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The Times of Their Lives

14 May 2012

The Time of their lives pic - webWindmill Hill, a large Neolithic causewayed enclosure in Avebury

A five-year collaborative project between the University and English Heritage that aims to construct a more precise chronology of Neolithic civilisations in Europe has just been awarded €2.5M from the European Research Council.

The Times of Their Lives, led by Professor Alasdair Whittle of the University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion and Dr Alex Bayliss of English Heritage builds on the ground-breaking success of combining expertise in Neolithic archaeology and Bayesian statistical analysis in mapping a precise chronology of causewayed enclosures, a type of early Neolithic earthwork, in Britain.

Causewayed enclosures are known prehistoric features, but up to now it has been thought that they spread slowly across Britain over five centuries. Using the new technique, Professor Whittle and Dr Bayliss have already shown that this new class of huge monuments spread rapidly all over southern Britain in a short span of 75 years, starting from the Thames Estuary through Kent and Sussex, and then west, on an intense scale that was not apparent before. The new knowledge that this happened in a flurry within two to three generations has revolutionised the way prehistory is understood and studied in Britain, and has prompted wide interest around the world.

"At stake is our ability to study the lives of Neolithic people at the scale of generations and even decades, as opposed to the more usual scale of centuries," said Professor Whittle of the University’s Department of Archaeology and Conservation.

"The Neolithic period in Europe, as elsewhere globally, is of enduring interest because it presents one of the great transformations in human history: over time, from small-scale, probably often mobile and egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities to complex, variously hierarchical societies materially based on sedentary existence and a farming economy. The Times of Their Lives project will concentrate on the development of this way of life, rather on its initiation."

The research team will focus on examining sites in Serbia, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France, Spain and Malta, with the help and cooperation of European partners. These will include deeply stratified settlement mounds or tells, other ‘flat’ settlements, cemeteries, megalithic monuments, and ditched enclosures. The dated pollen diagrams of England will also be modelled.

Explaining their novel research approach, Dr Alex Bayliss of English Heritage said: "Based on the eighteenth-century theorem of Thomas Bayes, the Bayesian methodology we’re using combines radiocarbon dates with prior archaeological knowledge of dated samples to produce formally modelled date estimates of the events and phenomena in any given sequence. The rigorous application of this model will enable the calculation of quantified date estimates, which are both much more precise and more reliable than those obtained by simply looking at radiocarbon results."

The research will also draw on the expertise of a team of archaeologists in Cardiff and statistical modellers in London. As well as producing a clearer picture of the lives of our ancestors, Professor Whittle and Dr Bayliss aim to leave a legacy of best practice in relation to their chosen methodology and its effect on our understanding of the issues of chronology and time.

Related links:

School of History, Archaeology and Religion

English Heritage -