Stepping Stones to the Neolithic
In summary, the project as a whole involved the excavation of the three sites (Garrow and Sturt 2017), computer modelling of the sea around that time (Sturt et al. 2013), and the construction of a database of late Mesolithic and early Neolithic sites within the western seaways zone which led to a major radiocarbon dating programme (Garrow et al. 2017). Excavations were conducted between 2008 and 2014 under the auspices of the Neolithic Stepping Stones project: at L’Erée, Guernsey in the Channel Islands, Old Quay, St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly, and An Doirlinn, South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. In order to contextualise the significance of these findings, we also explored a series of wider, related themes: the character and archaeological signatures of prehistoric maritime connectivity; the nature and effects of ‘island-ness’ in later prehistory; the extent and implications of Neolithic/Early Bronze Age settlement variability across Britain; and the consequences of geographical biases in archaeological research in terms of our understanding of the prehistoric past.
The project’s full title was ‘Stepping stones to the Neolithic? Islands, maritime connectivity and the “western seaways” of Britain, 5000–3500 BC’. Its primary focus was the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition on the main offshore island groups within the ‘western seaways’ – an area of sea extending from the Channel Islands in the south, through the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Man, around to the Outer Hebrides and Orkney in the north. The project represented a research collaboration between the Universities of Liverpool/Reading (Garrow) and the University of Southampton (Sturt). We also worked closely with Cardiff University, Historic Environment, Cornwall Council and three project partner museums: Guernsey Museums and Galleries, the Isles of Scilly Museum and Museum nan Eilean.
This work was funded predominantly by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, but money from the Society of Antiquaries of London for excavations at L’Erée (2009–11) and Old Quay (2014) was also crucial to the establishment and subsequent successful completion of the project, as was ‘pump-priming’ funding from the University of Liverpool (2008), and in-kind funding for dating from the NERC Radiocarbon Facility.
Submerged Neolithic of the Western Isles
The Submerged Neolithic of the Western Isles project, led by Duncan Garrow and Fraser Sturt, has shed light on a new type of Neolithic (c. 4000 – 2500 BC) site: artificial and modified islands. Previously the majority of research indicated that thesel islets (sometimes known as crannogs) in the lochs of Scotland were a feature of the late Bronze (c. 1250 – 800 BC) and Iron (c. 800 BC – 43 AD) Ages. A single site in North Uist excavated by the archaeologist Ian Armit during the late 1980s established that islet sites may have been made during the Neolithic, but it was so peculiar as to be seen as an anomaly rather than an established form of Neolithic practice. Through combining underwater, aerial and ground based survey this project confirmed that three further islets on the Isle of Lewis were made during the Neolithic. You can get a sense of what it was like to work on site from the time-lapse below.
This is a particularly exciting discovery due to the size, location and effort involved in the construction of these sites, along with the great potential they have for offering new insights into a critical period of our shared history. Why did the Neolithic population of the Western Isles feel the need to build these sites, which involved moving hundreds of tons of rock out into the water? Was it to create a safe domestic space? Was it for ritual purposes? Or, was it some combination of factors? Previously the few known Neolithic settlements from the Western Isles appeared to indicate a low level of occupation and activity, but it may now be that we have just been looking in the wrong places and for the wrong sorts of activity.
This project was only possible due to the curiosity and attention to detail of a local diver and keen archaeologist Chris Murray. Chris noted that a number of small islets in the lochs of Lewis appeared to have causeways going out to them and were of very regular shape. To find out more he took his diving equipment and began to examine the bottom of the lochs around them. The finds he made included a range of spectacular pottery, much of it dating to the Neolithic. He brought these finds to the attention of the archaeological community, with specialists at the Museum nan Eilean (Stornoway, Lewis) and Alison Sheridan at the National Museums of Scotland recognising their rare and important nature. This reporting and engagement by Chris along with his friend and diving partner Mark Elliot (then conservation officer at Museum nan Eilean) led to the finds gaining increasing attention, with the OHCCMAP pilot project led by Jonathan Benjamin at Wessex Archaeology featuring some of the finds in their reports and publications (which you can read about here and here), and the Stepping Stones project dating some of the pots from the lochs in an article published in the Prehistoric Society’s newsletter PAST (Sheridan et al. 2014).
In turn we were funded by the British Academy, Leverhulme Trust and Honor Frost Foundation to carry out a pilot project in collaboration with Chris Murray to investigate the sites further. This led to a detailed geophysical and diver based survey of three lochs and excavation at one of them. In each case a wealth of Neolithic material has been recovered, along with some evidence for contemporary, associated structure. Furthermore, the survey data indicates the presence of fine grained sedimentary sequences on the loch floor that are likely to hold a wealth of environmental evidence, offering the opportunity to better understand what the landscape was like in the past and the sorts of activities occurring on these very peculiar sites.
Aerial imagery of three artificial islets surveyed during the 2016 season of the Submerged Neolithic of the Western Isles project including Arnish (left), Borghastail (centre) and Langabhat (right).
Check out the results of these projects here.
Benjamin, J., Bicket, A., Anderson, D. and Hale, A. 2014. A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Researching the Intertidal and Marine Archaeology in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 9(3), pp. 400-424.
Garrow, D., Griffiths S., Anderson-Whymark, H., and Sturt, F. 2017. Stepping stones to the Neolithic? Radiocarbon dating the Early Neolithic on islands within the ‘western seaways’ of Britain. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 83, pp. 1-39.
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