All debate about the British and Irish Neolithic owes a huge debt to the work of Alex Bayliss, Frances Healy, Alasdair Whittle and scores of other contributors to Gathering Time, the award-winning study published in 2011 that gave us the fine-tuned dating information that enables us to speak with precision about the spread of Neolithic objects and practices in the British Isles. As reported in CA 259, this concluded that a relatively small ‘founder pool’ of migrants crossed the Channel at its narrowest point, from the Calais region to Kent, around 4100 BC.
Their influence was out of all proportion to their numbers, and the novel practices that they introduced spread rapidly from the south-east to all parts of Britain and Ireland. Within eight to twelve generations, people all over the British Isles had adopted domesticated plants and animals, learned how to make pots, to mine flint and stone (rather than collecting surface deposits), to make leaf-shaped arrowheads and polished axeheads, to build rectangular timber buildings, and to construct cairns, barrows, and ditched enclosures.
An extraordinary tale of farming folk
Not everyone was happy with this conclusion. When the Royal Archaeological Institute hosted a debate on the origins of the British Neolithic in January 2014, Alison Sheridan summarised the results of her own research, conducted over many years, which dealt a series of blows to the ‘ex Kent lux’ model of ‘Neolithisation’. She argued that no single or simple process could account for all the data, and that there were sites far distant from Kent that had domesticated cattle or continental-style pottery and burial monuments sometimes several generations before they arrived in the south-east of England.
Alison did not pull any punches when she accused the authors of Gathering Time of overlooking evidence within their own data that indicated a far more complex picture. Put bluntly, her view is that there never was a single ‘founding migration’. Instead, between around 4300 and 3800 BC, many different small groups of farmers came to Britain and Ireland from different parts of the near Continent – from modern Brittany, Normandy, and Nord–Pas de Calais – some of whom established successful pioneer farming communities, while others failed.
What is more, some of the earliest attempts to settle new land are found in the western parts of Britain and Ireland, not the south-east. One of the earliest ‘out of mainland Europe’ migrations seems to have ended up at Ferriter’s Cove, a small sheltered Irish bay located at the westernmost point of Dingle Peninsula, in County Kerry. Here, at a Late Mesolithic campsite, seven cattle bones have been found dating from c.4300 BC. These cattle must have been imported, probably by pioneer farmers, since Ireland has no indigenous wild cattle. If so, the lack of evidence for any lasting settlement suggests this was a failed attempt to plant a farming colony in virgin territory, perhaps because the expedition consisted of too few farmers or livestock for survival. Alternatively, the indigenous hunting-and-gathering community may well have proved hostile to these strange new would-be neighbours, although they did find their animals good to hunt and better to eat: the cattle probably ended up as the main course at a memorable feast.
A Neolithic New World
A more successful strand of Neolithisation was the series of small-scale migrations from Brittany up the Atlantic façade of Britain and Ireland that took place in the period between 4300 and 4000 BC. The evidence for this consists of the Breton and Late Castellic-style pottery found at Achnacreebeag, Argyll, and Bute, and the Breton-style chambered cairn found at the same site and elsewhere around the Irish Sea and Atlantic coasts, for example at Carrowmore, County Sligo, and at Carreg Samson, Pembrokeshire.
Alison admits that there are no uncontested radiocarbon dates for these burials, and no associated settlements; their early dating depends on pottery and chambered-tomb sequences established in Brittany. But she firmly believes that such sites represent the start of the long history of passage-grave building and ceramic development in Britain and Ireland, both being alien practices to the indigenous communities in these same areas. Leaving Brittany because of social and economic changes, these people would not necessarily have had any knowledge of the areas in which they ended up: theirs was a one-way journey into the unknown.
More secure, she says, is the evidence for another major strand of Neolithisation – her ‘Carinated Bowl Neolithic’ – which appears to have involved small farming groups from the near Continent heading for Britain and Ireland between 4100 and 3800 BC. This had ultimately been occasioned by population expansion in the Paris Basin during the late fifth millennium, with groups moving northwards and eastwards into northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as westwards into Normandy and Brittany. The distinctive pottery that characterises the Carinated Bowl Neolithic in Britain and Ireland represents one of several regional styles of ‘Chasséo-Michelsberg’ pottery that sprang up in coastal parts of northern France and adjacent areas.
The first few generations of these continental immigrant farming groups built huge rectangular houses: one of these is the 22.5m × 8m structure at Crathes, on the River Dee (CA 283); another is its 22m × 11m neighbour, found just across the river at Balbridie, in Aberdeenshire. These may well have housed several families living in one communal hall until they felt able to ‘bud off’ and build smaller houses for their individual households.
These incomers buried their dead in timber mortuary monuments (later on they used stone instead) marking the land and their possession of it by covering them with long mounds of earth or stone cairns. They brought jadeite polished stone axes from the Alps as heirlooms and they prospected for similar green stone, finding it in such sites as the Langdale Pikes in Cumbria. They established extensive social and trade networks and, after a period, they revived the continental tradition of building large causewayed enclosures as centres for their interactions and ceremonies.
Slightly later, from around 3800 BC, came a further, smaller-scale and more localised diaspora, the Trans Manche Ouest strand, which brought a style of pottery to the Channel Islands, Bristol Channel, and south coast, similar to the Neolithic II pottery of Normandy, along with the continental-style simple passage tombs with distinctive drystone walling that are found in the Cotswolds and at Broadsands in Devon.
Alison is emphatic however that none of this amounts to an invasion: local people were not displaced or wiped out; nor were they the passive victims of an inexorable process of change. Instead, they made lifestyle changes based on their own experiences, perceiving (rightly or wrongly) that cereal growing and keeping domesticated animals offered a more reliable source of food and a less hazardous way of life.
When Alison handed over the lectern to Julian Thomas for his contribution to the debate, she suggested that he favoured a wholly different version of the way that farming came to Britain and Ireland, less reliant on the idea of mass immigration. Julian agreed, but he made it clear that he has never argued that farming was some kind of spontaneous indigenous innovation, perhaps sparked by watching and copying what people did on the other side of the Channel. It is, he says, impossible to imagine that such a momentous change could have taken place without access to continental domesticated crops, animals, and material culture. Taking that for granted, he said that he was interested in the process of change: why did Mesolithic people adopt these new practices, and by what processes did Mesolithic people become Neolithic?
Such questions arise from the observation that there is no such thing as a homogenous Neolithic, no one package of ‘things and practices’ that spreads in time and space intact and unvarying. On the contrary, the European Neolithic is a patchwork of localised processes and traditions, and the evidence shows that very few of the vessel forms and types of projectile point found on the Continent at this time can be paralleled in early Neolithic assemblages in Britain and Ireland.
The carinated bowls that are such an important diagnostic feature this side of the Channel form only a minor part of the Chasséen and Michelsberg ceramic assemblages of the Pas de Calais, where they are said to have originated. A process of selection and filtering is clearly going on, just as can be seen in the Netherlands at such sites as Hazendonk and Swifterbant, where indigenous people adopted a narrow range of vessel forms and projectile points from the wider assemblage used by their Neolithic neighbours.
Julian believes that it makes no sense to see the incoming migrants as responsible for this process of selection and adaptation: why would they leave most of their technology at home or abandon some practices and not others? Rather, the distinctive character of the British and Irish Neolithic is easier to explain as the result of selection processes and choices made by indigenous communities. Where Alison and he therefore appear to disagree is not over the question of cross-Channel influence, nor whether population movement played a part; instead, the debate is about whether Mesolithic people knocked on the equivalent of the door of the Young Farmers’ Club and asked if they might be allowed to join; or whether Mesolithic communities created their own regional branch of the YFC in partnership with Neolithic groups from the Continent, fashioning an entirely new culture out of the encounter between two different traditions.
Co-operation or conflict?
The core of Julian’s argument is the practical difficulties involved in setting off into the complete unknown. With all their formidable technological advantages, many of the Elizabethan and Jacobean colonists who pitched up in the New World in the late 16th and early 17th centuries died within the first winter. Setting out for the coast of Scotland or Ireland around 4000 BC without prior knowledge of the landscape or local conditions would have been just as hazardous.
If, as Julian believes, Mesolithic society was based on sharing and mutual generosity, the first incomers might not have faced outright hostility. On the other hand, the ways in which Neolithic societies are organised and the ways in which they use and manage resources is so different from Mesolithic society that an initial welcome might quickly have turned sour.
It is because there is no evidence for violence between farmers and hunters in Britain and Ireland at this time that Julian argues that such migrants as did arrive from across the Channel came as individuals or small groups, drawn into established communities, rather than entire social units leaving the Continent and trying to establish independent farming enclaves in landscapes that were already ‘taken’.
Another challenge to any interpretation of the British Neolithic is the 1,000-year delay between widescale farming on the Continent and its adoption in Britain and Ireland. Alison argues that this is due to isolation and parochialism, whereas Julian attributes it to ambivalence about the advantages of the farming life. His view – hotly contested – is that British and continental mariners were highly mobile on water and visited each other regularly, exchanging knowledge, gifts, raw materials, finished goods, animal products (wild and domesticated), and perhaps even marriage partners.
By this reading, Mesolithic groups in Britain knew about farming, but the allure of new foods and jadeite axes might not have been enough to counterbalance the downsides. Who would blame them for asking: ‘do we really want to live in such packed settlements, so close to our neighbours, working so hard, obeying new rules, in such proximity to animals and their waste products and our own waste products, prey to the sickness to which some farmers seem prone’?
Julian questions whether swapping a diet of fish, eggs, nuts or roast wildfowl for a bowl of milk or gruel would have been incentive enough to create the conditions for farming to take hold in Europe, and he says there is no evidence to suggest the Mesolithic people faced any kind of food-supply crisis. There must have been some other reason for the change – such as the desire for the wealth and status that comes with owning cattle and land by contrast with Mesolithic traditions of sharing and egalitarianism.
Mesolithic people carry the minimum of material equipment; they have few means of creating capital, storing value, or exhibiting wealth. They are constantly renegotiating their essential relationships with each other in an unstable world where sustenance has to be sought out regularly and nothing endures for very long. Mesolithic society operates widely across the landscape, is mobile and relatively egalitarian: sharing and co-operation are crucial for survival.
Even so, the very earliest forms of subsistence farming based on cultivating small garden-like plots may not have seemed greatly superior: your crops are still subject to the vicissitudes of the weather, pests, weeds, fungal infections and viral diseases. In the earliest Neolithic, from the 13th-millennium BC in Turkey and Greece, farming spread because farming populations grew and budded off to set up new communities.
The subsequent spread of farming into Europe from the seventh millennium BC saw a mix of migration and the adoption of farming by indigenous populations, and a gradual shift from arable agriculture to dairying. Animals gaining importance in central Europe may coincide with lactose tolerance starting to develop. Cattle really started to dominate in the Atlantic zone, and it was at this point that dairying became more important. On a practical level, animals provided more protein than plant foods, but, perhaps even more importantly, cattle are mobile stores of capital: not just a source of food, they can be converted into material for feasting, gifts, loans, tribute, and bridewealth.
Cattle thus represent power, and Julian argues that this is the siren call that induces indigenous communities on the Continent, and later in Britain and Ireland, to choose to become Neolithic. He imagines that there might well have been tensions within indigenous communities over the lure of power and wealth versus a life based on universal sharing. Once the decision is made, however, it is much easier for migrants to move (or be invited) into established communities, bringing not just ‘things’ such as pots and seeds, but also their practice and skills as potters, miners, and cultivators, so vital to the rapid take-up of farming practices. And they only have to do so in relatively small numbers to have a massive impact: Julian wonders whether Neolithic migrants were intrepid colonists moving en masse, or simply individuals in possession of skills that would make them welcome.
So much for theory: what about evidence? Julian believes it exists in the kind of site that he and Keith Ray dug last year in Herefordshire, where a long burial mound was found to have been constructed over the burnt remains of a massive hall (CA 285). Timber halls like this are associated with the primary Neolithic in Britain, coinciding with the land-clearance and cereal- cultivation that is reflected in the pollen record for the early part of the fourth millennium BC and in a massive cache of cereal grains at Balbridie. These halls are short-lived, never replaced, and many are deliberately destroyed by fire.
Both Alison and Julian agree that they seem to represent a distinctive early phase in the Neolithic. Julian sees them as marking the creation of a new kind of society, the deliberate decision – after a generation or two of agricultural experimentation, of indigenous people choosing once and for all the one-way road to being Neolithic. Building such a hall is a communal act, but that of a smaller, more narrowly bounded community than in the past, a quasi-autonomous kin group. From now on, survival depends on being a recognised member of this community and sharing in its wealth and property, consisting of cattle and cultivation plots occupying a particular place in the landscape, rather than being part of a much wider and more mobile network of people.
The same ideas are reflected in mortuary practice, where the remains of a representative section of the community are placed in house-like long barrows and long cairns as a discrete group of ‘ancestors’ for the new community from whom descent can be claimed. In the case of the Herefordshire site, the inauguration of a new community is reinforced by burning down the hall of the ancestors and then placing their bones in the foundation of the burial mound erected over the burnt timber remains.
Against the grain
The subsequent decline in cereal production is evident in dated examples of carbonised cereal grains that begin to tail off from about 3700 BC. This has been interpreted as evidence that early farmers experienced an immediate boom followed by a bust, as fertile soils became exhausted, and fungal and viral disease began to blight crops. The problem with this scenario is that declining crop yields coincide with an increase in monument-building, the age of passage tombs in Ireland and cursus monuments and causewayed enclosures in Britain. This, says Julian, is exactly what one might expect if, after an experimental period following the initial introduction of domesticates, larger regional economies begin to develop based on livestock wealth.
Community monuments give way to larger monuments that are, as Alison says, centres for inter-regional interaction, combining the functions of market and fair, for feasting and marriage, religious ceremony and commemoration of the ancestors, bringing together numerous communities that each have responsibility for digging their section of bank and ditch, burying in its terminals deposits of material that has meaning and significance to them.
From this point on, society becomes larger, more competitive, more violent. It is sad to have to acknowledge that Neolithic society might have been based not on the need to feed, but on the lust for power and on material greed. That this was the case, however, is made all the more plausible by any glimpse of subsequent world history. On a more positive note, it is arguable that our sense of the past, shared by all readers of this magazine, is another Neolithic innovation. Whereas Mesolithic people were primarily focused on the present, Neolithic society courted longer timescales: herds of animals and cultivation plots have their own temporal dynamics, and objects, architecture, and funerary monuments endure beyond an individual’s lifetime, inspiring future generations, including our own.
People, Place and Time in Neolithic and Chalcolithic Europe
The debate continues: the two-day Prehistoric Society Europa Conference, University of Cardiff, 30-31 May 2014, in honour of Alasdair Whittle, will bring together an international cast of distinguished speakers to present the results of recent research on Neolithic farming communities in Britain, Ireland, and the Continent. See the website of the Prehistoric Society for further information: www.prehistoricsociety.org
Julian Thomas, The Birth of Neolithic Britain: an interpretive account, Oxford University Press, 2013, £95, ISBN 978-0199681969.
Alison Sheridan, ‘The Neolithisation of Britain and Ireland: the big picture’, in B Finlayson and G Warren (eds) Landscapes in Transition, Oxbow, 2010, £35, ISBN 978-1842174166.