As with our earlier posts on the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, we are going to break down the Neolithic in Britain to more manageable parts. We will be looking at the key characteristics of the Neolithic and what distinguishes this period from what came before. To this end we’ll consider aspects such as subsistence and material culture as well as more tricky ones such as ‘ritual’.
When was the Neolithic?
In terms of chronology most archaeologists who are interested in this period agree that the Neolithic in Britain begins in the decades around the turn of the fourth millennium bc (4,000 BC), and lasts until the middle centuries of the second millennium bc (c2,500 BC). The dates are a little imprecise as despite advances in dating technology, the Neolithic appears and ends at different dates depending on where you are in Britain.
What defines the Neolithic?
For many years, archaeologists viewed the Neolithic as a ‘revolution’ in the way people lived and that it appeared to happen at the same time. However, with the advent of of more accurate dating methods such as radiocarbon dating, the ‘arrival’ of many features of the Neolithic now seem to have very different dates for their appearance in the archaeological record. Certainly, the range of evidence which archaeologists use to classify the period in the form of material culture (e.g. the first pottery) and domesticates (plants and animals used in agriculture) are notable as they are the first time they are found in Britain. We’ll begin with perhaps the most dramatic and certainly the most visible signs today – the beginnings of monumental architecture. The Neolithic saw the first appearance of what we today call ‘monuments’ although the untrained eye might miss some of them in the landscape.
There are around 600 of these monuments in Britain and these are a very early example of what are more commonly known as ‘burial mounds’ although that term very often encompasses those of the Bronze Age and later. The earliest of them have been dated to very close to 4,000 BC and the tradition is a long-lasting one with some being constructed as late a 2,400 BC. It appears that many began life as a rectangular wooden structure, perhaps banked with earth, in which mortuary rituals took place. What we see today is the result of the redevelopment of the simple wooden structure into one characterised by oversized earthen one, and very frequently it has come to include chambers constructed out of megaliths, or giant stones. The largest of these long barrows is 120m long and can be found near Tilshead in Wiltshire.
There are comparatively few of these monuments that we know of, with less than 70 having been recorded, and most of these are in southern Britain. They have been defined simply as “a roughly circular or oval area surrounded by one or more discontinuous circuits of bank and ditch.” (Oswald et al 2001: 1). Their appearance in plan is a little like links of sausage! What they were used for still remains very much a mystery which archaeologists still debate, but despite this they are considered important as they are the first non-funerary monument and the first examples of the creation of an artificial space encountered in Britain. The earliest dated examples appear around 3,700 BC, some years after the first burial mounds and they seem to have been continue to be constructed and used until around 3,300 BC.
What archaeologists are trying to do is to understand these monuments within the significant social, economic and material changes that were occurring in the early centuries of the Neolithic. In the first half of the 20th century they were known as causewayed camps – site where people in the distant past lived for short times, probably on a seasonal basis. However, it became clearer as more were discovered that this was probably not the case, as there has been almost no evidence of settlement usage in the form of domestic refuse etc found in these sites. There have been occasional hints of houses in the form of post holes or pits for example, but many seems to date to later periods. its has also been suggested they may have been used for funerary rituals as there have bee instances of human bone and skeletal remains found, but again it is a confusing picture, open to much debate – this happens a lot in archaeology! There are signs in some such as Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire and Hambledon Hill in Dorset show that fierce fighting took place, but again only a few causewayed enclosures in the southwest of Britain show this. Does this mean the region was prone to such fighting in the early neolithic? We don’t know for sure.
The interpretation which has most favour currently, is that they were sites of season gathering, probably in the autumn as evidenced by finds of seeds, fruit and animal bones. It may be that these were gatherings which took place on the edge of territories, a neutral meeting place for communities dispersed across the land. As such they represent the first example we have detected of the social life of our ancestors.
Oswald, A., Dyer, C. & Barber, M. (2001). The Creation of Monuments: Neolithic Causewayed Enclosures in the British Isles. London, English Heritage. ISBN 978-1873592427