Early Neolithic feasting rituals

Excavations at Snabe Quarry © GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

Excavations at Snabe Quarry © GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

Newly published analysis of archaeological finds has revealed the remains of feasting events from the fourth millennium BC, near Drumclog in South Lanarkshire (West Scotland).

Site location © GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

Site location © GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

During excavations in advance of Snabe Quarry, the archaeological remains initially appeared as cluster of pits containing charcoal from domestic hearths. Radiocarbon dates from the early seventh millennium BC and early fourth millennium BC from samples of  charcoal from different pits indicate the widely differing times this place in the landscape was occupied. The later date, from the early Neolithic, was recovered from pits that also yielded fragments from carinated bowls used for cooking. Fire-cracked stones found within one of these pit suggest it had been used as a fire-pit for heating and preparing food. Along with hazel, willow and oak charcoal, hazelnut shells and wheat grains were also recovered, again indicating food consumption.

The northernmost cluster of pits contained not only hearth waste, hazelnut shells and emmer/spelt wheat grains, but fragments of another ten early Neolithic carinated bowls. The pottery vessel fragments all seemed to have been carefully placed within one of the pits, along with several flint blades, pitchstone and Cumbrian tuff flakes. No fire-cracked stones were found within this pit, which was radiocarbon dated to the early fourth millennium BC. Another two pits in this cluster yielded similar radiocarbon dates, one of which also contained a fragment of polished stone axe made from Cumbrian tuff. Another carinated pottery vessel was found to the north of this cluster.

Communal feasting events

GUARD Project Officer, Maureen Kilpatrick, who led the excavations, said, ‘All the pottery vessels recovered from the excavations at Snabe Quarry were cooking vessels, many with food residues. They comprised carinated bowls, a type of pottery commonly found on early Neolithic domestic sites across Scotland and the British Isles in general. All but one of the pottery vessels was found in two pits in different parts of the site. Both of these pits are likely to have been fire-pits used during communal feasting events.’

There are a number of signs that indicate that the disposal of ten vessels in one pit was a deliberate act to ‘close’ this pit and the activities associated with it. There was a higher percentage (50% more) of surviving rim sherds than is normally expected from a prehistoric assemblage. It could be argued that some or all of these vessels were hurriedly made to be specifically used for cooking in the fire-pits, accounting for their poor manufacture and limited use. After the feasting events, the pots were most likely intentionally broken and placed inside the pits. The same might be said of the early Neolithic lithics from the same pit, which included exotic materials such as pitchstone and tuff from as far away as Arran and Cumbria. The distribution of pots, their breakage and the apparent selection of specific pieces to be deposited in the pits then appears to have been deliberate. The radiocarbon dates appear to show this event took place sometime between 3787 and 3631 BC.

Left: Location of key archaeological features. Right: Pottery vessels © GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

Left: Location of key archaeological features. Right: Pottery vessels © GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

Investigations in the Biggar area of South Lanarkshire have shown that Arran pitchstone, Cumbrian tuff and carinated pottery frequently occur together, and this artefactual combination could be referred to as an early Neolithic cultural ‘package’.

The combination of large quantities of carbonised hazel nutshell and wheat grains is also suggestive of a Neolithic date for this sites since barley (which was entirely absent) generally becomes the dominant cereal on Scottish sites from the Bronze Age until the medieval period. The earliest of the radiocarbon dates, however, suggest that occupation at Snabe commenced in the late Mesolithic period.

The excavations were undertaken between 2007 and 2012 by archaeologists from Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division and later GUARD Archaeology Ltd, in advance of an extension to Snabe Quarry in South Lanarkshire, for Lafarge Tarmac Ltd.

The full results of this research, ARO18: Pits with Precious Goods: ritual deposition in the early Neolithic, Snabe Quarry, Drumclog, South Lanarkshire, 2008-2012, by Maureen Kilpatrick, has just been published, and is now freely available to download from the ARO website – www.archaeologyreportsonline.com.


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