The current revision of the East of England Research Framework augments both the original version of the Framework, published in two parts in 1997 and 2000, and a revised and updated version, published in 2011.
Our objectives need to recognise that open-area excavation is going to produce different levels and types of data compared to, say, a programme of coastal monitoring, fieldwalking or small-scale assessment funded by a research or HLF grant. It would be very informative to know whether relevant information is primarily turning up where work is targeted on remains of other periods, or where there is ‘blanket coverage’ through strip, map and sample exercises. Having this information would help inform future approaches.
Within the region we need to make greater use of a range of geoarchaeological methods to establish a context for Neolithic remains, and to embed these approaches into commercial as well as research projects. Targeted programmes of sedimentological, palynological and macrofossil analyses of sediment sequences in river valleys, lakes or the inter-tidal zone, especially at locations adjacent to known archaeological sites, are needed to determine climate and environmental conditions as well as the date and nature of changes during the Neolithic, such as woodland clearance associated with the initial adoption and subsequent development of farming, including the suggested shift to pastoralism in the Middle Neolithic.
More work is needed along the coast, which makes an important contribution to regional character and ensures we attend to links across the North Sea. We need to gain a better understanding of the coastal environment during the Neolithic period, and how this relates to eroded deposits or those which now lie below sea level. In addition, the value and potential of sites currently located in the intertidal zone to preserve remains rarely found on ‘dryland’ sites needs to be explored in the future.
Sampling strategies employed during an excavation are also critical to the sorts of remains that are recovered, with some arguing that sites have been under-sampled in the past. Palaeoenvironmental sampling strategies need to be strengthened for deposits of this period, e.g. 100% flotation of well-sealed pits, etc., to maximise recovery. Integrated investigations may also be of value to understand the use of a settlement, including how the space was organised and used, and if the settlement was in continuous or episodic use. Traditional approaches could be complemented through the use of geochemical and palaeoenvironmental assessments as well as micromorphology to investigate any micro-refuse present on site. Sampling should be ongoing throughout fieldwork and there should be an open dialogue between those taking samples and the specialists processing them. We need to evaluate the usefulness of ‘bucket sampling’ by assessing the data it has generated and considering what the last 20 years of information gathering actually tells us.
There needs to be a greater emphasis placed on the routine examination of the ploughzone, both in development-led fieldwork and academic/community research projects, as many Neolithic sites have been plough-damaged and/or are only represented in the plough-soil. However, this does raise questions about how we interpret ploughzone assemblages and the role of fieldwalking in development-led fieldwork, whether in evaluations or (as in Cambridgeshire) as part of mitigation, especially as windows of opportunity for fieldwalking in suitable conditions are often limited. This puts more onus on the potential for community groups to generate large amounts of new information via fieldwalking but that in turn requires some training and specialist assistance, especially to ensure good recovery of lithics. If fieldwalking is not appropriate during evaluations, then we need to consider how trial trenching and/or test-pitting could be used to inform a ploughzone strategy. It is important to remember that trial trenching is not good at identifying Neolithic sites, be they lithic scatters or pit clusters. However it is done, Neolithic sites need to be identified earlier on in the fieldwork process so that suitable methods of investigation can be employed. We also need greater methodological standardisation to allow more direct inter-site comparisons to be made, though this needs to be balanced against enabling continued methodological innovation.
There is a need for better methods of dating both sites and artefact types, including more consideration of the roles that taphonomy and site formation processes play in the interpretation of an assemblage, e.g. the significance of charred grains and hazelnuts in Neolithic deposits.
The increasing potential for scientific analysis of human and animal mobility, migration and ancestry in the Neolithic makes any well-preserved organic remains of particular value, but it is important to balance this with continuing study of ‘traditional’ material culture and palaeoenvironmental assemblages, since methodological novelty does not guarantee interpretative sophistication. Baseline isotopic mapping across the region will be helpful in contextualising scientific results.
HER enhancement work for selected Neolithic artefact types, such as stone axes, along the lines of that previously undertaken for the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, would be beneficial. This could enhance our understanding of distribution patterns and their relationship to environmental factors, etc. However, issues with the object type thesaurus need resolution first, as this is currently inadequate for lithic indexing.
Specific questions for the region include the implications of the chronologies set out in Gathering Time for understanding the temporalities of Early Neolithic settlement and monumentality in the region. Can we detect chronological trends in distributions? Gathering Time also throws into focus the need to do something similar for the Late Neolithic, especially since the work on Grimes Graves now provides a useful fixed point for the region. Greater emphasis should also be placed on the other flint mines within the region to provide a context and/or contrast for Grimes Graves itself. The Middle Neolithic remains more elusive, and work to bring into better focus the activity of the late 4th millennium would be useful. For example, is there a recognisable Middle Neolithic flint tradition?
The extent of continuity from the Late Neolithic into the Early Bronze Age needs consideration, especially in terms of occupation sites, burnt mounds, and depositional practice. Are there long-term patterns in the use of specific locations: for example, is the co-occurrence of Early Neolithic and Beaker pits on some sites evidence of continuity or coincidence?
The apparent distinctiveness of the Neolithic in Norfolk was recognised as an issue for further research in 2011, and this has yet to be explored in more detail, in particular the extent to which this is a reflection of fieldwork rather than the reality of prehistoric activity. More generally, we need to explore sub-regional distinctiveness across the East of England, and its connection to topographical, geological and other affordances. Understanding needs to balance comparison between sites and landscapes with recognition of the unique qualities of each site.
Neolithic ring-ditches and other forms of burial monument warrant further study. The identification of the Trumpington ring-ditches as Early Neolithic and recognition elsewhere that some Early Bronze Age round barrows began as or were preceded by Late Neolithic henges or timber circles, shows the need to anticipate complexity and longevity for ring-ditches and round barrows, rather than assuming they are simple, single-phase Bronze Age burial monuments. The relationship between funerary monuments, their landscapes and related settlements needs to be explored in more detail. All isolated burials should also be dated where possible.
Looking at settlement, can we better detect where people were living and refine the dating of occupation sites to explore change through time? In particular, can we detect buildings, especially Early Neolithic houses and halls of the types found in recent years in many other areas of Britain? Is our understanding of people’s mobility during the Neolithic correct, in terms of lifetime movements and especially seasonal transhumance?
An increasingly sophisticated understanding of the variability among pit sites and their relationship to enclosures and other monuments on the one hand, and to surface spreads and ploughzone scatters on the other, should ensure more focussed and nuanced approaches in the future. Are there other approaches to classification based on shape or size? This will require a well-considered approach to evaluation in development-led work, probably using a combination of field techniques.
More attention should be given to site types not readily identified from the air, including flint working sites and tree-throws. How and when the latter were used during the Neolithic, and their connection to woodland clearance, is a question that has yet to be fully explored, although lots of examples have been excavated and recorded during development-led fieldwork.
Integrated studies are needed to investigate questions about the diet and economy of the Neolithic period in more detail, such as the issue of seasonality. The development of agriculture, at a regional and sub-regional level, is still poorly understood but new scientific techniques can complement the ‘traditional’ evidence used to investigate the presence/absence of cereal cultivation (plant remains, querns, storage pits etc.). For example, stable isotope signatures preserved within dentine can allow dietary changes to be investigated over relatively short timescales, which may allow hypotheses about the sporadic uptake of cereal cultivation to be investigated using complementary lines of evidence. This emphasises the importance of human remains, as well as the need to recognise and identify cultivated grains through ensuring that sampling is used routinely and appropriately. Faunal evidence is also particularly important, given its scarcity in the region.
Priorities for artefact studies include better understanding of production strategies for lithics and ceramics, perhaps in terms of ‘communities of practice’? The definition, dating and distribution of pottery styles needs reassessment, in particular, early Carinated Bowls and ‘plain’ Mildenhall ware. The relative frequencies and chronologies of stone and flint axes needs further study, as do their distributions both regionally and in relation to known sites, soils and landscape features, while similar work could be done for other artefact types such as saddle querns. Is there evidence for symbols of power (e.g. maceheads), or does the lack of suitable stone in the region means that many such objects may have been made from organic materials? In all these cases we still need to understand how far distribution patterns reflect biases in recovery. Additionally, what can residual assemblages from later sites tell us, and is there evidence for the curation of Neolithic objects in later periods?
In 2011 region-wide objectives focussed on the need for synthesis, and this remains essential, but always lags behind site-by-site reporting. We need to find ways of generating more academic enthusiasm for conducting research on the Neolithic in this region, perhaps by ‘flagging up’ significant projects, perhaps through OASIS. At present it is not clear what may be turning up but (in research terms) going unnoticed.
One problem is that we lack refined typologies for Neolithic sites and features appropriate to this region that will help us understand what the key types are. We also need to better understand variability within these types. At present, the interpretation of new sites does not always draw on relevant comparanda and models as much as it might. We need to recognise the importance of pit sites to the distinctiveness of the Neolithic in this region.
Big Data projects have largely overlooked the Neolithic so far, and there is huge potential for mining the grey literature in order to build understanding at a landscape level. The recent work covering North West Europe as a whole (Bradley et al. 2015) provides a good example of what might be done, and also provides evidence that evaluation techniques introduce real bias into what is and is not found.
The bigger picture of settlement mobility and the transition from shifting, semi-permanent settlement in the Neolithic to a more settled landscape of fields and farms in the Bronze Age remains an area of interest. The nature and importance of arable agriculture needs greater appreciation, with a particular emphasis on the domestication of plants, as our current understanding of the subject is relatively poor; the debate about a decline in or even cessation of cereal use in the course of the Neolithic remains a live issue and needs to be integrated into wider studies of subsistence and animal/plant relationships, including questions of pastoral economies/transhumance and the exploitation or avoidance of wild resources.
The extent of contacts with other areas of Britain and the Continent needs further study, including monument comparisons, stone axe trade, other artefact types, animal and horticultural introductions, etc. As such, we need to identify and be more aware of the current national debates to which data from the region may contribute, or conversely, which might inspire more local research.
Ray and Thomas (2018) have recently outlined a model of ‘house societies’ in the Neolithic, which throws into relief the relative absence of excavated timber halls, longhouses, long barrows and the like in the region. In this kind of overview and synthesis the region tends to be reduced to a few key sites: Etton, Haddenham, Kilverstone. What is needed is a better sense of the structure and diversity of wider Neolithic landscapes, and the affordances of different geologies, soils and topographies for occupation. It needs to be complemented by more detailed understanding of landscape change within the region, including the extent of both Early Neolithic clearance and later Neolithic woodland regeneration, changing patterns of alluviation, woodland management, etc.