Farming spread across Europe from the eastern Mediterranean (wild varieties of wheat and barley, sheep and goats are native to the Near East), and arrived in Britain around 4500 BC, ushering in the Neolithic (New Stone) Age. The farming skills, and associated way of life, brought to Britain by immigrants from mainland Europe, would have been gradually adopted, and adapted, by the indigenous population – it now seems clear that there was no rapid ‘Neolithic revolution’, as was once thought. Bone analysis indicates that, during the whole Neolithic period, people’s diet contained little food which was not of animal origin. This suggests that farming in Britain was more concerned with animal husbandry (sheep, cattle, goats, pigs – dogs would probably have been used to assist with the herding) than the growing of crops. Cereals were grown, of course (the land would have been worked with spades, hoes, and, perhaps, rudimentary ploughs), but there is speculation that the grain was, mostly, used for ritual purposes, and possibly, eventually (3rd millennium BC), brewing.
Woodland had to be cleared to create arable and grazing land – requiring the use of axes. The characteristic tool of the Neolithic Age is the polished axe. The axe-head would be roughed out from a suitable piece of stone or flint, and then, laboriously, ground and polished to produce the final shape and an effective cutting edge. It would be attached to a wooden haft for use. Axe-heads manufactured from stone quarried at certain sites, often called ‘axe factories’ (such as at Great Langdale, in the Lake District), seem to have been particularly valued, and had a wide distribution. There are a few sites (such as Grimes Graves in Norfolk) where flint was mined. It has been suggested that these flint mines had more of a ritual than a utilitarian significance. Implements made from mined flint (as distinct from surface flint) are often found in an unused condition, which might indicate they had a ceremonial function. It is certainly clear that not all axe-heads were produced simply for use as tools. They appear to have been prized on an aesthetic level – appreciated for the beauty of the polished rock. As such, they are found in circumstances which indicate they have been purposely deposited as an offering. For instance, a polished jadeite axe-head, imported from the Italian Alps, was found alongside the Sweet Track – a raised plank walkway which traversed a reed swamp in the Somerset Levels (it is named after Ray Sweet, the peat cutter who discovered it in 1970). The Sweet Track was built in 3807/3806 BC (the precise date is thanks to dendrochronology), and it superceded an earlier track, the Post Track, which had been built in 3838 BC.
As well as farming skills, pottery making know-how also arrived in Britain. Early in the Neolithic the, round-bottomed, pots – fashioned from coils, or flattened pieces, of clay – tend to be plain, and geographically homogenous. From about 3800 BC, however, regional, decorated, styles appear. About 2800 BC, so called, ‘Grooved ware’ – flat-bottomed, bucket-shaped, pots named after their decorative style – began to be produced. It seems possible that this style developed in Orkney, and spread down through Britain from there.
Finds of large numbers of, bone and antler, pins (ideal for fastening leather, but not cloth) indicate that most clothing was manufactured from animal skins – though perforated stones, which (depending on size) may have served as spindle whorls or loom weights, might suggest that woolen cloth and linen became available during the British Neolithic. Though obviously not British, Ötzi the Iceman probably gives an idea of the kind of clothing worn. Ötzi is the nickname given to a well-preserved corpse, dating from c.3300 BC, which, in 1991, was found protruding from a glacier in the Tyrolean Alps. Apart from an outer cape made from woven grass, his garments were entirely made from animal skins. A belt held up his leather loincloth and, via leather suspenders, his leggings. His (possibly sleeveless) jacket was made from sections of hide in different colours (apparently, Ötzi’s clothing and tools made use of eight species of animal skin). He had a fur cap, with leather chin straps, and his leather shoes were stuffed with grass for insulation.
The earliest type of monument built in Britain, dating from soon after 4000 BC, are ‘long barrows’ – trapezoidal earthen mounds, incorporating timber or stone burial chambers. These barrows live up to their name; West Kennet long barrow, in Wiltshire, for instance, is 104 metres long with, at its eastern end, a five chambered megalithic structure accessed by an entrance passage. Later in the Neolithic (from c.3000 BC), ‘passage graves’ developed. These are tombs where a round mound covers a stone passage leading to central chambers (such as Bryn Celli Ddu and Barclodiad y Gawres, both on Anglesey, and Maeshowe on Orkney). Neolithic tombs have been found to contain a jumble of bones from a number of bodies. It seems that, probably after a passage of time to allow a body to deflesh, the remains were arranged within the tomb. There is evidence to suggest that some bones may have been removed for disposal in a different place, or for ritual use (at West Kennet, for example, excavators found a marked shortage of skulls and leg bones).
Following on the heels of the long barrows, the next Neolithic monuments to appear were ‘causewayed enclosures’. Found almost exclusively in the southern half of England, they comprise a number (typically 1 to 3) of, roughly circular, segmented, enclosing ditches – the spoil from the ditches being used to form a bank on the inner side. The gaps between the segments are the causeways – the wider ones forming entrances to the enclosure. At Windmill Hill, in Wiltshire, probably the most well known causewayed enclosure, the outer of its three encircling ditches (which, incidentally, may not all be contemporary) encloses about 9.6 hectares. Whilst most are smaller, Crofton, also in Wiltshire, encloses 28 hectares. The ditches of causewayed enclosures are, broadly speaking, U shaped, 3 to 4 metres wide and up to 2 metres deep. They have been found to contain not only discarded items of rubbish, like broken pottery, animal bones and flint knapping waste, but also items which appear to have been formally placed, such as human and animal burials, human skulls, axe-heads and complete pots (which possibly contained food or drink when deposited). The purpose of causewayed enclosures is much debated, but a popular theory is that they served as meeting places, where neighbouring groups could congregate for purposes of trade or ritual. They seem to represent the beginning of an evolutionary process of ceremonial enclosure construction which continued into the Bronze Age (see: Henge Monuments). Some causewayed enclosures, however, would appear to have adopted the role of defended settlements (such as Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire and Carn Brea in Cornwall). The traditional view is that the Neolithic was a peaceful age, but there is now a considerable body of evidence highly suggestive of warfare. For example, at both Crickley Hill and Carn Brea, hundreds of leaf-shaped arrowheads, found clustered around entrances and associated with evidence of burning, are indicative that the sites came under attack.
Houses were, usually, rectangular – of timber construction, they would have had wattle-and-daub walls and thatched roofs – but they are, perhaps surprisingly, not at all common. The rarity of permanent Neolithic settlements in Britain has led to the suggestion that these early farmers did not, necessarily, remain in one place all the time, but moved around within a defined area – a pattern of behaviour known as ‘tethered mobility’. In Orkney, however, there are the remains of stone-built, late Neolithic, villages.
“The best preserved prehistoric village in northern Europe”.
In 1850 a great storm battered the Bay of Skaill, on Orkney Mainland, stripping the surface from the large, grass covered, mound of Skara Brae, and revealing traces of stone buildings. The local laird, William Watt, took an interest in the site, and, by 1868, four houses had been cleared. Except for some casual exploration, Skara Brae was left undisturbed for the next 50 odd years. In 1924 William Watt’s trustees handed Skara Brae into State care. In 1925 another storm caused damage to the site – which resulted in the construction of a protective sea-wall. Investigations carried out in 1927 found that there were other buildings still buried. Between 1928 and 1930, Skara Brae was excavated by Vere Gordon Childe, and the site visible today was exposed. Further excavation, under the direction of David Clarke, took place in 1972 and 1973. Samples were taken for Radiocarbon dating, and it was established that the settlement was inhabited between about 3100 BC and 2500 BC, with only minor changes of lifestyle during that time.
Skara Brae was constructed in two phases – of the ten buildings exposed, two belong to the first phase. About halfway through the period of occupation, the second phase of building took place gradually, perhaps taking a generation, over the flattened remains of the first. The second phase was not built to the same layout as the first – it was not simply a house for house replacement – hence the visible remains of two houses from the first phase. One of those earlier houses was heavily robbed out, perhaps to provide materials for the new buildings. Sufficient is left of the other, however, to show that the new houses were, to all intents and purposes, of the same design as the earlier houses, but larger. An essential building material for the second phase was midden. Midden is decomposed refuse – rather like garden compost, but with stones, animal bones, shells etc. This was dumped as the first stage of building. The, single roomed, houses (their drystone walls are more than two metres high in places) were then built into the midden mound. The houses are linked by low, narrow, stone passages, through the midden, which were topped by stone slabs and covered in midden. The whole village was encased in midden – just the house roofs would have stuck out above the mound. The one exception is (what is thought to be) a workshop, which stands apart – separated from the main entrance passage by a paved area (known as the Marketplace, though there is nothing to suggest that that is what it actually was). Because its walls do not have midden to support them, they are much thicker than those of the houses. (The midden must have also provided excellent insulation and draught proofing for the houses). Then, as now, trees on Orkney were in short supply. As a result, whalebone or driftwood rafters may have supported roofs of turf. Entry to each house is through a low doorway which was closed (there are no hinges) by a stone or wooden slab – held in place by a beam fitting into slots in the stonework. Inside the house is a central, rectangular, hearth and, on the wall opposite the door, a stone ‘dresser’. On either side wall are stone box beds which would have been filled with bracken or heather, and covered with animal pelts. (The only difference in the design of the first phase houses is that the beds were recessed into the thickness of the walls – though they appear to have been set in some midden, the first phase houses were much more self-supporting – while in the newer houses they project into the room). It is suspected that the beds would have had a canopy and curtains, in the fashion of a four-poster. There are alcoves and compartments (known as ‘cells’), of various sizes, set into the room walls. Most are clearly storage spaces, however, some cells have drains running under them, and it is thought that these were indoor toilets. The building supposed to be a workshop has none of these interior features, except for the central hearth. The floor was found to be littered with chert fragments, suggesting that tools were made there. The local chert cannot be given as sharp an edge as flint, but there is only a small amount of flint available – found as pebbles on the beach. The commonest stone tools at Skara Brae, also made from pebbles, were dubbed by Professor Childe ‘Skaill flakes’ ‘Skaill knives’:
““Such a knife can, in fact, easily be made by dashing a rounded piece of local shaley stone from the beach sharply on the ground, when it breaks along the bedding-plane, yielding a flake of the required form.”V. Gordon Childe ‘Report on the excavations at Skara Brae’ 1929
These simple knives have been found to be remarkably effective as butchering tools. However, presumably because of the limited supply of quality stone (particularly in large blocks) available, many utensils – scrapers, awls, mattocks, shovels etc. – were made from bone (and in all probability wood, but that tends not to be preserved).
The farmers of Skara Brae raised, mainly, cattle and sheep or goats, but they also kept pigs and dogs. They grew cereals – mainly barley, but some wheat. They also hunted the local wild animals, seabird eggs, and fish. Although no fishing equipment has been discovered, set into the floor of each house are watertight tanks which, it is conjectured, could have been used for keeping fish bait. They produced Grooved ware pottery, but there is no evidence of spinning or weaving. They also made jewellery (beads, pendants and pins) and objects which would appear to be gaming pieces. Some walling stones have been decorated with geometric, carved, patterns, which may have been coloured originally – ‘paint pots’, made from oyster shells, whale vertebrae and stone, were found. Also found were some, abstract, objects which may have had a ritual purpose. Professor Childe thought that the settlement was abandoned after being overwhelmed by storm blown sand. The evidence, however, appears to render this theory unlikely. The reason Skara Brae fell into disuse is not known with certainty.
Since the winter of 1937/8 (when a settlement was discovered at Rinyo, on Rousay), other stone built villages, similar in character but not as well preserved as Skara Brae, have been found in the Orkneys. Of even earlier date than these villages are two houses at Knap of Howar, on Papa Westray.
KNAP OF HOWAR
“Probably the oldest standing stone houses in north-west Europe”.Historic Scotland
After the buildings' presence had been revealed by gales, the local landowner, William Traill (with his colleague William Kirkness), began excavating the site in 1929. In 1937 it was taken into State guardianship, and a protective sea-wall was built. Further excavation was carried out, in 1973 and 1975, by Anna Ritchie. Radiocarbon dating of samples taken during this excavation has revealed the antiquity of the site – it was occupied between about 3600 BC and 3100 BC. The existing houses (Period II) replaced previous structures (Period I) during that time. These Period II houses were not built on exactly the same spot as those of Period I, but were built on a layer of midden associated with them. They are free-standing buildings, having an inner and outer dry-stone wall, with midden filled cavity. In fact, the outer wall is laid on top of the midden layer, whilst the inner is laid on the natural clay surface (a difference of some 0.34 metres). The midden cleared from the interior of the houses was, presumably, used in the cavity fill. In the larger of the two (house 1), the walls average about 1.5 metres thick, in the smaller (house 2) it’s about 1 metre. The houses are connected by a passage where they butt against each other. Although they are referred to as houses, these two buildings made up a single farmstead. It seems likely that house 1 was, primarily, the living area, whilst house 2 was a workshop and storage area. Both are partitioned by upright stone slabs. House 1 is divided into two rooms – in the innermost is a hearth, and there was a massive stone quern. House 2 is divided into three rooms – the central one having a hearth, whilst the innermost has several storage cells recessed into the walls. Amongst the potsherds found on the site were examples of ‘Unstan ware’ (a precursor of Grooved ware). In British Archaeology (Issue no 52, April 2000) Anna Ritchie writes:
“I remember how excited I was when I first held a sherd of the Unstan ware in my hand. It was the first time this distinctive pottery had been found on a domestic site - previously it had only come from tombs. It was dark, and quite thin and finely decorated. The interesting thing was that whereas the pots from chambered tombs were thick and heavy, the domestic pots were really quite dainty with thin walls. It was fine tableware.”
It appears that the buildings were abandoned ruins before they were covered by wind-blown sand. However, before they were abandoned, it looks like house 2 had been deliberately sealed up because its walls had begun to collapse.