Mesolithic-Neolithic histories in the Colne Valley: integrating an everyday landscape

A talk by Samantha Brummage (Birkbeck College, University of London), 19 October 2019

The Colne Valley runs from Watford in the north down to the Middle Thames Valley and encompasses the land around the Chalfonts, Datchet, Egham and Staines, Hillingdon and Heathrow airport. The landscape of this river valley provides the background for a PhD study that aims to demonstrate the relevance of the prehistoric past to the multicultural society of today. Very few people are aware of the archaeology beneath their feet. Using Historic Environment Records (HERs) as her primary resource, Samantha has collated evidence for the Mesolithic and Neolithic from excavations, fieldwalking, museum collections and find spots.  

At the start of the Mesolithic around 12,000 BP (before present), Britain was covered with post-glacial tundra which was mostly treeless. As Britain was slowly separated from the Continent by the incursion of the North Sea during the Early Holocene, the tundra was replaced by cold temperate forest. By the Mid Holocene c. 7000 BP the separation was complete. Mesolithic people were highly mobile hunter-gatherers and seasonal occupation was the norm with larger base camps near the coast and smaller hunting camps inland. A reconstruction of the face of Cheddar Man with his striking blue eyes, based on remains found in Gough’s Cave dated to c. 9100 BP, helped to bring the period alive. The landscape changed during the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition around 4000 BC (6000 BP) from a wooded to a more open environment. At this time one group was replaced by another which used stone for the first time to create monuments, such as the West Kennet long barrow in Wiltshire and Maeshowe in the Orkneys. There is no stone in the Colne Valley and here both the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods are largely invisible.

Evidence from excavations, such as Riding Court Farm near Datchet, combined with find spots, such as that of the jadeite axe from Staines Moor, was used to create a wider picture of the past, to show that people were not restricted to known sites but used the wider landscape. Like us, they dropped litter and lost items and the location of these items sheds light on their wider spheres of activity. The Neolithic houses and barrows at Kingsmead Quarry, Horton, have led to this site being described as ‘founded by pioneer farmers’, but this completely ignores the Mesolithic people who inhabited the same site but left a fainter trace. The concept of ‘Neolithic colonisation’ in the Colne Valley ignores the fact that the area was already inhabited: Mesolithic artefacts have been found all across the landscape.

Most of the Mesolithic flint scatters and find spots are concentrated in the upper Colne Valley around Uxbridge, Iver, Denham and Rickmansworth, where huge concentrations of material have been found. The Three Ways Wharf site in Uxbridge was contemporary with Cheddar Man and was occupied on at least three separate occasions as evidenced by discrete flint scatters. The earliest has been radiocarbon dated to c. 9200 BP when the landscape was still post-glacial tundra. A dense concentration of animal bones and flints suggests the site was occupied by around 20 people for a lengthy period. Several seasons of occupation are represented and there is evidence for cut timber and cooking. Marks on a deer bone showed it had been used as a ‘soft hammer’ for making flint tools. The flints were obtained locally from the Colne gravels on the river floodplain. A smaller scatter of flints was found at the nearby site of Jewson’s Yard dated 9800-8500 BP. Similar find spots have been recorded all along the Colne and its tributaries. All the flints were made using the same technology, and the sites range from long-lasting occupations to single-use camps. Tranchet axes are known from the same area and were used to clear woodland and encourage plant growth to facilitate hunting and open up routeways. By the late Mesolithic blade concentrations are found in the lower Colne Valley, perhaps as conditions upstream became more waterlogged as evidenced by peat formation. At Heathrow Terminal 5, 14 pits dated to 7500-5500 BP were found beneath a Neolithic cursus, again showing that the Neolithic were not pioneers in this area.

There was no sharp cut-off point between the Mesolithic and the Early Neolithic, but Neolithic sites are more visible and are concentrated in the lower Colne Valley near the Middle Thames. They include causewayed enclosures, houses and cursus monuments. Polished stone axes have been found at Staines, Hillingdon, Harefield and elsewhere, and these are part of the same landscape as the built monuments and the houses at Horton. Early to Middle Neolithic pottery has been recovered at Horton, Heathrow Terminal 5 and elsewhere from pits containing broken pots including Peterborough Ware with its fine decoration. Flints include fabricators, awls and scrapers to work leather and wood and shred fibres to make cords and baskets. 

The movement of people on a small scale can show how places were connected and relationships established. Prehistory is not based on biology and runs much deeper involving psychological and social processes which bring people together – and also separate them. This concept extends into the present and underlines the need to make archaeology accessible to everyone.

report by Janet Sharpe

Exploring the archaeology, history and architecture of Berkshire