thinking about archaeology

Plinth box 4

Carn Brea looking east across entrance to a tin mine gallery, showing the 18th century hunting lodge (converted from a medieval castle) and Redruth below. Excavation revealed neolithic settlement and an enclosing wall beyond the rocks on the horizon

Carn Brea looking east across entrance to a tin mine gallery, showing the 18th century hunting lodge (converted from a medieval castle) and Redruth below. Excavation revealed neolithic settlement and an enclosing wall beyond the rocks on the horizon

Site: Carn Brea, Cornwall

Date: 4000–3500BC

What it represents: The change from thousands of generations spent living entirely on native wild foods, to farming with alien domesticated plants and animals, and the first warfare

The plinth stone: An arrowhead

Provenance: Excavated 1970–73 on a hilltop between Redruth and Camborne, whose eastern summit had been enclosed with a stone wall in the early neolithic

Material: Dark grey flint

Maximum dimension: 38mm

Weight: 2gm

Loaned by: Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro, accession number 1973.62 (marked 88)

This apparently fragile piercing arrowhead was excavated on Carn Brea in a research project that had a significant influence on the way archaeologists envisage the culture and times of Britain’s earliest farmers.

Nineteenth century excavations had shown there to be neolithic pottery and flint artefacts on the hill. In 1970 Roger Mercer set out to see whether or not these were indicative of people having actually lived there at that time. If so, it would have been one of the very few earlier neolithic settlement sites known or investigated in Britain; they are still rare.

The project showed that there had indeed been a settlement there, with a solidly-built stone wall, originally over 2m high and some 155m long, that in combination with rock outcrops enclosed several poorly-preserved structural remains, presumed to be defended houses. Beyond the enclosure were patches of ground that appeared to have been cultivated.

How permanent the settlement was is difficult to say. Carn Brea may have been a meeting place for scattered communities, where people gathered at regular intervals for trade, socialising and ceremonies, rather than a village. Interpretation is hindered by the acid soils, which have destroyed any animal or human bones that might have been buried there.

A surprise of the excavation was the very high number of flint arrowheads – over 700, possibly as many as 825 – in the characteristic early neolithic leaf shape. Mercer suggested that if the whole settlement were excavated, the total would rise to 3–4,000. He proposed that the hilltop had been attacked in a bout of warfare, when the wall was thrown down and houses were set alight. Lithic specialist Alan Saville agreed, saying that the pattern indicated “hostility amongst the neolithic people of the region”.

Since the Carn Brea excavation, the notion of neolithic warfare across the British Isles has become accepted by most archaeologists. A similar effect was revealed by excavation on another hilltop enclosure, at Crickley Hill, Gloucestershire. Here large numbers of arrowheads lay on the ground in front of a defensive stone wall, with a further spread into the settlement area that appeared to result from arrows penetrating the gateway. Study of human bones in museums from old excavations has revealed many with wounds, or even embedded parts of flint arrowheads.

Farming first appears in Britain around 4000BC. It may be best envisaged as a form of gardening, though the nature of the practice seems to have varied widely across the country. Domesticated crops and animals were reared that are not native – wheat and sheep, for example. The artefacts made, which include Britain’s first pottery and the leaf-shaped arrowheads, were also new. The extent to which these changes reflect immigration in boats across the English Channel, by many small groups rather than an “invasion”, or the adoption of new ways by indigenous people, has been long debated and remains unresolved. What seems to be becoming clear, however, is that in many parts of the British Isles lifestyles changed dramatically and rapidly. The old ways of engaging with the wild flora and fauna, and probably the associated myths, beliefs and many of the skills, were fast gone.

Richard Bradley, 2007. The Prehistory of Britain & Ireland. Cambridge University Press (see Chapter 2, A New Beginning)

Roger J Mercer, 1981. Excavations at Carn Brea, Illogan, Cornwall, 1970–73. Cornish Archaeology 20, 1–204

Martin Smith & Megan Brickley, 2009. People of the Long Barrows: Life, Death & Burial in the Earlier Neolithic. History Press

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