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The Yorkshire Archaeological & Historical Society

Since 1863

For everyone interested in Yorkshire's past

Mesolithic Yorkshire – microliths


Microliths (narrow blade type): Conistone Moor (Late Mesolithic c. 6000 BC) (G. Waterhouse Collection)

It might be thought that being so long ago, Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, tools would be clumsy and primitive by later standards – but nothing could be further from the truth. Dating from the millennia immediately following on from the last (Devensian) Ice Age (c.10,000BC), the Mesolithic economy was based on an exclusively hunter-gatherer way of life. Theirs was to some extent an opportunistic mode of existence, based on a rapid ability to exploit and take advantage of whatever chances their immediate and ever-changing environment threw up. Their Mesolithic tool technology reflects this and contains a wide variety of tools, many designed to be replaced rather than reworked.

Microliths, literally small stones, are characteristic flint (or chert) tools from the Mesolithic period in the UK, dating from as long ago as 7000 BC or even earlier and include tool types known as blades, points, awls (borers), burins (a form of chisel) and scalene triangles. What is immediately noticeable about them is how small they are and indeed it is only on close almost microscopic examination that their fine and skilful, often exquisite workmanship can be truly appreciated.

One of the concepts behind the microlith is that it was designed for small-scale tasks, for fishing and for hunting and preparing small animals and wildfowl; another design idea was that they could be combined in a multiple tool – several microliths at a time being glued (using pine resin or something similar) into or on to a shaft to provide a long cutting edge. If any one of the microliths was subsequently lost, blunted or broken, it could then easily be replaced by another, giving the overall tool a longer effective life, whether as an arrow, a harpoon or a knife.

Archaeologists broadly recognise two distinct sets of Mesolithic tools or microliths, known as industries: a broad blade industry from the early Mesolithic (broadly c. 8000BC onwards) and a narrow blade industry from the late Mesolithic (broadly c. 6000BC onwards). Large numbers of tools and waste found in a relatively small area point to Mesolithic activity at the site over a period of time. They are often found in large concentrations, along with debitage (waste from flint working) at several key locations, notably at Star Carr in the Vale of Pickering, throughout the high Pennines, e.g. on the moors around Marsden, on Oxenhope Moor, and Conistone, Kilnsey and Malham Moors in the Dales, and Upper Haw at the head of Nidderdale.