It is an important component of the hedgerows that were the traditional field boundaries in lowland England. The wood was traditionally grown as coppice, the poles cut being used for wattle-and-daub building and agricultural fencing.

    Given the widespread distribution of the Common Hazel, which includes Scandinavia as well as the British Isles, it seems to me feasible that the plant could have been local to Orkney, although the nomadic lifestyle of the people in that area could mean that it was brought from elsewhere, I guess. It is worth noting that the Scottish Northern Isles Conservation Project is noted as saying:

    “Orkney and Shetland landscapes are well known for their perceived distinct lack of trees but this was not previously so and during the post-glacial period these islands maintained a significant tree cover. The significance of the few remaining native trees in Orkney and Shetland cannot be over stated. Trees indigenous to the islands may represent a “genealogical link” to the last ice age, which took place almost 10,000 years ago, giving them a unique status in Scottish natural heritage.”

    As well as the fact that, whilst hazel is a common species, it is at risk in Orkney where, “only three native hazels remain and they are thought to be relict survivors of ancient woodlands. Two are located in Berriedale (on Hoy), a site of unique nature conservation value as it contains Britain’s most northerly native woodland which is protected within Hoy’s Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (a site designated by the UK Government under EC directive 92/43) and the Hoy RSPB Reserve. A third native Hoy hazel bush is located approximately 5 km to the east, on Hoy Trust land.”

  3. Thanks for the detailed reply to my query – plus it would have made sense for people to have travelled so far north at these dates if there were sufficient food and other resources there to greet them, and which further allowed them to settle for a time – still, it’s quite strange to think of the remote north as being home to native woodlands, and that there might be surviving arboreal descendants alive there today.

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