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Studies of early fourth-millennium BC Britain have typically focused on the Early Neolithic sites of Wessex and Orkney; what can the investigation of sites located in areas beyond these core regions add? The authors report on excavations (2011–2019) at Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire, which have revealed a remarkable complex of Early Neolithic monuments: three long barrows constructed on the footprints of three timber buildings that had been deliberately burned, plus a nearby causewayed enclosure. A Bayesian chronological model demonstrates the precocious character of many of the site's elements and strengthens the evidence for the role of tombs and houses/halls in the creation and commemoration of foundational social groups in Neolithic Britain.
Radiocarbon dating and Bayesian chronological modelling have provided precise new dating for the henge monument of Mount Pleasant in Dorset, excavated in 1970–1. A total of 59 radiocarbon dates are now available for the site and modelling of these has provided a revised sequence for the henge enclosure and its various constituent parts: the timber palisaded enclosure, the Conquer Barrow, and the ditch surrounding Site IV, a concentric timber and stone monument. This suggests that the henge was probably built in the 26th century cal bc, shortly followed by the timber palisade and Site IV ditch. These major construction events took place in the late Neolithic over a relatively short timespan, probably lasting 35–125 years. The principal results are discussed for each element of the site, including comparison with similar monument types elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, and wider implications for late Neolithic connections and later activity at the site associated with Beaker pottery are explored.
The end of the last Ice Age in Britain (c. 11500 BP) created major disruption to the biosphere. Open habitats were succeeded by more wooded landscapes, and changes occurred to the fauna following the abrupt disappearance of typical glacial herd species, such as reindeer and horse (Conneller & Higham 2015). Understanding the impact of these changes on humans and how quickly they were able to adapt may soon become clearer, due to recent discoveries in the Colne Valley on the western edge of Greater London, north of the River Thames. An exceptionally well-preserved open-air site was discovered in 2014 as part of a wider project of archaeological investigation and excavation carried out by Wessex Archaeology (2015), on behalf of CEMEX UK. The site, at Kingsmead Quarry in Horton, is unusual because it has good organic preservation and, in addition to worked flint artefacts, it has yielded groups of articulated horse bone. The extreme rarity of such sites of this period in Britain makes this discovery especially significant and re-emphasises the potential importance of the Colne Valley (Lacaille 1963; Lewis 2011; Morgi et al. 2011).
A formally modeled radiocarbon chronology for a new profile through the great Neolithic tell of Vinča-Belo Brdo, Serbia, is the third interwoven strand in refining the chronology of the tell. This now joins models for the whole sequence based on the archive of early excavations, and for the last two known horizons at the top of the settlement mound, investigated in recent decades. In the new deep sounding, Vinča culture occupation from the 52nd century cal BC is slightly later than in the main sequence, probably reflecting the horizontal extension of the tell as it began to grow. The last dated occupation falls in the late 47th–early 46th century cal BC, slightly earlier than in the main sequence, but the top of the profile is affected by the slippage that caused the new excavations. Formal estimates are given for the succession and varying durations of burnt and unburnt houses, and indicate a period in the first part of the 5th millennium without house burning. Overall, the combined results from the three interwoven strands serve to produce a radically enhanced understanding of the temporality of the tell, which builds on, rather than supplants, previous research. We knew previously that Vinča-Belo Brdo was very long-lived, but now we can time that history with much greater precision. We can assert with much greater confidence that its vertical buildup was steady and largely uninterrupted. We have begun, from the work on the top of the tell and in the new deep sounding, to grasp better the fluctuations in house durations from generation to generation, and can now contrast the relative fortunes of unburnt and burnt houses. We can say much more about the timing and tempo of the ending of the tell, and about the possible circumstances in which that took place.
Bayesian statistical frameworks have been used to calculate explicit, quantified estimates for site chronologies, and have been especially useful for resolving the complex probability distributions of calibrated radiocarbon dates to the level of individual prehistoric lifetimes and generations. Here the technique is applied to the Neolithic tell of Vinča-Belo Brdo in order to answer long-standing questions about the timing and circumstances of its demise. Modelled date estimates place the end of the site in the second half of the forty-sixth century cal BC. Two successive horizons of closely spaced houses each suffered extensive burning; the interval between them was placed at a maximum of 25 years, with the last house probably used for less than 15 years. The evidence suggests that these house burnings were deliberate, and opens new considerations for the causes of the end of the tell-based system in south-east Europe.
Our final paper in this series reasserts the importance of sequence. Stressing that long barrows, long cairns and associated structures do not appear to have begun before the thirty-eighth century cal. bc in southern Britain, we give estimates for the relative order of construction and use of the five monuments analysed in this programme. The active histories of monuments appear often to be short, and the numbers in use at any one time may have been relatively low; we discuss time in terms of generations and individual lifespans. The dominant mortuary rite may have been the deposition of articulated remains (though there is much diversity); older or ancestral remains are rarely documented, though reference may have been made to ancestors in other ways, not least through architectural style and notions of the past. We relate these results not only to trajectories of monument development, but also to two models of development in the first centuries of the southern British Neolithic as a whole. In the first, monuments emerge as symptomatic of preeminent groups; in the second model, monuments are put in a more gradualist and episodic timescale and related to changing kinds of self-consciousness (involving senses of self, relations with animals and nature, perceptions of the body, awareness of mortality and attitudes to the past). Both more distant and more recent and familiar possible sources of inspiration for monumentalization are considered, and the diversity of situations in which mounds were constructed is stressed. More detailed Neolithic histories can now begin to be written.
Forty-four radiocarbon results are now available from the Hazleton North long cairn, and are presented within an interpretive Bayesian statistical framework. Three alternative archaeological interpretations of the sequence are given, each with a separate Bayesian model. In our preferred model the cairn is considered to be a unitary construction, following on from the pre-cairn midden and other activity after a short interval during which the site was cultivated; bodies of the recently dead were subsequently interred in the chambered areas. Further human remains were deposited in the entrances to the chambers slightly later in the Neolithic, after the primary phase of use of the cairn for burials. This model suggests that the cairn was constructed in the first half of the thirty-seventh century cal. bc, and that its primary use for burial lasted for only two or three generations, ending probably in the 3620s cal. bc. A second model which varies only in postulating continuity between the pre-cairn activity and the cairn itself has poor overall agreement, suggesting that this interpretation is improbable. The third model explores the possibility that some of the human remains (those where the deposition of intact corpses cannot be strongly inferred from the archaeological record) may have been curated for a considerable time since death when deposited in the tomb. This interpretation suggests a slightly later date for the construction of the cairn, in the middle decades of the thirty-seventh century cal. bc, and suggests that any human remains which were not interred as corpses were less than a century old when deposited. The correspondence between the bones most likely, on chronological grounds, to be ‘ancestral’ and those most likely, on archaeological grounds, not to have been deposited as intact corpses is, however, poor. For this reason we feel there is no clear evidence that the human remains at Hazleton were not deposited shortly after the deaths of the individuals concerned, and we prefer model 1.
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