Last year (2022) I visited the excellent exhibition at the British Museum called ‘The World of Stonehenge’. It was less about Stonehenge and more about the world at the time of Stonehenge in Europe. It brought together objects from across Britain and Europe illuminating the material culture of the time. I was struck particularly with the idea of how we use repeated ornamental patterns and have clearly been doing it since 3000 BC at least.
The Neolithic was when ideas of architecture and circulation took off. Organised settlements, individual houses, burial chambers, stone circles, henges, cursuses, and processional avenues were built by communities.
The Neolithic, or ‘new stone age’, is the age of settlement and farming. It starts around 4000 BC in the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia in the Middle East. The cultivation of wheat from wild wheat starts and the invention of grinding stones (querns) for flour emerges.
Back in Britain the population were nomadic hunter-gathers in 4000 BC. However, the farming culture travelled across Europe and by 3000 BC had reached the Mediterranean, Northern France, Britain, and Ireland. The process of farming required specialised stone tools, such as flint axes. Axes were needed to cut down forests to plant crops. Animals were also domesticated around this time. Firstly, sheep and goats, then pigs and later cows.
Back in 2014 I had visited Skara Brae, on the coast of Orkney, dating from 3100 BC. The settlement is a collection of houses with walkways between, that demonstrate early ideas of architectural organisation in a relatively sophisticated way.
The community lived in darkness once inside the houses and walkways. There were no windows, but a central hearth giving light and warmth. The smoke from the hearth would go up in the roofs. The buildings were dug out giving high walls protecting the community from the onslaughts of the weather. The position by the sea has the benefits of sea fishing and the land farming.
There were querns for grinding flour, small stone cisterns to hold water, beds, and what look to us like dressers (but were possibly altars and something to display precious items). The ‘dressers’ are positioned directly opposite the entrance doorway, to show perhaps status, prestige, or a sacred area of the home. There are no records except material cultural, so it is difficult to speculate on anything with accuracy. There were also workshops that were separate to the dwellings.
The way the settlement is planned is for community but also separation and privacy. The entrances to dwellings never face one another. You would never look directly into your neighbour’s home.
The buildings are constructed from the rock beds that form the nearby cliffs and bits were hacked off and maybe shaped. The rock structure lends itself in a natural form to building walls. Larger blocks are used for the beds, dresser, and other structures. The door surrounds look like they could have been prepared last week they are so well constructed. This is architecture. It also includes community planning, and engineering.
Engineering & Construction
In Somerset there is another engineering feat, namely, the Sweet Track of 3807 BC, an elevated causeway across the Somerset Levels stretching from Westhay to Shapwick. It is around 1.1 miles (1800 metres). It was constructed of, oak planks, along with wooden poles rails, and pegs. It would have been created in sections and then assembled.[i]
These feats of architecture and engineering involved identifying, and preparing the materials, then building to a design. It required planning, organisation, and diverse skills. There is little difference in approach from how we operate today with such projects.
The tools the Neolithic people had for building and construction were often adapted flint and red deer antler. At Grimes Graves in Norfolk there are 4000 mines dating from 2650-2100 & 1550-1450 BC where flint was mined on an organised industrial scale.
An engineering feat constructed using deer antlers as the main excavation tool is Silbury Hill at Avebury in Wiltshire, dating from c. 2470-2350 BC. It took 4-million-man hours to shift 0.5 million tonnes of chalk to build a monument that is 30 metres high and 160 m wide. It is not a tomb and there is nothing inside. It is definitely anyone’s guess as to what it was built for!
It appears that stone circles were unique to Britain, such as Stonehenge and Avebury. On Orkney, the Ring of Brodgar (2500-2000 BC) is the only true circle, the others often elliptical. At the Stenness stone circle (3100 BC) on Orkney, the Neolithic ancestors, built the oldest circle in Britain. Here is a true community circle as each stone comes from a different part of Orkney and each stone faces outwards towards the area it was quarried from.
Stonehenge c. 3000 BC
At Stonehenge in Wiltshire the period of building happens over a period of many years. The trilithons are impressive feats of engineering. The monument is unique in terms of stone circles with the trilithons as opposed to just a circle of standing stones.
The sunrise and sunset were so deeply meaningful the Neolithic people aligned some of their stone circles to the events. Not knowing what lay beyond, when the sun sank beneath the horizon marking the end of a solar day, it must have appeared to be the edge of both the physical and unseen world. With the sun’s patterns changing through the seasons in a regular way was another mystery to be contemplated. The mid-winter sunset alignment and the mid-summer sunrise alignment held deep significance is measuring the year. It maybe that the mid-winter sunset at Stonehenge had more significance than the mid-summer sunrise as it was a marker to the start of a farming year.
It is rather humbling to realise that the Neolithic peoples of the British Isles knew a thing or two about architecture and engineering. They also knew about pleasing patterns (which likely had symbolic meaning). Geometrical shapes and regular pattering are pleasing the human eye. Carved on stones the Neolithic applied regular patterns like lozenges, lines, zigzags, triangles, swirls, dots, chevrons, and spirals.
The regular patterns show how they created intricate work that was designed. We tend to attribute some patterns to the classical world and not so far back in Britain’s own heritage. These patterns are part of these islands’ heritage potentially too.
Following on from the Neolithic came the ages of metal, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Weapons, generally used for hunting in the Neolithic, now were also fashioned for deadly human conflict. With conflict occurring between communities a hierarchy to manage and control had greater importance. That led to greater personal status with an individual or few at the top. Valuable items became more portable symbols of sacredness than stone circles.
At the exhibition at the British Museum was The Mold shoulder cape in gold, dating from 1900-1800 BC (Bronze Age). There were also two ‘hats’ in the exhibition from the Bronze Age that have detailing such as circles and solar wheels. These items are intricately patterned with skill.
What the early farmers created had been formed by social organisation which later became the idea of individual tribes. That lead through history to nationhood, kingdoms, principalities, empires, republics, etc. Ideas changed as land ownership became established.
However, the builders and designers of the Neolithic are near echoes of what was created later in buildings of stone. I am not an archaeologist, but I would like to attribute the Neolithic people as the first architects and engineers in Britain.
[i] ‘Science: The day the Sweet Track was built’, NewScientist, Issue 1721 (16 June 1990) < https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg12617212-800-science-the-day-the-sweet-track-was-built/> [accessed 22 January 2023].
ii Dates and information on stone circles and early farming taken from signs at the sites, British Museum exhibition and an excellent talk by Gillian Hovell (The Muddy Archaeologist) I watched online in 2022 given as part of the Ciceroni Travel lectures (https://www.ciceroni.co.uk/news/lecture). Gillian’s website is: http://www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk.