Archaeological conferences come up with some odd things, few more so than one on the Prehistory of the Channel islands that I just attended. The “Big Question” was to try to fix one of the “Big Problems” in Archaeology – why did the start of the Neolithic age take around 1200 years to cross the Channel from France to the UK? A smaller question was “Why is there large a Neolithic Channel Islands tomb in Henley?”
On the outskirts of Henley, just past the drive to Templecombe, is a thick hedge. 150 yards behind this, on private land, is a very impressive and totally genuine Neolithic Passage Grave from around 3,000 BC. There is only one tiny thing wrong with it – it was moved from Jersey lock, stock and standing stone, in the late eighteenth century.
On 12th August 1785, the militia was levelling a hilltop to act as a parade ground, in an area that was later to become Fort Regent, in the strategically placed capital of St Helier. The soldiers “discovered” a megalithic monument that came to be called the “Mont de la Ville”. (Actually, although this story has been generally accepted, it turns out that a Philip Morant read a paper about this tomb to the Society of Antiquaries in 1761, nearly twenty five years earlier!)
At that time General Marshall Conway was retiring after spending several years as the Lieutenant Governor of Jersey. The islanders decided to present him with the tomb, which was thought to be a Druid temple, as an unique gift of gratitude. Upon discovering that he would have to transport it at his own expense, he was somewhat reticent to accept. Indeed it was only when Horace Walpole wrote to him, “Pray do not disappoint me but transport the Cathedral of your island to your domain on our continent,” that he finally agreed.
In March 1788 the stones were taken up the Thames to Conway’s house outside Henley and the monument was re-erected on a hill overlooking the river. The tomb consists of a covered passage leading into a circular unroofed chamber with a number of cists, each with a capstone, arranged around the edge. No known prehistoric finds were uncovered at the site during the removal.
HERM & the Neolithic Question
It is easy to see why people would be interested in the Channel Islands – they were a half way along several of the main trade routes between France and the UK. The timing of Neolithic changes there could nudge us in the direction of an answer. Indeed, that’s why two of the UK’s most senior archaeologists – Professor Barry Cunliffe (Oxford) and Professor Chris Scarre (Durham) have been working there for many years.
One of the most interesting papers at the conference covered an excavation of some of the 16 Neolithic tombs on the tiny Isle of Herm. The excavations also covered the ground between tombs, where the team found a large and very clear area of ard marks (from ancient ploughing) traced in the soil. Some of the tombs are very early and include pottery from the late 5th Millennium BC. Surprisingly, none of them show much resemblance to tombs from the same period across the water in France. Indeed some seem to be unique. I visited Herm back in 2002 and 2004 and the photo shows one of the unusual tombs we found there.
The conference also covered the finds and provisional conclusions from other excavations, covering several islands over the last few years. The most recent discovery had been made just five days before! Two tentative conclusions were drawn, though only one related directly to the Neolithic question:-
The Neolithic didn’t happen overnight, nobody woke up one day and decided to give up hunter-gathering for farming. It was a slow and gradual process, with different aspects, such as arable farming, livestock domestication, permanent settlement, pottery production and social changes all happening at different times. This created a wide blurring over time and implies that the Neolithic question is perhaps too simplistic to have a meaningful answer.
This led to a profound second thought on the basic process of archaeology, where many theories have become widely accepted only to change completely on the basis of a few new finds. So, perhaps the amount of evidence we have, which is often based on chance and unrepresentative excavations in too few places, creates a limit on how accurate any conjectures might be. This highlighted the fact that any current answer to the Neolithic Question was probably formed on far too little evidence to be sound. Indeed the evidence that was used to pose the question in the first place may not be too sound either!
By Gerry Palmer