(Reconstruction drawing of Hawkcombe Head; © Peter Lorimer)
After the end of the last Ice Age, Exmoor lay at the southern edge of a lowland plain stretching away towards what is now south Wales. To the west that plain ended at Lundy, not an island then, but a remote headland projecting into the Atlantic Ocean. Exmoor itself has only scarce evidence for people at this time (the early Mesolithic), with a handful of flint artefacts and stone ‘maceheads’, whose original purpose was unknown. As the climate warmed and sea levels rose, the familiar shoreline of Exmoor became defined, and by the late Mesolithic period (7000 to 4000 BC) people began to routinely exploit the natural resources of Exmoor for the first time - these were small bands of hunter gatherer groups. The archaeological evidence for this comes in the form of flint knapping sites ranged across Exmoor but with a distinctively coastal distribution, for example around Selworthy Combe and Bossington and on Porlock Beach. Flint does not occur naturally on Exmoor and is therefore a readily identifiable indicator of prehistoric occupation and/or activity. Several of these sites have been known for many years, but recently more have been discovered and archaeological research now focuses on finding still more and on understanding the nature of the occupation at known sites.
The best known Mesolithic site on Exmoor is at Hawkcombe Head, on high moorland near the top of Porlock Hill, a site first discovered in 1947. Since 2001 excavations have been carried out there by Dr Paula Gardiner (formerly University of Bristol) and Exmoor National Park. The excavations have recovered very large quantities of late Mesolithic flint, but more significantly the evidence for hearths, postholes and stakeholes. These features have yielded radiocarbon dates showing that occupation at the site lasted for at least 1,000 years (around 7-8,000 years ago). Originally it was thought that Mesolithic activity was exclusively at the spring heads, but more recently it has been established that the springs were probably a focus for much more extensive occupation in what was probably woodland at the time.
At Larkbarrow, around 2kms away from Hawkcombe Head, Exmoor National Park carried out excavations in 2008 to establish whether there was Mesolithic occupation around the ruins of Larkbarrow Farm. The excavations recovered over 500 pieces of worked flint. Elsewhere across Exmoor, other Mesolithic sites have begun to be identified with confidence. Several have recently been noted on Brendon Common for example.