Monday, 29 September 2014

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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