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Neolithic circa 3499 - 2500 BC

By the Neolithic, rising sea levels meant that Britain had finally become an island. A far more dramatic change however was the arrival of the first farmers some time after 5000 BC. Whether they came as settlers or whether it was simply the ideas that spread, there is no doubt that people in the Yorkshire Dales gradually adopted a completely new lifestyle. Pollen evidence is one of the ways that we can see this. Tree species, particularly elm begin to decline as the early farmers opened up the ancient forests, grazing their animals and sowing the first cereals.

It may be that these early farmers were nomadic pastoralists following their herds of sheep, goats and cattle from one grazing spot to the next. However they lived, their settlements or camp sites have yet to be discovered. What we do have are fragments of their crude pottery vessels and their distinctive polished stone axes made from flint or volcanic rock. Most of our examples of these axes have been found in Ribblesdale or the Aire Valley. Even more interesting is their source, far away in the central Lake District like the two examples found in Wensleydale. We can only speculate as to what form of social ties or trade links led to this long distance movement.

Very few field monuments have been reliably dated to the Neolithic. From parallels with sites elsewhere we can guess that the earth and stone banked enclosure on Calverside Moor comes from that time, perhaps something to do with gathering stock. The massive rubble ramparts of the enclosure on the top of Rough Haw, near Flasby, seem at first glance to be defensive, but in fact its situation is undefendable. The magnificent views however have led archaeologists to speculate that it may have had some ritual purpose.

In the later Neolithic there is a handful of more securely dated monuments. The best known are probably the two henges, one at Castle Dykes near Aysgarth, the other at Yarnbury near Grassington. On a somewhat smaller scale than those known elsewhere in Britain, they nevertheless represent a considerable investment of time and a sophisticated social organisation.

There are no parallels in the Dales for the spectacular ancestral burial places of the British Neolithic such as the long barrows of the Yorkshire Wolds. Instead we have the badly damaged circular chambered cairn at Giants’ Graves, near the head of Pen-y-Ghent Gill, and a disputed example called the Druid’s Altar at Bordley. Where the rest of the population ended up, we will probably never know, although there is evidence from elsewhere that during the Neolithic, many bodies were simply exposed to the elements and carrion eaters.