Archaeologists in Britain Shocked to Find 25 Mesolithic Period Pits
During a pair of separate excavations that took place in Linmere, Bedfordshire in 2019 and 2021, stunned archaeologists unearthed 25 monumental pits that date back far into prehistory. Radiocarbon dating tests performed on the pits’ contents reveal they were dug sometime between 6,500 and 5,700 BC, which puts their origin in the late Mesolithic Period.
At that time the lands of what is now the British Isles were occupied by hunter-gatherers who left behind no written records of their activities or beliefs, or little in the way of physical remains or artifacts. That is what makes this both a totally remarkable and totally unexpected discovery.
“This date makes the site incredibly significant because there are very few Mesolithic sites in the UK that are this substantial,” archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), who were responsible for the 2021 excavations, said in a press release. “Evidence from this period is often slim, only consisting of flint tools and occasional butchered animal remains. This makes it difficult to build up a picture of what life in Mesolithic Britain was like.”
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An archaeologist logging one of the huge pits. (MOLA)
The pits are huge by the standards of any era, but especially for a time when mechanical digging equipment wasn’t available. The largest pits are more than 16 feet (five meters) wide and six feet (1.85 meters) deep. All are round and they all have steep sides, with some flaring outward to form a wider base across the landscape.
The scale of the site at Linmere is unprecedented. Never before have so many monumental pits been found at a single location in England or Wales.
“These kinds of pits have been found in sites across Britain and France, but mostly in sparse numbers,” the MOLA archaeologists stated.
“Even the landscape surrounding Stonehenge, which contains thousands of prehistoric pits, only has five dating to this period [the late Mesolithic].”
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Not only were the pits large, but the fact that there have been 25 found clustered here is remarkable. (MOLA)
Did Archaeologists Uncover an 8,000-Year-Old Sacred Site?
Amazingly, the archaeologists involved in these digs had no idea what they would find. The 2019 excavations were carried out by the private firm Albion Archaeology, while the 2021 digs were handled exclusively by MOLA. These projects were ordered in anticipation of an upcoming housing project in Linmere, and there were no previous indications to indicate that these precautionary digs would unearth anything notable.
When the 25 monumental pits were first found, it was believed they’d been used for practical concerns. The archaeologists speculated that the pits might have been used to store food or trap running animals. In fact animal bones were found in some of the pits, including those that came from aurochs, the wild ancestors of modern-day cattle.
But as the archaeologists examined the pits further and completed their measurements of the site, their perspective changed. They realized the pits had been carefully dug to form a number of straight lines, some of which were more than 1,600 feet (500 meters) long. They also observed that the lines seemed to mimic the tracks of long-dried-up stream channels that would have been filled with flowing water in Mesolithic times. Could this be a clue to the purpose of the pits?
Because of their alignments and nearness to ancient water sources, the archaeologists now believe the pits were somehow incorporated into the religious or spiritual practices of the people who dug them. If the site was sacred, that would certainly explain why they felt it necessary to dig so many pits at that particular location.
Another clue found is that some of the auroch bones show signs of having been cut or burned. This suggests the animals were butchered and their flesh cooked and consumed right on site (perhaps during ritual feasts). The pits are so big that the feasts could have taken place inside of them, or the people may have dumped the remains of the animals that had been eaten into the pits as some sort of sacrifice to ancient gods.
It’s also possible the pits were dug to align with important astronomical phenomena (i.e., with the pathways of meteor showers or comets, or with the seasonal movements of the sun, planets or stars). An obsession with events occurring in the heavens was common in ancient times (see Stonehenge), and perhaps these concerns had their roots in Mesolithic Period beliefs.
As of now the alignments of the pits have only been linked to the stream channels and all other possible connections are speculative. It will require detailed and exhaustive study to determine whether they can be connected to celestial movements as well.
Solving the Mystery of Mesolithic Peoples in Britain
The lives of Mesolithic Period people remains a mystery British archaeologists are anxious to solve.
“During the Mesolithic period, ice sheets covering much of the country retreated and sea levels rose, cutting off Britain from mainland Europe,” the MOLA archaeologists explained. “This was a crucial time of transformation in the UK’s past, and studying a site where people made such a mark on the landscape could have far-reaching impacts on how archaeologists understand these ancient communities.”
The archaeologists will continue to search for more pits in the area, while studying the evidence from those that have already been unearthed. Among other things, they will be analyzing environmental samples to try to determine what kind of plant life existed in the region of modern-day Bedfordshire in Mesolithic times. They will also be performing further radiocarbon dating tests on animal bones found in the pits, to see if they were all dug at the same time.
“This work will reveal the environment these people lived in, and hopefully answer the question ‘what were these pits for?’” the MOLA archaeologists wrote in their press release, echoing the hopes of an archaeological community determined to uncover the secrets of Britain’s enigmatic prehistoric inhabitants.
Top image: Illustration of Mesolithic people digging a pit. Source: MOLA
By Nathan Falde