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Ancient Places and Ancient Lives

21 Dec

“What survives from the real Middle Ages is a range of, in practice, quite arbitrary objects based on luck and the durability of their materials.  Ivories of great age, generally showing scenes from the Bible, have endured because they have always been valued but also because they could not decay and could not be reused.  Very little decorative gold survives because centuries of embarrassing royal emergencies or changes in taste have taken advantage of its plasticity to remodel it or put it back into ingots or coins.  Clothing, even precious clothing, has rotted, tapestries have faded, paint has worn away.  Much of the texture and visual meaning of the Middle Ages is therefore lost- quite aside from the irreparable problem of our mental and spiritual equipment being so drastically altered by the intervening centuries that we can hardly engage with what we are looking at.”

From ‘Germania: A personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern’ by Simon Winder (2010: 45).

To slake my thirst for reading I have recently borrowed this delightful book on Germany from my brother.  The book is an often funny but always passionate and informative guide to the central European country, and although my aim was to read it before journeying to Magdeburg last year I never quite got around to it.  The quote instantly reminded me of what I had seen myself in Amiens in the summer, of the cathedral lit as it once was with its vibrant, even gaudy colours transplanted onto the bare and ashen stonework, and of the true sights and sounds that are now largely lost to the ages.  Archaeology is in the business of salvaging and conserving finds and sites from the past, and an integral part of this is the study of human remains as this blog has tried to highlight.  Whilst we can investigate many different aspects of past cultures, not just from the relics and the ruins that remain, but of the actual people who had once lived, it is still important that we realise we can only form an impression of what they had once seen and lived through themselves.  I often catch myself whilst handling a person from the past, imagining who they had loved, what they had seen and what they had done in their lifetimes.  Although the answers to some of our questions as researchers may now be lost, archaeology and its related disciplines can still help to shed a little light.  That light is improving as archaeology widens its scope via science breakthroughs and multidisciplinary projects.

‘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.

Conclusion

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.

Bibliography

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.