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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Jull, A.J.T., 2013. Some interesting and exotic applications of carbon-14 dating by accelerator mass spectrometry. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 436.

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Smith, M. & Brickley, M., 2006. THE DATE AND SEQUENCE OF USE OF NEOLITHIC FUNERARY MONUMENTS: NEW AMS DATING EVIDENCE FROM THE COTSWOLD-SEVERN REGION. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 25(4), pp.335–355. Available at: [Accessed January 1, 2012].

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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:

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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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Written on April 21st, 2013 , Essays

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)


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Armit, I. & Finlayson, B., 1992. Hunter-gatherers transformed: the transition to agriculture in northern and western Europe. Antiquity, 66, pp.664–676.

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.

Bogaard, A. & Jones, G., 2007. Neolithic farming in Britain and central Europe: contrast or continuity. 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. 357–376.

Case, H., 1969. Neolithic explanations. Antiquity, 43(171), pp.176–186. Available at: [Accessed January 11, 2011].

Collard, M. et al., 2010. Radiocarbon evidence indicates that migrants introduced farming to Britain. Journal of Archaeological Science, 37(4), pp.866–870. Available at: [Accessed October 13, 2010].

Cunliffe, B., 2012. Britain Begins, OUP Oxford.

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

Edmonds, M., 1999. Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic: Landscapes, Monuments and Memory 1st ed., Routledge.

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.

Garrow, D. & Sturt, F., 2011. Grey waters bright with Neolithic argonauts? Maritime connections and the Mesolithic – Neolithic transition within the “western seaways” of Britain , c . 5000 – 3500 BC. Antiquity, 85(327), pp.59–72. Available at:

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.

Jones, G., 2000. Evaluating the importance of cultivation and collecting in Neolithic Britain. In A. S. Fairbairn, ed. Plants in Neolithic Britain and beyond (Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Paper 5). Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 79–84.

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.

Pyzel, J., 2009. Settlement history of the Linear Band Pottery culture in Kuyavia. In D. Hofmann & P. Bickle, eds. Creating Communities: New Advances in Central European Neolithic Research. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 71–79.

Robb, J. & Miracle, P., 2007. Beyond “migration” versus “acculturation”: new models for the spread of agriculture. 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. 99–116.

Rowley-Conwy, P., 1983. Sedentary Hunters: the Ertebølle example. In Hunter-Gatherer Economy in Prehistory: A European Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 111–126.

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Sheridan, A., 2007. From Picardie to Pickering and Pencraig Hill? New information on the “Carinated Bowl Neolithic” in northern Britain. 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. 441–492.

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Written on March 8th, 2013 , Essays

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)


Balter, M., 2005. The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk – An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization, Simon & Schuster Ltd.

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

Bell, J.A., 1991. Anarchy and Archaeology. In R. W. Preucel, ed. Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Center for Archaeological Investigations, South Illinois University. Occasional Paper No. 10, pp. 71–82.

Binford, L.R., 1972. An Archaeological Perspective, New York: Seminar Press.

Bintliff, J., 2009. Interactions of theory, methodology and practice. Archaeological Dialogues, 3(02), p.246.

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Brück, J., 2001. Monuments, power and personhood in the British Neolithic. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 7(4), pp.649–667.

Chadwick, A., 2003. Post-processualism, professionalization and archaeological methodologies. Towards reflective and radical practice. Archaeological Dialogues, 10(1), pp.97–117.

Clarke, D.L., 1978. Analytical Archaeology 2nd Revise., London: Methuen & Co Ltd.

Earle, T.K., 1991. Toward a Behavioural Archaeology. In R. W. Preucel, ed. Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Center for Archaeological Investigations, South Illinois University. Occasional Paper No. 10, pp. 83–95.

Flannery, K.V. & Marcus, J., 1998. Cognitive Archaeology. In D. S. Whitley, ed. Reader in Archaeological Theory: Post-Processual and Cognitive Approaches. London: Routledge, pp. 35–48.

Flannery, K.V. & Marcus, J., 1976. Formative Oaxaca and the Zapotec Cosmos: The interactions of ritual and human ecology are traced in this interpretation of a prehistoric settlement in highland Mexico. American Scientist, 64(4), pp.374–383.

Fleming, A., 2006. Post-processual Landscape Archaeology: a Critique. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 16(03), p.267.

Hawkes, C., 1954. Archeological theory and method: Some suggestions from the Old World. American anthropologist, 1953, pp.155–168.

Hodder, I., 2003. Archaeological Reflexivity and the “Local” Voice. Anthropological Quarterly, 76(1), pp.55–69.

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

Hodder, I., 1985. Postprocessual archaeology. Advances in archaeological method and theory, 8, pp.1–26.

Hodder, I., 1982. Symbols in action: Ethnoarchaeological studies of material culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hodder, I., 1972. The interpretation of spatial in archaeology : patterns two examples. Area, 4(4), pp.223–229.

Hodder, I., 1995. Theory and Practice in Archaeology, London: Routledge.

Hodder, I. & Hutson, S., 2003. Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology 3rd editio., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Insoll, T., 2004. Archaeology, Ritual, Religion 1st ed., Routledge.

Johnsen, H. & Olsen, B., 1992. Hermeneutics and archaeology: On the Philosophy of Contextual Archaeology. American Antiquity, 57(3), pp.419–436.

Johnson, M., 2010. Archaeological Theory: An Introduction 2nd Editio., Wiley-Blackwell.

Keegan, W.F., 1991. Culture Processes and Culture Realities. In R. W. Preucel, ed. Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Center for Archaeological Investigations, South Illinois University. Occasional Paper No. 10, pp. 183–196.

Koerner, S., 2011. Experimental Archaeology after simplicity – Implications for reflexivity of insights that a “common world” is not “given.” In D. C. E. Millson, ed. Experimentation and Interpretation. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 61–95.

Meskell, L., 2012. The Social Life of Heritage. In I. Hodder, ed. Archaeological Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 229–250.

Patrik, L.E., 1985. Is there an archaeological record? Advances in archaeological method and theory, 8, pp.27–62.

Pauketat, T.R., 2010. Practice and History in Archaeology. In R. W. Preucel & S. A. Mrozowski, eds. Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: The New Pragmatism. Wiley-Blackwell.

Preucel, R.W. & Hodder, I., 1996a. Nature and Culture. In R. W. Preucel & I. Hodder, eds. Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 23–38.

Preucel, R.W. & Hodder, I., 1996b. Understanding Sex and Gender. In R. W. Preucel & I. Hodder, eds. Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 415–430.

Robb, J., 2010. Beyond agency. World Archaeology, 42(4), pp.493–520.

Saitta, D.J., 1991. Radical Theory and the Processual Critique. In R. W. Preucel, ed. Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Center for Archaeological Investigations, South Illinois University. Occasional Paper No. 10, pp. 54–59.

Shanks, M. & Hodder, I., 1998. Processual, Post-Processual and Interpretative Archaeologies. In D. S. Whitley, ed. Reader in Archaeological Theory: Post-Processual and Cognitive Approaches. London: Routledge, pp. 69–98.

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Spector, J.D., 1996. What This Awl Means: Towards a Feminist Archaeology. In R. W. Preucel & I. Hodder, eds. Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 485–500.

Strathern, M., 1988. The gender of the gift, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Thomas, J., 2004a. Archaeology and Modernity New editio., Routledge.

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Written on November 10th, 2012 , Essays Tags:

The concept of reading the landscape and deciphering clues to previous human activity, we owe largely to the 1955 work of Hoskins, who, although he seems to have wilfully disregarded any possible contribution by the prehistoric period to the landscape he was studying (Fleming 2007 : 2), outlined an approach for landscape history (Hoskins 2005) . Aston and Rowley ( 1974) took this further, and the discipline of Landscape Archaeology was ‘born’ in the seminal textbook ‘Interpreting the Landscape’ (Aston 1985).

Aston’s focus, however, was on the medieval landscapes in which he specialised, and the question of whether the same documentary and observational approach can be applied to a pre-literate and undocumented era will now be considered in the form of case studies of two landscape archaeology projects. These particular case studies were selected as they were both ‘blank areas’ on the map surrounded by sites of archaeological interest. Using the ‘three pillars’ set out in Aston’s work:  Field Survey (surface collection), Maps and Aerial Photography (Aston 1985 :17), we will show how the techniques of Landscape History have been used to investigate prehistoric landscapes.

We will be limited to the study of later prehistoric landscapes i.e. from the Neolithic period onwards, as prior to the changes wrought on the landscape by the earliest monument-builders, the evidence for anthropogenic remains in the landscape is scarce. It may be that this evidence is buried under the North Sea, as the lowland plain that existed prior to the inundation of that land may have been more attractive to hunter-gatherers in the Mesolithic and earlier (Fitch 2011 : 3). Added to this is the non-localised nature of remains that are produced by such a mobile people, making the determination of ‘sites’ problematic (Barker 2009 : 77).

The Vale of the White Horse

Tingle, in his investigation of a transect of the Vale of the White Horse (1991), combined surface collection with other techniques to recover information about the Vale. His aim was partly to see if the absence of known prehistoric activity was a genuine absence or an absence of thorough archaeological investigation. His other aim was to see if the evidence of activity in the Vale altered with the shift in geology across the transect (Tingle 1991: 10).

Figure 1 Some of the study area, showing the area around Badbury (Crown Copyright)

With the change of geology comes a change in soil, and the Vale is predominantly clay, which in its modern state proves difficult for agriculture. He points out, however that conditions we would consider unacceptable of our modern purposes may have been quite appropriate for other uses, such as flood plain being currently unused, but water meadows being of vital importance in the past (Tingle 1991: 10). Work that has been done elsewhere demonstrates that clay soils of the past may have had an upper layer of humic material that meant they were eminently suitable for agriculture as they had not yet been subject to centuries of soil structure degradation (Clay 2007 : 72). Environmental evidence gleaned during the 1930s showed that the Vale was mostly wooded, with the ridges being open downland, and the best soils available on the Corallian ridge near Badbury (Tingle 1991 : 10).

Richard Bradley had already looked at the air photographic evidence for the area, but the combination of land use and the underlying soils meant that they showed not much. It is likely that more ephemeral prehistoric traces have been obliterated by the obvious mediaeval and post-mediaeval evidence (Tingle 1991 : 15).

Tingle’s previous work in the area, at Maddle Farm, had concentrated on land use on the downs, so part of the work to be done here was to see how evidence gathered via surface collection varied with distance from the open downland and see if landuse bore a relationship to the shifting geology (Tingle 1991 : 12). The collection strategy involved collection of artefacts from all periods, so to not exclude evidence of later activity that could have a bearing on the preservation of the prehistoric material (Tingle 1991 : 116) . This collection strategy helped to show that, as it retrieved Mesolithic evidence, if there were more to find it would have been found by the survey process, thereby demonstrating a genuine absence rather than an absence of fieldwork (Tingle 1991 : 117).

The earliest evidence for activity up on the downs seems to have been a possible causewayed enclosure near Badbury. This was shown by surface collection combined with transcription of soilmarks that show on aerial photography, and the correlation between these indicates that the lithic scatters and the soilmarks are related (Tingle 1991 :27).

Figure 2 Soilmarks and surface survey results from Badbury Hill, zone D (after Tingle 1991 Figure 2.7)


Although prehistory, by definition, is without written documents of a contemporary nature, later documents can give a picture of an older landscape and the objects within in. For example, Tingle refers to a potential missing Bronze Age round barrow from his study area (Tingle 1991 :16), referred to by Grinsell as being listed in a land charter of the 9th Century, but Grinsell does clearly say that the two mounds mentioned in the charter may have been put their to mark the boundary, rather than be prehistoric barrows (Grinsell 1938 : 105).

The availability of 9th Century charters that mentioned landmarks in the region was useful, however, as a kind of truthing for the evidence that was found in the field walking. Tingle felt that it enabled him to estimate the accuracy of the interpretation of the finds compared to the documentary evidence, and could project this accuracy back to the non-documented land uses (Tingle 1991 : 15). It is not certain, without inspecting the data, how successful this is as a test, as both sets of evidence are of a partial nature, and it is by no means certain that the parts overlap in a useful manner. He accepts though, that the use of unstratified finds to recreate past land use is problematic and subject to many caveats and conditions (Tingle 1991 : 21).

The Vale of Pewsey

Figure 3 The Location of the Vale of Pewsey, between the World Heritage Sites of Avebury, to the North, and Stonehenge, to the South (Crown Copyright)


Maps play an important part in understanding prehistoric remains. Not only do the Ordnance Survey include many (but not all) visible above-ground archaeological remains on their maps, but also show field boundaries and footpaths, some of which may have early origins.

This has been shown by Tubb (2011 :280) with the Stanton St Bernard parish boundary preserving, in its kinks and doglegs, the edge of a prehistoric field system. That it was a field system and not another obstruction such as a barn, was shown by the use of aerial photography that showed the prehistoric fields (Tubb 2011 :280).









Figure 4 The Site of McCulloch’s fields 32 & 33 (after Tubb 2009 : 414 Figure 1.13)

Fields 32 & 23 may correspond with fieldnames that include ‘black’, shown on a 1784 map of the manor of Stanton St Bernard (Corfield 1925) although it was difficult to establish with any certainty owing to the unfamiliar perspective of the map. The placename ‘black’ is said to relate to ancient sites (Shone et al. 2009 : 7), presumably due to the colour of the earth when it contains rich humic material.










Figure 5 Aerial photograph showing the same parish boundary (Source: Langlands n.d.)

Further evidence for prehistoric activity, was obtained by examining material collected by McCulloch, representing activity from the Late Bronze Age to Roman periods (Tubb 2011 :218).

Further East in Milton Lilbourne, Tubb has shown that not only are prehistoric fields still discernable in their effects on modern boundaries, but that a relict set of co-axial fields is still being worked. Land in adjacent parishes shows an entirely different arrangement (Tubb 2011 : 237).

Of course, field systems are unlikely to exist in isolation, neither in space, nor in the larger context of society (Fleming 1990), and so these examples are just part of the work done to establish the nature of prehistoric activity in the Vale. Overall the project put together evidence based on field-walking, earthwork survey, geophysics and a sense of topography and geography, to make sense of the landscape as a whole.


Some general conclusions can be drawn here: as with any investigation, in any discipline you care to choose, it is important to consider any previous work that has been done in the area; it is vital that all avenues of interrogation are considered from the outset even if project constraints deny their application; and a careful synthesis is required to make sense of any project findings. It is evident that a single technique, in isolation, does not provide enough evidence upon which to base an interpretation; it is the bringing together of various pieces of evidence that is the strength of Landscape Archaeology.

With respect to the investigations of later prehistoric landscapes, it is clear that with careful application, the traditional approaches usually associated with historic landscape analysis can be applied, not least to ‘subtract’ the more recent layers from the palimpsest. Hoskins was therefore wrong to downplay the role that prehistoric lifeways had in shaping our modern landscape, and the evidence is there, if one cares to look.



Aston, M., 1985. Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape, Archaeology and Local History 1st ed., London: Routledge.

Aston, M. & Rowley, T., 1974. Landscape Archaeology: An Introduction to Fieldwork Techniques on Post-Roman Landscapes, Vancouver, BC Canada: Douglas David & Charles Limited.

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

Clay, P., 2007. Claylands Revisted: The Prehistory of W. G. Hoskins’s Midlands Plain. In A. Fleming & R. Hingley, eds. Prehistoric and Roman Landscapes. Windgather Press, pp. 70-82.

Corfield, W., 1925. Plan of the Manor of Staunton St Bernard, in the County of Wilts, belonging to the Right Honourable The Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery Surveyed by Mr Corfield, Salisbury, 1784 Scale of 3 chains to an inch.

Fitch, S., 2011. The Mesolithic Landscape of the Southern North Sea. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Birmingham. Available at:

Fleming, A., 2007. 1955 and All That: Prehistoric Landscapes in The Making. In A. Fleming & R. Hingley, eds. Prehistoric and Roman Landscapes. Macclesfield: Windgather Press, pp. 1-15.

Fleming, A., 1990. Landscape Archaeology, Prehistory, and Rural Studies. Rural History, 1(1), pp.5–15. Available at: [Accessed October 21, 2011].

Grinsell, L.V., 1938. Berkshire Barrows Part III. Evidence from Anglo-Saxon Charters. Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 42, pp.102-116. Available at:

Hoskins, W.G., 2005. Making of the English Landscape New editio., Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

Langlands, A., The Vale of Pewsey: A 10th Century Landscape. Mapping Anglo-Saxon Charters. Available at: [Accessed January 12, 2011].

Shone, A., Smart, D. & Wiltshire, M., 2009. A ridge-way route between Wirksworth and Little Chester , Derby : a Roman road and its constructional features . Second Edi., Derby: Wirksworth Roman Project. Available at: Ridge-way.pdf.

Tingle, M., 1991. The Vale of the White Horse Survey, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (British Series 218).

Tubb, P.C., 2009. The Bronze Age-Iron Age Transition in the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire. Volume 2. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Bristol.

Tubb, P.C., 2011. The LBA/EIA Transition in the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (British Series 543).

Written on January 13th, 2012 , Essays

We need to consider firstly that the two conquests are separated in time by a millennium and from us by two, and therefore the preservation of the earlier evidence will be hindered by time, and two thousand years of intensive land-use. That said, we are not measuring the relative impacts of the conquests in terms of quantity of artefacts and structures remaining, it is the way in which surviving evidence remains that will tell us how much of an impact it had.

We also have to consider that the two events are not mutually exclusive: the Normans were aware of the Roman invasion and subsequent conquest (Prior 2006), and would have been able to use information about the strategies and tactics deployed previously when considering their own plans. There is also the possibility that the lure of Empire and the sense of following in such illustrious footsteps may have added an extra dimension to the impetus to invade. Further evidence for the Roman influence on the Normans comes from the deliberate positioning of the castle at Colchester, on the temple of Claudius and in the first occupied town in Roman Britain (Prior 2006, 237).


The obvious primary point of similarity is that both conquests were by force. Both Romans and Normans constructed military fortifications as they progressed across the landscape. Hillforts such as Maiden Castle, Hod Hill and Cadbury Castle all show evidence of attack. Evidence from Hod Hill, Dorset gives a graphic demonstration of the military capabilities of the Roman Army: excavations showed ballista bolts inside the hillfort, and that shortly afterwards, a Roman fort was constructed within the enclosed area of the hillfort (Cunliffe 2009, 196).

Where the Romans built forts, the Normans introduced a new concept to Britain: castles (Johnson 2002,5). Stone castles take time to construct, so the first castles built by the Normans were, of necessity, a simple earthwork ringwork (Liddiard 2005, 19) such as the first phase of Cary Castle in Somerset (Prior 2006, 87); all that was required during the initial phase was security to house the attacking forces.

The archaeological evidence for the Norman Motte and Bailey castle seems to indicate that these were not constructed until after the actual Conquest, with the earliest example being at Winchester (Liddiard 2005, 23). In a contrast to the Romans imposing their architecture on the populace by building Roman-style civic buildings such as the imperial temple at Colchester (de la Bedoyere 2002, 53), the Normans seem to have adopted and adapted native designs such as the Burh-geat, and using it as a basis for their gate towers (Liddiard 2005, 21).







The ‘Britain’ that the Romans occupied, was not a single, united country. In the late Iron Age, there is evidence for disparate groupings of people, each with a separate group identity and loyalty, sometimes expressed through images on coinage, and certainly not united against a common foe (Russell & Laycock 2010, 43). It may be that the Roman invasion was not necessarily either unexpected, or entirely unwanted on the part of the subject peoples. There is evidence for the formation of Client Kingdoms, paying tribute and enjoying preferential trading arrangements with the Empire, as shown by high-status goods such as amphorae of wine and olive oil, and other ‘Roman’ trappings (de la Bedoyere 2010, 21). Iron Age coinage, mimicking and integrating Roman images and words shows that Roman ideas were already part of elite British life from 54BC (Mattingly 2007 ,71).

The ‘Britain’ that the Normans conquered, however, was likely to have had much more of a clearer idea of a united Nation, England having been united by the kings of Wessex (Thomas 2005,23) (although we are still talking about separate nations of England, Wales and Scotland at this stage). But Anglo-Saxon England was well-administered, well-run and well-organised, with a single King of England, with local justice and government taken care of by the Shire and Hundred courts (Prior 2006, 98). Contrast this with the Iron Age tribal arrangements and it is easy to see that the two political landscapes were vastly different.

Although there doesn’t appear to be much archaeological evidence for Roman forts in the South-East of England (Hanson W.S. 1999, 139)(the proposed landing area (de la Bedoyere 2010,28)), this may be due to the client kingdom arrangements in those areas that were geographically and culturally already close to the Empire (Hanson W.S. 1999, 139). But there is evidence for an expanding sequence of forts across most of England and Wales, with fort-building still continuing decades after the initial incursion, with the fort at Lincoln dating from the 60s and 70s (de la Bedoyere 2010, 38). Boudica’s revolt of AD59/60 shows that even nearly 20 years after the invasion, Britain was still not entirely under the Roman control, with the evidence being the ‘red layer’ of burnt material found in Colchester (Wacher 1975, 110), consistent with a large-scale burning event.

Contrast this with the documented battle of Hastings, taught in schools throughout the land, where the incumbent king was slain, and the new King crowned a couple of months later. A unified people can be symbolically conquered as a whole, whereas disparate groups of communities, where the concept of their individual grouping is stronger than their sense of sharing an island nation, must be individually dealt with. This is somewhat of an oversimplification, perhaps, but the conquest phase of the Norman invasion was relatively quick and decisive (Prior 2006, 34), but the Roman subjugation of the English and Welsh was the work of generations, and arguably never completed in reality, given the rapidity with which the Roman trappings disappear from the archaeological record once the legions have departed (Jones 1996, 256).

In terms of the evidence for conquest itself, we know from documentary sources that a battle was fought between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans and the Normans emerged victorious, but as Barker points out, the Norman Conquest itself did not bring about any appreciable change in material culture (Barker 1993, 251). Coinage, pottery and burial practise show no clear delineation (arguably apart from William now gracing the coins) between the Anglo-Saxon culture and the incoming Normans. If it weren’t for documentary sources, we might not see the Norman invasion at all (Creighton 2005, 175). Indeed, the oppression and re-organisation of land-holding that we traditionally associate with the ‘Norman Yoke’ (Wood 2010, 118), seems hardly to leave a trace archaeologically.

This lack of visible material culture is in contrast with the ‘package’ of Roman life that was introduced to the elite of British society. However, this Romanitas, as we have already stated, started to be introduced before the Claudian invasion (Russell & Laycock 2010, 38 ) and is not necessarily a marker of the invasion itself, merely of influence. If it were not for the excavated remains of forts attesting to military presence in these islands, the occupation may not be obvious. However, the archaeological record shows a rapid decline in Roman-type material culture in the decades after the legions left Britain (Russell & Laycock 2010, 174), so it seems the change in material culture due to the occupation itself is perhaps more apparent at the end of the occupation, than at the beginning. Even without the documentary evidence that the legions were being withdrawn, the archaeological record contains evidence for the decline of Roman material culture, even if it cannot categorically prove the withdrawal of the actual legions. There is evidence for the decline of villa buildings in the fifth century, and in some instances like at Dinnington, wooden post holes have been found in mosaic flooring, consistent with a wooden structure being inserted into the former Roman-style building (de la Bedoyere 2010, 265).



Enduring Impact

One of the most enduring and iconic emblems of the Norman invasion is the swathe of castles strewn across the British countryside. There is no evidence to suggest that Britain had castles before the Norman conquest (Prior 2006, 20), although earthwork fortifications in the form of Saxon burhs were in place, and at Stamford some of these earthworks were overlain by the Norman castle (Liddiard 2005, 19).

It is important to remember that the military function of a castle as a defensive and offensive structure, is not necessarily the beginning and the end of its purpose (Johnson 2002, 3). Castles are a statement in the landscape: just as during the Conquest they would have told the people they were conquered, a castle holds dominion over its surroundings and reminds the population who is in control (Creighton 2005, 64). The legacy of the castles of the subjugation phase of the conquest (Prior 2006, 29) developed into something more theatrical, more about status than safety (Johnson 2002).


As we have seen, one Conquest built on the work of the previous one and whilst it is probably not reasonable to suggest that the Normans would not have succeeded without the Roman groundwork, nevertheless, the infrastructure and military know-how bequeathed by the Romans must have made the Norman Conquest more feasible.

The legacy of the Romans seems to be more psychological and slightly nostalgic, rather than forming part of our character today. The rapidity with which the trappings of imperial possession faded away surely indicated that we were none too attached to the Roman ways and that cultural domination was never really achieve, or perhaps even attempted. It is reasonable to infer that dressing up as a Roman may have been a passing fashion amongst the elite in society, but when the legions left, what was left behind was Iron Age societies, not Romans.

The Norman Conquest appears to be one of settlement rather than occupation: from the outset, the emphasis was to display power and control in the way that the conquered peoples understood, using their metaphors and methods for display. Taking over the land of the British gentry and directly replacing them with Normans was perhaps a conquest more sympathetic to the indigenous culture than to simply ride roughshod over the existing society, imposing an alien civilisation on a reluctant people. That is not to say that it was not a harsh rule, or that the British people did not suffer greatly as a result but the Normans did not seem to want to replace the British culture with their own, as long as the wealth and land belonged to them.


Barker, P., 1993. Techniques of Archeological Excavation 1st ed., Routledge.

Creighton, O.H., 2005. Castles and Landscapes: Power, Community and Fortification in Medieval England New editio., Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Cunliffe, B., 2009. Iron Age Communities in Britain 4th ed., Routledge.

de la Bedoyere, G., 2002. Gods with Thunderbolts: Religion in Roman Britain, The History Press LTD.

de la Bedoyere, G., 2010. Roman Britain: A New History, Thames {&} Hudson.

Hanson W.S., 1999. Roman Britain: The military dimension. In J. Hunter & I. Ralston, eds. The Archaeology of Britain. Milton Park, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 135-156.

Johnson, M., 2002. Behind the Castle Gate: From Medieval to Renaissance 1st ed., Routledge.

Jones, M.E., 1996. The end of Roman Britain 1st ed., New York: Cornell University Press.

Liddiard, R., 2005. Castles in Context: Power, Symbolism and Landscape, 1066 to 1500 1st ed., Macclesfield: Windgather Press.

Mattingly, D., 2007. An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC – AD 409, Penguin.

Prior, S.J., 2006. A Few Well Positioned Castles: the Norman Art of War, Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd.

Russell, M. & Laycock, S., 2010. UnRoman Britain, The History Press Ltd.

Thomas, H.M., 2005. The English and the Normans, Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Wacher, J., 1975. The Towns of Roman Britain 2nd ed., London: Batsford Ltd.

Wood, M., 2010. The Story of England, Viking.


Written on May 16th, 2011 , Essays

The simple answer is Yes: archaeology covers a far greater range of time compared to historical documents, and therefore has the potential for allowing us to learn about the huge span of human existence. The more complex answer is more cautious and requires that the type of information that can be recovered using each discipline is examined and studied critically.

It should be emphasised that modern archaeological investigation is really a collection of analysis techniques and data recovery methodologies, and not just excavation. Landscape archaeology in particular makes use of historical documents such as old maps (Aston 1985, 18), and indeed any available source of information, meaning that to separate archaeology from historical sources is somewhat difficult. Especially if you consider that using fieldwork reports by other archaeologists is also ‘using historical sources’, as such reports are a document describing an event or series of events in the past, that cannot necessarily be verified by other means.

Therefore, for this purpose, we will define archaeology as the study of physical remains left behind by humans in the past and exclude physical remains that happen to be written.

In considering what material is available to study, and therefore has potential for ‘revealing’, it is important to consider how and why this material is available, as provenance and handling are an important consideration for interpretation. Recognising assumptions and lack of knowledge or evidence is as important as evidence you do have.

What are the sources of information?

Historical sources are many and varied, but all have one fact in common: they came into being deliberately and for a purpose. It is hard to create an accidental document, or an unintended map of your estate, therefore what is represented is the result of a deliberate act to convey a message to another human being, contemporary or otherwise.

Archaeology is the study of the physical remains left by humans, and as such, encompasses a wide range from stains in the earth denoting previous physical structures, to beads and pottery, to human remains.

Archaeology has the potential to get closer to the truth by providing a source of data rather than interpreted information. We must remember that any historical document is the result of human interpretation, whereas archaeological remains can be measured directly.

What can we find out?

Historical sources are very good at getting us close to the personal story of an individual at a moment in time; we can discover names, dates, addresses and family relationships, and often what living conditions were like at the time. This gives us a small window into a very specific time and place, albeit it at a very personal level.

Archaeology, on the other hand, deals with inanimate objects, mute and adrift in time. In exceptional circumstances, we cannot deduce the name of the owner, how they felt about their object and how they came to leave it where it was found. Archaeology is a process of deduction, drawing in evidence from as many places as possible, to answer questions that lead us to understanding the object (McIntosh 2006, 2).

How can we find it out?

For certain materials, shales, for instance,  we can guess at a likely source the material, based on chemical analysis and the fact that these resources only occur in certain geographical locations. But that cannot tell us how it got to be 300 miles away from this source.

Careful excavation and recording can pick apart the sequence of development of an archaeological site (Barker 1993, 80); we can say that the first phase was a ring of timber posts, later to be replaced with stone settings. Or we can say that the width and depth of the foundations meant that they could have supported a two-storey building constructed in stone and wattle-and-daub. We cannot say that it did, only that it could have done, if there is no other evidence for such a construction.

We can guess that as the shape is a familiar one, that it might have had a familiar purpose, but the shape alone cannot tell us for sure. Here is where developments in science, or more precisely, the application of techniques normally associated with other branches of science, can help. A recent Leverhulme-funded research project has been looking at thousands of artefacts associated with chalcolithic Beaker-type burials, and part of that research has been looking at tiny patterns of wear (microwear) on the surfaces of the objects. This can reveal that the assumed purpose cannot be correct. For example, the ‘bone pin for sewing leather’ does not have wear at the point, but does have wear around the ‘eye’ and is therefore more likely to be suspended in some way 1. In contrast, if there is such a mistake of interpretation captured in a historical document, there is less chance of re-examining and finding this mistake.

Archaeology then, is good for telling us about things that people made, how they might have made them, and in some instances, how they might have used them. An object, considered in isolation, cannot tell us much about the person it was associated with. We must consider whole assemblages, the contexts in which they were found and in what physical state they were found. When you have enough data, patterns begin to emerge and cautious statements can begin to be made about general rules based on the empirical evidence.

It is important, though, to acknowledge that these rules are made based on general assumptions about the people we are applying them to, that they thought like us, valued similar things in similar ways, employed metaphor and symbolism in a way we can recognise today and so on. All or none of these assumptions may be correct, we cannot know (Johnson 2010, 91).

Issues of Interpretation

How then can archaeologists learn more about these people from the past? Borrowing again from another discipline, this time anthropology, archaeologists can study modern-day hunter-gatherer societies and seek to understand their mythologies and beliefs and how these inform their material culture. Mike Parker Pearson has suggested that the people of Madagascar can show that the sequence of transition from Woodhenge to Stonehenge along the river Avon can be thought of as moving from the place of the living to the place of the dead, as Madagascans view wood as ‘living’ and stone as ‘hardening into death’ (Pearson 1998). Whether this is a valid analogy to apply to Stonehenge, we can never be sure. The two cultures are so removed in time and space that it seems somewhat of a stretch, but perhaps in the past this ‘hardening into death’ was a common belief. How valid it is to use ethnoanthropology as a kind of living experimental archaeology can never be satisfactorily proven, especially as the observers may be affecting their own experiment by the very fact of their contact with these societies (Bradley 1987).

Historical sources require careful evaluation, in order to understand and interpret what has been written. Often, the record is made long after the events it records, and we cannot always be sure that the events that are described were witnessed by the recorder. In the case of Bede, who almost never left his monastery in Jarrow (Schama 2000,51), yet recorded the events of several hundred years prior with the authority of an eyewitness, we must question the record, but also accept it as being one of the few sources of information available for the period. This does not prevent us from looking critically at the motives as well as the message. We may be able to learn more about the time in which the document was written, than the events described in the document.

What are we missing?

When assessing the value of the information we can assemble from either historical documents, or the archaeological record, it is important to consider what is missing from the record. Just as we would adjust for various biasing factors when making a statistical comparison, we must take account of what is not there, the records we don’t have, when making use of what we do have.

Historical documents are fragile things; Fire, whether deliberate (as in the Dissolution), or accidental is a great destroyer of historical sources. There is no record of London in the Domesday book, yet we know that London was there and Michael Wood suggests that this is due to the fire of 1086, just as the survey was taking place (Wood, 1987, 26).

Even if the sources do not get lost, there is the real chance that they are never created at all. Assumptions are not a modern phenomenon: we always assume that information recorded in the present will be immediately accessible in the future and similarly manorial records did not need to state how the open-field system worked as everyone knew – it did not need to be recorded.  Without this ‘common knowledge’, documents are open to misinterpretation and misuse.

Archaeology, too, is only a partial record. Organic materials such as wood, leather and textiles do not survive under most circumstances. There have been some notable survivals, such as the timbers of Flag Fen Post Alignment (Pryor 2005), but on the whole, we detect posts by their absence and not their presence.

Consider also the sites that are investigated; In recent years, developer-funded archaeology has increased the number of sites discovered accidentally, and also made larger areas is available for excavation.  Remote sensing techniques and developments in surveying now mean that a more holistic approach can be taken to the landscape (Renfrew & Bahn 2004, 78) where previously a single area or monument would be the investigative focus. So, in the past, the knowledge about a site was limited to a single point, perhaps missing important clues.

Where does this leave us?

Having implied that historical documents are biased and untrustworthy, and that archaeology is just a series of informed guesses and assumption-based leaps of faith, how do we estimate their relative worth? Having initially decided that archaeology is obviously the better tool we have gone on to discover just how much it cannot tell us directly and therefore how much is inference and borrowing of analogy. Is this any better than historical documents?

The saving grace of archaeology is that we don’t have to get the interpretation right now: as long as fieldwork is scrupulously recorded, artefacts carefully conserved and reports written in a timely manner, the work can be re-evaluated in the light of new thinking and new discoveries.

The greatest chance to learn about the past is when historical sources and archaeological remains provide a cross-check for each other.


Aston, M., 1985. Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape, Archaeology and Local History 1st ed., London: Routledge.

Barker, P., 1993. Techniques of Archeological Excavation 1st ed., Routledge.

Bradley, R., 1987. The Social Foundations of Prehistoric Britain: Themes and Variations in the Archaeology of Power New editio., Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc.

Johnson, M., 2010. Archaeological Theory: An Introduction 2nd ed., Wiley-Blackwell.

McIntosh, J., 1999. The Practical Archaeologist: How We Know What We Know About the Past 2nd ed., New York: Facts On File Inc.

Pearson, M.P., Ramilisonina, 1998. Stonehenge for the ancestors: the stones pass on the message. Antiquity, 72(276), p.308–326. Available at:

Pryor, F., 2005. Flag Fen: Life and Death of a Prehistoric Landscape illustrate., The History Press LTD.

Renfrew, C. & Bahn, P.G., 2004. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice 4th ed., London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Schama, S., 2000. A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? – 3000 BC-AD 1603 Vol 1 1st ed., London: BBC Books.

Wood, M., 1987. Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England BCA Editio., Book Club Associates.

1 – From a lecture ‘A Wheelbarrow Full of Surprises – a re-evaluation of some early Bronze Age Graves’ given by John Hunter 09/10/2010

Written on May 16th, 2011 , Essays

The Aims of Landscape Archaeology

Firstly, it is important to be clear that the Landscape of which we speak, is not the landscape of artists, but the original landschap of the Dutch, denoting human occupation (Schama 1996: 10). It is not that the two are separate but beauty, for once, is not the object in view.

Aston and Rowley (1974 :14) describe the landscape we see today as a palimpsest of the uses to which humans have put the land, sometimes destroying, sometimes creating, but with the evidence writ plain for those who take care to read it.

An early proponent of this reading of the landscape, was Hoskins ( 2005) who advocated a blend of human geography and empirical observation of the landscape to produce a narrative. Johnson (2009: 197) criticises this approach as being too anecdotal but the Landscape Archaeology today blends techniques based on Hoskins’ work but adds in any scientific technique that promises to offer enlightenment.

The techniques employed in Landscape Archaeology are primarily concerned with the tangible aspects of the landscape: the physical evidence we can still detect and measure, and the wider patterns we can discern when working at the landscape scale. Landscape Archaeology is the process of understanding the landscape: attempting to define and describe how the landscape functioned and was experienced (Darvill, 2003).

On the other side of the spectrum from the scientific observations, David and Thomas (2008 : 38-9) argue that Landscape Archaeology needs to move toward an archaeology of Landscape, to consider the human aspects as well as the practical in order to bring a more rounded approach to the discipline. It is not enough to describe what would logically have made sense in terms of land-use, we must allow places to have meaning (Thomas, 1998).

As yet, remote sensing technology is not yet mature enough to eliminate all need for intrusive investigation; therefore, there is a limit to the extent to which Landscape Archaeology can determine the nature of features found and any hypothesis must be tested (Aston & Rowley 1974 : 49).

It must also be acknowledged that not all of man’s activities leave a discernable trace. For instance, transhumance would not necessarily leave evidence in the landscape (Witcher 1999 :17). Therefore it is important to consider what is missing from our data as well as what we can physically discern, and not to dwell too much on site density and distribution maps. Too much emphasis on spatial arrangement can lead to geographical determinism and interpretations biased towards logical, calculable factors to the deprecation of the consideration of more irrational, human characteristics (Witcher 1999 : 15).

The strength of Landscape Archaeology comes with the broader, multidisciplinary,  perspective it brings : rather than using a narrow range of techniques, we deploy any that seem appropriate for the situation; we do not deal with an individual site such as a single monument, but have the freedom to explore the places between what has been traditionally classified as ‘an archaeological site’. This allows us to recognise that sites are connected and related, and in this more holistic approach, produce a synthesis that is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is this very scale that influences, and determines the success of, the range of methodologies and techniques deployed for data acquisition; the detailed and painstaking approach of excavation is utterly inappropriate when considering an area of several hectares for reasons both of logistics and cost. Therefore, we turn to techniques that can cover larger areas but still attempt to answer the questions we have about the landscape.

Methods and Techniques

Aerial Photography

Aerial photography plays an important role in Landscape Archaeology, as it not only provides a means of discovering evidence of activity in the landscape, but using transcription techniques, also provides a means of taking that evidence and plotting it on a map, or into a GIS for further analytical work.


The primary strength of aerial photographic analysis is that it gives a view of a landscape in a form that is recognisable as being what one could see (Wilson 2000 : 24) and allows the recognition of sites and their possible interrelationships (Campana, 2009 :11) However, if there is little contrast between earthworks and their surroundings, they may be invisible in a vertical photo.


Whilst it is true that a camera can only capture what the human eye can physically see, the use of infrared filters and hyperspectral sensing techniques can enhance the image captured and bring out detail that otherwise might be missed, for example highlighting cropmarks  which are more visible in near-infrared (Campana, 2009 :18).


Allows large areas to be covered

Provides material for transcribing – transcriptions can be used to map an area, instead of detailed survey, if the subject area is too large to make that practical (Fowler 2000 : 34).

Some features can only be comprehended when seen as a whole

Shows up crop and soilmarks that may not be visible from the ground, or may not appear significant as the whole cannot be seen

Allows work to be done on landscapes where access on foot may be difficult as it does not require access to the physical location.

historic photos allow comparisons of condition of monuments, to assess deterioration



Can only see what the human eye can see, although filters may improve what is captured

Care must be taken when transcribing oblique photographs as perspective will be skewed

Not all soils and crops show crop and soilmarks so sites can be missed owing to wrong conditions

Only really useful at certain times of year e.g. winter when the vegetation has died down, after ploughing, in the summer to show parchmarks.

If the weather is too dry, the marks can appear reversed and be misleading e.g. ditches look like walls (Drewett 2011 : 37)

Earthwork Survey

Earthwork survey is good for delineating features that may otherwise not be apparent from the ground; a series of vague humps can become, when systematically plotted, a clear plan of recognizable features.

Earthwork survey can help to determine relative dating for a site, by observing which earthworks overlay or slight other features, and which are, in turn cut by further features. What it cannot do is provide absolute dating. Nor can it, alone, positively enable the classification of the site. Aston gives a good example of the pitfalls of using morphology alone as a basis for identification, with his extensive list of the possibilities represented by a round mound in the landscape (Aston, 1985).

Surface Collection

EU influence on farming policy has led to the abatement of deep-ploughing in agriculture, which in turn has lessened the frequency with which subterranean deposits are dredged from deep in the soil (Campana, 2009 : 8). We are therefore probably only finding fairly shallow deposits.

Environmental Archaeology and Geoarchaeology

Pollen is preserved extremely well in conditions such as those found in peat bogs: waterlogged and acidic. However care must be taken as not all species produce large amounts of pollen and may be under-represented in a sample (Muir 2000 : 1).

Environmental evidence tends to provide sequences rather than dating, but is useful to show the type of plants and microfauna that were present in an area .

Using environmental evidence is an important part of understanding the positioning and aspect of monuments in the landscape. For example, it has been shown that Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure was constructed in an area that was predominantly woodland (Pollard & Reynolds, 2002 : 55).

Geoarchaeological information such as soil structure and composition can also play a part in helping to reconstruct the use of the land for agriculture and may help to explain use or disuse of tracts of land over time (Denham, 2008 : 470).

Although environmental and pedological evidence can be enlightening, the work is typically done by specialists, making it expensive and limiting the scale at which it can reasonably be applied.


In the main, the techniques above are useful for describing the state of what remains, but perhaps fall short of describing what was. Edmonds (1999: 7 ) considers the landscape to be experienced on both a practical and a sensual basis: not as a backdrop to daily life but as a lived experience. This bodily participation in what is now an extinct landscape is difficult to recreate, although a lot of attempts are being made (Fleming, 2006).

Whilst the evidence garnered in the above techniques is ideally subjected to a degree of interpretation to form a coherent narrative that forms a plausible explanation for the results, the danger with this is that an explanation becomes the explanation, when the interpretation we are making is formed through the lens of our modern understanding and assumptions (Johnson 2009: 106; Edmonds 1999 : 9). In reality, the aim of wholly understanding the human motivations and behaviours, discernible only through physical remains, must remain forever elusive, and scientific approaches cannot hope to answer all the questions of the past (Thomas 1998 : 88-9).

Archaeology, at best, can provide a framework of physical descriptions upon which to test theories about the past, and Landscape Archaeology is no less subject to this limitation than any other branch of the discipline.  We must not be fooled by our ability to exactly measure and describe a relict of the past, into believing that to exactly describe is to understand, and to measure scientifically is to know the measure of something.



Aston, M. (1985). Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape, Archaeology and Local History (1st ed., p. 168). London: Routledge.

Aston, M., & Rowley, T. (1974). Landscape Archaeology: An Introduction to Fieldwork Techniques on Post-Roman Landscapes. Vancouver, BC Canada: Douglas David & Charles Limited.

Campana, S. (2009). Archaeological site detection and mapping: Some thoughts on differing scales of detail and archaeological “non-visibility.” In S. Campana & S. Piro (Eds.), Seeing the Unseen: Geophysics and Landscape Archaeology (pp. 5-26). Leiden: CRC Press/Balkema.

Darvill, T. (2003). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (2nd ed., p. 528). Oxford University Press.

David, B., & Thomas, J. (2008). Landscape Archaeology: Introduction. In B. David & J. Thomas (Eds.), Handbook of Landscape Archaeology (pp. 27-43). Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press Inc.

Denham, T. (2008). Interpreting Practices-in-the-Landscape through Geoarchaeology. In B. David & J. Thomas (Eds.), Handbook of Landscape Archaeology (pp. 468-481). Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press Inc.

Drewett, P. (2011). Field archaeology: an introduction (2nd ed., p. 208). Routledge.

Edmonds, M. (1999). Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic: Landscapes, Monuments and Memory (1st ed., p. 192). Routledge.

Fleming, A. (2006). Post-processual Landscape Archaeology: a Critique. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 16(03), 267. doi:10.1017/S0959774306000163

Fowler, P. J. (2000). Landscape Plotted and Pieced: Landscape History and Local Archaeology in Fyfield and Overton, Wiltshire (p. 325). London: Society of Antiquaries of London.

Hoskins, W. G. (2005). Making of the English Landscape (p. 274). Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

Johnson, M. (2009). Archaeological Theory: An Introduction (2nd ed., p. 328). Wiley-Blackwell.

Muir, R. (2000). The New Reading the Landscape: Fieldwork in Landscape History (p. 272). University of Exeter Press.

Pollard, J., & Reynolds, A. (2002). Avebury: Biography of a Landscape (illustrate., p. 176). The History Press Ltd.

Schama, S. (1996). Landscape and Memory (Reprint., p. 672). Vintage Books USA.

Thomas, J. (1998). Time, Culture and Identity: An Interpretative Archaeology (1st ed., p. 288). Routledge.

Wilson, D. R. (2000). Air Photo Interpretation for Archaeologists (2nd ed., p. 240). The History Press Ltd.

Witcher, R. E. (1999). GIS and Landscapes of Perception. In M. Gillings, D. Mattingly, & J. van Dalen (Eds.), Geographical Information Systems and Landscape Archaeology (pp. 13-22). Oxford.


Written on May 15th, 2011 , Essays

Man, as a race, has long understood boatbuilding and seafaring; he owes his ubiquitousness to the ability to take to the sea and colonise new landmasses. It is postulated that Australia was colonised in this way 40,000-60,000 years ago (McGrail 2003). So the knowledge of seafaring was once known, but was it used in the Bronze Age, and why? Was there a need to reach beyond our shores and interact with a wider world, or was our island nation world enough?

To look at cultural contact in the Bronze Age (nominally 2200-800BC), it is perhaps necessary to start a little further back, to the late Neolithic and inspect the conditions at the very start of the Bronze Age. We had already seen, in the Neolithic, a marked similarity in style in chambered cairns and similar megalithic monuments along the Atlantic coast of France, and down the West coast of Britain. The spread of ideas would not be a new phenomenon. Stone axes, too, made their way from various ‘axe factories’ to destinations all over Europe.

It is reasonable then to assume that contact continued with our continental brethren, and that communications and trade, whether of ideas or material goods, persisted and became ingrained in society. To look for confirmation of this assumption, we will consider the archaeological evidence available for the movement of people, ideas and objects.

The Beaker Phenomenon – People and Practices

The earliest Beaker pottery found so far is from Iberia, but examples of this pottery, in similar form and in seemingly similar contexts are found across continental Europe. From Europe, Beaker pottery and the beginnings of copper metallurgy found their way North to Britain. Whether this was due to an invasion of ‘Beaker Folk’ or just the knowledge and ideas spreading, there is no definite answer. The reality is probably a little of both (Brodie 1997): communication and trade brought people into contact with other people, but also it would be possible to imagine overcrowding or pressure on resources causing a band of people to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The rapid spread of Beakers throughout Europe and thence to Britain is considered evidence for the continuation of networks of trade and exchange dating back to the Neolithic and perhaps beyond (Cunliffe, 2001, 215).

Beaker pottery is found amongst some of the most richly-furnished graves discovered so far, the most famous example being the Amesbury Archer. Excavated by Wessex Archaeology in 2002, the Archer’s grave contained fragments of 5 beakers (normally individuals are found with one) along with items of gold and beautiful barb-and-tang arrowheads (A. Fitzpatrick 2002). But this wasn’t what was special about the Archer. Strontium analysis on the Archer’s teeth revealed a childhood spent in cooler climes, possibly the Alps. Yet he was buried near Stonehenge. Not far off, the ‘Boscombe Bowmen’ also claimed a non-local childhood (Evans et al. 2006).  A copper dagger found in association with the Archer’s burial site is suspected to have continental origins, based on analysis of the ores that constituted the raw materials (Barber, 2002, 87).

If we accept that the Stonehenge landscape would have had a particular draw on people, and is by no means typical of the rest of Britain, the fact remains that Stonehenge was known about in distant places, and that implies connectedness of some form.

Wessex Culture – Exotic Artifacts

The term was coined by Stuart Piggott (Needham et al. 2010) to describe the feeling that the almost excessively rich burials found in Wessex must have been due to an elite group of Bronze Age warrior types, buried with exotic goods and symbols of power. These goods included exotic amber and faience, bronze weaponry, jets, shale, pendants, pins, sceptres and special types of pot. Elaborately decorated gold items were found, showing evidence of techniques also known to the Mycenaeans (Clark 1966) (although Renfrew seems to disagree about the workmanship being similar (Renfrew 1968)).

More important, for our purposes, was Piggott’s observation of the similarities to what was being found in the Breton Dagger Graves, on the other side of the channel (Woodward 2002). Piggott’s interpretation of this was the invasion of the Wessex chalklands by Breton noble warriors (Barber 2002, 33). Whilst the nobles may have faded away, the connection between Wessex and Armorica may not be so far-fetched. Northern France is only across the Channel, and the means to cross this had long been available.


Archaeological evidence for the means of transport that facilitated these connections has been discovered in the form of the Dover Boat (Cunliffe, 2001, 68), remains of several vessels at North Ferriby, spanning a period of over 1000 years. Whilst there is some discussion about whether the Ferriby vessels were intended for crossing the Humber or the sea, the positioning of site in terms of navigating out of the Humber estuary indicates that more than the river-crossing may have been possible (H. P. Chapman & P. R. Chapman 2005).

Boats may well have been the most efficacious method for transferring goods and people around Britain. Even though the wildwood of the Mesolithic had dwindled during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, Rackham guessing that only 50% remained by the Early Iron Age (Rackham 2000, 72), travel overland would probably have been problematic and dangerous. Travel by water may have been a far simpler proposition. Once mastery of the inshore waters had been achieved, trade and exploration further afield would surely follow.

Raw Materials

We have already seen how objects from continental Europe have been found in British contexts, but we now need to consider the idea that materials may have travelled from their original source to be used elsewhere.

Tin is an essential component of the alloy of copper that gives the Bronze Age its name, so it is reasonable to assume that it would be required in considerable quantities, to manufacture the sheer number of bronzes that have been found so far.  Tin is uncommon, and the most well-known source is Southwest Britain. A map attributed to Hecataeus of Miletus, from around 500BC, shows the ‘Tin Islands’ to the North of continental Europe (Cunliffe 2001, 3).

Proving that southwest Britain was an important source of tin, based on evidence of mining, has been problematic, owing to little evidence for the exploitation of Cornish tin workings in prehistory (Barber 2002,100). Barber suggests that part of the reason for this is that, as in the Neolithic ‘axe factories’ the effort of sourcing the raw materials may be of significance and the sources non-obvious when compared to modern workings.

Such selection of obscure mines or other workings, not obvious to the modern mind, may make isolating a source for the ores difficult without locating these sources to compare data with the finished artefact. When it is then considered that ores may be mixed and contaminated, proving without doubt where the ore originated is problematic (Knapp 2000). This makes it difficult to establish exactly how far an artefact may be from the raw materials that went into it.

Bronze may also have travelled as a raw material, having been melted down for recycling. Bradley suggests that perhaps when objects moved outside their ‘normal’ locus of circulation, they ceased to be considered as objects and became a commodity (Bradley 1985).

The amber beads, of the sort found in well-furnished burials, were probably manufactured in Britain, from amber sourced from the Baltic, and then some of the beads found their way into shaft graves in Mycenae (Bradley 2007,156). Not only was Britain importing the raw material, but also exporting goods made from it. It is probably not wise to think of exports in the modern capitalist sense of the word; objects as physical items may be open to different interpretations, and the means by which they become parted from their place of manufacture may be more complex than the word export implies.

Objects and exchange

Barry Cunliffe describes Bronze Age society as hierarchical and explains the richly-furnished graves as the accumulation of wealth by Elites in society (Cunliffe 2008:226); The rich and exotic objects testifying to the power and importance of the individual. Joanna Brück does not see a need for exchanged objects to have hierarchical significance in determining status of the individual they are buried with. Rather than a display of pure status, they are a mark of connection to another: the object is more than a physical construct, representing and bringing forth the memory of the person who gave the gift (Brück 2006). In this way, subtle influence could be achieved over another, but none in the modern sense of a bribe. It was not the monetary value of the gift that was important, but the part of themselves that had been bestowed as part of the physical artefact.

It is important to remember that the presence of Baltic amber in a Wessex grave does not mean that the burial is of a person who personally visited the area, or that they knew someone who had. The connection is probably far more distant and the chain of exchange more lengthy (Harding et al. 1974).

One of the furthest-travelled objects found so far, is the bronze strumenti con immanicatura a cannone found in Salcombe in 2004 (Needham & Giardino 2008). It is of a class of item known only in Bronze Age Sicily, and is therefore reasonable to assume, has travelled a considerable distance to reach its final resting place. In itself, this is perhaps of little significance except to demonstrate the distances that objects could travel. Unfortunately, the individual stages of its journey are archaeologically invisible.

Whatever the mechanism for the arrival of exotic objects on our shores, it is clear not only from the evidence dating explicitly from the Bronze Age date range, but from the periods before and after the Bronze Age, that trade and contact was an important part of the development of prehistoric society.


Barber, M., 2002. Bronze and the Bronze Age, The History Press LTD.

Bradley, R., 1985. Exchange and Social Distance–The Structure of Bronze Artefact Distributions. Man, 20(4), p.692–704. Available at:

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

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Brück, J., 2006. Death , Exchange and Reproduction in the British Bronze Age. European Journal of Archaeology, 9(1), pp.73-101. Available at:

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Cunliffe, B., 2001. Facing the ocean: The Atlantic and its peoples, 8000BC – AD1500, New York: Oxford University Press.

Evans, J. a, Chenery, C. a & Fitzpatrick, a P., 2006. Bronze Age Childhood Migration of Individuals Near Stonehenge, Revealed By Strontium and Oxygen Isotope Tooth Enamel Analysis*. Archaeometry, 48(2), pp.309-321. Available at:

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McGrail, S., 2003. The sea and archaeology. Historical Research, 76(191), pp.1-17. Available at:

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Needham, S. et al., 2010. A first “Wessex 1” date from Wessex. Antiquity, 84(324), pp.363-373. Available at:

Rackham, O., 2000. The History of the Countryside New Ed., Phoenix.

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Woodward, A., 2002. British Barrows: A Matter of Life and Death New Ed., The History Press LTD.

Written on May 11th, 2011 , Essays

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