With no permanent settlements, no literature and no learning, the old Stone Age way of life could have continued indefinitely. However, in the eastern Mediterranean, mankind was learning how to sow and harvest. Communities were forming and the concept of ‘progress’ became understood. In general there were waves of cultural change, invasion, trading and migration spreading westwards across Europe and eventually washing up on the British shores.
Industry and Agriculture
The introduction of domesticated plants and animals happened in Britain during the Neolithic cultural period between 5,200 and 4,500 years ago. This was after the land bridge to the Continent had disappeared so the animals must have somehow been brought across the sea in the crude dugouts of the time.
The culture appears to have spread quite rapidly 5, people suddenly knew how to fashion agricultural tools, plough, sow and grow crops, domesticate animals, make huts, weave cloth and make clay pots.
Their agricultural implements were primitive and best suited to only the lightest soils. The sandy soils of this part of Surrey were ideal for their wooden ploughs and hence it is likely that the areas which are now heathland were the earliest to be cleared.
However, once cleared of trees, the sandy heathlands would have soon had their nutrients washed out and rapidly degenerated into boggy impoverished soils. It is therefore unlikely that they could have been used continuously for arable crops. Every few years they would have needed to clear and cultivate new ground. The old ground would have been for keeping herds of browsing animals.
A stone axe with a reconstructed shaft
Using stone axes, clearing the forested valley of the Bournes would have been a hugely labour-intensive activity; not just to fell the trees but to cut up and remove the fallen timber and grub out the stumps. One thing that may have helped is that trees in ‘climatic vegetation’ are not of great girth as is seen with oaks in open parkland. In forests they are competing for daylight so they grow tall and thin and are thus more easily felled. Tests with flint axes have shown that a 30cm diameter hardwood tree can be felled within an hour(3). But in any case, if in his lifetime, each man removed just a few trees, then over a few thousand years a difference would have been made.
It has been suggested that early man cleared the forests by burning. But English deciduous woods do not burn; a fire lit against the trunk of an oak does not cause the tree to burst into flame; nor do flames spread in the canopies of deciduous trees. However, ring-barking does cause death of the tree above the ring, although most English trees will sprout from below. The lower sprouting may be removed by grazing animals or may be preserved as a crop as in coppicing. Although the tree will continue to stand for some years, the death of the crown of the tree will prevent leaf formation and thus allow light to reach the forest floor. Thus, it would be possible to encourage pasture to spread between dead trees or maybe even grow cereals – albeit very poorly.
At the beginning of the Neolithic period, England was covered in forests: by the end of the period woodland stood out in islands in the landscape. Neolithic peoples changed the appearance of the English countryside more than any other peoples before – or after.
In Mesolithic times, small-leaved lime was the predominant tree of southern England. But pollen analysis has shown that during Neolithic times there was a dramatic reduction in the lime population (4). It is possible that Neolithic peoples selectively removed limes in favour of oak and beech which provided autumn acorn and beech mast forage for their swine. The Domesday record shows the Surrey Heath area as being particularly rich in oak woods for swine fattening.
Considerable evidence of flint tool making in Neolithic times has been found in the upper Windle valley (see below). But nearly all the flint used in Surrey for appears to have been gathered from the surface of clay-with-flints on the North Downs.6 p118 The flint found in profusion in the sands of our area was apparently of insufficient quality.
The best evidence of Neolithic human habitation in this area has come from evidence of flint working and tool usage. Large numbers of flint flakes have been found in the upper Windle Brook valley; at Lutine Farm, High Street Bagshot, Windlesham Arboretum and West End. An end scraper was found at Windmill Field Windlesham. 7
Our heathlands could easily have had homesteads comprising simple round huts.8 p327 Earthwork entrenchments would be dug to protect the nightly or seasonal roundup of flocks and cattle. It is possible that earthwork enclosures, similar to that in Albury Bottom on Chobham Common, could have been constructed for this purpose. Finds of flint working and tools do not prove habitation but nevertheless indicate existence of stone-age man in this area. Although Neolithic settlements have yet to be found in our area, NW Surrey has produced the only certain examples in the county. Evidence of Neolithic settlements have been found close by the Thames at Petters Sports Field Egham, Runnymede Bridge, Laleham and Thorpe6. Also a hengiform monument or barrow at the site of Ashford Prison 2001 p267
A polished flint axe from Longcross
A flint axe (see sketch) was found some 400m north of the tumulus in Longcross Woods.(1) This axe has not simply been flaked, but has had the high points ground and polished; it may have been a high-status possession.
A flint axe and arrowheads were also found close to the Sunningdale border.(2).
Both these finds were close to Bronze-age burial mounds. It is possible that they represent the continued use of flint tools in the Bronze Age, or that they show continuous use of these sites both in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.
These people cleared the tops of the downs, especially in Wiltshire. Downland chalk soils are more robust than sandy heaths and communities could have farmed over many generations. This stability and continuity could have been the reason why these people became culturally developed and constructed henges, long barrows and enormous roundhouses.
In our area, a long barrow burial mound was discovered at Badshot Lea near Aldershot.6, p72
Evidence for the development of ritual practices includes a 4km long cursus found in the Stanwell and Heathrow areas 6, p16. At Shepperton, archaeologists found a simple form of henge. It was a circular enclosure with an entrance pointing directly to where the sun rises on Midsummer’s Day 6, p68.
North-west of Staines, at Yeoveney Lodge, a causewayed camp was excavated. A 2.2ha enclosure formed by two roughly concentric ditches interrupted by solid causeways had been built on a gravel spit jutting into the Thames. It appeared unsuitable for defence or corralling cattle, and with little evidence of any permanent structures inside, causewayed camps are sometimes interpreted as being built on tribal boundaries, perhaps to act as neutral gathering places used at intervals to exchange goods or hold seasonal fairs 6, p70.
The effort required to build these monuments and camps must have been substantial and indicates the development of a common will, a tribal identity, a territory and a leader.
Surrey County Council Sites and Monuments Record No.3811.
A Neolithic flint axe, the high points have been partially ground and polished, especially towards the blade which retains a keen cutting edge. Width about 67mm. It was found in 1992.
SCC SMR 1865.
Found in 1900 on the Ridge Mount Estate, in Chobham parish close to Sunningdale and the Bronze-age barrow.
Reading the Landscape, Richard Muir, p66.
It would seem that flint axes are no less sharp than steel axes, but are more fragile so can only be swung from the wrists.
4 ‘The History of the Countryside’, Oliver Rackham, p69
5 Archaeology: Sharp shift in diet at onset of Neolithic. Richards, Schulting & Hedges. Nature 425 (Sept 2003), p366
6. Hidden Depths, Ed: Roger Hunt. Pub: Surrey Archaeological Society, 2002.
7. Surrey Heath Archaeological Centre. SF Catalogue.
8 Britain BC. Francis Pryor. Harper Collins 2003