The north/south divide doesn’t apply in prehistory – or does it?

Any teacher that contacts us through Twitter, this site or, indeed, face to face, better be ready to be amazed when we point out some amazing archaeology on their doorstep. We’re so used, today, to all the good stuff being in London and the south-east, that it becomes second nature to believe all the good archaeology is in the south, too.

This error is compounded by the myopia that fixates us on Stonehenge and ‘Wessex’. But it’s been a good twenty years since a change in the planning process has transformed what we know about the rest of the country. The hills of Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire were a focus for the two centuries or more before that because there were huge estates of unploughed land there covered in barrows, cursuses and henges.

And because of Planning Policy Guidance Note 16, published in 1990, now transformed into the National Planning Policy Framework (yes, it’s important to know about this, people!), as well as targeted projects, we now have a huge number of exciting sites to shout about in the north and west, and, yes, the south and east of Britain.

Model of Mesolithic house at Mount Sandel, Northern Ireland. By Notafly (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Model of Mesolithic house at Mount Sandel, Northern Ireland. By Notafly (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s take the Mesolithic semi-permanent houses that are cropping up in southern Scotland and northern England (and for this we must thank Spencer Carter of microburin.com for his extensive notes on this and related subjects), e.g. at Howick, Low Hauxley, East Barns and on the Isle of Man, not to mention Star Carr. The Mesolithic was traditionally seen as the nomadic hunter-gatherer stage before people settled down in the Neolithic. With a house that stood for 100 years? Strange kind of nomads.

Not only that, but better understanding of the chronology of sites and artefacts has proved that many innovations moved from north-south rather than the other way round. Grooved Ware, a late Neolithic style of pottery, was first made and used in the Orkneys before spreading around Britain. Cursuses, those enigmatic double-banked linear monuments, seem to have originated in northern Britain and spread south. But they have been investigated in the opposite direction.

Three Thornborough Henges seen from the air. By Tony Newbould [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Three Thornborough Henges seen from the air. By Tony Newbould [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, because the revelation that other parts of Britain mattered too in prehistory is only a recent one, there have been tragedies where vital information has been lost. The Thornborough henges in Yorkshire are three large henges (earthern circular banked monuments) in a row surrounded by a ritual landscape of barrows, pit alignments and another cursus. Sadly for Thornborough, the underlying drift geology is gravel, which needs to be extracted to make roads and driveways and there is ongoing pressure to destroy much of the archaeology around the henges. It would, of course, be recorded, but the henges would be divorced from their wider context.

Of course, it’s not just north/south, but every region of Britain that isn’t Wessex has it’s amazing monuments. And every region has its experts, too. We’ve been gathering names of prehistorians from around the country who will be willing to talk to teachers about their local Stone Age to Iron Age sites. Why not kill two birds with one stone and teach the new prehistory element through the local history study? And get one of our experts on your doorstep to help you plan.

References and further reading

Bradley, R 2007. The Prehistory of Britain and Ireland. Cambridge University Press.

Harding, J 2013. Cult, Religion, and Pilgrimage Archaeological Investigations at the Neolithic and Bronze Age Monument Complex of Thornborough, North Yorkshire. Council for British Archaeology Research Report 174.

One thought on “The north/south divide doesn’t apply in prehistory – or does it?

  1. Pingback: Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Yorkshire | Schools Prehistory

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