Prehistoric Merseyside

A map of the region of Merseyside showing Mesolithic sites.

Map of the Merseyside region showing Mesolithic sites

The Mesolithic period 8500-4000 BC

National Museum Liverpool's field archaeology department has been involved in a long-term research programme to find out more about prehistoric Merseyside. This has mainly involved aerial photography and walking ploughed fields to locate prehistoric sites. These are identified through the presence of worked flint tools and pottery in the modern plough soil. These sites can then be excavated for more details.

The most common sites found in the Merseyside region relate to the Mesolithic period, about 6000 to 10,000 years ago. This is partly because the stone tools they used are extremely durable and survive well. Many types of early pottery or organic items such as those made of bone, cloth, hide or basketry do not survive as well.

Another reason for so many Mesolithic finds is that a single family or group of families could have many settlement sites over a large area. They lived long before agriculture was known in this country. People had to rely on hunting wild animals, fishing and gathering plants, nuts and berries. Hunter-gatherers generally lived in a mobile way because these resources are available in different places at different times of the year. It is likely that on a regular basis either the whole group, or parts of it, would be on the move to new camps.

A modern picture of the penines showing tufty grass and no trees. In the Mesolithic period this area would have been covered in dense forest.

A view of the Pennines, near Oldham. In the Mesolithic period these hills were covered in forest. The hunter-gatherers of that time began clearing the woodlands. This process only took about two thousand years for the vegetation to change to what we can see today.

The environment was also very different from many later periods of archaeology. In general the Mesolithic landscape was wooded, moving from fairly open pine, birch and hazel woodland to a closed forest of oak, elm, lime and ash by about 7500 years ago. There is evidence in the region that Mesolithic groups were burning some woodland to provide open areas. This was probably to improve their hunting methods. This happened at many sites on the nearby Pennine hills. At this time they were covered in woodland. They provided important hunting areas for groups whose sites we find in the lowlands.

This general trend for increasing woodland during the Mesolithic period also mirrors a general move towards a warmer, wetter climate and the loss of land to rising sea-levels. A little after 10,000 years ago the coastline in the north west would have been several kilometres to the west of Anglesey, while about 6500 years ago in West Lancashire, salt marsh existed about five kilometres inland of the present coast.