Until recently, archaeologists had an imprecise knowledge of the timing of agriculture’s arrival in Britain. “We knew the first long-barrow chambers, often used for communal burials, and the first causewayed enclosures appeared not long after the first farmers started taking over the land from existing hunter-gatherer tribes,” said Bayliss. “But we thought these processes took hundreds of years. In fact, they took about a tenth of that. Armed with this precise sequence, we can understand the social and political revolution that happened with agriculture’s arrival.”
The technique developed by the team is known as Bayesian chronological modelling; it exploits the theorems of the 18th-century mathematician Thomas Bayes to bring new precision to radiocarbon dating of prehistoric samples. In the past, bones or pieces of wood could only be ascribed dates to within a few hundred years. “Now, in many cases, we can date bones or tools with an accuracy of only a couple of decades. That changes everything,” said Whittle.
Story: Robin McKie, The Guardian | Photo: Mark Bauer/ALAMY