The dating of six ‘hefty timber piles’, which turned out to have been driven into the ground by the Thames River bank in Vauxhall around or a little before 4500BC*, raises some interesting possibilities.
4500BC is a hundred or more years earlier than the oldest current evidence of farming in Britain, so the timber piles date to the end of the Mesolithic.
This is a time when the people of Britain were assumed for a long time to be doing little more than roaming the land, living in temporary shelters, and searching out food from the wild for their family’s needs. That these people were ‘Mesolithic’ is reinforced by the tools found with the timber.
The timbers do not show any strong pattern and all that anyone’s saying is that “they could have supported a substantial platform with some form of domestic structure or dwelling”.
It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that those large timbers on the Thames are part of a permanent settlement, with people living there for much or all of the year. Pre-farming settlements are not unheard of. In fact, there are much older examples of British Mesolithic houses such as Star Carr and Deepcarr in Yorkshire.
Missing evidence for Mesolithic London
There is little evidence for much settlement along the banks of the Thames before the Roman era. A rare exception is evidence of Bronze Age and younger communities near Brentford and also near Egham, further up the river.
However, the lack of more evidence is not really surprising, given that the ancient river could change its course, eroding away its banks and anything that those banks preserved.
If Vauxhall turns out to be a peculiar, rare instance of an uneroded bank of the Thames in central London then it may explain why other artifacts of Neolithic and Bronze age have also been found near this particular location but not at many others. While this may be a sacred place, as some are suggesting, the lack of evidence for other Mesolithic settlements along the Thames does not mean that they weren’t there.
At the time that these posts were driven into the London silt, the continent is supposed to have been a very different place from Britain. In parts of Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands people had been farming since the sixth millennium, over five hundred years earlier. They made pottery, dug wells, lived in big barns and occasionally made the time to beat the crap out of each other with their stone farm tools.
So did Britain’s hunter-gatherers live in isolation from these continental farmers?
As I’ve suggested before, significant Mesolithic settlements, such as those in Serbia, Denmark and Spain, seem to have come into being just beyond the frontiers of agriculture. I would argue that the two are related. It’s possible to see Mesolithic settlements such as these as trading settlements, supplying unusual products to those in the farming world in return for farming goods.
Of course, this is only speculation but is it possible that the first contacts with continental (Rössen) farmers were being made in the Thames at this time? Perhaps these farmers were gambling on ‘riches’ or esteem by low-level trading with the savages of Britain. And what better place to trade than the future artery of all commerce in Britain?
Jan 6 2011 London’s Oldest Structure revealed. Past Horizons.
Jan 6 2001 7,000-year-old timbers found beneath MI6 Thames headquarters. Guardian.co.uk
1991 Thorpe Lea Nurseries, Egham, Surrey, multi-period site, English Heritage Archaeology Review 96-97
Photo of Congo River from United Nations Photostream on Flickr
*(three radiocarbon dates of 4792-4610 cal BC, 4690-4490 cal BC and 4720-4540 cal BC)