Radiocarbon test of early Neolithic remains can pinpoint dates to a human life span 5,500 years ago
It is perhaps best-known for its hipsters, but long before Shoreditch became avant garde, it was a place of agriculture and farmers according to evidence from a radiocarbon dating technique that has revealed details about Neolithic London.
The technique proved that the most significant early Neolithic pottery discovered in London is 5,500 years old. It reveals for the first time that the city’s prehistoric inhabitants led a less mobile, farming-based lifestyle than their hunter-gathering forebears.
The research, published in Nature, reveals that an area around Shoreditch High Street was once populated by farmers herding their livestock across a once-green landscape. They were possibly linked to migrant groups who first introduced farming to Britain from continental Europe around 4,000 BC.
Jon Cotton, a consultant prehistorian working for MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), said: “This remarkable collection helps to fill a critical gap in London’s prehistory. Archaeological evidence for the period after farming arrived in Britain rarely survives in the capital, let alone still in-situ. This is the strongest evidence yet that people in the area later occupied by the city and its immediate hinterland were living a less mobile, farming-based lifestyle during the early Neolithic period.”
He added: “It seems quite likely that these people were semi-nomadic, but settling from time to time in various spots and very much geared around the herding of animals.”
The technique, developed by scientists at the University of Bristol, is so accurate that it can pinpoint dates to a human life span. It has enabled fatty residues absorbed within the porous walls of the prehistoric pots to be extracted and analysed.
The study of long-expired milk fats and other microscopic food remains confirms they once held cattle and sheep or goat dairy products, including butter and cheese. Such foodstuffs could easily be stored during winter months. There was also evidence of stewed meat, including beef and mutton.
Although the pottery is now in hundreds of fragments, some still bear the fingertip impressions of their original creators.
The collection was discovered by archaeologists from MOLA while excavating the site of a Roman cemetery at Principal Place, an extensive development in Shoreditch.
Prof Richard Evershed, who headed the University of Bristol team, said: “Being able to directly date archaeological pots is one of the ‘Holy Grails’ of archaeology. This new method is based on an idea I had going back more than 20 years … We made several earlier attempts to get the method right, but it wasn’t until we established our own radiocarbon facility in Bristol that we cracked it.”
Evidence of early Neolithic houses have been found at Horton in Berkshire, Cranford in Hounslow, and Gorhambury in the Colne Valley, and archaeologists believe the pottery from Principal Place suggests a similarly significant settlement.
Judging from those slightly earlier sites, Cotton said the people who created the Principal Place pottery might also have lived in substantial houses made of timber with thatched roofs.
Noting that the pot residues include herding animals, he added that today’s crowded urban site of Shoreditch High Street was once the upper part of the Walbrook Valley, close to running fresh water and immediate resources for flocks and herds. He said: “You might have to imagine some small clearing within a wooded environment. It was a good place to live.”
Previous Neolithic remains discovered in urban central London barely extend beyond a few fragments of pottery and stone axes.
Cotton said: “So this site provides the first solid evidence for the presence of people within the area of the city and its immediate environs. This is the largest group of prehistoric pottery in situ from that area. You can count the amount of prehistoric pottery from the city hitherto on the fingers of virtually one hand.”
The pottery features 436 fragments from at least 24 separate vessels. Some had been decorated by pressing fingertips or roe deer hooves into the clay – revealing that, even at this early date, people cared about the look as well as the function of their tableware.