By Jim Hindle, Feb 9 2012 08:00AM
The names stretch out archaically, footnotes to vast distances of time; the Huronian, the Cryogenian, the Andean-Saharan, even the Karoo; wordy hieroglyphics that mark out past ice ages in timescales rendered almost abstract by their length. Other - and much later - subdivisions ring out on their own; the Hoxnian, the Cromerian and the Anglian whose ice wall dammed up the waters of the Thames and the Rhine which eventually broke loose and severed the chalk ridge that once connected Dover and Calais.
We have to fast forward a bit to have much hope of making any kind of sense of it all; as may seem particularly obvious this last week we’re in an ice age now – the Quaternary glaciation – but then, technically, we have been for the last two and a half million years; a long run of advances and retreats of ice sheets on 40,000 to 100,000 year time scales in which we’re simply in the latest interglacial. The last real glaciation peaked around 18,000 years ago and was followed, after a relative mild spell, by our last real cold period – the thousand year-long Loch Lomond sub-phase about 10,800 to 10,000 years back.
Not much is known about the hunters who returned to the area of land that came to be the British Isles at the liminal period that saw the end of Loch Lomond but there are pointers here and there; like the tools and animal bones caught in the nets of the trawlers in what is now the North Sea but was once a vast basin where the water we now associate it with was locked up in distant ice. Named Doggerland, this basin was the about the size of England – a vast tundra, home to herds of horses and reindeer; and those that hunted them. This is testified by the barbed point carved from red-deer antler fished up one September day in 1931 off the Norfolk coast by a certain Captain Pilgrim Lockwood. It is testified too by the so called ‘Lyngby axe’ found in Northamptonshire – a piece of antler probably used to work leather, meat or plant matter - with bevels that could have been formed by being slung from a tent or by being rubbed against a harness or a sledge.
A picture emerges with this and other evidence like it – of drive hunts following herds and a highly mobile way of life amid the snow and slowly warming landscape before departing for higher ground and summer quarters – a brief window into another but somehow still similar world, made all the more immediate by weeks of snow and ice like the one that we’ve just had.
Photo: Ian Cairns