Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Savage 1988, 4: The First Farmers

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My thanks to Richard Savage and the Crickley Hill Trust for permission to reproduce these abstracts from his 1988 booklet.  

"Neolithic Villagers c. 4000 to 2500 BC 

The first farming communities, "Neolithic" or "new Stone Age", whose cutting tools were stone and flint, reached Britain from the continent in the centuries about 4000 BC, bringing with them forerunners of plants and animals whose management still supports us now: wheat, barley, cattle, sheep, and pigs.  They also brought the manufacture of pottery, from this time the archaeologists most consistent guide to cultural change and affinity.  They represented a way of life, with origins in the Near East six millennia earlier or more, which totally changed man's relationship with his environment. 

A hunter-gatherer community will probably move with the seasons as its resources change, and over-exploits them at its peril.  Its numbers must always be small.  A farming community on the other hand must be static in the medium term to protect its growing crops and granaries, and well stored grain will remain in good condition for long enough to feed it through the year.  Domestic animals efficiently convert grass, foliage and other rough vegetable matter to human use.  In the longer term, while there is new land to farm, ill-management or even an increase in population can be tolerated. 

The methods of these first farmers, which were efficient, will have been at their most effective of the light well-drained soils, either of the uplands - as at Crickley - or of the parts of the valleys lying on sand or gravel.  In Britain they enjoyed for many centuries a climate warmer and drier than our own. 

[Illustration: Neolithic Axe E. J. P. Wilczynska]

 The earliest farmers left their traces in two parts of Crickley Hill.  On the shelf above the tip of the promontory to the west, they built at least four small insubstantial huts, from 2 m x 1m to 3 m x 2 m in size, with no finds or hearths associated with them at all.  It is possible that they were shelters for hunters or herdsman, but they may even have served a ritual purpose, perhaps as spirit houses or something similar.  Near the highest point of the hill, and overlooking the Vale, they left a series of pits in a long oval surrounding a space about 10 m by 4 m which had probably carried a small mound. The mound was removed and the pits filled in.  This structure, too, may have served some ritual purpose.

 About 3500 BC an area of about four acres at the highest point of the hill was enclosed with a bank built of stone quarried with antler picks from a line of shallow pits immediately outside it.  Along the inside edge of the bank was a wooden palisade, but the bank was less than half a metre high and palisade less than 2 m, so that the physical barrier was not very formidable.  It would have served at best to protect the defenders of the enclosures against arrows and other missile weapons, and to force attackers to break step at the ditch.  It may also have provided a moral or psychological boundary. 

[Illustration: The Neolithic ditch was quarried with antler picks R. Bryant] 

It seems likely - not yet quite certain - that this enclosure defended a settlement on the highest part of the hill, for the Neolithic finds of flint and pottery are most due densely clustered there.  A second bank and palisade, quarried from deeper ditches, was later added about 30 m inside it, to defend the same central area.  The original outer defence had at least five entrances, three to the east to the west where the tip of the promontory runs down to the Vale, and four of these were now matched by entrances through the inner defences.  Post holes suggest that all the entrances had wooden gates, and in through the southeastern entrants led a straight, fenced roadway with at least one rectangular wooden house beside it.  This was at the edge of the settlement, in the natural hollows some 50 m from the dense finds scatter which marks the centre of Neolithic occupation.  We can recognize this as a house because it stands in bedrock eroded to small particles in which large post holes were easily dug, and preserved by silt washing down into the hollow.  The bedrock at the centre of occupation is stone, and the soil deposits are very thin; the shapes of individual houses are here much harder to make out. 

[Illustration: Conjectural reconstruction of the first Neolithic village. The positions of the central houses are not yet known. C. Clark] 

The inner and outer defences were demolished, with deliberate burning, and their stone was used to refill the quarry pits.  The stone was later in part extracted and the banks were rebuilt.  This process was repeated a number of times, and finds of arrowheads suggest that several times the defences were attacked by bowmen.  The sequence of methodical destruction and rebuilding is hard to account for on strictly practical grounds, though it is common among sites of this kind, the "causewayed" or "interrupted-ditch" enclosures, of which over 40 are known in the Neolithic of south Britain.  It may have had a religious purpose.  We are dealing with people who invested in ritual structures and effort comparable with that which the Iron Age was to spend on fortifications, and were unlikely to have seen them as less practical.  For them the symbol and ritual provided indispensable indispensable part of the mechanism of everyday reality.  But there is no reason to believe that the arrow-attacks at Crickley were anything but serious and effective. 

[Illustration: Flint brought from 50km away was worked on the hill. P. Saxby]

 A kilometre to the north of Crickley Hill (on private ground) stands the Crippets long barrow.  It is the nearest of these Neolithic burial mounds, and although no certain evidence links it to the Crickley community, we may wonder whether some of their dead lie beneath it.  It is placed near the edge of the scarp and would be visible from the Vale for many miles, but for a modern planting of trees.  A kilometre to the south, at the Peak, Birdlip, trial excavation has shown another causewayed enclosure, and there are at least two scatters of Neolithic flint near the scarp edge between Crickley and Birdlip.  It is likely that Crickley forms part of a well-developed Neolithic landscape, whose long-distance trading links are made clear by its abundance of good flint, imported from no nearer than 50 km away to the east and southeast, and by its finds of polished stone axe-heads from much further afield. 

Before 2500 BC the site was abandoned.  The pits of the outer defence had been refilled, and not re-dug, sometime before; now the inner one, too, was left filled, and silted up.

 [Photograph: The Crippets long barrow. This stands on private ground]"

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