Third and fourth millennia Ireland and Britain: a history of Major social change Explored (TIME)

Lead Research Organisation: Manchester Metropolitan University
Department Name: Politics, Philosophy & History


Evidence from Britain and Ireland between 3500-2000 BC (the late Neolithic and Chalcolithic) makes this one of the most important periods in prehistory. During this time, we see spectacular Grooved Ware and Beaker pottery, metallurgy, carved mace heads, and use of some of Europe's most iconic sites such as Newgrange and Stonehenge. Recent ancient DNA data (suggesting almost complete population replacement at the end of the period) and dietary stable isotopes (indicating movement of people and animals over previously unsuspected distances) suggest that there is still much to learn. These new data challenge and reinvigorate older debates in terms of growing social hierarchies, ethnicity, religious organisation, and identity. However, these data have not been matched by developments in our chronologies; such fine-grained evidence requires equally sophisticated and specific chronologies in order to understand these changes. While previously prehistorians had to rely for their chronological structure on typologies of sites and things, we now have the ability to produce very precise, probabilistic, independent chronologies using Bayesian statistical analyses (e.g. Bronk Ramsey 2009; Bayliss 2009).

Bayesian analysis has provided precise chronologies for individual sites (e.g. Whittle 2018) or activity at types of site (e.g 'Neolithic burials'; Whitehouse et al. 2014), which were previously understood at the scale of several centuries. It allows a coherent way to compare scientific chronologies, and applications to earlier Neolithic sites (e.g. Whittle et al. 2011) have had international significance in the ways archaeologists approach scientific dating as a whole. While we have had excellent examples of scientific chronologies for individual late Neolithic and Chalcolithic sites or things (see below), no attempt has been made to write a synthetic history of the dramatic changes of late 4th and 3rd millennia Ireland and Britain using accurate and detailed chronology. Moreover, 'simply' increasing chronological precision on its own is not enough. To fully achieve the potential of the Bayesian 'revolution' (cf. Bayliss 2009; Bronk Ramsey 2009; Griffiths 2017), we need both an independent chronological framework, and an approach to 'prehistory' that moves beyond ever more precise chronologies for sites or sequences. We need narratives that can synthesise and interpret evidence from across 'packages' that archaeologists recognise as significant - such as the late Neolithic and Chalcolithic - and use precisely defined time-scales as the basis for discussing changes in practices, things and places produced by people in historically-specific times. Chapman (2018) has recently called this the 'central challenge' in order to write 'a new kind of archaeology', while Whittle (2018, 248) argues that the 'pre- must come out of prehistory'.

This project will do just that. We will build on previous approaches, producing site-specific chronological models for all evidence from Britain and Ireland from 3500-2000 BC, while generating a significant legacy of new data, in order to use time - expressed in centuries and decades - as the basis for our new narrative structure. We will make all data, analytical programs and outputs open access, meaning it will be possible to adapt and revise our chronologies in future research. This project's significance will therefore lie not just in our methods, or our routine chronological precision for 1500 years of Irish and British history, or our commitment to open access, but also in our new approaches to writing narratives of 'prehistory' in the future.

Planned Impact

As well as the academic beneficiaries, this project has identified impacts for four key audiences specifically in Ireland and Britain, as well as internationally more generally: historic environment policy makers; museums archaeologists; developer-led sector archaeologists; and members of the public.

National Historic Environment curators in the Department for Communities, Northern Ireland (Dr Vicky Ginn), in Historic Environment Scotland (Angela Gannon), in Historic England (Dr Jonathan Last) and in the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historic Monuments in Wales (David Thomas) are project partners or collaborators, supplying data supporting sampling, and receiving outputs. The project will impact interpretation and management of the individual sites and landscapes, and research objectives, by revising accepted chronologies. The project is anticipated to have international policy impact in terms of curatorial advice, and the contents of planning advice set by national historic environment agencies, for example on Historic England technical guidance documents, or through a revision of targets for investigation and preservation.

There is a significant skills deficit in scientific dating in professional archaeological practice globally, and including in the UK and Ireland; this reflects the rapidity of recent developments and the frequent use of radiocarbon dating. This is the first large-scale project with complete openness in evaluation, analysis and interpretation. We will provide free training sessions over the project lifecycle, and free legacy resources, to aid practitioners in best practices for sample selection and analysis.

Project-partner museums' collections presentation and management will be directly influenced by our research findings, revising understandings of the importance of different holdings, what material is displayed and how, and museums' future programs of analysis. The popular publications and free public lecture series (see below) will situate museums' holdings in the wider international context, and develop educational and outreach resources.

Central to this project is the relationship with the non-academic project partners, and the presentation of archaeology to members of the local community and the wider public more generally. A series of free local archaeological talks will occur at partner museums in Britain and Ireland. The lecture series will be filmed for broadcast on YouTube and the website. The series represents a significant added-value for the project as travel for sample collection, analysis and write up visits double up with delivery of the public lectures.

As well as the public lecture series, and knowledge exchange with museum partner organisations, the popular publications will provide tangible legacies. The popular publications will be produced by PDRA2 with printing and graphic design funded by the project; they will take the form of a series of collectable fold-out pamphlets, with one detailing the project background and aims, and seven additional regional pamphlets. These will be donated to partner museums to disseminate, or will be collectable from the website (see below). The team will work with non-academic partners in developing these resources, and the lecture series, to ensure they support other aspects of the partners museums' education work.

The pamphlets will be available from the WordPress site for download as educational resources. The site will include a team blog updating activity, and links to the project outputs. The WordPress site will be maintained for ten years after the end of the project (see budget). WordPress content will include links to peer-reviewed publications and project documents. Subject to ethics approval, the site will also collect metrics and feedback on the public engagement events, to evaluate and revise these events over the project lifecycle.


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