Neolithic

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Over the summer, Dr Duncan Garrow spent two weeks carrying out underwater and boat-based survey work on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, in conjunction with his long-term collaborator Dr Fraser Sturt (Southampton) and team. They were investigating potentially the most important new Neolithic sites found in Britain for many years.

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‘Crannogs’ – artificial island settlements constructed in lochs – are a numerous, geographically widespread and intriguing category of archaeological site. Unusually, this one site type was constructed in many different periods of Scotland’s prehistoric and historic past. Most scholars generally consider them to have been built, used and re-used from the Late Bronze Age (c. 1000 BC) to the medieval period (c. AD 1500).

 

Hugely significantly, our survey of three sites on the Isle of Lewis confirmed that the origins of some of these sites in fact lie 3000 years earlier than previously thought, in the Neolithic (c. 3700 BC). Over 400 crannog sites are recorded in Scotland, and many more no doubt lie undetected. The Outer Hebrides represent a particular hotspot in their distribution, with 150 potential sites identified across the island chain. Mostly unexcavated, it now seems possible that many of these are also in fact Neolithic.

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This project was only possible due to the curiosity of a local diver and keen archaeologist Chris Murray. Chris noted that a number of small islets in the lochs of Lewis appeared to have causeways going out to them, and to be a very regular shape. To find out more, he took his diving equipment and began to examine the bottom of the loch. The finds he made included a range of spectacular pottery, much of it dating to the Neolithic. He brought these finds to the attention of the archaeological community, with specialists in the museum in Lewis and at the National Museum of Scotland recognising their rare and important nature. It was this point that our joint project was born – we applied for and gained funding from the Honor Frost Foundation.

 

The newly discovered Lewis sites are extremely impressive – our underwater geophysical survey demonstrated that they are massive piles of rock (c. 15m across and up to 6m high) constructed within what would have been lochs in the Neolithic. Their monumental scale is comparable with local stone-built passage tombs of the same date. Our diver surveys identified worked timbers indicating that the mound structures were revetted; stone causeways out to two of them were also observed. Substantial quantities of pottery and quartz have been found on the loch beds around them. The preservation of ceramics – some vessels complete, many largely intact – is perhaps unique within the British Neolithic.

 

Since our work in 2016 was non-intrusive survey work rather than excavation, many unanswered questions remain:

 

– Were these Neolithic crannogs settlements (like their later equivalents) or a new kind of (ritual?) site?

– Does any settlement architecture survive? What buildings and/or other features can be detected?

– What practices were carried out on the islets and how do these relate to the substantial quantities of material recovered from the loch beds nearby?

 

If these Neolithic artificial islands were settlements, they transform our understanding of social relations at that time – what drove people to isolate themselves from the rest of the community in such a dramatic way shortly after the region was first settled on a substantial scale? Alternatively, if they are specialised, occasional-use sites, what purpose did they fulfil and what roles did they play alongside other monuments? Could they have been meeting/feasting places or venues for other ritual practice, perhaps even including burial?

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We have applied for further funding in order to undertake small-scale trial excavations on the two most promising sites next summer (2017). Watch this space for further information as more is revealed about these new, exciting discoveries.

 

If you’d like to find out more about our 2016 survey, it is due to feature on the BBC4 programme ‘Digging for Britain’ to be shown some time this winter (possibly early December last time we were told…).

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roundmoundsDr Jim Leary has recently been awarded a grant from The Leverhulme Trust to fund a project entitled ‘Extending Histories: from Medieval Mottes to Prehistoric Round Mounds’, which will run until the end of 2017.

The Round Mounds project seeks to unlock the history of monumental mounds in the English landscape. Neolithic round mounds, such as Silbury Hill – the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, are among the rarest and least well understood monuments in Britain. Recent work by Jim Leary at the medieval Marlborough Castle motte, Wiltshire, has shown it to be a Neolithic round mound which was reused in the medieval period, and raises the possibility that other castle mottes may have prehistoric origins. This research project therefore seeks to uncover prehistoric mounds that were adapted for medieval defence or have been misidentified as later mottes – a previously unrecognized phenomenon that could re-write our understanding of both the later Neolithic and Norman periods.

The Leverhulme grant will fund a programme of archaeological investigation, the team (Jim Leary, Nick Branch, Elaine Jamieson, Phil Stastney and Quest) adopting an interdisciplinary approach to understanding large mounds. The work will involving a programme of coring, analytical earthwork survey, scientific dating and detailed environmental analysis, and will determine the date of construction, sequence of development and environmental context of 20 mounds from across England.

 

Click to read more about Jim Leary, Nick Branch, and QUEST.

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The University of Reading Archaeology Field School has a new location from summer 2015 – the Vale of Pewsey! Dr Jim Leary will be directing the project over the next few years and below, he explains a little of his background and experience in this fantastic landscape…

Dr Jim Leary

Dr Jim Leary

“As a prehistorian I have always been drawn to Wiltshire. I excavated there as an undergraduate, looking at the Mesolithic site of Golden Ball Hill, and have been digging there on and off ever since. I once even found and excavated a very ancient site there indeed. It was fantastically well-preserved considering it was 250,000 years old, and packed full of the flint tools and hunting residue of one of one of our early hominin ancestors. But it is the ancient Neolithic monuments that are the main source of fascination for me – and a challenge too: there is so much more to discover.

In 2007 I took charge of the Silbury Hill project, working inside the enormous Neolithic mound with a team of miners and archaeologists. It was an amazing experience, to be able to spend so much time actually inside Silbury. There was real concern that a big portion of the mound might collapse as a result of various shafts and tunnels created by past archaeologists and antiquarians. We had to stabilise the structure and make it safe for the future, but this was also an opportunity to gather archaeological information.

In the summer of 2010 I directed an excavation at the huge Neolithic henge at Marden in the Vale of Pewsey. It is the one no-one has heard of, and yet it is the biggest henge of all – bigger than Avebury and about 10 times the size of Stonehenge. One objective was to find the position of the ‘Hatfield Barrow’ – another conical mound, half the size of Silbury. The mound was dug into in 1807 but it collapsed and the remains of it were later removed by the farmer. We assumed it had completely gone but below the soil we found that some of the mound still remained – it was just 15 centimetres high! That is quite a reduction from the original 15 metres, but it did contain dateable material, which showed it to be the same date as Silbury.

Marden Henge

Marden Henge

Also inside Marden henge, we found the best-preserved Neolithic building in England. It wasn’t a house that was lived in, but probably had some other function – perhaps a sweat lodge. The people that used this building will have seen Stonehenge in use – perhaps even worshipped there. There may be more buildings at Marden, and this is one of the questions we need to answer when we go back. The Marden excavations produced other unique finds, including some of the most finely worked flint arrowheads I’ve ever seen. The pottery too, was highly unusual: one clay pot had been coated in bone ash – my guess is that it is human bone, but we’ll never know for sure.

Continuing with the mounds theme I’ve also made the news through my work at Marlborough Castle Mound – or ‘Merlin’s Mound’ as it is known locally. Now in the grounds of Marlborough College, this 19m high mound was once the motte on which Marlborough Castle was built shortly after the Norman Conquest. In the 17th century it became part of an elaborate garden; a spiral path was cut into it and shrubs planted. With the help of colleagues I drilled boreholes deep into the mound from the top. We were able to date some charcoal from the cores which told us that its origins go back to the same time as Silbury Hill; it was a Neolithic mound that had been re-used later on. It was one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments that are so rare in archaeology.

I am now gearing up to go back to Wiltshire. We will be undertaking further excavations in the amazing Marden henge. But more than this – we’ll be looking at a whole plethora or weird and wonderful sites all around it. I can’t wait!”

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The CZAP team on location

The CZAP team on location

Staff and students from the University of Reading, as part of the Central Zagros Archaeological Project (CZAP), have returned from a successful six-week field season at Bestansur, in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.  The site lies close to a perennial spring and comprises extensive Early Neolithic occupation and later Neo-Assyrian and Sasanian levels, which form much of the 7.5m high central mound.

Excavations in 2012 established that Early Neolithic deposits were preserved across a 100-by-50 metre area, including pisé walls, areas of food preparation, flint-knapping, and a double-burial of a man and woman buried head-to-toe.

The 15m section cut into the north of the mound.

The 15m section cut into the north of the mound.

This season, CZAP excavated five trenches, including cutting a 15-metre section into the north of the mound. This work has yielded the first glimpses into the core of the Neolithic settlement with fine plaster surfaces, layers of dung and ochre, comparable with Neolithic sites across the region, such as Çatalhöyük.

Extensive post-excavation analysis is now under way examining issues of plant and animal domestication, resource usage and cultural networks across the Fertile Crescent.

Further details can be found on:

Read about the project leaders

Read a report from the Archaeology 3D project on their collaboration with CZAP 

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