Prehistory
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 4500BC, 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
Saddle quern
and rubbing stone.
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.
Polished stone axe-head.
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 3807/3806BC (the precise date is thanks to dendrochronology), and it superceded an earlier track, the Post Track, which had been built in 3838BC.
Decorated bowl (3300–2700BC).
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 3800BC, however, regional, decorated, styles appear. About 2800BC, 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.3300BC, 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 4000BC, 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
Pentre Ifan, Pembrokeshire.
The remains of ‘chambered tombs’ can often be found stripped of their coverings – their megalithic skeletons are often referred to as ‘dolmens’ or ‘cromlechs’.
structure accessed by an entrance passage. Later in the Neolithic (from c.3000BC), ‘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
Leaf-shaped
flint arrowhead.
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 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.
SKARA BRAE
“The best preserved prehistoric village in northern Europe”.
Photograph courtesy of Charles Tait.
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 3100BC and 2500BC, 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
Photograph courtesy of Charles Tait.
(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’ or ‘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).
A ritual object?
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
Photograph courtesy of Westray Digital Art.
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 3600BC and 3100BC. 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.
The Bronze Age    
Found on Worm's Head, Rhossili, Gower.
Photograph courtesy of Swansea Heritage.
Found by Framework Archaeology, on the site of Terminal 5, Heathrow.
Looking like a Great War battlefield, Grimes Graves covers an area of some 7.6 hectares (although excavations suggest that a larger area was originally mined). More than 400 shafts – up to 12 metres deep, with radiating galleries at the bottom – are known to have been dug. Mining at the site began c.3000BC, and continued for 500–1000 years. It was named Grim's Graves (meaning, the god, Grim's quarries) by the Anglo-Saxons.
Found in the River Thames at Hedsor, Buckinghamshire. Generally known as ‘Peterborough ware’, this bowl is, more specifically, in ‘Mortlake style’.
Photograph courtesy of the British Museum.
Illustration of a Grooved ware pot from Clacton, Essex. Actually, Grooved ware was previously known as ‘Rinyo-Clacton ware’, after Clacton and another, very distant, findspot: Rinyo, on the Orkney island of Rousay.
Research at four long barrows in South West England (Hazleton, Ascott-under-Wychwood, Fussell's Lodge and West Kennet) has produced remarkable results.
English Heritage, in a press-release dated 12th March 2007, announced:
“By combining radiocarbon dates with archaeological information using Bayesian statistics, researchers have now been able to reveal that these sites, which are long barrows used as burial chambers, all ended their burial within a decade or so of 3,625BC.”
The press-release notes:
“Precise dating also helps to dispel the traditional view that long barrows such as these were used over centuries. Instead, their use is now revealed to be short lived and intensive. Few barrows were used for more than three to four generations. Wayland's Smithy [Oxfordshire] was probably used for under a decade. Such short timescales support the impression of small communities keeping alive memories of their immediate kin and people they know, rather than some tribal ancestors or past heroes.”
The mound of West Kennet long barrow was heaped-up from earth and chalk dug from, flanking, ‘quarry ditches’. (Where the mound has been constructed from stones, the term ‘long cairn’ may be used). Finally, in around 2400/2300BC, a megalithic façade was erected, closing-off the entrance.
Today, Bryn Celli Ddu is in a partially restored state – the mound is much smaller than the original would have been. The passage is aligned towards the midsummer rising sun. Excavations, undertaken in the late 1920s, indicated that the passage grave was built (around 2700BC?) on top of an earlier ‘henge monument’.
Barclodiad y Gawres is, probably, best known for its six decorated stones. (A decorated stone was also found buried beneath Bryn Celli Ddu). Barclodiad y Gawres is known as a ‘cruciform passage grave’, because the central passage (in this case pointing roughly north) terminates in three chambers which, together, make the crucifix shape. When the site was excavated in 1952–3, soil analysis indicated that the western chamber was specifically used for interring ashes.
The magnificent main chamber of Maeshowe (c.2750BC) is constructed from dressed, sandstone, slabs. The passage (on the right of the photograph) is aligned towards the midwinter sunset. Maeshowe is also noted for its 12th century Norse, runic, graffitti – which tells us “Ingigerd is the most beautiful of women”, and other, sometimes less polite, titbits.
Photograph courtesy of Diego Meozzi/Stone Pages.
The 19th International Radiocarbon Conference was held at Keble College, Oxford, in April 2006. On the agenda was a report by a team working on dating causewayed enclosures in southern Britain. The following is taken from the abstract of their report:
“Rather than assigning these sites to the total span of the early Neolithic as a whole, it appears increasingly likely from our preliminary results that the majority of causewayed enclosures started in the 37th century cal BC. Results from a parallel programme on long barrows and long cairns [see the English Heritage press release quoted earlier in this webpage] strongly suggest that some of those mortuary monuments had already been in existence since 3750 cal BC. The causewayed enclosures therefore emerge as a distinct phenomenon, beginning in what may have been a spectacular and concentrated horizon. Some were probably to remain in use for another 250–300 years, but others may have been surprisingly short-lived, with building and primary deposition spanning no more than a generation or two.”
At the time of its occupation, Skara Brae was considerably further from the sea than it is today. It is possible that some of the settlement has been lost to coastal erosion.
Carn Brea is of a type (comparable to the causewayed enclosure), peculiar to the south-west, known as a ‘tor enclosure’ (a hilltop or hillslope enclosure, located close to rock outcrops, and surrounded by one or more circuits of stone built walls). Roger Mercer excavated the site in the early 1970s:
“... a hilltop village two acres [0.8 hectares] in extent was located, defended by a massive stone wall [2 metres wide at its base, and originally, perhaps, 2metres high] that enclosed a series of platforms upon which traces of structures were located... Outwith this enclosure were traces of what were interpreted by the writer as clearance cairns and patches of cleared soil for the growing of crops and these and the enclosure were surrounded by a greater fortified enceinte with clearly defensive gateways that also appeared to be Neolithic.”
(‘Cornish Archaeology’, Volume 25, 1986)
This particular arrowhead was found in Notgrove long barrow, Gloucestershire, in 1881.
It is now in Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum.
In ‘British Archaeology’ (Issue 16, July 1996) Dr. Alasdair Whittle writes:
“It is hard to find evidence of colonisation at the start of the Neolithic, for the sustained practice of mixed farming, or for permanent residence, until as late perhaps as the mid 2nd millennium BC (the Middle Bronze Age). Big regional archaeological projects which should have produced such evidence have signally not done so. Instead the picture is of sporadic, episodic clearance, continued use of woodland resources alongside new domesticates, and of ill-defined occupations rather than homesteads, hamlets or villages. At the same time, some scholars are now suggesting the role of monuments was to create allegiance to a fixed place, in a world which retained much mobility.”
(See: Durrington Walls.)
At Crickley Hill, the non-defensive double, causewayed, ditch/bank arrangements were superceded by a single, unbroken, defensive ditch/bank, and a wooden palisade.
In the report of his 1928 excavation, Professor Childe wrote:
“The Skara pottery is, in fact, the worst I have ever handled. It is so coarse and badly baked that for a time I mistook the first large lump of it I came across in the midden for a plaster hearth, such as are so often met in Danubian settlements. Skara pottery is so badly fired that when first uncovered in the midden it can be cut with a penknife. In the damper environment of a hut floor it is sometimes literally plastic. On drying in the sun it soon becomes friable. No complete vessel could be rescued. The majority of the sherds come from the midden, and even there the rims have been so distorted by pressure that the original curvature can no longer be estimated... The larger vessels were built up in sections. The lower ring was pinched and flattened on its upper rim to a bevelled edge, the next ring was forced over this and smoothed down on either side when the lower ring was already drying... It was impossible to reconstruct the shape of any of these coarse vessels, but all had flat bottoms and the sides were probably almost straight. Besides this coarse, thick ware a few fragments of smaller vessels were discovered. These were a little finer in texture and a trifle better fired, but still very coarse, unpolished, and far from solid. The fragments seem to come from small round-bottomed bowls or dishes. Despite its coarseness the great majority of the pots found had been ornamented, generally just below the rim.”
In a report (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1983) of her investigations, Anna Ritchie writes:
“Within the restricted areas explored, the only structural remains attributable to Period I were the fragmentary paving, upright stone and grooves left by the removal of two upright stones found at the base of the lower midden in trench II. There were no traces within the interiors of houses 1 and 2 to suggest that they had replaced earlier structures on the same spot, and it is likely that the major structures of Period I lay to the S or W of the extant houses. It is difficult to estimate how much of the western part of the site has been destroyed by coastal erosion.”
Round based bowls with a band of grooved patterning below the rim. Unstan ware is named after a ‘chambered cairn’ on Orkney Mainland. Excavation there, in 1884, yielded a large number of these distinctive potsherds.
In a report on the finds at Knap of Howar (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1983), Audrey S Henshall notes:
“The pottery falls into four categories: the easily recognizable Unstan-type bowls with probably 13 examples; simple bowls either undecorated or with restrained decoration with about 41 examples, but admittedly including some small rimsherds which may come from more elaborate vessels; bowls having either cordons or shoulders with probably nine examples; miscellaneous small sherds with unusual features. Most of the bases appear to have been round, but there is evidence for two flattened bases.”