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The Mesolithic

Overview: c. 10,000 BC - c. 4,000 BC

The Mesolithic period covers approximately 6,000 years from 10,000 BC. This era was a period when Britain was undergoing climatic and environmental changes that were creating a more hospitable habitat.

Gradually (c. 8500-7500 BC), the climate in Herefordshire began to get warmer and new plants and animals began to colonise the land. These included species of birch, willow and aspen, as well as red deer, wild oxen and wild pig. The human hunting groups became more settled, and regular trading and hunting patterns were developed. 

By 7,500 BC these flora and fauna had been joined by the lime, alder, oak, hazel and pine.

7,500 years ago the average summer temperature would most probably have been a few degrees higher than today. These climatic changes are identified in part by studying pollen diagrams: in Herefordshire there are three pollen sequences dating back to the early post-glacial period, up to about 2,000 BC (HER nos. 5522, 32802 and 32803). These show that warm conditions were established by about 9,500 years ago (c. 7,500 BC). By the end of the Mesolithic period communities had developed, many had made the transition from hunting and gathering to farming as a means of food provision, and a small-scale agricultural industry had been formed.

Society had developed into extended family groups based on permanent settlements and territories, each with their own hunting, gathering and farming techniques. These settlement groups were able to take advantage of the seasonal fruits, berries and seeds that had emerged as a result of the increase in temperature. These fruits and berries would have also attracted more animals - such as roe and red deer and wild pig - which would have increased the food supply available. 

Around 6,500 BC, as the ice sheets continued melting, the water levels rose and the mainland links between Britain and Europe were severed - Britain was now an island for the first time.

Nearly all Mesolithic activity that we have evidence for in Herefordshire occurred in the south and west of the county, with the majority being from the late Mesolithic period. Much of this evidence is in the form of small pieces of waste flint and flint scatters. The Herefordshire evidence is mainly concentrated into three areas: the Golden Valley, Ledbury (rural) and Great Doward. All three of these areas have something in common; they are all close to a range of hills and have rivers nearby.

Most of the finds from these three sites have been discovered upon the higher ground; this may indicate that the Mesolithic inhabitants of Herefordshire chose to settle in areas that were easily defended and that the valley floors were probably still very densely wooded at this time. However, it has to be borne in mind that no systematic study of flint, comparing finds from upland and lowland areas, has been done. Upland flints may also be easier to find as soils are thinner and vegetation is more sparse, meaning the flints are easier to see. Lowland areas have of course been ploughed for thousands of years and surface flints would long since have been buried, to re-surface only occasionally with the cycle of ploughing.

Herefordshire was an attractive option for people migrating from Gloucestershire and southern Wales. Archaeological evidence shows that there was an abundance of woodland resources, as well as animals, nuts and berries, and fish in the many rivers and streams. This gave the Mesolithic inhabitants of Herefordshire prime hunting and gathering territory; there was now less need to travel great distances for hunting and so a change from temporary settlements to permanent bases occurred.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]