The recent publication of “Gathering Time”, which supplies much more accurate dates for events in Britain’s Early Neolithic, is a moment for any rational archaeologist to savour.
A new publication by Alex Bayliss, Frances Healy and Alastair Whittle, called “Gathering Time”, seems to me to be perhaps the most significant event in the last forty years in the understanding of the British Neolithic. I admit that I haven’t yet read the book as it costs a bit. However, what I know of its contents can be summarised like this.
Events of the Early Neolithic
The first farmers in Britain arrived in the southeast somewhere around or shortly before 4050BC, as evidence from a burial just by the Thames (the future Blackwall Tunnel in London) shows. Over the next 200 years farming spread steadily across the southeast of England as far as the Cotswolds. At this point, around 3800BC, farming exploded across the whole of Britain, taking just 50 years to reach far north to Aberdeen and far west to Cornwall (probably reaching Ireland at the same time).
At the end of this period, around 3700 BC, enclosures, often fortified, known as “causewayed enclosures”, started to be built from east to west across southern Britain, possibly parallelling simultaneous developments on the continent. Huge amounts of effort were put into building these structures over the next 75 years.
Yet, many of the causewayed enclosures were only used for ten or twenty years. By around 3625 BC almost all were abandoned (with the exception of a few such as Windmill Hill in Wiltshire, used for 300 years, and Hembury in Devon, used for some 150 years). Some of this abandonment was associated with violent struggle, such as has long been known about at Maiden Castle, an enclosure that was used for just 15 or so years. This same time period of building and abandonment also appears to apply to many long barrows in southern England.
Around or a little earlier than 3550BC a second wave of building and restoration of enclosures took place, only for these to be abandoned again within a couple of generations, also with evidence of violence. Following this, enclosed strips of land, called “cursi”, started to be dug in key locations across England’s landscape (although for how long I don’t know).
The Later Neolithic and Bronze Age
Although there is no publication date for any following volume, I understand from David Field of English Heritage that other, later peaks of activity are being found as well. Perhaps the most obvious is 1000 years later, between around 2500 and 2000BC (and probably concentrated in the first half of this), with a new phase of monument building, represented at its zenith by Stonehenge, Avebury, Mount Pleasant, Silbury Hill, the newly dated Marlborough Mound, Marden, etc.
A further event, with a concentration of round barrow construction, also appears to have happened around 1800 BC.
The techniques that Alex Bayliss and her colleagues used to get these far more accurate dates are apparently not that complex or even that new. Existing high resolution radiocarbon dates were often used. These were combined with detailed information on archaeological context, then this combined information was entered into databases and processed using Bayesian statistical modelling software to produce most likely event times. Whatever, it’s the wide sweep of the study and comparison of data is what makes the methods used so important.
The beginning of real pre-History
Alex Bayliss has her own thoughts about what these events mean, which may or may not be correct. But what excites me is what this could do to British, and indeed international, prehistoric archaeology.
Over the last thirty years or so, some archaeologists in Britain seem to have increasingly gone in circles, producing no new evidence but more and more untestable theories on the cosmic views of Britain’s ancient ones. This kind of thinking is probably not good for archaeologists, leaving them with feelings of worthlessness and low self esteem.
And so it should. I can come up with my own made up story thanks very much. Indeed many of my posts are stories, but I don’t get paid to produce them. Perhaps some archaeologists would be better writing novels.
What this dating revolution has the potential to do is to start allowing a real pre-History to develop, not just for Britain but for the continent and the world. It would allow archaeologists to start asking “Why build then?” or “Why build there?”, making a testable theory and going back to look for answers.
It also means that more academically sensible people than me can start to follow on from the inspirational, but probably completely wrong, work of Gordon Childe and give the public a real sense of what exactly did happen in Prehistory. What I’d like to see is a bit less cosmic world view and a bit more “one damned thing after another” please.
Bayliss, A., Healy, F. & Whittle, A. 2011 Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland, Volume 1, Oxbow, p1100.