Early Man: Mesolithic and Neolithic

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1939.

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'Early Man: Mesolithic and Neolithic', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 1, (London, 1939) pp. 238-241. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol1/pp238-241 [accessed 29 February 2024]

II. Mesolithic—Neolithic Age

The idea that Palaeolithic man was solely a food-gatherer or hunter, as contrasted with his successors who gradually developed a food-producing economy, whether by agriculture or domestication of animals, has been subjected to question in modern times. At any rate the Neolithic inhabitants of the future Oxfordshire must have reached the latter stage. Up to the present time no massed evidence of the microlithic industries of the Mesolithic period has been collected, but that such existed is obvious in view of the evidence from sites like Great Kimble, Bucks., and Thatcham, Berks. (fn. 1) It is safer at the moment to say that the archaeological material from Oxfordshire hardly speaks for any extensive occupation before the close of the third millennium before our era. Thenceforward the evidence increases in a remarkable manner, so much so that the older idea of man confining himself to the bare uplands and treeless downs has in recent years been entirely abandoned. It is now established beyond all possible doubt that from late Neolithic times man was settling on the gravelterraces of the river valley, particularly the lower slopes. It is with these settlements that most of the discoveries are connected.

With this brief preface we may turn to the material itself. The site on Nettlebed Common, (fn. 2) though regarded by its discoverer, Dr. A. E. Peake, as a late Palaeolithic floor, produced forms like those found in Grime's Graves, Norfolk. Occasional microliths, as at Tackley, can probably be compared with the specimen discovered in the late Neolithic settlement at Abingdon. (fn. 3) On the heights between Caversham and Mapledurham, according to Joseph Stevens, 'there occur places which were the working sites of the stone-folk', (fn. 4) indicated by quantities of implements and flakes, and by discoloured soil, but devoid of axes and weapons. These higher sites may be brought into line with the lower slopes of the Chilterns between North Stoke and Ewelme where numerous rough flint implements of the Thames pick type occur (Pl. II i), which were probably used as primitive hoes and are thus in themselves witnesses to a more settled life. Examples have also been found in the Thames (Pl. II bd); a large one from Sonning Lock is preserved in Reading Museum; a smaller specimen comes from Shiplake Lock (Pl. II g), but they appear to be uncommon north of Dorchester, as if progress had advanced as yet but little beyond the Chilterns. Noteworthy, therefore, is a large and coarse pick obtained by Mr. A. D. Passmore from a locality so far north as Chipping Norton (Pl. IIa).

Of finer work, whether chipped alone or chipped and ground, there is considerable variety, both in form and material, though flint predominates. Heavy, thin-butted axes with a thick pointed-oval section are well illustrated by examples from Chester Street, Oxford, from Headington, and from the Thames at Nuneham (Pl. II e and j). A chisel-like form, ground at the cutting end, is known by specimens from Caversham (Reading Museum) and Ewelme (Pl. II f); one with shortened, refashioned butt from Howbery Park, Crowmarsh Gifford (Pl. II h); and a broader variety by examples from the Thames at Long Wittenham and Clifton Hampden.

Axes ground all over are of two materials, flint or volcanic rocks, the latter evidently imports and probably later in date (p. 240). The flint axes again vary from short, almost triangular implements, several of which come from Chiltern sites, to broad examples as from Nettlebed, Little Stoke, and Oxford; some of both varieties have their lateral edges ground down to a narrow facet. An idea of the date of these polished implements may be gathered from their occurrence in slate as well as in flint in the ditches of the Abingdon settlement, generally in imperfect condition (as Pl. II k and o) and used for striking off flakes. (fn. 5)

This site, again, like that at Windmill Hill, Wilts., and others in Sussex, has helped to substantiate Mr. Reginald Smith's (fn. 6) contention that in Britain before the Bronze Age no barbed flint arrow-heads were manufactured, but only those of leaf or lozenge shape, with some of tranchet form. Two areas in Oxfordshire are specially prolific in scattered finds of arrow-heads (Pl. III e, upper row) and small flints, the Chiltern district and the limestone uplands in the northwest of the county, especially between Woodstock and Churchill. Numerous leaf-shaped arrow-heads have been collected by Lord Ducie, the Hon. Harold Dillon, Mr. Percy Manning and others round Ditchley Park, and at Sarsden and Churchill. Mr. Manning found that on the average the south Oxfordshire district produced rather less of this type than north Oxfordshire. Mr. Kendrick, (fn. 7) however, speaks of an overwhelming majority of tanged and barbed arrow-heads in the Sarsden area, and in view of this observation the possibility of differentiation of use must be borne in mind. Even when the barbed arrow-head came into vogue, the simpler leaf or lozenge type may have been found more suitable for certain kinds of game.

In this connexion it is noteworthy that north Oxfordshire has only produced isolated axes, (fn. 8) so that settled occupation at first sight seems to be insufficiently documented by archaeological material. This must, however, be due to the lesser chance of detecting habitation-sites in a limestone area as compared with the gravel of the Thames valley. For that Neolithic man frequented and occupied this district, even if less densely than farther west on the Cotswolds, is undeniably proved by the evidence of the long barrows fully recorded by Mr. O. G. S. Crawford. (fn. 9) Several have been explored, but with little or no illuminating results. The long barrow in Lyneham parish stands on the brow of the descent to Shipton-under-Wychwood; it was opened by Lord Moreton in 1894, (fn. 10) and though a cist, possibly the primary interment, was exposed, the sherds found therein are no longer available for diagnosis and the description of them is too vague for interpretation. Presumptively they may have been of late Neolithic character. That the barrow was of any other date is hardly possible in view of the three other megalithic tombs, now sadly mutilated, the Whispering Knights near the Rollright Stones, the Hoar Stone at Steeple Barton, and the dolmen at Enstone. Other long barrows were brought to light during the disafforestation of Wychwood. One in Slatepits Copse, measuring 100 by 46 ft., was opened in 1857; three skeletons are recorded as having been unearthed previously. About the second, measuring 73 by 38 ft., a short distance away on Churchill Plain, no other details are known. In passing it may here be recorded that the Rev. Charles Overy called attention a few years ago to another apparent long barrow, 3 miles west of Charlbury, immediately north of the Burford road, an elongated mound, with large stones still to be detected in the adjacent hedgerow. A second barrow possibly also exists at Lyneham.

No account of this period in Oxfordshire can be complete failing mention of the Rollright Stones (Pl. IV a) in the parish of Little Rollright, lying immediately south of the age-long trackway which leads from the Cotswolds by Tadmarton Camp and Banbury into Northamptonshire. The circle, about 100 ft. in diameter, consisting at the present day of 77 monoliths, not all of which are now erect, is so well known and has been so fully described, together with the fascinating folk-lore attaching to it, by Sir Arthur Evans (fn. 11) and Mr. T. H. Ravenhill, (fn. 12) that a detailed account is almost superfluous. The stones appear to have stood in close contact like those of the circle at the head of the alignments of Menec at Carnac, Brittany, and one or two seem to have been artificially perforated. The controversial opinions regarding the age of British stone circles have not left the Rollright Stones unscathed, but failing archaeological proof, it is safer in the light of the other evidence to view them, like the ruined megalithic tombs, the Whispering Knights near by, and the numerous chambered tombs and long barrows of the Cotswolds, as belonging to the late Neolithic or at latest to the early period of the Bronze Age. Across the road 100 yards away to the north-east stands the King Stone, which in Mr. Crawford's opinion stands on the remains of an actual long barrow, and so compares with the monoliths at Lyneham.

Of other monoliths in the county it is more difficult to judge. The Devil's Quoits at Stanton Harcourt stand too far apart to have belonged to a circle. On Spelsbury Down is the Hawk Stone, regarded by Mr. Crawford as the remains of a dolmen: there is a similar stone in the hamlet of Taston, and a fallen slab in Steeple Barton parish. The name Hoar Stone Spinney at Kirtlington may preserve a tradition of similar remains. Around the Devil's Quoits abundant traces both of Neolithic and Bronze Age man have come to light. It may be merely chance that one of them stands within a ring-ditch: no sign of such has been observed near the other two. Nothing that is said here precludes the possibility that these remains, in part at least, belong to the Bronze Age.

Before leaving this somewhat misty epoch it remains to note the numerous axes of volcanic rocks (Pl II.ln), the source of which is still undetermined. They are all of the short type with oval section and the majority are made of a dolerite that weathers badly under some conditions. Examples are known from Alchester, Shotover, Elsfield, Bampton, Benson, and Standlake, and the Thames at Burcot. One was found in a late Neolithic or Bronze Age pit at Sutton Courtenay, Berks. (fn. 13) A basalt axe, suspiciously Irish in appearance, is recorded from Eynsham (Pl. II l); another of schistose rock from Oxford still shows the marks of the original hafting (Pl. II m); while a third, found in the haw-haw in front of Eynsham Hall, is made from a fine granophyre. Though usually ranked with other polished axes under a Neolithic date, it is questionable whether they, and indeed also many examples in flint, should not, like many flint scrapers and other tools, be assigned to the succeeding period. Among these may be included the neat flint lance-head (Fig. 5) seen in 1910 in the possession of Mr. Henry Akers of Black Bourton, where it was found. It is such as might well be associated with an 'A' beaker.

Fig. 5. Black Bourton. Flint Lance-head (½)

The same may be true of a class of archaeological remains entirely different in character, the long parallel ditches (fn. 14) observed and recorded by aerial photography by Major G. W. G. Allen. Of two important examples in south Oxfordshire one at Dorchester stretches from north-west to south-east across the main Oxford road north of the village; the other at Benson (fn. 15) runs for nearly ¾ mile almost due east to west with the two ditches some 75 yards apart a little south of the village (Pl. IV b). Some evidence of their date is afforded by the discovery of a hearth and flint scrapers, the latter, like many from adjacent sub-Neolithic or Bronze Age pits, in the upper layer of one of the filled-in ditches of yet another example (fn. 16) lying athwart the boundary of the parishes of Sutton Courtenay and Drayton, Berks.


  • 1. P.S.E.A. ii, 437; iii, 499.
  • 2. Ibid. ii, 71.
  • 3. Antiq. Journ. vii, 448, fig. 5 m.
  • 4. What are skin-scrapers? p. 9.
  • 5. Antiq. Journ. viii, 469, pl. lxxii, fig. 1 p.
  • 6. Archaeologia, lxxvi, 81 ff.
  • 7. T. D. Kendrick and C. F. C. Hawkes, Archaeology in England and Wales, 1914–31, p. 102.
  • 8. The same observation has been made about the Cotswolds (O. G. S. Crawford, The Long Barrows of the Cotswolds, 9).
  • 9. The Long Barrows of the Cotswolds.
  • 10. Proc. Soc. Antiq. xv, 404.
  • 11. Folk Lore, vi.
  • 12. The Rollright Stones.
  • 13. Ant. Journ. xiv, 265, pl. xxviii, fig. d.
  • 14. Ibid. xiv, 414 ff.; cp. xv, 77.
  • 15. Ibid., pl. lvii.
  • 16. Ibid., pl. lviii.