Lasers at Stonehenge
Editor Mike Pitts
Raunds: From Hunters to Farmers
The earlier prehistoric results of one of Britain's largest archaeological field projects will be published in 2004. Frances Healy and Jan Harding preview for British Archaeology
Over 30 ceremonial monuments - Britain's first opium poppy seeds - a Bronze Age funerary chamber covered by the skulls of 200 cattle: just some of the extraordinary prehistoric discoveries made by the Raunds project in Northamptonshire.
Finds were not all so ancient. A long-lived Iron Age and Roman settlement, two Roman villas and a deserted Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval hamlet were also excavated. However, insights into the Neolithic and Bronze Age world in the valley of the river Nene - about 4,000 to 1,000 BC - are of national importance on their own. Here is the story of how people first took possession of the landscape and shaped it to their own ends.
The Raunds Area Project was conducted from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s by English Heritage, Northamptonshire Archaeology and Oxford Archaeology. It was an exercise in landscape history before gravel quarrying and roadworks east of Kettering and Wellingborough destroyed the evidence.
The key to the comprehensive story the project has been able to tell lies in the scale and variety of approaches:
Raunds lies between prehistoric sites already famous to prehistorians. Two Neolithic causewayed enclosures at Briar Hill and Dallington lie 25 km upstream, near Northampton, while 35 km downstream are the Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement and ceremonial sites on the outskirts of Peterborough, at Fengate and Flag Fen (see BA October 1988).
Long before this, however, from about 8,000 BC there is evidence for the occasional presence of hunters and gatherers at Raunds all along the well-wooded valley. By around 5,000 BC a focus had developed at the confluence of the Nene and a small tributary, where people stopped to light fires, knap flint, and perform domestic tasks.
Soon after 4,000 BC Neolithic artefacts, made by the area's first farmers, began to be discarded at the same confluence. Two centuries later a landmark was built there, extending for more than 130 m and now known as the Long Mound. Its size suggests that its construction was a communal event bringing scattered groups of people together. Turfs were stacked between hurdle partitions, perhaps each bay the work of a different local group. An area of around 1,000 square metres would have been needed to provide this turf, which can only have been created by grazing. So before the mound was built, kept livestock had already begun to alter the vegetation.
Reliably-associated radiocarbon dates for Late Mesolithic sites and artefacts now extend up to or beyond 4,000 BC. The presence of domestic herds and Neolithic artefacts before the construction of the Long Mound indicates a rapid spread of Neolithic beliefs and practices. Three other monuments, the Long Barrow, the north part of the Turf Mound and the Avenue, were also built in the first half of the 4th millennium BC.
The plants, insects and pollen from the bottom of the waterlogged Long Barrow ditches show this mound stood in a lightly-grazed clearing. The most remarkable finds from the ditches were eight opium poppy seeds. Opium is not native here, and was probably first cultivated in the west Mediterranean. It must have been introduced into Britain. Although there are numerous finds from Middle and Late Neolithic sites in northern and central Europe, this is the first Neolithic record from this country. Opium poppy can grow as an arable weed, but the lack of both typical arable weeds and cereal remains from the Long Barrow ditches suggests this plant may have been a crop in its own right. It can be used for its oil, as a spice, or for its opiate properties.
Also in the barrow ditches were woodchips and offcuts from the construction of the mound's timber revetment. The flint axehead used had been left at the barrow, its battered and damaged cutting edge precisely fitting some of the cutmarks on the wood. In the narrower, lower end of the barrow was a burial chamber, built of small limestone slabs, containing weathered fragments of a single human longbone.
The Long Barrow was the only one of these monuments to conform to a widely-known Early Neolithic type. We think of long barrows and causewayed enclosures as the 'classic' earliest British ceremonial sites (see BA February and October 2002). The variety of monuments at Raunds, however, and further exceptional monuments in the south-east midlands, like the Godmanchester enclosure in the Great Ouse valley, show there were far more than these two forms. The others tend to have no human bone and almost no artefacts or food remains. They may have complemented the 'classic' monuments, where cultural material was often deposited in large quantities.
By about 3,000 BC a chain of five or six monuments stretched along the river bank (the Long Mound, the Long Enclosure, the Turf Mound, the Causewayed Ring Ditch, the Avenue, perhaps the Southern Enclosure, and the Long Barrow: see map). There is little sign that people lived here, but they may have lived nearby, possibly on the valley sides.
For the next 500 years or more, both people and their animals seem to have come to the valley bottom less often. Trees grew on and around some of the monuments and Late Neolithic artefacts are scarce.
The only site definitely dated to this period was the Riverside Structure, a timber platform at the edge of a channel of the Nene. Cattle bones and a couple of human long bones were either washed in by the river or deliberately deposited here. Perhaps one reason for a dearth of earlier 3rd millennium human remains is that many were placed in rivers.
The focus of ceremonial activity may now have shifted to a little-understood monument, the Cotton 'Henge', which survives as two concentric ditches on the occupied valley side. Another possibly contemporary monument is a 70 m diameter enclosure, now quarried away, part of the circuit of which is known from air photographs taken in the 1960s (in the centre of the map, identified by the 'Ap id' number).
By about 2,200 BC, however, the valley was more heavily-grazed and less wooded than ever before. Monument building accelerated. Except for the Segmented Ditch Circle, the new monuments were all round barrows, at least 20 of them. Nine were excavated, two covering post-and-stake settings. Unlike the earlier monuments, almost all of these mounds contained burials, some richly furnished. The most outstanding was in Barrow 1, a male inhumation accompanied by many artefacts, some of them from remote sources. The body was placed in a chamber of oak planks and covered first by a limestone cairn, then by a heap of about 200 cattle skulls. These were already defleshed when brought to the grave, since some were scarred by butchery cuts, many were without mandibles (lower jaws), and the less firmly-rooted teeth had fallen out. The bones hint at the scale of Early Bronze Age social organisation. The slaughter and butchery of 200 cattle and the consumption of 40,000 kilos of beef, even if spread over a year or two, suggest the participation of many communities, perhaps from a whole clan or tribe.
The builders of the late 3rd and early 2nd millennium round barrows used the past. As in many monument complexes, burials were inserted into existing mounds, and barrows were built among and onto them. But there was more. In Barrow 6 the fragmentary, exhumed remains of two people who had died 1,000 years earlier were buried beneath a newly-dead young man. The Barrow 1 grave goods included a boar tusk 400-900 years older than the man with which it was buried. Old monuments, old people and old objects may have served common purposes, perhaps supporting claims to ancestry, power and territory.
Over time the barrows were progressively enlarged, and cremation became the normal burial rite. The valley bottom remained uninhabited, while settlement on the valley sides became more marked and activity began to extend onto the surrounding Boulder Clay-covered plateau.
Cremations continued to be buried in and around the mounds down to about 1,000 BC, by which time two overlapping systems of paddocks and droveways had been laid out. Both successively occupied a strip of land about 200 m wide, suggesting that one was abandoned and overgrown before the other was established. Though of similar plan to the well-known system at Fengate, they may have lasted considerably less than Fengate's 1,000 years. Many of the ditches were so narrow and steep as to suggest they held short-lived fences and never underwent the repeated cleaning-out of the broader, rounded Fengate ditches. Artefacts and food remains are even scarcer than at Fengate.
Nonetheless, the boundary ditches mark a significant moment in the long history of the valley. People had been raising stock and growing crops for up to 3,000 years, yet these are the first signs of regular tracks and fields. Later fields would be quite different: but the principle of dividing up the land had arrived.
Healy and Harding are at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Their 'Raunds Area Project: the Neolithic & Bronze Age Landscapes of West Cotton, Stanwick & Irthlingborough, Northamptonshire' is published by English Heritage next year.
Crop or weed?
Opium poppy seeds from Early Neolithic Raunds (c 3,800-3,600 BC) are a first for Britain. Other remains, which archaeologists also interpret as being from cultivated plants, have previously been found in Late Neolithic and Bronze Age lake villages in Switzerland, and on Late Neolithic sites in Spain. Anglo-Saxon opium poppy remains from Yarnton (Oxfordshire), says Chris Stevens (Wessex Archaeology), are thought to be field weeds.
If opium was grown at Raunds (for oil, as a spice or a sedative or stimulant), it has implications for the rest of the economy. 'Perhaps there were other non-cereal crops, like linseed', comments Mike Allen (environmental scientist at Wessex Archaeology).
The change from gathering wild foods to farming is still poorly understood. The wider the range of cultivated plants, the more farmers would have been imitating their predecessors. 'Perhaps', says Allen, 'they retained the hunter-gatherer philosophy of not putting all their eggs in one basket'. He warns, though, that the poppy is very common in gardens and allotments, so would be an ideal candidate for a Neolithic weed.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005