Neolithic Resource Assessment

by Jonathan Last with Zoe Outram and Peter Bye-Jensen

Work on the Neolithic in the East of England since 2011 has comprised some further synthesis, new discoveries in development-led projects, the publication of a number of key excavations – some dating back to the 1980s – and new studies of previously known sites. The latter include work undertaken for the Bayesian chronological modelling project published as Gathering Time (Whittle et al. 2011), just after the last framework revision. Although the focus of that project was on causewayed enclosures it has changed the way we understand the chronology of the Early Neolithic in general. The publication includes an overview of this period in the east of England, and provides new dates for several enclosures and more refined modelling of existing dates for a number of other sites. The work suggests that the first causewayed enclosure in eastern England was probably constructed in 3780-3685 cal BC (68% probability), while the primary use of the last enclosure in the region probably ended in 3265-3085 cal BC (64% probability; Whittle et al. 2011, 339). The Neolithic probably did not begin in this area before 3800 cal BC so enclosures may have been part of the earliest Neolithic practices here, although this excludes the Thames estuary, where earlier sites are known.

Individually, however, the causewayed enclosures in the east of England remain less precisely dated than those in some other regions. Etton, near Peterborough, is one of the best dated and perhaps the earliest; it seems to have been in use for 400-500 years from around 3700 cal BC (Whittle et al. 2011, 324–5). A complementary study has looked at the dynamics of pottery and flint deposition at Etton, indicating that activity and deposition were intermittent throughout this long period and at any given time were generally focused on a specific part of the monument (Beadsmoore et al. 2010).

Of the other Welland valley enclosures assessed for Gathering Time, both Etton Woodgate and Northborough appear to originate about a century later than Etton; the latter seems relatively short-lived, probably going out of use before 3500 cal BC (Whittle et al. 2011, 327). The duration of occupation at Etton contrasts most sharply, however, with the enclosure at St Osyth, Essex, which was probably constructed in the mid-37th century cal BC but used for only a single generation, probably no more than 20 years. The other dated Essex enclosure, at Orsett, has a less precise chronology but the first ditch circuit was probably built in the later 35th or early 34th century, almost certainly after St Osyth had already been abandoned. Elsewhere in the region, only rather vague chronologies could be determined for Maiden Bower in Bedfordshire and Haddenham in Cambridgeshire, though it is evident that the latter remained in use until around 3000 cal BC, well into the Middle Neolithic. There was clearly no single horizon of enclosure construction or abandonment in the region, so the onus is on understanding local sequences.

Since the publication of Gathering Time, previously unknown causewayed enclosures have been excavated near Harlow, Essex, and Woodbridge, Suffolk (which was succeeded by unusual Late Neolithic enclosures), while aerial survey has recorded new sites at Great Shelford, near Cambridge (Small 2017) and possibly at Thrift Hill, North Hertfordshire (Fitzpatrick-Matthews and Fitzpatrick-Matthews 2016). The excavation of part of the enclosure at Springfield Lyons, near Chelmsford, which took place in the 1980s, has recently been published (Brown and Medlycott 2013): several pit-like ditch segments were excavated, with evidence for complex fills and multiple recuts, along with a scatter of Neolithic pits both within and outside the enclosure. The monument had an interesting afterlife and appears to have influenced the location and form of a significant Late Bronze Age enclosure on the same site.

Also composed of segmented ditches but perhaps rather later in date is the enigmatic circular enclosure at Melbourn, Cambridgeshire, which recalls monuments of the Middle/Late Neolithic transition, like Stonehenge I. It remains unexcavated but has been subject to geophysical survey (Brittain et al. 2014). Interestingly, this monument may be one of a pair, based on another recent aerial discovery (Knight et al. 2018, 29).

Another 4th millennium monument analysed for Gathering Time was the trapezoidal enclosure at Rectory Farm, Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire, which is about to be published (Lyons forthcoming). Although poorly dated, with a terminus post quem around 3500 cal BC, it could be broadly contemporary with causewayed enclosures in the region. This unique monument, which was associated with a later cursus, comprised 24 timber posts surrounded by a bank and ditch which enclosed an area of 6.3 ha. Associated with it were a sub-square enclosure within the main monument and a small ring-ditch that may have enclosed a viewing platform. The main enclosure’s demonstrable solsticial alignments are unique for the Early Neolithic.

In her reconsideration of the Neolithic in Essex, Frances Healy (2012, 11) has argued that whereas the causewayed enclosures of the chalklands were constructed away from areas of settlement, in eastern England people ‘chose to build theirs in inhabited landscapes.’ She also suggests that the three Essex enclosures at Springfield, Orsett and St Osyth may have served as ‘founder monuments’ in their local landscapes, which subsequently accrued other types of Neolithic monument (ibid., 15). Some of these are among the 35 Neolithic sites in Essex that have been mapped from the air (Ingle and Saunders 2011, table 2.1), such as a possible ‘mortuary enclosure’ west of the Orsett causewayed enclosure (ibid., fig 2.5; note that the ‘possible Neolithic settlement enclosure’ nearby seems more likely to be a later site that happens to coincide with a flint scatter).

Several of the later monuments associated with enclosures in the region are cursuses. That at Godmanchester, which ran south-westwards from one end of the trapezoidal enclosure for over 500m, is poorly dated but could be relatively late, like the cursus at Etton, which post-dates part of the causewayed enclosure that was recut in the late 4th millennium cal BC. Other cursus monuments in the region may be older, but the work on enclosures emphasises, by contrast, how imprecisely dated this class of monuments remains, which is in part a result of the very limited assemblages recovered in many cases. However, it is worth noting that Gathering Time offers a possible explanation for the anomalously early OSL dates from two cursus monuments at Eynesbury, Cambridgeshire, by suggesting that the wetness of the area in the Neolithic may have been overestimated (Whittle et al. 2011, 285).

The most recent published investigation of a cursus monument in the region was at Biggleswade, Bedfordshire (Abrams 2010). The monument was shown to be longer than previously suggested (at least 750m) with stretches of ditch apparently constructed at different times, which recalls Pryor’s description of the Maxey cursus as ‘a chronologically extended series of quite separate, short-lived… episodes’ (Pryor and French 1985, 301). Meanwhile, the suggested cursus at Fenstanton, Cambridgeshire, can probably be dismissed as part of a later field and trackway system (Knight et al. 2018, 124–5).

Turning to mortuary sites, also included in Gathering Time is the Haddenham long barrow, where construction of the plank-built mortuary chamber probably dates to around 3600 cal BC (Whittle et al. 2011, 290). The Norfolk long barrows at West Rudham, Harpley and Ditchingham have all seen geophysical survey (Carey and Ashby 2016a and b; Carey 2017), as has that at Therfield Heath, Hertfordshire (R. Loveday, pers. comm.). Elsewhere in the region classic long barrows are rare and so-called ‘long mortuary enclosures’ may be found instead. However, Healy (2012) has suggested that many of these are likely to be of later 4th millennium date and more closely linked to cursuses rather than being the remains of funerary monuments. The same may go for the ‘long barrow’ at Eynesbury that is associated with the cursus monuments mentioned above, although that did contain human remains (Whittle et al. 2011, 285). Also in this time frame is the square enclosure at Baldock, Hertfordshire, which although termed Late Neolithic in the publication, produced a Middle Neolithic radiocarbon date (pre-dating 2900 cal BC) for its central burial (Phillips et al. 2009, 13).

A key theme of recent work is the growing recognition of the diversity of Neolithic burial practice, primarily because of the excavation of a number of circular monuments with surprisingly early dates. At Trumpington Meadows, overlooking the river Cam near Cambridge, two adjacent ring-ditches, with internal diameters of 23m and 16m, were excavated (Evans et al. 2018, 36–47). One of these comprised a multiple burial in a timber chamber that was subsequently sealed by a round barrow, while the other was a simple ring-ditch enclosing a truncated burial pit. Radiocarbon dates for both monuments centre on the first half of the 37th century cal BC, though one skeleton in the multiple burial appears to be a century or two younger. Much later, the monuments became a focus for some Early Bronze Age burials.

Similar monuments were revealed during further work at the Biddenham Loop, next to the Great Ouse near Bedford, where four sub-circular Neolithic enclosures were investigated, two of which were associated with burials that probably span at least 400 years, from before 3700 to after 3350 cal BC (Luke 2016). It has also been suggested that the henge at Norton in north Hertfordshire, which has an unusual double-ditched form, may have originated as a Middle Neolithic ring-ditch that was subsequently converted into a classic henge (Fitzpatrick-Matthews 2015).

At Flixton Park Quarry in Suffolk (Boulter and Walton Rogers 2012) a number of possible mortuary features were found, including a long barrow or mortuary enclosure and a small Early Neolithic ring-ditch. In addition there was a Late Neolithic timber ‘circle’ (actually sub-square) which enclosed a small rectangular structure and was associated with a number of Grooved Ware pits; it was subsequently partly overlain by an Early Bronze Age round barrow. Similarly, at Langford Hall in Essex, two small later Neolithic ring-ditches were found, one of which was remodelled and enlarged in the Middle Bronze Age (Roy and Heppell 2014).

Some of the small henges (c 20m in diameter) that have been found in recent years were also succeeded by Early Bronze Age barrows and burials. They include an example with two opposed entrances from Ashwell, north Hertfordshire (Greef 2015), which was associated with a number of pits. Finds were scarce but a cremation burial from a terminal of the henge ditch has reportedly been dated to the Bronze Age, suggesting the monument remained significant for a lengthy period. A henge of similar form and size was found at Barleycroft Farm/Over, Cambridgeshire, overlain by an Early Bronze Age round barrow (Evans et al. 2015). Another henge of similar size with two entrances is reported from recent fieldwork on the A14 near Huntingdon (Sherlock 2018), though claims of multiple henges from this project should be treated with caution, given the potentially wide date range for penannular ring-ditches.

The extent of the influence of what may have been quite small or slight Neolithic monuments on later landscapes and activity, especially their relationship to Bronze Age round barrows, is certainly an emerging theme. As Healy (2012) astutely notes, there seems to be more continuity in these small monuments, which potentially span most of the Neolithic, than in the different types of large enclosure.

Discoveries of Neolithic pits in larger or smaller numbers have continued apace in the region. The well-known pit site at Kilverstone, Norfolk, was analysed for the Gathering Time project, which showed that it was occupied for around 150 years between the mid-37th and mid-35th centuries (Whittle et al. 2011, 333–6). The authors suggest that in areas lacking causewayed enclosures, like Norfolk, extensive pit complexes could have served as equivalent aggregation sites. While for ease of discussion we can retain a heuristic distinction between ‘settlements’ and ‘monuments’, any real distinction is elided by the comparable nature of deposition at sites of different type and the similarity of the features that were excavated, particularly evident at enclosures like Springfield Lyons which are composed of pit-like segments.

Early Neolithic pits also feature at the inter-tidal site on the Essex coast known as the Stumble, but significantly they were augmented here by the preservation of an old land surface. The fieldwork mentioned in previous iterations of the RRF and now fully published (Wilkinson et al. 2012) was undertaken in the 1980s but harks back to an even earlier era of coastal exploration associated with Hazzeldine Warren and other pioneers. Dense Early Neolithic artefact scatters are suggestive of the former presence of buildings as well as external areas, though no ground plans could be ascertained. A few pits were also encountered, similar to those at dryland sites. Middle and Late Neolithic evidence was rather different in character, comprising a number of burnt flint mounds; by this time the site was already probably in a shoreline or saltmarsh environment.

The important assemblage of plant macrofossils includes the first Neolithic cereal remains to have been directly radiocarbon-dated in the region, from both the Early (mid-4th millennium cal BC) and Late Neolithic (earlier 3rd millennium). The authors suggest that the site is a corrective to ‘the general experience that charred crop remains are rare at British Neolithic sites’ (Wilkinson et al. 2012, 90; cf. Stevens and Fuller 2012). The Stumble shows both the potential of the intertidal zone for Neolithic remains of a type and quality rarely found on dryland sites, and its vulnerability to erosion.

The Cambridgeshire Fens are another area where old land surfaces may be preserved alongside cut features. At North Fen, Sutton, both Early Neolithic pit clusters and artefact scatters preserved within buried soil horizons were found (Tabor et al. 2016). The site was probably occupied over just two or three generations within the 35th century cal BC and there were interesting differences between the ceramic assemblages associated with the pits and scatters, though they belong to the same Mildenhall tradition. Differing from sites like Kilverstone in the morphology of the pit clusters, depositional practices and the tempo of occupation, the North Fen evidence shows there is no single model of activity that fits all Neolithic pit sites. It also provides an interesting contrast between Early and Late Neolithic activity, since the latter period was characterised by an extensive flint scatter, but with little pottery and just one pit. Evidence for arrowhead manufacture might indicate a specialised site, perhaps associated with hunting (Tabor 2015).

Further south, one can follow the Great Ouse upstream past the Haddenham monuments to the Barleycroft Farm/Over landscape, where another important recent project has shed light on Neolithic activity in the southern Fens (Evans et al. 2016). This work focussed on the gravel ridges within the floodplain, revealing, amongst multi-period occupation, some further contrasts between Early/Middle and Late Neolithic activity. In this case, while the earlier pottery nearly all derived from surface contexts, the Grooved Ware was largely contained in features, which also showed some continuity of activity into the Beaker phase of the Early Bronze Age. On the other hand there was a contrast between the lack of evidence for arable production from the Grooved Ware pits and its presence in the Early Bronze Age features.

There is generally little evidence of an association between pit clusters and mortuary practice but the burial of an adult female with a neonate was found amongst a dispersed group of Early Neolithic pits near Sawston, Cambridgeshire, and dated to the end of this period, probably between 3520 and 3380 cal BC; there was no evidence that the grave was marked in any way (Newton 2018).

Pit clusters elsewhere in the region include Early Neolithic groups from Watton-at-Stone, Hertfordshire (Boyer et al. 2015), Reydon, Suffolk (Harding et al. 2016) and Takeley, Essex (Germany et al. 2015). While most of these sites do not directly reference earlier monuments, an exception is the cluster of Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age pits that were dug into the Godmanchester Neolithic enclosure (Lyons forthcoming). Though (just) predating our period, it is also worth noting the group of very late Mesolithic (late 5th millennium cal BC) pits from M1 Junction 9 near St Albans, which demonstrate that the practice of pit-digging in the region originated before the Neolithic (Stansbie et al. 2012).

In the context of revisiting her earlier work on the Neolithic pits at Spong Hill, Norfolk, Healy (in Hills and Lucy 2013, 12–21) has reviewed the relatively sparse evidence for earliest Neolithic Carinated Bowl pottery in East Anglia, and set out a new dating model for Mildenhall ware, suggesting it had a currency of around 300 years from c. 3700 to 3400 cal BC. In this regard it is interesting that the Mildenhall ware pits at Reydon and Takeley have been dated to the very start of that period, the latter probably in fact predating 3700 cal BC, and both are probably earlier than the region’s causewayed enclosures, with the possible exception of Etton.

Healy also reiterates the contrast between Mildenhall ware pits, which were rapidly backfilled with occupation material, and later Neolithic features which contained selected objects, such as semi-complete pots, while lithic material was predominantly discarded on the surface, leading to greater visibility in the modern ploughsoil. Elsewhere, she has noted sub-regional differences in the relative frequency of later pottery styles, notably Peterborough and Grooved Ware, which could be indicative of different territories covering Norfolk and north Suffolk, Essex and south Suffolk, and the London/Thames area (Healy 2012).

While the Late Neolithic is generally less well dated than the period covered by Gathering Time, a new chronological model for the Grime’s Graves flint mines has addressed key questions about the origins and duration of mining at the site as well as its spatial development (Healy et al. 2014; 2018). The model suggests that mining at the site probably began in 2650-2620 cal BC (68% probability) and the main phase of extraction in the galleried shafts probably lasted for over 200 years, until 2420–2385 cal BC (68% probability; Healy et al. 2014, 55), implying that on average one or two mines were excavated per year. The analysis also showed that mining continued into the Early Bronze Age in some areas, though the end of the main phase of Neolithic mining may have coincided with the arrival of Beakers in the region (Healy et al. 2018, 291).

Studies of Neolithic landscapes and environments have been less prominent but there is enough evidence to indicate considerable spatial and temporal variation. At the Stumble, pollen evidence suggests lime, oak and ash woodland covered most of the local area in the Early and Middle Neolithic with only limited clearance (Wilkinson et al. 2012, 135). At Biddenham there is evidence of an opening up of the landscape for pasture and cereal cultivation by the Early Neolithic, which is maintained through the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (Luke 2016, 28), while at Godmanchester, in contrast, the enclosure and cursus appear to have been constructed in a locally cleared landscape but woodland regenerated in the later Neolithic (Lyons forthcoming). At Trumpington, molluscan evidence also suggests local clearance for the monuments and later regeneration of woodland (Evans et al. 2018, 79). Additional integrated studies are needed to place the existing information from specific sites into a broader context.


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