Chapter 25 – A Mesolithic Hotspot

They took the downward hollow way at the junction, which led them to a modern, stony track. It was with some relief that they stepped from that onto the smooth asphalt surface of a narrow road. A little way along the narrow winding road, the teasing mist lifted for a few seconds to reveal a gravel parking area beside the road. There were only two remaining cars from several that they had seen earlier from the moor. They walked across the car park to inspect the beck that ran cheerfully along the other edge of the stony area.
‘Guess what archaeologists found when they laid down this car park?’ George asked.
‘I don’t think I know of this,’ Grace complained.
‘A Neolithic shopping centre?’ Rhan responded, laughing.
‘An Iron Age chariot park?’ Grace joined in.
‘No and no,’ George replied, also laughing. ‘Nothing from the Iron Age except perhaps a few bumps that may have been a Celtic mill right against the beck just over there. We know of tumuli and Bronze Age hut circles on nearly every mound that climbs clear of the bog and the stream, but the archaeologists only looked under the car park. Their trial pits found rakes of Mesolithic stuff.’
‘Who were they again?’ Rhan asked, starting to feel overwhelmed again.
‘The Mesolithic were Stone Age before the Neolithic Stone Age,’ George explained, and Rhan noticed that Grace was for once listening keenly to her brother. ‘The Mesolithic were hunter-gatherers who had no fixed homes, but they were clearly pretty rooted here, especially on the side of the beck. The only other people who were interested in this area were the early industrialists who just flooded the area with that dam we saw earlier to feed the waterwheels. The archaeologists reckon the area is littered with thousands of worked flints, or microliths – some were formed into knives and arrowheads. One of our neighbours in the village used to say the whole moor is also strewn with flints. We’ve not found any, but I can show you one we were given. This valley was clearly a popular place for them. They could’ve been here longer than all the subsequent periods of mankind since then, so no wonder they dropped so many tools.’
‘So come on you two,’ Rhan teased. ‘You have shown me Bronze Age and Neolithic houses. Don’t tell me you haven’t found a Messy…a cosy Mesolithic settlement where I could grab a coffee?’
Grace smirked but said nothing.
‘Well…’ George was clearly thinking on his feet and trying to remember. ‘The trial pits found lots of placed stones, usually inclined rather than flat. They didn’t say they were houses, but now I think about it, I bet they could’ve been elements of dwellings. Reconstructions from Ireland show wigwams made of sticks.’
‘So no “show houses” from the Mesolithic?’ Rhan joked.
‘Not sure,’ he smiled in reply, but furrowed his brow. ‘Their houses looked similar to the Bronze Age hut circles, but were less substantial with weedier rafters. I wonder if some of our circles just over there could’ve been Mesolithic rather than Bronze Age.’ He paused to consider this, before continuing.
‘There are also loads of small standing boulders in and around this valley, which we always assumed were Neolithic, as they seemed earlier than the Bronze Age-shaped works.’ He pointed at some mounds raised above the bog beside the road where occasional stones stood proud of the bare grassy hillock in a forbidding manner, framed against a misty backdrop. ‘But as they’re not the Neolithic’s two-metre best efforts, they could be older. Who knows? Shall we go?’
‘It feels even more desolate here than up on the moor!’ Grace declared once they were walking back down towards the village. ‘This is a real honey trap – and might have been a few thousand years ago, as well. Kids used to come from all over in the summer to play in the stream, try to catch minnows, build dams and climb the rock slopes and quarries. We used to love it and Dad claims he used to cycle up here most days when he was a kid. Nowadays you don’t see so many children up here.’
‘Computer games?’ Rhan asked.
George laughed, but his sister continued.
‘Maybe, but the biggest downer must be the parking tickets that hit families the most. The authorities only allow parking in the car parks, which take a fraction of the demand. They’re empty today, but in good weather places are grabbed early by walkers and cyclists. Unsuspecting latecomers tend to park on the road verges and then get slapped with a parking ticket. No one expects fines without double white lines!’
‘You have to feel sorry for the poor bastards,’ George said, endorsing his sister. ‘They get the message that they’re not welcome in the countryside.’
‘Careful you two!’ Rhan warned. ‘You are talking to someone who was largely restricted to playing in a back yard in Sunderland. We made the most of it with obstacle courses, and I used to love the monkey bars or the “spikes of doom”, as we called them. If you touched the ground under the monkey bars,’ she explained to Grace, ‘we pretended you were impaled on spikes like on that Prince of Persia video game. It was a real treat to visit somewhere as exciting as this. But being fined would certainly have killed the fun and cut further trips, I suppose.’
They returned down the road through the tunnel of fog at a sharper pace to keep warm.
‘Tell you what Rhan,’ George confided as he linked her arm. ‘I learnt a lot today showing you round.’
‘What! How come?’ Rhan felt puzzled and suspicious.
‘It gave me perspective. Until we started to talk about the earlier hunter-gather civilisation, I had never put the archaeological report I’d read several years ago in context with what we’ve found in the last year or so.’
‘Yeah,’ his younger sister called over her shoulder as she walked along the empty road ahead of them. ‘We started looking for the Bronze Age double wall. And that led us to the earlier Neolithic stone village and more water channels, more tumuli…ploughing, cist, whatever. It sort of made sense. But I didn’t know about that earlier hunter stuff George was telling you about.’
‘That’s what I was trying to say,’ George agreed. ‘If you add the even earlier few thousand years, then we have a complete picture that sort of fits together.’
‘Quite a representation,’ Rhan suggested in a mocking tone. ‘If your theories are correct, you have a complete record of prehistory and its associated climate, right here in this valley and hillside. The question is, are you two geniuses or just over-imaginative kids?’
‘Probably both,’ George admitted. ‘We have the pluck to be imaginative but without scraping around we don’t have the evidence from findings. They looked for stuff before building the car parks, but then just buried the evidence. It’s not like it’s exciting Roman or medieval remains.’
‘Following your theories though,’ Rhan mused, ‘there were hunter-gathers here, living in simple wooden tents. Then a village or town that had fixed stone bases for large rectangular house walls, yards and streets between the houses. So the Neolithic really invested in their future to justify quarrying the stone and constructing a system for running water. It’s just like now.’
‘Not quite!’ Grace responded smugly. ‘There’s a big difference between running water and hot running water.’
Rhan ignored the interruption as she tried to concentrate. ‘Then there was something dreadful – plague and war you say, with genocide? But the new people stepped backwards and were happy to live in simple huts again with no facilities at all, whether hot or cold, apart from bronze knives. So how come no one is interested?’
‘I suppose it’s just too long ago,’ George suggested. ‘People can’t or don’t want to relate to prehistory.’
‘That makes no sense.’ Rhan pulled her arm away in annoyance. ‘We are rapidly heading into a major extinction, so we should know how things used to be, and may be again, before rather than after we hit the destruct button. We spend money and carbon exploring the solar system looking for a Planet B, but don’t explore the ground beneath our feet.
‘George!’ Rhan’s step faltered and Grace glanced round. ‘You did mention your interest in ancient history and the Neolithic after all. I just remembered. It was in our first term in Danny and Tom’s room when Chris was talking about the collapse of civilisations and Bede from Northumberland.’
‘Oh yeah, but I can’t remember exactly what I said,’ he replied. ‘The point is I agree with you. The anthropology needs…’
‘The study of mankind!’ Rhan interpreted for Grace who had looked round, puzzled.
‘Yeah,’ George continued. ‘So if ever the history of civilisation is useful it would be now when everything is going to change. The history of development would be so much more relevant than the dates and doings of kings and queens and the big battles that history teaches. The Mesolithic lasted several thousand years, longer than the rest of our time combined. But for us, it’s only in the last few years, and even in our lifetime, that we’ve been really determined to ruin our civilisation.’
Grace had put on headphones and was walking ahead in her own world. After a few minutes of walking in silence, Rhan asked the question that was on her mind.
‘George, how can you be both apathetic and pessimistic? You are so much more sceptical about the climate than anything else. How come?’
‘I suppose it’s because there’s no way forward. So few people believe that we even have a problem. It’s only nutters like my father who say anything. You know that everybody else just pretends there’s nothing to worry about. If they do know then they pretend we’re already doing something.’
‘Well I have to agree,’ said Rhan thoughtfully. ‘But your approach is so different from someone like David’s, say. Why don’t you think it’s worth my while getting involved?’
There was a pause again while they marched past a noisy stream gushing down the hillside through the coarse grass above them. It splashed into a culvert beneath the road, and Rhan could hear it issue on the far side to continue its exuberant cascade down the hillside into the valley below.
‘I’ll tell you my first example,’ George began. ‘At school in the sixth form, we entered a national competition – I think it was called “Solutions to the Planet” or something like that. We had to invent something or investigate something that would help. Our team constructed a tubular screw that was similar to one we’d seen in a science museum, one that pumped water. A bit like an Archimedes screw, but had three parallel sets of plastic pipe in a wooden frame fixed around old bike wheels at each end. Water from a stream entered at one end, and went down the screw which then rotated, driving a small generator taken from a computer printer. It stood clear of the stream, and was held by the bike wheel hubs.
‘We made videos of us in the construction process, with it turning with water taken from that mill down there. One of us put together a cool PowerPoint showing how it could be used on about twenty or so streams around here. It cost less than thirty quid to build. We even had an REM soundtrack to the last video at the end of the presentation.’
He started to sing to Rhan, which came as light relief to her after his previous descriptions.
‘It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.’
He continued his story. ‘So our team did really well and we got to the finals, which was in the House of Commons at Westminster. It was brilliant. We got a guided tour of the palace. We met MPs and former Ministers. We had to present in the Grand Committee room with four or five other teams. The judging panel was made up of two older men – London university professors from the Royal Academy, and a young female engineer.’
Rhan glanced at George, impressed. ‘God, that must have been frightening!’
‘It was great! Being down in London on a school day with three mates was good fun. Anyway, we soon realised there wasn’t much competition from the other schools. Their efforts, concepts and presentations were rubbish. But then we got a surprise and realised things were not going to go well.
‘One younger group of kids were proposing to write a children’s book about a group of penguins and how the penguins’ lives were changed by the global warming. It was then that the two professors each stood up and told the school team that there was no justification or proof for suggesting that climate change was real. Can you imagine that? The whole competition was meant to be about climate change, or so we’d thought. It was a vicious attack. We felt really sorry for the poor kids.’
‘You’re joking!’ Rhan muttered. ‘Did no one say anything?’
‘No. The MPs, who’d spoken all about climate change at the introductions, had left and only returned for the award, so probably were left unaware of the direction of the competition. The organisers said nothing. We decided to try to avoid mentioning climate in our talk and to pass quickly over slides that covered it, but our project set out to save carbon, so we had no chance.
‘The winning team came from a Catholic girls’ school. They proposed creating charity boxes for mums and babies suffering poverty in the developing world. There was already a similar scheme up and running, so the girls just decided which items to put in or leave out of their boxes – stuff to increase the chances of their babies surviving the first few weeks – I can’t remember much.
‘We should’ve won just with our multimedia presentation, never mind all the work we’d put in to developing our idea. It could have been a great new low-tech power source, but anything to do with stopping climate change faces massive opposition. You know it Rhan.’
‘So was there no feedback or anything?’ she asked, ignoring his accusation.
‘Well, while having tea afterwards, Don from our team started seeing someone from the girl’s team, and that seemed the most important achievement. We didn’t mind, but the female engineering judge came up and apologised. She said she didn’t understand how we didn’t win.’
The conversation stalled.
‘So,’ Rhan suggested after a while. ‘If your invention had won, would all the farmers now be making money day and night from the little streams running through their land?’
‘Maybe.’ George laughed and sang, ‘and I feel fine…’
Rhan laughed uneasily.

The sight of houses at the roadside materialising from the fog and their return to civilisation, was as welcome to them as their escape had been on the outward trip earlier that morning.
Grace and George threw off their boots and vanished into the house, mumbling something about a treat for the dog and coffee. Rhan listened to tapping sounds from the mist, which she decided must be a woodpecker, as well as the mournful cry of a bird that she had learnt was a curlew.
She was struggling to pull off her boots at the back door when she almost felt the air around her lighten and change. Looking up she saw the jaded reappearance of the sun, piercing the thinning fog. Wisps of mist were evaporating from the field in front of her, steadily revealing surrounding hills, already basking in the warm sunlight. The curlew glided almost overhead along the edge of the fog – a relatively large brown bird with its wings curved and angled backwards, its long beak bent downward – still calling out a melancholy ‘welcome back to the sunny side’.
Rhan gratefully peeled off the scarf and coat that George had wrapped around her. The bright surroundings started to weaken memories of the shadowy morning, leaving Rhan wondering how much of the ghostly remains from long-forgotten civilisations had been real.