Story published July 2011
New light on Early Neolithic enclosures
A new book has recently been published on ground-breaking research into the dating of the early Neolithic enclosures of southern Britain and Ireland. (Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland, by Alasdair Whittle, Frances Healy and Alex Bayliss).
These enigmatic monumental earthworks have long captured the imagination, and over 80 have now been recognised. Their sheer size and complexity, some enclosing up to 10 hectares, is an indication of the importance they must have held for those that built them.
This article explores some of these sites from central and southern England, their varying probable uses, and what the new research means for our understanding of them within the Early Neolithic period.
A view of the Neolithic causewayed enclosure and Bronze Age barrow cemetery on Windmill Hill. The curving bank of the causewayed enclosure can clearly be seen. (copyright English Heritage. Ref. N070652).
The dating project
The project was started at Cardiff University by Professor Alasdair Whittle, and funded by The Arts and Humanities Research Council and English Heritage.
The project team carefully selected samples of bone, charcoal and antler for radiocarbon dating and subsequent Bayesian modelling. The modelling combines the radiocarbon results with other information, especially stratigraphy, to provide indications of when individual events occurred and for how long. English Heritage’s Scientific Dating Co-ordinator, Dr Alex Bayliss, obtained hundreds of radiocarbon dates from sites in England, Wales and Ireland.
Results of the project
This research has provided new insight into the chronology of the Early Neolithic period, and for the first time the monuments can be understood in terms of individual generations rather than just broad periods of activity spanning several hundred years.
The research showed that Early Neolithic enclosures first appear in the final decades of the 38th century cal BC, proving that the enclosures were not the first Neolithic practices to arrive in England. They increase in number in the 37th and 36th centuries cal BC, and some continue in use possibly into the 33rd century cal BC. Several were of short duration, some possibly in use for less than a generation, and some for possibly hundreds of years.
They occur first in eastern England, the Thames estuary, Sussex, and the south-west peninsula, probably first on the Thames estuary. The idea of enclosure seems to have then spread from the coast to Wessex within one or two generations, then to the Cotswolds and the middle and upper Thames valley perhaps within two generations, and then to the Marches in three or four generations.
More about the enclosures
Appearance and characteristics
Causewayed enclosures typically have ditches interrupted by gaps (or causeways), often in several circuits, sometimes with banks. In place of causewayed enclosures in South West England are Tors - large hilltop or hillslope enclosures. They are located close to rock outcrops, and surrounded by one or more circuits of stone built walls. Many of the ditches of both types of enclosure contain artefacts of human bone, animal bones, pottery, stone tools, and antler picks.
What were they for?
Since their first identification as a specific monument class, the function of these sites has been hotly debated. From occupation to fortification and defence, to sites purely for the focus of ritual or religious activities, many theories have been proposed.
However, some contain specialist artefacts from great distances away, hinting at a trading and exchange focus and some sort of ritual significance. Rituals associated with feasting, trade, and disposal of the dead may all have taken place at these sites. The enclosures would have been the focal point for the community during these events, and would also have had a practical purpose in bringing together the whole population.
It is probable, despite their similarities, that each site had its own uses unique to the community that it served, and this is highlighted by the hugely contrasting life spans of the individual enclosures as well as the artefacts that have been found in them. Indeed, it may have been the digging of the enclosures themselves that was important, rather than what they were then used for.
Explore the radiocarbon dated enclosures by region
Click on the hyperlinks in the regional groups below to access the PastScape records for these fascinating sites. Where these records correspond to Scheduled Monuments go to the sources sections of the records for links to the National Heritage List for England.
North Wiltshire Downs
Some of the first monuments to be identified as ‘causewayed camps’ were those on the North Wiltshire Downs, which include those at Knap Hill , Windmill Hill and Rybury. Windmill Hill is one of the largest and well-known, sited in the complex prehistoric area around Avebury. Many of the objects found at Windmill Hill can now be seen in the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury.
Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure, Outer Ditch Cutting 2.
24 May 1926 (Photographer: H St G Gray) English Heritage NMR ref BB81/02959
In this region it would appear that Windmill Hill was the first monument in a long sequence of Neolithic activity. The radiocarbon dating programme now places construction in the 37th century cal BC over the span of just one or two generations, and the continuation of its main use until the 35th or 34th centuries cal BC.
The research has also indicated that the people who were buried in the West Kennet long barrow may have been alive at the time the community constructed parts of the Windmill Hill enclosure.
Interior view of West Kennet Long Barrow. 08 Jul 2007. (Photographer: James O Davies; English Heritage NMR ref DP055695).
The enclosure complex on Hambledon Hill was the first to be constructed in this region, and may have stood for two or more generations before the building of Whitesheet Hill, which was then in turn followed by Robin Hood’s Ball and the enclosure at Maiden Castle (below the later hillfort).
These enclosures had different life spans and contrasting elements. A very noticeable difference is the long duration of Hambledon Hill compared to the more event-like character of Maiden Castle.
An aerial view showing the pronounced earthwork defences of the Iron Age Hillfort on Hambeldon Hill (top) and the faint earthworks of the Neolithic causewayed enclosure (centre).(Ref no: alk 7442/245. Photographer: Alexander Keiller, July 1924)
The Neolithic in Sussex is represented by many different types of sites, particularly flint mines, which appear in the 40th century cal BC.
The flint mines on Harrow Hill in West Sussex. The circular depressions seen here are the remains of collapsed mine shafts. The small enclosure was constructed later in circa 1000 BC. (Ref. NMR 15209/31. Taken January 1995).
The enclosures appear to follow these first Neolithic activities after 150 to 300 years, with the first in the region probably that of Bury Hill.
Further sites in the region:
The Trundle. Inside the hillfort lie the fainter remains of the causewayed enclosure.
Ref. NMR 21025/07. English Heritage 2000.
It is possible that initial construction of all the causewayed enclosures in this region occurred in the 37th century cal BC, possibly all first constructed within a generation of each other; Etton was probably constructed first. Despite this they were all very different – both in size and character.
In this region, and elsewhere, it appears that cursus monuments (long narrow rectangular Neolithic earthworks, usually defined by a bank and ditch) replaced or took over from causewayed enclosures.
Further sites in the region:
The Greater Thames Estuary, Kent and Essex
The research suggests that causewayed enclosures were built earlier in Kent than in Essex, and than in most of England. This may have been as a result of the movement of people or ideas from the Continent up through the Thames Estuary.
Featured sites in the region:
Lodge Farm, St Osyth
The Thames Valley
With the exception of the Abingdon enclosure, the dated enclosures in this region appear to be short-lived events; this may relate to a higher density population in the area.
The enclosures themselves appear to have some unique characteristics; the circuits are often incomplete, with water courses an integral part of the design, perhaps reflecting the importance they held for the community.
Other dated examples in the region:
Yeoveney Lodge Farm, Staines
Gatehampton Farm, Goring
The sites at Crickley Hill and Peak Camp may have been independent or part of a larger scheme, perhaps similar to the Hambledon Hill enclosures. Crickley Hill is particularly interesting as it has a very clear episode of violent activity, with the site burnt and several hundred arrowheads found. This brought an end to the use of the enclosure. The two enclosures were probably built within a generation of each other and were in concurrent use, although Peak Camp may have continued in use for a longer period.
The south-west peninsula
The research suggested that both ditched and walled enclosures began to be built in the south-west peninsula from around 3700 cal BC. The inner circuit at Hembury and the stone-built enclosure at Helman Tor were probably the first in the region, followed by the enclosures at Membury, Raddon Hill, and Carn Brea over the next century or two.
Hill Croft Field
This was the first causewayed enclosure to be identified in Herefordshire and also in the wider area, and unusually has only one entrance.
For further information and references on this type of site an English Heritage leaflet on causewayed enclosures is also available to download:
For more about the project and its findings: