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North-east archaeological group wins national award after bringing the past to life in Deeside

Can you dig it: Deeside Mesolithic have gained national recognition.
Can you dig it: Deeside Mesolithic have gained national recognition.

There are no whips or sable fedora hats among the men, women and children who search for ancient artefacts across Aberdeenshire.

But, even in lockdown, the members of Mesolithic Deeside have shown a devotion to their craft, of which Indiana Jones would be proud, and have been highly commended in the 2021 Marsh Awards, organised by the Council for British Archaeology (CBA).

The organisation comprises volunteers, students and professional archaeologists who are researching the people who have lived and died on the Dee for thousands of years.

The mesolithic period or Middle Stone age, is a term describing specific cultures that developed between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods.

While the start and end dates vary by geographical region, it dates approximately from 10,000BC to 8,000BC.

A new channel has gained a global audience

On the ground in Aberdeenshire, those involved engage in fieldwalks collecting flints, sometimes in groups of as many as 30.  Everyone is trained to recognise what stones are important and experienced participants are paired with beginners.

Every flint goes into a separate bag with the location recorded with hand-held GPS which allows all the finds to be mapped and curated. The organisation then liaises with archaeologists including Caroline Wickham-Jones, a Mesolithic specialist and the person who nominated the group for the Marsh Award.

This year, the CBA celebrated groups who were limited due to Covid-19, but showed innovation in devising new ways of bringing the past to life.

Mesolithic Deeside carried on their research and went online, creating a Lockdown channel on YouTube which has already attracted thousands of views.

Roslyn Hay is among the volunteers who work with Deeside Mesolithic.

It has been backed by academia and the private sector

The group also works with professional archaeologists and soil scientists at the universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews and Stirling to look at the bigger picture – examining what the river was like as far back as 15,000 years ago and investigating how people used it in bygone times, long before the Pyramids were built.

The project has been funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund, Aberdeenshire Council (including Kincardine & Mearns and Marr Area committees) and has benefited from small grants from Scotmid, Bread of Life in Torphins and Aboyne Highland Games.

It has also been boosted by a grant from Aberdeenshire Council’s archaeology service to pay for recruiting a professional lithics report from Ann Clarke, who has carried out face-to-face training with members.

The group has raised awareness across the world

Ms Wickham-Jones said she was very impressed by the commitment and dedication of the north-east collective.

She added: “The work of Mesolithic Deeside has made a real contribution to our understanding of the prehistoric communities who lived along the river area.

“Fieldwalking is fun, but it was obviously impacted by lockdown and yet they have worked hard to keep group members enthused.

“The YouTube channel has spread awareness of the group and their interests around the world. This award is richly deserved, and I am pleased to see them getting due recognition for all their enthusiasm and hard work.”

June Armstrong is among the members of Mesolithic Deeside.

Members have thrived despite the pandemic

Bruce Mann, a regional archaeologist for Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Angus and Moray, has watched as the group has added new members and acquired new skills.

He said: “The volunteers of Mesolithic Deeside have contributed so much to our understanding of early prehistory in this part of the world through their fieldwalking.

“Now, they have continued to thrive as a project despite the challenges of the pandemic, with their online work reaching audiences around the world.

“The award will hopefully help inspire others elsewhere across the country.”

Deeside Mesolithic has members of all ages and backgrounds.

‘Footerin’ in flat fields is my ideal pastime’

Sheila Duthie, co-secretary of the group, was also its founder member and she has been wandering the fields of Deeside for at least two decades.

She said: “When I started finding flints over 20 years ago, I could never have imagined contributing to such a massive project which is without doubt broadening our understanding of prehistoric human activity on Deeside – it’s a blast.

“My ideal pastime is footerin’ in flat fields with fine folk finding flints”.

Robert Brown is an enthusiastic member of Mesolithic Deeside.

Volunteer Roslyn Hay started fieldwalking with Mesolithic Deeside in 2018 and is now totally hooked on the group’s activities.

She said: “I’ve learned so much and made so many new friends, with the added benefit of plenty of exercise and fresh air.

“We walk, we talk and find wonderful things. Then there are the digs, the workshops and even making videos for our YouTube channel.

Mesolithic Deeside includes members of all ages.

“I love the thrill of finding something that has been hidden in the soil, knowing you are the first person to hold it since it was dropped thousands of years ago.

“You feel a connection with that person back in prehistory. My most memorable find was a large blade. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it.

“Finds from this period, which predates the Mesolithic, are rare in Scotland, so this was a very exciting discovery for the group.”

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