Early Mesolithic (c 11,000-6800 BC)
The earlier Mesolithic is characterised by broad-blade microlith technologies, using small pieces of flint held in wooden or bone handles, dominated by point and isosceles triangle forms. These types are not found in western Cheshire, although some finds from the Frodsham area perhaps belong to this period. There is some material from the northern end of the Wirral Peninsula, around Hoylake and West Kirby.
Local evidence for the earlier Mesolithic is lacking, although some of the material from the rock shelters at Carden Park may prove to belong to this period.
Environment and economy
The same limitations that were noted for the Upper Palaeolithic also hold true for the immediately post-glacial period. The development of birch and pine woodland after the end of the Devensian glaciation was rapid. By the end of this period, hazel had also established itself as a woodland tree. Soils began to develop and mature beneath the tree cover, which also supported a variety of animal species, including wild cattle, roe deer, red deer and wild pig.
At Walker’s Heath, Gawsworth, there is an early Mesolithic reduction in birch pollen, accompanied by grass and herb maxima. The appearance of carbonised wood at the same time has been taken as evidence for human agency in the reduction of woodland cover as early as the ninth millennium BC. This is much earlier than has generally been reported for such human intervention in the environment. However, it fits a pattern now being reported widely throughout northwest England.
Later Mesolithic c 6800-4300 BC)
The later Mesolithic saw the introduction of new narrow-blade tradition microlith types displaying a variety of geometric forms. These types are widely found throughout the District. They belong to the earliest phase of clearly recognisable settlement in the region. It is generally believed that the previously nomadic hunter-gatherer groups were now more settled, spending much of the year in a riverine or coastal base camp, with upland sites occupied by hunting parties only temporarily during the summer months.
There are flint scatters of this date from the Dee Valley, the Tarvin area and rock-shelter sites in west-facing rock outcrops at Carden. The discovery of these lowland sites adds important detail to the older picture that was dominated by mainly upland settlement in the east of the county. These upland sites were probably seasonal camps. River valley sites and others on low hills with sandy soils have been identified, both of which may represent base camps occupied for much, if not all, of the year. The ongoing major research project at Carden should provide important new information about this early period.
To the northeast of Carden, later Mesolithic flint scatters have been located around Kelsall, Ashton, Tarvin and Duddon. There are also records of flints from Hockenhull, Aldford, Churton-by-Farndon, a poolside site at Bache and from Poulton. None of these sites is likely to yield evidence for structures, nor have the flints yet been analysed to characterise the type of sites they represent.
It is possible that hunter-gatherer communities also favoured the northern parts of the District: at this period they were probably open and lightly wooded areas. Low sandbank locations on the edge of the Mersey estuary such as those around Hapsford, Elton and Thornton-le-Moors are potential settlement sites for early hunter communities. The 'island' at Plemstall is another location of high potential, set in the marshes of the Gowy estuary.
The identification of stone tool forms in the region is hampered by a lack of comparative data. Few collections have been published, and a review of the evidence from North Wales, Merseyside, Shropshire and western Staffordshire would greatly add to our knowledge. Nevertheless, a tentative model of later Mesolithic settlement patterns may be suggested. Sites such as the Bache Pool offered good year-round resources such as aquatic fauna, whilst the vegetation on the higher ground nearby would have provided other sources of food. In the early part of the period, the Mersey still flowed through the Deva Spillway, and this, together with the Dee Estuary, would have been a further source of food.
At most locations in the District, though, it is more likely that occupation was seasonal. Locations in the north of the District were well placed to exploit the developing mudflats of the Mersey and the marshes of the Gowy, rich in waterfowl, as well as the higher ground of the mid Cheshire Ridge. In addition, the poorly drained clay lands of the west Cheshire Plain and the Dee Valley could have been exploited from settlements located on nearby low hills with sandy soils, such as Tarvin.
Environment and economy
The environment of the later Mesolithic is characterised by the development and maturation of the mixed oak wildwood. Rising sea levels also meant that by about 7000 BC, Britain had become an island, cut off from continental Europe.
Local economic evidence is sparse. The excavations at Carden Park have produced only meagre scraps of animal bone and the sandy soil is not conducive to the preservation of plant remains. Comparison with other areas in northern England suggests that red deer were the most important food animal. The gap at Beeston would have allowed the seasonal migrations of game animals, and their exploitation was probably an important part of the economy. Plant remains are equally difficult to identify. Hazelnuts are characteristic of the later Mesolithic and the prominence of hazel in pollen diagrams has been taken to indicate the deliberate cultivation of these trees for their nuts.
Perhaps the most significant palaeoenvironmental evidence from the region concerns the discovery of cereal pollen at Bidston Moss on Wirral and Sefton park in Liverpool in peat deposits dated 4900-4500 BC. This shows that the local Mesolithic population was experimenting with crop raising over five centuries before the adoption of a true farming economy. This fits evidence from Northern Ireland for similarly early experimentation and suggests that the Irish Sea was becoming established as an important international trade route.