Current Research Postgraduates
Miss Samantha Neil
Patterns of social mobility during the Early Neolithic and the development of the Neolithic in the British Isles.
The Early Neolithic is a critical period in British prehistory. It is often considered to represent a highly significant cultural shift, sometimes posited as a transition from a ‘hunter-gatherer’ lifestyle to ‘agriculturalist’ subsistence practices at around 4000 BC. However, the nature of this transition is poorly understood and how farming began in Britain remains uncertain. Some authors place emphasis on acculturation, the selective adoption of agriculturalist traditions by local Mesolithic communities thought to have lived in Britain since the last Ice Age. But others argue that a variety of new practices, such as pottery making, management of domesticates and monument construction, appeared suddenly with the arrival of groups familiar with these traditions on the continent.
Funded by a Durham Doctoral Studentship this program of research will be the first to systematically investigate patterns of human mobility in Britain during this period using strontium, lead and oxygen isotope analysis. This technique is capable of helping us to identify longer distance mobility (between regions with differing isotope packages). As such this project may offer the first opportunity to comment directly on the nature of contacts between Britain and the continent during the earlier Neolithic. It may help us to understand how farming began in this country.
However, perhaps more importantly the project is designed to provide an insight into nature of communities themselves and lifeways in Britain at the time of the Neolithic transition. Cultural traditions of residential mobility and social organization can be studied by comparing skeletal evidence for age and sex with isotopic data. The first phase of the project will study groups of individuals buried within long barrow monuments. This may help us to understand the societies that constructed some of the earliest dated monuments in this country. Were these sites built by closely knit family groups or used by a much wider community? If burial groups exhibit comparable isotope ratios it could perhaps indicate that those buried within them pursued similar traditions of residential mobility.
The density at which monuments are concentrated in the Cotswold region of England has also been argued to suggest that this region was of particular significance to Early Neolithic communities. Isotope results obtained from individuals in the large group of monuments concentrated here will be compared to those from other regions of England on contrasting lithologies (and hence associated with a different local isotope ‘package’). This might help us to understand the reason why particular places were chosen for monument construction. Were monuments for the dead sited near to the settlements of living communities? Conversely a large difference between the isotope values of groups and those of their local environment might suggest that they lived elsewhere, traditionally coming back to a particular area to construct monuments at a place perceived to be significant for burial of the dead.
The second stage of this PhD will then move on to analyze the human and animal remains recovered from the monument complex at Hambledon Hill to examine the way in which the Neolithic developed in the centuries following construction of the first long barrows in England. This project offers the very first opportunity to compare results from long barrow burial groups with those individuals buried at causewayed enclosures which began to be built a couple of centuries later. In doing so it may perhaps help to elucidate the uses of and relationship between different forms of monuments. Did patterns of mobility change as the Early Neolithic developed? Do mobility patterns differ between monument types? Causewayed enclosures are argued to have functioned as gathering points for ceremonies, and possibly to have been visited on an annual or biannual basis at times associated with qualitative thresholds in the annual subsistence cycle. If isotope ratios of individuals buried in causewayed enclosures are diverse it may reinforce the hypothesis that that causewayed enclosures contrasted with long barrows by serving the wider community and acted as foci for ceremonial aggregation.
Whilst comparing and contrasting patterns of mobility of groups utilizing long barrows with those buried in causewayed enclosures, this project will also be able to test another hypothesis which is central to current explanations of the Early Neolithic in Britain, that of territoriality. Past authors have invoked intensification in population growth, social competition and the emergence of social hierarchy to explain monument construction by agricultural societies. Arguments for a change toward social organization based on bounded, territorial groups continue to remain influential and draw on evidence for episodes of violent conflict at monumental causewayed enclosures, such as Hambledon and Crickley Hill.
This project offers the very first opportunity to directly evaluate these arguments. The causewayed enclosure at Hambledon Hill sits on a geological junction, between the chalk downlands of the north and east and the Jurassic geology of the south-west. Almost all the raw materials used to make artefacts found within the enclosure were derived from the geological area toward which these earthworks are oriented. Do the isotope ratios of individuals buried within the enclosure reflect this pattern? Those buried within Hambledon would exhibit distinctive isotope values if they had indeed avoided the chalk downs to the north-east and instead lived in the area of Jurassic geology as artefacts deposited on the hill appear to indicate.
This project therefore hopes to facilitate the evaluation of current explanations for social change during the early Neolithic. Whilst making a substantial contribution to our basis for understanding what is perhaps one of the most fascinating, debated and culturally significant periods in the prehistory of the British Isles, our data will also increase knowledge of lead variation in the human population prior to the development of metallurgy.
Professor Jane Evans (NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory)
Is supervised by
- Prehistory of Eurasia Research Group