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The jawbone which has caused so much excitement

The jawbone which has caused so much excitement

Could a piece of jawbone found at Torquay’s famous Kents Cavern caves be the oldest part of modern human to be unearthed in Europe?

A piece of jawbone excavated from a prehistoric cave in England is the earliest evidence for modern humans in Europe, according to an international team of scientists. The bone first was believed to be about 35,000 years old, but the new research study shows it to be significantly older — between 41,000 and 44,000 years old, according to the findings that will be published in the journal Nature. The new dating of the bone is expected to help scientists pin down how quickly the modern humans spread across Europe during the last Ice Age. It also helps confirm the much-debated theory that early humans coexisted with Neanderthals. Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer Associate Professor of Biology at Penn State University and a member of the research team, explained that the fragment of maxilla — the upper jaw — containing three teeth was unearthed in 1927 in a prehistoric limestone cave called Kent’s Cavern in southwestern England. Records from the original excavations, undertaken by the Torquay Natural History Society located in Devon, England, indicate that the jawbone was discovered 10 feet 6 inches beneath the surface and was sealed by stalagmite deposits. “In 1989, scientists at Oxford University dated the bone as being about 35,000 years old. However, doubts were later raised about the reliability of the date because traces of modern glue, which was used to conserve the bone after discovery, were found on the surface,” Shapiro said. “We knew we were going to have to do additional testing to re-date the bone.” Because the remaining uncontaminated area of bone was deemed too small to re-date, the research team searched through the excavation archives and collections in the Torquay Museum to obtain samples of other animal bones from recorded depths both above and below the spot where the maxilla was found.

Members of the research team then obtained radiocarbon dates for the bones of wolf, deer, cave bear, and woolly rhinoceros, all of which were found close to the maxilla, and all of which could be dated at between 50,000 and 26,000 years old. Using a Bayesian statistical-modelling method, the scientists then were able to calculate an age for the maxilla. The new date indicates that the bone is between 41,000 and 44,000 years old.

Tom Higham, Deputy Director of Oxford University’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and a member of the research team, said “Radiocarbon dating of ancient bones is very difficult to do. Because the initial date from this fragment of jawbone was affected by traces of modern glue, the initial measurement made in 1989 was too young. The new dating evidence we have obtained allows us, for the first time, to pinpoint the real age of this key specimen. We believe this piece of jawbone is the earliest direct evidence we have of modern humans in northwestern Europe.”

Shapiro explained that the new and more-accurate date is especially important because it provides clearer evidence about the coexistence of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. “If the jawbone is, in fact, 41,000 to 44,000 years old, that means it was from a time when Neanderthals were still present in Europe, so we first had to confirm that the bone was from an anatomically modern human, and not a Neanderthal,” Shapiro said. Shapiro and her team first tried to extract mitochondrial DNA from one of the teeth, but there were insufficient amounts for valid DNA sequencing. Eventually, team members were able to use a virtual three-dimensional model based on a CT scan of the jawbone to carry out a detailed analysis of the fossil. They compared the external and internal shapes of the teeth with those of modern human and Neanderthal fossils from a number of different sites. They found early modern human characteristics in all but three of the 16 dental characteristics.

Studies of the maxilla have been under way for the last decade, but it was only with the application of the latest investigative and dating techniques that the research team was able to make this breakthrough in identifying the jawbone as the earliest modern human so far known from Europe.

“Comparative data were lacking for some of the traits our team was studying,” Shapiro said. “So, thankfully, our team member Tim Compton of the Natural History Museum in England helped by building a completely new database to help discriminate modern features from Neanderthal features. While the dominant characteristics are certainly modern, there are some that are ambiguous, or that fall into the Neanderthal range.” The research team believe that these ambiguous features may reflect inadequate sampling of modern human variation, shared primitive features between early modern humans and Neanderthals, or even interbreeding between the two species. “We’ll have to delve a little deeper and do more work to resolve these questions,” Shapiro said.

Another exciting feature of the new study is that it could help solve the apparent discrepancy about the known dates of the Aurignacian period — a time of cultural development in Europe and southwest Asia that lasted from around 45,000 to 35,000 years ago. Previous researchers have discovered artefacts and tools from this period that are thought to have been produced by the earliest modern humans in Europe. However, strangely, these artifacts have been found to be much older than the rare skeletal remains found in the same vicinity. While Aurignacian tools and ornaments have been dated at as old as 44,000 years, tests to pinpoint the age of relevant human remains have resulted in dates that reach no further than between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago, indicating a significant gap.

“The new date and identification of this bone from Kent’s Cavern is very important, as we now have direct evidence that modern humans were in northwest Europe about 42,500 years ago,” Higham said. “It confirms the presence of modern humans at the time of the earliest Aurignacian culture, and tells us a great deal about the dispersal speed of our species across Europe during the last Ice Age. It also means that early humans coexisted with Neanderthals in this part of the world, something that a number of researchers have doubted.”

In addition to Shapiro, Higham, and Compton, other members of the research team include Chris Stringer, Roger Jacobi, and Chris Collins of the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom; Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in the United States; Barry Chandler of the Torquay Museum in the United Kingdom; Flora Gröning, Paul O’Higgins, and Michael Fagan of the University of Hull in the United Kingdom; Simon Hillson of University College London in the United Kingdom; and Charles FitzGerald of McMaster University in Canada.

The research was funded by two organizations in the United Kingdom: the Leverhulme Trust, established at the wish of William Hesketh Lever, the first Viscount Leverhulme, and the Natural Environment Research Council.
Link: http://esciencenews.com

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I don’t normally do articles on ancient sites outside of my own Country,  Britain.  However I felt this was a significant discovery in Europe and has a Stonehenge connection.

General plan of the early Celtic burial mound with sky constellations.

General plan of the early Celtic burial mound with sky constellations.

A huge early Celtic calendar construction has been discovered in the royal tomb of Magdalenenberg, nearby Villingen-Schwenningen in Germany’s Black Forest. The order of the burials around the central royal tomb fits exactly with the sky constellations of the Northern hemisphere.

Whereas Stonehenge was orientated towards the sun, the more than 100-meters-wide burial mound of Magdalenenberg was focused towards the moon. The builders positioned long rows of wooden posts in the burial mound to be able to focus on the Lunar Standstills. These Lunar Standstills happen every 18.6 year and were the corner stones of the Celtic calendar.

Archaeo-astronomic research resulted in a date of Midsummer 618 BCE, which makes it the earliest and most complete example of a Celtic calendar focused on the moon.

After the complete destruction of the Celtic culture by Rome, these types of calendars were completely forgotten.The full dimensions of the lost Celtic calendar system have now come to light again in the monumental burial mound of Magdalenenberg.

Like other European Iron Age tribal societies, the Celts practiced a polytheistic religion. Rites and sacrifices were carried out by priests known as druids. The Celts did not see their gods as having human shapes until late in the Iron Age. Celtic shrines were situated in remote areas such as hilltops, groves, and lakes.

Roman reports of the druids mention ceremonies being held in sacred groves. La Tène Celts built temples of varying size and shape, though they also maintained shrines at sacred trees and votive pools.

Druids fulfilled a variety of roles in Celtic religion, serving as priests and religious officials, but also as judges, sacrificers, teachers, and lore-keepers. Druids organized and ran religious ceremonies, and they memorized and taught the calendar. Other classes of druids performed ceremonial sacrifices of crops and animals for the perceived benefit of the community. Neo-druidism is still practiced today.

Sources: Examiner, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, via AlphaGalileo and Science Daily

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A pair of carved stone ducks unearthed at Vespasian’s Camp near Stonehenge are believed to be the oldest known figurines found in the UK, and are amongst other findings that suggest the sacred site was in use several thousand years before the megalith itself was constructed.

Two stone carvings, in the shape of ducks, dated to around 700 BC. (Luke Beaman/The Open University)

Two stone carvings, in the shape of ducks, dated to around 700 BC. (Luke Beaman/The Open University)

Led by archeologist David Jacques at The Open University, several students uncovered a hoard of artifacts from the mid-Stone Age, including a ceremonial dagger, the remains of an aurochs feast, and more than 5,000 flints and tools.

“We thought it was probably a mixed cache of early prehistoric tools, and assumed some were contemporary with Stonehenge,” Jacques said in a press release.

“When we took them back to Cambridge and a number of experts suggested they were all Mesolithic, we started to get very excited.”

The team found evidence of a fire with over 200 cooked animal bones from at least one aurochs, which were radiocarbon dated back to about 6,250 BC, more than 3,000 years before the giant stone circle was erected.

“Mesolithic people were nomadic hunter-gatherers who would have had temporary settlements,” Jacques explained.

“Salisbury Plain would have been something like the Serengeti with herds of animals roaming across it, and people could have used the hills that sort of create a basin around it as vantage points from which to see the movement of animals.”

Now extinct, aurochs were a type of large cattle that once roamed Eurasia and North Africa, reaching almost two meters in height.

“An aurochs was something like a large minivan in size,” Jacques said. “To catch an animal this big would have been a major feat.”

“It would have fed a lot of people. It’s likely there was a large gathering, possibly as many as 100 people, who cooked and feasted on the aurochs.”

Meanwhile, the ducks were dated back to 700 BC, and the dagger to around 1,400 BC. The figurines are believed to be part of a Bronze Age tradition based on casting sacrificial offerings into water.

Only a few other Mesolithic artifacts have previously been found in the area. Field archeologist Tom Lyons at Oxford Archaeology East said in the release that the discovery is highly significant.

“It’s really exciting to get such a cache of material,” he said. “This certainly makes this find nationally important, if not internationally important”

Link: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/science/mesolithic-discovery-could-alter-our-understanding-of-stonehenge-62434.html

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Round Barrows – That’s where Bronze Age people buried their dead init! Nuff said”. Factually correct, if a tad simplistic, but of course the potential for learning more about society from studying these monuments it could be argued is still in its infancy. The landscape of Cranborne Chase has been at the forefront of British prehistory and archaeology since the middle of the 19th century, it having one of the densest concentrations of prehistoric monuments in north-west Europe.

image credit: High Lea Farm excavation © Bournemouth University

image credit: High Lea Farm excavation © Bournemouth University

In 2003 John Gale embarked upon a seasonal campaign of excavations at the little known and apparently flattened barrow group at High Lea Farm near Hinton Martell north of Wimborne. The fieldwork was completed in 2009 and the analysis currently under way is discovering information which suggests that we still have a lot to learn about these ‘familiar’ monuments of the Wessex landscape.  

John will also be incorporating some early results of his recent survey work at the Clandon Barrow in west Dorset which has a bearing on the lecture title.

 A lecture in the Salisbury Museum Archaeology Lectures (SMAL) series. SMAL lectures are held on the second Tuesday of each month from September to April (2011)

A talk by John Gale, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, Bournemouth University.

Link: http://www.salisburymuseum.org.uk/what-s-on/lectures/188-the-knowlton-prehistoric-landscape-project-–-we-know-a-lot-about-round-barrows-dont-we.html

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A major excavation is under way to explore the unclear history of Britain’s largest Iron Age hill fort.

The Ham Hill Iron Age hill fort site spreads over 80 hectares making it the largest in Britain

The Ham Hill Iron Age hill fort site spreads over 80 hectares making it the largest in Britain

The purpose of the Ham Hill site in Somerset is not known but researchers are now hoping to gain a deeper insight into life 2,000 years ago.

A joint team from the universities of Cambridge and Cardiff have begun a dig at the 88-hectare site to learn more.

Work is due to continue until September 2013 by which time the team hope to have a clearer map of its interior.

Niall Sharples, from Cardiff University, said: “It’s a bit of an enigma. Ham Hill is so big that no archaeologist has ever really been able to get a handle on it.

“People think of these places as defensive structures, but it is inconceivable that such a place could have been defended.

“Thousands of people would have been required; militarily, it would have been a nightmare.

“Clearly, it was a special place for people in the Iron Age, but when did it become special, why, and how long did it stay that way?”

Researchers believe the site may have been a monument and was somehow meant to create a sense of community, collective identity, or prestige.

‘Communal identity’

Christopher Evans, from the Cambridge archaeological unit, said it was a rare opportunity to tackle the site’s big issues on the scale they deserve.

“We don’t know if the site’s development was prompted by trade, defence or communal identity needs,” he said.

“Equally, should we be thinking of it as a great, centralised settlement place – almost proto-urban in its layout and community size?”

One of the key aims of the current excavation will be to pin down the rough date of the hill fort’s construction.

Smaller scale digs at the site have produced a number of finds, including human remains, the skeleton of a dog, pottery, iron sickles and the remains of a house.

‘There is also a wonderful pearched right on the top of Ham Hill tat serves a mean ‘Ploughmans’ and a great pint’ – Somerset tour guide

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An ancient burial site which dates back thousands of years has been reopened to the public after two years of repairs.

The Long Barrow, known as Hetty Pegler's Tump, could date back as far as 3200BC

The Long Barrow, known as Hetty Pegler's Tump, could date back as far as 3200BC

Uley Long Barrow in Gloucestershire, known as Hetty Pegler’s Tump, was closed while urgent structural work was carried out at the Neolithic site.

Structural damage to the interior dry stone walls of the burial chamber had left it in an unsafe condition.

English Heritage has overseen the work to restore the 120ft (37m) long monument which dates back to 3200BC.

Mark Badger, from English Heritage, said: “We are delighted that this very significant Long Barrow is once again open to visitors.

“The archaeological investigations carried out during the urgent works by the Cotswold Archaeology team have also confirmed the original plan of the burial chambers which were excavated in both 1821 and in 1854.”

Samples of original Neolithic mound material will now be taken away for analysis in a bid to establish a more accurate date.

The scheduled monument is managed by Gloucestershire County Council on behalf of English Heritage and is named after Hester Pegler, the 17th century owner of the field in which it sits.

It is one of a series of ancient stone structures known as the Cotswold-Severn barrow group, sited near Dursley and overlooking the Severn Valley.

Very little is known about who was buried there other than that they were from some of the first settled farming communities

Link: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/uley-long-barrow-hetty-peglers-tump/

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The ancient standing stones at Avebury, lie between Swindon and Devizes on the A4361. Avebury rings are a World Heritage site and attracts thousands of visitors annually, who are no doubt intrigued by the mystery that surrounds their construction.
Avebury Stone Circle
The henge is believed to date back to around 2600BC; just what motivated our ancestors to construct such an elaborate site and their ultimate purpose in doing so remains largely a mystery. It has been suggested (one of many theories) it may have been used as a place of worship and sacrifice. Some favour an astral observatory, difficult to prove I shouldn’t wonder, in view of the fact that many of the stones are missing and any alignment with the stars must be considered near impossible. Others believe it had a connection with Silbury Hill (see sidebar for more info)and was used to gauge the seasons for agriculture. Whatever the reasons for its construction, its true purpose still eludes archaeologists and scholars to this day.

It is unfortunate that not all of Avebury’s 154 sarsen stones (most likely quarried and transported on wooden rollers from the Marlborough hills) have survived. Of the three rings and the Avenue that make up the henge, only 36 stones are still standing. Many were destroyed or buried (some still are) in massive pits during the 14th century by devout local Christians because a) they believed them to be the harbingers of ill luck and b) to eradicate pagan worship from the monument.

It was during the 18th century that the stones came under attack once more, not from zealous Christians this time but from local construction workers who decided it would be a jolly good idea to utilizes the stones to construct several of the cottages in the village; the grand 15th century Tudor manor and the modernization of 12th century church of St. James. Some of these magnificent stones even went to cobble the streets of Devizes seven miles to the south.

It wasn’t until the intervention and purchase of the site by Marmalade tycoon and archaeologist – Alexander Keiller in the 1930’s, that the destruction ceased. Keiller was responsible for much of the conservation and re-erection of the stones. His work was interrupted during the outbreak of the WWII and remains unfinished to this day, unfinished because there are still stones which lay buried.

Keiller purchased Avebury Manor in 1937 and utilized and modernized the stable block to house a museum of his work and findings. Although small, it is well worth a visit.

Folklore

Folklore has evolved over a millennia regarding the alleged power of Avebury’s standing stones. A fascination has grown for these enigmatic sarsens, which appear to cast their spell on many who see them. The stones are often referred to as ‘grey wethers’ on account of their resemblance to grazing sheep when seen from a distance. Some believe the sarsens have healing properties and by a ‘hugging’ one, it will release its magical properties and cure most ills. Others have claimed whilst hugging a stone, to have felt vibrations emanating from within its very core. ‘Stone hugging’ is a common sight at Avebury. Often when I have been driving past, I can pretty much guarantee that someone will be flat against a stone, adopting a pose reminiscent of the crucifixion and gazing heavenward in eager anticipation of “the vibe‘. I think “the vibe,” can more than likely be attributed to the rumble and subsequent vibration of traffic passing close by on the A4361. There’s nout queerer than folk and Avebury attracts them in swarms – bless ‘em. As mentioned earlier, the locals used to believe the stones were harbingers of ill luck, so hugging one is probably not such a good idea.

Dowsers, crystal pendulum swingers, new age folk, druids, pagans and an assortment of other folk all looking for that something, descend on the village annually, and why not, everyone to their own I say.

With all the magic, mystery and ancient rituals which have grown up around the stones, you would have thought the circle would be a paranormal hotspot. If truth be known, the opposite is very much the case, especially when compared to the generous helping of ghostly history from the likes of The Red Lion pub, which stands within the circle; the resplendent Tudor Manor and the 12th century church of St. James. All these buildings positively exude tales to chill you to the marrow. The few hauntings and folklore that have been reported from the henge are as follows:

Back in the Sixties, a woman driving through the village late at night, reported seeing ghostly figures dressed in period costumes dancing amongst the stones. I would question, that what she actually saw, was probably nothing more than one of the many rituals and parties which take place regularly at Avebury.

There are claims of dwarf like creatures seen darting amongst the stones in the dead of night and of a spectrum of tiny twinkling lights believed by some to be fairy folk. These lights have been seen countless times dancing above the stones, especially the mysterious Diamond Stone, which is located at the north-west quadrant, a stone incidentally, said to uproot itself and crosses the A4361 at the stroke of midnight, no mean feat at around 40 tonnes.

The henge is thought to have several ley lines (hypothetical veins of invisible energy beneath the earth, said to connect ancient megalithic sites, monuments and even buildings, particularly churches) which dowsers especially believe crisscross beneath the henge and are most likely responsible for generating subterranean “earth energy.”

Avebury is a fascinating place and well worth a visit, if only to marvel at its construction and debate its mystery. That said, the claims surrounding the stones abilities will, I’m sure, stretch even the most vivid of imaginations.

Links:
http://hauntedwiltshire.blogspot.com
http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-avebury
http://www.StonehengeTours.com

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Silbury HillIN A modest house in Swindon, an 86-year-old man formulates exquisitely-detailed theories that turn conventional Wiltshire arch- aeology on its head.

If retired builder Eric Crook is right – and his belief that he’s right is unshakeable – the remains of a neolithic princess have lain deep beneath Silbury Hill for more than 4,000 years.

Even more startling is his insistence that the stones of Avebury once formed a carved amphitheatre of countless thousands of human and animal faces. These carvings would have appeared to move in flickering firelight; an illusion to thrill audiences of people who were centuries dead before Christ was born or the invading legions of Rome set foot on English soil.

These stone faces, Mr Crook says, can still be found in fragments hacked from the stones down the centuries, whether for buildings or perhaps because the powers that be disapproved of such images.

The reaction from the archaeological mainstream has so far been distinctly underwhelming, but Mr Crook, having spent well over 50 years researching and documenting his subject, is undaunted.

“Archaeologists are trained by other archaeologists,” he said. “But they are not trained in a natural learning process going through building technology.

“They learn only through what they can see. I heard of a professor who was asked the question, ‘when do you think you’ll get the answers to Silbury Hill and Avebury?’ “She said it would be another generation, but I thought to myself, ‘The answers are already there and you’re the generation behind.’”

Wiltshire, A Journeyman’s Tale, is £9.99 and can be ordered from Amazon and bookshops, ISBN978-0-7223-3900-8

Well worth touring Avebury and Silbury Hill at the moment.  There are several amazing crop circles in the area

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 The weather may not be anything to write a postcard home about – but the West’s tourism industry enjoyed a twin boost yesterday.

Key visitor attractions featured prominently in the first global TV adverts for a decade and new research showed up to 17 million Brits will holiday at home this year.

VisitBritain, the national tourism agency, yesterday unveiled its international TV campaign to attract overseas visitors to the country.

The adverts will be screened around the world, and include Stonehenge, Glastonbury and the Cotswolds.

Stonehenge is already in the spotlight because of the summer solstice, and VisitBritain say the UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most important prehistoric monuments on the planet.

As well as the 5,000-year-old site, there are money Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in the surrounding landscape, and Avebury, the largest stone circle in Europe, is nearby.

Glastonbury is synonymous with the annual music festival taking place at the weekend, with international superstars such as U2, Coldplay and Beyonce, as well as theatre and circus performers and much more.but VisitBritain also point to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, and the iconic Tor, along with myths and legends about the Isle of Avalon, King Arthur, Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail.

The agency adds: “For many visitors, the Cotswolds represent everything that is quintessentially ‘English’, with villages and churches of honey-coloured limestone set among gentle hillsides, cottage gardens, beech woods and drystone walls.”

Historic sites include Sudeley Castle and Chedworth Roman Villa, while VisitBritain urges tourists to sample local produce such as Gloucester Old Spot pork, Tewkesbury mustard and the famous Cotswold cheeses.

Other locations in the TV adverts include London landmarks such as the Houses of Parliament and St Paul’s Cathedral, the Lake District, Snowdon in Wales, Edinburgh Castle and the Highlands.

Celebrities such as actress Dame Judi Dench, fashion icon Twiggy and chef Jamie Oliver – who has restaurants in Bath and Bristol with another opening in Cheltenham this summer – star in them.

The campaign kicks off a major marketing push that seeks to build on the global impact of the Royal Wedding, with the Olympics next year also guaranteeing the international spotlight.

It will concentrate on the current most important tourism markets, such as the US and Western Europe, and the big growth areas for the future, including China and India.

VisitBritain chief executive Sandie Dawe said: “This is our first global TV campaign for 10 years and marks the start of an ambitious marketing programme. With the eyes of the world on us, we have an opportunity to showcase Britain and then to close the sale with great travel deals and offers from our partners.

“This campaign aims to inspire visitors to come and explore for themselves. Over four years, we aim to attract four million extra overseas visitors, who will spend £2 billion across Britain.”

Meanwhile a new survey has found nearly 40 per cent of Britons will stay at home this summer as families strive to balance household finances.

Many of them will instead enjoy ‘staycations’, with the West sure to cash in.

The poll was carried out for savings bank ING Direct, and chief executive Richard Doe said: “It’s not surprising that the summer holiday is often being sacrificed.”

Visiting Britain ? Visit the West Country!

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The Trundle near Chichester, Sussex, is one of the first large monuments built in Britain

The Trundle near Chichester, Sussex, is one of the first large monuments built in Britain

Researchers have developed a new dating technique that has given the first detailed picture of the emergence of an agricultural way of life in Britain more than 5,000 years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

A new analysis of artefacts recovered from the first monuments built in Britain shows that the Neolithic period had a slow start followed by a rapid growth in trade and technology.

Scientists say the new approach can be used to unravel the detailed sequence of events of many more important moments in human prehistory.

It relies in part on radio-carbon dating – counting the amount of a radioactive type of carbon atom in decaying matter. But the methodology also incorporates many other dating sources, together with some powerful statistical analysis, to produce far more discrete timings for happenings in the past.

The Neolithic period in Britain occurred between 4000 and 2000BC.

It was when people took up agriculture as a way of life and stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers.

It also saw the emergence of trade across the British Isles and the development of new technologies. But until now, we have had only a rather coarse picture of the chronology of events during this eventful period in our history.

The new analysis by Dr Alex Bayliss, an English Heritage dating expert, has brought the occurrences of that time into sharper focus.

“We can start to tell a bigger story and write a history for the prehistory of Neolithic Britain,” she told BBC News.

“What we thought before was very imprecise. We simply knew that all sorts of different sites and all sorts of new kinds of practices started to happen sometime in the 500 or 600 years of the early Neolithic in Britain.

“We’ve actually now been able to give a timetable, or story of what happened when, to disentangle these things so that we can start to see why certain things may have followed others.”

According to Dr Bayliss’s analysis, Neolithic farming practices began in south-east England probably a few decades before 4,000BC. But then they spread very, very slowly, taking about two centuries to reach western parts of England. And then, she says, there was a sudden increase in activity.

“Monuments, cattle, sheep, the whole farming way of life, bursts across Britain and suddenly – having taken 200 years from getting from Kent to Gloucestershire – it then takes 50 years to get from Cheltenham to Aberdeen.”

The new dating also indicates that by 3700-3800BC, early Britons had developed pottery with regional styles of decorations. Long-distance trading networks were also being established in stone axes and certain other types of pottery

Windmill Hill, a large Neolithic causewayed enclosure in Avebury, was previously thought to have been built around 3700-3100 BC. The new dating shows it was built in 3700-3640 BC
Windmill Hill, a large Neolithic causewayed enclosure in Avebury, was previously thought to have been built around 3700-3100 BC. The new dating shows it was built in 3700-3640 BC

Of particular interest are the first monuments that were built in Britain, called causewayed enclosures. These were made up of concentric rings of ditches and banks – the largest of which can span 300m (1,000ft).

It had been thought that they spread slowly across the country over five centuries. But the new dating approach suggests they spread rapidly within 75 years.

This revelation has been described by archaeologists working on the project as Britain’s first “building boom”.

Professor Alistair Whittle of Cardiff University said: “With more accurate dating, the Neolithic period is no longer the sleepy, hazy swathe of time where it is the default position to lump everything together.

“This research fundamentally challenges the notion that little happened among our Stone Age farmers. We can now think about the Neolithic period in terms of more rapid changes, constant movement of people and fast diffusion of ideas.”

Collective violence

One interpretation of these events is that once the initial “pioneer” phase of the Neolithic period was over, independent groups of people came over from the continent and set up villages across Britain and social structures began to form.

These social structures led to the construction of the enclosures for people to gather and possibly for chieftains to emerge and amass power.

The new dating suggests that there was more collective violence once the enclosures were built. Several of them, particularly in western Britain, were attacked by large numbers of people with showers of arrows, and enclosures’ ramparts were burned down.

This indicates that the enclosures created a hierarchy that was being contested in some way.

The new dating technique involves comparing carbon dates with other markers in the archaeological record. On its own carbon dating is imprecise, but when it is cross-reference with documented events it allows researchers to more accurately date artefacts.

Researchers say this new methodology could in principle be used shed further light on any significant event in our prehistory, such as the emergence of farming in China and the collapse of the Mayan civilisation in the Americas.

 

A reconstruction of the Whitehawk causewayed enclosure in the South Downs, Sussex
A reconstruction of the Whitehawk causewayed enclosure in the South Downs, Sussex

Why not visit Windmill Hill and nearby Avebury and learn more about Neolithic Britain?

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