Experimental study of mesolithic coastal fishing practices and shellfish procurement in western Scotland
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Coastal shell middens, a prominent feature of the Mesolithic (11,500–6000 cal BP) archaeological record of western Scotland, suggest a maritime economy based on fishing and shellfish. Despite evidence for the importance of fish and shellfish to diet, virtually nothing is known as to the methods of procurement. Initially, work focussed on the palaeoenvironments of Scottish West Coast Mesolithic coastal sites, to establish the resources available to Mesolithic coastal dwellers. A range of archaeological/ethnohistorical fishing gear and food procurement strategies is described, together with views of field archaeologists, bushcraft practitioners and experimental archaeologists. These perspectives together with palaeoenvironmental data were considered when producing fishing gear utilising resources and technologies available during the Mesolithic. Fieldwork and experiments were conducted at the Scottish West Coast Mesolithic coastal sites of Ulva Cave, the Oban area, the island of Oronsay, and Sand, together with South Uist and the Urr estuary on the Solway Firth. The fishing gear manufactured reflects current debates as to fishing strategies, as such, several archaeological ‘models’ were tested. The gear also enabled an attempt at targeting the main fish and crab species found in the middens; Pollachius virens, Labridae, Pollachius pollachius, Carcinus maenas, Liocarcinus depurator and Cancer pagurus. In addition to fishing experiments, ecological surveys and forage exercises established the species present and available to a contemporary coastal forager, providing an indication as to the vigour and abundance of shoreline species. This data was compared to data from the middens, providing an insight into potential collection strategies. Exploratory procurement and manufacture experiments were conducted that tested a variety of materials, including their suitability for use, while bait tests assessed bait desirability. The results suggest that for Mesolithic groups to successfully exploit the coastal environments adjacent to the West coast midden sites, knowledge of tides and species together with simple manufacturing skills would have been sufficient.