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Neolithic Stepping Stones

An AHRC project has revealed how Neolithic settlers travelled across Britain’s western seaways.

The Neolithic period (around 4000-2500 BC) saw a shift from hunting and gathering wild animals and plants to farming. There has been much debate about how this era reached Britain: did European migrants introduce new ideas or did British people start farming of their own accord?

‘Stepping stones to the Neolithic: Islands, maritime connectivity and the ‘western seaways’ of Britain, 5000-3500 BC’ looked to five island groups and the surrounding seas for answers. These were the Channel Islands, Isles of Scilly, Isle of Man, Outer Hebrides and Orkney.

Aerial kite photo of the Old Quay test pits under excavation in 2013 (photo: Hugo Anderson-Whymark)
Aerial kite photo of the Old Quay test pits under excavation in 2013 (photo: Hugo Anderson-Whymark)


“There’s a tendency to focus on Britain and Ireland, ignoring the islands in between,” says principal investigator Dr Duncan Garrow, lecturer in later prehistory at the University of Reading. “We expected to see evidence of these islands being used as stepping stones.”

Garrow led the project alongside co-investigator Dr Fraser Sturt, associate professor in archaeology at the University of Southampton. It ran from June 2011 to September 2014 and was funded through an AHRC Early Career grant.

The project team worked closely with Cardiff University, the Historic Environment Service at Cornwall Council, and three partner museums, the Guernsey Museums and Galleries, the Isles of Scilly Museum and the Museum nan Eilean in Stornaway and Benbecula.

Excavations were carried out at three locations: An Doirlinn in South Uist, L’Erée in Guernsey and Old Quay in St Martin’s, Isles of Scilly. The sea is gradually destroying these sites and the South Uist location is particularly endangered, as around 60-70% of it was lost when a major storm battered the coastline in 2005. “We were working from a partial record as we’d lost a big chunk of the site,” says Sturt. “We had to try to visualise what was no longer there.”The An Doirlinn team, busy on site as ever (photo: Caroline Godwin)

The An Doirlinn team, busy on site as ever (photo: Caroline Godwin)
The An Doirlinn team, busy on site as ever (photo: Caroline Godwin)

To find Neolithic settlements, Garrow explains, “you have to dig sites you can’t see and hope something comes out. We previously had two small pits in Scilly and we now have an extensive settlement.”

At Scilly and Guernsey, they found typical Neolithic occupation features such as rubbish pits and post holes. South Uist yielded the remains of more substantial stone-built architecture, along with 5000 pieces of pottery. With three types of pottery from a period of around 1500 years, this is the second-biggest Neolithic assemblage in the outer Hebrides. It has now been excavated to modern standards and radiocarbon dated.

Another exciting find came from the Isles of Scilly dig, which unearthed a stash of around 50 microliths, tiny flint tools from the Mesolithic (pre-Neolithic) era. Rather than being of British design, these are in Belgian and northern French style. “That was very unexpected,” says Garrow. “It tells us that people were sailing between northern France, Belgium and the Isles of Scilly around 6000 BC. It’s a very good sign of pre-Neolithic maritime contact.”

One of the 57 Mesolithic microliths found at Old Quay in 2013 (photo: Hugo Anderson-Whymark)
One of the 57 Mesolithic microliths found at Old Quay in 2013 (photo: Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

In each of those locations, they engaged local residents through open days and invited them to help out with the digs. “This is the sort of inclusive project we want to encourage,” says Amanda Martin, curator of the Isles of Scilly Museum. “It got people enthused about the local area and its archaeology, and fed back into the local community in a very satisfying way.”Cara Garrow thinking hard about the Neolithic at An Doirlinn (photo: Phil de Jersey)

 Cara Garrow thinking hard about the Neolithic at An Doirlinn (photo: Phil de Jersey)
Cara Garrow thinking hard about the Neolithic at An Doirlinn (photo: Phil de Jersey)

The project also involved a major radiocarbon dating programme, and construction of a database of late Mesolithic and early Neolithic sites within the western seaways zone. “We’re trying to improve intellectual and academic engagement by putting things in a wider temporal context,” says Garrow. “The dating programme will give people a fulcrum around which to pitch their own dates.”

Dr Fraser Sturt created computer models of the sea’s changing behaviour at that time, with assistance from Sarah Bradley of the British Antarctic Survey. This helped to build a picture of the western seaways and determine how people might have used them to travel. “People moved around a lot more,” says Sturt. “We think of ourselves as travellers but you see much greater degrees of mobility around that time.”

Britain became an island around 7000 to 6000 BC, shortly before the Neolithic era. Melting glaciers had affected the sea after the last glacial period, but sea levels and location weren’t the only concerns when compiling the data. “We were thinking about the texture as well,” says Sturt. “A lot of archaeologists focus on land and see the sea as a uniform patch of blue, but it’s much more textured and complicated.”

The resulting data models were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Online in June 2013. A conference based on the project, exploring cross-channel connections in prehistory, was also held that month at the University of Liverpool.

Another outcome of the project is a book co-authored by Dr Garrow, Dr Sturt and post-doctoral researcher Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark. ‘Continental connections: exploring cross-channel relationships from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age’ (Oxbow) will be published by March 2015.

The team have also produced a series of web resources drawing on the research, including a western seaways navigation game that works within Google Earth. And they used social media throughout the project – having such geographically dispersed participants made Twitter the perfect way to transmit updates.

Phil de Jersey, States Archaeologist for Guernsey, appreciated the shared expertise that was harnessed by the project. “It brought in specialists we aren’t normally able to access. It has also been extremely useful in providing a parallel for other excavations on the island,” he says.

“We were digging inland around the same time and it provided a very helpful comparison,” he add. “We now have a very well-excavated assemblage of material with accompanying dates that we can use to compare against other sites.”

Given that the sea is washing away each excavation site, it seems vital to have completed this project as a matter of urgency. The results could also prove useful for educating people, says de Jersey, from local planners to members of the public.

A beautiful day on site at An Doirlinn (photo: Duncan Garrow)
A beautiful day on site at An Doirlinn (photo: Duncan Garrow)

“There was nothing to see on the surface,” he recalls. “But just because there isn’t a stone structure visible, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. A featureless field can have an important settlement right underneath.”

More information about Neolithic Stepping Stones can be found on the project website.

Article by Anne Wollenberg

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