Evidence of a hunter-gatherer settlement

people excavating part of a large site with traces of former building visible in the ground

Volunteers excavating the hunter-gatherer settlement at Lunt Meadows in 2012 

The buildings

On a slightly elevated sandy spur of land that has lain deeply buried for thousands of years in the valley of the River Alt, archaeologists from the Museum of Liverpool have found traces of two relatively substantial Mesolithic buildings. A radiocarbon date from burnt timbers from one of them has given a date of about 5800 BC. There are only about half a dozen or so other similar structures known in Britain for the whole of this hunter-gatherer period (the Mesolithic) which covers the roughly 5000 years from the end of the Ice Age to the adoption of farming in Britain after 4000 BC.  

excavation site with markers showing evidence of a building that once stood there

The site of one of the buildings, with the part of the wall that has burnt down being clearly visible as a curving line on the left and in the foreground. The pit by the two red and white scales is roughly in the centre of the building. The entrance would have been on the right.

What is rare about the buildings at Lunt is that they appear to be part of a more well- organised settlement than is generally associated with Mesolithic sites. Most excavated sites are interpreted as small, ephemeral, temporary camps with only light shelters or the occasional slight remnant of the original camp found, for example at Tarbock, Knowsley. 

The Lunt buildings measure between 4m and 6m across and were probably used and re-used several times. A recently found large Mesolithic building at Howick in Northumberland 2 has a very good radiocarbon sequence suggesting that it was occupied on and off over about 200 years. There is a possibility that the Lunt site was similarly occupied and re-occupied over many generations, although we have to try to establish dates for each of these events yet. As more sites of this type are found the question arises whether hunter-gatherers in some environments lived in more permanent settlements than the evidence has so far suggested. Did some people spend a good part of their lives at Lunt rather than being constantly on the move? However, we need to do more work before we know whether the occupation at Lunt was semi-permanent or was based on short seasonal stays with people repeatedly coming back to the site and using or rebuilding what they found after the previous abandonment. 

However, what is fairly rare, even in the few larger Mesolithic house-sites known in Britain, is that the settlement seems to have been well organised. The buildings make use of small sand ridges and banks as part of the entrances and wall circuits, the latter which were mostly marked by the curving lines of holes left by wooden posts and stakes. Additionally, a feature that might be crucial evidence in showing the extent of the planning and effort in construction of the settlement, but which still has to be fully excavated, is a fairly substantial four metre long sand bank that appears to link the two structures together.  

two primitive style houses with wooden frames covered in straw and earth

Two reconstructions of Mesolithic houses, on the left at Howick, Northumberland (photograph © Sarah Charlesworth) and on the right at Mount Sandel, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland (photograph © David Hawgood)  

Two of the best of the half dozen or so houses known for the Mesolithic period in Britain have been reconstructed and give some impression of how these buildings once looked. The evidence found at Lunt so far makes it seem unlikely that the buildings resembled the tepee-type structure seen in the Howick house. Currently they appear to be closer to the style of the Mount Sandel building in Northern Ireland. The modern wetland setting of this house also gives a fairly good impression of the kind of prehistoric setting for the Lunt settlement. 

We do not know yet when the site was abandoned but, quite topically, it appears to have been flooded by about 7500 years ago and it became too wet to continue living there. After having been at the bottom of a shallow lake for several hundred years the site was then inundated by the sea as the estuary of the River Alt spread almost as far as Sefton village. These deposits have, therefore, sealed the site at depth and have protected it from ploughing and drainage, which is a key factor in making the site so important. 

section through the ground showing different layers of clay

The deposits that formed after the site was abandoned. The marine clay is about 6,000 years old and the freshwater clay formed about 7000 or so years ago.

The people

The two main structures lie close together and we have found another occupation about 20 metres away, so future work will be directed at trying to work out if they could have all been  contemporary or not. It is suspected that we are probably dealing with only a very small population in the region during the Mesolithic, in perhaps the low hundreds, who may have been organised in family-based groups and bands. The settlement evidence from Lunt may give us the opportunity to understand how large some of these hunter-gatherer groups might have been.