Neolithic And Early Bronze Age Research Student Symposium

Annual Conference for Postgraduate Researchers

Bradford 2014


Regional Organising Committee:

Mike Copper (University of Bradford), Owain Mason (Univeristy of Edinburgh)


The event was kindly sponsored by the Prehistoric Society.

Keynote Lecture:

Dr Alex Gibson

‘The Bronze Age Neolithic’


Blending the pots: traditions and narratives of the Earlier Bronze Age

Owain Mason, University of Edinburgh

Research of pottery of the Earlier Bronze Age tends to focus on the creation of typologies, where pots can be neatly slotted into a select number of categories. A prime example of this is the widespread Beaker tradition, which has been classified in numerous ways. Such attempts emphasise uniformity over variability, creating homogenous categories that often distort the reality of the situation. When examined at a local/ regional level the fuzzy areas between the categories becomes apparent. This becomes even more apparent when one extends the analysis of ceramics beyond the traditional sphere of burials, and into other contexts such as the domestic. In this paper I will briefly outline an alternative approach which seeks to develop a more fluid methodology that seeks to take into account these ‘fuzzy areas’. This will start by presenting a short critique of current interpretive approaches to ceramics in the late 3rd millennium, before outlining an alternative approach. This approach rejects a normative view of ceramics, in favour of examining pots as malleable categories, where context plays an important role in folk classifications. The applicability of this methodology will then be explored in the context of the Orkney Isles, an area generally thought to have gone into ‘recession’ during this period. This interpretation is in part engendered by Orkney’s archaeological data failing to match the ‘stereotyped’ view of the late 3rd millennium. By embracing the methodology outlined above, we can see a very different picture, a picture that suggests it may be time to lay the
‘recession’ idea to rest.

Bronze Age funerary cups of Northern England

Debbie Hallam, University of Bradford

Bronze Age Funerary Cups (also known colloquially as incense cups, pygmy cups and accessory vessels) have previously only been subject to study in small groupings or as individual vessels where they have occurred with larger contemporary traditions but they have never been researched as an entire geographical collection and this has resulted in a degree of misinterpretation.

By looking at Cups from the North of England (River Trent to Scottish Borders) and comparing attributes, burial contexts and artefactual associations, a number of popularly held beliefs about the purpose and use of Cups can now be dismissed. The tradition is highly attribute-diverse and has resisted the clarity of form classifications seen in other ceramic types therefore a new scheme is offered that simplifies rather than complicates. The evidence of heat damage to most of the Cups appears to suggest that they were primarily made for the funerary ritual and may have been fired on the pyre, and it is suggested the name pygmy cup/incense cup/accessory vessel is no longer viable and that the term ‘funerary cup’ is more appropriate. The evidence for regional cup forms and decorative styles produced using local clay sources will be presented, along with regional preferences for miniaturised versions of larger contemporary pots.

Finally it will be suggested that funerary cups filled the gap left by the declining interest in Beaker style burials and growing adoption of cremation and evidence to show the connection of cups with the spread of prestige metalwork will be discussed.

‘If it ain’t broke…’ Hebridean pottery: explaining 800 years of the same old thing

Mike Copper, University of Bradford

The small artificial islet of Eilean Dòmhnuill lies just off the southern shore of Loch Olabhat on the isle of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The site was in use for over 800 years, during which time a huge ceramic assemblage built up. The pottery from Eilean Dòmhnuill is well made and extensively decorated, yet analysis suggests that vessel forms and decorative motifs hardly changed throughout the period in which the islet was in use. This paper will examine the how such a strikingly conservative tradition could have maintained itself over such a long period of time. It will consider two key elements: the nature of categorisation and the role of artefacts in routine social practice, proposing that ‘displays of cultural competence’ formed a key aspect of the way in which the pottery was understood and used. It will also consider how and why the pottery from sites such as Eilean Dòmhnuill contrasts with that from other Hebridean settlements, including the recently excavated site of An Doirlinn on South Uist.

World enough and time – permanence and impermanence, performance and mobility associated with houses in Earlier Neolithic Britain

Dr Seren Griffiths, Dr Ben Edwards, Manchester Metropolitan University

The concept of ‘the early Neolithic house’ has taken on significance in discussion of the identity (Thomas 2013), processes of ‘Neolithisation’ (Sheridan 2011), and the nature of subsistence (Whitehouse et al. in press) and domestic activity (Brück 2008) in early Neolithic Britain. These structures are superficial similar in plan, and show evidence for architectural motifs which strongly indicate share above ground aesthetic traditions and understandings (though cf. Last 1996). In Ireland, the ubiquity of these structures has led to the recognition of a ‘house horizon’ (Whitehouse et al. in press; Cross 2003; Smyth 2014). The reification of ‘the Neolithic house’, as well as the abstraction of more complex histories (Bayliss et al. 2011, 378), and activities (Brück 2008, 251) into shortlived ‘domestic’ narratives (cf. Thomas 1996; Bradley 2005) has significant implications for the kinds of societies and processes of change that we envisage.

Using a newly excavated ‘house’ structure and midden from Milfield, Northumberland, associated with Carinated Bowl pottery, this paper will emphasise the importance of recognising non-typical early Neolithic ‘domestic’ structures, and their potential importance in processes of change in early Neolithic societies. Specifically we play off ideas of permanence and impermanence, enduring and ephemeral domestic architecture and other anthropogenic landscape modification, and the importance of ties to land and locality. We emphasise the importance of the performance houses not only as parts of shared aesthetic traditions, but at specific moments in time and space; as parts of dynamic, transformative processes in early, mobile, dispersed Neolithic communities; against the wider backdrop of tensions associated with the first appearances of neolithic material culture and practices.

Finding a ‘proper’ Neolithic in the Yorkshire Dales

Yvonne Luke, University of Bradford

Until recently the presence of the early farming communities of the Neolithic period in the Yorkshire Dales was known through limited archaeological evidence. Of the period’s trademark long mounds there appeared to be no trace, apart from a unique site above Low Bradley in Airedale. The discovery of a previously unrecognised long cairn between Clapdale and Crummackdale high up on the Ingleborough Massif in the western dales in 2008 triggered this new research and has ultimately led to the identification of a growing number of potential Neolithic long mounds, both barrows and cairns, all over the Dales. Numerous problems beset the positive identification of these monuments, which have been lost in a region rich in both geomorphological mounds and complex multi-period archaeological landscapes. To cope with these difficulties a methodology was established to help clarify whether or not the mounds may be of Neolithic origin or otherwise, and the overt use of different levels of certainty was adopted for each site.

Through a course of extensive field reconnaissance undertaken over the last six years potential long mound structures have now been identified in practically every dale – Swaledale, Wensleydale, Wharfedale, Littondale and all around the Ingleborough Massif. Examination of this provisional list of long barrows and long cairns has indicated interesting variations and patterns both in their distribution and their position in the landscape. I have just started a PhD at the University of Bradford in order to develop this research, take the identification process further and examine in greater detail the intricacies of their landscape positions.

 The Neglect of Northern England’s Neolithic and Early Bronze Age structures in the archaeological literature of Britain: Some initial observations

Emma Watson, University of Durham

I have long-since felt that, apart from a golden few, the N/EBA ceremonial structures in northern England have frequently been marginalised and/or neglected in comparative studies and discussions about such structures in a British context. In fact, from the earliest antiquarians, archaeologists have been overly fascinated by southern Britain’s prehistoric structures, like those in Wessex. They have assumed that those monuments are the only, the best and the most interesting examples or type-sites in Britain. Although northern sites have provided early dates and new archaeological material and information, many British archaeologists have failed to grasp the importance of our structures. In fact, even when the article/book’s title encompasses only northern England’s prehistoric structures, the author(s) somehow feel obliged to provide comparison with structures in southern Britain, particularly with Wessex, rather than presenting their data in its own right. It is as though archaeologists are required to stick to a formula where every site must be compared to Stonehenge, other southern sites or Orkney, in order to be valued.

While the Wessex and Orkney monuments are awe-inspiring, some of their sites have been under continual scrutiny, investigation and constant publication, with some archaeologists unable to see the magnificence beyond. This bias seriously affects the ways prehistoric monuments are understood.

Despite many references to this disparity by, for example, Barclay (PPS67, 2001, 1-18) or Harding (Cult Religion and Pilgrimage, 2013, 1-2), the situation continues. In fact, this issue has been unresolved for forty years (Miket 1976, 113).

In this paper, I therefore intend to re-highlight this partiality, through cataloguing and specific references to national books and journals on the subject, and to suggest ways to remedy this situation. I will also demonstrate the variety and complexity of northern England’s structures within their N/EBA landscapes.

Geochemical  provenancing of flint within Britain and Ireland: Preliminary results

Seosaimhín Bradley, University of Central Lancashire

This paper will discuss the application of elemental analysis to the characterisation and provenancing of flint in Britain and Ireland. Provenancing studies are becoming increasingly popular in analysing archaeological materials, particularly material that was widely used, or material that is exotic or out of place. Flint tools are found in archaeological contexts from across Britain and Ireland, despite the fact that flint has a relatively limited geological occurrence.

Until recently, there has been no way of assessing where different kinds of flint come from, however recent chemical analyses of flint have resulted in the creation of methodologies that can potentially source flint in Britain and Ireland. Using pXRF (portable X-Ray fluorescence), samples of flint from known geological outcrops are analysed, and the origins of the flint can be characterised using its elemental composition. This presentation will outline the background to this research, the methodology employed, and the preliminary findings.

Stone tools of the Northern Isles: a re-evaluation

Robert Leedham, University of Reading

Whilst Flint in the overriding component of many Southern British lithic resource economies in the Neolithic to Bronze Age, in Northern Britain, due to the limited availability of such siliceous material, many regional economies developed, incorporating a range of other lithic materials. The Northern Isles is a clear example with its unique, mostly sandstone lithic economy. Although much has been done in recent years to classify and understand these contexts, little functionality is known about many of the artefacts under study. Within the Orcadian record, the Skaill Knife, the most common tool, especially in Neolithic contexts, has in recent decades, thought to have been a key component of Neolithic butchery Practices. Though this can now be said with some assertion, for other tools which have been tentatively associated to butchery; namely the Flaked Cobble, little is known empirically to support these inferences. Moreover, Skaill Knives have a longevity lasting almost the entirety of the Prehistory in Orkney, though their numbers decrease from the start of the Bronze Age, contrasted by a steady rise in the use of the Flaked cobble. Thus, what is the relationship, on a functional level, between the well understood artefact; the Skaill Knife, and the lesser understood; Flaked Cobble of the Northern Isles stone tool assemblage? Empirically, how do inferences gained relate to the archaeological stone tool assemblage of Green Isle of Eday? Finally, what does this illuminate regarding our knowledge of the Orcadian and Northern Isles record as a whole?

Wealth, power and the Boy’s Toys Paradigm: Rethinking Early Bronze Age weaponry

Rachel Faulkner-Jones, University of Edinburgh

Halberds are the earliest known form of metal weapon to occur in Europe, and a strong case can be made for their originating in Ireland. However, there has not yet been a comprehensive study of these blades in Britain, and many models of political power and interpersonal social interaction are based on deeply antiquated theories and untested assumptions. Every single known halberd from England, Wales and Scotland has been recorded, and distinct regional groupings emerge. The influence of Ireland cannot be overlooked, but the Scottish assemblage is not only the second most dense in all of Europe, but also contains some unique characteristics that indicate a very different social system to the rest of northern Europe. Similarly, dirks have also been sorely neglected in weapon studies, and are frequently interpreted as tools instead of weapons when required to fit site-specific narratives. As is the case with most weapon-based research, there is a staggering volume of implicit gender assumptions that narrow and hinder the scope and reliability of academic thinking. Experimental trials with replica blades, comprehensive and accurate recording and a re-thinking of interpretative paradigms are used together to present a re-assessment of Early Bronze Age weapon types, distribution, functions and context within the wider social, political and economic sphere.

The decorated axes of Early Bronze Age Ulster: A new investigation

Caroline Chestnutt, University of London

Ireland has a rich catalogue of metal artefacts from the Early Bronze Age. Glittering gold lunulae and discs have historically captured public imagination and assumed centre stare as cultural emblems of Ireland’s past. The comparatively humble copper alloy objects of the period have often been overlooked, perhaps due to their relative abundance and the layer of patina concealing their original aesthetic appeal. Despite these considerations, this paper seeks to investigate the commonplace copper alloy tool, the axe.

Axes are the most abundant Early Bronze Age metal object discovered in Ireland, with over two thousand examples consisting of decorated and undecorated objects. They are most commonly found as single finds and have been discovered across a variety of contexts. The focus of this paper will be the decorated axes within the chosen sample province of Ulster. Artefact based research frequently encounters the difficulty of provenance, this work was no exception; Ulster was chosen as 355 axes have been recorded from this area, 122 of which are decorated (Harbison 1969).

This paper will concentrate on the creation of a classification system for the Early Bronze Age decorated axes of Ulster, through the examination of different techniques, ornament organisation and motif. The classification will then form the basis of an investigation of potential regional decoration traditions by analysing the concentration of motifs and the distribution of different types throughout Ulster. Although potential regional groupings of decoration are the focus of the project, the classification system could easily be adopted to encompass a wider range of artefacts. While the general considerations of the material, such as reasons for decorating axes and hafting, can be extended to include decorated axes across Ireland, the U.K. and continental Europe.

 An everyday encounter: the perception of woodlands, trees and timber in Mesolithic and Neolithic Britain

Ellen McInnes, University of Manchester

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has it voice as well as its features. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy their individuality (Hardy 1978 [1872], 39).

This paper will explore how woodlands, trees and timber may have been understood in Mesolithic and Neolithic Britain and the relationship between encounters with these elements of the world, and cosmological beliefs. Recent discussions of materiality by Ingold (2007), Conneller (2011) and Jones (2012) are briefly outlined in defining the approach taken in this paper, which involves considering the specific material and contextual details of interactions between people and materials. Ethnographic accounts of how woodlands trees are perceived and how this affects the use of wood are used to open up pathways of interpretation. These insights are intertwined with case studies from prehistoric Britain. The complex and multifaceted way in which woodlands, trees and wood were used is argued to reflect a similarly varied role for these elements in cosmological schemes. It is suggested that it was in everyday movements and actions, and the relational process of engaging with wood, trees and woodlands, that cosmological understandings were both renewed and remade.


Differences in activity at Neolithic Causewayed Enclosures

Dr Brian Albrecht

Since the first explorations of causewayed enclosures, archaeologists have attempted to define these early Neolithic monuments in relation to territorial patterns, pottery typologies, and ultimately though the concept of structured deposition. While these concepts have been important in advancing our knowledge of causewayed enclosures, the interpretations of the material from the enclosures ditch segments and other areas of these sites have failed to take into account the importance of how objects and materials came to be at the sites, were produced and used there, deposition. It will be argued that activities at enclosures should not be categorically separated from the everyday activities of those who visited the enclosures. By looking in detail at the spatial and temporal distribution of objects in association with chronology, I will suggest that the practical activities people engaged in at enclosures have been overshadowed by interpretations stressing the ritual nature of structured deposits. These activities had a direct relationship with enclosures and local landscapes. This suggests that perhaps more deposits within causewayed enclosures were the result of everyday activities, which occurred while people gathered at these sites, and not necessarily the result of a ‘ritual’ act. Some enclosures seem to have existed quite independently from their neighbours while other enclosures within close proximity to each other had a specialised role to play. These specialised roles within micro and macro contexts indicate that some enclosures may have been constructed and used by groups who primarily came to them in order to carry out a specific set of activities which were then defined through deposition.

Winter solstice feasting at Newgrange – Seasons, cosmologies, geography and ritual

Thor McVeigh, NUI Galway

Large communal gatherings and feasting during the Late Neolithic-Early Bronze Age in the British Isles. It will explore the question of why the mid-Winter period would have been more appropriate for large-scale aggregation than other times of the year. From this perspective the paper will provide a brief overview of the intrinsically connected seasonal, astronomical lunisolar and economic calendars. This will emphasize the close relationship between the “natural” and “social” cycles that would have structured the rhythms of Neolithic-Early Bronze Age life and identify underlying reasons for holding communal gatherings at the Winter Solstice. The paper will then examine why the Winter Solstice is likely to have held particular religious importance during the Later Neolithic-Early Bronze Age. The potential cosmological relationship between the daily and yearly solar journeys will be investigated through underlying connections identifiable within Irish, Egyptian and Indo-European mythologies with particular reference to stories relating to Newgrange and the Boyne Valley.

The relationship between cosmology, the solar journey and both the orientations and geographical siting of Knowth and Newgrange will be explored. Finally, a brief overview of the archaeological evidence pointing to large-scale feasting having taken place at the time of the Winter Solstice at Newgrange will be provided. This evidence will then be tied into the previously outlined calendrical cycles and archaeology in order to highlight a number of underlying themes, including fertility and regeneration.

So what happened next? Orkney’s prehistoric monuments and the Norse

Nela Scholma-Mason, University of York

Whilst the last builders of prehistoric monuments became extinct long before our time, the same cannot be said for the monuments themselves. They still dominate the landscape today and evoke curiousity about the purpose they were built and used for.

With every successive generation the initial significance of the monuments became increasingly forgotten, whilst at the same time new meanings came and went. Some of these have left traces in surviving place-names and folklore. Especially the latter comprises numerous representations of prehistoric monuments. I postulate that folk tales and beliefs have a more profound meaning than mere entertainment – aided by certain beliefs we understand and explain the world around us, depending on the best available material and knowledge of the time.

Orkney is replete with prehistoric monuments as well as with an exceptional record of folkloric traditions much of which can be traced back to early medieval Scandinavia. This presentation focuses on Norse settlers on Orkney and their interaction with prehistoric monuments as represented in the surviving tangible and intangible records.



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