6,000-year-old tools made of deer antler found in Highlands

Archaeologists have hailed an internationally significant discovery in the Highlands after a number of tools made from red deer antler - which are believed to be around 6,000-years-old - were found.

Two large axes and a harpoon were found on a raised beach at Tarradale on the Black Isle, the site of a late Mesolithic settlement overlooking the Beauly Firth.

It is believed the tools may have been used by the hunter gatherers to kill and prepare seals and whale, strip bark or dig up roots with the items left behind when the site was abandoned, possibly due to rising water levels.

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The piece of harpoon that may have been used to kill seals and dolphins in the Beauly Firth around 4,000 BC.

The discovery is one of only three of four similar finds made in Scotland, with some of the earlier items now lost.

The Tarradale tools are the first to be found in the north of Scotland with previous finds made around Stirling and on the west coast.


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The finds have been made as part of the Tarradale Through Time project, a major three-year archaeology programme run with The North of Scotland Archaeology Society to examine the Black Isle through the ages.

The axe made from red deer antler which is thought to be around 6,000 years old. PIC: Tarradale Though Time.

Dr Eric Grant, chairman and project director of Tarradale Through Time, said the discoveries “extended the map” of Mesolithic life in Scotland.

He added: “These finds have local impact, are of national importance to Scotland and have international significance. They add to our understanding of Mesolithic people and the period.

“Archaeology is 99 per cent hard work but when you find items like this, it creates a buzz. I think the diggers, the three different people who found these three different objects will be telling their story forever.”

The tools, which have now been conserved by AOC Archaeology after funding was given by Historic Environment Scotland, were found on a narrow strip of land that had been untouched by ploughing or modern agricultural equipment.


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Archaeologists at work at the raised beach overlooking the Beauly Firth where the objects were found. PIC: Tarradale Through Time.

As a result, some highly significant archaeological remains have survived to the present day, Dr Grant said.

The two red deer antler axes discovered at Tarradale both contain a hole which would have been made to fit a wooden shaft.

Dr Grant added: “Antler is very hard but also resilient and makes a surprisingly effective axe.

“We are not sure what the axes were used for but they were certainly capable of chopping up large pieces of meat from whales, seals and deer or skinning bark of trees and digging up roots.”

He said the antler harpoon may originally have had a line attached to throw at wildfowl or seals sitting on the mud flats of the Beauly estuary.


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Such tools are generally not found in England but similar artefacts have been found in Denmark and other parts of Europe.

The tools have not been dated given analysis would damage part of the artefact but radiocarbon tests on organic material found at the same site were able to place the tools in time.

A piece of elm charcoal gave a date between 4231 and 3996BC while a piece of charcoal from a wild apple or related tree gave a date of 3981 to 3805BC.

Cow bones dating from around the same time gave similar results, indicating that the site overlapped the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic periods when domestic farming came into play.

Dr Grant said it was hoped to return to the site for further excavation work.

He added: “These people were rather more sophisticated than people think. We no longer think of them as primitive people. They are very adapted to their environment at a time when the land was still covered in trees. There would have been very few other people but a lot of wild animals. It is very easy to underestimate these people but not many of us would be able to survive like they did.”


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Dr Grant said it was hoped to do further excavation work at the site with discussions ongoing on where the tools will be exhibited in the future.