3. Evidence from the Earliest Neolithic?

Rectangular buildings of the kind recorded at Balbridie and Ballygalley are one site type that, together with pits, have been suggested as belonging to the earliest Neolithic before 3800 cal BC (Grogan 2004; Thomas 2004; 2006); that is, before the appearance of causewayed enclosures and Neolithic 'take off' (see Kinnes 1988 for the latter term). More recently, Sheridan has suggested carinated pottery might also belong to the 'earliest' period (Sheridan 2007). If so, such sites offer one opportunity to identify any early exchange of axes and the geographical extent/distance of those exchanges. For the purposes of this article, therefore, Appendix 1 lists those rectangular structures and other sites that in the literature have been suggested as possible early sites on the basis of radiocarbon dates and/or the presence of carinated pottery.

While the actual date of the structures/sites will be returned to again, Table 1 shows that of the 119 sites listed in Appendix 1 as possibly belonging to the earliest Neolithic, 85% contained some cultural artefacts but axes and fragments or flakes of such tools occurred in only 36.5% of all sites. It is not the intention to discuss here the implications of the fact that artefact 'rich' sites like Ballygalley and Balbridie are unusual rather than the norm, although a comparison with the artefact-poor stone circles and henges – monument forms often regarded as part of the later exchange network – might be made. Rather the significance of Table 1 is that it shows that if locally sourced axes, such as the Group VII axe at Llandegai, are excluded, Groups VI, IX and Greenstone/Cornish sources dominate in those sites considered in the literature to belong to the earliest Neolithic.

While this analysis appears to confirm the idea that the main period of Group VII procurement was later in the Neolithic (Smith 1979, 20-1), the early date for long-distance movement of Lake District (Group VI) material has not previously been recognised. Moreover, it would seem that the preponderance and geographical spread of Group VI axes in those sites considered as early presages the dominance of the Group in the total number of recorded stone axes for the whole of the Neolithic.

In addition, it may be significant that some of the concentrations of Group VI axes correspond to some of the earliest known sites (Figure 3). Equally, the context of Group VI axes reported by Manby (Table 2) demonstrates that the exchange network established between the Lake District and East Yorkshire in the early Neolithic persisted until the end, a pattern of contact also evidenced in monument form. On the other hand, the apparent existence of the exchange network in the early Neolithic means that the role of henges, such as those at Thornborough and Cana, in the movement of axes into East Yorkshire (e.g. Manby 1979; Bradley and Edmonds 1993) must now be seen as a function performed at a particular time within the Neolithic; an observation that does not preclude, indeed perhaps requires, the existence of other, earlier and unidentified monumental 'centres' – which the pits at Nosterfield not far from Thornborough and those at Marton le Moor near Cana may have provided.

It is, however, also necessary to draw attention to a number of generic problems in the available dataset – whether for the earliest Neolithic or the whole period. Firstly, it may be necessary to differentiate between whole axes and flakes, and certainly the latter make a 'count' of the relative proportions of stone and flint axes on sites such as causewayed enclosures somewhat tenuous. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the term 'greenstone' is sometimes used to indicate geological provenance (e.g. in SW England). But in some of the literature, as at Lough Gur, 'greenstone' appears to apply to colour which at Cloghers (SW Ireland) was tuff. Thirdly, and equally importantly, is the fact that most dates do not relate to the actual context in which the axe or fragments were found. At Ballygalley, for example, the Group VI axe may have come from the layer overlying the (radiocarbon dated) timber building, while the Group VI adze from Carn Brea was a stray find. Again, it is necessary to recognise the 'time depth' at some sites such as Billown and Biggar Common. The problem is, however, perhaps best seen at Hembury where the early radiocarbon date cannot be related with certainty to the rectangular structures, causewayed enclosure, 15 'axes' of Cornish greenstone or 20 of 'Lincoln' flint (SMR) and where, in fact, the excavation accounts do not allow any of the axes to be tied into the structures.

Nevertheless the overall pattern of Group VI material from Ireland is instructive (Table 3), for of the four axes from definite or possible archaeological contexts two, possibly three, belong to the 'early' period. And it is surely significant that since the compilation of the database used in Table 3, two of the new Irish examples of Group VI axes have come from rectangular buildings – Ballyharry 1 and Thornhill – while that at Cloghers had 'green' volcanic tuff. In short three, possibly four, of the known contexts for Group VI axes in Ireland are from rectangular structures or sites with them. Moreover, all three of the certain examples of rectangular buildings with Group VI axes are in the north and adjacent to the coast, a pattern not dissimilar to that of Group IX (Figure 3b, where 3 of the 5 structures with Group IX material also have VI).

The available evidence is therefore not inconsistent with the thesis that stone axes were being exchanged as part of the process of acquiring or gaining access to the exotic domesticates. This would, however, require them to be seen – initially at least – as prestige objects and in that context it may be significant that the earliest flint mines, such as those in Sussex (Miles 2001, 93), are interpreted as being for the acquisition of prestige axes.

Nevertheless, the existence of jadeite axes at some early sites demonstrates that early Neolithic exchange networks were more complex than the thesis of this article might suggest. In particular while the jadeite axes do demonstrate contact with the Continent – which the acquisition of exotic domesticates requires – it appears their movement in the opposite direction to that of Group VI and other axes is part of the 'spread' of farming. However, if the thesis of this article is in general correct and communities in the Lake District and SW Scotland acquired the exotic domesticates (ultimately) from East Yorkshire, why do Group VI axes occur in early contexts in Northern Ireland? Rather, should we not expect Irish axes to 'move' westwards in exchange for the domesticates?

In this context the idea that Ireland acquired domesticates separately and possibly earlier than many parts of Britain (Woodman and McCarthy 2003; Tresset and Vigne 2007) may be significant. If the premise of this article is correct then the existence of Group VI axes in the early Neolithic of NW Ireland was because Cumbria had acquired domesticates from that area. While such a situation might fit ideas for the appearance and distribution of some early megalithic tombs (Cummings 2007) it is contra to many previous assumptions, based on the similarity of monument forms at Lochhill in south-west Scotland and Rayseat Pike in Cumbria to those of East Yorkshire (Clare 2007a, 133), that the Neolithic package spread into Ireland from Yorkshire.

The suggestion that the Lake District acquired domesticates from two different directions is consistent with the possibility that there were two different Mesolithic exchange systems operating in the area (Cherry and Cherry 2002). However, it is also necessary to recognise that distribution maps like Figure 1 do not relate to any one moment in time but are simple aggradations of individual movements or transactions throughout the Neolithic; a palimpsest in which one spatial pattern of exchange and obligation is overlain by an entirely different one. The challenge, therefore, is to disaggregate recorded axes from the chronological palimpsest: to identify individual, or something approaching individual, exchange patterns at a particular moment in time.

Nevertheless, the fact that a number of axes, and Group VI in particular, were being exchanged over relatively large distances during the period when rectangular buildings were in use raises the question of when they first appeared. This article has postulated that they were exchanged as part of the process of acquiring or having access to the consumption of exotic domesticates and as such raises the possibility that they could have developed from existing Mesolithic traditions.


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Last updated: Wed May 27 2009