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Monday, 20 June 2011

Royal Commission films with Ray Mears on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire

Toby Driver filming with Ray Mears inside a prehistoric hut on the southern side of Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire.

The Royal Commission has been getting some insight into prehistoric ways of life and survival on an off-shore island from the expert – Ray Mears. As part of the Skomer Island project, where the Royal Commission is working with partners to map and understand the well-preserved prehistoric houses and fields, we were invited to film with Ray Mears for his new television series Wild Britain, due to be aired on ITV in autumn 2011.

Filming inside one of the best preserved Iron Age huts on the south of the island, which is still accessible to visitors, Ray was fascinated to hear how a combination of aerial photography, airborne laser scanning and detailed ground survey is allowing the Royal Commission to develop a new understanding of the ways that Skomer was settled and farmed in later prehistory.

However, Ray’s international knowledge of the ways that modern tribes and peoples live off the land brought new insight some aspects of Skomer’s prehistory. Ray reminded Toby Driver that Burdock root was a common cultivated vegetable before potatoes came to the British Isles, and an important part of prehistoric diets; it still grows on the island today and may once have formed a staple crop. He also discussed the need for managed woodland on the island in prehistory, which would have provided not only a renewable source of straight poles for building and fencing, but also hazel nuts in the autumn which were a valuable source of prehistoric protein. Current blank areas in the prehistoric fields may show where permanent managed woodland was located.

Ray was particularly taken with some recent finds of stone tools from Skomer, collected from the ground surface during survey work this spring. Properly recorded prehistoric finds from Skomer are lacking, so these rare finds will be carefully studied and catalogued before being placed in a museum. Ray liked a hand-sized rubbing stone, collected from the prehistoric fields on the northern part of the island and doubtless used with a quern stone to grind corn to make flour. He noted that Aboriginal examples of rubbing stones can be passed down many generations as a family tool. He also like a small flint ‘burin’, manufactured from a flint beach pebble, which is a pointed tool held between thumb and forefinger. It was found along with other flints on an eroding headland on the north-west of the island. Some burins may have been used to pierce holes in leather, but Ray thought that this one was just the right shape to cut needles from animal shin bones; the Inuit people of the Arctic still use similar tools today.

A probable prehistoric rubbing stone, perhaps used to grind grain on a quern stone, collected from prehistoric fields on the northern part of Skomer Island during Royal Commission fieldwork in 2011.
Work continues by the Royal Commission during 2011/12 to make a new map of Skomer Island’s prehistoric fields, working from specially-flown airborne laser scanning data or LIDAR from the Environment Agency. Find out more about Skomer Island in prehistory at . ‘Quicksearch’ for Skomer.

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