North Country Fair

This was the original title of Harry Pearson’s hilarious Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows and I’ve nicked it for the title of this post for reasons which will become obvious later on. On Monday this week I was in London for a Neolithic Studies Group meeting at the British Museum. This allowed me to do my famous impersonation of a straw chewing yokel with a pig under one arm as I tried to look competent on the 134 to Tottenham Court Road with someone else’s Oyster Card. The NSG meets every year so people working on the Neolithic period can get together to discuss important new developments in the field (and have a good gossip). This year’s meeting was on the theme of ‘Mobility’. There was a range of papers covering everything from scientific evidence for population movement (ancient DNA and strontium isotope ratios in bone) to ancient seaways and river transport and winding up with Zombie ancestors lurching along the West Kennet Avenue. Ian Parker-Heath from the Arbor Low Environs Project was also there taking pictures so check out his blog for a longer post on the meeting: probably complete with pictures of archaeologists drinking tea and eating biscuits in the basement of the BM. (Update on 21/11/2012 NSG meeting report is actually on Ian’s other project the Neolithic Britain website)

Also, more about dots and lines this week. Once I had finished drawing the plan and section of the cutting across the bank and ditch of the enclosure in trench C, I wanted to look at the distribution of the different kinds of finds in this area. I’ve used the same categories for the worked stone finds as for trench D. Blue is chert and brown is flint; waste flakes and debitage are the diamonds, pieces which have had more than one flake taken off them are shown as circles and any tools are the squares.

Putting the finds plot and the contours together really helps to make sense of where the stone tools were found. There is not much pattern in which raw material was being used in which area. It doesn’t look like the difference between flint and chert was that significant; which makes sense when you consider the range of different colours and types of chert that Alex and Stuart picked up when they were looking at this stuff a few weeks ago. What I do think is interesting is that the finds in the ditch are a cluster of worked pieces and waste flakes on the south side of the ditch. Of course, this is the area where the contour plot shows that we may have the junction between one segment of the ditch and another.

Ditch terminals like these were often places where people placed things, or carried out significant actions, in prehistoric enclosures. This little group of finds looks to me like the sort of thing you would expect to find if people were bringing chert onto the site and working it just at the point where the two ditch segments met. Why they might be doing this is something I’ll get onto in a minute.

For completeness I’ve also had a look at the finds distribution projected against the layers showing in the north section of trench C. The main thing this shows us is that most of the finds in the ditch are low down, and so quite early. Therefore the people working that stone at the junction between two ditch segments were doing it fairly soon after the enclosure ditch was dug.

Thinking about why they might be doing this gets us back to thinking about what the New Laund enclosure was for. Hilltop enclosures like this were probably built because they marked the place where more than one group of people came together on a regular basis. We could imagine them as being the site of seasonal gatherings where people could barter stock and tools, feast and drink, meet a possible life-partner who wasn’t their cousin on both sides and sort out those little local difficulties about whose goats ate the barley we were saving for the wedding. Even the process of making the enclosure was probably something that happened as part of the yearly celebrations, different family or tribal groups being responsible for each segment of the ditch. There is a great discussion of this kind of seasonal celebration in prehistory in Mark Edmonds’ book Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic – which is now on the reading list.

The seasonal gathering would have had an other-wordly element too. People in the Early Bronze Age wouldn’t see any distinction between magic and practical activities. From their perspective there would just be stuff that worked – exorcism or flint knapping for example – and stuff that didn’t – like trying to fly. Adrian Chadwick has just published a cool paper on this topic from an Iron Age perspective in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology – also on the reading list. We know that there were cremation burials on site and I think that it is likely that some of the worked stone and animal bone from the enclosure ditch was placed there as offerings – possibly trying to give back to the site some of the bounty that came out of the seasonal meetings. In particular, in a lot of societies around the world there is a concept that life or fertility is what is called a ‘limited good’. This means there is only so much life-force to go around. In order for new crops, animals, things and people to be successfully born then old and worn out things have to be dismantled and returned to the spirit world.

Next week we will be back out at New Laund. Simon is doing his undergraduate dissertation on a comparison of many different survey techniques at the site so we will be working on different kinds of geophysical survey on the enclosure. Hopefully by next Friday we will have some interesting preliminary results, or at least some amusing photos of survey in the rain.

Rick

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