Stonehenge, Avebury and a very different Neolithic

Stonehenge is rarely out of the news: whether the reporting of new research and new theories; on-going debates over calls to rebury or retain the Neolithic human remains from the site; and most recently the opening of the long-awaited new Visitor Centre (which is rather good!).  A decade or so of very active research at this iconic site, and on related late Neolithic monuments elsewhere in the Stonehenge landscape, at nearby Avebury and further afield at Thornborough (Yorkshire), Forteviot (Perth and Kinross) and on Mainland Orkney, to name a few, has kindled considerable public and academic interest.  Perhaps the key themes to emerge from this work are just how different the worlds of the middle and later Neolithic (c.3400-2500 BC) were from what came before, and the sense of real and imagined long-distance connection that communities held during this time, as expressed by shared material culture, architecture and ceremonial practices.   The most tangible evidence of such long-distance connection comes from the transportation of the so-called Stonehenge ‘bluestones’, whoes quarry sites in the Preseli hills of SW Wales are currently being investiagted by the Stones of Stonehenge Project, of which Southampton is a partner (

Two News Focus articles by Michael Balter in the current issue of Science (343(6166); 3rd Jan 2014) – Monumental Roots and Life and Death at Stonehenge – pick up and describe the story nicely.  Southampton archaeologists Dr Andy Jones and Dr Josh Pollard were interviewed for the Science articles.  Both have been actively engaged in research on the period – Andy investigating rock art (notably in Kilmartin) and material worlds, Josh the development of late Neolithic monumentality and the great ceremonial complexes of Wessex.  Both the Science stories and a recent BBC series Sacred Wonders of Britain, presented by Neil Oliver and featuring Dr Josh Pollard (BBC 2, 30th October 2014),  focus on the beginnings of the late Neolithic and appearance of henge monuments, Grooved Ware and other distinctive elements that delineate late Neolithic cultural worlds – headlined as the ‘birth of a new religion’.

Current interpretation puts Orkney as the place of origin for many of these changes; the critical period of change being the last centuries of the 4th millennium BC.  The great monument complexes of Stonehenge/Durrington Walls, Avebury, Dorchester, etc. are the last great manifestations of this tradition of sacred authority, with a massive peak in monument construction occurring around 2500 BC; not coincidentally at a time when new influences were being felt from the Continent, with the spreading influence of late Corded Ware/Beaker groups.   But should we look for a single point of origin for our late Neolithic, and should this be Orkney?  The period 3400-3000 BC is increasingly looking like a time of major change – in subsistence, lifestyle and material practices – not just in Britain and Ireland, but in southern Scandinavia and northern France, too.  These changes manifest themselves in varying ways at a wider regional level, but all highlight the coming into being of new Neolithic identities, different to those of the deeper, central European, ancestry that mark out the early Neolithic of NW Europe.  The challenge is to comprehend this ‘new Neolithic’ at scales that can take in both local conditions and experience and bigger, inter-regional processes.