6.2.1 The natural world and landscape

One of the most natural things that people in the Neolithic seem to have incorporated into their belief systems was the landscape that was all around them. The environment provided a whole range of resources, opportunities and challenges, and would have impacted hugely on everyday life.  (The exploitation of natural resources, and the nature of the environment, are covered elsewhere in this document.) Yet it seems increasingly likely that people in the Neolithic had more than an economic and passive relationship to the natural world around them. Archaeologists have argued over the past few decades that natural places and features within the landscape may have been symbolically important, and formed important aspects of the social life and world view of the first farmers (cf. Bender 1992; Tilley 1994; Bradley 2000). Specific features in the landscape may have inspired monument form and location, given power to material culture, and even wholly ‘natural places’ may have taken on special significance.

The properties of natural materials, it has been argued, have some bearing on the way people viewed and utilised them in the Neolithic. For instance, anthropological studies of the significance people around the world hold for wood / trees, and stone, have impacted on the study of timber monuments, megaliths and stone tools. The role of trees and the woodland world may have led to the creation and treatment of timber monuments, for instance (cf. Noble 2006). The very different nature, source and temporality of stone as a building material from timber may have played an important role in the British Neolithic (Parker Pearson & Ramilsonina 1998). In particular the sourcing of stone was likely not only a practical consideration but also one where the source of the stone may have been a special place redolent with social meaning. For instance, Jones (1999) has suggested that the two main stone types reflected at Machrie Moor stone circles (red sandstone and white/grey granite) literally represented the dominant geologies of north and south Arran. More recently, the idea of sourcing standing stones has gained in popularity, with Richards (2010) identifying and investigating quarries associated with the Stones of Stenness and Calanais. Thus also have the sources of stone axes and other lithics been re-evaluated in light of Bradley’s suggestion that stone remains imbued with symbolic values of the source, with axes for instance being ‘pieces of places’ (2000, and see Section 5).

The very nature of monumentality may also have been shaped by the landscape. For instance it has been argued that henge monuments in Orkney represented microcosms of the wider landscape (Richards 1996). Associations have also been made with rivers / water and cursus monuments in Scotland (Brophy 2000). Cummings (2002) has argued that chambered tombs in SW Scotland were situated within specific locations in the landscape to facilitate views of both coast and mountains. As with alignments on the sky (see Section 6.2.2.), such properties of monuments may have been but one aspect of their meaning to those who built and used them.

Although Neolithic beliefs are very difficult to demonstrate, current research suggests certain landscape locations and the properties ascribed to them may have been important, even before monuments were built on them. Places such as rivers, mountains, woodland clearances, caves and watersheds may have been significant aspects of the Neolithic worldview.

Outstanding research questions

  • Is it possible to identify more closely the source of megalith building materials? This level of analysis has been undertaken for very few sites at anything other than a very general level.
  • How much more can we say about the wood used in timber monuments? More work is needed on the type of timber, but also where this might have been sourced from.