Early Neolithic


The Early Neolithic in the West Midlands: previous research

The Early Neolithic (c 4000-3400 BC) is defined by the first appearance in Britain of domesticated animal and plant species and associated agricultural technologies, a range of substantial and/or durable material culture categories, including monumental architecture and ceramics, and a diverse range of new social practices including complex mortuary ritual leading to formal burial deposition. These changes are usually thought to mark far-reaching social and economic changes, although the nature and chronology of these are much disputed (discussed below).

There has been very little previous research work specifically devoted to the Early Neolithic in the West Midlands. Regional and county-based syntheses of the evidence are limited in scope, there have been few systematic artefact collection surveys and material culture studies relating to the West Midlands are rare. Vine’s (1982) survey of the Neolithic of the Middle and Upper Trent Basin, for example, is now rather dated and restricted to Staffordshire, north Warwickshire and the old West Midlands county, while Hingley’s (1996) short, incisive review of the Warwickshire evidence inevitably lacks detail and does not take account of significant recent publications and new discoveries. Neolithic ceramics in the region have been summarised briefly by Ann Woodward (in Hughes and Woodward 1995, 15-18) but no detailed synthesis of the material exists. Surveys of prehistoric evidence at a smaller ‘landscape’ scale are almost non-existent: the only significant example being an assessment of the prehistory of lowland Shropshire (Buteux and Hughes 1995). Large-scale fieldwork projects have been undertaken in several parts of the region, but with the notable exception of the Avon valley in Warwickshire these have not produced major groups of Early Neolithic sites (see below).

In this context, the wide range of papers entirely or partly concerned with the Early Neolithic that were prepared for the Regional Research Framework earlier prehistory seminar (Garwood 2007d), provides an important new basis for investigating this period in the region. These include general descriptive and interpretative syntheses (Ray 2007, Greig 2007), thematic studies (Barfield 2007, Woodward 2007), data-set assessments (Barber 2007) and site-specific studies (Jackson 2007, Palmer 2007). The present discussion of the evidence is based on these papers, and on current interpretative frameworks and debates in wider discussions of the British Early Neolithic.

Map showing distribution of Early Neolithic sites in the area
Fig 2.4 Early Neolithic monuments in the West Midlands (after Garwood 2007c, fig. 1)

Current research agenda in Early Neolithic archaeology

Apart from the broad themes defined by Kinnes (1994) over a decade ago, there has been no recent attempt to identify research agenda in Early Neolithic archaeology at a national scale. Prehistoric Society research documents (1984, 1988) focus mainly on fieldwork and conservation priorities. Key research themes are highlighted, however, in several recent books (eg Bradley 1998, 2007; Thomas 1991, 1999; Whittle 1996), and there is an exceptionally large and growing research literature concerned with Early Neolithic topics. Especially important research themes in current Early Neolithic archaeology include:

The nature of the ‘Neolithic’ and the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.

Prevailing interpretative frameworks reject the traditional ‘Neolithic package’ model and instead represent the Neolithic primarily as a cultural rather than an economic phenomenon (eg Thomas 1993, 1999, 2003; Whittle 1996; Bradley 2004). The recognition of regional diversity, uncertainty about the economic importance of farming, lack of consensus about the temporalities of cultural and economic changes and suggestions of continuity in hunter-gatherer practices, have raised fundamental questions about the nature of Early Neolithic society (eg see: Thomas 1999, 7-33; King 2003; Pollard 2004). In this context, the emergence of an increasingly precise, fine-grained absolute chronology for the early Neolithic has far-reaching implications for social and cultural interpretation (and already suggests a series of sub-phases marked by rapid cultural changes) (see Whittle 2007).

The significance of agriculture.

The relative importance of farming to subsistence and social organisation remains a key research issue (Bradley 1984a; Kinnes 1988, 1994; Thomas 1999). There is, at present, strong disagreement between those who argue that farming was of central economic importance (eg Entwistle and Grant 1989, Richards and Hedges 1999, Rowley-Conwy 2003, Schulting 2000), and those who argue that farming was just one part, often of limited importance in subsistence terms, of a more variegated economy (eg Bradley 2004; Fairbairn 2000, Jones 2000; Moffett et al 1989; Robinson 2000; Thomas 1993, 1999, 2003; Whittle 2000).

Environmental change.

The impact of Early Neolithic communities on the environment is widely debated, with increasing evidence for only limited woodland clearance (eg see Allen et al 2004, Austin 2000, Brown 2000, Pollard 2004).


Tombs, barrows and enclosures and the practices associated with them have always been central to interpretations of Early Neolithic society in Britain (eg Piggott 1954; Renfrew 1973; Bradley 1984a, 1998; Barrett 1988; Kinnes 1994; Thomas 1999). There are recent surveys of earthen long barrows (Kinnes 1992, Field 2006), chambered tombs (Darvill 2004) and causewayed enclosures (Oswald et al 2001). Recent research has focused on the role of monuments and mortuary practices in the construction of social and cultural identities, the reification of classificatory and cosmological schemes, and phenomenological studies of monuments in the landscape (eg Bradley 1998, 2004; Cummings and Whittle 2003a, 2003b; Darvill 1997b; Oswald et al 2001, 107-32; Thomas 1999, 34-61, 126-51; Tilley 1994, 1998; Whittle and Pollard 1999).


There are some strongly opposed views of Early Neolithic settlement. The limited evidence for houses in England, and rejection of the farming/sedentism model (eg Thomas 1993, 1996) have led to a new emphasis on residential mobility (eg Whittle 1997a; Evans et al 1999, Grogan 2002, Pollard 1999, 2000, 2004; cf Scarre 2001, for a north-west European perspective). This is contested by those who still favour a significant sedentary element in Neolithic settlement patterns, pointing to the evidence for substantial houses in Ireland while drawing attention to wider problems of site preservation and visibility (eg Cooney 2000a, Darvill 1996, Gibson 2003, Rowley-Conwy 2003).

Material culture and depositional practices.

Recent discussions of artefact categories such as lithics (Lithic Studies Society 2004; cf Edmonds 1995, Pitts 1996), and ceramics (Cleal 1992, Hamilton 2002, Woodward 2002b), emphasise the distinctive characteristics of Early Neolithic extractive and production technologies, and exchange and consumption practices (eg Bradley and Edmonds 1993; Barber et al 1999). Perhaps the most significant area of interpretative debate, however, concerns depositional practices and their meaning, especially in relation to the deliberate placement of artefacts in ditches, pits and middens (Thomas 1999, 62- 125; cf Evans et al 1999, Pollard 2002, Woodward 2002c).

Regionality and cultural diversity.

There is growing research interest in cultural identity and diversity (eg ‘ethnicity’) and in the large-scale spatial structuring of social action, especially in terms of territoriality and regionality (eg Bradley 1984b; Harding 1995; Thomas 1998; Barclay 2000; Cooney 2000b; Armit et al 2003). Widespread recognition of significant regional diversity in the Early Neolithic has major implications for investigating the origins and development of farming communities and interactions within and between prehistoric cultural and economic regions (eg in relation to the long-distance exchange of flint and stone axes).

Research assessment: current knowledge and understanding of the evidence

Early Neolithic sites and finds in the West Midlands are unevenly distributed, mostly concentrated around the margins of the region, and sites and finds densities are low in comparison with distributions in neighbouring areas (Ray 2007, 57-60; Barfield 2007, 103-4). Although there have been large-scale fieldwork projects in parts of the region, Early Neolithic evidence is encountered only rarely. The most intensively studied area is the Avon valley in Warwickshire, where widespread rescue work took place under the auspices of the Avon-Severn Valleys Research Committee from 1963 to 1973 (Hunt 1982), including important excavations of Early Neolithic monuments at Barford (Oswald 1969, Loveday 1989; cf Woodward 2007, 188-9) and Charlecote (Ford 2003). More recent excavations have taken place at Wasperton (Hughes and Crawford 1995), and Church Lawford (Palmer 1999; 2007, 126-9). Elsewhere in the region, Early Neolithic features have sometimes been investigated in the course of multi-period excavation projects: for example, at Sharpstones Hill, Shropshire (Barker et al 1991), and Wellington, Herefordshire (Jackson 2007). It is important to note, however, that other large-scale fieldwork projects in the region have produced very little or no Early Neolithic evidence. These include the North Shropshire wetlands survey (Leah et al 1998), the Wroxeter Hinterland project in west Shropshire (Lawrence Barfield, pers comm; project archive), the M6 Toll route in west Warwickshire and south Staffordshire (Denison 2002, Powell et al 2008), and the Arrow valley project in south-west Warwickshire (Palmer 1999).

Environment, landscape change and subsistence economy

Evidence for environmental conditions in the West Midlands during the 5th and 4th millennia BC is patchy geographically and temporally imprecise (Greig 2007, 42-3). It is also striking that there is very little evidence from any site in the region for Early Neolithic agriculture, either in terms of its impact on the wider environment or in the form of direct evidence for domesticates or agricultural practices (ibid). Detailed pollen diagrams are available from several sites, including Wellington Quarry, Herefordshire (Jackson 2007, 112; Dinn and Roseff 1992), Crose Mere, Shropshire (Beales 1980), sites in the Shropshire wetlands (Leah et al 1998), the King’s Pool, Stafford (Bartley and Morgan 1990), and Hartlebury Common, Wilden Marsh and Cookley in Worcestershire (Greig 2007, 43-5). Only Warwickshire lacks significant pollen evidence of Neolithic date (ibid).

The Wellington and Cookley sequences, in particular, provide a broad picture of environmental change during the Early Neolithic: both sites show evidence for woodland disturbance and increased presence of weeds in the early 4th millennium BC, with cereal pollen at Cookley from c 3500 BC and at Wellington from c 3000 BC (Greig 2007, 45). There is no indication of large-scale woodland clearance at either site, however, until the 3rd millennium BC, which is consistent with the evidence from sites elsewhere in the West Midlands and from other major river valleys in southern Britain (discussed in more detail below in relation to Middle and Late Neolithic landscapes). The argument that hunting and gathering may still have been important to the subsistence economy is reinforced by plant assemblages from Wellington, Herefordshire, Broom, Warwickshire and Kemerton, Worcestershire, which are dominated by wild plants such as hazelnuts, with little evidence for cultivated species such as wheat, barley and flax (Moffett 1999).


Early Neolithic monument types are very rare in the West Midlands (Fig 2.4). There are no definite earthen long barrows in the region, although there are probable examples at Cross Lodge, Herefordshire, and Long Hill, Alderminster, Warwickshire (Ray 2007, 63), and another possible site at Hampton-in-Arden, also in Warwickshire. There are also several ‘long’ or ‘mortuary’ enclosures that are probably Early or Middle Neolithic in date (see discussion in Barber 2007, 85, 89-90), including examples at Mavesyn Ridware, Staffordshire (Loveday 2003, fig A1), Barford (Loveday 1989; Barber 2007, 89-90), Charlecote (Ford 2003), Wasperton Field 3 (Ray 2007, 63) and Church Lawford, Warwickshire (Palmer 2007, 126-9), and Norton, Worcestershire (Loveday and Petchey 1982). Of these, only the small rectilinear enclosure at Charlecote has significant dating evidence, indicating construction ‘toward the close of the Earlier Neolithic’ (Loveday 2003, 37). The Charlecote evidence also suggests that a low mound originally existed within the enclosure, which raises the possibility that at least some of the other rectilinear enclosures in the region were originally long mound sites (ibid).

Photograph of stone tomb comprised of large upright stones and a cap stone
Fig 2.5 Arthur’s Stone chambered tomb

Two definite chambered tombs are known in the West Midlands: Arthur’s Stone, Herefordshire (Fig 2.5), a north-eastern outlier of the Black Mountains group in Breconshire (Ray 2007, 63; cf Cummings and Whittle 2003a, 198), and the Bridestones site on the Staffordshire-Cheshire border (Ray 2007, 63). There are two more possible examples on the Warwickshire-Oxfordshire border at Chastleton (Hingley 1996, 7) and Rollright Stones Site 2 (Hingley 1996, 7; cf Lambrick 1988, 68-70), and another in the Lugg valley at The Tarrs, Kingsland, Herefordshire (Ray 2007, 63, fig 5.8). There may also be a number of partly stone-built Early Neolithic funerary monuments in the Staffordshire Peak District, including Long Low, Wetton and Grub Low, Waterhouses (ibid). Identifications of other possible funerary monuments at the northern end of the Golden Valley in Herefordshire, and at Hales on the Shropshire-Staffordshire border, are now thought to be dubious or are demonstrably erroneous (ibid).

Illustration of two irregular circular enclosures seen from above.
Fig 2.6 Early Neolithic enclosures in the Trent valley at Alrewas and Mavesyn Ridware, Staffordshire (after Oswald et al 2001, figs 4.9, 4.18, app 76,77).

Early Neolithic enclosure sites are also exceptionally rare in the West Midlands. There are two probable causewayed enclosures recorded on air photographs in the Trent valley at Alrewas and Mavesyn Ridware, Staffordshire (Oswald et al 2001, figs 4.9, 4.18, app 76, 77), both of which consist of ovate triple ditch circuits with multiple causeway breaks (Fig 2.6). The presence of enclosures has also been suggested at Woolston, Shropshire (Oswald et al 2001, app 73; Ray 2007, 58; Barber 2007, 88) and at the Early Neolithic site on Dorstone Hill, Herefordshire (although published details are sketchy: Oswald et al 2001, 48, app 42; Ray 2007, 58; Barber 2007, 88-9). The likelihood that many more enclosure sites will come to light is strengthened by the recent discovery (in 2006) of an Early Neolithic single-circuit hill-top enclosure with a single entrance at Hill Croft Field, Bodenham, Herefordshire: excavation of the western ditch terminal revealed plain bowl ceramics, flintwork and animal and human remains (Ray 2007, 60). The other definite Neolithic circular enclosure in the region, at Wasperton, Warwickshire (Hughes and Crawford 1995), although causewayed, is probably Middle Neolithic in date (Oswald et al 2001, 133-34; discussed in more detail below in the Middle and Late Neolithic section).

It is possible that some other hilltop enclosures in the region are Neolithic or have Neolithic phases (on the basis of occasional artefact finds, constructional features and/or location), but most recorded examples have not been investigated or have produced evidence only for Iron Age occupation (Ray 2007, 59-60; cf Ray 2001, 62). The Early Neolithic trapezoidal enclosure excavated recently in the Avon valley at Church Lawford, Warwickshire (Palmer 2007, 126-9), similar in some respects to the enclosure at Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire, which dates to c 4000-3500 BC (McAvoy 2000), also emphasises the likely presence of non-circular Neolithic enclosure forms. This point is reinforced by the recent excavation of a small rectilinear enclosure of Neolithic date at Lower Luggy, just outside the region in the Severn valley near Welshpool (Gibson 2006). Similar enclosures known from aerial photography in the West Midlands, including several in Herefordshire, may well prove to be Neolithic (Ray 2007, 58-60).

There are no obvious large groups of Early Neolithic funerary monuments and enclosures in the West Midlands similar to those found in other regions, such as Wessex and Sussex (Renfrew 1973; Drewett et al 1988, 34-44; Oswald et al 2001, 108-18). This picture will probably change, at least in some parts of the region, as air photographic data is assessed in more detail and new sites evaluated (Barber 2007, 94). The distribution of Early Neolithic monuments is discussed further below.

Settlement and occupation sites

The evidence for Early Neolithic settlement in the West Midlands is both extremely limited and ambiguous. There are no definite examples of house structures anywhere in the region (Ray 2007, 68), and apart from lithic artefact distributions (see below) and occasional finds in cave and rock shelter sites (ibid), the only direct evidence for Early Neolithic activity comes from pit contexts and from finds within colluvial and alluvial deposits. Pits containing significant assemblages of Early Neolithic lithic artefacts and plain bowl pottery have been found in several parts of the region, notably at Causeway Farm, Hereford, and Wellington, Herefordshire (Jackson 2007, 112-14; Ray 2007, 70);

Bromfield (Stanford 1982, Hughes et al 1995) and Sharpstones Hill, Shropshire (Barker et al 1991), and Baginton (Hobley 1971) and Barford, Warwickshire (Oswald 1969). Assemblages with both plain bowl and early, decorated pottery have also been found in Warwickshire at Church Lawford and King’s Newnham (Palmer 2007), and Brook Street, Warwick (Cracknell and Bishop 1992).

The pit group at Wellington is especially important because of the size of the artefact assemblages (both ceramic and lithic), the presence of radiocarbon sample materials, and the well-preserved nature of the site, which was sealed beneath river alluvium in the 1st millennium BC (Jackson 2007, 112-14). The nature of the activities associated with pit digging and deposition at this and other sites is open to debate: it indicates short-duration ‘occupation’ of particular locales, but the deliberate deposition of selected materials, sometimes in considerable quantities, suggests that these were not routine practices (Ray 2007, 71-2; cf Thomas 1999, 62-80).

A notable feature of the distributions of most Early Neolithic flint and stone artefacts in the West Midlands is their concentration in particular areas (see below). Although flint scatters of broadly Neolithic date are found in surface contexts across the region, suggesting an extensive pattern of occupation, relatively few areas have high densities of finds that might indicate long-term settlement or repeated occupation events (Barfield 2007). The most significant exception to this is the Clun area, close to the Welsh border in south-west Shropshire, where there is a high density of Neolithic flint finds (the flint probably derived from distant sources to the south) (ibid, 101-2; Barfield 2003, 18-19; cf Chitty 1963). It is interesting that stone axe studies in the region also show that these originated mainly outside the region, predominantly from Welsh and Cumbrian sources (Shotton 1988; cf Wise 1990; Ray 2007, 57). Axe distributions in general are far more dispersed than other artefact types, which may reflect distinct extensive patterns of use and associated social activities.

Regionality and cultural diversity in the Early Neolithic of the West Midlands A striking feature of regional distribution maps is the virtual absence of Early Neolithic sites and finds from large areas of the West Midlands and the low overall density of artefact finds in comparison with surrounding regions (Barfield 2007, 103-4; Garwood 2007c; Ray 2007, 52-3). In particular, known funerary monuments, enclosures and concentrations of lithic artefacts are all found around the fringes of the West Midlands, in areas such as south-west Herefordshire (the Golden valley), south Warwickshire (the Avon valley and the Cotswold ridge), and north Staffordshire (the Peak District and middle Trent valley). In contrast, there are no known monuments and no significant groups of Early Neolithic artefacts anywhere in the central part of the region, including the middle Severn valley, the upland area between the Severn and Avon, the Birmingham plateau, north and east Shropshire, and south and west Staffordshire.

It is possible that environmental processes (eg alluviation of ancient land surfaces in river valleys) and the limited nature of previous fieldwork in these areas may have led to the under representation of Early Neolithic sites, and/or that cultural activities in the region more generally were marked by relatively rare use of durable material culture types and by practices that did not demand monument construction. It has also been noted that soils in some parts of the West Midlands are not conducive to air photographic survey (Barber 2007, 81-3), which may help to explain the apparent lack of monuments in these areas. Even so, the continuing absence or low incidence of Early Neolithic sites and finds in recent widely distributed research projects and developer-funded evaluations and excavations (eg the Wroxeter Hinterland Project, the Mid-Shropshire Wetland Survey, and the M6 Toll route), suggests that the overall spatial pattern is genuine and that it does reflect relatively sparse and/or low-intensity occupation of the central West Midlands in this period (Barfield 2007, 103-4; Garwood 2007c).

Where monuments and artefact concentrations do exist, around the fringes of the region, it is evident that these represent peripheral parts of wider distributions of sites and finds that lie mainly outside the West Midlands (eg in the Black Mountains to the south-west; the Cotswolds and upper Thames valley to the south; the Welland, Nene and Ouse valleys to the east; and the Peak District and middle Trent valley to the north). From this perspective, not only does the modern West Midlands region embrace parts of several adjacent areas that were quite different from each other in the Early Neolithic (both in geographical and material culture terms), but it also appears to have no distinctive cultural ‘character’ of its own unless this is described in terms of the absence of ‘classic’ Early Neolithic site categories and related practices (Ray 2007, 72-3).

Research agenda and specific research questions

Social and economic change

There is considerable research potential in the West Midlands for investigating the Mesolithic to Neolithic transition, especially with regard to the chronology and character of agriculturalisation, the construction of durable funerary and ceremonial architecture, the adoption of and use of ceramics, and changes in social practices and organisations. (cf Bradley 2007, 27-87, Whittle 2007). Although monuments and pit deposits are very rare, the extensive distribution of Early Neolithic ceramics and lithic artefacts (such as leaf-shaped arrowheads and polished stone axes) does suggest that material culture categories usually associated with farming lifestyles were widely adopted across the region. At the same time, the rarity of sites and most artefact types in the central part of the West Midlands, if not a product of biases in the recovery and/or accessibility of Early Neolithic evidence, may point to sparse and/or low intensity occupation by farming communities, or perhaps the continuity of Mesolithic lifestyles and thus late or low-level adoption of new cultural practices.

Monuments and landscape

The small number of Early Neolithic monuments identified in the West Midlands should be reappraised with reference to recent reviews of monument types and artefact categories. Above all, new dating, artefactual and environmental evidence is needed to situate monuments and other sites within their broader palaeo-environmental and cultural landscape settings (Ray 2007, 73-4). This should be undertaken, where possible, as part of extensive landscape projects involving air photographic survey, remote sensing and surface collection work, and targeted excavation of key sites. There are three areas with known concentrations or groups of Neolithic monuments that are obvious candidates for intensive landscape-scale and site-based studies of this kind.

First, the upper and middle Trent valley between Stone and Burton-on-Trent, and especially the area around the two probable causewayed enclosures at Alrewas and Mavesyn Ridware, would clearly benefit from intensive survey work to establish the landscape contexts of these sites and to identify contemporary monuments and settlement evidence. Studies of enclosure groups in other parts of England have shown that these were usually part of relatively densely occupied landscapes with concentrations of settlement activity and associated groups of funerary and other monuments (Oswald et al 2001, 108-18). Investigation of the enclosures to confirm an Early Neolithic date, to recover high quality artefactual and palaeo-environmental data, and to establish sequences of construction and use, is a clear research priority.

Second, the Avon valley catchment area in Warwickshire and Worcestershire deserves further large-scale survey and trial excavation of possible sites (cf Hunt 1982, 11). The apparent rarity of Early Neolithic monuments in this area is surprising given the presence of settlement evidence and several Middle Neolithic monuments. In this context, the recent discovery and investigation of the trapezoidal enclosure at Church Lawford, Warwickshire (Palmer 2007) not only has major implications for our understanding of the Early Neolithic landscape of the upper Avon but also suggests that more sites of this period await discovery at other places along the valley.

Third, Arthur’s Stone chambered tomb in Herefordshire remains little understood in terms of its cultural context and landscape setting. A research priority must be to reassess the tomb site itself and possible contemporary monuments nearby (cf Cummings and Whittle 2003a, Nash 2002; Ray 2007, 63), and to investigate the wider context of Early Neolithic occupation along the Wye valley and on the eastern margins of the Black Mountains, including the settlement and possible enclosure at Dorstone Hill.

It is likely that Early Neolithic mortuary sites and enclosures of various kinds will be identified in the future using air photography (Barber 2007; Ray 2007, 63). Ray (ibid, 60) has also drawn attention to the need to evaluate hilltop enclosure sites in the western part of the region, some of which may be Neolithic in date and perhaps similar in purpose to ‘tor enclosures’ in south-west Britain and upland enclosure sites in areas such as Cumbria and Derbyshire (cf Oswald et al 2001, 85-9). The potential significance of such work is highlighted by the recent discovery of a new Early Neolithic enclosure site at Hill Croft Field, Bodenham, Herefordshire (Ray 2007, 60). In more general terms, it is of course essential that every effort is made to evaluate possible Early Neolithic monuments wherever these are encountered in the region, especially in areas where monuments of this period appear to be absent altogether, most notably in the Severn valley and the Birmingham area. Discovery of new sites in these areas would have major implications for characterising and interpreting the Early Neolithic period in the region as a whole.

Settlement and landscape

The nature of settlement is central to current debates in Early Neolithic studies, especially with regard to residential mobility, the relative permanence and scale of occupation sites, sedentism and farming practices, relationships between monuments and settlements, and social organisation and change in the early to mid 4th millennium BC. There is scope in the West Midlands for investigating the character of settlement in areas with known monuments, but also to compare these with areas in which durable and/or prominent architectural structures are absent. The main question is whether these areas differed in terms of the adoption of farming and other ‘Neolithic’ technologies, resource exploitation strategies, demographic patterns, social ranking and/or contrasting cultural identities.

The nature of occupation sites deserves particular attention, especially with regard to the interpretation of ‘pit clusters’ of the kind excavated at Wellington. Despite being the most common, and in most parts of the English midlands the most artefact-rich of Early Neolithic site categories, it is uncertain whether these represent everyday residential sites, specialised activity areas concerned with resource procurement and processing, or ‘special’ locales for more formal social practices involving the exchange, consumption and deliberate disposal of objects and materials. The high quality of the evidence from Wellington and other sites demonstrates the considerable research potential of this aspect of Early Neolithic occupation in the region. However, pit groups are unlikely to be wholly representative of settlement and occupation practices. The growing number of Early Neolithic buildings known in southern Britain (Darvill 1996), especially the substantial timber ‘longhouses’ or ‘halls’ at sites such as Lismore Fields, Derbyshire, Yarnton, Oxfordshire, and White Horse Stone, Kent, suggests the presence of foci for settlement and other kinds of social activity (whether they were actually houses or not) that were more durable than the occupation events represented by pit groups (Thomas 1996; cf Cooney 2000a, 52-7). Discovery and investigation of buildings of all kinds in the West Midlands should clearly be a research priority, with special attention given to floor layers, hearths, and internal and external activity areas (about which very little is known).

Fieldwork projects in areas being destroyed by mineral extraction have provided important information about Early Neolithic sites in the region (eg at Wellington), but these sites are usually isolated from their wider landscape contexts and it is unclear how representative they are in relation to wider patterns of activity, both locally and regionally. Landscape projects and comparative studies of contrasting landscape areas are needed to address these issues. The outstanding research potential of well-preserved occupation sites in sub-alluvial or sub-colluvial contexts has been amply demonstrated at Wellington (Jackson 2007), and there are likely to be many more sites with significant deposits of organic materials and artefacts awaiting discovery. In this light, reconstruction of the sedimentation histories of river valleys and the identification of sub-alluvial ancient land surfaces and organic remains should be a priority.

There is clearly a need, in this context, for comparative studies of Early Neolithic settlement sites and evaluation of the character of settlement and landscape organisation in different geo-environmental and topographic zones (cf Knight and Howard 2004, Allen et al 2004). This should aim to establish the presence/absence of Early Neolithic activity in specific landscape settings and to investigate diverse settlement and economic systems in different parts of the region (Ray 2007, 73-4). One of the site types that requires particular attention in this context is the ‘hilltop settlement’: at present, only Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire has been identified as a site of this kind, although Ray (ibid, 58-60) has suggested that others probably exist in the western parts of the region, if not more widely.

The exceptionally large concentrations of lithic finds in parts of the region also deserve special attention (Barfield 2007, 99-103). A key research issue is whether these represent large settlement complexes or places where communities repeatedly gathered in the course of annual residential mobility cycles over long periods of time. If the latter, it is especially important to investigate the particular significance of these locales in socio- political and/or cultural terms. It is notable that these ‘prolific’ sites appear to contain unusually high proportions of finished and finely made artefacts (ibid, 99).

Material culture

Early Neolithic material culture in the region deserves more synthetic and detailed analysis (Ray 2007, 74; Barfield 2007, 106-7). Above all, there is a need to define ceramic and lithic chronologies more precisely, produce more detailed distribution maps, investigate artefact functions and ‘biographies’, and to study sourcing, production, exchange and depositional aspects of a range of material categories (eg stone axes) (ibid; cf Lithic Studies Society 2004). Studies of this kind are relevant to a wide range of research questions concerning the nature of social identities and relations embodied in production practices, material exchanges and depositional events. For example, the social organisations and relationships concerned with the procurement of essential lithic raw materials or artefacts remain uncertain (Ray 2007, 57, 74). This is especially interesting in the West Midlands given the large-scale use of flint despite the lack of good quality primary flint sources (most strikingly in the Clun area: Barfield 2003; 2007).

The appearance and widespread use of ceramics in the Early Neolithic is perhaps especially interesting in terms of the radical nature of the technological innovations involved and the changes in social agency that are implicated in the transference of technological skills, the social organisation of production practices (Hamilton 2002; Woodward 2002b) and consumption practices using ceramic vessels (Pollard 2002). The presence of significant pottery assemblages at Wellington, Herefordshire, and several sites in the Avon valley in Warwickshire, suggests that the technological transfers and new social practices associated with ceramic manufacture and use occurred as early in the West Midlands as other parts of Britain. Detailed analysis of pottery assemblages of this period in the region should clearly be a research priority.

Spatial patterns and regionality

The main research issue at a regional scale is the apparent absence of Early Neolithic monuments from many parts of the region, and the rarity of well-defined monument groups that are a familiar feature of Neolithic landscapes elsewhere in Britain. In particular, there is a need to assess the extent to which the known distribution of monuments is a ‘real’ reflection of Early Neolithic occupation and monument building, or a consequence of previous research limitations (Barber 2007, 80-3, 94; Ray 2007, 71-3). If monuments really were as rare in the West Midlands as the present evidence suggests, then this raises fundamental research questions about why settlement patterns and social organisations in the region were so different from those in neighbouring areas where Early Neolithic monuments and other sites were more densely clustered (ibid; Garwood 2007c).

Research aims and methods

The research agenda and questions for Early Neolithic archaeology in the West Midlands discussed in the previous section point to some important methodological and practical issues in current and future archaeological work in the region.

  • A major problem identified by contributors to the Regional Research Framework earlier prehistory seminar is the limited value of HER databases. Most of the local authority HERs provide very incomplete records of known finds, rarely define them consistently in formal or chronological terms and many records do not include quantification of finds, preventing effective study of finds distributions and artefact concentrations (e.g. Barfield 2007, 97-9). The HER resources in the West Midlands require significant enhancement.
  • There is an urgent need to review the available air photographic record and for further air photographic survey, especially in areas that have received little attention in the past and/or where crop marks are rarely seen (Barber 2007, 94).
  • Sample excavations of crop mark sites in all parts of the region should be a high priority in future fieldwork, including those sites that do not conform easily with accepted categories in morphological terms (ibid). This work should aim to determine the dating, design and purpose of enclosures and other sites, and compare these with other examples known from air photographs (ibid; Ray 2007, 74).
  • The development of fieldwork strategies to investigate Early Neolithic sites in all kinds of landscape contexts is a high priority (Ray 2007, 73-4). In particular, the significance of lithic scatters should be recognised and far more care taken over their identification and study (English Heritage 2000).
  • Recent assessments of sampling strategies have demonstrated that surface collection and plough zone test pit surveys should use narrow sample intervals to identify earlier prehistoric artefact concentrations (ibid), and that evaluation methods for earlier prehistoric sites (eg by trenching) require a minimum 6-10% sampling level (eg Hey and Lacey 2001).
  • The development of predictive modelling and new site prospection and excavation methods is also clearly essential for investigating Early Neolithic sites that are buried in sub-alluvial or sub-colluvial contexts (Challis and Howard 2003; Hey 1998; Jackson 2007, 120-1). The work at Wellington shows what can be achieved when appropriate methods are devised for investigating sites of this kind (ibid).
  • Methods for recognising and recording Early Neolithic material should be included in specifications for excavations of sites of later periods, including those in urban locations.
  • Fieldwork designs should take account of the significant spatial structuring of Early Neolithic social practices (eg in terms of adjacency and proximity, alignments, orientations and oppositions: Darvill 1997b; Pollard 2002; Woodward 2007, 189-92).
  • Extensive open-area excavation is essential for understanding the spatial contexts of social practices. The ‘strip, map and sample’ process (Hey and Lacey 2001, 55-7) appears to be the most effective method for defining the scale of fieldwork tasks and for planning and implementing appropriate excavation strategies.
  • Where well-defined Early Neolithic sites such as monuments and pit groups are identified, it is exceptionally important that they are totally excavated, at least within the areas to be affected by development. This is the only way to understand overall architectural designs or layouts, constructional features and the spatial structuring of depositional practices, artefacts and materials. Special attention needs to be paid to the recovery of dating evidence of all kinds, especially radiocarbon sample materials.
  • Excavation methods used on sites with Early Neolithic evidence should take full account of the structured and often purposeful deposition of artefacts and other kinds of materials (Hill 1995; Pollard 2000, 2002; Richards and Thomas 1984; Thomas 1999, 62-88). All too often it is apparent that pit deposits, for example, are treated as if they represent ‘rubbish’ disposal rather than meaningful deposits of spatially organised cultural materials. Early Neolithic features of all kinds require context sensitive three-dimensional recording methods. Practices such as half sectioning of pits and other features, and anything less than 100% recovery of artefacts and other materials from specific depositional contexts (ie representing specific depositional ‘events’), fail to address the nature and significance of the evidence at a fundamental level.
  • Early Neolithic material culture studies are in need of considerable attention in the West Midlands if the research agenda discussed above are to be addressed. The construction of reliable chronologies is a priority, requiring comprehensive programmes of radiocarbon dating and fine- grained typo-chronological study. Depending on the preservation and contextual quality of the artefactual evidence, residue and microwear analyses may also be possible.
  • Further work on the sourcing and spatial distribution of stone axes would enhance our understanding of dispersal and exchange patterns, and depositional practices (Barfield 2007, 106; Ray 2007, 74; cf Lithic Studies Society 2004). It may also be possible to investigate the sources, technological and functional characteristics, and distribution of objects made of distinctive types of flint and chert, and to compare these with artefacts derived from local raw materials (Barfield 2007, 106).
  • Analysis of museum and private collections of Early Neolithic stone, flint and ceramic artefacts is essential, with the results incorporated in local authority HERs.
  • As Ray (2007) argues very strongly, recognition of the significance and potential of Early Neolithic sites depends on the familiarity of both curatorial and field archaeologists with the nature of the material evidence and current research priorities. The development of expertise in these areas amongst the archaeologists working in the region should be a priority, especially those who are in a position to specify strategies and methods appropriate to current research agenda in fieldwork designs, briefs and planning applications.


The Early Neolithic period in the West Midlands has been relatively neglected in comparison with the Middle and Late Neolithic, despite the presence of some early ceramic assemblages, extensive lithic artefact distributions and several major monuments. It is surprising that there has been no recent attempt to investigate known or suspected Early Neolithic monuments and their wider landscape settings in lowland parts of the region, especially the causewayed enclosures in the Trent valley. This is probably a reflection of the lack of research interest shown in the West Midlands by period specialists.

As Ray (2007) points out, there is also considerable potential in the West Midlands for future discoveries of monuments of all kinds, especially enclosure sites and hilltop settlements. Even so, it is apparent that classic Early Neolithic monument types are sparsely distributed across the region and that this pattern is unlikely to change radically. In this context, perhaps the typical, and in many respects most important, Early Neolithic site category to be investigated in the region is the ‘pit group’ (ibid).

There is no question that the West Midlands does have a significant contribution to make to Early Neolithic research at a national scale. In particular, the rarity of monuments and the relatively sparse distribution of artefacts raise important questions about the continuity of Mesolithic lifestyles and adoption of new farming practices and material culture in the region. This has particular relevance to national and Europe-wide debates concerning the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, and regional and local variation in the creation of agricultural communities, sedentism and the adoption or invention of formal ceremonial practices and monumental architecture.

In addition, there are many opportunities in the region for investigating Early Neolithic landscapes, both in areas with known monuments and significant evidence for occupation and material deposition (notably in the Avon valley in Warwickshire, the middle Trent valley, the Dorstone area and Wellington and the Lugg valley in Herefordshire), and in areas that have attracted little previous fieldwork. The Early Neolithic landscapes of the West Midlands are especially interesting because of the ways in which they seem to differ from the ‘classic’ Early Neolithic landscapes of the southern English downlands. The striking diversity and uneven spatial distribution of Early Neolithic sites and cultural practices within the region, around its periphery, and in comparison with adjacent regions, also suggests that the West Midlands will have a prominent part to play in future research concerning cultural diversity, identities and interactions at both regional and national scales of enquiry.