Guns of the Armada
Editor Simon Denison
Great Sites: Balbridie
For years, very few Neolithic settlements were known in Britain. Perhaps the 'first farmers' were a myth? Then a Neolithic 'house' full of grain was found near Aberdeen. Peter Rowley-Conwy reports
For many years, archaeologists researching the Neolithic period in Britain - the period when farming began - focused on the great surviving monuments such as causewayed camps or megalithic tombs, the places where people performed 'rituals' and were buried. Settlements, where Neolithic people lived, seemed strangely elusive.
As Stuart Piggott wrote in 1954, 'very few actual permanent settlement sites have been identified [in Britain] as yet'. The closest thing we had in Britain was scatters of refuse-filled pits generally labelled 'enigmatic'. In other words, we had no idea what they were.
For much of the 20th century this did not matter too much, because although no definite settlements had been found in Britain, archaeologists had a pretty good idea of what they would be like if they were. Part of the package of changes brought about by the Neolithic Revolution, according to the early 20th century archaeologist Gordon Childe, was village life - a sedentary existence based on cultivated cereals and domestic livestock - and work on the Continent had revealed numerous villages and farms.
Our idea of British Neolithic settlements (dating from about 4000-2000 BC) was therefore largely based on evidence from our continental neighbours, in particular the well-researched country of Denmark. Here there were several early Neolithic settlements with longhouses, such as Barkær and Stengade, both with two major dwellings. Troldebjerg continued the tradition into the middle Neolithic. But during the 1970s and 80s these were all re-examined and lost their status as settlements. Barkær turned out to be two long barrows, with rows of posts holding the sandy deposits in place. Stengade was similar, and Troldebjerg turned out to be a causewayed camp. Suddenly our continental models had gone.
The British Neolithic clearly needed a rethink, and the result was a new orthodoxy that has held sway for nearly 20 years. It envisages a Neolithic without permanent settlements. The pit scatters, no longer enigmatic, are seen as the remains of the shortlived camp sites of a nomadic society, moving from place to place and living mostly on wild foods (BA July 1996). Although there was a little agriculture, this did not become the staple until the Bronze Age.
In this view, the only fixed points in the landscape were the tombs and the causewayed camps. People lived on the move, coming together only for ceremonials - or for death.
Seen from the sky
At just this time, when perceptions of the Neolithic were changing, a remarkable site was discovered at Balbridie near the River Dee inland from Aberdeen. It was initially spotted on air photographs during the dry summer of 1976, which showed a rectangular structure with rounded ends, measuring 24 x 12 metres. Halls of this shape were known from the Dark Ages, and an early post-Roman date was confidently expected.
The excavations in 1977-81, directed by Nicholas Reynolds and Ian Ralston, revealed a large post-built structure, originally roofed and with a number of internal rooms formed by partitions. Initially, no evidence was found to disprove a Dark Age date - the pottery was of uncertain vintage. Floor levels had been ploughed away. But the excavations did reveal that the building had burnt down, so charcoal was available for radiocarbon dating. When researchers at Glasgow University established 11 dates spanning about 3900-3500 BC, falling into the early Neolithic, it was a major surprise.
Could the dates be wrong? It seemed implausible that a Dark Age house should by chance be built on top of a Neolithic site, and then somehow become covered in charcoal from the deposits below. Dark Age people might possibly have been burning very old wood, if they'd found it in a bog, and in that case radiocarbon would date the growth of the tree, not the time if its burning. Fortunately, this could be checked. Many charred cereal grains were also recovered, and these could not have lain around for over three millennia but had to be contemporary with the structure.
An initial scan of these grains, which I carried out myself with Coinneach Maclean, identified emmer wheat and naked barley, a combination suggestive of an early prehistoric date, and subsequent work by archaeobotanist Alan Fairweather has confirmed this. The many thousands of grains comprise not just emmer and naked barley, but also bread wheat - which points clearly to the Neolithic - and linseed. Individual grains have been dated by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator and have fallen in the same time range as the Glasgow dates, putting the early Neolithic date of the timber hall beyond plausible doubt.
Balbridie is therefore a serious threat to the prevailing view of the Neolithic, in which nomadic gatherers practised just a little agriculture. It is, after all, a permanent-looking timber hall of serious dimensions, filled with cultivated cereals. The prevailing view has tried to cope by labelling Balbridie as an unoccupied store, a ceremonial focus for perhaps several groups of nomads - who presumably visited it now and again to feast on the contents. This would make Balbridie atypical of Neolithic settlements in general.
But Balbridie is not alone. Two more large houses have since been excavated at Lismore Fields in Derbyshire, also full of early Neolithic grain. Others have been found at Yarnton in Oxfordshire, a two-roomed structure with a hearth (BA November 1996) and at White Horse Stone in Kent (BA May 1999). Last year, yet another Neolithic longhouse was found near Callander in Perthshire, associated with more than 200 pieces of early Neolithic round-bottomed pottery (BA December 2001). Several have also been found in Ireland, for example at Tankardstown in Co Limerick.
None of these sites has been fully published, but one sometimes senses from the interim reports that the excavators are nervous of making too much of their structures because they do not fit the prevailing view. But how many 'atypical' structures do we have to find before we conclude that they are 'typical' after all? I believe we are close to that point now.
Denmark and southern Sweden reveal how things may go. While most British archaeologists are aware of the demise of Barkær and Stengade as settlements, many seem curiously unaware of more recent developments in Scandinavia. Many early Neolithic houses have been excavated there in recent years. In Denmark, an annual compendium is published of all excavations carried out the previous year - something we might usefully consider in Britain. The volume covering the excavations of 1997 records no fewer than four separate sites with early Neolithic houses found in that year alone; and this was not a unique occurrence.
Ornehus south of Copenhagen was one of the first, found in 1986 (16 x 6 metres in size), and Limensgaard on the island of Bornholm was another early example (18.5 x 5.5 metres). Several are also known from southern Sweden, for example Mossby in Scania; with Skumparberget and Skogsmossen further north, near the limit of early Neolithic farming. These are usually oval or sub-rectangular buildings, with their longest axes aligned NE-SW.
These Scandinavian houses are, like the British ones, sometimes said to be 'ritual' rather than domestic structures. They do indeed resemble the structures found beneath long barrows, and some of their pits appear to have 'ritual' contents. But too sharp a line should not be drawn between ritual and domestic. Ritual has always been part of the everyday. Once we realise this, the houses can take their place as the physical environment of both. My guess is that this is the way Neolithic interpretations will go in the next few years - and in Britain, Balbridie is the tip of the iceberg.
Peter Rowley-Conwy is Reader in Environmental Archaeology at the University of Durham
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005