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Neolithic villages: from the 5th millennium BC

In the regions bordering the Atlantic coast, the transition from palaeolithic hunter-gatherers to neolithic villagers begins in about 4500 BC. These villagers later develop a striking tradition of prehistoric architecture.

In most of Europe neolithic communities live in villages of timber houses, often with a communal longhouse. But along the entire Atlantic coast, from Spain through France to the British Isles and Denmark, the central feature of each village is a great tomb, around which simple huts are clustered. The tomb chambers of these regions introduce the tradition of stonework which includes Passage graves and megaliths.


The massive neolithic architecture of western Europe begins, in the late 5th millennium BC, with passage graves. The name reflects the design. A stone passage leads into the centre of a great mound of turf, where a tomb chamber - first of wood but later of stone - contains the dead of the surrounding community.


Over the centuries increasingly large slabs of stone, or megaliths (from Greek megas huge and lithos stone), are used for the passage graves. And an astronomical theme is added. The graves begin to be aligned in relation to the annual cycle of the sun.

An outstanding example is the passage grave at Newgrange in Ireland, dating from about 2500 BC. Huge slabs of stone, carved in intricate spiral patterns, form the walls of the chamber. At sunrise on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year, when the sun itself seems in danger of dying) the rays penetrate the length of the passage to illuminate the innermost recess.


In a later stage of this deeply mysterious Neolithic tradition the megaliths, previously hidden beneath the mounds of the tombs, emerge in their own right as great standing stones, often arranged in circles. The ritual purpose of such circles is not known. They too, in many cases, have a solar alignment, usually now relating to sunrise at the summer solstice.

The most striking of these circles is Stonehenge, in England. The site is in ritual use over a very long period, from about 3000 to 1100 BC. The largest stones, with their enormous lintels, are now thought to have been erected in about 2500 BC. By this time stone architecture is being used also at a domestic level in parts of the British Isles, as in the famous Stone Age village of Skara Brae.


Beaker people: 2000 BC

In spite of the obstacle of the Channel, Britain is much influenced by successive waves of immigrants or invaders from continental Europe. In about 2000 BC a newly dominant group has a custom of placing bell-shaped drinking vessels (or beakers) and bronze daggers in the tombs of warriors. Known variously as the Beaker or Bell-Beaker people, these newcomers introduce the Bronze Age to Britain together with horses and alcohol (hence the beakers).

The Iron Age in Britain begins some time after 500 BC and is mainly associated with another gradual infiltration from mainland Europe - that of the Celts.


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