Prehistory: Daily Life

Early inhabitants of Britain were hunter-gatherers, who did not have settled homes. The transition to a farming way of life was gradual, and only by the late Bronze Age were people settling in permanent villages. 

Carn Euny Ancient Village, Cornwall

Carn Euny Ancient Village, Cornwall

FOLLOWING THE HERDS

The first human visitors to Britain were nomads, following reindeer and other animal herds north. They perhaps returned, over long periods of time, to particular caves and refuges, such as Creswell Crags in Derbyshire.

Even after the glacial ice finally receded and continuous occupation began about 14,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers had no permanent homes.

But recent discoveries of Mesolithic houses at Howick, Northumberland, and Star Carr, Yorkshire, dated to 8770–8460 BC, suggest that the wanderings of Mesolithic people followed an established pattern, taking them seasonally to the same places for hunting, fishing or winter shelter.

One of the recreated Neolithic Houses at Durrington Walls

The Neolithic settlement at Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge, consisted of many houses like this reconstructed one. Excavations have revealed that each house included a hearth at its centre, used for cooking and to provide light and warmth.

COMMUNAL MONUMENTS

The arrival of farming in Britain in about 4000 BC did not immediately transform these semi-nomads into year-round permanent settlers. More herdsmen than intensive arable farmers, Neolithic and early Bronze Age people continued to move around territories. These were now focused on great communal monuments like Belas Knap (Gloucestershire) and West Kennet Long Barrow (Wiltshire).

Later, henges and stone circles probably performed a similar function – permanent dwelling places remain elusive until the middle Bronze Age.

If monuments embodied the soul of these mobile societies, communal gatherings at places like Windmill Hill in Wiltshire provided their social glue. They no doubt provided opportunities to meet, trade, and perhaps also feast and perform ceremonies.

Amber bead necklace

This amber bead necklace was discovered in a Bronze Age barrow at Amesbury, Wiltshire. Excavations of other burials have revealed jewellery, pots and valuable gold objects.
© Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

ANIMALS AND SKINS

Animals were not kept purely to provide food. Cattle were probably also used for ploughing or pulling carts. Domesticated horses, however, were rare in Britain until the Iron Age.

Finds of gnawed bones show that dogs were common in prehistoric Britain. Varying in size, they were guard dogs, shepherding dogs, hunting aids or pets, or all of these things. Roman writers believed that Iron Age Britons also kept hares as pets: Boudicca allegedly carried one under her cloak.

Sheep were the most ubiquitous Bronze Age animal. From about 2000 BC a new breed appeared whose fleece was woolly rather than hairy, and could therefore be easily spun and woven into textiles, which could be dyed in bright colours.

The scant evidence we have suggests that earlier clothing was made of animal skins or leather, sewn together using bone needles (dated as early as 13,000 BC) and animal gut; or, by the early Neolithic period, with linen thread, a plant fibre also woven into late Bronze Age clothing.

Reconstruction of the Iron Age settlement at Silchester

This reconstruction drawing illustrates the settlement at Silchester, Hampshire, as it may have appeared during the Iron Age. After the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43, the settlement developed into a town.
© English Heritage (drawing by Peter Urmston)

VILLAGES, HILLFORTS, TOWNS

Late Bronze Age people were also settling in substantial round houses, often grouped into permanent villages like Grimspound on Dartmoor. The perimeter wall there probably served only to keep domestic animals in and wild ones out. But the need for safety prompted the building, at about the same time, of a defended village of about 200 huts on the exposed and uncomfortable summit of Mam Tor in Derbyshire.

The subsequent Iron Age saw an increasing tendency for people in northern and western England to live together for security, either in, or under the protection of, hillforts. In eastern England, however, new town-like tribal centres grew up in places like Colchester, Essex (defended by Lexden Earthworks), and Stanwick, North Yorkshire.

Julius Caesar, writing before 47 BC, contrasted the ‘civilised’ south-east with the more primitive conditions further inland, whose inhabitants ‘do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad in skins’. Exaggeration, perhaps, but correct in confirming that the quality of daily life in prehistoric Britain always depended on where, as well as when, one lived.

    'step into englands story