Hazelnut Shell Sheds Light on Life in Scotland More Than 10,000 Years Ago

Amateur archaeologists discovered the shell, along with evidence from an Iron Age structure, in 2019

Can You Dig It volunteers took part in excavation work at Little Wood Hill in 2019. Courtesy of Galloway Glens / National Trust for Scotland

Nearly two years ago, amateur archaeologists digging beneath a country estate in Scotland’s Dumfries and Galloway region found a petite artifact from the past: the burnt shell of a hazelnut. Now, reports Gregor Young for the National, radiocarbon testing has dated the shell to sometime between 8547 and 8312 B.C., making it among the earliest known evidence of humans’ return to the area after Ice Age glaciers receded.

Can You Dig It, a community archaeology program that connects amateurs with archaeological work in the Galloway Glens area, brought a group of volunteers to the National Trust for Scotland’s Threave Estate, where they unearthed a number of artifacts from different historical periods, including the hazelnut shell, in the summer of 2019.

“Over the years we have gradually built up an understanding of past human activity at Threave throughout prehistory and history,” say Derek Alexander, head archaeologist at the National Trust, in a statement. “This radiocarbon date for Mesolithic activity is really exciting, as it is the first evidence we have from this time and is the earliest date recovered at Threave so far.”

Per the Scotsman’s Alison Campsie, signs of human life in what’s now Scotland date back to about 12,000 B.C. But scientists think that humans abandoned the region during the “Loch Lomond Stadial” (10,900 to 9700 B.C.), when glaciers regrew and temperatures became extremely cold. According to Alexander, the people who burned the nutshell may have been among the first to repopulate the country.

Claire Williamson of Rathmell Archaeology working with volunteers at Threave in 2019 Courtesy of National Trust for Scotland

Archaeologists recognize hazelnuts as a common food for people in the region during the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, period. Roughly 5,000-year-old shells discovered in Wales, for example, have provided evidence linking the region to the mining stones used to build Stonehenge.

The people who left the shell would have been nomadic, traveling the region in search of food and water sources.

“Even as a non-archaeologist, the importance of these finds is clear to me,” says Helen Keron, who manages the Can You Dig It program, in the statement. “They show the unbroken line from our modern society right back to the very beginnings of human residence in Galloway. Even the tiniest traces give us an insight into how life was for our ancestors.”

The volunteers also found new evidence regarding the site’s Iron Age past, reports the Scotsman. The archaeological site on the estate, known as Little Wood Hill, boasts a D-shaped enclosure atop a hill that was first discovered in the 1940s. Excavations in 2014 showed that people used the location during the Iron Age, and new evidence discovered by the volunteers places its construction sometime between 41 B.C. and 125 A.D. The researchers say the enclosure may have held a small farmstead or a place for livestock, or perhaps represented a defensive fortification.

The Can You Dig It team discovered more recent artifacts, too, including flints dated to the Early Bronze Age and a lead shot dated to between the 16th and 18th centuries. The Threave House itself dates to 1871, and the site is also home to Threave’s School of Heritage Gardening, which has trained horticulturalists since 1960.

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