3 Things We Know About Neolithic Britain and 3 Things We Don’t

The Neolithic, or late Stone Age, is one of the most fascinating periods in British history.

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It’s the point at which our distant ancestors stopped being hunter-gatherers and became settled farmers, but before they discovered how to make tools in copper, bronze or iron; a time around 4,500 to 7,000 years ago (though it is worth noting that the Neolithic spanned different periods in different parts of the world). The remains of their villages feel recognisably homey, with the remnants of roaring fires, jewellery and cosmetics to be found. Unlike their hunter-gatherer predecessors, the days of Neolithic farmers would have resembled ours – getting up in the morning, going out to the work of tending to crops, flocks and herds, and then returning when the light began to fade to cook, eat, sit around the fire and tell stories.
But this feeling of familiarity is something of an illusion. The Neolithic people of Britain had no form of writing, something which is true of most but not all Neolithic cultures (there are exceptions in the form of proto-writing in China and Serbia), and as a result everything we know about them comes from archaeology. One of the greatest wonders that they left behind is over 4,000 stone circles, of which over a thousand survive today. These are only known in Britain, Ireland and Brittany, and yet we have no real understanding of why they were built or how they were used. The meagre things we do know about the Neolithic are dwarfed by the amount that we don’t, and recent archaeology has often provided more questions than it has answers. Here are three things we know for sure about the Neolithic – and a small flavour of all the fascinating mysteries that remain.

1. We know what the people of the Neolithic were experts in

The night sky would have been a defining feature of Neolithic people’s experience.

It’s easy to look down on the Neolithic peoples of Britain. They were, after all, living without writing or metal tools at a time when the people of ancient Sumer were living in organised cities in their tens of thousands, with a developed political system, metallurgy and not only writing, but literature. By comparison, Neolithic Britain seems primitive.
But the people of Neolithic Britain achieved a remarkable level of expertise in other areas. One is ship-building (more on that below). Another is astronomy. Astronomy is arguably the first science mankind ever practised; the first maps, dating to 16,500 BC from the walls of the Lascaux caves, are not of the local area – as might seem more logical and useful – but of the stars. We were plotting maps of the heavens long before anyone ever thought of planting seeds to ensure a harvest.
In Neolithic Britain, that understanding of astronomy reached remarkable heights. The greatest Neolithic monuments reflect this, placing a particular importance on the winter solstice. For instance, the tomb of Newgrange in Ireland, built at 3,200 BC, is aligned with the winter solstice such that the rising sun on that day shines through a small opening above the doorway and floods the interior with light. While Newgrange is a particularly sophisticated example of this, the same effect is seen in many other passage tombs, such as Maeshowe in Orkney, where it is the last ray of sunlight on the winter solstice that travels down the passage to illuminate the back wall of the tomb.
Maeshowe also demonstrates the building skill of the people of Neolithic Orkney. Its entrance has a ‘door’, which is nothing less than a one-tonne block of stone that swings forward to cover the entrance. It’s no longer used, but a now-retired guide to the site used to open and close it when sneaking into the tomb as a ten-year-old girl. The ancient engineering was good enough that even the lightest touch could still be used to swing the vast door open and closed, 5,000 years later.

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2. We know what they ate

People began farming animals for food.

The change from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a farming lifestyle, which happened in Britain over a period of a thousand years, changed what people ate considerably. From the protein-rich diet of the hunter-gatherer, with its sharp swings from feast to famine depending on the success of the hunt, Neolithic farmers had a food supply that was much more reliable if potentially less nutritious overall, as it contained more bread and dairy than the hunter-gatherer diet of fruit, nuts and meat.
There is a good amount of archaeological evidence for what Neolithic people ate, at least compared to questions like what they wore. There are charred remnants of foodstuffs in fires, such as a charred lump of bread found in Yarnton (just outside Oxford), dating from around 3,600 BC, which is our earliest evidence of bread-making in Britain. We also find remnants of dairy products and honey adhering to the inside of pots, and remnants of animal bones strewn around Neolithic sites, and in some cases, arranged ceremonially. Human remains also provide evidence of how nutritious the Neolithic diet was.
Eating like someone in the Neolithic period would be pleasant enough for a day or two, but it would soon become very bland by modern tastes. In the UK, the people of the Neolithic farmed cattle, goats, pigs and sheep (the latter probably for food more than for wool), and grew beans, peas, lentils, barley and wheat. They had eggs, but not from chickens, which were only introduced in the Iron Age. Bone marrow seems to have been considered a particular treat.

3. We know how far they travelled

Some very well-travelled animals were carried on Neolithic trading ships.

It’s almost impossible to say what the limits of Neolithic travel were, but there are some things that can be deduced from the meagre evidence available, and that suggests that the people of Neolithic Britain travelled further than we might have thought possible.
One living, breathing piece of evidence is the Orkney vole. These appear on five islands of Orkney and nowhere else in the British isles, and are genetically linked to voles in Belgium. They were definitely widespread in Orkney in Neolithic times, and it’s therefore concluded that they came to Orkney around 3,100 BC, presumably via trade routes. What makes this so remarkable is that they aren’t found anywhere else in Britain; so it probably isn’t the case that a family of voles stowed away in some pots that were traded several times across mainland Britain and eventually made it to Orkney sometime later. If that were the case, you’d expect them to have been discovered and booted out long before they got to the final stage of a journey that would probably cover a thousand miles.
Instead, what the Orkney vole suggests is that some family of voles stowed away in a ship that travelled from its Channel crossing all the way up the east coast of England, without any stop long enough to justify unloading its cargo. Far from our natural picture of isolated tribes who never travelled more than a couple of miles from home, this suggests that there were some people in the Neolithic undertaking trading voyages by sea over hundreds of miles.
If that doesn’t sound remarkable enough, there’s also evidence of similar journeys being undertaken to Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides – but with a boat full not of small, portable voles, but of red deer, coming from further afield than Britain, Ireland or Norway.

4. We don’t know what language they spoke

Their language is shrouded in mystery.

There is no evidence of writing from Neolithic Britain; it seems that the first literate inhabitants of the British Isles came over 2,500 years later, in the form of the Romans. Unlike the concept of agriculture, the concept of writing has seldom emerged independently in human history. Usually, people have either borrowed writing systems wholesale from their neighbours, or at least been inspired by them. Writing has developed in complete isolation only twice that we know of, in Sumer and in Mesoamerica.
Without writing, there’s little we can do to reconstruct the language, or more likely languages, of Neolithic Britain. There are some hints in place names; for instance, in his A History of Ancient Britain, Neil Oliver notes that the Cornish name for Saint Michael’s Mount, an island, translates as “the grey rock in the woods”, which suggests that it may date to before 1,500 BC, when the sea levels were lower. The Neolithic language of central Europe, Proto-Indo-European, has been partially reconstructed by looking at how it has evolved into medieval and modern languages, and attempting to reverse the process. But the linguistic offshoots of Proto-Indo-European arrived in Britain only later, thereby erasing whatever language was spoken there previously.

5. We don’t know how their society was organised

How they lived their day to day lives can only be guessed at.

The organisation of a society logically depends on the population of that society. In a group of twenty people, who might all be related in an extended family, everyone will know everyone else’s name, and decisions can be made without any formal organisation or leadership. There might be older or more successful family members whose opinions count for more than the younger or more foolish ones, but there’s no sense that a ruler is required and everyone is broadly equal.
In a larger group of people, some more organisation is required. In a group of two hundred people, everyone might still know everyone else, but the possibility of making a group decision by consensus is no longer so likely. There may still not be a formal ruler, but someone will be required to keep order, perhaps as the first among equals.
If you have a thousand people or more, they may know each other by sight, but they won’t know each other by name. The connections of friendship or family ties won’t be enough to resolve conflicts. There needs to be someone, or a group of people, who are officially in charge.
It’s on the basis of these principles that historians have tried to work out how Neolithic society was ordered. Until recently, the evidence pointed towards small populations living in reasonable equality. The Neolithic village of Skara Brae in Orkney has a collection of eight houses in which perhaps fifty people (counting adults and children) would have lived, presumably in family groups. The houses are all of equal size; there’s no sense that any one of them was inhabited by a person or family perceived as more important than the others.
But just six miles from Skara Brae is an archaeological site that is throwing these beliefs on their head. The Ness of Brodgar, inhabited for roughly the same thousand-year period as Skara Brae, is only in the early stages of excavation. But it contains the remains of a vast, cathedral-like structure, and a level of building sophistication that points to a much more advanced civilisation than the small village of Skara Brae. At the point when the site was abandoned, there was a feast from which archaeologists have found the tibia of 400 cattle; implying a much greater population than was previously realised. The small-scale egalitarian society that was once assumed to be the Neolithic norm is now called into question, and has become yet another mystery.

6. We don’t know what religion they observed

They are everywhere in the British Isles – but what were they for?

It’s a running joke that when archaeologists don’t know the purpose of an artifact, they assume it must be religious or ceremonial. Imagine an archaeologist looking at the remains of a modern Christian society, and you can see why. They’d find a cross shape occurring again and again – in the forms of some of the grandest buildings, as a grave marker, and even used in necklaces and other jewellery. They’d assume that the cross shape had a religious significance, and they’d be right. Then again, they might also see huge stadiums, one in every city and in most towns, and conclude that they were a place of religious significance too.
Still, without any other ideas, we have to assume that the greatest Neolithic monuments – the tombs like Newgrange and Maeshowe, and the stone circles like Stonehenge, Castlerigg and Avebury – were built with religious intent. Their relationship with the solstices suggests that their religion had an astronomical basis. That tombs were so grand, and therefore so important to Neolithic people, has been understood as a form of ancestor worship. Then again, modern cemeteries are also usually close to churches without any ancestor worship taking place. One feature of Neolithic tombs is that only a small portion of the population were buried in them, and the skeletons of individuals were not kept intact but instead jumbled together – so if ancestors were worshiped, it seems likely that they were worshiped collectively, not as individuals in the manner of saints.
What’s exciting is that even though the Neolithic was so very long ago, advances in technology, such as more accurate carbon dating, and the excavation of sites such as the Ness of Brodgar, mean that archaeologists are learning new things all the time. While new discoveries are currently providing more questions than answers, it may be that in ten or twenty years some of these mysteries will have been resolved.
Images: neolithic personcooking bacon on fire; ancient ship; night sky; neanderthal facestanding stones; neolithic house interior; neolithic house

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