Lives (Archaeology of People) Part 3

Living by mounds and mountains

There is no one agreed hypothesis for the beginnings of the Neolithic in southern Britain. An older model of colonisation was replaced in the 1980s by models of indigenous acculturation, based in part on perceived continuities in lithic technology and mobility of lifestyle. These in turn have come under review more recently. On the one hand, the radiocarbon timescale has been reconsidered, and on the other, there is new isotopic evidence for a major diet shift in coastal areas from marine to terrestrial resources (Schulting 1998; 2000; Richards and Hedges 1999). This has brought the possibility of more rapid change once again to the fore. The view from Ireland has also rejected the comfortable model of indigenous continuity, slow change and a mobile existence (Cooney 2000). What was going on around 4000 BC remains stubbornly and frustratingly unclear, and certainly varied.

One solution might simply be to accept much more regional diversity: filtered colonisation through the western seaways into Ireland, with its distinctive insular conditions, and perhaps into other parts of western Britain as well; and rapid if partial acculturation elsewhere, including in inland southern Britain. Other scenarios can also be considered. Debate so far, in fact going right back to the initial discussions of the 1920s and 1930s, has tended to be in terms of the choice of one or the other major hypothesis. There has been very little attempt to consider the processes of filtered colonisation and indigenous acculturation at work together. There has been comparatively little effort to consider both daily routines and worldviews in the adoption of novel practices, since one or the other has tended to dominate explanations; Case (1969), for example, examined in detail the practical conditions of pioneer settlement, while Bradley (1998a) has stressed the importance of what people thought.6 And there has been virtually no sense of regional interaction; the perspective has been either thoroughly local or wholly generalising. Rather than a choice of ‘east or west’ (Piggott 1955), it may be fruitful now to consider the possible relationships between different areas. Unlike in the LBK and to a degree like the situation in the Alpine foreland, there were multiple orientations.


A general contrast between coastal and inland conditions may be a helpful start. There were Mesolithic populations in many parts of western Britain and in many though not necessarily all stretches of coastal Ireland. Taking the evidence of  Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides and elsewhere (Mithen 2000; Schulting 1998), these populations would have used a broad spectrum of resources, though favouring those of the coast and sea above all. Accepting the evidence of Ferriter’s Cove for the introduction of a cow – dead or alive – into this milieu in the mid fifth millennium BC (Woodman et al. 1999), such people would also have been far from isolated. Indeed, it might be legitimate to argue that these two observations are connected, since attachment to the sea could have been strengthened as some kind of response to awareness of changes over the horizon. By contrast, though there need be no single pattern of inland settlement, it is far more likely that there were both empty spaces and little frequented regions among the populations of mobile foragers living inland; parts of the southern chalk downland are a case in point.As far as can be seen, a broad spectrum resource base is probable, without the kind of preferences or specialisation seen on the coast.

These sketches are simple, if not simplistic, but they begin to open the field for fresh speculation about beginnings. My first suggestions on this topic were to consider the conditions in which agricultural settlement began to expand in the earlier fifth millennium BC.Perhaps there was after all something in this idea, but the chronology was wrong, since at the time it was thought that the start of the British Neolithic could be put rather earlier. Now, with beginnings seemingly secured a little before 4000 BC, a different context can be evoked: filtered, small-scale and piecemeal colonisation, by fissioning communities or parts of communities, not just from the European coast itself but largely from the inland populations which constituted the major cultural groupings of Chasseen and Michelsberg. If such population movement is to be invoked to explain in part the rapidity with which novel material practices were adopted across many parts of Britain, it is likely that it was directed especially into inland areas. In a much earlier model, I suggested three possible fates for the indigenous population in this kind of situation: avoidance, disruption or absorption.Some kind of fusion is now an attractive possibility. Patterned movement through the seasonal cycles of the inland forager year would have been compatible with the patterned existence of pioneer agriculturalists. The routines of deer hunting and cattle herding, clearance to attract game and clearance for browse and cultivation, the occupation of base camps and the maintenance of small plots for cultivation, might all be thought of as leading to convergence. This could be seen as symbolised in material form in pottery: novel, transformative, in forms evoking a cultural relationship with European populations, but easy and quick to make, convenient in situations where food and drink was presented and shared, and spreading rapidly as a novelty through existing networks of exchange and interaction.

Better chronology has enabled not only greater precision about the likely start date for the British Neolithic, but also more awareness of subsequent development. And it turns out that some of the most striking monumental constructions probably belong not to the very beginning but to an established phase, beginning around 3700-3600 BC, perhaps as much as four centuries or more after it all began. It is likely in my view that most causewayed enclosures belong here, as well as the monumental mounds of many long barrows. At this date, the selective and creative rememberings discussed in the last topic were of an older continental past, reinforcing an orientation to a real or perceived European homeland going back to the LBK. In nearly all cases, however, the monumentality of the long mound was preceded by something different: smaller in scale, not necessarily incompatible with the linearity of the long mound idea, but not so clearly owing form or content to the longhouse—long mound nexus. Instead, pavements, post settings, post facades, small post structures, pits, small parallel banks, and varied depositions of human bone, animal bone and artefacts, could all and variously owe as much to traditions of indigenous practice or again a fusion of ways of doing things in the first three or four centuries of the Neolithic in southern and eastern Britain.

By contrast, things may have been rather different in western Britain. It could be conjectured that colonisation of coastal areas already occupied by well-established indigenous communities is in fact unlikely, though that does not exclude colonisation of inland areas, as has been argued forcefully for Ireland (Cooney 2000), leading to their gradual infilling. It could be that the apparent turning away from use of the resources of the sea (Schulting 1998) belongs to this kind of context, and to a series of realignments in outlook and social practice. In other respects, there may have been continuity of belief systems. Much is still uncertain about the chronology of monument construction. It seems plausible, however, that some at least of the series of so-called portal dolmens on either side of the Irish Sea belong to the early stages of the Neolithic,preceding perhaps court cairns or court tombs in Ireland and the Cotswold-Severn outliers of south-east Wales. In some parts of south-west Wales, the portal dolmens are found in areas which had had numerous Mesolithic occupations.Many of these constructions are placed close to rocky outcrops or with a view of them and prominent hills. In striking instances, the architecture of the monument seems to mimic the form of the hills, Carn Ingli being referenced by Pentre Ifan and Llech y Dribedd among others. Unlike the situation in central southern Britain, where what eventually became monumentalised began with a series of smaller constructions and interventions, there is relatively little sign of gradual development (some sites do plausibly have sequences). These were probably constructions rapidly made: ‘achievements of special virtue’ in Frances Lynch’s striking phrase (1972, 77). A possible exception is the instances where the portal dolmen stands directly above a shallow pit, as at Carreg Samson or Pentre Ifan, though this may equally be an integral part of a single phase of construction. Nor do successive rebuildings, as at Dyffryn Ardudwy (Powell 1973) or Trefignath (Smith and Lynch 1987), invalidate the general claim. There is no convincing instance of an enclosing cairn surviving around or over a portal dolmen. There is evidence, in some though not necessarily all cases, for a low surround or platform of small stones. Dyffryn Ardudwy and Trefignath are convenient examples. The same may be true of Pentre Ifan (Grimes 1949), and it is possible here, given the unusual addition of flanking facade stones, to see the horned platform or perhaps very low cairn as a later addition (Lynch 1972).

From this base arise the substantial uprights which hold an often massive ‘capstone’. But here the conventional terminology of megalithic archaeology lets us down (cf. Tilley 1998). These top stones do indeed complete a box-like compartment, but there seems much more to them than this. They often overhang the uprights, and frequently are either pitched at a tilt or have an upper surface with a pronounced slope. These are surely stones which have been carefully selected for conspicuous presentation, after impressive amounts of labour to get them set up. They refer to or otherwise play on a connection with hills, mountains and rocky outcrops (Figure 6.5) (Tilley 1994; Cummings 2001). There is no surviving evidence, though admittedly the circumstances for such survival are not favourable, for any pronounced interest in the deposition of human remains inside the compart-ments.7 Instead, these constructions could better be seen as to do with creation myths, involving perhaps figures who emerged from the earth through mountains or rose from the earth to the sky via mountains, at the beginning of it all. This kind of belief can be found widely in other situations (e.g. J. Middleton 1960, 2; Waterson 2000, 184-5; Martin 2001, 116). It seems more likely that, if this kind of interpretation is followed, this cosmology belonged to an indigenous population long familiar with the regional landscape. There are no directly comparable constructions in possible source areas for colonists, such as north-west France.

Why now? An answer must presumably lie in the changing situation over wide areas, even though contact between regions may have been fragmented and episodic. If there were a mixture of populations in western Britain and Ireland, the early monumental constructions could be seen as an assertion of indigenous identity, a statement that even if the sea was being slighted (Schulting 1998), the land endured. And interaction may have been played out at a wider scale too. If there were in fact more intrusive pioneer populations in southern and eastern Britain than in the Irish Sea zone, the early monumental constructions of the west could be seen as an assertion of regional indigenous identity. There is little in western areas which directly evokes the longhouse world, though a general connection might be sought in the cairns of the court monuments. Orientation was to a different past, previously taken for granted perhaps but now open to contestation and the possibility of replacement.

This kind of discussion tends to promote a view of agency as something operating at a rather large, collective and regional scale, and as also dominated by an orientation to the past. Thinking about conditions of residence and the taskscape offers a different kind of perspective, with different possible emphases: on short-term forward intentionality, ephemerality, cyclicity, and diversity. People may have been held within the flux of these rhythms and variations, such that no one fixed or absolute kind of identity can be easily defined. People undoubtedly planned ahead: in the creation of clearances, for example, or in the construction of such larger buildings as have been found. But it is not clear that they always thought far ahead. There was perhaps an expectation of a cycle of growth and decay or replacement, in the regeneration of woodland after clearance, in the lives of cattle, or in the setting up and falling or burning down of ‘houses’. The Sweet Track (Coles and Coles 1986) still offers one of the most vivid illustrations of this kind of sense of time.

Stones that float to the sky: early monuments from the Irish Sea zone. Clockwise from top left: Carreg Coetan; Pentre Ifan; Maen y Bardd; Llech y Dribedd.

Figure 6.5 Stones that float to the sky: early monuments from the Irish Sea zone. Clockwise from top left: Carreg Coetan; Pentre Ifan; Maen y Bardd; Llech y Dribedd.


It was preceded, at least over part of its course, by another construction some thirty years earlier. Some of the wood used in its own construction may have been stockpiled in advance. There was careful use of different wood species for different components, as well as of oak for major pieces from both primary and secondary woodland. Passing over patches of at least seasonally shallow water, the trackway would have offered a raised walkway, but it is far from clear that this was merely a device to keep feet dry. Its course was sanctified or otherwise marked from time to time not only by more ordinary pottery but also by the deposition of exotic axe blades of jadeite and flint. Judging by the state of preservation of the timbers, it is likely that the trackway was in use for something like a generation at most, and it was not replaced in the same massive form, even though this may well have been a construction easily within the labour compass of a small group of people, but by a series of other trackways built of wattle hurdles (themselves a product of cycles of hazel coppicing), set down at intervals subsequently. The taskscape here did not endure unaltered, but resided in a flow of changing activities.

Other striking examples of punctuated flow come from the recently published details of the causewayed enclosures of Etton and Windmill Hill.The defining features of these places – ditch segments and on occasion accompanying low banks – were themselves probably created gradually over time. They were certainly subsequently much modified at Etton, though not it seems over the whole circuit at any one moment. Perhaps the possibility of recuts in the Windmill Hill ditches has been underplayed.But it is the episodicity of the varied depositions in the ditches of both Etton and Windmill Hill which speaks for a cycle of activity, much of it at any one time rather small-scale. Overall emphases can be seen within the total distribution and spatially varying character of these depositions, and there were perhaps foundation deposits in significant primary locations such as ditch terminals. Nonetheless I remain most struck by the varied clusterings and scatters of material, interwoven in the accumulating ditch fills (Figure 6.6). In the Windmill Hill analysis we suggested a distinction between scatters and groups of material,but this may be hard to sustain. The lasting impression is of varied, small-scale depositions. These may also themselves have had differing histories, some coming from events immediately prior to deposition, others at the end of a longer story of accumulation and temporary storage before final selection, in both cases accentuating the sense of a series of intersecting cycles. It could be that this pattern of deposition, seen both temporally and spatially, reflects the pattern of use of places of this kind. In that case, causewayed enclosures of this character would have been the scene of periodic gatherings, sometimes involving many people but at other times engaging few. And it could be that the pattern of deposition also in some way maps or echoes the nature of routine existence in a wider landscape beyond them, a way of life characterised by alternating movings and stayings, in a cycle of structured activities, rarely prolonged in any one place.

Depositions in the ditch segments at Etton. Clockwise from left: fox mandible, inverted pot, antler comb and pot, segment 7; cattle ribs, segment I; wood, bone and pottery including nested sherds, segment 7; human cranium, antler baton and cattle bone, segment 6.

Figure 6.6 Depositions in the ditch segments at Etton. Clockwise from left: fox mandible, inverted pot, antler comb and pot, segment 7; cattle ribs, segment I; wood, bone and pottery including nested sherds, segment 7; human cranium, antler baton and cattle bone, segment 6.

Until their final monumentalisation, there is something of the same character to the history of those other places where people both built and deposited: the long barrows of southern Britain. Recent analysis of the human remains from these has also shown much diversity in diet and activity. Isotopic studies (Richards and Hedges 1999) have indicated a variety of diets, from mixed ones to some rich in meat; what seems to be missing, on this evidence, is a major reliance on plant foods. The role of cereal cultivation is currently hotly debated (e.g. papers in Fairbairn 2000; cf. Monk 2000). Diversity may again be the key. In many situations, cereal cultivation may have been small-scale, even episodic, since relatively small amounts survive and because other plant remains can also be found. However, this supposition need not exclude the possibility of times when labour was invested on a greater scale. Study of human teeth, on admittedly small samples from long cairns in the Black Mountains group of south-east Wales, suggests diversity in this regard even within quite short distances. At Ty Isaf, the lack of caries, low ante-mortem tooth loss and low rate of enamel hypoplasia all suggested that carbohydrates including cereals played little part in a diet which was subject to few disruptions, while at Penywyrlod and Pipton, not far away, these trends are partially reversed.Even if those who were deposited in a particular cairn were not inhabitants of the immediately local area for their whole lives, the differences among the various mortuary groups are suggestive of differing kinds of livelihood.

The human bones themselves from these and related contexts bear other evidence suggesting the same conclusion. Musculoskeletal stress markers on the bones of adults suggest differences both between males and females, and between mortuary groups in separate areas.At West Kennet long barrow, not far from Windmill Hill, this evidence may suggest that the lifestyle of males involved more strenuous use of the right arm, shoulders and legs than was the case with females. On the other hand, females at West Kennet might have been more active than those from the chambered monument at Tinkinswood in the lowland Vale of Glamorgan in south-east Wales. Ideally, samples would be larger, but once again what matters is the apparent variation. Perhaps men were more involved in herding, hunting and longer-range movement, and women to varying degrees with labour-intensive routines or subsistence tasks, perhaps including cereal cultivation.

It has been customary to think of the introduction of ‘Neolithic’ diet and subsistence practices as more or less revolutionary. Much of the resistance to the notion of colonisation from the outside in the recent literature on the beginning of the Neolithic in Britain has been based in a belief that such changes were introduced gradually. This view has been severely challenged by the new isotopic evidence (Schulting 1998; Richards and Hedges 1999), at least from the standpoint of a few centuries after the start of new practices. This perspective in turn may obscure the nature of what had changed. In coastal areas of western Britain,8 seals, fish, shellfish, deer, wild cattle, pigs and presumably wild plants were replaced by domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep and goats, supplemented by cereals; in inland areas, deer, wild cattle, pigs and presumably wild plants were replaced by domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep and goats, supplemented by cereals. The major inland substitutions could be seen as of deer and wild cattle by domesticated cattle, even if other elements of the diet were important to a degree; on the coasts the shifts would have been from seals to cattle. Now from this perspective, inland change can be seen as much of form as of substance, if the major focus of people’s attention and values was still on large animals. It is often thought that one of the principal motives for adopting domestication would have been the greater degree of control to be exercised over the resource or resources in question. In this case, animals may still have caused people to follow in their wake around and about inland southern Britain. The enclosure sites indicate that it was through cattle and about cattle that people principally thought, and in the absence of evidence for prolonged settlement in one place and with so much evidence for woodland, it remains plausible that animals and people were normally on the move to some degree. On the coasts, the major replacement was again of one set of large creatures by another, and fish catches may have been substituted by cereal harvests. It is unclear what the advantages would have been in terms of control, abundance or predictability. The importance of the shift is likely to have been as much in values and location as in the resources in question alone.

In the area of the LBK and in the Alpine foreland, evidence for residential structures is the defining feature of early Neolithic archaeologies, whereas in southern Britain this is much more elusive. Long mounds seem to provide distant memories of those earlier buildings, while contemporary ones appear to be few and far between. The absences, however, are relative. The discovery under metres of col-luvium of a substantial structure at White Horse Stone, Kent (Current Archaeology 2000), and the survival of the large structure on the upper Thames floodplain at Yarnton, Oxfordshire (Hey 1997; and Gill Hey, pers. comm.), strongly suggest that other buildings of this kind are ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered in situations less subject to erosion or other destruction. These examples could be seen as part of a wider distribution which extends into Scotland and Ireland; there have been several recent discoveries in Ireland (Cooney 2000), and Claish Farm, near Stirling in central Scotland (G. Barclay et al. 2002), is the most recent northerly discovery. The Sweet Track itself is also a reminder that there was no lack of skill in working wood.

Though this may not always be the case in Ireland, in the British contexts such structures appear to occur on their own. Not only were they isolated, there also appears to have been little by way of other concentrations of features or material around them. There are only a few signs of post replacements or other repairs, and at face value these appear to have been relatively short-lived. The Claish Farm structure had been burned down (after one episode of repair or rebuilding). It might be legitimate to think of regional variations in the patterns or histories of settlement, but it may be more plausible to envisage again a flow or cycle of activity, within which from time to time larger structures were constructed, maintained for a relatively short time, possibly for special circumstances such as the fostering of alliances, feasting, or the celebration of ritual events, but then allowed to lapse if not deliberately destroyed to mark or to end their temporary significance. Whether any lasted longer than say the Sweet Track is not clear. Some were commemorated by the construction of mounds or cairns above them (or at least the places where they had stood were taken as significant by subsequent generations), such as Hazleton or Ascott-under-Wychwood (Saville 1990; A. Barclay 2000); below the outer bank of the Windmill Hill enclosure there are also the elements of what could have been a large timber structure.In other instances, these buildings appear rapidly to have been forgotten. Few if any of the British examples appear to have been the residence of large numbers of people, though it is not excluded that some may have been the focus for unusual scales of production and consumption, including cereals (G. Jones 2000). If sedentism is defined as being in one place for more than a generation (Tringham 2000), it is far from clear, even when buildings can be found in southern Britain, that this was a sedentary population.

The implications of this issue are not confined to a purely practical sphere of shelter or subsistence. This body of evidence too, like that of the taskscape, strongly suggests a shifting, unstable, perhaps opportunistic social setting. If large buildings were briefly the focus for social groupings, those too may have lapsed, dispersed or otherwise re-formed on the abandonment of the structures in question. The other evidence for occupation (e.g. Pollard 1999b; C. Evans et al. 1999) also allows for a changing and changeable cast of co-residents through the cycles of agglomeration and dispersal. In this setting therefore identity and affiliation were presumably key issues, of perpetual significance and constantly to be negotiated. The most abundant evidence comes from the period a few centuries after the beginning of the Neolithic in southern Britain, as I have stressed already, when these questions may have become more pressing than they were initially. Though much is different, it may be revealing, as in the LBK and the Alpine foreland, to think in terms of several overlapping scales or dimensions of identity.

The evidence for the taskscape shows active people engaged in skilful performances. It is difficult to avoid thinking of people as self-reliant, and acting on their own: in herding cows through woodland, in longer-range movements to procure axes, in walking in single file along the Sweet Track. The individual body was the start of many if not most mortuary rites, and the case for successive depositions in structures, mounds and cairns has strengthened rather than weakened in recent studies. Individual-ness was perhaps, however, at least in the mortuary sphere, a relative concept, as the re-assembled skeletons, composed of the bones of more than one individual, at Fussell’s Lodge long barrow, strongly suggest; similar mixing to make up small, separate deposits can be seen in Penywyrlod and Pipton in the south Welsh Black Mountains.Categorisation in terms of age and sex or gender was also demonstrably a concern in many contexts where sorting of bones took place. This also involves the issue of individual-ness, since individuals had to be categorised before or as they were assigned to particular groupings. That transformation from fleshed, intact bodies to disarranged or rearranged bones was a key organising principle in nearly all instances has been observed over and over again; less remarked has been the unstable history of treatment in some instances. There are certainly places where the same kind of practice seems essentially to have been repeated many times. Wayland’s Smithy I is a case in point.In other instances, deposits may reflect a variety of practice, as in the mixture of stacked adult and juvenile remains, very scattered child remains and two reassembled individuals seen in the Fussell’s Lodge long barrow, or the mixture of articulated, semi-articulated and disarticulated remains in the West Kennet long barrow (Ashbee 1966; Piggott 1962).

The sense of unstable histories and fluid patterns extends to the organising principles behind the treatment of the human dead. Contrary to the claim that ‘it is difficult to find any theoretical grounds for holding on to ancestors in the British Neolithic’ (J. Whitley 2002, 121), the transformations of the dead, combined with their housing in a series of monuments in southern Britain whose form surely evokes in some way or other distant pasts, point interpretation firmly in this direction. But what has been too often left out of account is diversity of practice and especially the duration of the processes involved which allows further diversity to be considered. Inescapably, mortuary treatment begins with the individual dead person, and that was demonstrably the focus of rites in those cases where deposition directly into structures, rather than excarnation or exposure, was the first move. In many instances, we can suggest, as has long been mooted, a succession of individual depositions. And here it seems to me that we could consider genealogy as well as ancestry. On the way to the creation of more distant ancestors, there may have been much more vivid, personalised attention given to known, remembered individuals, back over say two to three or three to four generations. We have perhaps concentrated too much on the final form of deposits, and not enough on the process and associations of their formation. This perspective would allow us to think of concerns for position and descent, and for the immediacies of relationships among the living, alongside a wider principle of more generalised ancestry. The ancestors come into being through the lived concerns of their descendants.

This perspective may serve also to reduce the impression of communities or societies obsessed only with their dead and their past. The evidence of causewayed enclosures like those of Windmill Hill and Etton, noted above, points in other directions. The frame or the setting may again have echoes of distant pasts. The dead are certainly present, though in numbers and conditions that vary from site to site and even from ditch segment to ditch segment. For all the substantial numbers seen at Hambledon Hill, there are fewer at Windmill Hill, and an emphasis on children or younger people and their probably preferential placing in the outer circuit there indicates that the dead took their place in a wider scheme of things. At Etton, the emphasis in deposits on the east side of the enclosure, both in the ditches and the interior, may be on commemoration of individuals or small kin groups (Pryor 1998, 367-8). As Windmill Hill and Etton vividly show in their differing ways, the concerns writ large in the various deposits are for a very wide range of activities carried out by and important to the living. Practically every dimension of contemporary existence finds its representation here, which is why this kind of site has been such a powerful (if partially misleading) emblem of their period, from woodland existence to the working of flint tools, stone axes and querns. Animals find a central place here, their remains evoking a probably wide range of complex relationships, from ownership, the socialities of herding and daily tendings, and routine consumption (if there was such a thing), to the subtleties of systems of value, exchange, sacrifice, feasting, substitution and storage.People might have thought far more consciously and more often about their living relations and their cows, and the immediate predecessors of these and their doings, than about generalised and more distant ancestors. But it is again not a choice between one or the other, if the moral community can be seen to be formed by long and fractured conversations about a variety of themes, from the contingencies of the present to the abstractions of pasts, otherworlds and ‘nature’.

The enclosures seem to demand, from their size, and to some extent perhaps from their settings, a more than purely small or local audience. Their connections and connotations are wide. And yet the individual depositions that go to make up the eventual whole are characteristically both small and varied. Definition was the point at issue: of relationships, prowess, allegiances, histories. But what was being defined, or at least the way this was expressed, was never quite the same, and may have been witnessed by audiences of varying size and complexity. That instability speaks volumes for the nature of existence at this time.

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