Riverine Culture in Dorset

 In Environment, Neolithic, Stonehenge

The world’s first civilizations, in 3500 BC, were often called riverine cultures. Mesopotamia, ‘the land between the rivers’ and those on the Nile typify these. Riverine cultures in India and China quickly followed but Dorset tends not to be included in the list. Yet, riverine culture in Dorset is evident even though it is on a reduced scale. It was also of a later date in Britain because of the impact of the last Ice Age.

Why a river?

All rivers were obviously valuable to hunter gatherers after the Ice Age. They were a reliable source of drinking water and a place to hunt and fish. All land was difficult to cross as there were no roads and few tracks. What tracks did exist seem to follow watercourses. When log boats were invented, they proved ideal in deeper, slower rivers and on the sea in good conditions. So, with good river transport, all that was needed to succeed was a light and fertile soil to grow crops. Few places in the world had these characteristics.

The twin rivers

The rivers Avon (yes, some is in Hampshire!) and Stour fitted the bill. Both chalk rivers, they flood lightly in winter and this adds chalk and green material to maintain soil fertility. Chalk ‘sweetens’ soil and green material like grass and leaves adds humus. In prehistory, everything was in place for a ‘small’ civilization to develop. Compare this to other parts of Britain. So many British rivers flow from acidic upland environments, in Wales, the Pennines and even Dartmoor. They also flood quickly and violently, what we call ‘fast’ rivers. Dorset had the perfect Neolithic environment, given by their gods. These early people celebrated this by building a temple at a place which we call Stonehenge.

Riverine culture in Dorset

The Neolithic tribe on the twin rivers expanded their hunter gatherer lifestyle to incorporate horticulture; they grew crops. With only wood, antler and flint tools, they could till light soils along the rivers. Few people in Britain could do that because they were on heavy, clay soils. On the twin rivers, between 4000 and 3000 BC they grew crops. They flourished and created a food surplus, which was very rare in those times. This enabled them to build the first Stonehenge using bluestones dragged from the poor, acidic soils of Prescelli. Over the next 500 years, they rebuilt Stonehenge a number of times, each more sophisticated. Stonehenge is a temple to the first, perhaps only, Neolithic riverine culture in Britain.

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