Mesolithic London and Neolithic Europe

by Edward Pegler on 11 January, 2011

Could the recent dating of Mesolithic timber posts in London be evidence for contact with Europe?

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.

Contemporary Europe

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?

References

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

http://www.eng-h.gov.uk/archrev/rev96_7/thorpe.htm

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)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Langdon May 13, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Interesting article.

The dates do fit my prehistoric hypothesis of higher water tables due to isostatic transformation after the last ice age – which we are even today still recovering.

The river height would be much higher (as shown in my book about Stonehenge and the river Avon) so it would be impossible to live in London prior to 5000BC as it would be under water as the Thames would be 30m higher than today, directly after the ice age melt – as found by Maddy et al (2000) for the River Avon terraces – which they suggest corresponds to the Thames flood terraces geologists have found – the big question is the exact they were formed!

As for trading, it is well known that ‘jade’ tools from the Alps were present in Britain during the Mesolithic period, which could only arrive via boat – fortunately, the Scandinavian cave drawings of reed boats have proven that boats were present in the Northern Europe during this same period.

RJL
Blog: http://www.the-stonehenge-enigma.info
Web Site: http://www.prehistoric-britain.co.uk

Reply

Edward Pegler May 15, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Dear Robert

I’m happy to disagree with you about your river levels (as I suspect the above evidence shows), but enjoy your research any way.

Ned

Reply

Leave a Comment