Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Neolithic enclosures in England may be older than previously thought

As is so often the case, new evidence forces scientists to re-examine long-held ideas--if they have the courage and honesty to do so. As reported by Stephen Adams in the London Daily Telegraph, June 6, 2011:

A series of large Stone Age earthworks spread out across the southern English landscape in as little as 75 years, new dating techniques show.

Previously it was thought that Neolithic causewayed enclosures, rings of raised ground up to 300 yards in diameter, emerged over as long a timespan as 700 years between 3,700BC and 3,000BC.

Now, however, academics have suggested the technique spread from the Thames estuary westwards, over less than 100 years from 3,700BC, and were largely completed in southern England by 3,500BC.

Dr Alex Bayliss, a scientific dating expert at English Heritage, said: "By dating these enclosures more accurately, we now know that something happened quite specifically some 5,700 years ago; the speed with which it took place has completely overturned our perception of prehistory."

She and Prof Alasdair Whittle from Cardiff University used radiocarbon dates in conjunction with the sequence that archaeological deposits were laid down, to more precisely date about 40 enclosures.

Recent statistical techniques have enabled they to narrow down their ages to as little as 60 years, in the case of Windmill Hill near Avebury in Wiltshire. They now think it was built between 3,700BC and 3,640BC. Before, the estimate was 3,700BC to 3,100BC.

The enclosures were used as occasional meeting places as more complex and competitive societies emerged, and were perhaps social symbols to "impress and astonish people", said Prof Whittle.

Some were used for long periods but others effectively abandoned after short spans, the new dating indicates.

The Neolithic age began in Britain in about 4,000BC, with the arrival of people from Europe bringing new settled farming techniques with them.

Prof Whittle believes the enclosures were essentially a continental import - although others dispute that idea - and it took 300 years for such foreign ideas to be absorbed by the local population.

He added: "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. We can also populate our imagination with generations and communities of people making different choices."

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