Grey Waters Bright with Neolithic Argonauts? Maritime Connections and the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition within the 'Western Seaways' of Britain, C. 5000-3500 BC

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The phrase we have used in the first part of our title is borrowed from Childe (1946: 36), who, drawing on Malinowski's famous ethnographic study, envisaged the western seaways of Britain as 'grey waters as bright with Neolithic argonauts as the western Pacific is today'. We use this phrase to put across two key points: first, the need to study the evidence for maritime travel around the 'western seaways'; and second, to address the matter of 'greyness' in general. The Mesolithic to Neolithic transition has often been characterised in black and white terms: as a question of either colonisation or indigenous adoption. Some writers have suggested a greyer picture--one that allows room for both small-scale colonisation and indigenous acculturation (e.g. Whittle 2003; Cooney 2007; Cunliffe 2008). As will become clear, our review of the evidence suggests that a 'grey' picture, in which both 'Mesolithic' and 'Neolithic' mariners were involved, is probably more realistic.


We look first at the extent and nature of the sea itself c. 5000-3500 BC (cf. Rainbird 2007; Callaghan & Scarre 2009), and then at the archaeological evidence within the major offshore island groups in the western seaways (Figure 1): the Channel Islands; the Isles of Scilly; the Isle of Man; the Outer Hebrides and the Orkney Islands. In what follows, all radiocarbon dates are calibrated and given to two sigma. The novelty of our approach lies in combining previously dispersed archaeological evidence with new palaeo-oceanographic and palaeo-environmental modelling. In considering these islands together, we are not looking for uniform patterns across the whole zone, but rather seeking to gain insight into broad-scale connections and change.

Mesolithic-Neolithic transition(s) in Britain and Ireland: the story so far

Whether 'the Neolithic' arrived in Britain and Ireland through colonisation or indigenous adoption was a topic ofdebate throughout the twentieth century (e.g. Fox 1932; Case 1969), and there has been a marked revival of interest in the issue (e.g. Sheridan 2000, 2003, 2004; Thomas 2003, 2007; Cooney 2007; Whittle 2007; Callaghan & Scarre 2009; Pailler & Sheridan 2009). Those in favour of colonisation have tended to emphasise the isolation of Mesolithic communities in Britain and Ireland, placing the dynamic of change firmly with the continental Neolithic. Sheridan (2007: 466), for example, has suggested that there is a virtual 'absence of evidence for any contacts between Mesolithic communities in Britain and Ireland ... and their continental neighbours'; and Tresset (2003: 25) supposes that it would be 'wholly far-fetched' to suggest that Irish Mesolithic groups would have voyaged to the continent. On the other side of the argument, people have stressed that coastal Mesolithic communities would have been extremely familiar with the sea, and thus quite capable of significant and regular maritime travel (Whittle 2003; Thomas 2007; Tolan-Smith 2009).

Those arguing for colonisation also tend to see a direct link between the presence of 'foreign' material culture and the presence of 'foreign' people. The cow bones from Ferriter's Cove on the south-west coast of Ireland have become, arguably, the iconic material sign of fifth-millennium contact between Irish/British and continental populations. The bones were found on an occupation site dominated by Mesolithic material, and have themselves been radiocarbon dated to 4495-4195 BC (Woodman & McCarthy 2003: 33). However, despite the bones' apparently indigenous context, Tresset (2003: 25), for example, views them as evidence for the presence of continental people, describing an elaborate scenario in which the cow is viewed as having escaped from a colony of exotic 'Neolithic' settlers (and then been caught), rather than having been brought from the continent by the Mesolithic Irish inhabitants of the site. …