The Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Argyll - an alternative view

Vicki Cummings

The transition to the Neolithic has been intensely debated and contested for over a century. Sheridan's model for the onset of the Neolithic in Britain and Ireland is sustained (see, for example, Sheridan 2004; 2007; 2010) and has been carefully modified over the years in light of new data. However, the overall approach remains the same: the start of the Neolithic was a product of a multi-stranded process of colonisation from Mainland Europe into Britain and Ireland. Of particular relevance for this framework is Sheridan's 'Atlantic Breton Neolithic' alongside the 'Carinated Bowl pottery Neolithic', both detailed below. Without repeating in detail the main critiques of this model, a few key points are highlighted here, with relevant references, so that readers are aware that there are other proposed models for the onset and uptake of the Neolithic.

An alternative view

There are sustained critiques of Sheridan's view of the transition published over the last few years, each highlighting different issues with that approach such as those produced by Thomas (2013, 159-73) who disagrees with many of the key elements of her model. It is important to note, however, that all authors find merit in certain components of Sheridan's arguments, so to reject her model outright is equally problematic. Instead, there have been calls for it to be refined and modified (e.g. Cummings and Harris 2011, although see the response by Sheridan 2011).

Some of the key critiques with Sheridan's approach are:

  1. There is growing evidence for contact between people in Britain and Ireland and on Mainland Europe prior to the uptake of Neolithic things and practices, extending into the fifth millennium BC. The Ferriter's Cove domesticated cattle bone is one of the best-known, but is by no means an isolated example of Neolithic material being imported into Ireland in an essentially Mesolithic context. Sheridan has argued that this is an example of an attempted, but failed, immigration of farmers from France into Ireland (e.g. Sheridan 2010, 92), but not, she argues, evidence for sustained contact. In addition, there is now increased consideration given to the idea that populations in late Mesolithic Britain and Ireland were not isolated, but would have instead have been part of wider areas of contact within north-west Europe at this time (see for example Elliott 2015; Garrow and Sturt 2011). This view proposes that there isn't one-way movement of people from Brittany into Britain and Ireland, but a much more fluid flow of people in both directions from the late Mesolithic and into the early Neolithic, and indeed beyond (also see Thomas 2013).
  2. Timings. The work by Whittle et al. (2011) has demonstrated that the first appearance of the Neolithic things and practices had a staggered start, beginning in south-east England and then subsequently appearing north and west of this area (Whittle et al. 2011, 833-43: Figure 3.5). The uptake of Neolithic material and practices commenced in southern Scotland (incorporating Argyll and Bute) between 3835 and 3760 cal BC. This is based on the Bayesian modelling of all the radiocarbon dates from western Scotland and there is no evidence, at present, which contradicts this model.
  3. The Achnacreebeag bowl remains one of Sheridan's key pieces of evidence to demonstrate connections between France and western Scotland. However, others argue that the bowl and its decoration is entirely in-keeping with local traditions of ceramic manufacture in western Scotland in the early Neolithic (Whittle et al. 2011, 851). Indeed, a recent study of this pottery in its wider western Scottish context revealed that its fabric could be seen to be entirely typical (and local) for western Scotland and that it shares decorative traits with other bowls from the region. All in all it is believed to be entirely typical of locally-produced western Scottish early Neolithic bowl pottery (Thompson et al. 2015). Likewise, it is also argued that the monument itself at Achnacreebeag can be paralleled with many other sites in western Britain, making both the monument and the pottery within the monument, entirely in-keeping with a western British tradition of practice in the early Neolithic. Other scholars suggest that there is no need to evoke Breton immigrants to explain this evidence. Indeed, archaeologists have never been able to adequately find precise European analogues for the British or Irish primary Neolithic (Whittle et al. 2011, 860), strongly supporting the idea that they were indigenous adaptions of a wider set of ideas and practices.

One alternative scenario for the start of the Neolithic is described as the 'indigenist' approach (Zvelebil 2000, 59 and see Cummings and Harris 2011). This model does allow for the small-scale movements of people from the continent to both Britain and Ireland, just not on the scale argued by Sheridan. This model suggests that there were ongoing contacts between Britain, Ireland and the Continent in the fifth millennium BC. The actual start of the Neolithic in Britain was initiated by some small-scale and low-key colonisation from the continent into south-east England. This initial event was then followed by fusion and integration with the indigenous population as Neolithic things and practices spread to other areas (e.g. Whittle et al. 2011, 853-61). It is argued here that this is the scenario best envisaged for Argyll and Bute, where the Neolithic (the uptake of new practices and material culture sets) was introduced through a combination of contact with Neolithic peoples by then established in other parts of Britain, perhaps some incoming populations and the incorporation of indigenous peoples into these new traditions of practice. It is also important to stress that the indigenous peoples of western Britain had significant maritime capabilities which would have facilitated the spread of the Neolithic throughout the western seaboard. In these areas, then, the Neolithic may have been spread via marine networks rather than across land (see Callaghan and Scarre 2009; Cummings 2009; Garrow and Sturt 2011). We might even envisage these maritime, yet traditionally hunting and gathering populations, as being the prime movers in this process. The uptake of Neolithic practices in Argyll and Bute occurred somewhere around the decades either side of 3800 cal BC.

References

Callaghan, R. and Scarre, C. 2009. Simulating the western seaways. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 28, 357-72.

Cummings, V. 2009. A view from the west: the Neolithic of the Irish Sea zone. Oxford: Oxbow.

Cummings, V. and Harris, O. 2011. Animals, people and places: the continuity of hunting and gathering practices across the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Britain. European Journal of Archaeology 14:3, 361-82.

Elliott, B. 2015. Facing the chop: redefining British antler mattocks to consider larger-scale maritime networks in the early fifth millennium cal BC. European Journal of Archaeology 18, 222-44.

Garrow, D. and Sturt, F. 2011. Grey waters bright with Neolithic argonauts? Maritime connections and the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition within the 'western seaways' of Britain, c. 5000-3500 BC. Antiquity 85, 59-72.

Sheridan, J.A. 2004. Neolithic connections along and across the Irish Sea. In V. Cummings and C. Fowler (eds), The Neolithic of the Irish Sea: materiality and traditions of practice, 9-21. Oxford: Oxbow.

Sheridan, J.A. 2007. From Picardie to Pickering and Pencraig Hill? New information on the 'Carinated Bowl Neolithic' in northern Britain. In A. Whittle and V. Cummings (eds), Going over, 441-92. London: British Academy.

Sheridan, J.A.. 2010. The Neolithization of Britain and Ireland: the 'big picture'. In B. Finlayson and G. Warren (eds), Landscapes in transition, 89-105. Oxford: Oxbow.

Sheridan, J.A.. 2011. Comments on V. Cummings and O. Harris, Animals, people and places: the continuity of hunting and gathering practices across the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Britain. European Journal of Archaeology 14, 389-91.

Thomas, J. 2013. The birth of Neolithic Britain: an interpretive account. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, E., Cummings, V. and Peterson, R. 2015. The biography of early Neolithic pottery assemblages from chambered tombs in western Scotland and eastern Ireland. In V. Cummings and G. Robinson (eds), The Southern Kintyre Project: exploring interactions across the Irish Sea from the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age, 113-37. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Whittle, A., Healy, F. and Bayliss, A. 2011. Gathering time: dating the early Neolithic enclosures of southern Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxbow.

Zvelebil, M. 2000. The social context of the agricultural transition in Europe. In C. Renfrew and K. Boyle (eds), Archaeogenetics: DNA and the population, 57-79. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.