The Neolithic: c. 4000 BC – c. 2500 BC
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 4000 BC, ushering in the Neolithic period (New Stone Age). It wasn’t just the idea of farming that arrived in Britain, but the farmers themselves. Indeed, recent genetic research tends to suggest that they arrived in such numbers as to virtually supplant the pre-existing hunter-gatherer population.[*] Also, whilst the hunter-gatherers were likely to have light eyes and dark skin, the Neolithic incomers would typically have had brown eyes and lighter skin. These migrant farmers would, of course, have had to make a sea crossing. Although there is no direct archaeological evidence, it is perhaps likely that, for such a long and potentially rough voyage, they used boats made of lightweight wooden frames covered with hides, rather than dug-out logs (of which there is evidence).
Domesticated species of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs were introduced into Britain. No doubt dogs would have assisted with the herding. (In fact, there had been domesticated dogs in Britain throughout the Mesolithic.) The animals provided milk as well as meat, however, the genetic variant that allows milk to be digested in adulthood is not present during the Neolithic, so it would have been converted into digestible dairy-products such as cheese and yoghurt. Wheat and barley were also introduced, allowing the production of bread and porridge, and possibly beer. The land would have been worked with spades, hoes, and perhaps rudimentary ploughs.
Woodland had to be cleared to create arable and grazing land – requiring the use of axes. The characteristic tool of the Neolithic 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. Evidently, not all axes were considered equal. In some places (such as at Cissbury Ring, in West Sussex) mine-shafts were dug in order to access subterranean flint nodules, when there was easily accessible flint available on the surface – as if the flint brought from below ground was special.[*] Axe-heads manufactured from stone quarried at certain sites, often called ‘axe factories’ (such as at Great Langdale, in the Lake District), were seemingly particularly valued, and had a wide distribution. It is 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 and in immaculate condition, 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 3700 BC, however, regional, decorated, styles appear. Round-about 3200 BC, Grooved Ware – flat-bottomed, typically bucket-shaped, pots named after their decorative style – began to be produced. This style seems to have developed in Orkney, and spread down through Britain from there.[*]
Finds of large numbers of, bone and antler, pins (ideal for fastening leather, less so for 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 woollen cloth and linen (flax being another Neolithic introduction) 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. With the possible exception of an outer cape made from woven grass, his garments were entirely made from animal skins. A calfskin belt held up his sheepskin loincloth and, via leather suspenders, his goat-and-sheepskin leggings. His (possibly sleeveless) coat was made from light and dark strips of goat-and-sheepskin He had a bearskin cap, with leather chin straps, and his deerskin shoes were stuffed with grass for insulation.[*]
The Neolithic newcomers raised structures to house and commemorate the dead. These come in many types and sub-types, and, although they exist in substantial numbers, it is clear that not everyone ended up in one of these monuments – the individuals were selected on some basis. Monuments that were of wooden construction are, of course, no longer visible to the casual observer, but the remnants of many that were built of stone and earth can still be seen. In the west of Britain are found the simple, roofed but open-sided, megalithic structures called ‘dolmens’. Little is known about them. It seems probable that they were built very early in the Neolithic. Although human remains have been found within some dolmens, it is not certain that these spectacular skeletal structures (there is no good evidence that the spaces between the uprights were walled-in, nor that the whole thing was covered-over) were actually built, in the first place, as burial monuments.[*] Rather more is known about ‘long barrows’ – trapezoidal earthen mounds, incorporating timber or stone burial chambers – which are distributed across Britain. Long barrows appear to have first been erected shortly after 3800 BC, and to have been in vogue for the following three centuries or so. Each individual long barrow seems to have had a remarkably short primary use – human remains being deposited therein over a period of just a few generations.[*] These monuments 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.[*] Another notable type of ‘chambered tomb’, found from Cornwall, through Wales and north-western Scotland (and, famously, in Ireland), to Orkney, is the ‘passage tomb’. In this type, a round mound covers a stone passage leading to central chambers. Well known British examples, dating from round-about 3000 BC, are Bryn Celli Ddu and Barclodiad y Gawres, both on Anglesey,[*] and Maeshowe on Orkney.[*]
Around 3700 BC ‘causewayed enclosures’ began to be constructed. They are found almost exclusively in the southern half of England. Basically, they comprise a number (typically 1 to 3) of, roughly circular, segmented, concentric enclosing ditches – the spoil from the ditches being used to form a bank on the inner side of the circuit. The gaps between the segments are the causeways – the wider ones, which align with gaps in the adjacent bank, form entrances to the enclosure. At Windmill Hill, in Wiltshire, probably the most well known causewayed enclosure, the outer of its three encircling ditches encloses about 8.5 hectares, making it large for the type.[*] Broadly speaking, the ditches of causewayed enclosures are U-shaped, 3–4 metres wide and 1–2 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. Having said that, some causewayed enclosures evidently 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. Causewayed enclosures themselves evidently ceased being built c.3500 BC, but they represent the beginning of a process of ceremonial enclosure development which culminated with the most famous prehistoric structures in Britain. Henge Monuments ►
Neolithic houses were generally rectangular in plan and built of wood – they would have had plank or wattle-and-daub walls and thatched roofs – but they are relatively poorly represented in the archaeological record. This may simply because they are not easy to spot in the landscape – virtually all that remains of them being filled-in postholes – but the apparent rarity of Neolithic dwellings 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 most famous of which is undoubtedly:
“the best-preserved prehistoric settlement in Western Europe”
In 1850 a great storm battered the Bay of Skaill, on Orkney Mainland, stripping the surface from the large grass-covered sand-dune known as Skerrabra (now 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 plan 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 similar in layout to the earlier houses, but larger. However, whilst the earlier houses were discrete buildings, the later ones were more like apartments within a block – the apartments being the huddle of drystone-walled houses; the block being a mix of clay and ‘midden’, faced with drystone-walling.[*] Passageways allowing access to the individual houses were roofed over with flagstones, and covered in clay. Enclosing the village in this way would have provided excellent insulation and draught-proofing. Entry to each house is through a low doorway – the door itself would have been a stone 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. 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 possible that these were indoor toilets. Nothing remains of the roof structures. Then, as now, trees on Orkney were in short supply, so whalebone or driftwood rafters may have supported roofs of thatch, turf or skins. There is one building at Skara Brae that stands apart from the village block. It is 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), and, except for the central hearth, it has none of the interior features of the houses. Since the floor was found to be littered with chert fragments, suggesting that tools were made there, it is thought to have been a workshop. 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 type of stone tool unearthed at Skara Brae is made from a pebble. These tools were dubbed ‘Skail flakes’ (sic) or ‘Skail knives’ (sic) by Professor Childe:
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’
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 63, 1928–29
These simple knives have been found to be remarkably effective as butchering tools. However, 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 cattle, sheep/goats and, to a lesser extent, pigs. 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 imagined that the inhabitants were finally forced to flee Skara Brae as it was wrecked by a catastrophic storm. There is, though, no persuasive evidence of such a dramatic end. The reason the village fell into disuse is not certainly known.