Stepping stones to the Neolithic? Islands, maritime connectivity and the 'western seaways' of Britain, 5000-3500 BC

Duncan Garrow, Fraser Sturt, 2012 (updated 2017)

Data copyright © Duncan Garrow unless otherwise stated

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Duncan Garrow, Fraser Sturt (2017) Stepping stones to the Neolithic? Islands, maritime connectivity and the 'western seaways' of Britain, 5000-3500 BC [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]


Stepping stones to the Neolithic? Islands, maritime connectivity and the 'western seaways' of Britain, 5000-3500 BC

The Neolithic is the term used for the period in our past when the shift from hunting and gathering wild animals and plants to a farming lifestyle occurred. This change happened at different times and in different ways throughout the world, beginning around 10,000 BC in the Middle East and around 4,000 BC in Britain and Ireland. The process by which the Neolithic arrived in Britain and Ireland is currently (in 2017) a hotly debated topic. Some scholars argue that colonists moved wholesale from the continent (bringing farming, pottery, etc. with them from France and/or Belgium), but others have suggested that the indigenous population of Britain gradually adopted the farming lifestyle on their own terms (possibly as a result of a broad shift in their worldview). What is agreed is that some contact between Britain, Ireland and the European mainland must have occurred in the centuries around 4000 BC for the change to happen at all, and that this most likely happened across the 'western seaways' - an arc of sea extending approximately from the Channel Islands in the south, through the Isles of Scilly, the Isle of Man and the Hebrides, around to Orkney in the north.

The Stepping Stones project (2011-2017) placed the islands around Britain firmly at the centre of archaeological debate. The project contended that a detailed understanding of Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic activity within this important zone of contact had the potential to make a crucial contribution to our understanding of the processes of transition, both within the western seaways and on either side. Our central research questions were:

  • When did the Neolithic arrive on each island group within the western seaways?
  • What is the earliest Neolithic evidence on each island group?
  • What was the sea like during this period, and how did any changes affect seafaring practices?

In order to answer these questions, we:

  • Created a new database of all known Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic sites (and associated radiocarbon dates) within the western seaways zone
  • Excavated one site on each of three different island groups, to find new evidence
  • Carried out a major programme of radiocarbon dating to date the arrival of the Neolithic on each island group
  • Undertook a new programme of oceanographic modelling, in order to establish where the sea actually was, and what sailing across it would have been like, between 5000 and 3500 BC (and beyond)
Further details about the project can be found on the original project webpage: