Time-honoured places: Defining the Neolithic sense of history

7 mins read
This vivid reconstruction by the artist-archaeologist Aaron Watson evokes the atmosphere of a gathering for feasting and exchange, based on the archaeological remains of a double concentric circle of timber posts dating from the 28th century BC at Dunragit, Galloway. (IMAGE: Aaron Watson)
The latest contribution to our understanding of Neolithic lifestyles in the British Isles comes in the form of a wide-ranging book by Keith Ray and Julian Thomas. In it, they demonstrate that many Mesolithic sites of gathering continued to be regarded as special places throughout the Neolithic. This deliberate commemoration of the past gives important insights into the minds of the first farmers. Chris Catling investigates.

Keith Ray and Julian Thomas’ Neolithic Britain begins with a recap of what we have learned since Stuart Piggott published The Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles in 1954. With radiocarbon dating then in its infancy, Piggott imagined a British Neolithic beginning in 2000 BC and lasting just 500 years. Today, by applying Bayesian statistical analysis to securely contextualised carbon dates (see CA 259), we can say with confidence that the Neolithic period began in Britain shortly before 4000 BC and ended around 2400 BC.

‘Began’ and ‘ended’ are misleading words, however: they imply sudden change. Some archaeologists, stemming back to Vere Gordon Childe in the 1930s and his idea of the ‘Neolithic Revolution’, have argued that this change was indeed abrupt and rapid, and that mass migration is the best way to explain the dawn of agriculture in the British Isles. Bayesian analysis, though, tells us that the emergence of new ways of life in Britain – based on agriculture and the accumulation of material objects in place of foraging and travelling light – was not actually very sudden at all. It took a good two centuries, or eight generations, to get going, which is pretty much the same stretch of time that separates today from the day that Queen Victoria was born. When you think about the innovations that have occurred since Victoria’s birth, the 200-year transition from maximum mobility to permanent settlement does not seem quite so rapid.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, with Windmill Hill in the background. The increasing scale of later Neolithic monuments, such as Silbury Hill and the stone phases of Stonehenge, reflect the success of the Neolithic in terms of population growth and perhaps also a more stratified social hierarchy than in the early Neolithic, with an elite able to command the large numbers of labourers required for such massive projects. (PHOTO: Keith Ray)

While there is no doubt that Neolithic practices and materials – which include livestock farming, the cultivation of domesticated crops, making pottery, new forms of stone tools, monumental architecture, and new ways of commemorating the dead – were imported to Britain from the near Continent, views have differed markedly on the degree to which this was an indigenous development, and how much was the result of experienced farmers arriving across the Channel with their livestock and crops and taking control of the land.

Keith and Julian are in the minimalist camp: they see no need to explain the British Neolithic in terms of mass migration. Instead they present a convincing argument for ‘co-creation’, based on interactions between the people of Britain, Ireland, the Calais region, and Armorica (Brittany and Normandy) in the late Mesolithic and the early Neolithic periods. Kin relationships probably stretched well beyond the shores of the British Isles, and these familial networks are likely to have been the vehicle for transmitting Neolithic ideas and practices – including pottery forms and decoration, as well as monument types.

Maerdy Oak, found in waterlogged ground during the construction of a wind farm in the upper Rhondda valley (CA 283), is now on display at the National Museum of Welsh History, in St Fagans,
South Wales. Dating from the late Mesolithic, it is elaborately carved with rippling and zigzag lines, most closely paralleled by contemporary passage-tomb art in Neolithic Brittany, supporting the idea of cultural interchange across the Channel. (IMAGE: Richard Scott Jones (HRS Wales))

British Neolithic society was thus a hybrid, composed of a mixture of indigenes and ‘new’ people (perhaps the latter in quite modest numbers). The newcomers need not all have come from the same parent community in a world where movement and flux were normal features of life. No doubt choosing their words carefully, Julian and Keith describe ‘Continental and British societies progressively interpenetrating’ and adopting Neolithic practices piecemeal over a protracted period, so that there may have been no clear period when ‘pure’ Neolithic societies stood out from ‘the locals’.

Supporting this interpretation is the evidence that many monument complexes of the Neolithic period are built on top of Mesolithic material (mostly in the form of stone-working debris). Places in the landscape that had special significance during the Mesolithic evolved into places that Neolithic people venerated and used for ritual activity because of their ancestral resonance.

This suggests that Neolithic communities inherited their understanding of why these places mattered from their Mesolithic ancestors. Many such places had no physical structure to mark them out until the monuments of the later Neolithic made such a lasting impression on the landscape with impressive works that remain a magnet for heritage tourism to this day. Migrants establishing pioneer communities in a landscape that was new to them could have had no awareness of the past significance of these places. Even if they knew or were told about their location, they would have no compelling reason to memorialise the heritage of a people they had displaced. Cultural continuity, the passing down of landscape-based traditions, beliefs, and practices in an unbroken chain down the generations, is hard to square with abrupt mass migration and sudden population replacement.

Capel Garmon chambered long cairn, Conwy, North Wales. Monuments like this, used as community repositories for human remains, represent continuity because they rarely have a single phase of construction, but go on being used and modified over many generations. (PHOTO: Adam Stanford)

None of this should be surprising: after all, mobility is a defining feature of the Mesolithic, with family groups probably following well-established seasonal routes across considerable distances. The mark left by pre- Neolithic communities as they moved around the landscape is slight and elusive, but where evidence is found, it is highly suggestive. Among recent discoveries is the site beside the River Eden, at Stainton West, near Carlisle in Cumbria, excavated by Oxford Archaeology North in 2008- 2009. This proved to be a substantial encampment, visited seasonally over a period of several hundred years between 5000 and 4000 BC. The site produced more than 300,000 late Mesolithic and early Neolithic lithics made from material brought from distant places, such as flint from East Yorkshire, pitchstone from the Isle of Arran, and chert from the Pennines, as well as more local chert and tuff from the Lake District and Cumbrian coast. The provenances of these raw materials demonstrate social connections and patterns of movement over a considerable area of northern Britain.

Though it appears to be a unitary structure, Wayland’s Smithy chambered tomb in Oxfordshire is a multi-phase structure whose use extends over many decades, with a new monument having been built over and encapsulating an earlier chamber and earthen mound. (PHOTO: Adam Stanford)

In the Neolithic period, Stainton West seems to have evolved from a seasonal settlement site into a ritual site with a henge. This is a pattern that Keith and Julian think is both significant and widespread: the reuse and veneration of ancestral places by later generations who built special structures at these sites to commemorate the past. Their book gives numerous examples, of which two are familiar to most archaeologists: the Stonehenge landscape and the Sweet Track in Somerset.

The Sweet Track was built in 3806 or 3807 BC (see CA 84 and 172), extending for nearly 2km across the reed and sedge marsh from the Polden Hills to what was then an island at Westhay. It was preceded by another slightly earlier track, parts of which were incorporated into the later structure. John and Bryony Coles, who directed the excavation in the early 1970s (CA 344), argued for a prosaic explanation – the track gave access to summer grazing and to a winter hunting station for game and wildfowl. How then does one explain the considerable evidence of ritual deposition – of complete bowls (some of them painted; one of them full of porridge), unused axe-heads, flint arrowheads, and several wooden artefacts, including a miniature axe (possibly a toy)? Arguably, the real reason for such an elaborate structure was to facilitate visits to a place with an honoured past.

A Time Team reconstruction of the southern timber circle at Durrington, discovered during work by the Stonehenge Riverside Project. One interpretation of such timber circles is that they represent
the domestication of the wild forest and its absorption into the social world of humans as more and more land is cleared for agriculture. (IMAGE: Julian Thomas)

The Stonehenge landscape and its many monuments is a classic example of continuity over a very long period and over a considerable area. The earliest features at the site consist of post-pits located about 100m north of the later stone circles. It is likely that they contained large ‘totem-polelike’ posts of pine, possibly carved and painted. Three of the pits were dug sequentially between 8500 and 7000 BC; a fourth and a fifth pit have since been discovered, but less is known about the dates of these. At Blick Mead, Amesbury (see CA 271, 293, 324, and 325), a mile to the east of Stonehenge, stone tools were made and large cattle consumed from the mid-8th millennium to the late-5th millennium BC. Smaller numbers of Mesolithic stone tools have also been identified at five other sites around Stonehenge – enough to demonstrate that Stonehenge was itself constructed in a landscape that had already been a focal point of activity.

Arguably, these and many other examples of the Neolithic reuse of sites that were already significant in the Mesolithic (Hambledon Hill is another prime example – see CA 48) are evidence of collective memory, of people returning to the same sites at intervals over an extended period to renew their marking of the place, whether by the timber posts of the Mesolithic or the more elaborate henges, cairns, barrows, cursus monuments, and causewayed enclosures of the early Neolithic.

Stonehenge from the west in the summer-evening sunlight, the final monument of a complex that began deep in the Mesolithic. (PHOTO: Julian Thomas)

This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 347. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.