3.3 Period summaries

This section provides only a very brief overview of thinking about these periods in British prehistory and is included purely for the benefit of the novice to this particular area or period of study.

3500-2500bc: The Earlier Neolithic

3500-3000bc  The division between the late Mesolithic and the Earlier Neolithic in Britain is marked by a change from hunter-gathering to farming, and from individual efforts in gaining subsistence to the more communal (Case 1969b). The shift is detectable from 3500bc in the occurrence of querns, polished stone axes, and pottery containers (Grimston-Lyle Hill), and when settlements and initial clearances of woodland appear in the archaeological record (Fowler 1971a). The change in subsistence method was to be fundamental, probably taking its origin from acculturation through contact with the continent via the southern and eastern seaboard of Britain (de Laet 1976).

3000-2500bc   Around 3000bc the declining tree pollen records (Evans, Limbrey and Cleere 1975) suggests a major expansion of farming as the way of life, and more settlements and small single farmsteads have been found of that date (Dennell 1976, Fowler 1971a). While hunter-gathering may have been practised for some time in some areas, it was fading out and evidence for it diminishes. At the outset of this second phase of the early Neolithic, special structures begin to appear: causewayed enclosures, other enclosures (mostly at this time with evidence of settlement within), but notably monumental tombs (in South West England, the Cotswold-Severn area and Wales), passage graves (in West and North Scotland and North and West Wales) and mortuary houses. About 2800bc long barrows and long cairns appear as recipients of communal burial (Ashbee 1984a, Britnell and Savory 1984).

The Earlier Neolithic then may be considered to have two phases. In the first the new subsistence system marks the change and that period covers its initial establishment. In the second phase the change marker is the expansion of farming, and that period covers its full development and possibly that of more complex societal organisation and use of central places (Smith 1966, Whittle 1977b). The appearance of defended settlement sites such as Carn Brea and Crickley Hill in this phase supports the latter proposition for Southern England (Dixon 1976, 1979, Mercer 1981, 1986).

2500-1400/1300bc: The Neolithic-Bronze Age Interface

This period marks the gradual transition from Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age. It may be subdivided into three phases: 2500-2000bc, 2000-1700bc and 1700-1400/1300bc.

2500-2000bc   The first, 2500-2000bc, is marked by a change at the outset in settlement form and siting, in monuments and in the material culture. In South and South West England, South East Wales, the Midlands and East Anglia, the monumental tombs are blocked up or fall into ruin, causewayed enclosures and other enclosures of earlier settlements are abandoned by 2400bc, and woodland appears to regenerate, implying a recession in farming (Darvill 1987a, 95); this useful synthesis has been used as a reference framework for this section).

It has been argued (Darvill 1987a, 75-85) that this evidence can be interpreted to show a change in society at this time: after developing a collaborative agricultural way of life, society underwent a form of severe disruption around 2500bc. Agencies are presumed to be at work which began to form an even more highly organised society, one which consciously turned away from some of the outward traditions of its predecessors. So-called community-centred ideologies and more overt ranking of the individual emerged (Renfrew 1973a), and the political and ritual organisation of society may have changed. The reduction in the number of long barrows, their existence in debased forms and their supplanting as the most visible disposal method for the dead by round barrows is possibly one indicator (Darvill 1987a, 85-86). Single grave burials grew in proportion (ibid 85), and in conventional wisdom to a degree replaced the communal, as the visible disposal method.

New monument types appear around 2500bc: bank barrows and long mounds, cursuses and henges (Darvill 1987a, 79-80). The purpose of the latter two is still unclear, but through lack of other obvious proof is thought to be some expression of the community-centred ideology referred to earlier. Circular settlement enclosures are known, and the presumed ceremonial enclosure at Durrington Walls (Wainwright 1968a) is of a size impossible to have been conceived and realised by a society without a hierarchy of some kind. Settlements tend from this point to be on lower ground than before, and in the river valleys (Dennell 1976, Fowler 1971a). Another major indicator of this first transitional phase is the appearance of a new and widely used pottery type, Peterborough ware, derived from an earlier type from Ebbsfleet in Kent (Burchell and Piggott 1939, Sieveking 1960).

2000-1700bc   The phase 2000-1700bc is marked by four different features. Pollen samples show that c.2000bc further woodland clearance took place, indeed to a greater degree than 1000 years earlier, and that farming spread again after what proved to be a temporary halt around 2500bc (Darvill 1987a, 103-5). The first Beaker ware occurs around 2000bc, probably as a result of trade but possibly also as a result of an influx of people from the continental western seaboard (Darvill 1987a, 88-9, Whittle 1977a). At this date flintworking and stone axe manufacture revived in refined form (Darvill 1987a, 100). Finally, bronze metalworking began around 2100bc to shade phase one into phase two (Darvill 1987a, 101).

1700-14/1300bc   The third phase is marked by the beginning of the construction of large henges of stone and stone rows and alignments (Darvill 1987a, 94). Around 1700bc there is also pollen evidence for further clearances implying further expansion of farming (Darvill 1987a, 108). The third indicator of this date marking major change in the Neolithic-Bronze Age Interface is the growth of barrow cemeteries, sometimes with henges as their focuses (Darvill 1987a, 98).

In summary the long transitional period has been conventionally viewed as bringing an implied change in the organisation of society, in visible burial methods, in the materials technology, in settlement type (where small enclosed farmsteads emerge from an indistinct preceding phase), and in the introduction of new monuments of communal focus. The distinguishable phases began respectively in 2500bc with disruption of the previous order in various ways, in 2000bc as Beakers and metalworking were introduced and farming was re-established to former levels, and in 1700bc when large stone monuments and barrow cemeteries come in and farming extends even further.

14/1300-8/700bc: The Bronze Age

The most notable changes between the Neolithic-Bronze Age Interface and the Bronze Age have been considered to date to be in the visible burial rite, metalwork and land division. The period is viewed as evidencing further change around 1000/900bc particularly in visible burial rite, metalworking and in settlement.

14/1300-1000/900bc   The opening of the first phase in the south is distinguished by the creation of types of land enclosure and round house settlements. Reaves appear on Dartmoor and Celtic fields, possible as a consequence of the extension of farming which marked the start of the last Neolithic-Bronze Age Interface phase around 1700bc (Darvill 1987a, 108-112). Land might need to be apportioned to aid its management and to avoid disputes, the more so if the population was growing. Also at about the beginning of this phase round barrow burial is conventionally held to be in decline and being replaced by cremation (Darvill 1987a, 117). Over the period 1200-900bc in central, southern and the midlands of England flat cremation cemeteries have hitherto been considered the most visible mode of disposal of the dead, the remains being efficiently cremated and placed in large, coarse domestic pots or urns (the Trevisker and Deverel-Rimbury types, Darvill 1987a, 118). Another change indicator of the period for southern England is the similarity that metalwork, pottery and settlement types bear to those of the Low Countries over 1300-1100bc (Darvill 1987a, 120).

1000/900-8/700bc   The outset of the second phase is marked by changes in the composition, production pattern and style of metalwork. Lead bronze becomes more widely used after earlier introduction, a more malleable alloy allowing more complex casting (Darvill 1987a, 122). Production changes from the more broadly regional of c500 years before to one more local (Darvill 1987a, 122). A second change remarked upon by commentators to date (Darvill 1987a, 118) has been the virtual disappearance after 900bc of visible burial until a reappearance in c650bc, Deverel-Rimbury cemeteries considered as ending around 900bc. Thirdly the deposition of metalwork of significant richness and quality in wet places is detectable from 1000/900bc (Darvill 1987a, 118). Some believe this to be evidence of society's interest in a water cult coinciding with climatic deterioration (Burgess 1968). Field systems of the first phase fell out of use in the second phase, and Reaves and Celtic fields were replaced by long straggling ranch boundaries (Darvill 1987a, 127).

8/700-100bc: The Iron Age

8/700-650bc   The broad division between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age is marked by the increase in settlements and enclosures begun in the late second millennium through the building of hillforts and palisades and other types of enclosure (Darvill 1987a, 133). This seems the sole change distinguishable at this point and the Later Bronze Age being assumed to run through 1000/900-650bc.

650-450bc   Whether 650-400bc is deemed to be the first or second Iron Age phase, its starting point is one of clear change. First the urnfield cemeteries are assumed to have come to a close. Then hilltop enclosures and defended villages resembling hillforts spread from 600bc across southern, central and western England and north Wales (Darvill 1987a, 135; Cunliffe 1983). A change in society was taking place, perhaps confirming a change initiated around 800/700bc, whereby stronger authority is asserting itself in communities which were becoming competitive both within their structures and between themselves (Darvill 1987a, 160-1). The introduction of iron is, of course, the major change denoting the outset of this phase, possible as bronze grew scarce through loss and reduced trade with the continent (Darvill 1987a, 122). The larger regional groupings of the earlier first millennium seem to be disintegrating, subsistence bases diversifying and smaller territories looking to their own self-sufficiency (Darvill 1987a, 133; Cunliffe 1978).

450-100bc   The third phase is marked at the outset by the abandonment of some hillforts, the development of other surviving hillforts, a rough spatial organisation of the new territories and the surrounding of the newly emergent centres of communities by open settlements and enclosures of various sizes (Darvill 1987a, 42; Cunliffe 1984a). Around 400bc there is now evidence for the widespread smelting and forging of iron objects (Darvill 1987a, 153). Some re-emergence of the burial record is distinguishable according to the conventional interpretation, and in differing visible forms from the past (Darvill 1987a, 158-9).

100bc-AD43: The Continental Transition

This final period is characterized at its outset by the increasing contacts with continental Europe, stimulated particularly by the advance of the Roman Empire. Bonds of alliance and trade were to draw southern Britain into close relationships with first native and then Roman Gaul, and with the Empire beyond (Darvill 1987a, 162). The influences of the adjacent Empire even in the half century before the Claudian invasion of AD43 were determining political and commercial directions of the South and South East, and initiating changes in many aspects of society, especially in Southern England (Darvill 1987a, 163-4).


© Internet Archaeology/Author(s)
University of York legal statements | Terms and Conditions | File last updated: Wed Nov 7 2001