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Neolithic

The Neolithic period, meaning New Stone Age, is used to describe the period starting with the appearance of food production, sometimes called the Neolithic Revolution, in southwest Asia about 10,000 BC after the end of the last Ice Age. Cereals and animals were domesticated, which meant that people were tied to the land and settlements were established. Agriculture spread through Europe in the centuries following, though perhaps in different forms from the original package. 

 

The Neolithic in Britain starts around 4500 to 4000 BC though there is little evidence of permanent settlement or domesticated cereals, with a few exceptions, such as Skara Brae in Orkney. Recently a few more later Neolithic houses have been found in the south-east during excavations for the A13 in Essex or for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in Kent. A little evidence for cereal production has been found in the form of early ploughing with an ard under long barrows, such as South Street long barrow near Avebury. However, this may have been to break up the soil for turves or a ritual marking of the ground. Domesticated animals do arrive quite early in Britain and pig, sheep/goat and cow bones are often found at ritual centres like causewayed enclosures, possibly remains of feasting.

 

Neolithic midden in Dorney in the background, marked with paper, and a polished axe being held up in the foregroundBurnt area found in the excavations at Eton Rowing Lake, a Neolithic hearthThe earliest Neolithic sites in Buckinghamshire have recently been excavated in Dorney on the River Thames. Three early Neolithic middens, or rubbish dumps, contained artefacts such as pottery, flint, cereal grain and animal bone. They were formed in the hollows left behind by silted up former channels of the Thames and would have taken many years to accumulate. This is very good and rare evidence of both cereal production and quite long-term, if not certainly permanent, settlement. They are all on former river islands and the theory is that these would have seemed safe places to practice the new agricultural regime, surrounded by water.

 

Later Neolithic settlements seem to be short-lived. Often they are only recognised as scatters of flint where a small group would have camped, perhaps butchered some meat and cooked it, or made flint tools for hunting or processing hides. In this way, Neolithic society seems to be continuing the traditions of the Mesolithic. One such Neolithic flint scatter has been found at Desborough Castle.

 

Neolithic pit excavated at St John's Hospital, StoneSometimes Neolithic pits are found isolated from other kinds of evidence. One of these was found after St John's Hospital in Stone was demolished and before the area was redeveloped. The pit contained Early Neolithic pottery and flint. Another was excavated at Coldharbour Farm, which was later covered by the Aylesbury Fairford Leys estate. It contained pottery, flint, hazelnut shells and an amber bead. There were other possible pits nearby but they could not be excavated before the houses were built. It is likely that this pit was not, in reality, isolated.

 

Causewayed enclosures are an early type of monument constructed in the Neolithic. One of the most famous is Windmill Hill in Wiltshire. One causewayed enclosure has been identified in Buckinghamshire at Dorney Reach on the River Thames. Causewayed enclosures are places where Neolithic groups would meet and possibly feast, exchange gifts and marriage partners, and may have also been places where the dead were laid out to decompose before the bones were used in ceremonies or buried. They are formed out of one or more circles of short lengths of ditches with gaps between the terminals and banks on the outside of the ditches. This construction means that the enclosures could not have been defended, but must have been places marked out for specific functions.

 

Whiteleaf barrow before the recent excavations in 2002-3Long barrows tend to be slightly later in date but the one certain Neolithic long (or in this case, oval) barrow in Buckinghamshire at Whiteleaf Hill has been radiocarbon dated to the early fourth millennium BC. This barrow covered the remains of one individual, who seems to have been laid under a wooden structure as he decomposed and then the bones used in ceremonies in an open area either before or after a mound was built over the wooden chamber.

 

Cheddington hillfort and possible cursus or mortuary enclosure in the bottom left-hand cornerOther monuments in the Neolithic include cursuses. A cursus gets in name from the Latin for circus. The Stonehenge cursus was misinterpreted in the eighteenth century as a Roman racing track, or circus, and the name has stuck ever since. A cursus seems to be a processional monument, where selected individuals within a group were allowed to move through the landscape and see things other people would not have seen. They are very long, straight structures, usually with two parallel banks enclosing the processional route. Gaps in the banks would have allowed the view during the procession to be controlled. Two possible cursuses in Buckinghamshire have been identified on aerial photographs and by geophysical survey at Southend Hill, Cheddington and on Ivinghoe Beacon. However, both of these are very short and may have been mortuary enclosures instead. Mortuary enclosures are thought to have been earthen or wooden rectangular structures enclosing an area where the dead would be placed, perhaps before burial, and are sometimes found under long barrows.

 

The process of letting dead bodies decompose and using the bones in ceremonies seems to have declined in the Bronze Age, the trend being for the dead to be buried individually, sometimes after cremation in graves under round barrows and, later, in flat graves.