By Stephen Harrison, BA, MPil Phd, Consultant Archaeologist
Bronze Age
Iron Age
Early Modern

Main Index

NEOLITHIC (c.4,000 - 2,000 BC)

Towards the end of the fifth millennium BC, a new cultural horizon appears in the British archaeological record, accompanied by evidence for a change in subsistence strategies: the Neolithic ("New Stone Age") period. This change is associated with the gradual adoption of farming economies, perhaps introduced, initially, by small-scale movements of people from either Ireland or northern mainland Europe, who brought domesticated cattle, sheep, and seed corn. This was part of a broader pattern of economic and cultural innovation affecting the temperate forest lands of north-west Europe.

Over time, the British Mesolithic hunter-gatherer economies were succeeded, mainly through a process of acculturation, by communities practising agriculture and having advanced lithic technologies, pottery-making skills, and evolving complex social and religious practices. By the mid-fourth millennium BC, their exploitative activities had affected the natural forest cover of the British Isles, creating permanent open landscapes in many areas.

The Yorkshire Wolds, enjoying a wide and favourable range of natural resources, became a major focus for human settlement during the Neolithic, and, along with Wessex and Orkney, is a key area for understanding the development of this period in the British Isles.

Within East Yorkshire. the archaeoloaical evidence for the Neolithic is more prevalent than for earlier periods. There is, however, little definite evidence for settlements, but isolated farms, appear to have been the norm. Occasional pits, post-holes and "occupation floors" are found, such as the site at Mill Street, Driffield. Here, a number of post-holes, tentatively identified as the remains of a dwelling, together with a quantity of flint artefacts were recovered

The most common sites known from this period are the funerary and ritual monuments, many of which can be found on the Yorkshire Wolds. The oldest monuments identified on the Wolds are the Neolithic long and round barrows, which occur contemporaneously throughout the period. Two of the most recently excavated earthen long barrows in the region are to be found at Fordon, on Willerby Wold, and at Kilham, both of which have provided radiocarbon determinations of around 3,700 BC. The Willerby Wold long barrow contained an indeterminate number of cremation burials, and the Kilham example produced eight inhumation burials. An excavated round barrow of this period, at Calais Wold, contained ten inhumation burials and a number of cremation deposits. Another example of a well-known round barrow of this period is the monumental Duggleby Howe, at the western end of the Great Wold Valley, partially excavated in 1890 by J.R. Mortimer.

The construction of burial mounds, some on a monumental scale, must have required considerable labour input and been time consuming in their execution. They indicate the presence of sizeable, reasonably settled, communities, who had the necessary surplus time and social organisation to create such structures. The relatively small number of burials contained within each barrow suggests that only a segment of the population were buried in this manner. Just how this selection was made is unknown; how the remainder of the population were disposed of at death is equally unknown.

Other monuments of this period include henges, such as that identified at Maiden's Grave, Rudson. These structures are interpreted as ceremonial i monuments, almost all of which are circular in plan, with an average diameter of over 60m. They are defined by a bank and internal ditch, interrupted by one or two entrances. Causewayed camps and stone circles are also a feature of the Neolithic, although there are i no known examples from East Yorkshire. The Rudston monolith, the largest single standing stone in the British Isles is also assigned to this period. The nearest geological source for this stone - a gritstone - is Boulton Craggs, near Grosmont, on the North Yorkshire Moors.

Spanning the entire length of the period, cursus monuments - closed, elongated rectilinear structures, defined by a bank and external ditch, and of unknown function - are a well-known, but little understood, feature of the Neolithic. On the Wolds, an extensive Neolithic ritual complex, the principal elements of which are four large cursus monuments and a henge, is situated near the eastern end of the Great Wold Valley. The cursuses all relate to the Gypsey Race, converging on the bend at Rudston around the spur upon which the Rudston monolith stands. Each cursus rises slightly from the valley floor, so that one end of each monument occupies higher ground. Clustered around the higher ends of the cursuses are many ring ditches and other more enigmatic features of possible ritual or mortuary significance. The Maiden's Grave henge also lies close to this complex.

There is little evidence for the field systems and agricultural techniques used by these early farmers, although ploughmarks in the soil sealed beneath the long harrows at Kilham and Willerby Wold demonstrate that the land was cultivated nor to the construction of these monuments.

Pathaeolithic c.250,000 - 8,300 BC
Mesolithic c.8,300 - 4,000 BC
Neolithic c.4,000 - 2,000 BC
Bronze Agec.2,000 - 800 BC
Iron Agec.800 BC - AD 71
Romano-British c.AD 71 - 410
Anglo-Saxon and Vikingc.AD 410 - 1066
Medieval c.AD 1066 - 1540
Early Modernc.1600 -1800
Modern c.1800 to the present day

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