01:02. Movers and Shapers – Control.

What follows is very much a ‘work in progress’. I began writing what I thought might become a narrative history of Roman Britain in the late 1980s, and quickly realised that such a thing is not possible. The very best that could be done would be to build up a speculative history; which is to say a narrative that, to the best of my knowledge, could be the way things did actually occur. This, then, is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but intermediate between the two, in the same way that the sources are neither history nor prehistory but what can be termed proto-history. I left things to gather dust from about 2000 to 2011, but I have since taken matters up again and I have been pottering on. I have made additions and alterations, and I have straightened out the footnotes and bibliographies. If you are really interested, leave a message in the comment box below and I will email you an updated version of the text that you require.

Cheers,

Stephen Symons.

Britannia Capta Part 1.

 

Chapter 01.02.

Movers and Shapers: Control.

 

 

One of the key differences that sets the human race apart from the other creatures who share this Earth with us is that, while other creatures adapt themselves to their environment, mankind adapts the environment to suit himself: we carve the very hills and valleys to reflect our needs and vision. Mankind may be described as the animal that controls.

 

 

 

01:02:01: Come the Revolution…

 

            There are almost insurmountable problems in any attempt to understand the beginnings of agriculture in Britain, not least of which is the simple fact that it occurred in a social, political and cultural continuum that no longer exists and cannot be replicated for direct observation. We cannot intellectually retroject ourselves back to that period due to the intellectual and cultural baggage that we have accumulated over the centuries. Was the Neolithic synonymous with the spread of agriculture, or was it something else?  The term describes a variety of social, technical, political, economic and ideological phenomena that involved many and large variations both temporally and geographically. It was by no means stable, or continuous over time[1]. It was as much the domestication of humans as of animals, a separation of the domestic from the wild, and involved new and innovative ways of grouping people, of forming relationships between people and people, between people and places, and novel allocations of and claims to resources[2]. We can at best perceive it “through a glass darkly” and speculate. Was there really a “Neolithic invasion” of Britain in the sense of a real folk movement, exactly parallel to the Saxon and Jutish domination of the 5th and 6th centuries of the present era? Or was agriculture a natural progression from hunter gatherer resource management strategies that evolved more or less spontaneously in many places at once? Diffusion or migration? Or a combination of the two? Were there really only three “centres of origin” of domestication from which agriculture spread? Was a particular animal or plant domesticated only once, or several times in different areas[3]?

 

            The answer to the last question may have been answered by recent research into plant genetics[4]. Extensive analysis of the wild progenitors of the Neolithic core vegetable crops – emmer and einkorn wheat, peas, lentils, chickpeas, bitter vetch, and barley – in comparison with domesticated cultivars has suggested that there was only one domestication of each with the possible exception of barley:

 

“All in all, many species of wild legumes native to Southwest Asia seem to have the potential for development as pulse crops, and yet again and again only a single wild progenitor has been selected from among a series of closely related and equally attractive wild candidates. This pattern is hard to explain by a model of multiple introductions into cultivation.”[5].

 

That climatic changes at the beginning of the Holocene forced a radical change in methods of food procurement – from collection to production – cannot be doubted, and there may have been many attempts to domesticate plants and animals. What seems to be reasonably certain, however, is that only a very few areas – maybe only three, maybe as many as six or seven – were successful. Domestication of plants and animals certainly occurred in south west Asia, northernChinaand central America more or less at the same time – around 12,000 years ago – and also perhaps in the Sahara, southernChinaandSouth America(Cavalli-Sforza 1996 p51). South west Asia, that area now occupied by the Levant, Syria, southern Turkey, Iraq and Iran – the “Fertile Crescent” – was, so far as Europe was concerned, the main centre for the diffusion of the principal domesticated taxa such as wheat, barley, sheep, goats and, probably, cattle. Clearly these products and the techniques of their production diffused throughoutEurope, but was it a diffusion of farming technology or of farmers themselves (Cavalli-Sforza 1996 p52)? The two need not be mutually exclusive. Archaeological data, ethnographic studies of modern hunter gatherer societies and, most tellingly, genetic analyses of ancient and modern populations of plants, animals and humans appear to confirm that both hypotheses are correct and that both farming and farmers spread out gradually acrossEuropeat a postulated average rate of one kilometre per year (Cavalli-Sforza 1996 p53).

 

The movement of technologies and ideas is easy to understand, as word of mouth and gradual trade drifted north and west across the Continent. But people? Why should settled people leave their warm and fertile land for the cold, unknown forests of northernEurope. Surely only some very great and pressing need would have forced such a situation. An explanation offered by two researchers (Ryan and Pitman 1998) may suggest an answer.

 

Oceanographic, geological and palaeontological surveys of the Mediterranean have revealed that its basin had at one time been an extremely hot, arid desert, occupying a depression several times the depth of the depression of theDead Sea. It was theorised that tectonic activity about 7.2 myr ago had butted the Moroccan coastline and the Iberian Peninsula together, landlocking an eastern arm of the ancientSeaofTethys. The trapped waters eventually began to dry out as evaporation increasingly overtook precipitation and river inflow over a period of 1.8 myr. Approximately 5.4 myr ago further tectonic activity, plus pressure from the Atlantic Ocean, eventually opened a breach at what are now the Straits of Gibralter, resulting in a cataclasmic inflow of water that would have filled the vast basin within less than a century and thus created theMediterranean Seamore or less as we now know it. This event occurred far too long ago to impinge upon the as yet nascent human race, but it created a geological precedent in the minds of the researchers, suggesting that this class of phenomenon, while extremely rare, might not be unique and a similar, although somewhat smaller, event may have occurred at a time when humans were around to witness it. Certain items of information began to click together.

 

In 1961 an oceanographic survey of the Bosphorus, the waterway connecting the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean with theBlack Sea, recorded scientifically a curious phenomenon that had been known empirically since antiquity. While the Bosphorus provides the avenue for the low salinity waters of the Black Sea to flow out to the Sea of Marmara and thence to the Aegean and Mediterranean, a more or less east to west movement, there exists a submarine “river” of saltier water that flows at the bottom of the Bosphorus from west to east. Such is the power of this current that boats with weighted lines hung beneath them, long enough to hug the sea floor, are dragged by the “river” against the east-west outflow of the upper waters. The Black Sea, it subsequently transpired, had at one time been a fresh water lake of about two thirds its present area and with a surface as much as a hundred metres of more below the present shoreline. ThisEuxineLakehad existed for thousands of years before being inundated by the waters of theAegeansome twelve to seven thousand years ago. It had come into being some 20,000 years ago as world water levels retreated at the height of the last glaciation and had been subjected to a dehydration process when extreme aridity extended acrossEurasiasouth of the ice sheets. The Bosphorus had been a river valley, not deep enough to admit the waters of theMediterranean. Tectonic unrest, perhaps, had collapsed the sides of the original inflow to the south of the Bosphorus forming a vast earth dam and a further barrier to marine incursion, while the much reduced inflow of the fresh waters of the Danube and the great Russian rivers – the Dneiper,Dniesterand Don – had gradually freshened the lake.

 

The melting of the North American ice caps changed this arid landscape to a more humid one and the rivers ofEurasiabegan to flow with greater and greater volumes. It was thought that this inflow would have been sufficient to have raised the level of theEuxineLaketo a height that enabled it to merge once more with theAegean. With the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1991, western and eastern research could be integrated and with that another picture of the development of theBlack Seabegan to emerge.

 

As a result of this scientific cross-pollination, a much tighter chronology was established. TheBlack Seahad indeed been isolated from the world’s waters about 20,000 years ago and increasingly had dried out in a depression that was hundreds of metres below sea level. The waters of thisEuxineLakehad freshened, creating a huge oasis in an otherwise inhospitable world. As world sea levels rose one more in response to the melting ice, the Sea of Marmara, which had also had been a fresh water lake, was again connected to the Aegean, but the Euxine Lake remained landlocked. Then, in 5600 BCE, a disastrous event occurred. Rising sea levels pounded upon the earthern dam separating the Marmara from theEuxineLake, and the waters exerted more and more pressure. Eventually, aided by some destructive earthquake, perhaps, of the kind that bedevil the area to this very day, the dam burst and a vast torrent poured through the breach, into the valley of the Bosphorus and thence into the lake. A gaping rift was created, enlarged rapidly by the immense energy of the water, creating in its turn a waterfall many times the size ofNiagaraand admitting an estimated 40 cubic kilometres of water a day. The lake rose by 150 mm or more a day at least. Within a year the water level would have risen by 60 metres and continued to rise until, with a human generation, theEuxineLakehad become the Black Sea and theSea of Azovat more or less today’s expanse.

 

This much has been established beyond reasonable doubt, but the researchers then posed the logical next question: What impact would this event have had on human populations in the area? Surely, they reasoned, the huge, warm depression with its vast fresh water lake would have been home to a substantial community of settled, probably agrarian, groups.

 

Settled agriculture had been established in south west Asia for at least 4500 years before the drowning of theEuxineLake. Natufian hunter-gatherers had laid much of the groundwork for the beginnings of domestication in the lands of the fertile crescent but these had been abandoned as a result of the aridification during the Younger Dryas cold snap of c. 10500 – 9400 BCE. It is likely that the Natufian peoples migrated across Anatolia or around the Mediterranean littoral, taking with them their goats and their semi-domesticated grains and pulses, and settled down to a sedentary life in the balmy, well watered lands around the Euxine Lake. As the climate ameliorated descendents of these peoples had repopulated the lands of the fertile crescent, establishing flourishing settlements at such places atJerichoand Çatal Hüyük. These communities had prospered and developed highly successful and complex societies, with elaborate buildings, beautifully executed craft work such as basketry and pottery, and a lively and sophisticated artistic tradition.

 

The period 6200 – 5800 BCE saw the arrival of another cold, dry snap, not as severe as the Younger Dryas but sufficient to make the Anatolian and Levantine settlements unfarmable once more. More peoples trekked north to the warm shores of theEuxineLake. There they became part of a thriving community that farmed and fished and engaged in sea-borne trade and would, in the south at least, have formed into complex societies if not actual proto-states. Other groups from the east, west and north percolated in, adding their technologies, their ideologies and their genes to an increasingly cosmopolitan melting-pot of humanity. Then, in 5600 BCE, the unthinkable happened: the waters of the lake began to rise with alarming speed and did not retreat. The effect would have been most noticeable on the wide, flat plains to the north, where the waters of the first onset would have poured across the land at the rate of ten – fifteen kilometres per day. The roaring of the waters pouring through the Bosphorus Gap would have been audible as a dull but unceasing rumble a hundred kilometres away and it may be that there were earthquakes as well, all adding to the general confusion and despair.

 

To the inhabitants it must have seemed that the Gods themselves had brought disaster upon the human race, wrecking destruction on what, to them, was the entire world. Those who dwelt in fishing villages and coastal towns were the lucky ones; they had boats in which they could take refuge. Inland peoples would have had to walk or drown. Without doubt countless numbers perished in the rising waters, or of hunger and thirst as they clung to floating debris and swirled around for days and weeks, or were trampled in the panic and rush for the ships. Many vessals, overburdened beyond their capacity, would have split up or capsized. But many from the south coast would have escaped, bringing with them seeds and domesticated animals, and a tale of unversal destruction and the wrath of the Gods. Eventually they crossed the mountains, recolonising Çatal Hüyük andJericho. Some wandered down theTigrisRiverto form the nucleus of the Sumerian realm, a civilization that seems to have appeared out of nowhere. The people, traumatised by their shattering experience, would never have forgotten its enormity  and bards and storytellers would have kept the dreadful tale, the most dramatic in human experience, alive. Eventually these people devised a system of writing, the earliest known, and some two thousand or more years after the event the first written record of the disaster was stamped into imperishable clay tablets, included in what today we know as the Epic of Gilgamish. Tales of the survivors of the Great Flood – Utnapishtim of the Sumerians, Deucalion of the Greeks, Noah of the Hebrews – became an intrinsic part of the earliest human literature. The legend of the Great Flood became firmly enshrined in folklore as one of the primary myths.

 

The peoples of the northern coasts of theEuxineLakewere perhaps rather different to their southern cousins. It may be that they never developed a fully urbanised society, being the descendents of more recently sedentary European communities, or it may be that those dwelling on the flat plains where the marine incursion was most rapid suffered higher mortality, and there were less of them to spread the tale. It may be that they were less technologically advanced, or were not sea-farers. Many survived, however, some fleeing up the Danube to the Hungarian Plain, others up the Dneiper and the Dniester, north of theCarpathian Mountainsto the European Plain with its rich loess soils, ideally suited to arable farming. Some of the former may have settled at the confluence of the Danube and theSavaRiversto create the Vinça culture with its anomolously advanced architecture. The latter became the Linerbandkeramik peoples who advanced across northern Europe, following the loess soils, as far as theParisBasinwhere their impetus finally petered out. The peoples of the north never developed writing, nor an urban civilisation, and folk movements were many and hugely disruptive over the millennia. For this reason, perhaps, no coherant tale of the Great Flood ever passed down into recorded European folklore. No body of northern legend is known to have retained any memory of a universal flood, only vague tales of fairy lands beneath the sea, of lost kingdoms, and of various versions of Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods. If the Linearbandkeramik peoples brought tales of the flood with them, as they surely would have done, their mythology was absorbed within the greater of community of western Europe along with their technology and their genes.

 

Thus the theory, and it is persuasive. The ocenographic, geological and palaeontological evidence for the disaster is incontravertible: it happened. While the effect of the event on human populations is, and must remain, entirely speculative, it nevertheless neatly ties up a sheaf of archaeological, linguistic, anthropological and folkloric data into a rather convincing bundle, yet until such time as actual artifactual or ecofactual evidence can be trawled from the depths of the Black Sea is must remain an hypothesis only. It is, however, coherent and compelling, and may serve as a possible explanation for the spread of farming acrossEuropeuntil a better suggestion is proposed.

 

But the how, why, when and by whom of the origins and spread of agriculture are complex and contentious questions that remain beyond the ambit of this essay. The questions here are: how did farming and/or farmers arrive inBritain, and what impact did it/they have on the native societies of theBritish Isles? All that is really known for certain is that eventually it/they reached the Atlantic seaboard and passed across the waters of theEnglish Channel. Interestingly, the earliest domestic faunal remains known fromBritainare remarkably similar to, and roughly contemporary with, equivalent remains from theParisBasinarea, where zoöarchaeological evidence would suggest that domestic livestock  and husbandry techniques were introduced from further east in a very short space of time, without any intermediate phase, by Linearbandkeramik people (Tresset 2000 p21). Hunting decreased markedly in importance, cattle are well represented in western areas and pig in eastern areas of both southern Britain and north west France respectively, and the average size of animals is similar to those of the contemporary Paris Basin, reflecting close similarities on both sides of the Channel. A significant colonist element in the Neolithicisation of Southern Britain should thus be recognised, with theParisBasinas its origin (Tresset 2000 p21). Livestock and domesticated plants moved across the Channel, and it is most unlikely that this would be unaccompanied by population movement. Without doubt this movement would have had had a profound and permanent impact on the ancient hunter-gather communities. What was the extent of that impact? We can speculate.

 

 

 

 

01:02:02. Crossing the Waters.

 

There was no single causal motor for the spread of agriculture and the concepts of demographic and/or ideological advance that would present the Neolithic as a single unified phenomenon marching across Europe. This “wave of advance” theory – (Thomas 1996 p310) must be viewed as overly simplistic when discussing specific areas. Different conditions obtained in different places, and the new technologies were absorbed (or not) at different rates by different communities. There was no simple, single transition point from hunting and gathering one week to farming the next. One does not simply drop the deeply embedded traditions and lifestyle of thousands of generations within a few days or years, or even a few centuries. It was a slow and painful process which took root (or not) as people were ready (or not). The essential point is that the developments were the result of a change in mind-set, not simply the introduction of new technologies. It is all very well giving someone a key, but if that person is unaware that something is locked, or even that locks themselves exist, the key is nothing more than a curiously shaped object of no more than passing interest. Clearly, some communities of western Europe were becoming aware of the nature of control and the uses to which that control can be put, and thus had quite independently arrived at a mental architecture that was apt to the accommodation of the new technologies even if they had not developed those technologies themselves. The domestication of plants and animals is simply another application of that power to control that enabled the building of the earliest megaliths. There is no need to postulate a conversion of mind akin to religious revelation by incoming farmers (Bradley 1998 p34): the powder keg was already packed and the fuse set. It needed only someone to strike a match.

 

Mesolithic-Neolithic Europe is perhaps best perceived as a complex mosaic of ecological, social and cultural conditions, giving rise to a series of radically different contexts into which domesticates might be introduced in a number of quite different ways (Thomas 1996 p312). The rate of the adoption of agriculture must have differed according to a very wide range of conditions and could entail the integration of hunting and gathering with farming in many different combinations (Ingold 1996) dictated by cultural constraints and spiritual perspectives. The domestication of plants and animals involves far more than the adoption of new technologies. It involves a complete change in the way in which people engage with the world (Thomas 1996 p312).

 

The rate at which, and the degree to which, Mesolithic communities adopted agriculturalism and pastoralism varied hugely, depending on their own individual cultural and historical trajectories (Thomas 1996 p313). Some innovations were accepted quickly and painlessly, especially where immediate advantages could be perceived and where pre-existing conditions may have allowed for easy assimilation. Nor was it a one-way street as there is evidence to suggest that some farming groups reverted to foraging: on the BalticislandofGotlandfarmers were installed with sheep, cattle, pigs and cereals by about 4000 BCE. By the middle Neolithic the inhabitants had returned to the coast to subsist on fishing and hunting seals (Rowley-Conwy 1997). Other innovations may have had a harder time gaining acceptance, others again may have been rejected outright for a very long time. The growing of crops may have had an easy and early acceptance, especially if some basic horticultural techniques were already part of traditional activity, but the domestication of animals may have encountered some cultural resistance. Hunting, after all, was – and is – an activity that encompasses far more than the simple procurement of protein. The social significance of hunting evolved in the Palaeolithic and generated a symbolic importance for meat and its acquisition that became an entrenched social criterion into the Neolithic and beyond into the modern era (McKay 1988 p60). It is a way of life with a complex mythology and a deeply entrenched cultural symbolism of its own. Its precepts contain the very basic components of personal and group identity.

 

Food gathering is slow and plodding, whereas hunting is fast and involves high-energy activity; it sets the adrenalin pumping. Food gathering is for the immediate family, whereas hunting provides food for the whole group: the kill is shared amongst the tribe. Food gathering is individualistic, whereas hunting requires a number of people working together as a team; the leader of the hunt is a leader of the people. Hunting rates highly in the range of desirable male characteristics: the accomplished hunter is respected (McKay 1988 p35). Meat, therefore, has a great symbolic value that by far transcends its usefulness as food, and provides a social milieu for the individual to impress others with his skill; the dramatic retelling of the thrills and perils of the chase can be recounted around the campfire for the enjoyment of the whole group, allowing the successful hunter to bask in their admiration. It is very difficult to construct an exciting tale around the collecting of hazelnuts or the gathering of herbs. For such social reasons as these, it would have been very difficult to sell the drudgery of slopping out the cowshed to one who has known the glories of the hunt.

 

An interesting case study in this respect arises from the palaeopathological examination of the remains of some forty or so individuals recovered from the transepted long cairn at Parc le Breos Cwm on theGowerPeninsulainSouth Wales(Whittle, Wysocki et al 1998 p163ff). The period is 3700 – 3000 BCE, (Whittle, Wysocki 1998 table 2) during the earliest British Neolithic and the details of physiology that have been revealed are of considerable interest.

 

The roots of the teeth of these people were on average some 40% – 50% deeper than those of modern populations, and the signs of tendon attachment on male forearms indicate men with extraordinarily strong hands. Attachment of the gluteus maximus to the femur was in most males extremely robust, indicating heavy musculature developed by regular and strenuous exercise such as running uphill. Upper body pathology indicated in one individual muscles typically developed while paddling a canoe: several other individuals displayed signs of musculature developed in ways commensurate with the continual use of slingshots and bows. The males of the group were large-jawed, long-limbed and physically very powerful men whose remains indicate lives of high levels of physical activity (Whittle, Wysocki et al p163). The female remains, on the other hand, suggest that women, on average, were fairly short, in the 148 – 168 centimetre range. The bones are gracile compared to those of the men, indicating that the women were slim with much less developed musculature. This could indicate that the men were routinely involved in hunting and herding in the rugged terrain, or canoeing on the rivers, while the women were restricted to domestic activities close to home.

 

Harris line formations on the bones of subadults indicate regular cycles of slow and fast growth, suggesting seasonal shortages of high protein food followed by periods of abundance. This would suppose an ordered existence with a regular but seasonally variable food supply (Whittle, Wysocki et al 1998 p164). As regards the nature of that food, stable isotope analysis of ten individuals shows that, despite living near the coast, marine food was not a detectable part of the diet. Most of their dietary protein came from terrestrial animal sources – meat, perhaps milk, possibly blood – with little input from gathered wild plants or cultivated grains, and despite the fact that they lived very near to the sea shore. This was by no means odd in Neolithic Britain; extensive comparative studies of Neolithic pathology across Britain suggests that people had relatively little plant food in their diet and instead consumed vast amounts of meat and animal products such as cheese (Richards 1996). On the other hand other, essentially similar, contemporaneous groups from as far afield asDenmark,Brittanyand theHebridesdrew heavily on fish and marine mammals for their wild protein and it shows up in their pathology. Why not the Parc Cwm people?

 

So we have a group made up of short, slim women and tall, very powerful men. That they hunted cannot be doubted, but whether the bulk of their meat derived from hunting or from domesticated animals cannot be told; they certainly had domesticated animals, as the contemporary remains of pigs, cattle, sheep and/or goats recovered from the cairn would attest. The heavy musculature that they possessed could have developed from herding animals as much as from hunting them. The question is: were these individuals representative of the whole community, or did they represent some form of elite group whose social position gave them the privilege of burial within the cairn? If so, was physical prowess a criterion of social prominence? Were small, gracile women seen as especially desirable, their lack of musculature stemming from the possibility that the hard work was done by the lower classes, while they, the mates of the alpha males, were waited upon due to their privileged position? Only the brave deserve the fair.

 

Was their diet the general one, shared by the whole community, or did only the elite get to feast regularly on large quantities of meat? Perhaps the lower orders had to make do with the leftovers and more vegetables to make up the bulk. Why was seafood seemingly excluded from the diet? There does not seem to have been a practical reason, therefore the practice may have been an ideological or even political. Did the people cling in some way to an ancient and perhaps idealised past in which tales of feasting on whole roasted beasts and the adventures of the hunt figured large (Whittle, Wysocki et al 1998 p166). Had they once been an inland people who had at some time migrated nearer to the coast and preserved traditions of their earlier homelands? Or perhaps it was political: the chief and the hero naturally receive the choice portions of the most prized meat species. Whereas the extent remains, therefore, may be those of only a select few of a wider social group, and while the immediate evidence suggests that the widely held stereotype of ‘man the hunter’ and ‘woman the gatherer’ this may not have been the case for the community as a whole. Rather, it may have been an increasing trend during the social growing pains of the Neolithic. The apparent institutionalisation of hierarchies during the Neolithic, and the full articulation of social dichotomies that we consider to be ‘normal’ such as gender-based divisions of labour, are not necessarily the results of ineluctable natural progression (Bender 1995 p87). There is no evidence that such generalities obtained during the Mesolithic and the Palaeolithic, and they could well have been constructions of the Neolithic, brought about by increasing social stresses that demanded more and more formalised social structures and the hierarchies to command them. The ‘man the hunter – woman the gatherer’ division may well be illusory. Hunting, an activity of high social status, may in earlier times have been the prerogative of members of the higher social echelons irrespective of gender, while gathering was a function of those lower down the social ladder.

 

These are questions to which there can be no answers, only speculation, but despite the mysteries that they present there can be no doubt that the Cwm Parc people developed an essentially stable society that was centred upon its cairn and endured for many centuries.

 

How the revolution reached theBritish islesmust also remain a mystery, but it is doubtful that it was as a result of some sort of “invasion”, whatever that somewhat broad term may mean. There is a potentially huge range of models for ancient migrations and invasions. No two such known movements were precisely the same and the very wealth of comparative data is such that it is almost impossible to pronounce on appropriate comparanda for such processes amid such diversity (Chapman & Hamerow 1997a p2).

 

There is only circumstantial evidence for such an event or series of events, none of which were substantial. Indeed, there is no firm evidence for permanently settled society of any sort in Britain prior to the Middle Bronze Age in about 1600 – 1500 BCE (Whittle 1996), and it is intriguing that the site with the earliest diagnostically Neolithic evidence is in Northern Ireland. One would expect that, if agriculture entered the British Isles by way of westward-pushing pioneers and/or invaders, the earliest evidence would be found in the south or south-east ofBritain. On the other hand, this would bear out the hypothesis that some communities were willing and capable of integrating the new technologies within their own cultural frameworks whilst others were not. It may be that the knowledge was presented to many but accepted, initially by only a few, or that little groups arrived here and there more or less at random from a very early date and that travel to and from Britain was not necessarily by the shortest possible sea route. Seeds were spread and sometimes they germinated while sometimes they fell on barren land.

 

Certainly there were mass folk movements in Continental Europe: the appearance of the Linearbandkeramik  material tradition north of the Alps does strongly argue for the very rapid colonisation of a very large area from Hungary to the Low Countries by a distinct population (Thomas 1996 p314), and marine technology was quite capable of moving considerable loads over long distances in the difficult coastal waters of the North Sea and Atlantic. The chambered cairn at Achnacreebeag, a few kilometres north of Oban, onScotland’s west coast, seems to present a case for long-distance contact between Britanny and northernBritainby at least around 4000 BCE. Decorated carinated bowls recovered from this site and from Vierville inNormandy, as well as plain, round-based bowls from the Morbihan, show quite telling similarities of style, fabric and decoration, sufficient to suggest a very close relationship (Sheridan 2000). The area around Achnacreebeag offers a good landfall and excellent resources for a small agricultural community (Sheridan 2000 p13). It may be that a small group from Atlantic France, a people long familiar with sea travel and with an ancient tradition of mobility, and possessing elements and materials of the new cultural package as well as livestock, travelled to westernScotland, found a spot that they fancied and decided to settle. They would have brought with them their own cultural perspectives and art, influencing their new neighbours and helping to create a new culture. There is no need to posit large-scale folk movements to account for these changes.

 

There is no evidence that Linearbandkeramik populations as such migrated toBritainand established their typical material culture there, but quite clearly LBK cultural and artefactual derivatives arrived inBritainshortly after the LBK peoples arrived in western Europe. It may be that cross-channel movement occurred when indigenous groups from the Atlantic coast of Europe, having absorbed something of the LBK cultural package, moved toBritainas part of a seaborne interchange that had been in existence for millennia. Settling in, perhaps quite harmoniously, with their distant cousins, they would have inevitably transformed the local societies. There is absolutely no evidence for any mass incursion from Europe toBritain. Theories of such outlined in the past are the visions of culture history, with its awareness of the turmoils and changes of the late imperial and early medieval west ofEuropewhen without doubt such mass movements of entire nations did take place. That situation should not be transferred to the Mesolithic and Neolithic.

 

The situation at this time was clearly something different People were accustomed to move from place to place at intervals of widely varying periodicity as nomadism was a part of life and had been for all time. When making the decision to move one the in many cases still only semi-sedentary farmers could have had a very large number of factors bearing on them, both of the “push” variety and the “pull” variety (Anthony 1997 p23). The ancestors of the Linearbandkeramik peoples moved, perhaps, because of the very substantial “push” factor of the sudden and catastrophic inundation of theBlack Seahomeland, but their descendants may have moved across the Channel for “pull” reasons. The would have had information aboutBritainas it would have been well known by seafarers, and there could have been any number of attractions to draw them across the water, mostly culturally generated. Perhaps younger sons, denied a patrimony that passed to elder sons, sought new lands in which to establish their own social primacy. Such people could claim “founder” rights in the new community, with all the prestige that that would entail. Numbers need not have been very large, no more than a dozen or so individuals at any one time, and distances travelled in individual migrations need not have been large, maybe no more than a day or twos’ walk of 20 – 50 kilometres, or just across the water. The cumulative effect of such a generational progression would have diffused cultural novelties over a very large area within two or three centuries. Rather than the postulated movement of large groups, we should perhaps see the diffusion of societies across Europe and into Britain as a chain migration (Anthony 1997 p26) in which large numbers of small kinship groups leap-frogged each other for many generations and many kilometres, their societies merging with and changing earlier ones, some cultural traits continuing, some being lost, others added, and their genes drifting far and wide.

 

The situation may rather have been one of considerable co-existence over a long period as seems to have happened in many places across northernEurope. In that instance artefacts and domesticates seem to have been transferred from the Neolithic LBK communities to the Mesolithic Ertebølle groups of Denmark and southern Sweden, which would have enhanced the social status of those members of foraging bands who were able to pass on such items as gifts (Thomas 1996 p314). A growing social competition that access to such exotic goods might have engendered would in turn have created a higher degree of acceptance of the new ways (Thomas 1996 p314) and the obvious material benefits that they brought. Increasingly elaborate social relationships and increasingly complex ritual activity would have intensified integration even further as demands for goods and services grew and more complex forms of logistical mobility enabled an increasingly greater combination of wild and domestic resources. The cultures of incomers and those of indigenes became more and more hybridised at the points of contact and on the edges of contact to form totally new cultural continua. By recontextualising aspects of the Neolithic way of life, Mesolithic peoples were able to transform them and themselves into something new and distinctive (Thomas 1996 p317).

 

Other, archaeologically invisible but nonetheless powerful pressures would have assisted integration. Hypergyny, the process whereby hunter-gatherer groups lose women through marriage to farmers (Zvelebil 1996 p338) may have been one of the most telling of all pressures upon Mesolithic societies. Where hunter-gatherers are viewed as socially and culturally inferior there is a tendency for women from the lower socio-cultural group to seek mates amongst higher status males. Various pressures, such as the disruption of hunter-gatherer foraging strategies through opportunistic use of the formers’ territories by farmers, causing depletion of resources, and the increased exploitation of those resources by the hunter-gatherer groups themselves to provide the export material required for exchange for prestige goods, would have been to the detriment of the hunter-gatherer economy and would have caused severe stress to their social fabric (Zvelebil 1996 p338). Farmers, with their more managed economy and their greater ability to cope with periods of dearth, would have seemed to offer more desirable social milieux by virtue of the fact that the rate of survival of children would have been higher, a very telling advantage to women of any epoch. This would in turn have presented Mesolithic men with a very strong inducement to adopt farming themselves.

 

Mesolithic groups were not acculturated by agricultural communities: rather they chose to actively engage in new networks of contact and new social and economic practices (Thomas 1996 p317) and the transition did not entail a wholesale shift from hunting to dependence on agriculture. Nomadism is by no means a barrier to agriculture, especially where the foragers already have a restricted and prescribed range. Plots of crops can be sown, left to themselves and then harvested after a seasonal absence (Whittle 1996). Cereals began to be grown and used, but wild resources continued to be of significance throughout the Neolithic. It may well be that the initial adoption of domesticates by an already semi-sedentary population was a result of social pressure as much as calorific necessity; growing crops was something that was done by people of high social standing. Over time the increased food output would have spurred population growth. The more people there were, the more food was needed to sustain them, and before anyone really noticed the change yesterday’s luxury had become today’s necessity.

 

All too often models of the Neolithic have been constructed to retroject modern society backwards, trying to make Neolithic people resemble ourselves. Rather, the British Early Neolithic may be seen as a hybrid culture with marked regional differences in which the native communities actively engaged with the new domesticates and the new technology and material culture, transforming them and creating a totally new cultural framework that was both adaptive and unique to the islands.

 

 

 

 

01:02:03. The Conundrum of Domestication.

 

The Neolithic, or what used to be known as “The New Stone Age”, has been characterised by modern prehistorians by certain criteria, primarily agro-pastoralism, sedentism, monumental architecture and the institutionalisation of hierarchies. These concepts, however, are not quite as straightforward as may at first appear, nor are they necessarily diagnostic of the Neolithic, nor of the succeeding prehistoric periods know traditionally as the Bronze and Iron Ages. Even the terminology is misleading. Stone, for instance, continued to be used for the making of tools and ornaments long after the general use of metals had become widespread. Stone arrowheads and even fire-hardened arrow tips are known from early medievalBritainandEurope, and stone is used extensively as a building material and for ornaments to this day: in a sense we are still living in the Stone Age. Monumental architecture could well have commenced inWestern Europein the form of dolmens and henges long before the coming of agriculture.

 

Sedentism is a matter of degree and does not necessarily imply the total abandonment of mobility, the setting of the community into domestic concrete. The example of the Mongols is instructive in that they created a highly mobile but very distinctive and sophisticated culture, albeit one that was symbiotic with the sedentary cultures amongst whom they moved. Analysis of the earlier Neolithic tool kits of south centralBritainwould suggest a fairly non-specific and flexible array of tools indicating a technology suited to a mobile life style rather than one based on stable settlements. Later Neolithic tool kits from the same areas are much wider and more specialised, suggesting a change of life style  in which portability was no longer of primary importance (Thomas 1999 p21). In other words, people were settling down, but it took a very, very long time for them to get around to it, and they did it in different ways, at different times, at different rates, to different degrees in different places.

 

            And what of agriculture? This is a concept that bears a little closer examination.

 

            There can be no doubt that plant and animal husbandry were practised long before agriculture, perhaps for tens of millennia. People would have kept areas of useful plants weeded and watered to maximise their growth and accessibility. Overgrowth and vegetation would have been cleared to open up plots of land for garden cultivation, giving essentially wild plants minimum competition. Animals would have been tamed and kept as pets, as, for example a brown bear dated to about 5000 BCE whose remains were found in a cave of the Franco-Swiss border. The animal’s jawbone showed signs of having been bound with a muzzle and its death at the relatively early age of six could suggest that it had been ritually slain (Denison1998 p4). The domestication of the dog by hunter-gatherers has long been recognised, although the reasons for this most excellent of human-animal partnerships may not be quite as straightforward and simple as might have been thought. Certainly dogs would have been used in hunting, but the relationship is clearly more complex than this as anyone who has owned a dog knows well. The remains of dogs are frequently found in Mesolithic human burials, sacrificed, perhaps, to accompany a dead master to the afterworld. Occasionally dogs appear to have been buried with the appurtenances of human burial, for example sprinkling with red ochre, and in southernSwedena puppy appears to have been buried inside an especially constructed little house (Bradley 1998 p26). This may signify that the people of that time and place made no clear distinction between humans and animals (Bradley 1998 p27), but there could be other, simpler explanations: a child’s beloved puppy died and indulgent parents tried to assuage the very real grief with a proper little burial accompanied by all the trappings. Sentiment and sentimentality are not inventions of the modern era.

 

Herds were “managed” by selective culling and optimising the growth of browse through forest clearance, and it is quite possible that the human groups who did this felt some sort of ownership of the herd in question, or at the least privileged access to the resources that it represented.. But cultivation is not agriculture, and opportunistic free-range herd management is not pastoralism. Pets are one thing, husbanded animals another. The tame animal is not necessarily a domesticated animal, and pets are kept for very different purposes. Agriculture is not simply a logical technological progression from cultivation. If it was, agriculture would have arisen in many more places than the incredibly few that it did, and much, much earlier. Agro-pastoralism is much more than the improved management of domesticates. Rather, it is a socio-economic system that prescribes and defines the whole range of human activity, that fundamentally affects the relationships between humans, and their place in the world. Agro-pastoralism entails a whole world view that encompasses social, political, economic and spiritual trajectories.

 

            How monumental architecture arrived is a mystery, and the wave of advance theory advocating incursions of colonising pastoralists and farmers is now seen as doubtful at best, and certainly over-simplistic. That colonising agriculturists/pastoralists arrived is not to be doubted, but whatever else they may have brought with them it was not monumental architecture. The evidence for a possible folk movement lies in the phenomenon of the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture which seems to have spread across the loess lands of centralEuropeto reach the low countries by about 5000 BCE. This society was markedly different from those surrounding it in that its material remains are typified by evidence of fields and longhouses, whereas contemporary neighbouring communities built monuments. Apart from traces of the former in the early Neolithic of the west ofIrelandand the Shetland Islands, definite remains of sedentism inBritainand north-westEuroperemain firmly elusive. Societies in these lands built extensive and elaborate monuments that obviously had great social significance and were generally, but not exclusively, concerned with death and burial, but firm evidence of sedentism is lacking. The LBK peoples, on the other hand, did not build large and elaborate monuments, and seemed to be content to bury their dead in simple flat cemeteries. The LBK culture did not expand beyond the rich loess lands for a thousand years after its arrival, and it may be appropriate to think of a more or less stable frontier zone between the agriculturists and the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers that existed for ten centuries (Bradley 1998 p11).There was quite obviously contact between the two groups, but by and large both sides appear to have maintained a traditional lifestyle during that time until the hunter-gatherers absorbed – or were absorbed by – the Neolithic way of life. The inference could be that both groups had stable populations and stable social conditions, and the hunter-gatherers were sufficiently strong enough to resist being overwhelmed or ousted by incomers, and that both groups were mature enough to maintain their stability and separateness for a very long time. There would obviously have been intermarriage, probably in favour of the farmers, and eventually there may have been colonisation from outside. But the native populations would not simply have vanished in the mist (Bradley 1998 p11). They remained, although they eventually had to change not only their way of thinking, but their whole world view.

 

            The Neolithic ushered in a sea-change in human social thinking, and its effects were eventually profound. New things began, things that had never in human history happened before. From around 4000 BCE the presence of plant and animal domesticates had become widespread across north-west Europe, polished stone tools were in wide circulation, flint mines were in production and elaborate funerary rites were evolving (Thomas 1999 p98). Strange and enigmatic monuments began to be constructed. Over the centuries the great barrows began to become ever greater, then causewayed camps and later vast henges and cursus structures began to appear. Silbury Hill, Woodhenge andStonehengegrew in an increasingly complex and endlessly elaborated androgenic landscape. It is generally considered that the construction of these complex monuments, and the elaboration of ritual and social stratification that they suggest, were only possible with the advent of sedentary agriculture and crop staples, but this is not necessarily the case (Thomas 1999 p23) as the example of semi-sedentary hunter gatherers in the archaic Mississippian society of North America would attest (e.g. Wesler 1997 p261ff).

 

            The Neolithic larder was well stocked with such items as hazelnuts, sloes, crab-apples and raspberries as well as edible roots and tubers from wild sources. Domesticated plants such as cereals, on available evidence, played a minor role although the proportion of wild foods to domesticates would have varied greatly from place to place and from time to time (Thomas 1999 p25). Communities would not have placed too much reliance on a single food source. The picture that emerges is one of considerable regional and inter-regional variation with hugely diverse combinations of wild food/domesticate mixes and arable/pastoral mixes. The evidence for agriculture in the British Neolithic is, in fact, minuscule and it is probable that dependence on wild foods continued for a very long time. Evidence of pastoralism and agriculture drawn from Neolithic monuments may not be evidence of such practices in any general sense. These were, after all, very special sites and would have required special practices and special attention that may not have been applied on a wider, more mundane scale. Ancient plough-marks such as those beneath theSouth Streetlong barrow and dated to around 3500 BCE may signify some of the earliest agriculture inBritain. Equally they may have been made to prepare the ground for pasturage.  Yet again they may have been made as part of a ritual necessary as a preliminary for the construction of the monument and need not have anything to do with routine cultivation (Thomas 1999 p24). Places such as Avebury andStonehengecould well have been foci for seasonal rounds, attracting unusually large numbers of people at a few given times, and the intensity of land use about them would reflect this (Thomas 1999 p26).

 

            While domesticated crops made a slow and erratic entry into British society, domesticated livestock became quickly and widely accepted, particularly in the case of cattle. Analyses of stable isotopes and trace elements in the bone collagen of contemporary human populations would suggest that there was a major shift from marine to terrestrial diets throughout the north west European coastline, including Scotland, south west England, Wales and Brittany, during the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition (Tresset 2000 p18). Faunal assemblages throughout the Neolithic are dominated by the remains of cattle  with very few traces of wild game indicating a huge popularity for beef. However, as almost all such assemblages derive from ritual deposits this need not suggest that beef figured largely in the day to day Neolithic diet. It would do no more than suggest that it was a very desirable food and was consumed in large quantities under certain specific and perhaps tightly controlled conditions. Cattle bones also frequently occur alongside human burials, with bucrania particularly common, some of which show evidence of considerable curation prior to deposition. Foot bones often occur in causewayed camps, suggesting the deposition of whole hides which may thus have enjoyed some symbolic significance (Thomas 1999 p28). Being mobile, cattle are an ideal complement to a mobile population, representing both stored food and social prestige. It does appear that herds of cattle quickly acquired a very deep social and spiritual significance in a population perhaps already pre-disposed to such veneration through a long Mesolithic tradition of “ownership” of herds of wild deer.

 

            An activity that seems to have begun in the Mesolithic and which continued throughout the Neolithic was an apparent preoccupation with pits. These were dug in the ground, filled with a varied mixture of cultural and artefactual material such as charcoal, bones – both animal and human and ranging from isolated bones to complete skeletons – flint, pottery and other bric-a-brac. They were then backfilled and left. They were always circular, shallow and bowl shaped with sloping sides and seem to have been backfilled almost immediately; there is seldom any indication of the slow accumulation of material. This would suggest that they were more than simple middens for the use of tidy-minded Neolithic housewives: they seem to have been dug for an immediate and particular event, filled up, and backfilled almost in a single action. They almost always appear in neat groups. They almost always contain burnt material. Objects such as bowls, bones and flints seem to have been positioned with care and forethought, according to some deliberate pattern; often these artefacts are of very high quality and the ecofacts show evidence of prior curation. Pits are frequently found below or around structures such as passage graves, and often predate construction, indicating that the sites had been accruing some significance long before building began above the ground.

 

            The pits quite obviously represent a meaningful activity that was common across theBritish Isles, but was one without any broad commonality of detail and was interpreted freely according to different local practices (Thomas 1999 p69). The pits first appear in the Mesolithic of southernBritainand later spread throughout the archipelago during the Neolithic, suggesting a very long cultural continuity that spread far and wide from a fairly localised centre of origin. This intriguing preoccupation persisted throughout the Neolithic and into the earliest Bronze Age when, for no obvious reason, it ceased forever.

 

            What was the point of all this activity? Quite possibly they were symbolic markers for a significant event, or, judging from the fact that the pits usually occur in neat clusters, a series of events. Pits, shafts, caves and other holes in the ground were and often still are seen as liminal points between the mundane upper world and the supernatural underworld. Perhaps the assemblages are composed of representative residues of special gatherings such as feasts that were ceremonially deposited, sharing the event with the spirits and in the process creating a durable trace of its memory (Thomas 1999 p70). The place was thus gradually transformed into a sacred site, of especial significance to a particular community or group, and the increasingly elaborate arrangements of deposits would suggest a corresponding elaboration of ritual. The nature of pit-digging itself may also have changed over time. Originally perhaps no more than a marker for a special site, the end result and visible memory of a special event, the digging may also have become an important ritual act in itself, a rite of high spiritual and social meaning. Ritual activity informs technical activity: the quotidian process of digging a hole could itself become a ritual act as in traditional Japanese society acts appearing to be merely technical  – such as pottery-making and weaving – are loaded with culture-specific, symbolic or non-rational values (Nelson 1996 5:3). Activity occurs in a continuum including both the practical and the symbolic, the sacred and the secular.

 

            The building of monuments was an integral part of society in the British Neolithic, an activity that had begun during the Mesolithic and was elaborated over many centuries. It should not be seen as an “optional extra” to a society that only became possible with the availability of agricultural surpluses, if indeed such surpluses ever existed, a moot point in itself (Thomas 1999 p34). Rather, these structures should be seen as an essential and central manifestation of social evolution and changing relationship between human communities and the land with which they lived. Monuments were not so much artefacts as transformations of space, a physical engineering of the visible world to reflect a ideological and cultural world view, changing the configurations of space to affect the way in which people experienced places (Thomas 1999 p34):

 

“People live in and through experiential rather than geometric space, and they generally perceive the areas that they frequent as a network of places connected by pathways and routes” (Thomas 1999 p34)

 

            Landscapes are what we make them, but landscapes are not necessarily no more than the visible surface of the land. From other perspectives that which is above, or below, the landscape may be of equal or even greater importance (Bender 1995b p1), and landscapes exist both spatially and across time. Landscape is not a universal concept, applied by all people at all times, and thus cannot represent a definitive way of apprehending the world (Thomas 1995 p20) “The Landscape” as a separated and separable part of existence, is a concept of the modern world, the product of a preoccupation with the visible and the visual that is part of a world view that insists that to see something is to understand it. This notion predicates our concept of “science”, with its obsession with classifying, measuring and weighing, and a perceptual architecture that relies on the observation, categorisation and relativisation of everything about us. The drawback to this view is that it removes the observer from the observed, objectifying without engagement. This is unnatural, as we are part of the landscape; we engage with it, and it engages us. This is not necessarily the way in which our distant ancestors perceived their world and their place in it. Our perception of landscape is structured by maps, drawings, photographs and satellite images that dissect it, probe it, make all of it visible (Thomas 1995 p25), presenting it in a way that would have been incomprehensible to ancient peoples whose perceptions of causality and structure were totally different to ours. This is not to suggest that our way of looking at things is somehow wrong or worthless, but to point out that ours is but one of several ways of looking at things, all of which are equally valid, all of which are equally “true”.

 

            Everything within the experienced world has meaning and the structuring of the landscape inevitably structures the experiences that shape the human sense of identity and being. Those who control the configuration of the physical world to a great degree control the ideological world that structures human behaviour, leading ineluctably to social control. As landscapes became more structured and complex, constraining movement and prescribing routines and the rhythms of life, so social and spiritual life became more regulated and apt to control by those with knowledge.

 

            A brief discussion of the various monuments may illustrate this development.

 

 

 

 

 

02:04. Spaces and Places.

 

            Amongst the earliest indicators of Neolithic activity in the west ofEuropeare the long barrows, interpreted as funerary monuments of some kind, but they clearly had social significance above and beyond that of mere tombs. Their very form is important, and it did not appear by some sort of social spontaneous combustion. Although they represent a new beginning, they also grew out of a complex set of perceptions that had been developing for a very long time. But are they diagnostic of the Neolithic and its associations with settled farming? Interestingly, the first monuments may be found alongside the first domesticates and sometimes the earliest evidence for more intensive land use does not come until after mounds had been built (Bradley 1998 p10), a fact that does serious damage to previous theories that such monuments could only have been built by labour that was rewarded by agricultural surpluses.

 

            A theory suggesting a possible beginning for long barrows has been proposed (Bradley 1998 p42ff) as follows. Linearbandkeramik longhouses were built in settlements arranged in more or less parallel rows. The houses were built, occupied for perhaps twenty-five years or so and then apparently abandoned, a new house being built alongside the old one. In the admittedly rather few cases where excavation evidence is sufficiently clear, timbers do not appear to have been salvaged and reused and the buildings seem to have been abandoned while structurally sound.

 

            Why should this have been? Shaped timbers are difficult to produce using only stone hand tools and would have represented a valuable resource available for recycling. Was the life of the house seen as part of the life of the builder or perhaps the chief occupant, a practice attested in modern ethnography? If so, perhaps when that person died it was deemed that the house also had died or, at the least, had become unavailable as a habitation for the living and was thus accorded funerary rites, or, more likely, declared to be ritually unclean and was left to decay. Thus a Linearbandkeramik settlement might have consisted of a number of houses, some of the living, others, in various states of decay, of the dead. As the house decayed it would eventually have collapsed in on itself, its daub walls forming a long, low mound defined all the more clearly all around by the shallow trench of the borrow pit from which the daub had been dug.. These mounds would have been part of the settlement space and in time the notion that such a shape and form was an appropriate repository for the dead would have become embedded in social consciousness. In the earliest days, then, the creation of a burial mound would have been no more than the imitation of a natural process (Bradley 1998 p46). But where did it start and why did it spread?

 

            Present evidence (Bradley 1998 p46) would suggest that what is now north-westPoland, the one area where both longhouses and long mounds existed, may represent the area of interconnection. In this area, at a later period, new buildings seem to have been directly on the sites of earlier ones instead of simply respecting their alignments elsewhere, and it maybe that the custom of burying the dead in an actual house went out of fashion. It may be that living houses were increasingly perceived as having longer social lives and could thus outlive the builder, while the custom of burial under something that retained the form and spatial organisation of a ruined house persisted. Indeed, the earliest long mounds show remarkably similar structural organisation to the long houses, and they were arranged in parallel groups in cemetery areas, closely imitating the layout of a living settlement. On similar but rather shakier evidence, it may be deduced that enclosures may well have begun as communal areas, being retained long after such settlements disappeared and appearing in areas where no such settlements had ever existed. Shapes, forms and practices may persist long after their original, practical purposes have passed and indeed may have been completely forgotten but they nevertheless remain in symbolic usage because “that’s the way things have always been done”. Long barrows and enclosures may well have been part of a cultural package that travelled along with agricultural technologies to be absorbed – or not – by the societies that encountered it. Thus, when farming percolated intoBritain, and although neither longhouse nor nucleated settlement had ever existed there, a way of life that included long mounds nevertheless came along for the ride and was adopted.

 

            The causewayed camps, some of the earliest monuments to appear inBritain, are enigmatic and perhaps ultimately inexplicable. Were they enclosed settlements? Cattle pens? Markets? Cult Centres? Perhaps all of these and more. Whatever they were it can be taken as read that they varied considerably in their use from place to place. Certain observations can be made beyond their obvious structural similarities.

 

            They were usually situated away from inhabited areas and groups of other structures. All seem to have been slowly but continuously modified – ditches were dug, backfilled, recut – in a most baffling progression. Each clearly delineated a significant area of sacred space, but the purpose of that delineation could and almost certainly did change over time and would have had a number of possibly quite different reasons. Indeed it may be misleading to categorise them as a unified group as all evolved over long periods and similarities may be largely fortuitous: function dictates design, and the designs of the creators are now lost in time. Despite that, their construction would have required considerable group effort, which in itself would have helped to reconfirm ties between dispersed and fragmented communities (Edmonds 1993 p 80).The sheer number of animal bones deposited would strongly suggest that feasting was an important activity, and they are situated in areas that are best suited for pastoralism. Their use may well have been cyclical, and probably seasonal. Perhaps they were  “neutral zones” where different, and possibly disparate, groups could meet on prescribed occasions for whatever purposes were deemed needful; the making or reification of alliances, perhaps, or for common religious purposes. Significantly, imported pottery wares are abundant in causewayed camps and often absent from pits and open sites, suggesting that these were gathering places where objects brought from afar were used. The relative abundance of cereals and the absence of signs of baking would suggest the main use of grain was for brewing: beer is bulky and would have been brewed and consumed on-site, rather than brought from a distance (Thomas 1999 p102).

 

            Long association with the sites and the constant investment of time and energy into their construction, maintenance and reconfiguration would have imbued them with a powerful social and spiritual significance, and the eventual development of a few of these sites as defended settlements would suggest that some at least were later appropriated by elite groups whose control thus enabled them to command the processes occurring there. Control of the processes would have ensured that such activities as feasting and ritual could in turn be appropriated for the building of the prestige of the elite group (Thomas 1999 p43). Several, such as Fornham All Saints and Etton, later had cursus monuments built through them, transforming once again the way in which the structure and its sacred ground could be experienced (Thomas 1999 p53), restricting movement to certain narrowly prescribed options and thus once again redefining the reality of those who experienced the place.

 

            An associated penecontemporaneous phenomenon was the development of flint mines and quarries. This was an innovation of the Neolithic and appears to have been borne of a completely different departure from previous ages. It was a totally different system to Mesolithic stone tool production. New sources of raw material were developed, removed geographically and conceptually from the surface exposures and the coastal and riverine deposits exploited opportunistically during earlier periods (Edmonds1993 p74). Evidence from sites such as that at Great Langdale inCumbriawould suggest that usage was episodic and/or seasonal, and by small groups, a pattern consistent with the likely lifestyle of nomadic pastoralists. A range of artefacts was produced, but the overwhelming majority of the items produced were stone axes, and it is apparent that the pieces were formed into rough-outs in situ, and then transported to lowland sites for the longer (and, perhaps, specialised) processes of finishing and polishing (Edmonds 1993 p74).

 

Very considerable effort seems to have been made in order to extract the very highest quality flint. Clearly these artefacts were held in high significance as tokens of value. So too the very physical characteristics of the underground workings may have had potent social significance in the forming and reification of relationships and identities. The forming of the shafts would have required considerable concerted effort by a small group, followed by group satisfaction in a solid achievement, creating a sense of group cohesiveness. Away from the normal habitation sites and the comforts of home, a mining expedition would have experienced shared dangers and hardships again reinforcing a sense of group identity. The restricted spaces of the mine shafts would have enforced structured behaviour and strict adherence to conventions of hierarchy and the social standing of individuals (Edmonds1993 p77). This pattern of behaviour is quite congruent cognitively and socially with the parallel construction sequences of the causewayed camps and cursus monuments, which were likewise in areas remote from habitation  and were close to flint mines and quarries.

 

            Simultaneously with the emergence of the cursus monuments there arose an interest in astronomical phenomena (Thomas 1999 p53). Much research has gone into the investigation of a hypothetical Neolithic astronomy, and many truly ingenious patterns have been “detected”, but many of these studies have been overstated, and far too much has been read into them. The undeniable fact is that many of the cursus and henge monuments do respect celestial alignments. This surely cannot be a matter of pure chance, but there are also other alignments, for example upon outstanding topographical features such as mountain peaks, or on other, older monuments such as barrows. It may be, then, that the interest in celestial bodies and their movements was not so much an obsession with the heavens per se as an awareness of the manner in which these phenomena could enhance and emphasise the singularity of the monument and the way in which it was perceived  –  perhaps as a nodal or pivotal point of the cosmos, or as a liminal location between the seen and unseen, the past and the future, or again as a focus of spiritual and social  power. Knowledge of the site, the meanings of its alignments and the interpretation of its impact on the senses, would have been a powerful further enhancement of the prestige of elite groups.

 

            The Neolithic progressed. It was a time of continual and accelerating social change and evolution, developments that are reflected in an apparently greater concern with the changes involved in the processes of death, the ways in which different groups imposed and exercised control at and over certain special sites, and the emergence of increasingly distinctive regional social systems. Also noticeable is an increased interest in exotica (Edmonds 1993 p 82), perhaps a signifier of increasingly demarcated social strata. It was a time of an increasingly complex awareness of the value of things, of objects and places as media for social manipulation, as agents whose esteem and aesthetic values are conferred on the owner, and whose presence within specific contexts can help perpetuate ideas and belief (Preucel & Hodder 1999 p107). Objects and things were accumulating power of their own, power that could be acquired and used for social ends.

 

            By the early third millennium BCE henges had begun to appear and their increasingly elaborate structures and the complexity of their inter-relationships would suggest an increasingly elaborate ritual life and complexity of cosmology.

 

 


[1] Thomas 1999 p13.

[2] Ibid p14.

[3] Harris 1996a p6.

[4] Zohary 1996.

[5] Ibid 1996 p151 –original italics.

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