Neolithic and Bronze Age

4,000 – 700 BCE

Overview of the resource


The resource for the Neolithic and Bronze Age will be described in chronological sequence. The sequence begins with the onset of the Early Neolithic, which is currently modelled at around 3800BC in this part of northern England (Griffiths 2014). It ends with the transition to the Late Neolithic beginning at around 2800BC , which itself begins its transition to the Early Bronze Age and Middle Bronze Age at around 2200BC (hereafter referred to together as the Earlier Bronze Age ), with the Late Bronze Age beginning around 1000BC. The sequence ends with the nominal end of the Bronze Age at around 700BC. However, before that a brief overview of the main resource follows.

Summary of the existing resource

The largest single source of data for the region consists of chipped stone. However, a number of caveats have to be considered when assessing its value and significance. Firstly, there is no natural source of flint or chert available within the region, or indeed anywhere within the former catchment of the River Don (Cockrell 2017). This fact influences the character of the assemblage in a number of ways. Firstly, the overall quantities available are significantly lower than in other regions of Britain. Individual assemblages, whether generated through excavation or fieldwalking, tend also to be smaller than elsewhere, meaning in particular that judgements about the relative size (and significance) of recovered assemblages have to be adjusted when compared with assemblages from other regions. Individual Implements tend to be smaller than elsewhere in Britain during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, just like their predecessors in the Mesolithic, although not to the same degree. This undoubtedly reflects the ongoing need to curate carefully and maximise the potential of a scant resource.

Most of the chipped stone exists as data recovered in field walking or as stray finds, limiting how they can be used in research, although at the scale of the region and upwards the value of such apparently unpromising material should not be underestimated. Topsoil finds, it has been shown (Waddington 1999), have more useful locational value than is often assumed, and can be utilised to answer many questions at the large scale of analysis. Furthermore, many excavated assemblages are from poorly recorded sites investigated by archaeologists prior to the 1970s, limiting what can be done at the more detailed scale of analysis. Moreover, since the various assemblages have been collected in different ways, under different circumstances using different recording methodologies, comparisons between them present significant challenges. The major depositories of archives are the region’s museums, where records of the contents of older archives are often of poor quality.

Frequently, older artefactual archives are accompanied by hand written notes, sketches and occasionally grid coordinates of which there are no other record. In some museums more extensive written records by fieldworkers are in evidence, perhaps the most notable being the very substantial archives at Museums Sheffield of Jeffrey Radley and Leslie Butcher. Radley’s archive covers more than South Yorkshire, but within the region includes hand written notes, interim reports, maps and sketches from numerous sites, particularly relating to the Gritstone uplands on the west and north side of Sheffield. Butcher’s detailed archive of earthwork surveys remains almost entirely unpublished (P. Beswick, pers. comm.). Similar paper archives exist elsewhere, most notably the Alan Peace archive at Doncaster, but even in the region’s smallest depositories such as Stocksbridge Library, Stocksbridge Heritage Centre and Bradfield archives unique and valuable unpublished information exists.

A considerable and diverse collection of other forms of material culture relating to the period also exists in the region’s various museums, largely collected as stray finds.  These include polished stone axe heads, mace heads, battle axes, axe hammers, as well as copper alloy artefacts including flat axes, palstaves, looped and socketed axe heads, spearheads  and a number of swords. The largest depository of these is Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery. The single known hoard from South Yorkshire, the Kilnhurst hoard, resides in the British Museum.

Apart from material described in the above museum collections, much material is in the hands of private individuals and collectors, many of whom have recorded their finds and reported them to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Some has also been recorded by the present author as and when possible and when members of the public have been cooperative (some are very suspicious of archaeologists, and the authorities).

The other chief source of information about the region’s Neolithic and Bronze Age resides in its structures, which are almost entirely of a ceremonial or monumental  character. This includes the very rare example of a Neolithic wooden platform, along with trackway, in the vicinity of Hatfield Moor (Chapman and Geary 2013: 134-138), and a Late Bronze Age trackway at Thorne Moor (Buckland and Kenward 1973). A few cropmark features in the Dearne Valley at Wombwell (Mudd and Webster 2001; Morris and Lloyd 2002) and in the vicinity of the Magnesian Limestone ridge near Doncaster (Roberts et al 2010; Buckland et al 2020) represent field systems or other agrarian enclosures that are likely to be Neolithic or Bronze Age.  More field systems, unenclosed settlements, cairns and standing stones are  in evidence on the Gritstone uplands that are likely to relate to the Bronze Age (Radley 1966; Sidebottom 2001; 2013), but they represent a minority of the total.

The structures can be divided between upstanding features, the vast majority of which are located on the aforementioned Gritstone, with a small number located on the Magnesian Limestone, and cropmark features (Figure 2). This includes probable Neolithic long cairns and mounds, mainly in the vicinity of the Don Gorge (Cockrell 2017: 123-24) and a limited number of probable Bronze Age barrows in the vicinity of the Gritstone uplands (Cockrell 2017: 161; 170-73). Several large circular or sub-circular enclosures are possible henges or other Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial enclosures (Cockrell 2017: 124-32; forthcoming; Cockrell at al 2019). The majority of cropmark features  are known through aerial photographs of the eastern part of South Yorkshire on and adjacent to the Magnesian Limestone ridge (Roberts et al 2010).

Some classes of structures and monuments are noticeable by their rarity or absence. This includes pit alignments and burnt mounds. Rock-art was also thought to be rare in the region, represented only by a few published examples (Barnatt and Frith 1983; Barnatt and Robinson 2003; Cockrell 2017: 165). However, the results of recent fieldwork have demonstrated that it is present on the gritstone uplands near Sheffield in significant concentrations (Cockrell 2020; Cockrell in press; Cockrell forthcoming B). These are comparable, albeit in lower numbers, to the well published concentrations known from the uplands of West Yorkshire (Boughey, K., and Vickerman, E. 2003; Boughey 2016; Deacon 2020).

Very few of the aforementioned structures and cropmarks have been archaeologically investigated. In many regions, such as Derbyshire, antiquarian activities were once undertaken on a large scale but in South Yorkshire this tradition is noticeable by its absence. John Wilson of  Broomhead Hall is known to have excavated barrows in the upper Ewden Valley in the 18th century (Hunter 1819: 461) although his collection was dispersed and lost at around the time of the first world war, but his activities are exceptional in the region. There was a brief time in the middle of the 20th century when some early archaeologists were active, excavating barrows at Lodge Moor in the 1950s (Bartlett 1957; Henderson 1957), and most notably with the excavation of the ring cairn at Totley Moor in the 1960s (Radley 1965; 1966). Surveying was undertaken in the uplands, and in the vicinity of the upper Dearne Valley and Wharncliffe Crags during the 1950s by Leslie Butcher, but this work (archived at Museums Sheffield) remains largely unpublished. The surveying activities of Thomas Welsh in Mayfield Valley during the 1970s only came to light very recently (B. Langhorne, pers. comm.; Cockrell at al 2019), before which time they were virtually unknown.

Recently, the activities of academic researchers and community archaeologists has expanded the known database to a limited extent on the Gritstone uplands with survey work revealing considerable new detail at Hallam Moors (Sidebottom 2001; 2013; Cockrell 2007), Whitwell Moor (Cockrell 2016; 2017; 2018;) and Foulstone and Strines Moors (Cockrell 2019). The single largest project to have added new data, which relates to cropmark features on the Magnesian Limestone ridge, is the Brodsworth Community Archaeology project (Merrony 2006; Cockrell et al 2015(2018)). However, the results of this large scale and important  project remain largely unpublished.

Developer funded archaeology has added important new data about cropmark features in recent years in the Lower Dearne Valley, where ring ditches of former barrows were excavated at Goldthorpe (Ross 2014; Ross et al 2016) and small post-built structures and a pit containing Early Bronze Age pottery sherds  were excavated at Mexborough (Weston 2012). Similar work to the south and east sides of Doncaster has confirmed that some circular cropmark features are the ring ditches of former barrows (Weston and Roberts 2013; Stubbings 2017; Weston 2018), and where pits containing Middle Bronze Age pottery and Grooved Ware have been excavated. This adds to the information gained when a similar pit was excavated in earlier work nearby at Auckley (Chadwick 1995; 1996).

Two small sub-rectangular structures have also been recorded at Rossington (Weston 2018: 23-24). One of these was post-built and the other ditched. These have been tentatively dated to the Bronze Age on the basis of two poorly preserved amber beads and an undiagnostic flint recovered from above the post-built structure. Confusingly, a Late Iron Age date is also offered on the basis of comparison with similar structures investigated at Sutton Common. However, the morphology and scale of the structures bear a very close resemblance to buildings dating to, intriguingly, the Earlier Neolithic, from Ireland, mostly recorded in developer funded work (Cummings 2017: 79-80). The Irish examples are ditched rather than post-built. Nevertheless, the post-built structure at Rossington is very similar in size and shape to building two from Lismore Fields near Buxton in Derbyshire (Garton 1991: 13).

Beyond the results of the projects alluded to above, the vast majority of known features in the region remain uninvestigated. In the case of the Gritstone uplands of South Yorkshire it is not even known to what extent the moors are populated with prehistoric structures, although anecdotal observation suggests to the author that there are many areas where there is significant survival of small features across a landscape that has been largely undisturbed since antiquity. These probably relate to the Late Neolithic or Bronze Age.

Figure 1: Part of a horse jaw under excavation in 2012 from a short and narrow ditch-like feature very close to a Roman period enclosure at Bilham, South Yorkshire. Source: Tim Cockrell.

The following is a brief contextual description in chronological order of how most of the above data is distributed across the region. An issue relating to the distribution is formation processes, a fuller account of which is given elsewhere (Cockrell 2017). Apart from the distribution of activities summarised above, however, it is the location of urban and industrial activity, especially on the Coal Measures Sandstones, which masks much of the region’s potential Neolithic and Bronze Age information, particularly along the river valleys of the Don, Rother and Dearne. Open-cast mining in the Dearne and Rother valleys in particular has destroyed much potential, dissuading researchers from undertaking work in them. However, the effect of urban expansion and open-cast mining has been overstated, with considerable pockets of landscape available for research that has, in recent times, furnished important assemblages and significant features as has been related above (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Neolithic and Bronze Age findspots in South Yorkshire. The zone between the Millstone Grit and Magnesian Limestone formations consists of Coal Measures Sandstones.

Early Neolithic c.3800-2800BC

Changes signifying the onset of the Neolithic comprise differences in both raw material sources for chipped stone, reduction sequences and volume of the dataset for chipped stone across the region. The most striking difference is in the volume of data, which is greatly reduced in terms of pieces that are clearly diagnostic of Early Neolithic reduction sequences. Several factors influence this, including sample bias. Firstly, struck flakes and blades are larger than in the preceding Late Mesolithic. Many Mesolithic tools are composites, including multiple points utilised in single tools. These tools and their associated reduction sequences are abandoned in favour of larger tools using fewer components in the Neolithic. This difference partly explains the much reduced volume in diagnostic pieces, which is not necessarily reflective of reduced activity or population levels. Moreover, large quantities of undifferentiated “prehistoric” chipped stone have been recorded across the region, mostly as stray finds, many of which must relate to the Neolithic and Bronze Age but which cannot be differentiated  (Cockrell 2017). Late Mesolithic debitage by contrast, is often distinctive enough for the attribution to be more certain and recorded accordingly.

Significant changes in raw materials utilised occur at the beginning of the Neolithic in the region, particularly in the almost complete cessation of the use of chert, and the greater use of till flints from the river gravels of the Trent Valley rather than nodular flints from the Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire Wolds. This, and the narrower distribution of findspots, is indicative of changed social and economic patterns.

Another change in the character of material culture at the onset of the Neolithic across Britain is increased diversity, including novel materials and forms such as ceramic vessels and polished axe heads made from igneous and metamorphic rock, as well as flint. Within South Yorkshire, it is striking that pottery is notable by its almost complete absence. Given the scale of developer funded archaeology across the region, especially in the vicinity of Doncaster, which has been identified as a key area for the Neolithic in the region (Cockrell 2017), this absence is unlikely to be due to sample bias.

Polished stone axe heads proliferate during the Neolithic, although it has been suggested that their uptake in the region peaked later, perhaps towards the end of the Early Neolithic (Cockrell 2017). It is well known that Eastern England in general has a higher proportion of surviving axe heads from some distant sources, such as Langdale in Cumbria or Cornwall, than in those points of origin. South Yorkshire is no exception to that rule. Flint is also a major source for axe heads, probably utilising the till flint of East Yorkshire for the most part. Within South Yorkshire almost all polished axe heads have been recovered as stray finds, usually with poor locational accuracy. Their use in research, therefore, is most useful at the broad scale of analysis.

The other single most important change from early in the Early Neolithic was the construction of monuments in the form of long mounds and cairns. A particular feature of their distribution is its narrow character, seeming to coalesce around the vicinity of the Magnesian Limestone ridge that bisects South Yorkshire along a north-south line. The majority of the known structures are (or were) located close to the Don Gorge (Cockrell 2017; Merrony et al 2017). Some others also seem to be located close to other gorges, such as Dinnington Long Barrow near Anston Stones (Cockrell 2013) and Whitwell Long Cairn near Cresswell Crags just across the border in North East Derbyshire (Vyner and Wall 2011). Virtually nothing is known about their sequencing or other details due to the complete lack of fieldwork undertaken in modern times (or at all in the majority of cases), but differences observable in the morphology of some of the features are very likely to reflect temporal changes. This prospect is supported by the results of detailed work at similar structures elsewhere in Britain and especially at the aforementioned Whitwell Long Cairn (Bayliss and Whittle 2007). The Whitwell cairn demonstrated a complex sequence of artefact deposition and re-modelling over a remarkably short period of time, perhaps little more than a century, after which time all activity ceased. The differences noted above, which might be temporal in nature, probably, therefore, relate to a similarly relatively short period of rapid changes. This is arguably indicative of the dynamic negotiation and renegotiation of social and political relationships in contemporary Neolithic communities.  Other monument forms normally associated with the Early Neolithic such as Cursus monuments and causwayed enclosures are thus far notable by their absence. This might reflect cultural difference with other regions, similar to the absence of pottery. Another possible explanation is formation processes across the region, including urban development along the major valley bottoms and the effects of modern deep ploughing in other areas (Cockrell 2017). Perhaps the single most important possible reason for their absence, however, is due to lack of field research.

The Late Neolithic c.2800BC-2200BC

There are continuities with the Early Neolithic, such as the continued use of polished stone axe heads, although sources of raw material for these are likely to have changed with changed social and political needs (Edmonds 1995). Cornish sources and the flints of the boulder clays of east Yorkshire might have become more important  in South Yorkshire in the Late Neolithic (Cockrell 2017). Other changes across Britain include the development of new pottery forms. This includes the adoption of Grooved Wares and Beakers, although Beakers appear to have only become widespread by the Early Bronze Age (Gibson 2002). In South Yorkshire, a few examples indicate that the use of pottery might have been slightly more widespread than earlier: part of a Mortlake bowl was recovered in developer funded excavations at Wombwell Wood near Barnsley (Morris and Lloyd 2002), sherds of Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age pottery were recovered in developer funded work from pits at Auckley near Doncaster (Chadwick 1995), and at Mexborough (Weston 2012).  Grooved ware was recently recovered from another pit near Rossington (Roberts and Weston 2016). These, however, are rare exceptions that serve to emphasise how unusual pottery finds are in the region.

Changes in the crafting of chipped stone tools are also in evidence. Processing tools and other tools of an arguably mundane use become less typologically distinct and less carefully made, making them more difficult to distinguish and identify as specifically Late Neolithic. Some tools take on a more distinctive character, however, with the advent of the oblique arrowhead tradition and related arrowhead forms such as ripple flaked, hollow based and triangular arrowheads. All of these are in evidence in South Yorkshire, albeit in small numbers. A concentration has been noted in the vicinity of Ughill in the Loxley valley (Riley 1962). However, their distribution across the region is indicative of particular association with the vicinity of the Magnesian Limestone ridge. Almost all of these arrowheads have been recovered as either stray finds or in fieldwalking (with the noteworthy exception of the excavated assemblage from Scabba Wood near Doncaster (Merrony et al 2017), and are, therefore, most useful in research at the broad scale of analysis.

The Late Neolithic is well known for being the period when there is a renewed phase of the construction of ceremonial monuments in Britain, exemplified by henge monuments (Wainright 1989; Burl 1991). In wider scholarship, South Yorkshire has always been notable for the absence of such structures.  Consequently, this has negatively impacted not only on the understanding of the Late Neolithic in the region, but also on the implications for wider patterning in Britain.

Until very recently the only suspected henge monument in South Yorkshire was the circular depression visible as an upstanding feature at Cadeby Cliff overlooking the Don Gorge (Roberts et al 2010). Sample bias is undoubtedly responsible for the apparent absence of others, since much of the low lying part of the region is heavily urbanised and industrialised, masking areas that are often associated with the siting of such structures. Other areas, such as valley sides and uplands, are less often associated with the locations of henges and in the region have been subjected much less to developer funded work than the floodplains. Academic fieldwork that might have filled that gap has been almost entirely absent .

Features where preliminary trial trenching of large sub-circular features in academic projects have taken place in recent years include the cliff site at Cadeby (Cockrell 2017), and on the south facing slopes of the Dearne Valley at St Helen’s Chapel between Barnburgh and High Melton (Cockrell et al 2015 (2018)). Cadeby proved to be a natural depression, albeit one associated with relevant material culture such as fragments of polished stone axe heads and chipped stone. St Helen’s chapel proved far more difficult to satisfactorily evaluate, since it became evident that the feature detected in geophysical survey lies at a considerable depth below colluvial deposits, into which a succession of features are cut. However, the site remains a distinct possibility as a henge, given its proximity to recovered relevant material culture from St Helen’s spring and in the light of fieldwork undertaken at a site with distinct parallels at Whirlow Hall Farm on the west side of Sheffield. Examination of Lidar data supports this, with a large truncated sub-circular feature visible to the immediate south of St Helen’s Chapel.

The majority of the large circular and sub-circular features that are potentially henge monuments in South Yorkshire have been detected as cropmarks (Cockrell 2017; Cockrell et al forthcoming). The cropmark at Whirlow Hall Farm was one of the most convincing in scale and morphology and is the only other such feature in South Yorkshire to have been subjected to a trial excavation. Like St Helen’s Chapel, Whirlow is on higher slopes overlooking valleys. It is located very close to where a spring rises where flintwork has been recovered in excavations (Halton et al 2018). The field in which it is located has produced quantities of Neolithic chipped stone in fieldwalking that are higher than elsewhere in the locale (Waddington 2016). Careful examination of early mapping and earlier (previously unknown) survey work, supports the suggestion that it is a henge ( Cockrell at al 2019). The enclosure consists of a five metre wide ditch, two metres deep, approximately 75 metres in diameter with an external bank. It also possibly has a smaller internal bank. Unusually large quantities of chipped stone artefacts were recovered from the topsoil, and the material culture recovered from the ditch fills consists almost entirely of chipped stone artefacts, the diagnostic pieces of which mostly relate to the Neolithic or Bronze Age. A Late Roman radio carbon date obtained from the basal fill of the ditch has stimulated debate, resulting in suggestions that either the enclosure dates to the Roman period (Halton et al 2018) or that it is Neolithic and potentially re-used during the Roman period (Cockrell at al 2019). Definitive conclusions to the debate must await the results of future more detailed fieldwork.

An almost identical feature, badly preserved but still upstanding, exists at Wombwell Wood near Barnsley. It also has external and internal banks and is approximately 80 metres in diameter (Cockrell 2017; Cockrell et al forthcoming). The aforementioned Mortlake bowl fragment was recovered from close by. The landscape setting is also very similar to that of Whirlow, and to the unconfirmed feature lower in the Dearne Valley at St Helen’s Chapel. Henge monuments are well known to have had considerable variation in both their morphology and landscape settings (Harding 2013; Clare 1986a; 1986b; Gibson 2012). It is possible therefore, that the features at Whirlow, Wombwell Wood and St Helen’s Chapel represent not only a hitherto unknown regional group of Late Neolithic monuments, but a hitherto undetected regional variant of the henge building tradition. Other similar cropmark and upstanding  features await study and yet others probably await discovery. The reason why the aforementioned features have only recently come to light, and why so little is understood about the Neolithic of South Yorkshire, is because of the almost complete absence of funded academic research in modern times.

The Earlier Bronze Age c.2200BC-1000BC

Barbed and tanged arrowheads represent a late continuation of the tradition of “fancy” arrowhead styles that began in the Late Neolithic, and it is a moot point as to when the oblique arrowhead tradition ended and the barbed and tanged arrowheads began. This is exacerbated in South Yorkshire by the fact that almost all of the above have been recovered as stray finds or in fieldwalking. This includes examples recovered from the fields where the enclosures at St Helen’s chapel and Whirlow Hall Farm are located (Cockrell in press; Cockrell at al 2019; Waddington 2016). The small number of barbed and tanged arrowheads recovered across the region, along with thumbnail scrapers, represent the last readily identifiable chipped stone artefacts that can be ascribed with confidence to a particular period and that have meaningful distributions at the broad scale of analysis. Their general distribution is similar to that of arrowheads of the Neolithic, although more have been recorded on the Pennine uplands than earlier types.

Although the overall volume of material culture for the Earlier Bronze Age is small, and has almost entirely been recorded as chance discoveries during construction work or as stray finds, it is diverse in character. The assemblage includes polished stone mace heads, largely distributed along the Sheaf and Don Valley floodplains, and an Early Bronze Age flat axe head recovered from Brinsworth near Tinsley. Several mace heads and polished stone axe heads have also been recovered from the vicinity of Tinsley, perhaps hinting at the former importance of a prominent ridge that sits astride wetlands where the River Don has its confluence with the Rother.

The largest and most interesting copper alloy assemblages consist of spearheads and palstaves of the Middle Bronze Age that have contrasting distributions. Spearheads tend to be recovered from former wetland environments while palstaves more often are located on the dry slopes overlooking them, particularly on the Magnesian Limestone ridge to either side of Doncaster (Cockrell 2017: 180).

Finds of pottery consist of Beakers and Collared Urns that have been recovered mainly as chance finds by workers on construction sites in urban areas, particularly in Sheffield and Doncaster during the nineteenth century at the time of rapid urban expansion. Sherds have occasionally been recovered in fieldwalking, including at Cadeby Cliff in the Don Gorge. However, as in the Late Neolithic, pottery finds are otherwise very rare in the region.

Structures of the Earlier Bronze Age include round barrows that are probably represented by the many ring ditches that have been recorded in aerial photography in the vicinity of the Magnesian Limestone ridge near Doncaster. It is highly likely that a concentration of barrows once existed on the narrow ridge where Doncaster itself is located, as evidenced by the occasional recovery of the aforementioned collared urns and other high status artefacts probably connected with burials, by construction workers in the urban area. The recent developer funded excavations of ring ditches mentioned earlier adds weight to  the interpretation of these ring ditches as belonging to former round barrows of the period.

Woodlands might well be the locations of upstanding features in the vicinity of the Magnesian Limestone, and perhaps on the Coal Measures Sandstones as well. This is indicated by the survival of such features in woodland at Sutton Common, Scabba Wood (Merrony et al 2017), Edlington Wood (Buckland et al in press) and probably in Wath-Upon Dearne (Travis 2001). Others are known to have existed in the vicinity of Guilthwaite Hill and Laughton-en-le Morthen, according to antiquarian accounts (Copley 1950), but are no longer in evidence. At least one suspected round barrow was excavated nearby on the Magnesian Limestone in Derbyshire at Scarcliffe Wood during the 1960s (Swarbrick and Turner n.d). However, the majority of surviving round barrows exist on the Gritstone uplands to the west. Some have been excavated by antiquarians and early archaeologists as mentioned earlier, and some are uninvestigated, such as the barrow in Graves Park in Sheffield (Cockrell 2017: 171-172).

The majority of small and very small features on the Gritstone uplands, the vast majority of which remain unmapped and uninvestigated, probably relate to the Earlier Bronze Age. These include individual cairns, extensive cairnfields and small orthostats. The attribution is based largely on circumstantial evidence. Where they exist, they are often close to each other and sometimes near field systems that probably also belong either to the Earlier or Late Bronze Age. Frequently, the only material culture recovered from these locales (usually as stray finds) are Neolithic or Bronze Age, such as at Whitwell Moor near Stocksbridge (Cockrell 2016). The best known example is that of Totley Moor, where a fire in the 1960s enabled Jeff Radley and colleagues to observe many such features in detail where undergrowth had been burned off (Radley 1967). They included examples of all of the above and a ring cairn that was excavated, furnishing burials and flint scatters (Radley 1966). More scatters of flint were recovered in the vicinity, including amongst some of the cairns. Orthostats are also in evidence at Totley Moor that are typical of those that can be found at many places across the uplands, particularly at Hallam Moors, Foulstone Moor, Strines Moor, Ewden Beck and at Whitwell Moor. Those at Ewden Beck, Whitwell Moor and Foulstone and Strines Moors have been systematically recorded in walkover surveys (Cockrell 2010; 2016; 2019); features have also been recorded in more detailed but ad hoc surveying, taking advantage of areas burnt off as part of grouse moor management, at Hallam Moors (Sidebottom 2013). A growing literature on the subject of small orthostats is testament to their distribution in many upland areas of Britain (Burl 1993; Gilllings 2010; 2015; 2015b; Swarbrick 2012; Shepherd et al 2016).

Cup-marked and cup & ring marked stones are also often in evidence at the aforementioned locations, although the best known examples are those from Ecclesall Wood in the Sheaf Valley (Barnatt and Robinson 2003). These enigmatic features, which might well have their origins in the fourth millennium BC (Waddington 2007) are now being recorded in increasing numbers in South Yorkshire (Garton 2015; Cockrell 2020; Cockrell in press; Cockrell forthcoming B). They are likely to be comparable to those recorded in considerable numbers in the vicinity of Rombalds and Baildon Moors in nearby West Yorkshire (Boughey 2016). The recently documented cup-marked stone from Ewden Valley (SMR 5782; Figure 3), conveys well the character of the new data.

Figure 3: The cup-marked stone from Ewden Valley. Source: Tim Cockrell.

The Late Bronze Age c.1000-700BC

It is possible that many of the small features alluded to above relate to the Late Bronze Age rather than earlier. Our very poor understanding either of the precise sequence or even the actual extent of the aforementioned is indicative of how important it is that this well preserved and extensive, but fragile, resource is subjected to detailed and systematic study.

Apart from the potential of the above, perhaps the most intriguing aspect to the Late Bronze Age in South Yorkshire is how little data can be attributed to it. Pottery is entirely absent within the region and chipped stone almost impossible to identify, due to the decline in typologically distinct implements in this period. The only class of material culture that has thus far been recorded in the region in any quantity are copper alloy artefacts recovered as stray finds. These consist of spearheads and looped and socketed axe heads for the most part. They have a similar distribution to those of the Earlier Bronze Age (Cockrell 2017: 190).

The only crop mark feature that has the clear potential to belong to the Late Bronze Age is an interrupted circular ditched feature with a smaller ring ditch within it at Stone, near Rotherham on the Magnesian Limestone ridge (Roberts  et al 2011). This might be a Ringwork, a relatively new class of feature in scholarship about which little research has as yet been undertaken across Britain. Alternatively, it is possible that the feature is a henge, with a later round barrow at its centre (Cockrell 2017; forthcoming).

Some other crop mark features have the potential to belong to the Late Bronze Age. Adrian Chadwick (2008) has argued that many of the ditched enclosures in the east of the region are Iron Age rather than Roman but there is no prima facie reason why the phenomenon does not have antecedents.  As with the Iron Age, the issue rests on the question of archaeological proof. That contentious problem is one that the Late Bronze Age shares with the Iron Age of South Yorkshire. This similarity raises the possibility that Iron Age life in the region is as much a continuation of a way of life as it is a change.

Archaeobotanical Issues

The role of cereals in Neolithic subsistence strategies in Britain is a topic of ongoing archaeological debate (see Bishop, Church and Rowley-Conwy 2009, Jones 2000, Jones and Rowley-Conwy 2007, Moffett, Robinson and Straker 1989, McClatchie et al 2014, 2016, Stevens and Fuller 2012, Thomas 1999, 2004, Whitehouse et al 2014, Whittle 2003).  Evidence from South Yorkshire is needed to investigate the cultivation of cereals and collection of wild plant foods during the Neolithic and Bronze Age in different regions. Charred plant remains assemblages are however more likely to be present at occupation sites, rather than the ceremonial sites which are more often the subject of archaeological excavation.  Given the scarcity of evidence from South Yorkshire, the recovery of charred plant macrofossils from all Neolithic and Bronze age contexts is a priority, although occupation sites should be a particular focus for sampling (Hall and Huntley 2007, 27).  Suitable deposits should also be sampled for pollen, insect, and soil micromorphology to provide evidence for Neolithic land use.  Radiocarbon dating of any cereal remains recovered from Neolithic sites is a priority, particularly from well-sealed sites (Carruthers and Hunter-Dowse 2019, 31).  Samples from any large assemblages of spelt remains from Bronze Age sites, indicating the early adoption of spelt wheat in the Bronze Age, are also a priority for dating (ibid., 205).  

The nature and extent of Neolithic woodland clearance and regeneration is a topic of archaeological debate (Robinson 2000; Whitehouse and Smith 2004; 2010).  Rich assemblages of wood charcoal are needed to compliment evidence for Neolithic woodland availability from pollen sequences (Huntley 2010, 63).  Wood charcoal analysis has the potential to provide evidence for the types of wood selected for use as fuel by people in the Neolithic and earlier Bronze Age, such as the use of smaller branches or trees which may be easier to collect than wood from large trees (ibid., 12).  Rich assemblages of wood charcoal from Bronze Age funerary sites can be analysed to provide evidence for the selection of wood for funerary pyres (ibid., 63). Given the scarcity of evidence from the region, the recovery and analysis of wood charcoal from Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in South Yorkshire is a priority (Huntley 2010, 8).

As charred plant remains in prehistoric contexts are often very thinly distributed, it is of paramount importance that large samples of at least 40-60 litres are processed (Campbell at al 2011; Carruthers and Hunter Dowse 2019, 10).   Smaller sample volumes of twenty or even ten litres, are very unlikely to produce a representative sample and are in fact most likely to produce very little or nothing at all.   Processing of large sample volumes for the recovery of charred plant macrofossils is also more likely to produce sufficient charcoal fragments to provide a representative sample of woody taxa utilised for fuel.  Sorting of flotation sample heavy residues may also improve the chances of recovery of small lithic and other artefacts from Neolithic and Bronze Age sites.  Charred plant remains such as cereal grain, hazelnut shell and small diameter wood charcoal fragments, which are preserved in acidic soils (Campbell et al 2011, 5), also provide dating evidence that may not be available from other material such as bone, which is poorly preserved at sites on the acidic soils of the Coal Measures.

Research Framework

Current issues and broad problems

Research in South Yorkshire, by comparison with most of Britain, is at a very early developmental stage. This means that much work of a basic nature is necessary in order to address many of the more detailed questions that might be asked. Systematic fieldwork undertaken to modern research standards is needed even in order to understand the character and confirm the dates of the vast majority of probable Neolithic and Bronze Age structures, or even a meaningful sample of them. In the case of features that have been recorded as cropmarks on the Magnesian Limestone, this is a matter of urgency, since modern deep ploughing will destroy what is left of most structures within the next generation.

The challenge above also presents opportunities, since the undertaking of such work could involve local communities and community groups. It could raise awareness of the extent or even the actual existence of the regional prehistoric sequence, enhancing appreciation of the landscape and the significance of its character and environmental history for understanding past human societies. This is a particularly important consideration in those parts of the region where opportunities for developer funded research are limited, such as on the Gritstone Uplands of the western edge of South Yorkshire and to a lesser extent on the prime agricultural land of the Magnesian Limestone ridge.

Elsewhere, the potential of developer funded research becomes more important, as is evident from work in the vicinity of Doncaster. The area to either end of the Don Gorge, where much relevant work has already taken place, is especially important. As has been indicated, a slight ridge overlooking the Humberhead Levels in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, beyond the east end of the gorge, appears to have been a particular focus for activity. The area to the immediate west of the west end of the Gorge, near the confluence of the River Dearne with the River Don on Coal Measures Sandstones formations, is likely to have been almost as important (Cockrell 2015 (2018); 2017). The Coal Measures Sandstones zone of South Yorkshire is one that, with its history of urban and industrial development, is another area of potential for developer funded research in the region. It has not traditionally attracted academic, amateur or community led research in the past, although it is the landscape that has yielded the region’s only known Bronze Age hoard (Preston 1956). Clearly, despite its urban character and the ravages of open cast mining (Figure 1), much of its landscape is still undisturbed. It remains largely unexplored archaeologically. Such developer funded work as has taken place on those patches of undisturbed land has yielded promising results, for example at Wombwell and Goldthorpe (Mudd and Webster 2001; Ross 2014; Ross et al 2016; ), and should be expected to yield more information about the Neolithic and Bronze Age in the future.

Dissemination of information generated, through public engagement and publications in various formats at the post fieldwork stage, offer further opportunities.  The history of a region whose prehistoric heritage is virtually unknown by the general public could be significantly enhanced, in popular format publications and educational material. In particular, maximising the extent to which the collections of Neolithic and Bronze Age material culture is presented to the public at their principal depositories, the Museums of Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham, is of crucial importance. Doing that offers an opportunity to establish the link between the region’s prehistoric narrative, and how people in prehistory interacted with and altered the region’s environment. That would contribute to issues concerning human driven environmental changes and climate change. Greater awareness of the interdependence between human society and the environments within which society has developed would thus be promoted. Such enhanced public understanding, particularly when linked with the region’s landscape history, would also raise the profile of the region in ways that transcend its contemporary post-industrial image, and promote interest in and value of those landscapes, promoting the wellbeing and prosperity of its contemporary population.

The proposed route of the HS2 railway line will severely impact upon parts of South Yorkshire, especially on the Magnesian Limestone ridge. There is a concomitant need to ensure that resources are in place both to subject landscapes to detailed survey and excavation forward of the development, but also to ensure that generated archives are adequately curated subsequently. Areas of South Yorkshire that are known to be particularly sensitive include the vicinity of the confluence of the River Dearne and the River Don. This is likely to have been one of the most intensively utilised parts of South Yorkshire in the Neolithic and Bronze Age (Cockrell 2017). The area to the immediate north west at St Helen’s fields and Barnburgh Edge has evidence of intense use spanning the Neolithic to the medieval period (Cockrell 2015 (2018)). Between Barnburgh Edge and the vicinity of Brodsworth, fieldwalking, geophysical survey and trial trenching under the auspices of the Brodsworth Community Archaeology Project over a number of years has demonstrated the intensive use of the landscape between the Neolithic and Roman periods.

Overarching themes

  • The palaeoenvironmental character and evidence for Neolithic and Bronze Age climate, vegetation sequences and land use of the region and how this changed over the study period.
  • The scale and character of settlement and use of the landscape across the region and how continuity and change developed over time.
  • The status and significance of the region’s prehistoric communities in relation to those in neighbouring regions.

Research Questions

The following is designed to address problems and issues relating to South Yorkshire and its Neolithic and Bronze Age, but in the context of wider discourses across Britain (Historic England n.d.; Historic England 2010).

How can we establish a higher resolution chronological framework for the Neolithic and Bronze Age?

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How can we improve the quality of HER records for Neolithic and Bronze Age sites and monuments?

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How can we better understand the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition period in South Yorkshire?

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Were copper alloy artefacts being crafted in South Yorkshire itself, or were they imported as finished items?

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More regionally focused recommendations and questions

How can palaeoenvironmental, geoarchaeological and computer modelling approaches be used to produce a detailed landscape history of the region to contextualise developments in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, particularly on the coal measures?

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Much palaeoenvironmental research has been undertaken on the Gritstone uplands to the west and the lowlands of the Humberhead Levels (Cockrell 2017: 65-83), but virtually none on the landscapes between. How can palaeoenvironmental and geoarchaeological approaches be used and integrated with landform modelling (particularly utilising the results of Lidar) to produce a detailed landscape history of the region to contextualise developments in the Neolithic and Bronze Age? In developer funded projects, the retention of soil samples for palaeoenvironmental analysis has become a standard feature of projects, furnishing the opportunity to fill the aforementioned gap in data across South Yorkshire, particularly on the Coal Measures Sandstones formation landscape.

Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Lidar survey, Bronze age, Neolithic, Historic landscape characterisation, Palaeoenvironmental analysis

What was the pattern of land use on the Coal Measures Sandstones in the Neolithic and Bronze Age and how did that change over time?

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Pockets of archaeological data have already been noted (largely through developer funded work). As this is added to, will there be enough, in combination with palaeoenvironmental data, to understand the sequence in the Neolithic and Bronze Age?

Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Bronze age, Neolithic, Historic landscape characterisation, Palaeoenvironmental analysis

What can palaeoenvironmental evidence tell us about Neolithic and Bronze age settlement on the Gritstone uplands?

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What is the relationship (if any) between the putative henges and other large enclosures or monuments relating to the Neolithic and Bronze Age and the evidence to be garnered from palaeoenvironmental work and the settlement evidence from the Gritstone uplands? Where was Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement? Were the monuments themselves foci for settlement?
Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Bronze age, Neolithic, Palaeoenvironmental analysis, Settlement pattern

Were henges or other large enclosures foci for settlement on the Gritstone uplands in the Neolithic and Bronze Age?

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What is the relationship (if any) between the putative henges and other large enclosures or monuments relating to the Neolithic and Bronze Age and the evidence to be garnered from palaeoenvironmental work and the settlement evidence from the Gritstone uplands? Where was Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement? Were the monuments themselves foci for settlement?
Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Settlement, Bronze age, Neolithic, Enclosure, Henge, Settlement pattern

How can understanding of the transition of the Late Mesolithic to the Early Neolithic in South Yorkshire be furthered by the study of chipped stone?

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Detailed study of the region’s chipped stone assemblage in order to define differences in raw material use, including temporal and geographical distribution, might elucidate issues concerning use of the environment. It has been shown elsewhere (Jochim 2006), that patterns of use relate to home ranges by different groups in the Late Mesolithic of southern Germany. Similar patterns are in evidence in South Yorkshire (Cockrell 2017), which could be nuanced by more detailed study of the chipped stone assemblage. Do these patterns change in the Early Neolithic, and if so, how do such changes inform our understanding of the transition?

Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Mesolithic, Neolithic, Lithic implement, Collections research, Artefact analysis

What information can be added by a detailed study of museum collections of chipped stone?

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Many flint “scatters” across the region are known only as find spots in the SMR, with no detail about their size and character in evidence. Related to this is the issue of archives of chipped stone held by museums and in private collections about which no detail is known. Detailed study of these assemblages have the potential to add considerable nuance to our understanding of past inhabitation of the region.
Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Bronze age, Neolithic, Lithic implement, Collections research, Artefact analysis

What is the character, chronology and extent of land use on the Gritstone uplands during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages?

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The “Eastern Moors” have been the focus of considerable research over the years (Barnatt 1987; 1994; 1999; 2000, Kitchen 2000, Ainsworth 2001; Ashmore et al 2010; Barnatt et al 2017), but the eastern side of the watershed in South Yorkshire has been largely neglected, raising questions about the validity of existing models of use due to sample bias. This problem has been thrown into relief by the recent investigation of a large enclosure on the western edge of Sheffield itself that is a possible henge (Cockrell et al forthcoming b). These questions can begin to be answered by mapping of features in detailed surveys. The sampling of features in carefully targeted small scale excavations to recover data to characterise and date their use would add weight to general interpretations.

Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Bronze age, Neolithic, Excavation, Historic landscape characterisation, Field survey, Chronology

How can we better identify small discrete features or Bronze Age and Neolithic date, especially those with unpromising morphology?

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How often have small features of the kind that exist in profusion on the largely undisturbed Gritstone landscape been unrecognised as archaeological features due to their diminutive and ephemeral character, or overlooked due to their unpromising morphology? Does their existence on the Gritstone represent something unique to that landscape, that possibly relates to regional patterning, or does their survival relate to cultural practices that were originally more widespread, and no longer archaeologically visible in disturbed lowland settings? Is it possible that the small sub-rectangular pits often recorded on the Magnesian Limestone ridge alluded to earlier are a remnant of the same small scale phenomenon?

Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Bronze age, Neolithic, Excavation

How can analysis of pottery help us understand regional identities in Neolithic and Bronze Age South Yorkshire?

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Cootes (2012) demonstrated that a tradition of pottery crafting that utilised pastes with a specific temper was indicative of a regional sense of identity centred on the Carboniferous Limestone of the Peak District. This included at least one vessel sampled from Totley Moor on the western edge of South Yorkshire. To what extent would utilising Cootes’ methodology be useful in approaching Late Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery in South Yorkshire? Are they part of the same tradition or something else? What is the significance of the answer to that question in understanding regional identity in the Neolithic and Bronze Age? How does this relate to the Peak District and other neighbouring regions?

Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Bronze age, Neolithic, Pottery, Collections research, Artefact analysis

What can a study of the distributions of different types of copper alloy objects tell us about values, beliefs and social relationships during the Bronze Age?

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There are distinct differences in the distribution patterning of different kinds of copper alloy artefacts, namely axe heads and spear heads. Does this reflect specific depositional practices?

Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Bronze age, Copper alloy, Axehead, Spearhead, Artefact analysis, Social organisation

Were copper alloy artefacts being crafted in South Yorkshire itself, or were they imported as finished items?

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Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Exchange, Bronze age, Metal industry site, Copper alloy

How can we better understand the unusual possible ringwork at Stone?

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The possible Late Bronze Age Ringwork at Stone appears to be unique in the region. This feature and its locale should be subjected to geophysical survey, fieldwalking, and trial trenching with a view to possible open area excavation. Full investigation of this feature would elucidate not only regional issues but also add to knowledge of a poorly understood class of monument at the national level. Preservation in situ, in a landscape (the Magnesian Limestone ridge) that is being rapidly destroyed by deep ploughing is not an option.
Found in the following Frameworks:
South Yorkshire Historic Environment Research Framework
Bronze age, Excavation, Circular enclosure

Original text by Tim Cockrell (2019), with a contribution by Ellen Simmons (archaeobotany)


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