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The Neolithic

Overview: c. 4,000 BC - c. 2,000 BC

This is the most recent of the three divisions of the Stone Age, and was the period when agriculture was introduced extensively to Britain and began to replace the gatherer-hunter system. Evidence from c. 4,000 BC shows that the Neolithic population had developed a system of small "allotments" throughout Western Europe.

In Britain, although much of the landscape was still very densely wooded, areas for farming had been cleared and domesticated sheep, cattle, pigs and corn were being imported, increasing the range of provisions that farming could supply. Pollen diagrams and alluviation studies suggest that most of Herefordshire would still have been densely wooded at this time, though agriculture and wood pasture clearance had commenced at the beginning of the Neolithic and were well established by its end (see pollen sequences HER 5522, 32802 and 32803).

Elaborate multi-chambered burial tombs built of megaliths (enormous stones) began to dominate the landscape of Neolithic Herefordshire. These tombs would not only have had a symbolic religious purpose but would also have had a social and political function. They would only have been fully accessible to those members of society above a certain social standing, and those buried in them would have probably been the more important members of the community.

Neolithic tombs in Herefordshire are located in two areas - the Golden Valley and the Black Mountains, both in the south-west part of the county. The siting of these tombs suggests that some religious importance was placed on the mountain ranges of the area, as a total of 18 tombs have been discovered within the Black Mountains. These tombs also suggest that Neolithic people were religious to a certain extent and believed in the after-life.

Many of the Neolithic sites in Herefordshire have also yielded Mesolithic finds. In fact it is quite rare to find a Neolithic site in Herefordshire that does not also contain Mesolithic evidence. This suggests continued habitation of sites through successive periods of time, and places additional importance on the location of sites. The fact that habitation sites have stayed largely the same but that social change was occurring suggests that it was the evolution of ideas from within communities, and not a migration of people, that caused these changes.

Neolithic settlements were sophisticated affairs. On Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire there is an extensive encampment (HER 1551), which was excavated from 1965 onwards. This settlement had evidence of a low wall and a stockade, suggesting that this had once been an enclosed camp and that the Neolithic population had felt the need to defend their settlement. The site also yielded over 4,000 pieces of flint, as well as polished stone axe-heads, pottery, storage pits and hut floors. This evidence points to the fact that the Neolithic settlements were on an organised plan, and that they were more sophisticated and technologically advanced than is sometimes thought.

As farming communities began to be established, networks of trade and communication grew up around them. Greenstone, which originates from the Penzance area of Cornwall, has been found at two different sites in Herefordshire (Elton and St Margarets), and axes from Cumbria and Gwynedd have been found at Almeley and Weobley in the north of the county.

Neolithic finds have also been discovered in more lowland areas of Herefordshire, and even in the valley floors of the River Arrow, above Titley and Staunton-on-Arrow, and of the River Teme at Buckton. This suggests that by the Neolithic period the county's valley floors had begun to be cleared of their dense woodland, and that the communities were beginning to move away from the uplands. An excellent example of a flint axe was recently discovered on the surface of a ploughed field next to a spring in Wellington (HER 31009), suggesting that this piece of land has hardly been disturbed in over 4,000 years.

The Neolithic period is also important due to the fact that it was at this time that polished stone axes began to be used. These tools would have been used for hunting, forest clearance and shelter building. Some of the more carefully worked axes would have been "prestige goods" and used for display only. The distribution of these axes throughout Herefordshire suggests that by the Neolithic period man had begun to travel through the different areas of the county.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]