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Neolithic Britain

Description: Stone Arrowhead of Neolithic Period (New Stone Age).
Period: 4000 - 2000 B.C.
Size: 37 x 26 mm


The Neolithic has traditionally been associated with the origins of farming and a sedentary way of life, together with the use of pottery and of ground (polished) stone tools. However, some of these features are now known to predate this phase: in Japan, pottery goes back some 16,000 years, while edge-ground stone tools made before 32,000 years ago have been found in Australia. Even in the Neolithic, these aspects do not always occur together-for example, in the Near East food production developed before pottery occurred (thus giving rise to the term "Pre-Pottery Neolithic" (see Jericho). Nevertheless, the term remains in use in some parts of the Old World though its dates vary from a start in the 8th millennium BC in the Near East to an end in the 2nd millennium BC in northern Europe, depending on the timing of the adoption of copper or bronze technology. The Neolithic sees the rise of the first true villages, with houses being built of different materials in different parts of the world: mud-brick houses in the Levant and great timber long-houses in Central and Western Europe, for instance. At Jericho, the Pre-Pottery Neolithic even coincides with the construction of monumental stone walls. Perhaps the most extraordinary Neolithic village is that of Skara Brae, in the Orkneys, with its houses and their furnishings (including bed-places, cupboard-recesses and dressers) all made of stone slabs. Pottery, a natural development for sedentary peoples, was widely used. (The mobile hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic knew how to make it, but did not generally do so, as it is too heavy to carry; their receptacles were undoubtedly made of leather and basketry.) The cultivation of cereals and domestication of animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs was adopted not as a brilliant discovery, but as a necessity caused by the pressures of a rising population. Mining also came into its own in the Neolithic period. Its origins reach far back into the Palaeolithic, when people mined ochre in Africa, and went deep into caves in Australia to obtain flint nodules; by the Mesolithic obsidian (volcanic glass) was being obtained from Mediterranean islands. However, it was in the Neolithic that, in northern Europe, rich veins of high-quality flint were exploited with very extensive systems of hundreds of shafts and radiating galleries, the stone being dislodged with antler picks. The best known include Grimes Graves in England, Krzemionki in Poland, and Spiennes in Belgium. The flint from these mines as well as from many major open-air "factory" sites was often turned into flaked or polished axes, which were traded far and wide, and used for the tremendous forest clearance undertaken in Europe at this time. The evidence for clearance can be seen in the numerous long-houses of Europe, dozens of metres in length and constructed of large timbers. At one such site, Kückhoven in north-west Germany, the world's oldest well has been found, dating to more than 5000 BC, and lined with huge planks. The Neolithic also saw the construction of timber trackways in European wetlands such as those in Somerset, England; and villages of timber houses on the shores of Alpine lakes, sometimes apparently built on platforms over the water. Excavations of these waterlogged settlements has yielded an abundance of organic materials-wooden artefacts, basketry, textiles, etc-which normally disintegrate with time, and which therefore allow a glimpse of everyday life in the late Stone Age. These kinds of materials also survive well in extremely arid environments, such as the American southwest or the high Andes. Pottery was often richly decorated with incised, stamped, or painted motifs. Neolithic art also includes a wide variety of figurines (often of females, as in Eurasian Palaeolithic art); but perhaps its most impressive and noteworthy achievements are to be found in the art and architecture of an array of monuments found in different parts of the world. In western Europe there are numerous long barrows, or burial mounds, made of earth piled over timber mortuary structures. Noteworthy is Silbury Hill, in southern England, a huge mound of chalk, 40 m (over 130 ft) high and 160 m (525 ft) in diameter, built in c. 2600 BC. Even more impressive are the megalithic (from the Greek for "large stone") monuments, especially those of western Europe: the great stone circles of Britain (of which Stonehenge and Avebury are perhaps the best known); the menhirs, or standing stones, mostly single but also found in their thousands in the amazing rows at Carnac in Brittany; the "statue-menhirs" carved in human form; and the great megalithic tombs from Scandinavia to Portugal. Many of these tombs-such as New Grange and Knowth in Ireland, or Gavrinis in Brittany-are profusely decorated with incised designs on their stones: swirling spirals, diamonds, and even axes; some tombs in Spain and Portugal were painted inside. It is well established that astronomy was involved in the layout and orientation of some of these monuments- Stonehenge, for example, is aligned on the axis of the midsummer sunrise, while New Grange has a window above its entrance, through which the sun shines at dawn at the winter solstice.

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