Neolithic Economy In Britain
The moment most people see the word Neolithic they think of archaeology and archaeologists. Prehistory, surely, is all about digging up things and guessing what they were used for. Sadly, it is not a science because finding two archaeologists who agree with each other is like finding the moon and sun in the same sky. Consequently, locating two who might agree that there was a Neolithic economy might be even harder.
What if I suggested that an economist might be just as important in looking at prehistory? This is not as absurd as you might think. The definition of economy is: the complex of human activities concerned with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. You might expect a modern economist to perform research, analyze data, monitor trends and develop forecasts. That might be about farm prices, rents, imports and employment.
THE NEOLITHIC ECONOMY DID EXIST
If we jump back to My Pagan Ancestor Zuri in 2200BC, the role of economist was unknown. This is because production in Dorset was dispersed in huts scattered up the Rivers Avon and Stour. Little was centralised and each person, male and female, was expert at skills passed down through families. These people are called artisans today. As to products, some drinking cups found from the period suggest that an alcoholic drink was produced. Certainly, we can reliably assume that there was no massive brewery on the riverside. Yet the aroma of brewing might just have drifted out of a hut thatch or two. Some evidence suggests they used a water meadow plant called meadowsweet. If alcohol was produced then it could be bartered for dried fish or grain. That would suggest that Neolithic economies did exist, no matter how small.
These skilled people would know the area; the soil, marshes, plants, trees and wildlife. For certain, they would also know how to convey goods along potential safe trading routes. Maybe they had a bartering value for beer, timber, flint and skins. Probably, they talked to people up and down the river producing the goods and as a result understood trends. I accept that the sudden appearance of metal took them by surprise. No doubt they would swear that they had prophesied for years that stone tools had had their day. This basket of skills was diffused through various people in huts throughout the area; an artisan economy. Today, the archaeologists constantly identify the remains of buildings from the Neolithic without a hearth. The implication is that these buildings were used for some form of production, maybe even communal production.
PLANTS ARE OFTEN SPECIFIC TO LOCATION
It might seem obvious but specific plants grow well in Dorset and might have been fundamental to the local economy. The common (water) reed (Phragmites australis) is a good example. The textbooks will state that it grows all over the UK, which is true. Yet you would be hard pushed to find much of it further north. I saw little in Shropshire or Cumbria when I lived there. The RSPB and wildlife trusts identify it as an important reed for bird species. Also, many reedbeds, like Minsmere, are now protected as a rare habitat.
In Dorset, the reed hogs our rivers. Before we controlled our water courses, it probably grew in vast stands within the water meadows. Above all, the reed is well suited to Dorset chalk and its calcium rich water. We might measure its abundance by the number of thatched properties still in existence; common here in Dorset, yet less so in the Midlands and Cumbria.
Consequently, we might ask what is the value of a thatched roof? Without reed, people were forced to use straw, heather, gorse, turf or bracken. Hence, we can assume that those roofs leaked in inclement weather. Meanwhile, those snug societies under a sophisticated reed roof in Dorset lived in much greater comfort. Housing is a vital consideration for a successful economy? Is there a direct association between the ability to obtain and thatch reeds on the River Avon and the building of Stonehenge? Could reed thatch be an essential economic factor for that first common culture, perhaps first civilisation, in the UK? The Neolithic people in the Scottish Islands abandoned their stone buildings and left the islands; was it their heather or turf roofs that did for them, a damp and potentially sickly existence?
The reeds offered further advantages in that the stems and roots could also be eaten. They were heavy and bulky so could not be transported far, unlike furs, flint and dried fish. Because the river is also the highway, the carrying of reeds manually from the river and up the side valleys to more remote huts seams feasible. Perhaps what we identify as the Neolithic tribal area was restricted to where reeds could be carried; that the reed itself was a symbol of economic status. Maybe this suggests that the hunter gatherers living up on the chalk downs were demeaned by their leaking roofs? They had no easy access to reed beds, nor did they have the Neolithic economy of the farmers.
Maybe a similar economic case might be made for a myriad of Neolithic timber products, as these people appear skilled at managing woods. As farming advanced, grain and beef evidently became the most valuable commodities. Experts will suggest that this is why the Romans saw England as the invasion prize. The invaders showed no real interest in Scotland or Eire. Perhaps the Romans were really after our reeds!
PAGANS PAY DIVIDENDS
Have I made out a case for economists skilled in prehistory? Perhaps archaeologists could take one to Stonehenge. That monument, built by an unsophisticated Neolithic economy, is now a big earner for English Heritage; a cash cow, to pinch a possible term used by our early farmers. We see ourselves as sophisticated, and have no compunction making money on the sweated backs of pagans.