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Stonehenge People

8 September 2012

At www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/343984/title/Herders_not_farmers_bui… …. although the idea of growing crops had been introduced into Britain and Ireland before 4000BC it is being claimed that by the time Stonehenge was being constructed people had adopted a pastoral economy. Herding animals, it has been suggested, by Francis Pryor for example, was always more important than growing fields of wheat and barley, but this study differs – it is based on palaeobotany. Hence, we have an oldish idea dressed up in new clothes – and a press release that feigns ignorance of archaeological points of view before this article surfaced. Be that as it may, farming was introduced during an optimum period of climate, the Mid Holocene Warm Period, and this is why farming penetrated to every corner of the country in a very quick fashion, from Kent to the Hebrides. It is also a well known fact that climate deteriorated towards the end of the 4th millennium BC, which in this article is defined as 3300BC. In other words, farmers reverted to herding animals as grass grows sweet even on the hills and moors, whereas crops with an ultimate origin in the Mediterranean, such as emmer wheat and barley, may not have liked the cooler climate that kicked in. It was also probably very wet although the abstract appears to indicate it was cool and dry – so some sifting required here. I suspect it was cool and dusty and the dust is naturally associated with a switch to global dry conditions. The dust may of course have a different origin but this is beyond the remit of the article or a review of said article. Palaeobotany suggests there was a significant switch to herding cattle, sheep and pigs after 3300BC and it is quite true that various megalithic sites of the 3rd millennium BC display evidence of feasting involving large numbers of animals, and the presence of cattle skulls, and other choice cuts of domesticated animals etc. The article can be found in Antiquity 86 Sept 2012 and it goes on to claim that crops became popular once again during the 2nd millennium BC, in the Bronze Age (particularly after 1500BC). This is an interesting idea as some archaeologists have suggested that during the Bronze and Iron ages an intensive system of stock rearing developed in this country, associated with oily black earth deposits (a mixture of manure, soil, and other organic matter) but it is also clear that many field systems date back to the Bronze Age and therefore a system of laid out farms on the landscape could well have come into existence at that time, varying little since then, through the Iron Age and Roman period into the Saxon era and more recently. So, perhaps animals were being placed in fields rather than on the range, the system we have inherited, and animals provided the fertilisation for the crops. This article represents archaeological science rather than archaeological speculation and therefore that must be its importance – evidence over theory. The ideas within the article however have a wider impact than on farming as it impacts on the kind of people responsible for megalithic monuments such as Stonehenge. They would have been built by people that roamed the countryside rather than lived in a particular patch of their own. They would have hauled the large stones and set them up in a communal or tribal effort as the significance of places such as Avebury and Stonehenge must lie in their role as 'gathering places' where people periodically met at particular points of time in the course of the year. At such collective meetings large numbers of people were available to be mobilised for the really big construction projects. This may explain why such places ceased to be built in the Bronze Age, after the development of farms and a controlled landscape, and the introduction of new crops such as peas and beans. People could not be mobilised so easily. Timothy Darvill commented by saying that although pastoralism was important in the 3rd millennium BC crops were also being grown. It seems unlikely they would have stopped growing barley, for example, as it is an ingredient of beer. In the Bronze Age crops played a greater role as there is evidence for storage pits and granaries, and so on. In the end it is the scale of cultivation in the Late Neolithic that archaeologists are unsure of, rather than the idea it was abandoned altogether.

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