Book Review: Tracking the Neolithic House in Europe

Book Review: Tracking the Neolithic House in Europe. Sedentism, Architecture and Practice.  Daniella Hoffman & Jessica Smyth (Eds) (2013). London: Springer.

I like it when a book does exactly what is says on the cover, and this is one of those books. The origin of this edited volume was a session at WAC-6 in Dublin, 2008 and despite the inevitable delay, its arrival is to be warmly welcomed as a valuable addition to our broadening understanding of the development of the ‘house’ across Europe in the Neolithic.

The question which drove the editors to organise the session and hence this volume was how were ideas and practices associated with architecture transmitted as the Neolithic spread across Europe? A complex question of course demands a complex answer, which the editors felt had been absent from previous attempts to address this issue. The project was also complicated by the very different methodologies adopted by archaeologists around Europe and the interpretations given to the evidence. In short, four key themes emerged which structure this book – Materials, Practice/Dwelling, Cosmology/Worldview and Tradition/Change – and the various authors engage with these to different degrees. With the focus of our blog being Neolithic Britain, chapters dealing with these islands will be spotlighted here.

Jonathan Last in “The End of the Longhouse” examines the impact of nearby continental Europe on the Neolithic of Britain, or more directly England. Last notes that pre-WWII excavations in Europe heavily influenced contemporary British archaeologists, particularly the work focused on the LBK, and that this continues to dog recent analyses. The author traces the trajectory/disappearance of the LBK longhouse and the emergence of a new tradition in the late 5th millennium bc. For Last it is the later, smaller sized structures, which trigger house building in Britain. The influence of continental Europe is however limited to what last calls a modular approach such as that evident in one of the later examples of the Early Neolithic, Lismore Fields in Derbyshire. Citing Garwood (2011), who notes the diversity of design and construction of houses and posits that houses of the period are local in character which contrasts the apparent widespread restriction in design and construction in ceramics, suggesting to Last that there may be different modes of cultural transmission at least in the Neolithic. In a post-‘Gathering Time’ world in which the Early Neolithic is a pre-monument period, Last believes that houses must assume some importance as they are the most substantial structures of the time, and that among the questions we need to consider is ‘were they normal dwellings?’. This may well re-open, if it was ever closed, the debate on religion and ritual, particularly in terms of its scale at this time.

The impact of Alison Sheridan’s chapter is immediate, with its conspicuous use of the phrase ‘Habitation Structures’ in its tile. Clearly this is, as McFadyen notes later, an attempt to get to grips with the value-laden nomenclature we find ourselves embroiled in.  Moving on from this, Sheridan sees the mobility/sedentism debate as largely done and dusted with the number of examples now having “allowed us to expose the canard (Thomas, 1996, 2003, 2004, 2007) about Early Neolithic groups in Britain and Ireland continuing a pre-existing, semi-nomadic lifestyle based on hunting, gathering and fishing with minimal use of domesticates.” (p. 283). Perhaps a little harsh on Thomas, who may not have been solely responsible for this state of affairs. The growing number of houses found in both Britain and Ireland, including the larger variants such as Penhale Round has led Sheridan to re-assess their trajectory. Dating has shown that these larger houses, or halls as they are sometimes referred to (e.g. Brophy, 2007) are often constructed the first phase of the Neolithic in the areas in which they are found. In contrast to Last, Sheridan’s answer to the question of what contexts and circumstances might have triggered the construction of houses focuses on the practicalities faced by small groups of colonisers arriving from northern France. Forsaking the arguments that surround the ‘French Connection’ of the Early Neolithic as space precludes such a distraction, Sheridan sees the context of the large house as a response to housing needs of a community of economic migrants recently arrived on these shores. The ‘big house’ is an adaptation to a need to house a larger group which once successfully established, ‘buds off’ into smaller ones, thus requiring smaller houses.

In the case of Ireland, Jessica Smyth gives us an account of the arrival and development of what was once called ‘the Neolithic package’. The concomitant  arrival of domesticated animals such as sheep and cows, large grain grass species such as Barley were all associated with the onset of farming. There is a rich pool of data for the Neolithic house in Ireland, with 82 found to date form 52 sites; many as a result of infrastructure developments such as road building.  Smyth paints a picture of smaller house, between 6-12m x 4-8m often found on gently sloping ground and associated with valleys or mouth of major waterways in the North and East of the island. Their construction shows a marked similarity, utilising split Oak planks and paired posts.

Smyth considers dating evidence, which suggests that house building was a relatively short-lived phenomenon, occupying less than 10% of the Irish Neolithic (c3715-3625 cal BC). This is thought by Smyth to be a possible example of ‘budding off’ in much the same way as that proposed by Sheridan, with an initial ‘big house’ at Mullaghbuoy (p 306). The house for Smyth has a domestic element as evidenced by ceramic fragments, lithic debris and food waste found at most sites, but importantly, a symbolic one too. There are examples of purposeful depositional practices with the location of objects and their treatment that “points to a set of ritualised practices centred on the house” (p. 308). Given such a short history it is perhaps not surprising that the end of house building occurs in something of a collapse, a victim of its own success suggests Smyth. Although there is no seeming economic driver of this change, there are other aspects that warrant our attention. The is a change in form of ceramics and the arrival of the Carinated Bowl, with the elaboration of the rim and increased decoration. Is this a sign of a loosening of social restrictions and less emphasis on reproducing rigidly rectilinear ‘continental style’ house forms? These changes seem to overlay the transition from Early to Late Neolithic and Smyth believes that the end of house building is more of a drift away from the prescribed rigidity of the past to a less formal structure of society and hence less social investment the house.

In one of three invitational chapters which discuss the material gathered together in the volume, Lesley McFadyen considers the nomenclature used in the preceding pages, and by extension across the discipline. Whilst some of these are seemingly interchangeable there is at the heart of the discussion a concern for the absence of people from many of these. It is with the with the replacement of the ‘house as object’ use of ‘home’ that McFadyen sees human stories begin to emerge. A home will always be and mean much more than house. There is also a concern with material culture, in its broadest sense, and its continued fragmentation both within the archaeology and our construction of a past. This extends to how we understand architecture beyond walls and into a dynamic of landscape, something which McFadyen feels is curiously absent in several chapters, but most noticeably those pertaining to Britain and Ireland.

The chapters here are directly relevant to the Neolithic of Britain and Ireland and there are undoubtedly aspects within the other chapters which may be of interest to readers looking for continental European links and developments, particularly as they pertain to the key chapters by Last, Sheridan and Smyth. Overall, this is a volume which contextualises the Neolithic of the British Isles and provides a very useful summation of the latest interpretations of the evidence. A recommended read!


Brophy, K. (2007). From Big Houses to Cult Houses: early Neolithic Timber Halls in Scotland. Proc Prehist Soc 73, 75-96.

Garwood, P. (2011). Early Prehistory: Hunter-Gatherers and Early Agriculturalists. In On Track: the archaeology of the High Speed 1, section 1 in Kent, Eds P. Booth, T. Champion, S. Foreman, P. Garwood, H. Glass, J. Mumby and A. Reynolds, 37-150. Oxford: Oxford/Wessex Archaeology.

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