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Kingdoms of the British Isles

Early Cultures


Neolithic Britain (Farmers)
c.4000 - 2450 BC
Incorporating Grooved Ware & Unstan Ware

At the same time as Neolithic Farmers were flooding from Anatolia and into Greece to found the Sesklo culture, further groups of Anatolians were migrating along Europe's northern Mediterranean coastline to reach Iberia, either island hopping in boats or by hugging the coastline. Once there they founded a similar farmer culture, largely replacing the indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gather groups.

From there a further migration took place around two or three thousand years later - around 4000 BC. This was a more adventurous exercise as these Iberian Neolithic migrants travelled through France and largely ended up in southern Ireland.

Based on DNA evidence, they also entered mainland Mesolithic Britain, probably via south-western Britain or what is now Wales, although this evidence requires further examination to confirm or refute it. It seems to have been these Neolithic immigrants who brought with them the practice of building megalithic monuments.

DNA evidence also shows that the new arrivals did not mix freely with the native hunter-gatherers. In fact the indigenous hunter-gatherers were almost completely replaced by the Neolithic farmers, apart from one group in western Scotland where the Neolithic inhabitants show elevated local ancestry. This would probably be due to there being more hunter-gatherers and less farmers, so that the superior farmer culture (and DNA) dominated rather than replacing almost entirely.

From initial farmer settlements in Greece and Macedonia, a broad northwards movement of farming people began around 6200-6000 BC. They were looking for new land in what was becoming a crowded corner of Europe. Pioneering farmers took domesticated cattle and sheep towards the lower Danube and the Bug-Dniester line where they formed an extended 'Old Europe'.

The thin population of native foragers were largely seen as being 'other', regardless of how the two cultures interacted. Britain's own imported farmer cultures dominated for two and-a-half thousand years, and they excelled in monumental megalithic building - the earlier phases of Stonehenge being the best example of their work.

This British Neolithic period included Grooved Ware and Unstan ware. The name of Unstan is used to describe decorated pottery from the 3000s BC and 2000s BC which originated on the Orkneys. It existed peacefully alongside Grooved Ware people, and may even have informed or generated the origins of Grooved Ware (this is still up for discussion). Grooved Ware eventually spread across mainland Britain, right down to the west country builders of Stonehenge, although regional variations abound.

Ultimately Britain's Neolithic farmer cultures were replaced by the more powerful and energetic Bell Beaker culture which first arrived in Britain around 2700-2500 BC. The publication of DNA research in an early 2018 edition of Nature shows that the replacement was more complete than had previously been thought.

It was found that the spread of the Beaker complex had introduced high levels of Indo-European steppe-related ancestry and was associated with the replacement of approximately ninety percent of Britain's gene pool within a few hundred years (simply by sidelining males from the older stock rather than necessarily through killing them).

Henge-building traditions

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Dr Chantal Conneller at the University of Manchester, Professor Nicky Milner at York University, and the Vale of Pickering Research Trust, from On the Ocean, Pytheas of Massalia (work lost, but frequently quoted by other ancient authors), and from External Links: Stonehenge, and Science, and Stonehenge: DNA reveals origin of builders, Paul Rincon (BBC News), and Neolithic Pottery of Orkney (Odyssey, Adventures in Archaeology).)

c.4000 BC

FeatureScotland's oldest-known farm is in use at a site near Blairgowrie in Perthshire in the far north. The farm is close to a burial mound known as Cleave Dyke, which dates from a similar period, and contains a large, roughly circular enclosure which may be home to an extended family of about thirty people (see feature link).

Whitehawk Woman recreation
Continental farmer populations such as this recreation of Whitehawk Woman mixed to a limited extent with local hunter-gatherers as they expanded along both the Mediterranean and Rhine-Danube corridors and into Britain, where they almost entirely replaced the indigenous people

This point marks the end of the British Mesolithic period and the start of the Neolithic, during which farming practices gradually erode the established hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

One of the last Mesolithic sites in modern England is found by archaeologists in 2014. Working on the Blick Mead site near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, they report on an untouched site which contains evidence of feasting, including burnt flints, tools, and the remains of aurochs (large cattle), which are part of the diet of hunter gatherers in Britain.

c.3800 BC

Complex techniques which are used in the construction of chambered tombs become evident at this time on the Orkneys. At Maes Howe, a chambered tomb built around 3000 BC shows that its builders devise a standard unit of length by taking detailed readings from the movement of the sun and stars.

FeatureThe possibility also exists that the skills which are developed here are exported across Britain and from there to Egypt where they are used to construct the first pyramids. Mummification is also practised in Britain, with an example being found which is dated to 1000 BC (see feature link).

Zoser pyramid in Egypt
The Zoser pyramid - built during the twenty-seventh century BC for the burial of Zoser (or Djoser) - shows the development towards the later Great Pyramid of Khufu

c.3590 BC

FeatureA Neolithic massacre takes place when fourteen people die violently, with three of them probably being killed by arrows. The attack takes place at Wayland's Smithy, near Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire (see feature link). It is possible that they are killed in a rush for land or livestock, suggesting a period of increasing social tension and upheaval.

c.3100 BC

The site of Skara Brae on the Orkneys is built up and remains occupied until about 2500 BC. The group of six houses and a workshop is connected by a covered close.

FeatureAll buildings except for the workshop are buried to the tops of the walls by midden, a clay-like mixture of refuse consisting of ashes, shells, bones, sand, and other domestic detritus. It is this which protects the site until it is uncovered by a severe storm in AD 1850 (see feature link).

c.2950 - 2900 BC

Phase I of Stonehenge is assembled, comprising a circular bank, ditch, and counterscarp bank of about a hundred metres in diameter. Just inside the earth bank is a circle of the fifty-six Aubrey holes which hold wooden posts.

Skara Brae
The rediscovery of the apparently primitive community on Skara Brae following a severe storm in 1850 uncovered a wealth of data on Neolithic dwellings, with this proving to be one of the most vibrant and prosperous of cultures of its day

c.2900 - 2400 BC

Changes take place for Phase II of Stonehenge. For the next five hundred years, post holes indicate timber settings at the centre of the monument and at the north-eastern entrance. The Aubrey holes no longer hold posts but are partially filled, some with cremation deposits added to the fill.

The numerous post holes indicate timber structures but no clear patterns or configurations are discernible which can suggest their shape, form, or function.

c.2700 - 2450 BC

The various Neolithic farmer cultures across Europe and Britain have entered a period of decline. Based on evidence from Eastern Europe the main cause would seem to be climate change which had kicked in after around 3800 BC.

It brings about increased levels of warmth and moisture, leading to wetter and hotter summers and winters and then disease which rips through the town-based farmers while leaving the neighbouring forager cultures almost untouched.

The Thinker Sculpture of the Hamangia Culture
The Cucuteni-Tripolye culture developed on plains around the Carpathian Mountains - continuing into eastern Romania and south-western Ukraine, with both areas having extremely fertile soil - and the culture was next door to the Hamangia, which produced artistic marvels such as 'The Thinker', dated to around 4000 BC (click or tap on image to view full sized)

In the east and around the Mediterranean a 'dark age' follows the apparent collapse of the agrarian societies of Old Europe such as the Boian-Giuleşti-Mariţa and Cucuteni-Tripolye cultures. Settlements become scarce and people return to dispersed herding economies.

This also results in those very forager cultures, now much stronger and more numerous, flooding through the now defenceless farmer settlements to collect along the Danube and from there head west into Central Europe.

c.2700 BC

In the form of West Indo-Europeans these migrants interact with the European Bell Beaker horizon and, relatively soon afterwards, Britain's Neolithic farmers are quite suddenly replaced by a British form of Bell Beaker culture.

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