Islands in the Neolithic
Tale of the limpet
Editor Simon Denison
Islands and the Neolithic farming tradition
Gordon Noble considers the role of islands in bringing about the transition from hunter-gathering to farming in the early Neolithic
The beginning of the Neolithic - the time when farming began to replace the Mesolithic hunting and gathering way of life - remains one of the most disputed subjects in British archaeology. How did this momentous change, this 'farming revolution', come about?
Did a population movement of farmers, spreading up through Europe from the South-East, colonise Britain with their cereal grains, domesticated animals and new ways of living? Or did Britain's indigenous population gradually adopt farming ways through contacts with farming communities on the Continent?
Archaeological debate has tended to swing between these two poles. The prehistorian Patrick Ashmore, for example, has argued for colonisation, pointing to evidence in Scotland in the early Neolithic for direct links with the Continent and suggesting that settlers rather than native hunter-gatherers introduced farming to Britain. Most prehistorians, however, have come to believe that there were great continuities between the Mesolithic and Neolithic, and that local hunter-gatherer populations gradually incorporated some aspects of farming into their traditional way of life.
Part of the problem with this fluctuating debate is that archaeologists have tended to apply a single explanation of change to the whole of Britain in the centuries around 4000 BC, based on evidence drawn from one particular region. The reality, it seems, was more complicated - with the means of transition, and the nature of the early Neolithic, varying from one part of Britain to another.
In many parts of Britain, it is hard to perceive any continuity between the Mesolithic and Neolithic, because there is no actual material evidence for hunter-gatherer communities adopting a farming lifestyle. The radiocarbon dates from Mesolithic and Neolithic-type material in most areas barely meet - there is generally no overlap of dates suggesting a gradual change.
Only a handful of Neolithic sites, such as Camster in Caithness or Biggar Common in South-West Scotland, contain Mesolithic material in association with Neolithic remains; and where Mesolithic material exists in the same location as Neolithic, the relationship is often ambiguous.
A number of fieldwork projects in recent years have found little evidence for continuity. In this magazine a few years ago, Christopher Tolan-Smith of Newcastle University reported on the results of fieldwalking in the Tyne Valley (ba, February 1996). He found that Mesolithic and Neolithic material was found in the same area in only eight of the 221 blocks of land surveyed in the valley. This has since been supported by recent work in North-East Scotland. Fieldwalking in Invernessshire by Richard Bradley and Aaron Watson of Reading University found Neolithic and Mesolithic artefacts in very different parts of the landscape. This is a phenomenon seen widely across the British mainland.
It seems difficult to reconcile these patterns with ideas of Mesolithic - Neolithic continuity. However, this may not be a pattern that applies to all areas. Fieldwork in other parts of Britain has found evidence of an overlap between the two periods.
On many of the islands of western Britain, for example, the evidence for the nature of the transition seems to be different from mainland areas. These islands, however, have not generally formed part of the discussion on the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. Fieldwalking, for example, on Islay in western Scotland by Steve Mithen from Reading University found that over a third of the sites identified contained both Mesolithic and Neolithic finds. Similarly, on the Isle of Man and on Arran, Mesolithic and Neolithic materials regularly occur on the same sites.
In addition to this evidence of chronological overlap, we also find clear indications on these islands of a very different kind of early Neolithic being established - contrasting directly with current ideas of the nature of the Neolithic in Britain.
The dominant interpretation of the Neolithic period in Britain over the last decade or so has been one that suggests that the Neolithic population did not practice fully developed, formal agriculture. Instead, the Neolithic is said to be a period when Mesolithic people adopted some of the material symbols and the ideas of the Neolithic without fully embracing an agricultural lifestyle. They cultivated some plants, perhaps, but they did not 'settle' - instead operating most of the year out of mobile camps (ba, July 1996).
The major transition to a farming economy is said to occur at a much later date, during the middle Bronze Age around 1500 BC. Consequently, houses, cereals and field systems are rare in the Neolithic as these are an integral part of a developed agricultural lifestyle, which was not present in Britain until thousands of years after the beginnings of the Neolithic period.
This is certainly true for parts of the British mainland. Although a few large Neolithic buildings have been found- such as at Balbridie in Aberdeenshire (ba, April 2002), Lismore Fields in Derbyshire, Yarnton in Oxfordshire and White Horse Stone in Kent - their role in Neolithic life is ambiguous, and such buildings remain rare. Cereals seem to be associated with the monumental and the ritual, and field systems are also uncommon, if not entirely absent, until the Bronze Age.
But Britain's offshore islands seem to tell a different story. On the Orkney Islands the large Neolithic houses are well known and even appear arranged in small villages - such as Skara Brae (ba, April 2000; see also News, this issue). Cereals are found in domestic contexts from the earliest settlements on the islands. Field systems were constructed and cattle and sheep were kept.
Likewise, in Shetland, over 180 prehistoric house sites are known, many with associated field systems. At Scord of Brouster and elsewhere, some of these houses and field systems have been shown to belong to the early Neolithic. Barley was grown, sheep were kept and the fields were manured with seaweed and domestic refuse. The wider landscape of Shetland was divided at an early date. Massive boundary walls run for long distances across the islands indicating large-scale division of the land.
Neolithic field systems have also been found on Arran, and cereals from the earliest stages of the Neolithic have been discovered on the Isle of Man. In Ireland, the largest of all the islands in the western seaways, a similar picture is beginning to emerge. Over the last few years large numbers of substantial rectangular early Neolithic houses have been found, and Neolithic field systems have been recognised across the island.
The evidence from these western islands suggests that the beginnings of the Neolithic heralded a period of radical change that involved, at an early date, a settled lifestyle, the division of the land and the use of new resources. As we have seen, some of these islands also have the best evidence for an overlap between the Mesolithic and Neolithic. Why, then, did these places experience a different type of Neolithic from most of the mainland?
The key to this, I believe, is the position of these islands in the western seaways. Cereals and domesticated animals would need to have been brought from mainland Europe by boat - and the major tidal streams of western Britain formed the main communication routes with continental Europe in prehistory. The Isle of Man, for example, lies in a central position in the Irish Sea and many of the tidal streams of that region converge on the island.
Moreover, the island is dominated by the peak of Snaefell, which rises to a height of 621m, making the island a highly visible place from the sea. From the Isle of Man itself, Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales can be seen, suggesting that before the invention of navigation equipment the Isle of Man would have been one of the most important navigation points in Western Britain.
So the level at which Neolithic culture impacted on these islands may be due to their central position on the routes that formed the main means of long distance contact in the past. Moreover, small island communities often possess strong maritime cultures, since travel by boat forms an important part of their daily lives. Boat-building and sea travel are highly specialised skills and we cannot assume that everyone in the late Mesolithic was capable of introducing continental resources from across the water. The possession of a maritime culture may have enabled these islands to instigate change more easily than communities on the mainland.
From this brief survey, it is clear that farming was introduced in different ways, and with varying consequences, in different parts of the country. Today we tend to see islands as backward places in comparison to the mainland. But in the Neolithic, this relationship appears to have been the reverse. The very areas that are seen as peripheral today may have been the areas where revolutionary new ways of life were first fully embraced.
Gordon Noble is a research student at the University of Reading
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005