Institute of Archaeology

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Did Neolithic farming fail?

20 September 2012

Recent analyses of radiocarbon data to suggest a Bronze Age agricultural revolution in Britain

Recently-published research by Dorian Fuller and Honorary Research Associate Chris Stevens suggests that Stonehenge may have been built by herders, not farmers.  

Their paper which is published in the September issue of Antiquity aims to rewrite the early history of Britain, showing that while the cultivation of cereals arrived there in about 4000 cal BC, it did not last.

Between 3300 and 1500 BC Britons became largely pastoral, reverting only with a major upsurge of agricultural activity in the Middle Bronze Age. The loss of interest in arable farming was accompanied by a decline in population, seen by Chris and Dorian as having a climatic impetus.

This period coincides with the construction of great megalithic monuments, including Stonehenge, therefore during the time in which there is little firm evidence for cereal agriculture within mainland Britain. The association of monument building with cereal-based agricultural societies therefore appears to be misplaced, raising questions about the social mechanisms by which large numbers of people were organised to achieve such activities, and what role subsistence played within this.

According to Dorian:

  • "Part of the reason why pastoralists built monuments such as Stonehenge lies in the importance of periodic large gatherings for dispersed, mobile groups."

While this latest analysis offers an alternative model of how farming and pastoralism developed in Britain, suggesting a Bronze Age agricultural revolution, the authors indicate that further work is needed to investigate the likely regional and local variation on the persistence or abandonment of agriculture during the Late Neolithic.