One of the most significant discoveries of Early Neolithic pottery ever uncovered in London has now been proven to be 5,500 years old
Although archeological finds of pottery have been dated using their position in the layers of history of the soil under our feet, a new radiocarbon dating technique has been used on this pottery find for the first time.
The pots had minute remnants of organic material in them, traces of milk fats that had soaked into the pottery when in use, and were sent to the University of Bristol where they were able to use the radiocarbon dating to date the pots to being in use around 5,500 years ago.
It is extremely rare to find archaeology from this time in central London and only a few individual fragments of pottery and stone axes have been uncovered to date, so the find fills a key gap in London’s prehistory.
Archaeologists suspected the pots were from around the time when the first farmers came to Britain, but now they have their proof.
The extraordinary trove, comprising 436 fragments from at least 24 separate vessels and weighing nearly 6.5 kilos, was discovered by archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) while excavating at Principal Place in Shoreditch – the location of the new Amazon UK HQ.
Reported in Nature, the new testing method was able to narrow the timeframe for the pottery collection to a window of just 138 years, to around 3,600BC.
Thanks to the discovery, MOLA archaeologists now believe the area around Shoreditch was once used by farmers who ate dairy products as a central part of their diet. These people were likely to have been linked to the migrant groups who were the first to introduce farming to Britain from Continental Europe around 4,000 BC – just 400 years earlier.
Jon Cotton, a consultant prehistorian working for MOLA, said: “This remarkable collection helps to fill a critical gap in London’s prehistory. Archaeological evidence for the period after farming arrived in Britain rarely survives in the capital, let alone still in-situ. This is the strongest evidence yet that people in the area later occupied by the city and its immediate hinterland were living a less mobile, farming-based lifestyle during the Early Neolithic period.”
Early Neolithic houses, though very rare in southeast England, have been found at Horton in Berkshire, Cranford in Hounslow, and Gorhambury in the Colne Valley. The discovery of such a large group of pottery at Principal Place suggests that a similarly significant settlement may have existed nearby.
Pottery and the dating game
Pottery has been used to date archaeological sites for more than a century and, from the Roman period onwards, can offer quite precise dating. But further back in time, for example at the prehistoric sites of Neolithic farmers, accurate dating becomes more difficult because the kinds of pottery from that time are often much less distinctive and there are no coins or historical records to give context.
This is where radiocarbon dating, also known as 14 C-dating, comes to the rescue. Until now, archaeologists had to radiocarbon date bones or other organic materials buried with the pots to understand their age.
But the best and most accurate way to date pots would be to do so directly; this is something which the team at University of Bristol is now able to achieve by dating the fatty acids left behind by food and this exciting new method is already being used to date pottery from a range of key sites up to 8,000 years old in Britain, Europe and Africa.
Professor Richard Evershed, who led the University of Bristol team, said: “ This new method is based on an idea I had going back more than 20 years and it is now allowing the community to better understand key archaeological sites across the world. We made several earlier attempts to get the method right, but it wasn’t until we established our own radiocarbon facility in Bristol that we cracked it. There’s a particular beauty in the way these new technologies came together to make this important work possible and now archaeological questions that are currently very difficult to resolve could be answered.”
Eating habits of London’s early farmers
By using lipid analysis on Early Neolithic pottery from inner-city London for the very first time, fascinating new details have been revealed about the food that people ate in what is now Shoreditch, and how they ate it.
Results suggest that the pots had been used to process dairy products and to cook beef and mutton. There was very little in the way of pig products, which could suggest that pork was not stewed but cooked on a spit.
In addition to the scientific findings, the form of pots themselves proved interesting, with some having been decorated by pressing fingertips or roe deer hooves into the clay. This suggests that, even at this early date, people paid attention to the design as well as the function of tableware.
Around 5,600 years after they were made, the fingerprints of those earliest of Londoners are still visible in the pots, and now thanks to science, we can learn more about what early Londoners ate.