Archaeologists from the Universities of Southampton and Reading have determined that some of Scotland's famous lake dwellings are older than Stonehenge. Called "crannogs," the little artificial islands made out of piled rocks have yielded pottery from the Neolithic period that indicate that settlements were built as early as 3640 BCE.

One of the most intriguing features of the Scottish landscape are the crannogs that dot the lakes and sea inlets of the country. There are 570 of these man-made dwellings dotted throughout the land with a particular concentration in the west and the Outer Hebrides. The reason why they were built is still a mystery, though it's likely that it originally was for defense, and their use certainly changed over the many centuries they remained inhabited.

Until recently, these crannogs, though in use in some places until 1760 CE, were thought to be very recent constructions dating back to the Iron Age about 800 BCE. Radiocarbon dating of excavations starting in the 1970s pushed this date back, but in 2012 Chris Murray, a resident of the Isle of Lewis, found well-preserved Early and Middle Neolithic pots on the loch bed. Further work with Mark Elliot from Museum nan Eilean found similar caches at five more crannog sites on the island.

The team carried out ground and underwater surveys of the stone islands, including photogrammetry, paleoenvironmental coring and excavation. By applying radiocarbon dating, the archaeologists claim that they have conclusively proven that the crannogs date to a period between 3640 and 3360 BCE – 200 to 500 years before the date of the earliest construction phase of Stonehenge in southern England.

In addition to the age, the team remarked on the large size of the ceramic shards, indicating that the pots may have been placed in the water whole – perhaps for some ritual purpose. However, there is still a lot of work to be done because only 10 percent of the crannogs have been radiocarbon dated and only 20 percent have been dated in any way at all.

"These crannogs represent a monumental effort made thousands of years ago to build mini-islands by piling up many tons of rocks on the loch bed," says Fraser Sturt, archaeologist at the University of Southampton. "It appears most probable that many more Neolithic crannogs will be found. Our research shows this is a new type of site for the British Neolithic, indicating different forms of prehistoric practice. It is very exciting to think about the potential that these sites hold for improving our understanding of the past."

The research was published in Antiquity.

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