Prehistory

Understanding prehistory – the period of human existence before written records – involves coming to terms with vast timespans. Almost a million years have passed since the earliest known humans arrived in what is now England, and some 12,000 years since continuous settlement began.

Stonehenge at sunrise

Stonehenge at sunrise

DATING IN PREHISTORY

Prehistory is traditionally divided into three main periods, named after their prevailing technologies: the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. Each period has also been subdivided – for example, the Stone Age into the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic (Old, Middle and New Stone Ages).

Increasing knowledge has led to further refinement. Archaeologists now generally use more specific terms (such as ‘Beaker period’) to reflect the more subtle changes in society, culture and technology that can now be detected, but the old chronological divisions are still useful.

Recent archaeological finds, as well as new scientific techniques, have overturned old certainties. Isotopic and DNA analysis of animal and human remains, chemical analysis of stone tools and pottery, and new ways of interpreting radiocarbon dating have all helped challenge existing interpretations and raised new questions about the distant past.

EARLIEST HUMANS

Flint tools found in 2010 near Happisburgh in Norfolk have been dated to about 900,000 years ago, pushing back the earliest identified human occupation of Britain by up to 100,000 years. Their users were among the hominids (early humans) who periodically visited Britain (which was then not an island, but joined to mainland Europe), sometimes over long periods, in warmer eras between successive Ice Ages.

The oldest human remains so far found in England, at Boxgrove in Sussex, date from about 500,000 years ago, and belonged to a six-foot tall man of the species Homo heidelbergensis. Shorter, stockier ‘Neanderthals’ visited Britain between 300,000 and 35,000 years ago, followed by the direct ancestors of modern humans.

These Ice Age humans created the earliest known cave art in England at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire, about 13,000 years ago.

Trethevy Quoit

Standing on the edge of Bodmin Moor, Trethevy Quoit (3500–2500 BC) is a well-preserved example of a portal dolmen, a type of monument specific to Cornwall. Its upright stones support a massive capstone, showing the considerable engineering skills needed to construct prehistoric stone monuments.

HUNTERS AND GATHERERS (9500–4000 BC)

With the end of the last Ice Age and in a rapidly improving climate, the continuous human occupation of Britain began. Mesolithic people were hunters and gatherers, hunting wild animals and harvesting wild plants. Although it is generally accepted that these people were nomadic, several recently discovered buildings such as a house at Howick, Northumberland, suggest that some had settled lifestyles.

By about 6500 BC, as the ice sheets melted, rising post-glacial seas had inundated the land bridge to Europe, making Britain an island.

FIRST FARMERS (FROM 4000 BC)

The knowledge of how to grow cereal crops and domesticate animals must therefore have come from Europe by boat. Arguably the most important development in human history, the change from hunter-gatherer life to settled farming was gradual.

It is uncertain whether the initial uptake of cereal and livestock farming in the early Neolithic continued through the later Neolithic and early Bronze Age. People still relied on wild food and resources, apparently remaining mobile within territories, which were focused on great communal monuments.

The earliest of these were causewayed enclosure gathering places like Windmill Hill, Wiltshire (built about 3650 BC), and impressive long barrows, or burial mounds. Many had stone chambered tombs, such as Belas Knap, Gloucestershire, West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire (both about 3650 BC), and Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire (about 3400 BC).

Ceremonial macehead from Stonehenge

This highly polished ceremonial macehead, dating from 3000–2500 BC, was discovered during excavations of the pits known as the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge. It was found buried with cremated human remains, suggesting that it was a prized possession.
© English Heritage (courtesy of Salisbury Museum)

SACRED LANDSCAPES (3500–2300 BC)

New types of monuments appeared in the middle and late Neolithic periods, including timber circles, earth mounds such as Silbury Hill, Wiltshire (about 2400 BC), stone circles such as Castlerigg, Cumbria (about 3000 BC), and earthwork ‘henges’ such as Knowlton, Dorset.

Outstanding combinations of henges and circles include Avebury (about 2500 BC) and Stonehenge, where the stones were set up in about 2500 BC. Often, several different types of monuments were built in the same area, forming sacred landscapes or monument complexes, like that centred on Marden Henge (Hatfield Earthworks) in Wiltshire.

At this time, flint for tools and weapons was being extracted at Grime's Graves, Norfolk (first mined between 2600 and 2200 BC).

Gold ornaments discovered in a prehistoric burial

Three beautiful gold objects, dating from 1900–1700 BC, discovered during excavations of Bush Barrow, near Stonehenge. The large, diamond-shaped lozenge was a breastplate of some sort, accompanied by a belt buckle (top left) and what may have been a mount for a macehead (top right). This is the richest and one of the most significant examples of a Bronze Age burial in Britain.
© Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

METALWORKING (2300–800 BC)

In about 2300 BC, a new style of pottery, known as Beaker, and the first metal weapons and jewellery began to arrive in Britain. People were buried with these objects in individual graves, some of which were covered with round barrows. At first the metal used was copper, but by about 2200 BC bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) was being worked in Britain.

During the early Bronze Age, some people were buried in rich graves within round barrows, accompanied by imported exotic goods. These burials have been found particularly in the area around Stonehenge, but also in regions such as Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

Often these burials were grouped in ‘barrow cemeteries’, such as Flowerdown Barrows, Hampshire, and Winterbourne Poor Lot Barrows, Dorset. Such proclamations of individual power superseded the great Neolithic communal monuments.

During the middle and late Bronze Age, landscapes were divided up by great field systems and people built permanent round houses, often grouped into ‘villages’ such as Grimspound, Devon. Elsewhere, competition for land and a need for security prompted the construction of the earliest hillforts.

THE IRON AGE (800 BC–AD 50)

Bigger and more elaborate hillforts such as Maiden Castle in Dorset and Old Oswestry, Shropshire, together with the development of iron weapons and tools, characterise the early and middle Iron Age. Ritual offerings of military equipment and fine metalwork suggest the dominance of a warrior aristocracy and the emergence of tribal territories.

The late Iron Age saw the first coinage minted, the emergence of tribal centres such as Lexden Earthworks, Essex, and Stanwick Iron Age Fortifications, North Yorkshire, and increasing contact with the encroaching Roman world, as seen at Silchester, Hampshire.

Written records now appear for the first time, albeit compiled by Greek and Roman outsiders such as Julius Caesar, who raided Britain in 55–54 BC. They record chariot warfare and religious leaders called ‘Druids’ who worshipped in oak groves and conducted sacrifices. The successful Roman invasion of AD 43 marks Britain’s transition from ‘prehistory’ into ‘history’.

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