Stuffynwood's Mesolithic Hunters

 

The Sites & Monument Register for Pleasley Vale includes two rock shelters on the Stuffynwood Estate, near Littlewood, (Ref.12511 & 12512). At Stuffynwood Hall, the register also includes 'artefact scatters' (Ref.12532). These two listings are the centrepiece to this chapter providing evidence that around 10,000-15,000BC, nomadic tribes, possibly from Cresswell Crags, 4 miles north along the river Meden, were using Stuffynwood to hunt.

After contacting Gill Stroud, the Historic Environment Record Officer at Derbyshire CC, she kindly sent me the details concerning the listings (click here to read).

Although not proven nor can it be without extensive archeological excavations on private land, the rock shelters were typical temporary base camps for the nomadic hunters. What is proven is that Mesolithic hunters were active a few hundred yards to the north at Stuffynwood Hall.

The SMR details the following:

SK 5282 6552, Stuffynwood Hall.  Fieldwalking by C R Hart on or before 10/5/78 produced a very thin scatter of Mesolithic
flint across a 10 acre field, comprising 7 waste flints, a utilized flake and a battered back microlith; and 2 weathered sherds of pottery, possibly medieval.

FDR10627  DEBITAGE (6-10)  (Mesolithic - 10000 BC to 4001 BC)   FLINT
FDR10628  MICROLITH (1)  (Mesolithic - 10000 BC to 4001 BC)   FLINT
FDR10630  SHERD (2)  (Medieval - 1066 AD to 1539 AD)   POTTERY.

The period in pre-history to which the entries refer is known as the 'Stone-age' which has subdivisions into the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic meaning old, middle and new stone ages respectively. These three periods are further subdivided depending on the global region and the emerging cultures that were developing at different speeds. The subject has recently become very controversial after scientists have revealed that seabed scarring in the English Channel was caused by a sudden vast volume of water and rock from fast melting ice water around 400,000 years ago and therefore was not formed gradually over thousands of years. The latest theory has turned British history upside down as it basically means we were cut off from Europe 400,000 years ago, exiled from the developing European cultures albeit migration across frozen icecaps during further iceages. Anyway, I will leave the academics to argue amongst themselves and draw on the hard evidence unearthed at Cresswell Crags just 4 miles north on the river Meden.

At the end of the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago, the warming climate brought a gradual transition from Upper Palaeolithic to Mesolithic (Middle stone-age). The milder climate supported forests and grazing and according to bone remnants found in the cave at Vale House, Pleasley Vale, the area at one time or another, was home to a variety of animals including rhinoceros and elephants. The cave at Vale House is a fissure with its deadly opening on top of the escarpment, inside what we now know as Pleasley Park, a heavily wooded area. There is no evidence that man had entered the fisure or had used it to trap animals but what we do know is that many animals stumbled into it over thousands of years. Bones of at least 4 wolves were also found and during a time when the landscape was icy cold tundra, woolly mammoth, bison and reindeer grazed there but also became victims to the fissure. The mammoth and bison bones are recorded as being kept by William Hollins with the rest now at Wollaton Natural History Museum, Nottingham.

Researchers at Cresswell Crags have dated the 4 main caves' occupation layers using flint tools found there. They were seasonally occupied by nomadic groups of people during the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. Evidence of Neolithic, Bronze Age, Roman and post-medieval activity has also been found there. The main phases of stone age occupation were at around 43,000 BC then in a period between 30,000 and 28,000 BC and then again around 10,000 BC.

In 2003, engravings of birds & animals including bison were found on the walls and ceilings of some of the caves that have been scientifically dated to be at least 12,800 years old. This discovery at Creswell Crags represents the only known examples of Palaeolithic cave art in Britain, the most northerly finds in Europe and the most extensive collection of prehistoric bas-reliefs in the world. The scientists and archaeologists concluded it was most likely that the engravings were contemporary with evidence for occupation at the site during the late glacial interstadial at around 13,000-15,000 years ago.

 

Mesolithic hunters used smaller blades to make microliths, which were mounted on shafts or handles to make arrowheads and knives.
After the arid conditions of the Upper Palaeolithic, the humid climate of the Mesolithic seems to have encouraged an increase in population. Caves, rock-shelters and open-air sites were occupied, either as semi-permanent settlements, temporary encampments or simply as sites for stone tool production.

A typical Mesolithic site was discovered at Birdcombe near Wraxall, where the floor of a temporary hut dwelling was excavated. The finds included many microliths, tiny pointed blades and scrapers, many still quite sharp edged, as well as some larger implements. The site was situated near a constant spring and a local source of gravel flint for making implements. A number of sites in West Sussex have also yielded Mesolithic flint tools (especially microliths). The sites all suggest short-stay hunters’ camps, all of which were positioned near streams. It is likely that there were larger semi-permanent camps in other locations, where the main part of each hunter-gatherer band was based. Smaller groups probably went out on hunting trips lasting a few days.

DNA research has shown that the oldest static population in Europe is that of populations on the fringes of Britain including Western Ireland, Cornwall and Wales and the north-west of England where in all these regions dark-haired people predominates and along with other facial factors suggests that this was the typical appearance of the earliest Modern Britons.

Our knowledge of the equipment carried by Mesolithic hunters is mainly based on archaeological remains from the Star Carr site in Yorkshire, which has provided many well-preserved artefacts including arrow barbs, knives, scrapers, sharpening flakes and even drill bits. It was clear that each hunter would be equipped with a knife carried in a pouch slung from a belt, a 5' yew bow and a quiver. The arrowheads (microliths) were made according to the prey ranging from short & blunt for birds, barbed for fish and heavy, long & sharp for bison.

 

This picture shows the site as listed on the SMR where the mesolithic artefacts were found. Around 10,000BC this site would have been heavily wooded and home to deer and boar. The basin profile was made by melting ice-age flood water thousands of years ago and runs through Stuffynwood from Pleasley Park. The rock shelters are near the river set into the base of the steep limestone escarpment just a few hundred yards away. The SMR lists them as likely temporary camps used by Mesolitic hunters. The Cresswell Crags site just 4 miles north and in the same gorge makes this theory highly likely. The ideal position for the hunters would be high up on the top of the basin where they could rain down their arrows onto the prey below. The basin profile allows a gentle slope down to meet the river Meden providing a funnel effect for the animals and their source of drinking water and subsequently, therefore, provided a natural ambush position for the hunters.