Britain and Ireland saw dramatic changes in the period between 3500–1500 BC. Here we saw the emergence of spectacular new types of pottery, such as Grooved Ware and Beakers, the first use of metals, the production of enigmatic artefacts including carved stone mace heads and balls, and the construction and use of some of Europe’s most iconic sites, such as Stonehenge (southern England), Skara Brae (Orkney) and Newgrange (Ireland). As well as these new forms of material culture and architecture recent studies focusing on ancient DNA and stable isotopes, show large-scale population changes and movement of both humans and animals over large distances. This was a dynamic period of significant social changes.

The archaeological evidence has also generated significant debates including those concerning identity, religious organisation, and the organisation of society during this time. In order to understand these changes, and the deeper social themes are bound into them, we need detailed chronologies of activity. Only with this detail can we start to create histories for peoples’ lives, the materials they used and activities they under took at specific sites.

Recent advances in radiocarbon dating and mathematical modelling of radiocarbon measurements using Bayesian statistics now provide archaeology with the potential to produce precise chronologies for human activity in the past. This project will do just that for the period 3500–1500 BC for Ireland and Britain, looking at evidence across traditional divisions in things, site types and peoples to think about the lived experiences and practices in new ways. This is Third and fourth millennia Ireland and Britain: a history of Major social change Explored. This is our project TIME.

Project TIME: Writing new narratives of the past

Project TIME is a new project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and a research collaboration led by Dr Seren Griffiths (Manchester Metropolitan University), with Dr Ben Edwards (Manchester Metropolitan University), Prof. Julian Thomas (University of Manchester), Dr Neil Carlin (University College Dublin) and Prof. Tom Higham (University of Oxford). The main focus of this project is to examine the changing nature of people’s lives between 3500–1500 BC in Britain and Ireland; to do this, it has four main aims:

Aim 1: Producing new chronologies for key sites

Project TIME will be using innovative sampling and measurement methods to produce hundreds of new radiocarbon measurements from sites dating to the period 3500–1500 BC. The sites selected for new measurements (see ‘sites’ page) are the locations of enclosures (including ‘henges’), stone circles, timber circles, occupation sites and other locations which have not yet been dated with precision, but offer great potential to provide detailed chronological information about human lives and activities. These results then be modelled using Bayesian statistical analysis, to build precise new chronologies of human activity at these sites.

Aim 2: Interpreting change at different analytical scales

The new measurements obtained during this project will be combined with all existing radiocarbon measurements for this period, which the team estimates to be approximately in the order of several thousand, and modelled using Bayesian statistical modelling, to produce precise new chronologies across Britain and Ireland. These will be analysed spatially to examine whether key site types, such as enclosures, timber circles and stone circles, and artefact types, such as Grooved Ware and Beaker pottery, appear and spread in sequential or spatial patterns, and whether there is any unexpected synchrony in different materials, site types and practices.

Aim 3: Writing new kinds of narratives of the past

Traditional archaeological ‘packages’, such as the ‘late neolithic’ or ‘chalcolithic’ make it difficult to write about regional variation, overlap of practices, and changes and traditions. These types of terms also encourages an impression that people living in the past are defined using these packages of material culture and site types, giving us ‘late neolithic’ people, or ‘chalcolithic’ people. Project TIME aims to challenge this ways of writing about the past. We are going to start by thinking about change, people and things, using detailed chronologies of materials, practices and sites, to write about particular people in their specific time and place. This will examine whether these new chronologies and narratives alter the traditional views of archaeological packages, and instead identify more complex and dynamic histories of this period, where there may be times and places where we see change away from the traditional divisions in packages, or continuity in practices, traditions or materials across traditionally established culture-historic transitions. These new narratives will also question what the character of change was during this period, and what it tells us about the people during this period, and their identities, choices, societies and how they changed over time.

Aim 4: Building understanding through innovative dissemination

Project Time has a commitment to new standards of methodological openness and data-sharing. All of the project archive, including all measurements, code from Bayesian statistical modelling, database of archaeological evidence, and publications, will be open access in perpetuity. The project will also produce outreach materials including education resources, a blog, and a podcast (all available on this website) to allow specialist and non-specialist audiences alike to engage with the project as it is being undertaken, the wider archaeological debates that are engaged with, and the final project results.