This essay will consider both the inherent strengths and weaknesses of Radiocarbon dating and Dendrochronology, and also the ways in which these techniques can be applied inappropriately. As might be expected, each of the techniques has limitations and conditions under which it can be applied; it is when the technique is applied to conditions outside these limitations, perhaps for reasons of interpretative determinism, that the integrity of the technique is undermined.


The analysis of each technique is focussed on the following factors:

  • Applicability: what range of subjects and materials can the technique address?
  • Accuracy: what resemblance does the achieved determination bear to the actual calendar date of the subject?
  • Interpretative outcomes: besides chronological considerations, does the technique add other information to the interpretation? A strength of a technique might lie in its ability to provide additional insights into environmental conditions, but a weakness of a technique might be found in the tenuous link between the dating subject and the context in which it is used to date


Additional to these factors could be a multitude of other considerations not strictly properties of the technique itself. For example, the processes by which the technique is performed and the associated skills and knowledge required to produce accurate determinations will necessarily impact the availability of the technique, but availability (and the associated monetary cost) is not an intrinsic property of the technique itself. In order to evaluate the technique itself, an idealised situation will be considered, whereby it is assumed that an archaeologist would have equal and otherwise unbiased access to a range of dating techniques, and it remains only to choose the one most appropriate to the situation at hand.

Radiocarbon Dating


Most of the 14C in the atmosphere originates in the action of cosmic rays on Nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. This unstable isotope of Carbon then enters the food chain, and in doing so, forms part of all organic matter (Bayliss et al. 2004). Broadly speaking, anything that was once alive can therefore theoretically have measured the levels of radiocarbon it now contains. It is also possible to obtain radiocarbon determinations from inorganic materials if the process of producing the finished state includes the incorporation of carbon; examples of where this might be possible is the application of lime mortar as carbon dioxide is absorbed by the surface when the mortar hardens (Bowman 1990:13).


In reality, there are difficulties associated with the processing and measurement of certain materials, which reduces the applicability of this technique. For example, bone samples without enough remaining collagen had to be disregarded in a radiocarbon dating exercise targeting the Cotswold-Severn Long Barrows (Smith & Brickley 2006).


Owing to the plateaux in the calibration curve (see Figure 1 below), samples with true dates on these plateaux cannot produce dates with any precision, and may return such wide ranges that the technique may not be the best approach to dating material from that time period.


Figure 1:Radiocarbon versus calendar ages for the period 9000-11000 14C years BP. Source Walker 2005 Figure 2.5


It used to be the case, before mass spectrometry was invented, that a limitation of the applicability of radiocarbon dating was due to the large sample sizes required in order to obtain a statistically-valid count of the beta decay. With Accelerometer Mass Spectrometry, the ratios of the various isotopes of Carbon are measured directly and the amount of 14C calculated from the ratios, rather than relying on detecting the decay of the radionuclide. For the high-precision radiometric laboratories (which use the decay-detection technique) a large sample and a long period of time to perform the count is required (Walker 2005: Section 2), limiting the usefulness to situations where these are not constraints.


Whilst some quite precise dates are being produced by radiometric laboratories in Seattle, Groningen, and Belfast, with standard errors of around 20 years (Walker 2005:Section 2.3.2), the accuracy of the dates so obtained is dependent on the quality, purity and processing of the sample material. Hodgins et al. (2001) showed that the pre-treatment regime for sub-fossil insect remains had an impact on the resulting radiocarbon dates obtained from the samples (Figure 2 below).



Figure 2: Changes in chitin chemistry during pre-treatment for 14C dating. Source: Hodgins et al. 2001 Table 3

Errors can obviously also creep in due to contamination, whether in the laboratory, or at the point at which the sample is taken. This is especially a problem with material that has been stored sub-optimally, handled with unclean hands, or treated with organic chemicals for conservation purposes (Pohl et al. 2009). Unlike dendrochronology, which relies on multiple correspondences to provide a solid chronology (as discussed later), radiocarbon dating has no inbuilt self-test mechanism, so errors of this sort are hard to detect and hard to quantify.


Radiocarbon dating is predicated on the assumption that the level of 14C in the sample at the time it entered the archaeological record is identical to the concentration of 14C in the atmosphere at the time and that these levels of both biosphere and atmosphere are consistent over the entire globe. It is now known that this is not the case, and that there are localised reservoir effects which need to be compensated for in the calibration process. These include the upwelling of 14C-depleted waters from the ocean depths (Barrett et al. 2000), problems of 14C –deficient CO2 emission from volcanoes adjusting the local uptake of 14C (Wiener 2012), and freshwater reservoir effects (Fernandes & Bergemann 2012).


It is known, too, that isotopic fractionation occurs; the lighter molecules of CO2 are taken up in preference to the radioactive and heavier isotopes, so a lower percentage of 14C enters the biosphere in this way than is present in the atmosphere. The reverse is true for the radioactive carbon ratios in the ocean, where 14C is taken up in preference to the lighter isotopes (Walker 2005: Section 2.4.2).


Inaccuracies derived from these two sources cannot be effectively dealt with by multiple readings, as in the case of inaccuracies introduced by incorrect measurement, and so must be estimated and compensated for (Ramsey 2009). This essentially means that the original estimated figure of the amount of 14C in the sample is then subjected to further estimations of factors that might affect the accuracy of that original determination. As time progresses it is hoped that these estimations may become more sophisticated, but it is perhaps fair to say that Radiocarbon dating is not so much measurement as an exercise in statistical analysis.


Interpretative outcomes

Parker Pearson (2013: 129-132) gave an example of a radiocarbon determination being (incorrectly) disregarded as it did not fit with the interpretation of the construction sequence of Stonehenge. With a re-assessment of the interpretation of the context in which the sampled material was found, the dates have been attributed to their proper feature and the chronology is internally consistent.


One of the problems with the radiocarbon dating of ecofacts, or of small artefacts found within soil, is that of bioturbation. Parker Pearson (2013: 305-307) gives the example of the huge range of dates obtained by Darvill and Wainwright in 2008 when trying to produce radiocarbon dates for Stonehenge; the date determinations indicated that the sarsen circle dated to AD 1670-1960 as a result of disturbances within the soil by both people and animals. The lesson here is that although a sample may be retrieved from a given context, there is every cause to question whether that was in fact the context from which it originated.


The question of residuality, that is, how long artefacts have been in existence before they enter the archaeological record, is also a factor that can affect the accuracy of radiocarbon dates when applied to a given context. For example, as Hamilton (2011) argued, there is no way of knowing whether the artefact that has been subjected to radiocarbon dating is an heirloom that has been curated for a given period of time, or whether the deposit itself has been reworked in some way as to render the date invalid when applied to anything other than the sample itself. This is not necessarily a weakness of radiocarbon dating, more a pitfall of the application of the technique. An interesting example of this was the evidence for Bronze Age mummies at Cladh Hallan (Parker Pearson et al. 2005), and many other examples from British Prehistory (Booth 2008). The implications of this for the accepted chronologies built on radiocarbon-dating of skeletal material, and the understanding of burial practice in prehistory, are profound (Smith 2013).


A further pitfall can be seen in the less precise determinations and the resulting wide date ranges being used to construct chronologies. Nishitani (2012 :195), in a consideration of the chronology of the pottery from Danebury, points out that even with a difference of 200-300 years between individual samples, at 95.4% confidence level, the calibrated date ranges at least partially overlap, meaning that the detailed chronology constructed by Cunliffe on the basis of radiocarbon dates may be problematic.


An interesting example of the interpretative use of radiocarbon dating in conjunction with dendrochronologically-pinpointed dating was the suggestion that an increase in the amount of 14C in wood dating from AD 774-775 can be attributed to an increase in cosmic rays. This was suggested to be potentially due to increased solar activity or a nearby supernova (Jull 2013). Whether this suggested change in cosmic rays would be perceptible in the archaeological record in terms of an impact on human lives, is debatable, however.



Dendrochronology relies upon strong correlations in patterns of rings to match back to a master chronology. The more rings there are the more likely it is that a several sequences of rings will cross-match to the master chronology and provide a correspondence strong enough to be considered a date. What this means is that the technique requires long-lived species, as at least 100 rings are ideally needed and this limits the applicability in Europe to long-lived Oaks (Baillie 1995:12).


The distinctness of rings in a sample is another consideration. Some trees are more sensitive than other to environmental disturbance and may miss rings or produce multiple rings in the same year, making it more difficult to find a matching pattern as that environmental disturbance may have only affected the trees in the locality of the sample, whereas the master chronology will not reflect this disturbance. This means that the optimal species for dendrochronology are those that are both long-lived and relatively insensitive. However, this lack of sensitivity may cause the tree to not produce distinctive patterns: it is the sensitivity to conditions that causes the variability in ring sizes and greater sensitivity will cause greater variation between extremes and therefore more distinct patterns (Aitken 1990:38).


In order to determine the date of felling, the sapwood, or at least the boundary between the sapwood and the heartwood must be present in the sample as it is these that mark the terminus of the tree’s growth (Baillie 1995:23). If these outer rings are not present then although a match may be made to the master chronology based on the pattern of rings, it will only be possible to say that the tree was alive during these years. Which may be precision enough for most purposes, so the technique may still be applicable.


Dendrochronology can be destructive if a sample is extracted from the wood for analysis. This can limit the applicability of the technique to those artefacts where this is permitted. However, it is possible to lift the pattern of rings using modelling clay, avoiding the need for destructive testing (Baillie 1995:18), but presumably potentially leaving a residue.


These considerations, coupled with the biodegradability of the material itself, limit the opportunities for this technique to be applied. Therefore the main weakness of this technique is its limited applicability (Baillie 1995:13).


The main strength of dendrochronology is its ability to produce absolute dates, sometimes even to the exact season that the wood was felled (Baillie 1995:17) if the final ring is present, providing amazing precision. The problem with this is that there is an expectation that if a wood sample is present, then it can produce these absolute dates, but as discussed above, there is a specific set of circumstances that constrain this, and often the sample is undateable. Samples that are missing the sapwood can still produce dates, but as there is a need to estimate the number of sapwood rings that should be present, the accuracy of the technique is diminished as certainty is replaced by estimation (Baillie 1995:23).


Whilst the potential for achieving precision is high for a ring-complete sample, the accuracy of the technique is dependent firstly on a correct match being determined, and secondly that the chronology it is being matched to is itself accurate. The correct match can be assisted with statistical software that can calculate the co-efficient of correlation for a given matching pattern (Baillie 1995:17) and therefore provide a quantitative assessment of how good the match is, although Baillie went on to argue that this computer-based matching is best thought of as guidance for the experienced dendrochronologist and not the authoritative definition of a match. Nevertheless, a high degree of certainty that the sample is a match for that section of the master chronology can be obtained by insisting on high degrees of correlation and multiple matching points for a given sample.



Figure 3: Completely Integrated Correlations between Independent Chronologies. The Long Sections of English Chronology from Croston Moss, Lancashire Match at Exactly the same Date Against both the Irish and German Master Chronologies. With Highly Significant Correlations. Source: Baillie 1995 Figure 1.3


The accuracy of the master chronologies themselves, for it is these that ultimately returns the value for the calendar date, is the determining factor that will return an accurate date or not. Dendrochronologists use a series of crosslinks between chronologies (as shown in Figure 3 above) to provide reinforcement of the certainty that the chronology is correct.

Interpretative Outcomes

Dendrochronology can allow the pinpointing in time of the felling of a single tree and the identification of the use of the wood of that tree across a given site. Dendrochronology can also give an insight into climatic conditions during the lifetime of the tree, as evidenced by dimensions and distinctness of the growth rings. This has allowed Dendrochronologists to provide evidence for the timing of such events as the eruption in prehistory of the Santorini volcano (Baillie & Munro 1988).


Dendrochronological dating shares with Radiocarbon dating some of the interpretative issues when the dates are used to provide a chronology or a narrative of a given event. The dates are for the end of the life of the tree, not of the artefact or context that is being interpreted. It has been shown, for example that some of the timbers in the Sweet Track were up to 400 years old when used (Baillie 1995: Chapter 4). This question of residuality must be considered when constructing site chronologies, as the difference between seasoned and green timbers may make a considerable difference if one is looking to determine sub-decade-level chronologies.


Baillie also explained that the problem identified with only partial sets of rings can be compounded when the planks of wood are riven and end up in the same structure, as different parts will essentially contain different snapshots of the tree’s life, representing different sections of time.


Figure 4: Where Tangential Splitting of Riven Oak has been Employed to Produce Building Timbers, the Danger is that Different Elements Within a Structure will be of Intrinsically Different Dates. This is a Particular Danger if the Structure is to be Dated by Radiocarbon. Source: Baillie 1995 Figure 4.5


A major strength of both of these techniques is the ability to give a chronological hook on which to hang an interpretation, and the large window of time that the techniques are applicable across (see Figure 5).


Figure 5: The effective dating ranges of the different techniques discussed in this book. Source: Walker 2005 Fig 1.6

Whilst Dendrochronology promises, and can deliver, precision and accuracy, the technique is weakened by the limited applicability. Radiocarbon has a much wider suitability (and potential for misuse) but the inherent uncertainties of both the process and the determinations mean that accuracy and precision are lacking. However, if one subscribes to the worldview that the course of events seldom alters as the result of a single event, and that a ‘smearing’ of time is not necessarily a hindrance to interpretation, then Radiocarbon offers the greater potential to answer the questions of chronology when considered at the century rather than season scale. However, the sheer number of caveats and adjustments that are required to be applied to the Radiocarbon determinations should be ever-present in the mind whilst using the resulting dates. Essentially, both techniques have their merits, and when used judiciously, and preferably in combinations, useful outcomes may be achieved. (2844 words including headings.)


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2 Comments, Written on January 13th, 2014 , Essays

Figure 1: Herefordshire Beacon, a Hillfort in the Malvern Hills, Sept 2012. Source: Author.

The interpretation of hillforts, has, for the most part, been hampered by the lack of sustained and wide-ranging excavation (Hamilton & Manley 2001 :34). The number of sites that have been subjected to modern, systematic excavation is very small; Niall Sharples’ recent re-excavation of Maiden Castle, Dorset (Sharples 1991); and Barry Cunliffe’s long-running excavations at Danebury  in Hampshire being among the most well-known and discussed examples. Cunliffe’s work at Danebury is the baseline for most other modern accounts (Hill 1995 :52), and informs his ‘Iron Age Communities in Britain’ (Cunliffe 2005). This disparity between the wealth of data from well-studied hillforts and the paucity of that from other sites leads to problems making comparisons to other sites where little information is available (Payne 2006 :9).


Another problem in the study and interpretation of hillforts is the lack of consensus about where the taxonomic distinction is to be made as regards the distinguishing of a hillfort from an enclosed hilltop settlement. Avery attempts to exclude from the definition any site where there is demonstrably inadequate defensive capabilities: adhering to the ‘fort’ aspect of the word (Avery 1976 :4). However, it shall be shown that the supposed defensive aspect of hillforts is being questioned (Bowden & McOmish 1997 cited in Sharples 1991:259), making a distinction on this basis problematic. The question of ‘what is a hillfort’ is one that will be returned to, as it will be shown that accounts vary, both on a regional basis, and with different interpretations of the same site.


Hillforts are not an evenly-distributed phenomenon, as Figure 2 shows for southern Britain, but sufficiently numerous that only a small sample of those studied can be discussed here. Preference has been given to more recent material, as earlier texts are based on a culture-historical theoretical framework that has been largely discredited (Hamilton & Manley 2001 :8). However, the theoretical framework upon which the various interpretations have been founded, is of importance in understanding how the various interpretations of hillforts came to be made (Lang 2009 :15), so although few sites will be considered here, the range of interpretations offers opportunity for evaluating the metanarratives that inform these interpretations.


Figure 2: Distribution of hillforts in southern Britain (source: Ordnance Survey, Map of Southern Britain in the Iron Age from Cunliffe 2005 Fig 15.1)

Wessex Hillforts

Danebury was excavated by Sir Barry Cunliffe and his team, with the intention of investigating not only the hillfort itself, but the surrounding ‘territory’ (Cunliffe 1983 :21). The findings of this project led to one of the first syntheses of Iron Age society (Clay 2001:1).


Based on evidence for large amounts of grain storage, and evidence for metalworking and imported pots, Cunliffe interpreted Danebury as being evidence for a hierarchical society, with hillforts embodying the idea of a societal élite controlling and demanding labour of those of subordinate settlements (Cunliffe 2005 :347). It was argued that Danebury represented a ‘redistribution’ centre and that this was managed by a ‘chieftain’, an interpretation that is no longer considered consistent with the evidence (Bradley 2005 :15). Little difference has been found between assemblages at Danebury and those found on contemporary non-hillfort settlement, and therefore more work is needed to establish any differences (Hill 1996 :97-101).


Sharples formed a different view of hillforts in Wessex, based on his recent excavations at Maiden Castle in Dorset (Sharples 1991); one that focussed more on the community, rather than the individual power Cunliffe concentrated in the idea of a chieftain. He argued that hillforts represented individual communities competing with their neighbours for resources, based on the idea that the early hillforts tended to be on ecotones with access to a mix of different resources. Over time, Maiden Castle out-competed the neighbouring hillforts, and the occupants of these shifted to unenclosed settlement (Sharples 1991 :264).


The construction of the banks and ditches is explained by display of the status of the group, and the elaboration and maintenance of them as a focus for the community, perhaps binding people into a cycle of dependency on the grain that the community collected (Sharples 1991:260).


Figure 3: The elaborate western entrance of Maiden Castle. April 2010. Source:Author.

South-east Britain

In the process of assessing the applicability of existing models to the hillforts in the south-east of Britain, Hamilton and Manley visited each site to gain a more experiential knowledge of the site in its landscape, arguing that landscape and topography are immediately assessable, whereas detailed excavation is not achievable (Hamilton & Manley 2001 :34). They found that the early hillforts were about looking at, and physical access to, varied landscapes. Non-hillfort settlement seemed to be plentiful but generally where hillforts are not found: the hillforts are ‘locally peripheral’. Later, non-hillfort settlement declines and hillforts are constructed in different landscape positions and become more of a symbolic centre, uniting communities by the creation of a monumental representation of society (Hamilton & Manley 2001 :31). In agreement with Sharples (1991 :260), they then see Late Iron Age hillfort use as being about the rise of hierarchical structures: communities fragmenting into smaller, individualist groups, perhaps as a result of exploiting of local resources and specialised industries dependent on them (Hamilton & Manley 2001 :31).


In Wales, hillforts are most commonly found near good farmland near river valleys of the Marches, and near the coasts (Savory 1976 :237).
Savory had attempted to relate the named Iron Age tribes of Silures, Demetae, Ordovices and Deceangli/Cornovii to differences in the Late Bronze Age material culture but came to the conclusion that the variations could best be explained by networks of contacts, which varied as to whether the hillfort faced the coast, or was inland (Savory 1976 :241). This clustering of hillforts along the Welsh border has led to hillforts being considered typical of the region, despite the recent discovery that more low-lying settlement evidence has been reduced to cropmarks by later land use, demonstrating that the hillforts were surrounded by smaller settlements (Barker 2009 : 4).

Hillforts in the Marches often pre-date the Iron Age, with the Breiddin showing evidence for an open or possibly palisaded settlement before the first Iron Age ramparts were constructed at 800BC, which was a timber-framed box rampart similar to those found at Ivinghoe Beacon (Musson et al. 1991 :175-6). Lack of extensive excavation limits what can be stated with any certainty, but Musson et al. are reasonable certain that, like Danebury, the Breiddin supported a large population and shared many of the same features (Musson et al. 1991: 184).


Based on work in the Welsh Marches, Wigley (2002 :198) considered that hillforts represented the bringing together of Late Bronze Age social practices such as the consumption and deposition associated with burnt mounds, and those to do with building linears.  He argued that just as the building of linears in various parts of the country in the Late Bronze Age, changed how people moved across the landscape, hillforts appeared not as a response to a crisis, but as an internal development to resolve conflict within society by modifying how people lived their lives.


Towards the Welsh coast, in North Ceredigion, Toby Driver demonstrated that the hillforts there can be shown to be about visual impact: the more visible parts of the structures are better built and sometimes include features specifically to enhance their appearance in the landscape, such as quartz (Driver 2007 :87). He gave the example of Caer Lletty Llwyd where the showy façade faces towards a pass connecting it to the hillfort at Pen Dinas. The other sides of Caer Lletty Llwyd are not elaborated and their visual impact seems to be of less importance (Driver 2007 :89). This deliberate attempt at monumentalisation demonstrates that hillforts are not just ‘hill-shaped’: the effort required to create the desired effect was often more than was simply required to enclose a space (Brown 2009 :35).

Northern Britain

Harding (2004 :289) suggests that hillforts in northern Britain are not so numerous as in the south and may have been centres of occasional communal activity rather than the dense occupation that is found at sites in the south. In the Cheviot hills, a project to survey the hillforts there has resulted in the view that the idea of hillforts as defensive sites required closer examination and that the models developed in Wessex had little relevance to the evidence from these northern sites. What was found was that hillforts occurred in groups that appeared to have a relationship to each other, defined by the need to present a façade to the other sites (Frodsham et al. 2007). This relationship, however was suggested to be one of independent, equal communities: self-sufficient but interested in the surrounding communities (Frodsham et al. 2007 :261).


Interpretations of Iron Age Society

From his work at Danebury, Cunliffe constructed a model of Iron Age society, seemingly based on documentary sources of ‘Celtic’ peoples, both from Classical and early Medieval Irish literature, an approach roundly criticised by Hill (1996:95) but supported by Karl owing to the potential for continuity of ideas (Karl 2008:70). Cunliffe envisioned a hierarchical society, with power and status concentrated in an elite, but demonstrated and persisted by control of agricultural production and also raiding and warfare (Cunliffe 1983 :85). Finney (2005: 242) argues, however, that raiding is not necessarily indicative of an elite as societies with no permanent leader engage in raiding behaviour to obtain marriage partners, esteem, and material goods. Whilst the contemporary reports of writers such as Julius Caesar may shed light on the final days of the Iron Age, the fact that the early hillforts were constructed nearly a millennium before this point necessarily calls into question the applicability of such ideas to the Early and Middle Iron Age, and therefore distances them from the Middle Iron Age, when hillforts like Danebury see most activity. This is especially true if it is considered that the factors that bring hillforts into being initially may have only affected a few generations (Frodsham et al. 2007 :258), and the idea that a ‘big man’ needs an impressive residence (Hill 1996 :95) is inappropriate if the ‘big man’ only appears towards the very end of the Iron Age.


It is worth noting that the Danebury project was initiated against a background of the ‘New Archaeology’ (Lock 2007:342), with its emphasis on models and an economic (J Collis 2010) understanding of past societies (Hamilton & Manley 2001 :8). This approach, based on the idea of ‘central place theory’ and the analysis of settlement positioning by means of Thiesson polygons, has been attacked vociferously by other Iron Age scholars (e.g. Hill 1996) on the grounds that the evidence put forward does not support this argument (Hill 1995 :58). Later fieldwork in the Danebury area has shown that the satellite sites that Danebury was ostensibly the ‘central place’ to, were abandoned at the time interpreted as Danebury’s ‘peak’ of use (Frodsham et al. 2007 :257).


The idea of the exchange network at the heart of the ‘central place’ model is based on the idea of pottery and other goods being thought of as commodities: to be exchanged with only consideration of the material value of the goods and ignoring any social or religious connotations (Sharples 2010 :106). Moore (2007 :93) preferred to see this exchange as the more culturally-laden exchange of gifts and obligations that created and maintained relationships. Sharples (2010 :94) argued that gift-giving rather than commodity exchange is a marker of a society based on ideas of clan rather than class; a society where one cannot own land or resources as an individual, thereby ensuring that material wealth and power do not concentrate in an individual.


Another criticism of Cunliffe’s (2005) model of Iron Age society is to do with the boundedness of his views of the Iron Age. Bradley commented that the Iron Age was treated as a self-contained unit, with scant regard for the Bronze Age that preceded it, and ending abruptly with the arrival of the legions (Bradley 2007 :226). The origins of hillforts and the changes in society that they are assumed to represent must be searched for in the Bronze Age. The apparent collapse of the long-distance exchange networks that figure prominently in discussions of the Bronze Age and the deposition of large amounts of increasingly-poor bronzes are held to represent the end of a particular form of society. This depositional practice has been suggested to represent either an elite trying to hold onto power and enhancing the scarcity of a prestige material, or, could represent the rejection of the old ways by a more egalitarian society and be a form of ritual closure (Jackson 1999 :214).


The decline of use of hillforts at around the 100BC mark, is interpreted as a change in society, perhaps an increase in trade links with the Mediterranean, which caused instability to what have been interpreted towards the end of the Iron Age as being specialist centres of production (Creighton 2009:7).


The different interpretations, of what constitutes a ‘hillfort’ and the design and purpose of such sites, means at the very least that an interpretation of society based on the excavations of Wessex ‘developed’ hillforts is not appropriate to apply to such sites in other parts of the country (Harding 2004 :31). There may not be such a thing as a ‘typical hillfort’ and therefore generalisation from a regional to a national view is problematic; even at the site level, each hillfort appears to have its own history (Cunliffe 2006 :154).


A model of a single monolithic ‘Celtic’ society, as per Cunliffe’s interpretation, is unlikely to be appropriate (Collis 2012 :229). Also increasingly clear, is that an interpretation of Iron Age societies in Britain must consider settlement beyond hillforts (Driver 2007:84). Not all of Britain constructed hillforts (Hill 1995 :68), and settlement, even in areas that do have hillforts, was predominantly in the form of farmsteads. Hillforts served a purpose for the societies that constructed them but was not everyday domestic life for most of the population. Lock (2013) suggested that hillforts served as an idealised world: a defence against threats to belief systems, where the beliefs of a community could be reinforced and made material in the construction and maintenance of boundaries. They were not primarily for domestic life, but represented the public life of the community (Lock 2013).



Interpretation of hillforts and their place within Iron Age society has depended heavily on trends in theoretical frameworks. Invasionist interpretations have given way to economic theories, which in turn have given way to a much more multi-faceted post-processual approach, drawing on ideas of agency, understandings of landscape and of anthropological work on inter- and intra-societal relationship-forming. Hillforts have altered in interpretation from being primarily defensive structures to being also vehicles for display and prestige; to representing communal, not elite, activity; from being ‘towns’ to being mostly seasonally occupied for the most part. Most importantly, the interpretation of hillforts has changed from being as a single, predictable class of monument, to an understanding that each site must be engaged with both at an individual level, and with coeval sites in its vicinity before it can be properly understood.


From the regional accounts, it is possible to derive some general themes of interpretation: previous consideration of ramparts as serving a purely functional purpose have been nuanced with considerations of display, of the meaning of boundaries and of the effort involved in construction and maintenance, and what this may mean about the societies that performed this work.


Reconstructing a single ‘Iron Age Society’ has been suggested to be an inappropriate goal, and instead a more regional approach, at the scale that would be appropriate to its time, should be the interpretative goal. This reconstruction would require consideration of the other forms of settlement in the Iron Age, not just hillforts, which, although they have historically loomed large in interpretations of the Iron Age, give only a partial view of a population largely living in other kinds of settlement. Wordcount 2775


Avery, M., 1976. Hillforts of the British Isles: A Student’s Introduction. In D. W. Harding, ed. Hillforts: Later Prehistoric Earthworks in Britain and Ireland. Academic Press, pp. 1–58.

Barker, L., 2009. Gaer Fawr hillfort: an analysis of the earthworks, Available at: [Accessed April 13, 2013].

Bowden, M. & McOmish, D., 1997. The required barrier. Scottish Archaeological Review, 4(2), pp.76–84.

Bradley, R., 2005. Ritual and Domestic Life in Prehistoric Europe New editio., Routledge.

Bradley, R., 2007. The Prehistory of Britain and Ireland 1st ed., Cambridge University Press.

Brown, I., 2009. Beacons in the Landscape: The Hillforts of England and Wales, Oxford: Windgather Press.

Clay, P., 2001. Leicestershire and Rutland in the First Millennium BC. Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and History Society, 75, pp.1–19. Available at: [Accessed April 18, 2013].

Collis, J, 2010. Why do we still dig Iron Age ramparts? In S. Fichtl, ed. Murus celticus: architecture et fonctions des remaprts à l’âge du fer: table ronde internationale organisée par l’Unité mixte de recherche 7044 de Strasbourg, l’Unité mixte de recherche 6173 CITERES de Tours et Bibracte, Centre archéologique europ. Collection Bibracte — 19, pp. 27–35. Available at: Celticus Bibracte19.pdf [Accessed April 1, 2013].

Collis, John, 2012. “Reconstructing Iron Age Society” Revisited. In T. Moore & X.-L. Armada, eds. Atlantic Europe in the First Millennium BC: Crossing the Divide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 223–241.

Creighton, J., 2009. Coins and Power in Late Iron Age Britain, Cambridge University Press.

Cunliffe, B., 1983. Danebury. Anatomy of an Iron Age Hillfort, London: Batsford Ltd.

Cunliffe, B., 2005. Iron Age Communities in Britain: An account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC until the Roman Conquest 4th Editio., Abingdon: Routledge.

Cunliffe, B., 2006. Understanding hillforts : have we progressed ? In A. Payne, M. Corney, & B. Cunliffe, eds. The Wessex Hillforts Project: extensive survey of hillfort interiors in central southern England. London: English Heritage, pp. 151–162.

Driver, T., 2007. Hillforts and human movement: unlocking the Iron Age landscapes of mid Wales. In A. Fleming & R. Hingley, eds. Prehistoric and Roman Landscapes. Windgather Press.

Finney, J.B., 2005. Middle Iron Age Warfare of the Hillfort Dominated Zone. Unpublised PhD Thesis. Bournemouth University.

Frodsham, P., Hedley, I. & Young, R., 2007. Putting the neighbours in their place? Displays of position and possession in northern Cheviot “hillfort” design. In C. Haselgrove, T. Moore, & E. Moore, eds. The Later Iron Age in Britain and Beyond. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Hamilton, S. & Manley, J., 2001. Hillforts, Monumentality and Place: A Chronological and Topographic Review of First Millennium BC Hillforts of South-East England. European Journal of Archaeology, 4(1), pp.7–42. Available at: [Accessed February 13, 2011].

Harding, D.W., 2004. The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, Natives and Invaders, London: Routledge.

Hill, J.D., 1996. Hill-forts and the Iron Age of Wessex. In T. C. Champion & J. R. Collis, eds. The Iron Age in Britain and Ireland: Recent Trends. J. R. Collis Publications, pp. 95–116.

Hill, J.D., 1995. The Pre-Roman Iron Age in Britain and Ireland (ca. 800 B.C. to A.D. 100): An overview. Journal of World Prehistory, 9(1), pp.47–98. Available at: [Accessed February 23, 2012].

Jackson, D., 1999. Settlement and society in the Welsh Marches during the first millennium BC. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Durham.

Karl, R., 2008. Random Coincidences Or : the return of the Celtic to Iron Age Britain. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 74, pp.69–78.

Lang, A.T.O., 2009. The Iron Age archaeology of the upper Thames and north Oxfordshire region, with especial reference to the eastern Cotswolds. University of Oxford. Available at:

Lock, G., 2013. Hillforts, Emotional Metaphors, and the Good Life: a Response to Armit. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 77(March), pp.355–362. Available at: [Accessed March 14, 2013].

Lock, G., 2007. Wessex hillforts after Danebury: exploring boundaries. In C. Gosden, ed. Communities and connections: essays in honour of Barry Cunliffe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moore, T., 2007. Perceiving Communities: Exchange, Landscapes and Social Networks in the Later Iron Age of Western Britain. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 26(1), pp.79–102. Available at:

Musson, C.R., Britnell, W.J. & Smith, A.G., 1991. The Breiddin Hillfort: A later prehistoric settlement in the Welsh Marches, CBA Research Report No 76. Available at: [Accessed March 25, 2013].

Payne, A., 2006. Hillfort studies and the Wessex Project. In A. Payne, M. Corney, & B. Cunliffe, eds. The Wessex Hillforts Project: extensive survey of hillfort interiors in central southern England. London: English Heritage, pp. 1–38.

Savory, H.N., 1976. Welsh Hillforts: A Reappraisal of Recent Research. In D. W. Harding, ed. Hillforts: Later Prehistoric Earthworks in Britain and Ireland. London: Academic Press, pp. 237–293.

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Leave A Comment, Written on April 21st, 2013 , Essays

Visit date: 14th April 2013

Weather: Cold and rainy. Visibility poor, ground very wet underfoot.


The field trip began by considering the type of landscape we could see, and the various features visible on the hills around. These hills are formed of granite intrusions through older sedimentary rocks and provides a good source of building material over most of the uplands of Dartmoor (Newman 2011: 3).


Figure 1: The landscape of Dartmoor, with evidence for the mining history of the area visible on the hills.

Figure 1: The landscape of Dartmoor, with evidence for the mining history of the area visible on the hills.


The first stop was to climb the hill up to Grimspound, and then on to Round Pound at Kestor. A planned visit to a nearby stone row was cancelled owing to the onset of heavy rain, and the need to push the cars out of a boggy carpark!

Dartmoor has been considered inhospitable, inaccessible and undesirable to visit for most of the historic period, and as a result, the archaeological remains visible are in a remarkable state of preservation. There has been a lack of intensive farming but also a continuity of agricultural practice that has meant that later land uses have not tended to destroy evidence for previous use. A notable exception is the robbing of stone to create new boundaries and buildings (Newman 2011:11).


Grid Reference:  SX 7006 8088

Figure 2: 3D terrain model of the area around Grimspound. Source:

Figure 2: 3D terrain model of the area around Grimspound. Source:

Site Overview


Figure 3: Grimspound, Dartmoor, Devon. Middle Bronze Age enclosure and hut enclosures. Source (McOmish 2011: Fig.1)

Figure 3: Grimspound, Dartmoor, Devon. Middle Bronze Age enclosure and hut enclosures. Source (McOmish 2011: Fig.1)

Grimspound is a 1.54ha stone enclosure, constructed from the local granite of Dartmoor and enclosing the remains of 24 hut circles and features interpreted as pens in the side of the enclosure (Devon HER MDV8778) shown in Figure 4. It is situated, as shown in the 3D terrain model in Figure 2, in a valley between two prominent hills: Hookney Tor and Hameldon Tor, which although Grimspound is at a height of about 460m (NMR SX 78 SW 11), considerably overlook the site, with the entrance to the enclosure facing upslope towards Hameldon Tor.

Although there are three gaps in the enclosure wall (as shown in Figure 4 below), those labelled ‘eastern breach’ and ‘western breach’ appear to be as a result of a later trackway passing through the site. Only the ‘SE entrance’ appears to be original, although there is a suspicion that this may have been ‘enhanced’ as a result of the Dartmoor Exploration Committee’s efforts (Newman 2011:67).


Figure 4: Earthwork plan of Grimspound, an enclosed hut settlement. EH 1:500 survey. Source: (Newman 2011: Fig.3.7)

Figure 4: Earthwork plan of Grimspound, an enclosed hut settlement. EH 1:500 survey. Source: (Newman 2011: Fig.3.7)

The huts are not evenly distributed within the enclosure, as can be seen in Figure 5, and to the north, a winterbourne, the Grim’s Lake (Fox 1957 :158), flows through the enclosure as shown in Figure 5 below.


Figure 5: Grimspound, Manaton. Source: Fox 1957 Fig.10

Figure 5: Grimspound, Manaton. Source: Fox 1957 Fig.10


Investigation History

Investigation type Investigation Details
1829 Survey Accurate survey by A. C. Shillibeer of Grimspound, showing the entire enclosure (McOmish 2011 :2; Devon HER MDV8778).
1894-1895 Excavation Grimspound was excavated and described by the Dartmoor Exploration Committee. They reckoned that Grimspound was in good condition for assessing owing to there not being any new walls nearby that would have robbed it of stone (Baring Gould et al. 1894:101). Owing to this assumption that all the stone remained onsite and in close proximity to its original position, the DEC experimented with reconstructing the huts to establish the original height of the walls, and therefore hazard a guess at the construction of the rest of the hut. They established that with the stone available, the walls would have reached no further than the current height of the door frames, and that the upper part of the hut was probably therefore constructed of turf or rushes on poles (Baring Gould et al. 1894:108).Finds from the excavations include oak and ash charcoal, flints (not native to the area), but no pottery or metal items (Devon HER MDV8778). Inside the huts was found a ‘dais’ arrangement adjacent to the wall, interpreted as sleeping and sitting facilities, hearths and ‘cooking holes’ in the floor of the hut. Also noted were the L-shaped porch arrangements provided to many of the huts, affording protection against the weather.

Chronology and Current Interpretation


Figure 6: A hut circle at Grimspound, April 2013. Copyright author.

Figure 6: A hut circle at Grimspound, April 2013. Copyright author.


A personal comment by Grinsell in 1977, recorded on the Devon HER for Grimspound suggests that of the 24 circular huts, only 16 of these were dwellings (based on the presence of hearths) and the rest were storage huts (without hearths) (Devon HER MDV8778). Grimspound is interpreted as being to do with Bronze Age settlement and farming, and similar enclosures are often tied into the Reave system that partitions Dartmoor (Davies 2010 :62). Davies also suggests that the positioning of these enclosures in the landscape is not intentionally defensive, in contrast with the Tors that are also found on the granite uplands.

It might be that the enclosure and the hut circles were not constructed at the same time, as excavations at Shaugh Moor showed that the huts predated the enclosure by about 100 years (Newman 2011 :67). The houses are small, only 2.4-3.5m in diameter, leading to the suggestion that they were not intended for permanent occupation and that Grimspound represents a seasonal site for livestock farmers, or possibly associated also with tin workings nearby (Devon HER MDV8778).

Round Pound, Kestor

Grid Reference:  SX 66388685

Site Overview

The area around Round Pound is visually dominated by the granite outcrop of Kestor. The archaeological remains consist of a series of what Curwen (1927 :283) described as ‘the most elaborate and finished set of such rectangular fields’, and several hut circles, of which we visited that within Round Pound. Round Pound is an enclosure of 0.07ha on a north-west-facing slope on Chagford Common. Within this enclosure is a large hut with walls, like the pound itself, up to 2 metres thick (NMR SX 68 NE 14).



Figure 7: Aerial view of the large hut circle at Kestor, excavated by Fox in the 1950s. (NMR 24093/011). Source Newman 2011 Fig.4.2

Figure 7: Aerial view of the large hut circle at Kestor, excavated by Fox in the 1950s. (NMR 24093/011). Source Newman 2011 Fig.4.2

Figure 8: Plan of huts and field system at Kestor, Chagford, Devon. The earlier fields are stippled. Based on E. C. Curwen and R Gurd. Source: Fox 1954 Fig.4

Figure 8: Plan of huts and field system at Kestor, Chagford, Devon. The earlier fields are stippled. Based on E. C. Curwen and R Gurd. Source: Fox 1954 Fig.4

Investigation History

Year Investigation type Investigation Details
1951-2 Excavation Aileen Fox excavated some of the hut circles at Kestor, including Round Pound. She found Iron Age pottery, and evidence for Iron smelting inside the hut itself. This led to the assumption that the site was Iron Age, and that the associated field system was analogous to the ‘Celtic Fields’ known elsewhere in the country (Newman 2011:85).

The huts in the settlement were so large that posts would have been required to hold up a roof of that size, and postholes were indeed found and a suggested reconstruction is shown in Figure 9.


Figure 9: A suggested reconstruction of one of the huts of the settlement. Source Fox 1954: Fig.5

Figure 9: A suggested reconstruction of one of the huts of the settlement. Source Fox 1954: Fig.5

Chronology and Current Interpretation

The settlement of Kestor probably dates from the fourth or fifth century BC (Cunliffe 2005 :277). It consists of twenty-seven stone roundhouses amongst a field system bounded with granite stone walls (Henderson 2007 :219).

The fields around it had been reclaimed from the blanket peat that had already begun to form by this date and it seems likely that the uplands of Dartmoor had already been abandoned by the time the settlement at Kestor was in use, owing to a deterioration of the climate during the Later Bronze Age (Fox 1957 :129).

Newman (2011:85) argues though, that more recent interpretations of Kestor place its origins, along with the Reaves, in the Bronze Age but with later occupation in the Later Bronze Age and possibly into the Iron Age.

Fox’s interpretation of the large hut in Round Pound is shown below in Figure 11, and this shows the metalworking to be occurring while the hut was in occupation. However, the evidence for iron smelting is considered to be unrelated to the occupation partly due to the lack of dating evidence, but also because the practicalities of ironworking in an enclosed space like a hut would be problematical and that it was more likely to have occurred in a derelict shell of a building rather than the main occupation phase (Newman 2011:85).


Figure 10: Diagram plan of the metalworker’s hut in Round Pound, Kestor. Source: Fox 1954:Fig.6

Figure 10: Diagram plan of the metalworker’s hut in Round Pound, Kestor. Source: Fox 1954:Fig.6

The radial walls that are apparent within the pound (shown in Figure 11) mostly likely result from a later, medieval, use of the enclosure for containing stock (NMR SX 68 NE 14)


Figure 11: The Round Pound at Kestor, Devon (after Fox 1955). Source: Henderson 2007: Fig.6.10

Figure 11: The Round Pound at Kestor, Devon (after Fox 1955). Source: Henderson 2007: Fig.6.10


Baring Gould, S. et al., 1894. The Exploration of Grimspound: First report of the Dartmoor Exploration Committee. Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science , Literature and Art, 26, pp.101–121.

Cunliffe, B., 2005. Iron Age Communities in Britain: An account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC until the Roman Conquest 4th Editio., Abingdon: Routledge.

Curwen, E., 1927. Prehistoric agriculture in Britain. Antiquity, 1(3), pp.261–289. Available at: [Accessed May 18, 2013].

Davies, S.R., 2010. The Early Neolithic Tor Enclosures of Southwest Britain. Unpub’d PhD Thesis. University of Birmingham.

Fox, A., 1954. Celtic fields and farms on Dartmoor, in the light of recent excavations at Kestor. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 20, pp.87–102.

Fox, A., 1957. The Prehistoric Monuments of Dartmoor. The Archaeological Journal, 114, pp.152–159.

Henderson, J.C., 2007. The Atlantic Iron Age: Settlement and Identity in the First Millennium BC Reprint ed., Routledge.

McOmish, D., 2011. Introductions to Heritage Assets: Enclosed Prehistoric Settlements, Swindon: English Heritage.

Newman, P., 2011. The Field Archaeology of Dartmoor, Swindon: English Heritage.


Leave A Comment, Written on April 14th, 2013 , Diploma Year One Tags: ,

Visit date: 10th March 2013

Weather: Clear but very cold.


The field trip started at Salisbury Museum in the morning, where we were shown a variety of artefacts dating from the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, including the Bronze Age hoard found near Tisbury in Wiltshire.


Figure 1: Late Bronze Age barb-and-tang arrowhead in Salisbury Museum Archives, March 2013. Source: Author.

Figure 1: Late Bronze Age barb-and-tang arrowhead in Salisbury Museum Archives, March 2013. Source: Author.


Figure 2: Bronze Age axes of various types from the Wardour Hoard. Source: Author.

Figure 2: Bronze Age axes of various types from the Wardour Hoard. Source: Author.


Grid Reference:  SU 1508 4337

Site Overview

Woodhenge today presents as a series of concentric rings of concrete bollards, marking the previous positions of what have been interpreted as wooden posts of varying widths. The diameter of the henge is 85m, with a 6m wide ditch 2.4m deep. There is a narrow berm separating the bank and the ditch (NMR SU 14 SE 6).

(For an excellent Kite Aerial Photograph used in my original report, please visit )

Noted by Colt Hoare as a burial monument, the site of Woodhenge was first recognised as something unusual when it appeared on aerial photography (Figure 3) (NMR SU 14 SE 6).


Figure 3: Cropmark traces of ‘Woodhenge’ and associated sites, photographed by Squadron Leader Gilbert Insall, VC in the summer of 1926. NMR CCC 8751/7387 30-June-1926. © English Heritage (NMR) Crawford Collection.

Figure 3: Cropmark traces of ‘Woodhenge’ and associated sites, photographed by Squadron Leader Gilbert Insall, VC in the summer of 1926. NMR CCC 8751/7387 30-June-1926. © English Heritage (NMR) Crawford Collection.

Investigation History

Investigation type Investigation Details
19th Century Recorded Colt Hoare records the site as a large disc barrow, and it is known as such until 1925 (NMR SU 14 SE 6).
1926 Reclassification Aerial photography shows cropmark of Woodhenge (Figure 3)
1926-8 Excavation Maud and Ben Cunnington first excavated the southern half of this monument, uncovering what they interpreted to be six concentric rings of posts, with an encircling ditch described as being ‘unexpectedly large’ (Cunnington 1927 :93).Near the centre of the monument, the burial of a child was found, with another burial located beneath the bottom of the ditch, in a grave cut into it. The burial was dated by the presence of a Beaker, crushed into fragments (Cunnington 1929:42). The Cunningtons also established that the raised area in the centre of the mound was the original level of the ground, and that the ground surface had been removed from the rest of the monument (Cunnington 1927 :95), perhaps as part of the preparation of the area.
Cunnington also found that the timbers were later replaced with a stone setting, of which she found two stone-holes (Wilts SMR SU14SE101). Distinctive Grooved Ware pottery, similar to that found at Durrington Walls (see below) was found (Wainwright 1967 :169).
1970 Excavation Further excavations, by Geoff Wainright, providing dating evidence from material from the ditch, giving a determination of 1867 bc ±74 (BM-677) and 1805 bc ±54 (BM-678) (NMR SU 14 SE 6).
2004 Geophysical survey This located the northern terminals of the henge ditch, representing the entranceway of the monument (Wilts SMR SU14SE101).
2005-6 Excavation A re-excavation of Maud Cunnington’s work by the Stonehenge Riverside Project found a further three stone-holes, forming a ‘cove’ arrangement (Wilts SMR SU14SE101).
Figure 4: Plan of excavated features (after Cunnington 1929;Evans &Wainwright 1979). Source: Pollard 1995 Fig.2

Figure 4: Plan of excavated features (after Cunnington 1929;Evans &Wainwright 1979). Source: Pollard 1995 Fig.2


Chronology and Current Interpretation

Environmental evidence from Wainwright’s excavations in 1970 showed that before the monument was constructed, the area was long-established grassland (Wilts SMR SU14SE101). Nevertheless, under the bank was found a tree-throw pit, into which was deposited Carinated Bowl pottery, dating to the early Neolithic, about 4000-3800 BC (Wilts SMR SU14SE101).

As discovered by Cunnington, the timber circle was eventually replaced with a stone ‘cove’ arrangement, and later excavations showed that this had multiple phases: the first being an arc of small stones facing west, which was then replaced by two larger stones (Wilts SMR SU14SE101). Finds of Romano-British pottery above the ditch were interpreted by Cunnington to mean that the site was first cultivated in this period (Wilts SMR SU14SE319).

Pollard (1995) argues that the pattern of artefacts discovered at the various excavations is evidence for structured deposition at the monument, with deposits in the pre-monument pits and also deposits in the ditch occurring almost as soon as it had been constructed. The spatial arrangement of the deposits would also appear to be of significance (as shown in Figure 8) with different offerings in different sectors of the monument. Pollard suggests that the area that later was used for the monument already held significance and the monument was a formalisation of this.


Figure 5: Spatial organisation of deposition. Source: Pollard 1995:Fig.12

Figure 5: Spatial organisation of deposition. Source: Pollard 1995:Fig.12

The burials are interpreted as being a secondary usage of the monument, rather than its focus (Barrett 1994 :65). Instead there is a suggestion that the alignment of the entrance shares an axis with Stonehenge, but also aligns with a latterly-blocked entrance at nearby Durrington Walls, suggesting a relationship between the two monuments (Pearson et al. 2006 :234).

Durrington Walls

Grid Reference:  SU 1503 4373 (centre)

Site Overview

Durrington Walls is a large Class II henge (had two opposing entrances) by the side of the River Avon in the parish of Durrington, Wiltshire. It has been considerably damaged by plough action, and the buildup of soil from ploughing obscures some of what is left (Wainwright 1967).


Figure 6: Durrington Walls, plan of henge. Source: Wainwright 1967: Place XXVI

Investigation History

Year Investigation type Investigation Details
1812 Recorded Recorded by Colt Hoare (Wainwright 1967)
1918 Account published As a result of a drainage trench being cut through the monument, Mr Farrer published an account of what could be seen of the bank, demonstrating that it was mostly obscured by a lynchet. Pottery identified by Maud Cunnington as part of a Beaker was found on an old land surface below the bank, along with burnt bone, flint and charcoal (Wainwright 1967).
1966-1968 Excavation Work ahead of the construction of the A345 road unearthed two circular timber multiphase structures, with associated finds of grooved ware. These are known as the North and South Circles, with the South Circle having at least two phases (Figure 7). Dating evidence dates of 2050 ±90 to 180±148 bc (Wilts SMR SU14SE100)
2005-2006 Excavation The Stonehenge Riverside Project carried out excavations at Durrington Walls, and re-excavated the South Circle and areas within and without the bank of the henge. They discovered the Durrington Avenue, leading from the henge down to the River Avon, and also what have been interpreted as the remains of Neolithic houses, post-dated by pits containing Grooved Ware dated to 2500-2400BC (Mike Parker Pearson et al. 2006).
Figure 7: Phases 1 and 2 of Durrington Walls Southern Circle. (After Wainwright & Longworth). Source: Gibson 2005: Fig.48

Figure 7: Phases 1 and 2 of Durrington Walls Southern Circle. (After Wainwright & Longworth). Source: Gibson 2005: Fig.48

Chronology and Current Interpretation

The excavations in 2005 produced evidence of middens below the bank, interpreted as being evidence for gatherings and occupation at the site before the henge itself was constructed (Mike Parker Pearson et al. 2006). Structures interpreted as houses found beneath this midden layer were interpreted as being contemporary with each other and has been suggested as the possible settlement of the builders of Stonehenge (Pearson & Larsson 2007:140-2).


Figure 8: Radiocarbon dates for the timber circles at Durrington Walls. Source: Gibson 2005 fig.28

Figure 8: Radiocarbon dates for the timber circles at Durrington Walls. Source: Gibson 2005 fig.28

It is suggested by Parker Pearson et al. (2006) that Durrington walls was part of a landscape used to facilitate and commemorate passage from life to death: the living celebrate the recently-dead by feasting and by erecting a wooden post, perhaps for a kin group. The dead are given to the River Avon via the avenue that leads from Durrington Walls to the Avon, and make their spiritual transition down the River, to wend their way to the Stonehenge Avenue, and pass along this to the place of the eternal ancestors: Stonehenge. The idea of wooden structures as part of the world of the living, and stone being of permanence and ancestral dead is based in part on ethnographic work in Madagascar where this suggested structuralist duality was immediately recognisable to Ramilisonina  as being part of the understanding of the world there (Michael Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998b; Michael Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998a).

The solsticial alignments of both Stonehenge and Durrington walls, being opposite, is given as additional evidence for the two monuments being part of a coherent ‘system’, with the journey to Stonehenge via the Avenue being aligned on the Midwinter Sunset, and the passage from the timber circle of Durrington Walls via the associated Avenue faces the Midsummer Sunrise (Parker Pearson et al. 2006 :239). They argue further that the association between death and midwinter, sunsets and general lack of light/darkness suggests that this point is the ideal point of the year for rituals involving death (Parker Pearson et al. 2006 :243). Whether this purported association between darkness and death is applicable to the Neolithic is difficult to assess, but arguably lends consistency to the overall theory regarding the oppositions of life:death, sunrise:sunset, to:from water.


Barrett, J.C., 1994. Fragments from Antiquity: Archaeology of Social Life in Britain, 2900-1200 BC, Wiley-Blackwell.

Cunnington, M.E., 1927. Prehistoric Timber Circles. Antiquity, 1(1), pp.92–95. Available at: [Accessed January 22, 2011].

Cunnington, M.E., 1929. Woodhenge. A description of the Site as revealed by Excavation carried out there by Mr & Mrs B. H. Cunnington, 1926-7-8, Devizes: George Simpson & Co., Devizes, Ltd.

Gibson, A.M., 2005. Stonehenge and Timber Circles 2Rev Ed ed., The History Press LTD.

Parker Pearson, Michael et al., 2006. Materializing Stonehenge: The Stonehenge Riverside Project and New Discoveries. Journal of Material Culture, 11(1-2), pp.227–261. Available at: [Accessed December 27, 2010].

Parker Pearson, Michael & Ramilisonina, 1998a. Stonehenge for the ancestors: part two. Antiquity, 72(278), pp.855–856. Available at: [Accessed March 4, 2012].

Parker Pearson, Michael & Ramilisonina, 1998b. Stonehenge for the ancestors: the stones pass on the message. Antiquity, 72(276), pp.308–326. Available at: [Accessed November 5, 2010].

Parker Pearson, Mike et al., 2006. A New Avenue at Durrington Walls. PAST: the newsletter of the Prehistoric Society, 52, pp.1–2.

Pearson, M.P. & Larsson, M., 2007. The Stonehenge Riverside Project: excavations at the east entrance of Durrington Walls. In Matt Larsson & Mike Parker Pearson, eds. From Stonehenge to the Baltic : living with cultural diversity in the third millennium BC. Oxford: BAR international series. S1692, pp. 125–144.

Pollard, Joshua, 1995. Structured deposition at Woodhenge. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 61, pp.137–156.

Wainwright, G.J., 1967. The Excavation of the Henge Monument at Durrington Walls, Wiltshire, 1966. The Antiquaries Journal, 47(02), pp.167–184. Available at:


1 Comment, Written on March 10th, 2013 , Diploma Year One Tags: , ,

In the first couple of centuries of the 4th millennium BC, the first elements of what archaeologists call the Neolithic appeared in Britain (Last 2013 :277). The question of what it is to be Neolithic and how this might differ from the Mesolithic period are key to understanding what is often expressed as a process of Neolithisation, remembering that such essentialist (Whittle 2007 :389) labels are the means by which archaeologists attempt to dissect time and knowledge into more manageable pieces, rather than anything tangible or real (Edmonds 1999 :5).


Culture-historical archaeologists of the mid-twentieth century saw the Neolithic as a uniform ‘package’ of traits (Thomas 2007 :423) comprising the use of pottery, the domestication of plants and animals, and the manufacture of ground stone tools (Barker 2009 :23). These traits were perceived to be in stark contrast to the ostensibly mobile Mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle that preceded it (Cunliffe 2012 :133).


From here, it was possible to suggest that the acceptance and integration of this ‘package’ was a natural progression from ‘savage’ hunter-gatherer to a more recognisable, civilised, farming folk (Thomas 1999 :11). The New Archaeology of the 1960s and 1970s sought then for a single description of this process of ‘Neolithisation’ that would explain how such a lifestyle change occurred. An obvious criticism of this processual approach is that it requires to operate on a homogenous Mesolithic, and a homogenous Neolithic should be the output of the process (Armit & Finlayson 1992 :664). It shall be shown, however, that there is increasing evidence for a variety of ways of adopting Neolithic traits that makes it difficult to support such an idealised view of a single process.

Models of Neolithisation and their origins

The interpretation of Neolithisation varies with the current favoured theories within archaeology and encompasses shifting ideas about the Mesolithic, Neolithic and the factors that influence and cause changes. Case’s (1969) deliberations on the practicalities of the Early Neolithic communities and the inherent difficulties involved in the transfer of farming communities from one place to another attempted to offer an explanation for how the Neolithic might have arrived on these shores.


The ideas of Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza (1971) also continued this processual approach and they attempted to describe and explain the process and progress of Neolithisation across continental Europe, based on the idea that the Neolithic was entirely about agriculture. This used as its marker the grains of cereal that they claimed were not found naturally in Europe. However, the work was marred in that, by their own admission, were classified as Neolithic without the cereal grains being discovered (Ammerman & Cavalli-Sforza 1971 :675), and as their primary criterion was the cereal, this was inconsistent at best. Their work suggested a gradual, and steady, ‘Wave of advance’ expansion of either people, ideas, or both from the Levant, across Europe as shown in Figure 1. By this reckoning, the arrival of the Neolithic in Britain was almost inevitable as little consideration was given to the reasons that individual groups of people might have for adopting a Neolithic way of life.


Figure 1: Map showing the spread of early farming in Europe. Dates are in years B.P. Source: Ammerman & Cavalli-Sforza 1971 Fig 6.


Archaeologists interested in the introduction of the Neolithic in Britain have largely polarised into two camps: one side supporting colonisation, and the other in favour of a more nuanced acculturation mechanism. Robb and Miracle (2007) considered the result of this polarisation to be an unhelpful sequence of publications ‘talking past each other’ in the discussion of these opposing viewpoints.


Thomas (e.g 2008 :56), argued that Neolithic ideas must have been ‘available’ for an extended period of time and that rather than Britain suddenly embracing the Neolithic as the result of learning about domestication: there must have been a reason for suddenly accepting a way of life that had been known about, but not adopted, possibly for centuries. He suggested that the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition should more correctly be considered one of rapid cultural change and the adoption of a form of Neolithic that had become acceptable. Davies (2010: 214) considered this to be a product of the post-processual theories of the time and reflects concerns of culture, symbolism and interpretation. Instead, he advocated a ‘middle ground’ between the processual approach with its overt concern with subsistence and economy but also recognise that mobility and the recognition of special places in the landscape could play a non-economic part in the change to Neolithic ways. Sheridan particularly rejected the implication, in Thomas’ approach, that the Early Neolithic was therefore characterised by a mostly mobile lifestyle and minimal use of domesticates (Sheridan 2013 :283).


Alison Sheridan has been a vocal proponent of the colonisation viewpoint, with a revised recent model proposing a multi-stranded colonisation mechanism, a model supported by radiocarbon evidence (Collard et al. 2010: 869), whereby a series of immigrants to the UK and Ireland arrived from various points in northern France between 4300-3900 BC (Sheridan 2013 :286). Her points of arrival include the suggestion of domesticated animals in a Mesolithic context at Ferriter’s Cove at c4300 BC, although Whittle expressed doubt as to whether they were domestic or wild (Whittle 2007 :393). Her assumption here was that the animals were brought over by Neolithic immigrants and that there is no evidence for prior contact with the continent (Pailler & Sheridan 2009: 34) but this idea is rejected by Garrow and Sturt (2011: 68) as taking a too ‘black and white’ view on maritime connections. They argue that both Mesolithic and Neolithic peoples may have travelled extensively around the coastline, and any transfer of material culture was a result in both ‘sides’ negotiating the contacts. Mercer (1986: 41) considered that Mesolithic people were already adept at herding and managing semi-wild deer, so this would translate into the ability to handle domesticated animals and he suggested, in the context of Cornwall at least, that such ‘trade’ contacts were animals were transferred were entirely likely, even if logistically challenging.


This idea of the more subtle Neolithisation of contact and negotiation rather than intrusion and replacement can perhaps be used to explain the huge variations in the Neolithic ‘phenomenon’ itself. On the continent, it is traditional to consider the LinearBandKeramik (LBK) as the archetypal colonisation pattern: from its origins at around 5500 cal. BC it spread from the Rhine area (Whittle et al. 2011 :853), seemingly following the Loess or other fertile soils (Pyzel 2009 :71), until it had manifested across most of temperate Europe (Gronenborn 2007 :74). However, Thomas considers the LBK as an adaptation of the Neolithic: a form that was more suitable for temperate climates, and an indication that ‘Neolithic’ was a malleable concept that could be altered to suit local conditions (Thomas 2008 :61). This malleability may also be as a result of what Gronenborn (2007 :84) calls ‘multi-tradition communities’, based on the evidence from the analysis of stable isotopes that suggest the LBK was in fact a mixture of colonisers and indigenous people intermarrying, and the idea that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers may have been behaving in ways consistent with agri-pastoralism before contact with farming communities (Barker 2009 :390), meaning that new behaviours could be adjusted into existing lifeways, rather than be a culture shock.


Thomas (2004 :119) suggested that contact between the BandKeramik communities and the sedentary Mesolithic communities of the Dutch Swifterbant created a combined, relatively late, Neolithic, that addressed a need to create and maintain a social identity. Thomas posited that this fusion of ideas and cultures then created a form of the Neolithic that Britain could make use of to address specific needs. Britain seems to have adopted what Thomas (2008 :77) calls a bricolage of aspects of the Neolithic, from various sources in Europe. Some of the typical features of the LBK Neolithic, such as the longhouse, did not form part of this adapted Neolithic, although various ‘house-like’ structures have been found in Neolithic contexts in Britain, they are not identical, perhaps reflecting a different worldview (Last 2013 : 278), especially if the longhouse was representative of a shared cultural knowledge or history (Whittle 2003 :137). Thomas (1999 :9) suggested that as the longhouse tradition had ceased long before the Neolithic arrived in Britain, perhaps we ought not to expect to find houses of that form here.


Understanding ‘Neolithic’

Bound up in the discussion of how the Neolithic might have spread, is the evolving nature of what archaeologists understand by the term ‘Neolithic’. It has been shown how the earlier models of Neolithisation were intrinsically caught up with the idea that Neolithic means farming and Mesolithic means hunting and foraging. The other attributes associated with the ‘Neolithic Package’ became merely as manifestations of this shift in economic basis (Thomas 2007 :423) although Hodder (2012 :195) considers them to have become ‘entangled’ and interdependent. Discovery of a separation of these traits lead to a realisation that traits considered Neolithic manifested at different times in different places and therefore the view of Neolithisation as a developmental stage, with a focus on the importance of agriculture as a characteristic of technological progression is too simplistic (Thomas 2007 :423). Hunter-gathers in the Ertebølle culture in northern Europe demonstrated a complexity of society that had previously been considered only possible with an agricultural subsistence base (Rowley-Conwy 1983 :125).


The agricultural focus of archaeologists is also a regional phenomenon, with Eastern European archaeologists considering the transition to be based on use of ceramics, rather than food production (Zvelebil 1986 7). Zvelebil goes on to point out that even this has its problems and has resulted in a whole swathe of modifiers that denote variations in degrees of ‘being Neolithic’ such as protoneolithic, paraneolithic, subneolithic etc. Use of ceramics does seem to have been one of the earliest traits to arrive in Britain (Whittle 2007 :379), with Sheridan’s suggestion of a link between the Carinated Bowl Neolithic and the Michelsburg and Chassey cultures from Northern France (Sheridan 2007 :468). However, Whittle et. al. (2011) are sceptical about the find at the Magheraboy enclosure signalling the beginning of a Neolithic proper as there is a gap between that early 4th millennium date and the next date from the area, of about 100 years, so this might represent a small-scale colonisation event that petered out.


Consideration of the meaning of ‘Neolithic’ also offers a chance to consider why it was adopted at all and what it might have meant to people. Thomas, as we have seen, considers it an expression of identity (Thomas 2007 :429) and new ways of seeing themselves and the world and not just about food production (Thomas 1999 :12). Barnard (2007) contrasts starkly what he considers to be the ‘ways of thinking’ that accompany hunting and gathering activities with those of agri-pastoralists, pointing out that the viewpoints of each of these subsistence strategies can be considered in binary opposition. As this is taken from contemporary ethnography, and regards subsistence as the foundation of cultural behaviour, this is perhaps of limited use, other than to demonstrate a link between social behaviour and worldview. His argument, however, runs counter to Thomas’ idea of the cultural change being rapid, as he considers that ways of thinking are slower to change than just the means of the production and cites ethnographic examples of agri-pastoralists retaining their hunter-gatherer thoughtways (Barnard 2007 : 14).


The idea that agriculture is inherently more desirable as a strategy than hunting and gathering originates in notions of ‘the inherent perfectibility of human civilisation’ (Robb & Miracle 2007 :100). The ethnographic evidence, suggests, however, that it is with reluctance that hunter-gatherers transition to farming (Gardiner 2003 :103), and Barker (2009 :385) argued that the commitment to cereal cultivation in particular, was irrevocable in terms of compatibility with a mobile foraging lifestyle owing to the labour and time commitment it requires.


The ability to stockpile a surplus of food as ‘wealth’ has traditionally been considered a pre-requisite for the development of the monumental structures that started to appear in the Neolithic period (Stevens & Fuller 2012 :717) and consequently there is an on-going debate about the role of cereal and its prevalence in the Neolithic diet. On the continent, evidence for cereal is often found in the longhouses of the LBK, but as most sites excavated in Britain have an ostensibly ‘ritual’ rather than ‘domestic’ focus, the lack of cereal evidence from Britain can perhaps be explained by context rather than a dearth of cereal cultivation (Jones 2000 :81). This perceived lack of use of cereal has lead to the consideration of farming in Britain in the Early Neolithic being considered experimental, marginal, something kept apart for ritual, rather than for subsistence purposes, whereas it might be that the differential treatment of the chaff and grain is the reason for the paucity of preserved remains (Bogaard & Jones 2007 :357). It is suggested that the idea of non-subsistence agriculture may have more to do with the particular theories of archaeologists (Bogaard & Jones 2007 :370).



Given that during the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition there was a change in lifestyle that can be detected in the archaeological record, and that it wasn’t an obvious ‘better’ choice as far as diet and free time were concerned, then the idea of how and why such a change should come about is important to pursue. However, as it has been shown that a single ‘Neolithic’ endpoint cannot be satisfactorily identified, then it is reasonable to assert that there cannot be a single process that describes how hunting and gathering is abandoned in favour of mixed agriculture, nor how people in the past decided just how to assert and define their identities through adopting or rejecting certain cultural traits. The ideal of a single unified theory of Neolithisation is unhelpful.


People adopted a form of the Neolithic that served a purpose for them, and this purpose may have been peripherally related to a change in subsistence strategy, but archaeology has been unwontedly biased towards the forms of evidence that seem easiest to relate to and to obtain, such as how people fed themselves. However, the greater change may have been less archaeologically perceptible: how people saw themselves and their relationships to other people and the natural world.


Speculation about the timing and sequence of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition has been given more solid foundations as a result of the Bayesian statistical work of Whittle et. al., and stable isotope studies have illuminated the possibility of intermarriage between hunter-gatherer and farmer on the continent with the all the implications this has. We now realise that complex processes such as Neolithisation, although their results might become apparent over relatively short periods of time, are a long time in the building and cannot be reduced to simple cause:effect statements and binary oppositions such as colonisation:acculturation. It seems likely that the Neolithic reached Britain in a variety of forms, and through a blend of colonisation, acculturation and adaption. Whether the material traces visible in the archaeological record describe the entirety of the changes is doubtful, and detecting a society and its values through its subsistence base is questionable, so it could be argued that Neolithisation as a concept is only a partial truth, if at all. (wordcount 2761)


Ammerman, A.J. & Cavalli-Sforza, L.L., 1971. Measuring the Rate of Spread of Early Farming in Europe. Man, 6(4), pp.674–688.

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Barker, G., 2009. The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers Become Farmers?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barnard, A., 2007. From Mesolithic to Neolithic modes of thought. In A. Whittle & Vicki Cummings, eds. Going Over: The Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in North-West Europe (Proceedings of the British Academy 144). New York: Oxford University Press (for British Academy), pp. 5–20.

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Gardiner, P., 2003. Caught in the act – where is the transition. In L. Bevan & J. Moore, eds. Peopling the Mesolithic in a Northern Environment. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 103–112.

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Gronenborn, D., 2007. Beyond the models: “Neolithisation in Central Europe”. In A. Whittle & Vicki Cummings, eds. Going Over: The Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in North-West Europe (Proceedings of the British Academy 144). New York: Oxford University Press (for British Academy), pp. 73–98.

Hodder, I., 2012. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things, Malden, MA: John Wiley.

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Last, J., 2013. The End of the Longhouse. In D. Hofmann & J. Smyth, eds. Tracking the Neolithic House in Europe Sedentism, Architecture and Practice. New York: Springer New York.

Mercer, R.J., 1986. The Neolithic in Cornwall. Cornish Archaeology, 25, pp.35–77.

Pailler, Y. & Sheridan, A., 2009. Everything you always wanted to know about…la néolithisation de la Grande-Bretagne et de l’Irlande. Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française, 106(1), pp.25–56.

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Leave A Comment, Written on March 8th, 2013 , Essays

Visit date: 10th February 2013

Weather: Driving rain and hail at Crickley Hill, torrential rain at Belas Knap and then a blizzard at the Rollright Stones to finish the day.  Therefore not the optimum weather for field observations or photography!


The field trip started at Crickley Hill and took in both the causewayed enclosure and the Iron Age ramparts. From there, we drove to Belas Knap Long Barrow, a stop at Stow on the Wold to dry out and warm up in a teashop, and then on to the Rollright Stones where we saw the stone circle and the supposed barrow in the field opposite, but did not have the will to visit the other monuments in that landscape owing to the blizzard that descended.

Belas Knap Long Barrow

Grid Reference:  SP 02110 25425

Site Overview

(for an excellent Kite Aerial Photograph, which I used in my original report, please visit

The barrow is sited on Humblebee How, near the parish boundary, and lies perpendicular to the contours that drop sharply away to the east, being aligned roughly north-south. It is approximately 55 metres long and trapezoidal in shape, and belongs to the class of long mounds known as the ‘Cotswold-Severn’ style of barrow, owing the geographical distribution of this group and is classified by Darvill (1982:6) as a ‘Lateral entranced tomb’.


Figure 1: Belas Knap Long Barrow from the west, March 2011. Source: Author.

Figure 1: Belas Knap Long Barrow from the west, March 2011. Source: K Bragg.

As can be seen from Figure 1, the top of the hill is reasonably flat (the sharp drop is the far side of the barrow, here). The current appearance of the long barrow is as a result of restorative work undertaken by the Office of Works in 1929 to amend the deleterious effects of previous excavations (NMR SP 02 NW 9) shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2: The 1929 excavations. Source: Berry 1929: Fig.5. Photo by Messrs Martyn 28th July 1929.

Figure 2: The 1929 excavations. Source: Berry 1929: Fig.5. Photo by Messrs Martyn 28th July 1929.

Investigation History


Figure 3: The lettering of the chambers corresponds to the old published plans. Source: Hemp 1929 :Plate 2

Figure 3: The lettering of the chambers corresponds to the old published plans. Source: Hemp 1929 :Plate 2

Investigation type Investigation Details
1863-5 Excavations Reports of ‘extensive excavations’ by Mr L Winterbotham, Mr Chamberlayne and others were published by Dr Thurnam and by Mr Winterbotham himself (Berry 1929 :273). These excavations are described in the NMR entry as of being “by methods not in advance of its time” (NMR SP 02 NW 9).A chamber was located at the south-east end of the mound and four partial skeleton, including two skulls, were found. Their attention then turned to the northern end of the mound, where they discovered the false entrance, ‘forecourt’ area and some enigmatic human remains by the lintel (Parsons 2002). These consisted of parts of skulls, one of which was a round-headed skull of the kind normally associated with much later Beaker burials (NMR SP 02 NW 9) and the bones of children and infants, associated with a bone pin and another bone implement (Bird 1865: lxvi). A local man, Charles Yiend recorded that before these excavations, the space between the hornworks (shown in Figure 4) at the north end was entirely blocked with stones, and the false entrance was not visible (Hemp 1929 :261-2).It is likely that at least one of the skeletons was articulated at burial, owing to a description of a skull found in chamber C (shown on Figure 3) as appearing as though the head was propped up using the hand of the corpse (Thomas 1988 :547).
19th Century Restoration Mentioned here as Hemp (1929 :261) expressed concern that the work undertaken to restore the drystone walling may have resulted in discoveries unknown and unrecorded, as well as blurring the boundary between original stonework and 19th Century conservation efforts.
1929-1930 Excavation Excavations by the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society took advantage of the desire of the Office of Works to reconstruct the barrow, taking the opportunity to re-examine the already-opened chambers and to search for any further chambers in the expanse of barrow where there may have been room for more chambers. Further chambers were not found, but interestingly the excavators found evidence which may show that some time around the Roman period, the barrow was altered to add a layer of oolitic small stones, and potentially also to cover the original stone roofing with further material (Berry 1929).


Figure 4: Belas Knap: the false entrance c 1864. Source: Hemp 1929: fig.1

Figure 4: Belas Knap: the false entrance c 1864. Source: Hemp 1929: fig.1

Chronology and Current Interpretation

Dating evidence obtained by Rick Schulting, gave a date of approximately 4000 to 3700 BC which fits with dates from other Cotwold-Severn tombs in the region (NMR SP 02 NW 9), although Thomas (1988 :542) pointed out that dates obtained from material inside these structures may not share the date of origin of the structure itself, especially as concerns skeletal material.

Neolithic chambered tombs such as Belas Knap are usually interpreted as being the communal grave for a community or kinship group, but with the suggestion that this was not intended as final resting place in all cases. It seems likely that bodies were allowed to become defleshed and then the resulting bones interred, but also removed and redistributed. Thomas draws a distinction between transepted Cotswold-Severn tombs and the lateral-chambered examples, such as Belas Knap, where the lateral-chambered tombs have bones removed again from the chambers (Thomas 1988), possibly accounting for the few remains found. This process was considered risky and required segregating from the world of the living, hence the location of these barrows in liminal places, safely apart (Thomas 1988 :551). Thomas goes on to suggest that this liminality allowed other risky actions to take place, such as exchange between communities.

Fleming (1973) argues that these monuments are more than just places for dealing with the practicalities of corpses: the elaborate ‘forecourt’ arrangements such as has been uncovered at Belas Knap speak to an arena and focus for ritual activities to take place. This is more about the activities of the living, than the dead.


Rollright Stones

Grid Reference:  SP 2960 3087 (Kings men stone circle), SP2994 3084 (Whispering Knights), SP 2963 3095 (Kings Stone)



Figure 5: 'The King's Men' stone circle in a blizzard, February 2013. Source: K Bragg.

Figure 5: ‘The King’s Men’ stone circle in a blizzard, February 2013. Source: K Bragg.

Site Overview

The site of the Rollright Stones is on the border between Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, which runs down the ‘Cotswold Ridgeway’ following the line of the modern road.

The Rollright Stones are actually three separate megalithic monuments: a portal dolmen known as the Whispering Knights; the King Stone, a monolith; and the King’s Men, a stone circle (Figure 5) (Lambrick 1988 :1). The area around has been a focus for activity with Lambrick listing ten archaeological sites:

“1. Roman Settlement; 2. Megalithic Barrow; 3. Round Barrow; 4. Round Cairn; 5. Ring Ditch; 6. Iron Age Cemetery; 7. Saxon Cemetery; 8. Iron Age Trackway; 9. Iron Age Ditch; 10. Pair of Ring Ditches” Lambrick 1988: 1 (punctuation of list, mine).

 Investigation History

Year Investigation type Investigation Details
Late 17th C Excavation Excavation by Ralph Sheldon, but no records were left of what was discovered (Lambrick 1988 :1).
1882 Restoration Using various antiquarian drawings of the King’s Men, and records from the time, Lambrick was able to show that many stones have been restored from where they had fallen or been removed, so the present state of the circle is not necessarily accurate (Lambrick 1988 :35).
1926 Excavation Excavation of the mound adjacent to the King’s Stone provided no evidence for it being a long barrow as was previously suspected, and therefore it looks likely that the feature is entirely natural (Grinsell 1977 :5).
1970 Excavation The laying of a pipe trench to the north of the King’s Men provided an opportunity to investigate any below-ground remains, but this showed little more than periglacial features, and an undated pit (Lambrick 1988 :24)
1983 Excavation A trial excavation at the Whispering Knights was undertaken to establish whether, as the antiquarians had suggested, there was a mound beneath the megalithic remains and whether it would be possible to establish with any certainty whether the Whispering Knights was a Portal Dolmen, or was the end chamber of a ‘terminally-chambered cairn’ (Lambrick 1988 :28).This led to the conclusion that Portal Dolmen was the most likely interpretation, owing to the lack of quarries to form ditches or a mound as might be expected at a long barrow. No direct dating evidence was found but Neolithic and Beaker pottery was discovered in a ditch nearby, and a Mid-Neolithic date seems likely (Lambrick 1988 :32-34).
1986 Excavation A trench was put across the stone circle to facilitate the removal and restoration of the broken stone 61 (Lambrick 1988 :1). The stones were found to be set into a low bank, which had been enhanced on at least two occasions including during the Romano-British period. Evidence was found that the stone circle was intended to be of touching stones, to form a solid, smooth wall, with the circular shape being defined by the inner faces of the stones, which have been noted as being smoother than the outer (Lambrick 1988:41-46).


Chronology and Current Interpretation

The Rollright Stones have not been dated directly by any evidence found by excavation, so any chronology is based on the dates that would be expected for such monuments, rather than evidence (NMR SP 23 SE 14). The earliest monument in the landscape would appear to be the Whispering Knights as this is interpreted as being a Portal Dolmen and may be important in the development of the Cotswold-Severn tradition of megalithic chambered tombs, with the false entrance of Belas Knap an echo of the front of portal dolmens (Lambrick 1988 :25). An aerial photograph showed a pair of parallel ditches to the north-west of the Whispering Knights, previously interpreted as a cursus, but this interpretation has been rejected (Lambrick 1988 :25).

The King’s Men is compared by Burl to the Cumbrian stone circles, and this transmission of ideas he claims is related to the trade in stone axes to north Wiltshire and Oxfordshire, where the majority originate in the Langdales (Burl 1993 :41). He draws a contrast between the size of area enclosed within the circle, and the narrowness of the apparent entranceway and suggests this has a ritual, processional purpose (Burl 1993 :39). This suggestion of the entrance being of importance is reinforced by the enhanced size of the stones directly opposite to the entrance (Lambrick 1988 :42), and the ritual purpose of the circle possibly suggested by the evidence that the ground surface had been deliberately pared back to the bedrock to form a hard, cobbled surface (Lambrick 1988 :47). The evidence for Roman remodelling of the bank beneath the stones may suggest a Roman reuse of the site as a small arena, possibly for activities involving animal-baiting, for which a circle of touching stones, would form a suitable site (Lambrick 1988 :47).


Berry, J., 1929. Belas Knap Long Barrow, Gloucestershire: report of the excavations of 1929. Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 51, pp.273–303.

Bird, H., 1865. An Account of the Human Bones Found in the Round and Long Tumuli, Situated on the Cotswold Hills, near Cheltenham. Journal of the Anthropological Society of London, 3, pp.lxv–lxxiv. Available at:

Burl, A., 1993. From Carnac to Callanish, Yale University Press.

Darvill, T.C., 1982. Megalithic Chambered Tombs of the Cotswold-Severn Region (Vorda research series), Highworth: Vorda Archaeological.

Fleming, A., 1973. Tombs for the Living. Man, 8(2), pp.177–193. Available at:

Grinsell, L. V., 1977. The Rollright Stones and their folklore, St Peter Port: Toucan Press.

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Leave A Comment, Written on February 10th, 2013 , Diploma Year One Tags: , ,

Visit date: 13th January 2013

Weather: Cold, but clear and sunny.


The field trip started at Kents (the traditional spelling (D. A. McFarlane & Lundberg 2013)) Cavern itself, where we had a guided tour from one of the Cavern employees. We then walked down the Illsham valley beside the cave system and discussed the formation of caves and the significance, or lack of, of the situation of the cave near a valley (Paul Rainbird pointed out that you would expect to find such caves near what is now a valley, as that’s the kind of geology they occur in!). We walked to the promontory called Hope’s Nose, to see the raised beach (Figure 1) there and then headed back to the cars. Hope’s Nose will not be discussed here, as although it is obviously evidence of sea level alteration appropriate to a discussion of the Palaeolithic, it is primarily of geological, not archaeological, interest.


Figure 1: Raised beach at Hope's Nose. Jan 2013. Source: K Bragg.

Figure 1: Raised beach at Hope’s Nose. Jan 2013. Source: K Bragg.

Kents Cavern

Grid Reference:  SX 934 642



Figure 2: Map of Torbay showing the location of Kents Cavern. Source White & Pettitt 2009 :Fig.1

Figure 2: Map of Torbay showing the location of Kents Cavern. Source White & Pettitt 2009 :Fig.1


Site Overview

Kents Cavern consists of slightly under 1km of passageways formed in the Middle-Upper Devonian Torquay Limestone karst of Lincombe hill, Torquay (Lundberg & D. A. McFarlane 2008 :1-3). It is of interest not only for the geology, but also for the, admittedly contested (M. White & P. Pettitt 2012), claim to have produced the earliest remains of modern humans (T. Higham et al. 2011), a claim that will be considered further later.

Kents Cavern was formed by the weak acid in rainwater slowly dissolving the limestone via fissures in the non-porous rock and slowly etching out the passages we see today. The resulting water percolating through the rock picks up additional mineral content and deposits this in the form of stalactites and stalagmites within the cave, making impressive formations. One of these resembles a face (Figure 3).


Figure 3: The 'flowstone' face. Jan 2013. Source: Author.

Figure 3: The ‘flowstone’ face. Jan 2013. Source: Author.


Investigation History

Year Investigation type Investigation Details
1824 Excavation Northmore begins to excavate Kents Cavern, after reading Buckland’s Reliquiae Diluvianae (Kennard 1945 :156), and in search of a ‘Mithratic Cavern’ (Schulting et al. 2012).
1824 Excavation Sir William Trevelyan dug in Kents Cavern and discovered the teeth of rhinoceros, tiger and hyena, along with jaws of fox and bear (Kennard 1945 :183).
1825 Excavation William Buckland makes a find of a flint knife. Later that same year, Buckland, Northmore and MacEnery discover a rhinoceros tooth and what would seem to be a further flint blade (Kennard 1945 :185-6).
1825-1829 Excavation At the behest of the geologist William Buckland (M J White & P B Pettitt 2009), Father John MacEnery excavated within Kent’s Cavern periodically from 1825 to 1829 (Mihai et al. 2010). Among his finds were flint tools sealed in a deposit below a flowstone floor, in association with the remains of extinct animals. At the time, the idea that this therefore proved the antiquity of man, was rejected by Buckland and others as contradicting the biblical understanding of the history of the human species, and the publication of these findings suppressed (P. B. Pettitt & M. J. White 2010), although it is also suggested that the cost of publication was the prohibitive factor (Pengelly 1868).MacEnery’s excavations were important to development of the discipline of archaeology, as the discoveries made at Kents Cavern helped to prove the antiquity of the human species and the co-existence with animals now observably extinct (M J White & P B Pettitt 2009:767).
1865-1880 Excavation Pengelly undertook a more comprehensive excavation of Kents Cavern, greatly enlarging the space within the cave as he discovered passages and chambers that had been filled with sediment (Proctor & Smart 1989).Aside from the artefacts discovered during excavation, the importance of Pengelly’s work at Kents Cavern lies also with his systematic excavation methodology (Figure 4), a methodology that may have influenced General Pitt-Rivers in the development of modern archaeological techniques (P. B. Pettitt & M. J. White 2010). Pengelly used a system of ‘prisms’ to systematically record where in the cave the artefacts were located, raising his work far above that of most contemporary Victorian antiquarians (D. A. McFarlane & Lundberg 2005 :40). Further work has found errors with his survey (Mihai et al. 2010), errors that can possibly be forgiven when one considers the candle-lit and cramped conditions under which he would have been working.
1926-1941 Excavation During excavations between 1926-1941 (Hilts 2012 :13), Dowie and Ogilvie discovered the KC4 Maxilla fragment in 1927, belonging to what is claimed as an anatomically modern human (D. A. McFarlane & Lundberg 2013). The dating of this find has been a source of controversy as Higham et al. (2011) have claimed a date of 44.2-41.5 ka cal BP for this tooth fragment, based not on direct dating –  as too little collagen remained, but from the radiocarbon determinations of faunal remains in close stratigraphic proximity (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012 :382). Pettit and White argue that the assumption that the deposits in which all the artefacts were located were undisturbed, is problematic, demonstrated by the dating for material found above the maxilla returning an older date, meaning that the contexts were disturbed. Even from the point of view of the geology, establishing stratigraphic relationships for sediments deposited in caves is problematic (Lundberg & D. A. McFarlane 2007 :207).The implications of the claimed date would be that modern humans were present in the British Isles much earlier than previously thought, and therefore that technologies previously attributed to Neanderthals based on date determinations, are now possible attributable to modern humans instead and that the possibility of interaction between Neanderthal and Modern Humans is greatly increased. (P. Pettitt & M. White n.d.). This obviously would have implications for our understanding of tool development and knowledge transmission, and possibly even exchange of artefacts between the different groups, and would have the potential to rewrite the story of the Palaeolithic in Britain entirely, so the controversy over both the species and the dating is of quite some importance.
1934 Survey Kents Cavern was surveyed by P. M. B. Lake in 1934 and a plan produced that represented the layout of the cave but not the elevation (Proctor & Smart 1989).
2009 Excavation Using Pengelly’s notes and diagrams, Paul Pettit and Mark White sought out unexcavated cave sediments, in search of artefacts that could provide dating evidence, environmental evidence, and to reassess the earlier excavations (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012a :16).


Figure 4: The Pengelly Excavation System. Source: D. A. McFarlane & Lundberg 2005: Fig.1

Figure 4: The Pengelly Excavation System. Source: D. A. McFarlane & Lundberg 2005: Fig.1

Chronology and Current Interpretation

The earliest use of the cave seems to be as a hibernation site for cave bear Ursus deningeri/speleaus, whose occupation seems to date to the Marine Isotope Stage 12 or 11 (D. a. McFarlane & Lundberg 2013 :1629). Acheulian flint tools were found by MacEnery and have been suggested to be around 500,000 years old. From their condition, it is suggested that they actually originated outside the cave and were washed in (Lundberg & D. a. McFarlane 2007 :220). The small number of Aurignacian artefacts found is probably representing a brief occupation, rather than residence (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012 :406).

The KC4 Maxilla, as discussed above, demonstrates the presence of what are purported to be anatomically modern humans in the cave, sometime during MIS3 (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012 :382). There is some doubt as to whether the sample is a modern human, and may well be a later Neanderthal, owing to some ambiguity in the morphology of the specimen when compared to the rules used to distinguish between the two (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012a).

Mesolithic bone fragments have also been found in the cave, including part of an ulna from the Sloping Chamber, excavated by Pengelly (Schulting et al. 2012). A radiocarbon assessment of this bone yielded an early Mesolithic date (OxA-20588: 7314–7075 cal BC at 95% confidence). This bone was broken at around the time of death, and also exhibits cut-marks suggestive of removal of flesh, possibly as part of a ritual to transform the body, or anthropophagy, which Schulting et al. appear to gingerly express a preference for as the interpretation (Schulting et al. 2012).

As most of the finds from Kents Cavern have since been lost or distributed to private collections, it is impossible to assess what was originally found and its potential meaning. The artefacts from the cave span from Middle Palaeolithic tools assumed to be of Neanderthal manufacture, to Upper Palaeolithic tools indicative of modern humans. In either case, extended occupation within the cave is not thought to have happened and the artefacts are as a result of seasonal occupation associated with hunting. It is suggested that the situation of the cave beside a narrow valley afforded an opportunity for hunting wild animals by corralling them into the valley and then picking them off, and explains the use of the cave (P. Pettitt & M. White 2012b).


Higham, T. et al., 2011. The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe. Nature, 479, pp.521–524.

Hilts, C., 2012. First modern human in Britain? Kent’s Cavern Controversy. Current Archaeology, (262), pp.12–13.

Kennard, A.S., 1945. The early digs in Kent’s Hole, Torquay, and Mrs. Cazalet. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 56(4), pp.156–213. Available at: [Accessed April 30, 2013].

Lundberg, J. & McFarlane, D.A., 2008. Kents Cavern: a field guide to the natural history, William Pengelly Cave Studies Trust and Kents Cavern.

Lundberg, J. & McFarlane, D.A., 2007. Pleistocene depositional history in a periglacial terrane: A 500 k.y. record from Kents Cavern, Devon, United Kingdom. Geosphere, 3(4), p.199. Available at: [Accessed January 15, 2013].

McFarlane, D.A. & Lundberg, J., 2013. On the occurrence of the scimitar-toothed cat, Homotherium latidens (Carnivora; Felidae), at Kents Cavern, England. Journal of Archaeological Science, 40(4), pp.1629–1635. Available at: [Accessed January 15, 2013].

McFarlane, D.A. & Lundberg, J., 2005. The 19th century excavation of Kent’s Cavern, England. Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, 67(1), pp.39–47.

Mihai, S. et al., 2010. Pengelly’s legacy reconsidered: a GIS approach to spatial analysis of palaeontological and archaeological collections from Kents Cavern, England. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 121(3), pp.319–325. Available at: [Accessed March 12, 2013].

Pengelly, W., 1868. The literature of Kent’s Cavern, prior to 1859. Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, and Art., 1, pp.469–522.

Pettitt, P. B. & White, M. J., 2010. Cave men: Stone tools, Victorian science, and the “primitive mind” of deep time. Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 65(1), pp.25–42. Available at: [Accessed April 28, 2013].

Pettitt, P. & White, M., Ancient Digs and Modern Myths: The Age and Context of the Kent’s Cavern 4 Maxilla and the Earliest Homo sapiens Specimens in Europe [Online]. Maney Publishing. Available at: 28/04/2013.

Pettitt, P. & White, M., 2012a. Early Homo sapiens in Kent’s Cavern. Current Archaeology, (262), pp.20–21.

Pettitt, P. & White, M., 2012b. Return to Kent’s Cavern: New excavations in Britain’s oldest Scheduled Ancient Monument. Current Archaeology, (262), pp.14–19.

Pettitt, P. & White, M., 2012c. The British Paleolithic: Human Societies at the Edge of the Pleistocene World, Abingdon: Routledge.

Proctor, C.J. & Smart, P.L., 1989. A new survey of Kent’s Cavern, Devon. University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 18(3), pp.422–429.

Schulting, R.J. et al., 2012. A Cut-marked and Fractured Mesolithic Human Bone from Kent’s Cavern, Devon, UK. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. Available at: [Accessed April 28, 2013].

White, M J & Pettitt, P B, 2009. The demonstration of human antiquity: three rediscovered illustrations from the 1825 and 1846 excavations in Kent’s Cavern (Torquay, England). Antiquity, 83, pp.758–768.

White, M. & Pettitt, P., 2012. Ancient Digs and Modern Myths: The Age and Context of the Kent’s Cavern 4 Maxilla and the Earliest Homo sapiens Specimens in Europe. European Journal of Archaeology, 15(3), pp.392–420. Available at: [Accessed April 10, 2013].


Leave A Comment, Written on January 13th, 2013 , Diploma Year One

Processual Archaeology

What has now been termed ‘Processual Archaeology’ had its origins in the rejection of the culture-historical approach to archaeology that happened as part of the ‘New archaeology’ of the 1960s (Barrett 1994 :157). This new approach emphasised the scientific approach to both theory and method in archaeology, however problematic the concept of attempting to form a science from archaeology might be (Koerner 2011 :71). The material that the archaeologist works with was considered an ‘archaeological record’ consisting of facts trapped, awaiting release by a careful archaeologist (Patrik 1985 :33). The assumption was, that dealt with systematically, this material leads to objective, testable facts about the past (Thomas 2004 :69).

The analytical approach to archaeological material borrowed heavily from systems theory for its methodology (Clarke 1978 :42), aiming to model the past in a way that had scientific credibility and value-free objectivity (Shanks & Hodder 1995 : 3).

The assumption was that the system was to be considered in stasis from the human perspective (Earle 1991 :83), and any factors that might affect how society functioned were externally imposed (Bell 1991 :71). The material culture that was the main subject of the archaeologist was assumed to be as a response to these changes, and not involved in the causation of change in society (Pauketat 2010 :138).

This idea was used by Binford (1972 :264) to argue that variability was adaptation to varying environmental conditions, and that this could be used as evidence for decision-making as a response to these conditions, rather than separate cultures having their own way of doing something (Binford 1972 :205). He applied statistical methods to various assemblages of tools and after analysing the relative frequency of occurrence of tools within an assemblage, he asserted that the relationships between the various tools demonstrated a common response to the same set of environmental determinants (Binford 1972 :282). This was a departure from the Culture-Historical ‘this is how humans are’, to ‘this is how humans behave’ (Thomas 1998:27) but still treated humanity as a homogenous whole.

Saitta (1991: 55) accused Binford of reducing society to a thermodynamic system, controlled by ecosystem variables only and powerless to influence the system. Shanks and Tilley (1992 :34) argued that to reduce human behaviour to a naturalist response to external conditions is to deny the social aspects of human existence. The individual is reduced to an idealised component, acting according to the machinations of the system that it is part of (Preucel & Hodder 1996: 29), and cultural history only serving to integrate that individual into its place (Hodder 1995 :85).

Keegan (1991 :189) attempted to factor in this social aspect when looking at the settlement patterns in the Bahamas. Using micro-economic theories to attempt to predict what the outcomes of particular behavioural models should be, he showed that three possible models of settlement patterning could be predicted, depending on the strategy that the society had ‘picked’. He used stable-isotope analysis of faunal remains to demonstrate shifts in diet, and surveyed settlement remains over a wide area. He was not, it seems, trying to address any questions of what it might be like to live in those settlements, just to propose some patterns over a longer timescale, which obviously precludes any consideration of the individual.

His model assumed that the social factor in determining settlement distribution would be population density, and that when the population doubled, the community would split in half and form a new settlement elsewhere, based on resource availability (Keegan 1991 :192). What he found was not entirely predicted by the models: in 90% of the cases, the predicted equally-spaced settlements were found in pairs. To address this, he looked at contextual information about known societies and reconciled it best with a model of matrilineal kinship groups controlling access to resources (Keegan 1991 :195). Hodder suggested that the population densities that can be tolerated are not a given, and are dependent on the individual society in question (Hodder 1982 :195), so generalisations that do not take this into account may be co-incidentally in agreement with a model but not actually a true representation of an individual situation. This equifinality of outcome is one of the factors that made Hodder realise that the New Archaeology lacked the ability to discern between models to show causation (Balter 2005 :68).

Keegan’s approach was an attempt to make predictions about how societies behave, but allows for no individual decision-making other than that stated by the model. This requires that humans behave exactly according to the rules of the system (Hodder 1995 :15).  Shennan ( 2004 :17) argued that Clarke’s use of systems theory was far from requiring humans to behave like automata and that different levels of analysis were appropriate at different levels of scrutiny. However, the main criticism of such attempts is that systems theory cannot explain change, or allow for the human actor to cause change from inside the system, only respond to external inputs such as environmental change (Tilley 1981 :366).

Clarke (1978 :364) did acknowledge the role of the individual within these systems, but pointed out that the factors that determine the individual’s behaviour are too complex to factor into the model, so they are necessarily lost. This is either because assumptions are made that they do not matter at the scale of the system under observation, or that this individuality does not exist. Bintliff (2009 :248) maintained that there are regularities in human behaviour that transcend localities and temporalities, therefore perhaps these regularities justify some of the systems thinking. Barrett suggested, however, that the idea of a homogenous society that can be reduced to a model was unlikely to be correct and so the idea that there could be a model of such a thing is inappropriate (Barrett 1994 :35).

It was perhaps thought also, that archaeology could not address these complexities: issues concerning how society worked internally, and questions of spirituality and religion were thought to be beyond reach (Hawkes 1954 :161-162). Processual Archaeology aimed at looking at the patterns of change and adaption over the longer scale but this neglected the question of why the changes happened happened in the first place and treated them as a reversed cause and effect (Hodder & Hutson 2003 :25).

Cognitive Archaeology, however, did not recognise that religion and ideology were inaccessible and Flannery and Marcus (1998 : 35-36) gave examples of where subsistence behaviour (the traditional interest of the processualist) could be better explained with recourse to the more cognitive areas of human existence. Their work on the Zapotec (Flannery & Marcus 1976) demonstrated that the subsistence strategy of the Zapotec was not a logical, maximising one, as might be assumed by systems theory, but a need to grow ‘just enough’ for food and ritual purposes but no more. Documentary records dating from the 16th Century AD provided some vital contextual information about the cosmology of the Zapotec and led to an explanation of the subsistence patterns that was consistent with this cosmology and with the archaeological evidence (Flannery & Marcus 1998 :36).

The observed patterns might be explained, and a step taken beyond a purely functionalist explanation of the world of the Zapotec, but this does not get any closer to how the rituals may have come about and why it was required to behave in such a way (Hodder & Hutson 2003 :25). It is a view onto a system frozen in time and can perhaps be explained satisfactorily in its frozen state, but to address the people within the system and how they brought about this situation, requires consideration of the agency of individuals and their ability to generate and reproduce traditions (Barrett 1994 :36).


Post-processual Archaeology

Processual archaeology’s attempt to address the issue of agency by looking at how powerful individuals could influence society met with criticism for the assumption this could be assessed by simply looking at the material culture with no context (Robb 2010 :496). Many postprocessualists argued that material culture is able to be interpreted in many different ways (Trigger 2006 :468), even to the same person, and therefore more attention needed to be paid to the symbolic meaning of these objects (Shanks & Hodder 1995 :9). Johnsen and Olsen (1992: 429) also argued for a contextual study of material culture: it is important to understand how it was understood in the past, before it can be understood in the present.

The search for a better understanding involved various strategies for approaching the idea of a lived experience of individuals situated in the past (Meskell 2012 :229). Borrowing from Heideggerian philosophy on the difference between Being and Being-in-the-world (Tilley 1994 :12), archaeologists such as Chris Tilley brought to archaeology the idea of experiential approaches, particularly to landscapes. With his phenomenological approach to the landscape of Cranborne Chase, he showed a way of thinking about the landscape that transcends the processual Thiesson polygons (e.g. Hodder 1972) and distribution maps and began to look at how a human might experience space and topography. This leads to an interpretation of the ‘dog-leg’ in the Cursus as a feature designed to alter the experience of people walking down the Cursus (Tilley 1994 :188).

Tilley pointed out that his experiential approach was not intended to claim an authentic experience, but that the understanding of landscapes can only come from being in them (Tilley 1994 :72). Nonetheless, his approach was attacked for being a thinly-veiled romanticism that failed to offer anything beyond being an alternative to processual approaches, but ultimately peopled the landscape only with rhetorical people (Fleming 2006 :273). Brück (2005 :55) also argued that his whole approach contained implicit in it the assumption that his bodily experience was representative of all bodily experiences of the same landscape, and that this did not take into account the variability of physiology that may have encountered the monument. Thomas further criticised this by pointing out that what is assumed now to be a disability or an altered state giving decreased mobility, such as pregnancy, may not have been experienced the same way in the past: we do not know on what basis people in the Neolithic classified types of people (Thomas 2004b :32), thereby denying any shared experience at all. It is perhaps fair to comment that the experience of a modern woman eight months pregnant, may be considered equally cumbersome as a Neolithic pregnancy.

Another approach to a more human-centred archaeology is the study of feminist and gender archaeologies, an attempt to explore the ways in which biological sex and gender roles may historically have been misrepresented, and to question assumptions about the roles an individual may have played in forming that record (Preucel & Hodder 1996b: 415). Recognising that the way in which archaeological knowledge is described is fundamentally a pseudo-impersonal but inherently Western androcentric treatment, Spector (1996: 486) composed a narrative description of her gained understanding of an awl, deliberately avoiding the academic conventions. This was based on ethnographic research with indigenous people, who were able to explain the various markings and their embedded meanings and provided potential names for the people in the narrative (Johnson 2010 :133). It should be noted that the awl in question was a 19th Century artefact and therefore the ability to use ethnographic data to complement the knowledge gained from inspecting the artefact itself is unusual. Such narratives might have a tendency to pure invention if addressing prehistory, for example.

Spector pointed out that a typical description of the find might address its age and functionality, but not what it might have meant to the owner, only to consider it as part of a wider body of awls whose design and materials could be studied for their part in a wider pattern (Spector 1996 :496). The narrative describes the potential owner of the awl, how it formed part of her life and her relationship to her village. The two individuals, the girl and the object, were intrinsically entangled (Hodder 2012 :97): the awl recorded her life and achievements even as she used it, but had a finite lifetime of its own, defined by her society’s view of the appropriateness of the tool and life stage (Spector 1996 :495). In this way, the narrative was not just from a feminist perspective but also including the viewpoint of the indigenous people rather than just that of the anthropologist.

The Individual

Archaeology has always struggled to access the individual and therefore the complexity can be simplified and assumptions made in order to conform to requirements (Shennan 1991 :199). Even with the multivocality of postprocessualism, archaeology still deals with constructed individuals, albeit with a multiplicity of interpretations as to how that individual might have experienced personhood (Brück 2001).

Thomas (2004 :125) argued that the very concept of individuality is a by-product of Western Modernity and that such a concept may not have been universally applicable. Strathern (1988 :269 ) gave examples of contemporary Melanesian people who have a very different sense of self and society where connections and relationships are more important that a person’s sense of the individual self. Indeed, Strathern questioned the Western concern with the Individual/Society relationship, and pointed out that it is not necessarily about a person becoming a social actor at all. (Strathern 1988 :13).

Insoll (2004: 14) referred to this as ‘Inworldly’ Individualism, and argued that this narrow definition of individuals-within-societies is not generally applicable and should be restricted to where there is evidence for its usefulness as a concept. It might be more appropriate to move away from the concept of the archaeologically-unattainable individual and to approach the idea of meshworks of relationships forming a person (Thomas 2004 :146). This would move archaeology away from the goal of understanding meaning by ‘getting inside the head’ of vanished peoples and towards a realisation that meaning is continuously created in those relationships (Thomas 2004b).

There is, however, a very specific individual involved in the interpretation: the archaeologist. Processual archaeology sought to exclude any subjectivity from the analysis and to depersonalise the archaeological process (Shanks & Hodder 1995 :3). Postprocessualism recognised that no such objectivity was possible owing to the interpreter’s role in the interpretation, and that there is no definitive law or truth to be ‘uncovered’, only an interpretation (Shanks & Hodder 1998 : 70). Reflexive practice, the documenting of the archaeologist along with the archaeology, is necessary to demonstrate the effect of the biography of the individual archaeologist on the interpretation they make (Hodder 2003 :65-66), but even this has questionable value if not all the individuals are heard (Chadwick 2003).


The story of archaeological analysis has been one of increased sophistication of thought and a gradual realisation of the complexity of the subject matter. Systems theory, in itself, is not necessarily inappropriate in archaeology, although, like all methodologies, it can be misused if applied at an inappropriate scale. Modelling the whole of a perceived society is unlikely to be successful for reasons given above, but demonstrating smaller relationships may have greater success. Human relationships and the more complex side of human nature could be incorporated into the concept of subsystems now that archaeologists are more aware of the impacts of these.

Processual and Postprocessual frameworks appear to address different scales of study: processual approaches look at describing the larger patterns within society (Hodder 1985 :7). Postprocessual approaches deal with the finer detail: the possible reasons behind those changes. Neither approach has the ability to address a particular individual, and necessarily must deal with the idealised individual, but postprocessual archaeology comes closer to dealing with that individual as a human being, and in the various ways it is possible to be a human.

By incorporating as many viewpoints, questioning long-held and often tacit assumptions, and trying different approaches to the material, archaeologists can try to blend both processual and postprocessual approaches in their work. It is not satisfactory simply to state what was, archaeology must look to address the reasons, which necessarily requires consideration of the social factors that led to the archaeological record being created, and the structures that created the situation in the first place. The ideal goal of archaeology should not be to determine what a single individual might perhaps have thought, but to work out how it came to be that they might have had that thought in the first place. Only then can it be said that the thought has been understood. (2751 words)


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Leave A Comment, Written on November 10th, 2012 , Essays Tags:

I wonder what I want to know when looking back in time
I wonder if I hope to see a life that’s strange to mine
Is it the lure of Otherness that makes me tread this course?
Or do I hope to find within myself and Them a source
of similarity, a link to hands I cannot hold
yet have those same hands though my mind is changed, I’m told.
I cannot think the same thoughts for my World has shaped my Being
And the things of Theirs I see are not the same when *I* am seeing
What do I hope to capture then, when back I look at Them?
A thread of continuity reaching back to way back then?
Or just an understanding that my ways are not all ways
There are other ways of Being, far beyond the common gaze
That our answers are not finite but are bounded by what’s known
By looking back at how we thought of this, I see we’ve grown
to recognise our biases and watch ourselves at work
to question what we’re saying and where deep assumptions lurk
This can only be a good thing for humanity today
but I’m not sure it gets me closer, all that Time gets in the way…

Leave A Comment, Written on November 1st, 2012 , Musings

I’m supposed to be writing an essay on the role of the individual in processual and post-processual archaeologies, but instead I’m sitting here musing on the point of archaeology at all. I’ve enthused before that for me it’s the one true multi-disciplinary study as you are required to dip a toe into all sorts of intellectual waters, but that idea is really starting to hit home. Why do we study archaeology, what do we think we can know? It seems to me that what we think we can know is expanding all the time, based on what we think we can know about what it’s like to be a human NOW.

Technically, these advances in knowing are happening in disciplines that are studying what it’s like to be a human in the recent past, but the insights gained there are applied by archaeologists engaged in thinking about the deep past. There is an underlying assumption there that because we are human, both now and in the past, the ways of knowing about humanity are applied universally.

I’m currently reading about semiotics and structuralism, and yes, I can see the point of thinking about such things, BUT, do people really think about these things all the time? Surely the point is that most of this symbolic stuff happens below the level of consciousness. Therefore is it appropriate to imbue these meanings to the conscious level of prehistoric people? Granted, not having iPhones, they probably had a lot more time for sitting and thinking, and yes, the past was probably a lot more present to them than it is to my peers, but at the same time, I doubt looking at a toothpick and thinking of all the possible symbolic meanings that the toothpick might have to them, was a daily occurrence. These symbolic meanings need ‘pointing out’ to bring them to the attention of the conscious thought. That’s me airing my ignorance again, but there’s just this nagging feeling with all the ‘interpretative archaeology’ I’m reading, that we’re putting thoughts into people’s heads, and thinking a bit too much about this ourselves. Because we can.

This brings me back to the idea of the point of studying archaeology: are we really doing this to learn more about what people in the past might have thought and experienced, or are we doing this as a kind of applied sociology/philosophy – testing out these ideas on our ancestors? I’m writing about the role of the individual in this essay, but it seems to me that the individual most involved in the archaeology, is the archaeologist.

Leave A Comment, Written on October 29th, 2012 , Musings

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