Stainton West on the Holocene terrace

The Stainton West site, lying 2km north-west of Carlisle (NGR NY 37594 57137), comprised features and lithic scatters associated with a complex sequence of deposits within a palaeochannel, perched on an early Holocene terrace, above the present floodplain of the River Eden. The site was discovered by Oxford Archaeology North during construction work associated with building a new road and bridge over the Eden. A programme of archaeological analysis is presently ongoing, so only preliminary results are available.

The earliest radiocarbon date from the terrace as a whole, a single assay of 8720–8450 cal BC (9320±40BP; SUERC-33917), is from residual charcoal within the primary fill of the ditch of a probable henge monument, approximately 150m to the north of the aforementioned channel. It is possible that this carbon indicates burning of vegetation or other activity by humans at this early time, although there was no clearly contemporary cultural material in close association with it.

Putative beaver lodgeBeaver-knawed oak trunk showing possible bear claw marks

The deposits filling the channel contained a particularly well-preserved palaeoenvironmental assemblage, including deposits of waterlogged wood, pollen, other plant remains and insects. At various horizons within the channel, from a range of prehistoric periods, lithic, wooden and ceramic cultural material was recovered. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the earliest deposits in the channel formed in, at least, the Later Mesolithic period (the earliest radiocarbon date is presently 5640-5520 cal BC (6655±30 BP; SUERC-32826)). The wood in the earliest part of the sequence had possibly been used by beavers to construct an arrangement of dams and lodges, although some pieces had been burnt and a small lithic assemblage occurred at the same level, suggesting that humans were also present there at this time. Interestingly, the presence of bears is also attested by scratch marks left on the trunk of an oak tree. Sealing these early deposits, and pre-dating a phase of Early Neolithic activity in the channel (radiocarbon dated as commencing c 3800 cal BC), are alluvial deposits associated with wooden debris yielding a dendrochronological sequence spanning 4466-4144 cal BC. Although beaver activity is evidenced by marks on this wood, no clear evidence for human activity has yet been identified in this part of the sequence.

Adjacent to the channel was an extremely rich, largely in situ, assemblage of worked lithic material (c 300,000 pieces), seemingly of Early Mesolithic to Early Bronze Age date, although the vast majority of this material is representative of a Later Mesolithic narrow blade or Early Neolithic technology. Archaeological features associated with this lithic scatter include tree throws, hearths and stakehole structures that probably indicate a contemporary settlement. Dating of these features has proved difficult, as very little organic material survives, but several radiocarbon dates have been obtained that indicate that the majority of the activity probably took place in the range of 5000- 4000 cal BC.

Grid squares at Stainton West
On-site wet sieving of grid squares

As the spatial distribution of the material had the potential to contain valuable information, it was recovered by the whole-earth sampling of each stratigraphic context within the 886 1m² grid squares that the scatter extended over within the site boundaries. The c 270,000 litres of sediment sampled in this manner was wet sieved to 2mm, employing a system imported from the Netherlands, enabling all lithic material to be recovered. Some 200,000 pieces comprise debitage smaller than 10mm, with the remainder, including c 5750 microliths, being suitable for detailed analysis. A wide range of raw material types was represented, suggesting the utilisation of raw material drawn from sources covering a very extensive area that encompasses both Scotland and the north of England. The lithic material, alongside the rest of the project archive, is being recorded onto an online database, so that the results can be made widely available for future study. Preliminary analysis has confirmed the spatial integrity of the assemblage, with in situ reduction sequences being identified, and some zonation becoming apparent within the lithic distribution, with regard to its relative constitution.

Stainton West lithic assemblage

The date, size and good preservation of the Stainton West assemblage, as well as the extended sequence of activity it represents, make it one of the most important early prehistoric sites investigated within the North West to date. It should also be of general interest to researchers of the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods and of the Bronze Age.

A lithic assemblage from one of the grid squares