Britain's Neolithic past
Exploring Britain’s Neolithic past
Scattered across the islands of Great Britain are countless stone circles and monoliths. As successive waves of different peoples settled and lived in Britain, many would erect stone monuments and carve stone engravings, in an attempt to leave behind permanent markers of their respective cultures and beliefs. The islands of Britain have therefore been marked by the physical remnants of its previous inhabitants, with the features and landmarks of the British landscape hinting at its storied past.
If you’re interested in discovering the rich archaeological history of Britain, then you’ve come to the right place. Odyssey Traveller visits a number of these prehistoric sites in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, so join us as we explore the fascinating historical sites of Britain’s former inhabitants.
Throughout the Neolithic period, stone monoliths were erected during across Britain by its prehistoric inhabitants. Standing stones were mostly erected in the south-west and north of Britain where large stones could be easily sourced. Although the exact reasons for the raising of standing stones remains unknown, it is possible they were erected to honour certain religious deities, denote a space of worship, or demarcate territory.
From the end of the Stone Age to the dawn of the Bronze Age, Britain’s Neolithic peoples erected stone, timber and earthwork circles across the country, with more than 300 stone circles surviving to this day. Henges, which were circular earthworks that featured a ring-shaped bank and ditch, were often created as monuments in their own right, before the later additions of standing stones. Henges sometimes had pits containing an assortment of offerings, including stone tools, deer antlers, human bones or pottery fragments.
The earliest stone circles, found in Cumbria, date back to around 3000 BC, with other stone circles erected elsewhere in the country around 600 years later. Experts have speculated as to why Britain’s Neolithic peoples erected the numerous stone circles found across the British Isles. It has been noted that many stone monuments have an alignment with astronomical events; as such, much like Britain’s Neolithic burial chambers, it is possible that many stone circles were erected for the specific purpose of observing astronomical events and understanding the heavens and the universe.
Stonehenge, the UNESCO Heritage Site in Wiltshire, is by far the most famous stone circle in the British Isles, though other notable stone circles to found in Britain include Old Keig Recumbent Stone Circle in Aberdeenshire, and Castlerigg Stone Circle near Cumbria.
Sometimes rather than being arranged in a circle, stones were raised and positioned together in a line. There were a variety of possible uses for this particular arrangement; stone lines could have been used to mark out a particular route, or to demarcate the boundaries of an area of sacred worship. Many stone rows have a burial cairn at one end, or are located close to monoliths or stone circles.
One of the most notable sites of stone rows and monuments is the Calanais site on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Constructed 5,000 years ago, the Calanais site consists of a cross-shaped pattern of standing stones, the largest of which is a towering 4.8 metre monolith at the centre of the site.
Stone tools occupied a central role in Neolithic societies, with stone implements utilised for hunting, sewing, woodwork, and creating art work. Flint, a type of quartz, was used for the majority of Stone Age tools, with most flint tools dating from 10,000 BC onwards. Even with the development of metal tools in the Bronze and Iron Ages, flint tools were still used for some jobs due to the quality and sharpness of flint and obsidian blades. Stone tools can be commonly found in the south-east of England, and can also be found in Devon, Cornwall, and in north-west England, with flint tools including bladed instruments, scrapers, arrowheads and axes.
Stone engravings began to appear in Britain from around 4,000 BC, with the practice of engraving rock art carrying over from the Neolithic period to the Middle Bronze Age. There were three techniques to carve engravings into rock faces: scratching, to outline a design, pecking, using a pointed stone to carve out a desired shape, and grinding, which smoothed and deepened the shape.
Much like the mysterious stone circles and monuments erected in Britain during the Neolithic period, the purpose of much of Britain’s rock art is unclear, with the enigmatic patterns and markings of rock engravings giving little away about the original intent behind their creation. It is possible that they were symbolic depictions of landscapes, tales or cultural themes, or perhaps they were boundary or route markers for the local area.
During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, stone settlements were constructed across the British Isles for added protection and permanence. The remnants of Iron Age fortified homesteads called brochs can be found across the north and west coasts of Scotland. Brochs were circular towers featuring large walls that housed interior chambers and rooms, and were often high-status buildings occupied by the village chief or someone of local importance. In times of danger, the broch of a settlement would have acted as a refuge for locals seeking safety against raiding parties.
Duns, another type of fortified settlement, were built across western Scotland and Ireland during the Bronze Age period. A dun would consist of a large circular dry-stone wall that would encircle and shelter wooden buildings within the wall’s interior.
Perhaps the most famous stone-built Neolithic settlement in Britain is the UNESCO Heritage Site Skara Brae, located in the Orkney archipelago off Scotland. Occupied between 3,180 BC to around 2,500 BC, Skara Brae predates both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid, and is one of the best-preserved Neolithic settlements in Europe. The settlement of Skara Brae consists of several houses, a large chambered tomb, and two stone circles, and also contains stone built-furniture and a range of domestic artefacts, including gaming dice, tools and jewellery.
In numerous rockfaces across the British Isles, the languages of Britain’s ancient peoples can be found recorded in stone. Ogham is an alphabet native to southern Ireland, with most ogham-inscribed stones found in southern Ireland, though others have been found in Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and western Scotland. The names and recurrent words found on ogham-inscribed stones give an impression of a militaristic society, with two of the most common words being ‘wolf’ and ‘battle’.
Runic alphabets were brought into southern England by Saxon settlers in the fifth century AD, with the alphabet used in England known as futhorc. Runes were in usage in England until the tenth century, when the Old English Latin alphabet began to supplant it.
Perhaps the most famous runic inscriptions in the British Isles are the Viking graffiti found in Maes Howe burial chamber in Orkney. Carved in the 12th century by a group of warriors seeking shelter in the tomb, the carvings are humorous and boastful, including statements such as “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean”.
In northern Britain, symbol stones were carved and fashioned by the Picts, an Iron Age tribal group. The earliest stones were unshaped boulders or slabs that were decorated with deeply inscribed lines depicting abstract symbols and animals, and date back to the 5th to the 7th centuries AD. Broadly speaking, Pictish symbols fell into three categories – animals, whether real or mythical, mundane pairs, with everyday objects depicted in pairs, and abstract, which were often geometric and stylised patterns or shapes.
Following the arrival of Christianity in the late 6th century, the Picts combined existing patterns and symbols with Christian motifs and themes, with symbol stones coming to represent the vibrant cultural fusion that typified Pictish society at the time. The four Aberlemno symbol stones near Forfar in Angus are outstanding examples of Pictish art, covered in images of serpents, battle scenes, angels and intricate patterns.
With the arrival of Christianity to the shores of Britain and Ireland in the 7th century AD, stone crosses began to be erected across the British Isles. The earliest crosses date from the late 8th century, with preaching crosses originally erected to mark the location of open-air religious services held by travelling priests. Early high crosses were often carved with intricate ‘interlace’ patterns, as well as plant motifs and human figures.
Aside from being objects of worship and religious devotion, crosses were also erected to serve a communal or even navigational purpose. Market crosses were erected in the centre of market settlements to denote market places and gathering sites. Wayside crosses were erected by the sides of roads, and acted as shrines, route markers and boundary markers, as well as sometimes acting as markers for the boundaries of monastic estates.
As society and culture changed in Britain over the centuries, the stone monoliths and engravings that were once so ubiquitous began to disappear from the landscape. However, the legacy of Britain’s former inhabitants remains to us through the monuments and carvings they left behind.
If you want to see more of the British Isles, why not check out our Prehistoric Britain History Tour, which visits the sites of many of Britain’s most iconic standing stones. You could also check out the Walking Rural Britain Tour or the Scottish small groups tour to truly take in the sights of British countryside. For more on our varied tours of Britain, click here.
About Odyssey Traveller
Odyssey Traveller is committed to charitable activities that support the environment and cultural development of Australian and New Zealand communities. We specialise in educational small group tours for seniors, typically groups between six to 15 people. Odyssey has been offering this style of adventure and educational programs since 1983.
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