Winters Past - A Neolithic Winter
The winter festive season is upon us, which we celebrate through diverse customs and traditions – some of which date back a very long way indeed. Whilst decorating Christmas trees is a relatively recent import from Germany, during the Victorian era, the practice of cutting evergreen boughs dates back to pre-Christian times – including plants such as mistletoe that was highly revered by pagan Celtic druids. Mass feasting around the winter solstice is a practice associated with the first settled communities and their domesticated animals in Neolithic (Stone Age) times, including in our area at Whitehawk where the very first residents of our Biosphere lived some 5,500 years ago. So, whilst you enjoy the modern-day comforts and excess of this festive season, spare a thought for our early ancestors who struggled to survive and thrive through mid-winter.
From around 4,000BC we begin to see a change in the way people lived in Britain as they moved from a hunter-gather way of life (Mesolithic) to one more dependent on domesticated animals and plants (Neolithic). With this change came the beginning of the human created landscape that we see today and construction of Britain's first monuments. Sussex is one of the earliest places in the country where this change occurred and Whitehawk Camp within the Biosphere one of the earliest sites.
We believe that at least the initial Neolithic settlers came from Europe and brought with them not just new technology but a different way of living, organising their society and interpreting the world. Evidence from sites such as Whitehawk Camp suggests that Neolithic people were largely dependent on domesticates for their survival. This suggests the majority of their time was spent in the local area working their fields and tending their animals rather than moving through the landscape to follow seasonal wild resources. The changing seasons were likely to have been viewed more in terms of the life cycle of domesticates and less on the seasonal occurrence of herds of wild animals or the ripening of wild fruits.
Certain times of the year would have been important in this cycle, whether because specific activities relating to domesticate production were required or because they held symbolic meaning. One such time appears to have been the winter solstice, which marks the passing of the shortest day and brings hope of warmer and more abundant days ahead. The importance of the solstice is marked in later Neolithic monuments such as Stonehenge and dramatically in the Irish passage grave at Newgrange where the passage and inner chamber is lit by the light of the morning sun for 5 days each year around 21st December.
Winter is the harshest season and Neolithic communities would have had to prepare resources to sustain themselves through it. This is likely to have involved food preservation techniques such as the smoking of meat, production of butter or cheese and drying and storage of cereals and other crops. We know that dairying was an important component of Neolithic life as the remnants of fats derived from dairy products have been found preserved on the interior surfaces of Neolithic pots.
Fodder for animals would have been at a premium and as natural grazing became depleted through late Autumn/early Winter only animals required for breeding and dairying would have been kept, with the rest (mostly male animals) slaughtered. We find evidence for this in the large number of butchered cattle bones found at Whitehawk. This has led us to think that such monuments may have been meeting places at this time of the year where surpluses of meat and other produce could facilitate mass feasting bringing together extended family groups.
One of the few resources which were available during the winter months was deer antler, shed during the months of November and December. Antler was an important resource for Neolithic peoples and in a world without metal was used to create tools from picks to dig ditches to combs. Deer antler tools would have been used to dig the ditches at Whitehawk Camp and the contemporary flint mines north of Worthing, which can be c. 8m in diameter and c. 12m deep. The backfilled shafts of flint mines can be still be seen at Cissbury Hillfort as deep craters.
Whilst we have little evidence of the nature of their houses we can imagine that much of the winter months would have been spent inside making and repairing clothes, tools, basketry, pottery and cordage. At lot of this work was labour intensive, such as the polishing of flint axes, and you can imagine Neolithic houses were a hive of activity during the winter months, preparing what would be required for the months ahead.
Neolithic life was tough and if you survived childhood your life expectancy would be in the early to mid 30s. The year was spent preparing for survival during the months when little food could be produced and if your crops failed or your animals sickened there would have been a real risk that you would not survive the winter. A lot of these themes are similar to those faced by communities fighting to survive at difficult time of the year today where there is no safety net. We may not know the language which they spoke or the exact form of their society and culture, but we can appreciate the challenges that they faced as the Biosphere’s first residents.
University College London