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‘The Domestication of Britain’- Dating the Early Neolithic (4000 – 3500BC) in Britain

19 Jun

The Early Domestication of Britain

In the latest edition of the British Archaeology magazine (July August 2011), there is an exciting article on new research that is helping to shed light on new perspectives of the early neolithic in Britain.  The article, by Alasdair WhittleFrances Healy & Alex Bayliss, details how the team have commissioned new radiocarbon dates from various monuments of the early neolithic in Britain.  This has helped to  produce a detailed and clearer chronology of  how farming and new associated technologies & monuments (in this case causewayed enclosures) first spread throughout these isles.  For the first time in British archaeology the results have shown in depth how prehistoric events can be discerned at the generational level in the archaeological record.

The aim of this study is to refine the early Neolithic period in British prehistory.  The method used involved using 400 new and 1900 existing radiocarbon dates from sites around Britain and refined the results using Bayesian Calibration.  Simply put, the team used radiocarbon dates that have been calibrated alongside other lines of information such as stratigraphy, building design etc, to help inform them of the likely time of construction.

Typical Causewayed Enclosure

Causewayed Enclosures

Whittle (1999: 63) notes that no site in Britain gives a clear picture that covers the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, and that problems still remain in uncovering the exact moment of transition.  It has long been regarded that there were changes but also continuities between the Mesolithic-Neolithic divide; that nothing in the archaeological record is ever clear cut.  The article states that by around 4000BC the neolithic practises that first encroached in Britain had slowly become more widespread.  This is in conjunction with a sightly later expansion of causewayed enclosures that sprung up first in the Thames Estuary, but which then also slowly radiated outwards to slowly cover the full country.

The causewayed enclosures are important monuments in the record of the first few generations of farmers because they have long been recognised as significant places.  This is in terms of and evidence from- construction, labour, ritual feasting and landscape meaning, alongside the use of them as gathering and assembly places for the early Neolithic populations of this country.  This period of enclosure construction in Southern Britain lasted from around early 3700BC up until 3500BC.  The dates have shown that some, such as Hambledon Hill, were in use for 3 centuries whilst others, such as the large enclosure at Maiden Castle, lasted only for a few decades. The causewayed enclosures were soon also joined by the uptake of linear cursus monuments.

Neolithic Package & Back To The Beginning

Further research and elucidations on the nature of the societies, from the outset of the Neolithic, has shown that the rate or tempo changed in Southern Britain from the time of 4000BC to 3500BC.

The wider context changes occurring during this period (of the ‘Neolithic Package’ of cereal cultivation, animal domestication, pottery, leaf flint arrowheads, rectangular timber buildings, flint mines, flat axe heads, monuments) is the changing social dynamic.  It is theorised that small scale colonisation could have been the impetus behind the ‘Neolithic package’, but with much ‘subsequent interaction and fusion with indigenous populations’  (Whittle et al 2011: 20).

Although the causewayed enclosures were a step up in scale and complexity, they were not the first monuments to be widely built in Southern Britain.  Long Barrows and Cairns were first built around 3800BC, but unlike the swift and dramatic introduction of the causewayed enclosures, we do not know whether they were gradual or not.  The authors highlight this as a key and little studied research area (Whittle et al. 2011: 20).  The long barrows themselves though proved to be longer lived with examples of these monuments continuing to be built after 3500BC, perhaps representing long held kin affiliations.

Reconstructed Neolithic Stone Axe

Other examples discussed (or surges in developments) in the article include stone axeheads & pottery.  The circulation of polished stone axeheads throughout the country started just before 3700BC, with sources from the south west peninsula and South Wales being traded and exchanged throughout the country.  At this time the South-Western pottery style also developed. which had the distinctive use of gabbroic clay from the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall, alongside the Decorated Pottery style (Whittle 2011: 20).  These produces also had local and regional variations.  These examples help to show the communication and exchange channels open during the early Neolithic.


The article is well worth a read through, and the monograph of the causewayed enclosure dating will shortly be released alongside the radiocarbon dating project of early neolithic Britain.  The next 10 to 20 years will provide breakthroughs which will help revolutionize how prehistoric sites are dated, and the chronological framework that they fit into.  Patterns of society, and of independent sites will hopefully become clearer.  As the authors note much of the present work is provisional and they suggest that models, such as theirs, can be and should be improved upon.

The article itself will shortly be released online, accessible via the first link in this post.

Update – I’m sorry to say I cannot find an online edition of the article above, it seems CBA haven’t put it online!

  • A Guardian article with comments from Alex Bayliss (‘complete bollocks!’) on the new dates can be found here.


Whittle, A. 1999. ‘The Neolithic Period- 4000-2500/2200 BC’  in Hunter, J. & Ralston, I. The Archaeology Of Britain. Oxon: Routledge.

Whittle et al. 2011. ‘The Domestication of Britain’ feature. British Archaeology Magazine.  2011. July August. York: CBA.

Access And Issues In Archaeology

18 Mar

In between the guest blogs on cannibalism by Kate Brown, I have stumbled across this website called Past Horizons– related to the Past Horizons magazine.  As the site deals with various facets of archaeology, it is a veritable treasure trove of information.  Ranging from excavations, cultural practises and opinion pieces (not to mention detailing the best tools for arch jobs!), this multimedia website has something for everyone.  Two articles aroused my interest.

Katy Meyers article on Open Access Archaeology provides interesting information on how archaeology is presented across the medium of the world-wide web.  As a subscriber to the British Archaeology magazines, I notice they  too have a column detailing new and interesting websites related to heritage and archaeology.  The exploitation of the internet as a place to spread (mostly free) information about heritage & archaeology has led to a burgeoning amount of websites available, both to the common public and the academic researcher.  Interactive sites, such as the one mentioned in the article on Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest, commonly include vast databases on archaeological sites.  These often include information on the structures present, artefacts found, cultures present, detailed maps, excavation histories at the sites and everything in between.  This is vitally important in the study of archaeological sites as context and providence is everything.  This can only be a good thing.

As Meyers concludes her article, she states that –

We have a responsibility to make our data available to scholarly, public and online communities, preserve it in a format accessible to future researchers, and do so in a way that faithfully represents the real nature of our data. And it is through this pathway that we can further knowledge of our past“.
Katy Meyers informative blog on Mortuary and Bioarchaeology can be found at Bones Don’t Lie.

Further to this, Jane Woodcock also has an article on the website detailing the Catch 22 situation of recent graduates gaining archaeological field experience.  Jane notes that –

Many people, including some undergraduates studying archaeology, are under the impression that once you have a degree qualification you are employable as a field archaeologist. In practice, however, most commercial employers require a minimum of 3-6 months’ on-site experience before they consider offering you a job. A clean driving licence and a CSCS card will put you further up the list. Unfortunately, most archaeology degrees only require you to do very little field work to pass, usually 2 weeks or less”.
As is often the case with access to archaeological jobs, you need experience of excavation before a unit or company will take you on.  You can gain experience by attending field schools or excavations; however these often cost money, sometimes a lot of money.  How can you afford to attend courses and excavations with (often) little or next to no money to gain experience to get an often low paid job in archaeology?  As it is often said, you do not enter the archaeology profession for money, but for the passion you have for the subject!
It pays to be in touch with local archaeological units and societies in your area, as well as any universities or academic departments nearby.  Often, if the unit is funded by the local council, community digs can be free to attend and participate in.  It makes sense to try to get a broad range of experience too.  From experiance of watching briefs and desk based studies at sites and monuments records office, to commercial watching briefs & full scales excavation with units.  It also pays to bear in mind the sheer range of jobs and applications available in the archaeological sector.  From being a GIS savvy techno wizard to studying faunal or flora remains, investigating human remains or living the life aquatic with maritime archaeolog; there are a broad range of options available.
Although this blog deals specifically with human osteology, it also deals within the wider world of archaeology, anthropology and heritage.  This is because nothing can be seen in isolation.  Indeed, as in archaeological excavation, context is everything.

The Recent British Reburial Debate

7 Mar

For those of you interested in the excavation and study of archaeological human remains in the British Isles, there has been a recent upheaval…

(Here is the pre-requisite back ground information)

Following a report in the magazine British Archaeology regarding the excavation and treatment of human remains, the archaeology community has rose up in anger over the legislation currently in place.  The crux of the matter is that since 2008, any human skeletal remains that have been dug up have to be returned (via either re burial or other internment) within a stated period of time, often within a two-year exhumation order.

As a member of BABAO, I received this email from Mike Parker Pearson, Mike Pitts and Duncan Sayer.  All reputable experts in the knowledge of archaeology and human osteology.  The following is the full email.

Dear Colleagues:

In 2008 the Ministry of Justice took over the administration of the 1857 Burial Act. Since then, licences for the archaeological excavation of human remains in England and Wales have required the eventual reburial of ALL remains and screening off of ALL sites of ALL periods, no matter what their value to scientific research, public outreach and the advancement of knowledge.

In the Nov/Dec issue of British Archaeology Duncan Sayer and Mike Pitts brought this issue to public attention and on 14th of October 2010 they were interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s science show Material World

In response to this, Andrew Miller MP, chair of the select committee for science and technology, wrote to Kenneth Clarke MP, Secretary of State. In his reply, Clarke indicated that there had been no formal complaints from the heritage profession.

On 2nd February 2011, forty of the UK’s leading professors of archaeology wrote to Kenneth Clarke expressing their concern about this situation. We have published the professors’ letter in British Archaeology. Alongside it, we have published letters from school children describing their fascination for science and history when visiting the archaeological excavation of an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

The professors’ letter, a background document, and a letter to the archaeological profession asking them to act now can all be found below. We have also included a template for a letter to Kenneth Clarke so you or your organization can let him know your concerns; the address can be found in the letter to archaeologists.

This is an important opportunity to act and we hope that you will add your voice as soon as you can.

Yours sincerely
Duncan Sayer, Mike Pitts and Mike Parker Pearson.

This is a matter currently affecting archaeology in the UK and these are the views of a number of people working in the heritage profession, not those of ASDS who have kindly agreed to host this material. A forum for open discussion by members of the ASDS may be found inside the members’ area.”

Here are the links to the directed webpage, on which is the information and template letters for the MP Kenneth Clarke who deals with the Ministry of Justice.  There is still time to sign a letter, add your own thoughts and worries, and send it to ministers who represent you.

As anyone who knows the amount of knowledge locked inside human remains, how the bones of our ancestors can be used for various research proposals and investigations, and just how fast our field is changing with various new scientific multidisciplinary techniques; knows that  to have to specifically re-bury recently unearthed  human remains is tantamount to destroying the bones themselves.  It is to wipe these people off the face of the earth, and to never have the chance to tell the unique stories that can be gleaned from the remains.

Let us not kid ourselves that the people who we unearth are not people we can ever  fully understand due to the cultural & temporal differences.  But to re-bury these people, to not have the chance to study their remains for clues about our shared past, to bury them in ground that may be offensive to them (Viking persons reburied in Church ground for example), would be a mistake indeed.

The study of Human Osteology has always been cross disciplinary from the range of medical anthropology, genetics, palaeoanthropology, archaeology & historical sources and investigations, human osteology has enveloped all of these.   

I know this post is late, but I urge you, as an interested member of the public, to contact and send out this information to Westminster, for them to hear our voice as one.

I sent my letter off two weeks ago.  I received a reply on the 3rd of March 2011, not from Kenneth Clarke, but from an unidentified person working in the Coroners & Burial Division.  It states that the MoJ has long noted and have been aware that the Burial Act of 1857 is not well suited to the need of archaeologists.  Although it has not been possible to find a way to amend the 1857 Act without recourse to the Primary legislation, the writer states that there is room to apply for provisions and flexibility.  The letter mentions that an opportunity to amend the legislation is not expected to be available in the short to medium term.

Is this good enough for you? What in the meantime will be lost?  Can you put a value on human remains?  Is anyone keeping a note on the number of reburials currently taking place across the country?  We shall see what happens.  In the meantime, I encourage you to write to your MP, to the MoJ, and stand as one to make your voice heard in the Houses of our representatives.