Monday 29 September 2014

The Neolithic high civilization of England - a religious golden age?

View from the White Horse at Uffington beside the Ridgeway; Dragon Hill in left foreground

England has many extraordinary Neolithic remains (Neolithic = New Stone Age - dated approximately 4000-2500 BC and not culturally-terminated by the following 'Bronze Age'); including some of the banked enclosures commonly known as 'hill forts'.

Recent archaeological reconsideration (as well as common sense about the logistics of living on top of hills) suggest that many so-called 'hill forts' did not start-out as permanently inhabited military structures, nor even temporary refuges - but were most likely sites for 'ritual' gatherings, probably religious.


Therefore, perhaps a better name for these early hill-top sites would be Hill Top Temples which brackets them with the more famous stone circles; and clarifies the truly stunning aspect of Neolithic life in England - which is that vast landscapes seem to have been progressively transformed into complexes of Temples: stone circles, hilltop enclosures and flattened arenas, valleys and clefts, causeways, burial sites of various shapes, and some conical ('pyramid-like'?) mounds both small and very large indeed.


These hill-top enclosures are frequently found in both Somerset and Northumberland, those places where I have lived most, many remain un-excavated and barely-explored, and they are still being found so there must be many more yet undiscovered.

For instance, yesterday I visited one of the lesser known, and only half-visible, hill top enclosures beside Bolam Lake in Northumberland - only dated a Neolithic in the late 1990s. There is another similar, also partial, structure looking out over the plain - about a mile to the west. Perhaps this was part of a network extending North into the Cheviots and adjacent hills - and related to the vast amount of 'rock art' in this vicinity.

But the best known Neolithic ritual landscape is that in the South of England which links the stone circle structures such as Avebury and Stonehenge, Hill Top Temples, and huge man-made mounds such as Silbury Hill and its very recently dated 'sister' structure of Marlborough Hill.


What seems to emerge from all this is that:

1. There was a High Civilization of Neolithic times in England, which in engineering terms far surpassed anything else achieved until the Roman era of about three thousand years later

2. This society was large scale - stretching over many scores of miles in large units of thousands of square miles.

3. This implies it was sufficiently cohesive and peaceful to enable very large scale cooperation over many hundreds of years.

4. This also implies it had a sufficiently large agricultural surplus (above subsistence) to allow probably thousands of people at a time to be working on making landscape structures.

5. The nature of these public works, the vulnerabilities involved in constructing them, their un-defensibility, the lack of military structures - all these imply a long era of peacefulness across large swathes of England, of freedom from fear of invasion.

6. All the above would seem to entail that there was a unitary and cohesive religion that united Neolithic England, and that this existed without significant schism or apostasy or abrupt revolutionary changes for many hundreds of years - and furthermore that this lost religion was devoutly held by much of the population. This is really the only plausible basis for such astonishing and large scale peaceful cooperation as observed in Neolithic England.


An amazing thought! A Neolithic religious golden age in England - only beginning to be rediscovered during the past couple of generations!

 Prop portrait from the astonishing 1970s children's TV series Children of the Stones


Thras said...

I saw Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar last month, before hiking Hadrian's Wall.

The Neolithic peoples needed very little in the way of stone structures, and I imagine that they were as comfortable sleeping outside as not, so they built very little. What they did build was important. I wonder how many great stone rings or mounds were torn down by history, leaving only the few we now have?

I have no doubt that they were as cohesive a people as you describe. It seems very likely. But they were so alien, and left so little.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thras - The archaeological evidence is still coming in. It would only take one freak/ exceptional find to provide a breakthrough. Maybe the Neolithics were literate, to some degree; and some writing or complex symbolism will be found preserved? it would not surprise me.

Leo said...

"But they were so alien, and left so little."

We really don't know how alien they were because we know so little about them. And they presumably left their DNA through their descendants.

I once saw an article with the title, as best I remember it, "Meet your ancestors. Would you let them in your house?"

Bruce B. said...

I don’t keep up on the latest genetic studies. Is it still believed that the British are on average 80% “indigenous” i.e. not descended from the continental Celtic, Roman and Germanic invaders?

davidstanley said...

I remember "Children of the stones". Resulted in several nightmares at the time. Very spooky.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - I think that estimate only refers to some parts of the south of England - but not to Britain as a whole. So far, these kinds of studies have not been done in the way they could, should and I thought they would be - presumably due to the usual reason: political correctness.

Samson J. said...

What a lovely post! I didn't mention it before, but my wife and I have just returned from a holiday in Scotland, where my ancestors came from and where I have always dreamed of visiting. I adore archaeology, and we spent a great deal of time looking at Neolithic stone relics, including the Clava Cairns and Kilmartin Glen.

We were showing our pictures to my mother-in-law and it occurred to me that some people would think we traveled all that way to look at "piles of rocks". But nothing excites me more than these Neolithic things.

The archaeological evidence is still coming in.

Indeed it is! I bought a book, which I read on the plane home, about the Picts, in which the author argues that Britain's indigenous peoples have been, archaeologically speaking, neglected in favour of the Romans. (There's more to his argument, but I won't rehash it.) Clearly there's much work to be done, and I can't wait.

Maybe the Neolithics were literate, to some degree; and some writing or complex symbolism will be found preserved? it would not surprise me.

Yes, it is always a real mind-blower to me to realize that these obviously highly intelligent people could not have invented writing. How hard could it be to realize that you could represent language graphically? Maybe it's something we simply can't fully fathom.

I remember "Children of the stones". Resulted in several nightmares at the time. Very spooky.

I never heard of it, but I will certainly check it out now.

So far, these kinds of studies have not been done in the way they could, should and I thought they would be - presumably due to the usual reason: political correctness.

Yes, sadly. My abiding interest in genealogy and ancestry has me considering one of those mail-order genetic ancestry tests, although I have reservations about handing my DNA to a company.

Samson J. said...

I might add, now that I have looked up "Children of the Stones" to see what it was all about, that I did not find those stone relics creepy or frightening at all, whatsoever - rather the opposite; they gave me quite a sense of ancient peace and serenity. Whatever that may suggest.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ - I agree that I don't find neolithic relics creepy - not even when visiting Avebury after watching Children of the Stones! I find them exhilarating.

However, they do exude a sense of power, and that power could perhaps be corrupted - and that was what Children of the Stones was about.

On the whole I think this lost Neolithic religion must have been a good one. What were its features? Well, the use of unroofed sky temples and circles and astronomical orientations suggests what was most revered. The scale and duration of social organization suggests a de facto monotheism (revering one god - the sun - above all others) - so I like to imagine it as a kind of proto-Christianity. And if it was a genuine religion, they they would surely have had some intimations and expectations of the Messiah...

Well, maybe! Certainly, England was ready and waiting for Christianity when it came, and Britain proved to be one of its centres for a long time, indeed several times.

Unsurprisingly, I have a great fondness for the Alternative History legend that Glastonbury was the first major Christian centre in the world (before Rome!). Maybe the groundwork for all this was laid by the Neolithics?

It would make a good novel.

Bruce Charlton said...

Note - for those of you who like stones especially, there is an evocative and dedicated (albeit extremely eccentric and sometimes disturbing) book called The Modern Antiquarian by Julian Cope - who visited all of the known sites, took pictures and made notes of his experiences.

Although full of facts, maps, pictures; it is essentially a New Age and Neo-pagan kind of production (Cope was a successful pop singer of the 1980s) but I find this preferable to the deliberately dry and almost bureaucratic style of much mainstream archaeology. After all we visit these sites for 'spiritual' reasons, don't we?

In my experience mainstream modern archaeologists are *terrible* writers - much, much worse than historians - presumably because they regard themselves as scientists and are terrified of their colleagues. Even the *best* of modern archaeology writers - eg Barry Cunliffe - are actually pretty unreadable (I know, because I have just been trying).

Leo said...

"How hard could it be to realize that you could represent language graphically?"

Not hard at all. But to make it useful, literacy has to be shared. The more widely it is shared, the more useful it is. The challenge is getting your particular graphical representation to be widely shared. If writing is expensive and immobile (carving a stone) or done on a fleeting medium (writing in the dirt), as it would be before paper and pencil, the challenge is still harder.

Leo said...

This has made me consider the question, what it the advantage of literacy to a Neolithic society?

For a complex society literacy is necessary for commerce. But for a simple economy, literacy may not be so vital. Literacy confers a military advantage, but with simple forms of warfare, in a peaceful age, or where neither side is literate, the advantage is less obvious. Literacy is useful for the law. But for small traditional societies, a clan chieftain or a counsel of graybeards will suffice. Literacy is useful for entertainment, but song and dance and traditional storytelling will nourish small groups very nicely. Where literacy might be really valuable in such a society is religion: preserving the ancient stories and memories of origins and timeless lessons, unchanging laws, and immutable taboos. It is possible to do so in an oral culture with effort, such as periodic gatherings, retellings, reenactments, memorization, mnemonic aids, poetry, song, etc., just the sort of activities that might be set on hilltops. Think of the line from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: "Still, in all, every night we does the tell so that we member who we was and where we came from.”

And if and when literacy develops, the priests and the shamans might be among the first to use it.

Samson J. said...

^ I wonder how many times "writing" was invented, by independent individuals, during the Neolithic.

Samson J. said...

It is possible to do so in an oral culture with effort, such as periodic gatherings

One of the things that fires my imagination about the stone relics is imagining the rituals remaining static, passed down across generations without change. Of course we have no way to know.

Leo said...

As the aforementioned movie ends, the speaker, a woman cradling a baby, says:

"This you knows: the years travel fast and time after time I done the tell. But this ain't one body's tell; it's the tell of us all, and you've got to listen it and (re)member, cause what you hears today you gotta tell the newborn tomorrow."

"But most of all we members the man who finded us, him that came the salvage, and we lights the city not just for him but for all of 'em that are still out there, cause we knows there'll come a night when they sees the distant light and they'll be comin home."