Prehistory: Networks

The ideas that transformed prehistoric Britain – the advent of farming, the building of great communal monuments and the knowledge of metal-working – were probably transmitted by small groups or even individuals bringing new ideas and objects from the Continent, rather than by mass movements of people.

The Avenue, on the approach to Stonehenge

The Avenue, on the approach to Stonehenge

ATLANTIC NETWORKS

Sometimes the routes by which new ideas travelled can be traced. The fashion for building ‘megalithic’ (‘big stone’) chambered tombs seems to have originated in Brittany in about 5000 BC, and was then spread by an ‘Atlantic network’ via Ireland, western England, Wales and western Scotland to Orkney. On Orkney, new styles of henges and stone circles developed, together with distinctive ‘Grooved Ware’ pottery. This then spread back south into England and the rest of Britain by about 2500 BC.

Ideas did not always come from beyond Britain, however. Some prehistoric developments, such as Neolithic linear ‘cursus’ monuments, were apparently home-grown.

Map showing how the stones were transported to Stonehenge

The sarsen stones and bluestones that make up Stonehenge were not sourced locally. This map shows the possible routes by which they were transported to Stonehenge. The large sarsen stones probably came from the Marlborough Downs, about 19 miles north of Stonehenge, while the smaller bluestones came from the Preseli Hills in Wales.

BOATS

By about 6500 BC rising post-glacial seas had made Britain an island. So new ideas – together with methods of cultivating crops and domesticating animals – must have come by boat. Neolithic dug-out canoes – flat-bottomed log boats – have been excavated around London, and no fewer than nine dating from the Bronze Age were found in 2011–12 near Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire.

These boats were probably built for inland waterways. But by at least the middle Bronze Age, a new type of much bigger sea-going boat had evolved, made of cut oak planks tightly stitched together with yew withies into a watertight keeled hull.

The remains of three such planked boats, dating from between 2020 and 1680 BC and up to 16 metres long, were found on the north bank of the Humber at Ferriby. The Dover Bronze Age Boat, about 9.5 metres long with space for at least 18 paddlers, dates from about 1550 BC.

TRACKWAYS

The prehistoric trackways that were used for long-distance land travel are harder to date. Many, like the Ridgeway, which may originally have linked the Wash in East Anglia to the Dorset coast (passing Wayland's Smithy, Uffington Castle and Avebury along the way), follow high ground, avoiding dangerously forested and boggy lowlands.

Yet marshes too had their own man-made local routeways, which are now coming to light in the Fens and the Somerset Levels. The Somerset ‘Sweet Track’, built of oak planks resting on diagonally set poles, has been tree-ring dated to about 3807 or 3806 BC.

Amesbury Archer grave goods

This burial close to Stonehenge in about 2400 BC of a man now known as the Amesbury Archer is the richest grave ever discovered from the period. Chemical analysis of his teeth show that he was originally from the Alps. He may have been one of the first people to introduce metal-working to Britain.
© Courtesy of the Salisbury Museum

TRAVELLING TO STONEHENGE

A combination of water and overland travel must have been used to bring the bluestones from the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire to Stonehenge, a distance of at least 156 miles. If mainly water transport was used, their journey may have been much longer, from the Bristol Channel round the Cornish peninsula and up the river Avon.

The isotope analysis of teeth and bones, which indicates where their owners grew up, shows that some people buried close to Stonehenge had travelled long distances to get there. The Amesbury Archer, buried about 2400 BC, probably came from central Europe, and the Boscombe Bowmen (buried about 2300 BC) from Wales, Cornwall or north-west Scotland.

Some of the cattle eaten at nearby Durrington Walls may have been brought from as far away as Scotland. If so, this was presumably for religious reasons.

Axe roughout from Grime's Graves

A flint ‘rough-out’ for an axe-head from Grime’s Graves flint mines in Norfolk. Many such axe-heads would leave the site in this condition to be finished elsewhere, pointing to an extensive commercial network.

AXES AND DAGGERS

Symbolism rather than practical need may also explain why Neolithic stone axe-heads from Cumbria, Cornwall, north Wales and even Northern Ireland are found across England. Similarly, the fine black flint from Grime's Graves in Norfolk was exchanged or traded over long distances.

Widespread trade networks also brought bronze daggers from Brittany, jewellery made from Irish gold, and precious objects from still further afield to the round barrows of Bronze Age Britain – such as the prestigious weapons and exquisitely worked gold objects found in the Bush Barrow burial near Stonehenge.

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