Gathering time: bringing pre-History to Neolithic archaeology

by Edward Pegler on 8 July, 2011

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.

(Unread) reference

Bayliss, A., Healy, F. & Whittle, A. 2011 Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland, Volume 1, Oxbow, p1100.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Langdon July 14, 2011 at 6:39 pm


Your quite right – your insights to the differences between a ‘post hole’ and ‘stake hole’ is unique and needs to be part of the curriculum of an archaeology degree, if we are interpret these sites correctly. I wished I had known about your site during the course – would have been able to ask a lot me awkward questions!

Robert Langdon


Geoff Carter July 11, 2011 at 12:51 pm

This is a very important point, I was not aware of this research.
Many of these problems arise from inappropriate cross cultural comparisons; it is one of features of post-processual archaeology, where models borrowed from different cultures and environments are shoehorned onto the evidence by way of an explanation.
In my own field of timber building, my tutors insisted that I should find examples from Africa or similar to ‘prove’ my ideas.


Robert Langdon July 11, 2011 at 9:11 am

The most interesting discovery about Neolithic farming which can demystify most of these academic theories is from the Crop Isotope Project and the discovery of Nitrogen-15 in ancient farm land.

The so called ‘clearance’ that seems popular at present when looked at in pure practical and economic terms does not ‘hold water’. For if you burn the land – you don’t get farmland you get burnt land.

If you look at the most recent forest fires (the worst in known history in England) they still leave trees upright, the roots are still intact. You still need to physically cut down ever tree, dig up every root before it becomes pasture to plant. And why would you do that if land is free and the population is small?

Nitrogen-15 is the solution. They have found that ancient pastures have this unique isotope.

So where does it come from? – Flood plains!

Simple and obvious even today, Neolithic man farmed when the flood river waters of the Mesolithic (due to the ice age melt raising water table levels) receded. This left flat fertile land that was ideal for farming. Simple cost and labour effective solution that fits the archaeological and now the geological evidence.

If you still unconvinced – take a trip down the Nile.

Robert J Langdon


Edward Pegler July 16, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Dear Robert

Thanks for the very interesting comment.

I think what the research shows is that the traditional model of agricultural exhaustion leading to conflict and retrenchment may need revising. Certainly the LBK story in Europe is no longer viewed as one of swidden agriculture with moving on of farmers, but there they have better soils. However, 2000 years of farming in Europe are unlikely to have taught farmers nothing about soil improvement.

best wishes, Ned


Geoff Carter July 10, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Great Ned, viva the revolution!
For ‘cosmic’ views read ‘comic’ views, in both senses, our ancestors have become cartoon like characters acting out structuralism and other theoretical visions of the past; a post-proessual new age fantasy of archaeo-mind reading.

“This Britain was a strange and alien world”
Neil Oliver, A history of Ancient Britain [BBC]

No Neil – academic archaeology has become ‘a strange and alien world’, – largely because we let them write their own job descriptions, and indulged their ability to see into the thoughts and perceptions of Neolithic people – Only to discover that, against all reason, and with remarkable prescience, they had read the same books about anthropology as them!


Edward Pegler July 16, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Dear Geoff

I even imagined you doing the Scots accent for that. Cue some suitable camera filter and spooky music. Still, I rather enjoyed the programme. Neil always looked charmingly like an excited kiddy when he got to hold something old.



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