Neolithic Farming

In considering these three significant changes of the British Neolithic period we must first consider agriculture, settlement and ritual in isolation and the archaeological evidence for each. Having done that. the interaction between each element can be considered at the arguments for and against its interaction presented.

From the Neolithic period in Britain agriculture becomes evident by the introduction of forms of species not found the wild state in the area. Initial examples are forms of Emmer wheat and Einkorn wheat, the origins of these forms can be traced back to the Fertile Crescent although over the time they have been transplanted from then native land to Britain further genetic modification has occurred allowing resulting in forms to be more capable of sustaining themselves in a northerly climate. Similarly certain breeds of animals such as sheep and goats are not native to Britain and descendants of the original species are seen for the first time in Britain during this period. There also occurs evidence of hybridization of native stocks of cattle and pigs with what may be assumed to be non-native types.

This in itself is not evidence of agrarian culture. However, married with certain other archaeological evidence such as crop storage, ground cultivation and livestock and deadstock management, a strong indication of a change from a Hunter gather lifestyle to that of agrarian culture is indicated.

Archaeological evidence for the appearance of diploid Einkorn(2n=14) and tetraploid emmer(2n=28) comes from carbonised material, impressions mud daub and pottery shards, and silica skeletons and carbon detritus. From this evidence a carbon date can be extrapolated and the genetic form compared with the wild ancestor. It is seen that although the ranchis of the domestic forms is still brittle, it is not as prone to breakage as its wild counterparts, this has the advantage of spikes staying intact until threshing allowing for easier harvest. It also confers on the plant a lessening of ability to self propagate as that which holds it together, lessens the effect of self propagation following disarticulation upon ripening.. Thus suggesting that for these forms to have spread from their native growth area, in preference to the wild versions another factor of conveyance must have occurred, that is cultivation and spreading of that cultivation outwards. Domesticated forms also exhibit plumper characteristics. Einkorn can be seen as the most primitive form as genomes (genome A) of it can be traced in Emmer wheat (a possible einkorn /wild grass hybrid, probably Aegilops speltoides, genome B) which gradually replaced it , later to be replaced by further hybridizations. Initial evidence of this cultivation in Britain, comes from areas where the environment is conducive to ease of growth for the forms being imported. Light, well drain soils of the south east areas, were well suited to early grain forms which would have difficulty growing in heavier, wetter soils. The evidence for soil preparation for cultivation is sparse often being destroyed by later cultivation, but some soil preparation may be found covered by monuments such as barrows.

Further evidence for possible agrarian impact on the landscape can be sought from pollen analysis, although there are many conflicting opinions on this, certain things can be noted. There is a significant decrease in elm pollen, later in the period, smaller decreases in Lime, ash and pine can be seen, whereas Oak seems little affected and Alder increase. (Goodwin 1956) There is a possibility of slash and burn techniques to clear forestation, or alternatives, such as, young shoots being used as cattle fodder have been put forward. The other suggestions have more natural roots such as diseases or climatic change. However, when compared with the pollen analysis from continental sources, such as Denmark, where a pattern of smaller scale deforestation, followed by farming and then reforestation, suggesting a semi nomad agriculture, is hard to find. The tendency in Britain is clearance, followed by agriculture and heath land environs, suggesting a longer term usage to cleared land. Further soil analysis and micro faunal analysis on the primary sites of the British Neolithic managed areas, suggests deciduous forestation, inhabited by creatures with a preference for shaded areas, post glacially. It is these areas that are cleared, possibly by Neolithic man and it is these areas where evidence of early farming, settlement and ritual monuments can be found.

Experimental archaeology has shown that Emmer wheat sown on previous pasture land, will produce a mainly monoculture with minimal management, 2 hoeings, and will maintain its production, without the addition of nutrients for some years reasonably consistently, altering little the organic matter or minerals in the soil. However, archaeologically it is rarely seen as a monoculture, perhaps suggesting no management post sowing, thus not allowing Emmer wheat to predominate over the weeds in the seed bed. Further experiments sowing Emmer wheat on previously wooded area showed the patches that were cleared using 'slash and burn' techniques, had higher yield than those cleared manually. But in both cases yield dropped steeply over the three year period of experimentation. (Reynolds 1977, 1992)

Having looked in some detail at the evidence of floral changes, instigated by Neolithic man , we must now look to the Faunal changes which he galvanised in Britain. As mentioned above, several species previously unknown in Britain, or with no proto form, appeared. These are specifically sheep and goats. Evidence for other domesticated native breeds can be seen in several characteristics which indicate early domestication. Size of domesticated stocks tend to be smaller than their wild counterparts. The skull exhibits shortening in the facial area and teeth become smaller. In both cases fatter animals are selected over leaner and hair structure shows changes. These are generally not mutation but selection from existing characteristics. This presents evidence that the species were selected and bred for certain characteristics of benefit to their keepers. Further evidence can be produced from kill patterns which show that animals have been killed at certain phases of their development at the optimum point for the farmer. A high proportion of young male kills, for instance, can be seen as a by product of births where sex cannot be controlled but is necessary either to continue breeding or for maintenance of other produce such as milk. Males need to be removed from the herd or flock in their entire form as many males will fight and cause disruption and will not, even in isolation, produce an optimum eating animal. Later in the Neolithic there is some evidence for castrates, a process which removes the tendency to fight, the hormone flows preventing fattening, thus allowing greater utilisation of stock. Further kill patterns on older animals show evidence of over wintering for extended periods, thus suggesting management for live meat resources.

Evidence of diet from 'stable isotope' studies in bone protein of Neolithic man( Richards 1996) suggests that animal protein, both as meat and byproducts such as milk and cheese, formed the major component of his diet. What then did he grow grain for ? One suggestion has been for brewing,(Dineley 1996) which may have had magical significance. However, it would seem possible to have used it as winter fodder for livestock, either the grain and straw or the straw itself, which being longer and higher in protein is better suited for fodder than some modern straw , which never-the-less are used for winter fodder particularly for beasts. However it must be stressed bone analysis has not been performed on all surviving bone matter, and even if it was, this would still only represent a small select population of the time.

Later in the Neolithic, in the period roughly between 3500 BC- 2000B.C., there appears to be another focal change both in agrarian practices and monumental creation. Whilst it would be rash to see these as sudden changes, any more than any other change, it has to be acknowledge that over a period one practice was superceded by another.

During this period it is believed that the continued use of the land for several generations had not only decreased the nutrients therein, but also altered a physical state of the soil type from the easy light soil that the Early Neolithic man had chosen, to one which was becoming heavier and somewhat harder to work, as more clay elements were introduced from continued ploughing. In addition the occurrence of RY V (Recurrence surface) can be observed around 2900 BC indicating a climatic change of dry period followed by regrowth. Woodland regeneration may also be inferred, corresponding with an increase in pig breeding, pigs being forest dwellers who thrive on pannage. A new type of arrow head is seen, which seems more suited to hunting game and archers and their apparatus appear to become significant in burials. There is a notable decrease in Elm from pollen analysis, around 3000 BC, whether from changes in husbandry, such as for winter fodder, or from disease is unknown at this time.

The evidence for settlement of early Neolithic peoples in Britain is distinctly sparse, there is little indication that permanent settlements were formed. However, as the period progresses semi permanent and permanent sites start to occur, although still not in great abundance. The Sweet track indicates construction by two groups of individuals, one working from the north, one from the south, the wood was in the main felled over one year 3806/7 B.C. However some was felled 30 years previously, whether by the same group or a totally unrelated group can only be surmised. The trackway was repaired for approximately 10 years after construction, suggesting an interested population in that area for that period. However, little evidence to prove that these were farmers or hunter gathers, which ever they were, or indeed if they combined both styles, it seems they were highly mobile.

By the time the elm declines are noted c3000B.C. a few more permanent buildings seem to occur, stone settlements in the Orkneys, the Fengate house near Peterborough (2445BC. from radio carbon dating of a corner post), a house at Bralbridie, Scotland and others in Ireland. These are often isolated dwellings and cannot come under the wider meaning of settlement at this point. It seems more likely a semi nomadic lifestyle harking back to hunter gathering in conjunction with a type of farming which is not exactly as we would see it today, in that crops could be sown left to mature and returned to for harvesting, and livestock overwintered in the plentiful land with little or no extra feeding needed.

The monumental aspect of Neolithic life comes in the early period in the form of Long Barrows, Curses and Causeway enclosures.

Long barrows were used to house some of the dead, certainly not all the dead were interned in barrows, the selection tends towards adults with few children represented. There is evidence that the dead were first exposed, probably on a raised platform, before being moved in a partially decomposed state to within the barrow. Evidence for this includes a high proportion of small extremity bones such as metacarpals and metatasles, and body positions not achievable with a fully fleshed body or partly disarticulated remains. (Baxter 1999)At a later stage the completely devoid of flesh bones were once again moved, this time into piles, within the barrow. Skulls and long bones appear to have been removed elsewhere in some cases. These are generally assumed to be honoured ancestors. However, it should be noted that there is no evidence proving honour, and ancestory could only be proved in relationship to others within the barrow, it would not prove relationship to those who created the barrow.

Curses are long ditch and bank monuments, with little sign of occupation and no obvious use. There has been several suggestions of their use for some form of 'ritual passage'. This could be so, but equally, so could any number of other unknown possibilities. Later Henges are often found near one of its entrances.

Causewayed enclosures are seen mainly towards the southern part of Britain, . They consist of one or more roughly circular ditches, with causeways spaced at intervals. There is no seemingly regularity to either the size of the causeways or their spacing. These enclosures vary in area from 1.7ha to 9.6ha. It appears from the archaeological analysis that these enclosures were used on a part time occupational basis, rather than as permanent settlements, and ritual use has been suggested along with the possibility of them being the predecessors of Henge type monuments.

However, there is not such a strong body of evidence, to suggest a single function spanning all causeway enclosures, indeed they may have had differing functions from area to area and over the period of usage. Much of the animal bones, flints etc recovered from these sites suggest a gathering place from many areas with the occurrence of feasting and possible ritual killing of animals where articulated remains have been found.

As previously mentioned, corresponding to the agrarian changes later in the Neolithic certain monumental changes can be observed within roughly the same time scale. These are the development of Hengeform monuments, with their generally greater astronomical significance and Large tombs with multiple burials, followed by Round barrows with a predisposition to single burials.

It would seem necessary in a developing agrarian culture to have localised points of contact which could act as stock exchanges to allow transfer of stock and hence genetic material between practitioners, in order that one groups gene pool did not become too isolated and interbred. This would be particularly true for sheep and goats where there were no wild out crosses possible. Similarly desirable traits could be enhanced in all breeds in this manner. There is a long standing record to trade between early people, and these gathering places could also be useful for exchange of goods and information. However this has been denied by Hutton (1991) in saying 'What they certainly were not were fairs where objects and livestock were bartered, for the finds in the ditches do not include a high proportion of unworn exotic goods or animal carcasses.' . It has to be said that there seems little logic in this statement, as even in this modern throw away age, it would be extremely rare to find a recently purchases item discarded near the area of purchase. Similarly there seems no reason either to barter for a desired item simply to throw it away. One would tend to ensure the exotic goods or valued animal remained with its owner. Rather than to discard said item because it didn't sell, it would seem more sensible to keep it for another day. Few livestock markets are littered with the bodies of recently bought animals and Tesco car parks are not filled with recently bought groceries.

There is some evidence that causewayed enclosures developed into later Henge forms, all be it the later forms were generally sited elsewhere. The astronomical significance of curses, barrows and later Henges could be founded from a need to know the optimum times to sown or when to expect lambing etc to occur. This is born out by the knowledge present day, non industrial farmers have for noting similar cyclical events, by the use of shadow measurements.

However, this does not rule out the possibility of these functional places combining ritualistic elements of usage either from conception or developing over the period of time in which they were used. From a modern viewpoint we are often too keen to separate practical life from ritual, in boxes. Whereas, in many cultures the two are completely linked, life is ritual and ritual is life. One cannot be isolated from the other as the ritual is necessary for life and the life for the ritual.

Rather than the agricultural explaining the settlement and ritual aspects it seems likely that the three were intertwined, and the ritual beliefs influenced the settlement and farming, which initially instigated the ritual.

An important aspect of an agrarian continuance is the 'seed' of the previous generation. One must save the seed from the harvest in order to sow next year's crops. One must select the correct breeding stock to save to breed the next generation in order to have a viable stock basis. Killing the prime male and keeping the infertile one is fatal to the stock. Not caring for the seed results in no crops. In this manner Neolithic man may have come to the belief that his forebears influenced his future. It was thus important to him to honour the best of his group who had gone before, and the small 'prime' specimens were chosen for 'special' afterlife treatment, in long barrows, initially. As these barrows grew in size and importance to him, it would be desirable to be within reach of these when the next chosen one needed to be interned. Thus the territory would be smaller. Similarly the man power needed to build these monument, necessitated feeding unproductive, in the practical sense, workers, a thriving agricultural economy would allow this division of labour. As the ritual belief became more intricate and necessitated greater and more complex monuments so did the need for greater settlement to complete them and greater, agrarian production to support the non foodstuff workers, all be it that they might not be permanently at this task.

In conclusion, the Early Neolithic people, saw the need for continuation of a line, via farming practices. Honouring their best linage both in their own species, in permanent monuments, and in crops and livestock, in exchange areas where agricultural elements could be traded. This possibly gradually lead to a more settled existence as it became necessary to be close to the places associated with their honoured dead and their other meeting places. These meeting places may then have evolved into places which encompassed a greater ritualistic significance. To try and separate the practical from the ritual of their lives is to impose modern views on their lifestyle, which in all probability was much more interwoven than we can perceive.


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