The village people: An early history of neighbourly disputes

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Stuart Rathbone
Stuart Rathbone is a graduate of Bournemouth universities innovative BSc Archaeology program. He spent over a decade in Ireland working in both commercial and research positions, before returning to the UK in 2011. After a short stint in East Anglia he moved to Shetland where he is currently enjoying the fabulous climate and bustling urban lifestyle. He co-authored the monograph on the excavation of Corrstown, Portrush with Vicky Ginn, and has published articles in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Current Archaeology, Archaeology Ireland, Seanda, with IPMAG and in the NRA Monograph series. In his spare time he paints 28mm scale soldiers, runs the Campaign for Sensible Archaeology Facebook Group and is on occasion a Hardcore Jungle DJ.
Stuart Rathbone

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Villages occupy a curious place in the British psyche. Symbols of an imaginary pre-industrial bliss villages seem to be widely regarded as sacred expressions of Britishness, a style of life that defines us as a people and which separates us from the rest of the world (Figure 1).
Conversely in Ireland villages are widely regarded as a foreign import, one of many aspects of life that are part of the legacy of unwelcome English interference.

Feeding the ducks in the Cotswolds, a rural area abundant in the types of picturesque village that have took on such an important role in the national identity for the modern, largely urban, population of Britain.

Figure 1: Feeding the ducks in the Cotswolds, a rural area abundant in the types of picturesque village that have took on such an important role in the national identity for the modern, largely urban, population of Britain.

Defining the term

These nationalistically flavoured perceptions of villages have badly hampered our understanding of earlier settlement patterns. Delving into the literature on villages it is apparent that most definitions revolve entirely around Medieval concepts and designs, making it is impossible to identify prehistoric villages using those criteria. The Neolithic and Bronze Age are predominantly seen as periods when settlement was small scale, dispersed and, for some areas, possibly even nomadic.

The term village is found in much older work on prehistoric settlement, but it was used uncritically and in reference to settlements that cannot have ever have been large enough to have qualified as actual villages. Many of these sites have subsequently been reclassified as hamlets or individual farmsteads. In more recent times the term village has generally been avoided all together, replaced by a bewildering array of lengthy synonyms such as ‘unenclosed platform settlements’ or ‘enclosed hut settlements’.

By size

A recent review of the evidence for Neolithic and Bronze Age villages attempted to provide a simple definition of what constitutes a village. The definition used was based entirely around population size, represented by the number of households, with all other considerations of form and economy being demoted to secondary characteristics. In terms of size It was suggested that 20 households is enough to definitely identify a settlement as a village, and that below 10 households the term hamlet is more appropriate. The use of the number of households as the critical factor is imperfect because the size of a prehistoric household may have varied widely, and if extended family groups were present then the number of households required for a settlement to qualify as a village might be dramatically reduced.

The contention here is that villages cannot be identified in the same manner as traditional typological studies of artefacts or building types. The village may find its archaeological expression as a series of building foundations, but the actual village is surely the human population, the group of people who chose to live together in a single community and to share a group identity. It is possible, for example, for such a community to abandon one location and resettle in another, leaving their buildings behind but taking their village with them, or for a population to live in dispersed settlements during some parts of the year and only congregate at a village site periodically. A flexible approach to the definition of villages is therefore advisable.

Figure 2: Looking at House 2 in the Late Neolithic village of Barnhouse on Orkney. The Stones of Stenness can just be picked out in the middle distance towards the centre of the shot. Inset: Plan of the excavated portion of the Late Neolithic village at Barnhouse on Orkney showing the inner ring of houses in green, the outer ring of houses in blue, and other houses as outlines. The rings are thought to have continued in the unexcavated area to the east, creating a semi circular or ring shaped village.

Figure 2: Looking at House 2 in the Late Neolithic village of Barnhouse on Orkney. The Stones of Stenness can just be picked out in the middle distance towards the centre of the shot. Inset: Plan of the excavated portion of the Late Neolithic village at Barnhouse on Orkney showing the inner ring of houses in green, the outer ring of houses in blue, and other houses as outlines. The rings are thought to have continued in the unexcavated area to the east, creating a semi circular or ring shaped village.

The one with the feather headdress

The only time and place where villages are a widely recognised part of the Neolithic settlement landscape is the Late Neolithic period in Orkney. Skara Brae and Barnhouse both seem to exceed the minimum size requirement to qualify as villages, assuming that coastal arrosion at Skara Brae had removed a few buildings as seems likely. Both sites include examples of the sort of non domestic or special status dwellings that often form part of the structure of villages. (Figure 2) Other Orcadian villages of similar date are suspected at Links of Notland, Rhinyo, Pool and the Bay of Stove.

No consensus

Elsewhere potential Neolithic village sites have been investigated, but there is no consensus about their nature. A series of Early Neolithic enclosed hill top settlements around the Bristol Channel are of interest but do not fit our standardised expectations of Neolithic settlement. Where these have been excavated, as at Carn Brea and Helman Tor in Cornwall, Clegyr Boia in Pembrokeshire and Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire, large artefact assemblages have been recovered as well as numerous house foundations. It has been estimated that at the two most extensively excavated sites, Carn Brae and Crickley Hill, a minimum of ten houses were located inside the stone walled enclosures. Whilst other interpretations are possible, even currently favoured, the idea that these sites represent small defended villages should not be so easily dismissed.

Figure 3: The Early Neolithic Scottish longhouse on the left, Lockerbie, has six major cross internal spaces (1-6) and a central aisle which could indicate separate spaces for twelve households. The central aisle does not extend through the smaller compartment at the southern end (7) which may have had a different function. The longhouse on the right, Claish, is divided into seven compartments, with access apparently along the sides of the building. Compartments 4 and 5 may have formed a single large unit, comparable in size to Compartment 3. In that case the building may have consisted of two back to back modules, 1, 2 & 3 and 7, 6 & 5/4, each occupied by a large extended family, although many other interpretations of this building have been discussed.

Figure 3: The Early Neolithic Scottish longhouse on the left, Lockerbie, has six major cross internal spaces (1-6) and a central aisle which could indicate separate spaces for twelve households. The central aisle does not extend through the smaller compartment at the southern end (7) which may have had a different function. The longhouse on the right, Claish, is divided into seven compartments, with access apparently along the sides of the building. Compartments 4 and 5 may have formed a single large unit, comparable in size to Compartment 3. In that case the building may have consisted of two back to back modules, 1, 2 & 3 and 7, 6 & 5/4, each occupied by a large extended family, although many other interpretations of this building have been discussed.

Figure 4: Plan of the western summit of Turlough Hill in County Clare, with buildings with clear foundations shown as open circles and buildings with unclear foundations shown as black dots. At the west the houses are arranged around a blank space, in the centre of which is a massive circular cairn. At the east the houses are arranged around another blank area, in the centre of which is a slightly built enclosure with concentric banks. Inset: House foundation at the western end of Turlough Hill with the large dry stone cairn in the background

Figure 4: Plan of the western summit of Turlough Hill in County Clare, with buildings with clear foundations shown as open circles and buildings with unclear foundations shown as black dots. At the west the houses are arranged around a blank space, in the centre of which is a massive circular cairn. At the east the houses are arranged around another blank area, in the centre of which is a slightly built enclosure with concentric banks. Inset: House foundation at the western end of Turlough Hill with the large dry stone cairn in the background

Figure 5: Looking across at the Western summit of Turlough Hill from the eastern slopes. The settlement may have been placed on top of the hill because the resources of the valley floor were simply too precious to build over whilst the sides of the hill were too steeply sloped.

Figure 5: Looking across at the Western summit of Turlough Hill from the eastern slopes. The settlement may have been placed on top of the hill because the resources of the valley floor were simply too precious to build over whilst the sides of the hill were too steeply sloped.

A hilltop enclosed by a timber palisade has been partially excavated at Thornhill in County Derry. The excavated area was found to contain five rather irregular building foundations. Occupation began during the Early Neolithic but continued into the Middle Neolithic period. A very large finds assemblage was recovered marking a clear parallel with the sites from south west England and Wales. The buildings on the Knockadoon peninsular at Lough Gur in County Limerick may represent a more dispersed type of village, but following current academic trends the site is generally only referred to as such in older literature.

Considerable interpretive problems

The massive Early to Mid Neolithic timber longhouses found in lowland Scotland have caused considerable interpretive problems, presumably because they were relatively recent and quite unexpected discoveries. These long houses are often discussed as being religious buildings however the largest examples are certainly big enough to have housed a village size community, and this possibility requires serious consideration. (Figure 3) The same examination could be undertaken for the large Longhouses known from England at White Horse Stone and Pilgrim’s Way in Kent, Yarnton in Oxfordshire and Lismore Field in Derbyshire.

The large settlement at Mullaghfarna in County Sligo is an order of magnitude larger than any other confirmed site from this period. It consists of around 150 circular building foundations on a hill adjacent to the Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery. Occupation seems to have begun in the Late Neolithic and continued well into the Bronze Age. Large quantities of concave scrapers were identified as belonging to the Late Neolithic occupation and identified rather unconvincingly as evidence of only specialised seasonal occupation. A similar site seems to be located on the western summit of Turlough Hill in County Clare, where over 100 circular building foundations have been identified (Figures 4 & 5). Excavations are currently underway at the site but it has yet to be dated and a Bronze Age date remains possible.

The one with all the gold jewellery

From the Middle Bronze Age onwards the number of possible village sites increases, but only a handful have been extensively excavated. The village at Reading Business Park, Berkshire, consisted of a tight circular cluster of round houses, thought to represent 14 simultaneously occupied households (Figure 6). A settlement at Ronaldsway on the Isle of Man has been reported as a village that was occupied continuously between 1500 and 800 BC by between 10 and 20 households. A linear arrangement of 32 foundation platforms at Lintshie Gutter in Perthshire seems to have been a village occupied from the Early Bronze Age into the Middle Bronze Age. Investigations at Green Knowle in Perthshire examined a linear row of nine foundations from the Middle Bronze Age that may be regarded as a large hamlet or a small village.

Figure 6: Plan of the Middle Bronze Age village at Reading Business Park showing the outlines of the roundhouses. Areas with high concentrations of smaller features including 'four posters' are shown in blue and a large communal burnt stone mound is shown in green. The main circular cluster of buildings is separated by what may be a road from a series of smaller structures and the densest concentration of four posters located to the south west. The excavators suggested hedges may have been used to provide boundaries on the site due to the clear definition of the features but absence of fence lines

Figure 6: Plan of the Middle Bronze Age village at Reading Business Park showing the outlines of the roundhouses. Areas with high concentrations of smaller features including ‘four posters’ are shown in blue and a large communal burnt stone mound is shown in green. The main circular cluster of buildings is separated by what may be a road from a series of smaller structures and the densest concentration of four posters located to the south west. The excavators suggested hedges may have been used to provide boundaries on the site due to the clear definition of the features but absence of fence lines

The largest site to have been fully excavated is Corrstown, Portrush, in County Antrim (Figure 9). The excavations uncovered a village consisting of over 70 simultaneously occupied oval buildings of Middle Bronze Age date. Individual buildings were found in small groups, connected by a network of cobbled paths and roadways, and the site may have been occupied by around 30 to 40 households.

Other Bronze Age village sites have only been subject to survey or very limited excavation. The number of possible village sites that await proper investigation from this period cannot be underestimated, but space only allows a handful of examples to be mentioned here. The majority of the suspected sites are found in the uplands, environments which seem inhospitable to the modern eye, but which may have been far more attractive locations for Bronze Age people. In Devon sites such as Riders Rings, Stanton Down, Legis Tor and Whittenknowles Rocks seem to represent well organised villages of between 20 and 60 buildings associated with enclosures and field systems.  White Meldon in Perthsire is on the other side of the valley from Green Knowle and twice its size. Recent survey work and limited excavation at Knockdhu in County Antrim suggested the site was a Late Bronze Age inland promontory fort containing between 25 and 30 roundhouses, and could potentially represent a defended village. Upland sites have the advantage of being more visible due to their protection from the many centuries of intensive agriculture that lowland areas have been subjected to. It should be noted that prior to the onset of developer led excavations neither of the sites at Reading Business Park or Corrstown were known about. It is probably only a matter of time before another large settlement turn up unexpectedly in a low land location.

Figure 7: Plan of the Middle Bronze Age village at Corrstown. In the northern half of the settlement the buildings form small groups of two and three buildings whilst in the southern half they are arranged in rows of three to five buildings. The paved road surface is shown running through the north east corner of the settlement, and an unpaved road may be represented by the unoccupied gap along the western side. At the west of the site is an Early Medieval ringfort with a souterrain and cereal drying kiln, which is a very typical example of a settlement from that period. The contemporary square structure to the east remains unexplained but it was associated with a large quantity of charred oats.

Figure 7: Plan of the Middle Bronze Age village at Corrstown. In the northern half of the settlement the buildings form small groups of two and three buildings whilst in the southern half they are arranged in rows of three to five buildings. The paved road surface is shown running through the north east corner of the settlement, and an unpaved road may be represented by the unoccupied gap along the western side. At the west of the site is an Early Medieval ringfort with a souterrain and cereal drying kiln, which is a very typical example of a settlement from that period. The contemporary square structure to the east remains unexplained but it was associated with a large quantity of charred oats.

Splitting up the band

Despite most accounts of the Neolithic and Bronze Age stressing the dispersed nature of settlement in Britain and Ireland during these periods, it does seem that villages formed a minor part of the settlement landscape. A particularly interesting aspect of these early villages is that they seem to have been highly localised affairs, each regional grouping or singular site representing an individual act of collective innovation. There is no evidence for the dispersion of village life from these

chronologically and geographically separated locations. When villages in any particular area went out of use subsequent generations did not attempt to re-establish the form. This is in stark contrast to most areas of Western Europe where villages are often part of the initial Neolithic package and where we see repeating patterns of settlement nucleation, followed by dispersal, followed by further nucleation and so on, extending right down through the Bronze Age and on into the Iron Age.

In Britain it is only during the Iron Age where we see the first wholesale shift towards village life, and largely this pattern continues through the Roman interlude, although this is somewhat disguised by the use of archaeological labels such as hillfort, unenclosed settlement, oppida and so on. In Ireland the Iron Age appears to see a shift towards even less substantial settlement forms, to the point of almost total archaeological invisibility. When settlements become visible again at the start of the

Early Medieval period it is the dispersed pattern of ringforts that dominates. In Britain whilst some towns seem to survive the departure of Roman rule, villages are seen to rapidly dwindle only to be reintroduced during the Late Saxon and Norman periods. It is this imported idea of the village that is successfully spread across most parts of Britain, becoming the established ‘British’ village form, and subsequently being transposed to Ireland.

A lifestyle we have long struggled with

Far from being a quintessential part of our culture it seems that living in villages is a lifestyle we have long struggled with in Britain and Ireland. It is not yet clear why the trajectory of innovative experiments followed by lasting abandonment is so different from the patterns observed in much of Europe, but surely it can’t just be down to climatic and environmental factors? Village life involves a greater complexity of inter-personal relationships and the potential for aggravation and tension is much larger than with more dispersed settlement forms. Village societies tend to develop complex social structures in order to combat the stresses of living in larger groups. These can take all manners of forms, such as the division of the population into groups with particular responsibilities for resolving different types of problem, or the use of communal activities and celebrations as a way of increasing group cohesion and dissipating the build up of friction. Without these structures village size communities are prone to rapidly undergoing schisms and breaking back down into smaller settlement groups. As apparently indigenous developments, the early village communities of Britain and Ireland may have needed to invent such social structures from scratch, rather than importing and adopting all ready successful and proven strategies from existing village communities on the continent. Given their short durations and lack of lasting impact it is possible that no group ever developed strategies that could combat the forces leading towards schism for an extended period.

It almost seems as if each time nucleated settlements were experimented with the conclusion was ultimately reached that having neighbours wasn’t such a great thing after all.

More Information

Suggested Further Reading

  • Armit, A., Murphy, E., Nelis, E. & Simpson, D. (eds). 2003. Neolithic Settlement in Ireland and Western Britain. Oxford: Oxbow Books
  • Brossler, A. et al 2004 Green Park (Reading Business Park) Phase 2 Excavations 1995. Neolithic and Bronze Age. Oxford: Oxford University School of Archaeology
  • Ginn, V. & Rathbone, S. (eds) 2012 Corrstown, a coastal community: excavations of a Bronze Age village in Northern Ireland.Oxford: Oxbow Books
  • Moore, J. & Jennings, D. 1992 Reading Business Park: A Bronze Age Landscape. Oxford: Thames Valley Landscapes Monograph 1: The Kennet Valley
  • Rathbone, S. 2013. A Consideration of Villages in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and Ireland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, available on CJO2013. doi:10.1017/ppr.2013.2
  • Richards, C. Dwelling Among the Monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe, passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness, Orkney. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs

Cite this article By Stuart Rathbone. The village people: An early history of neighbourly disputes. Past Horizons. August 01, 2013, from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/08/2013/the-village-people-an-early-history-of-neighbourly-disputes


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