Prehistory: Religion

We can only make informed guesses about what prehistoric people believed, based on evidence from the monuments and artefacts they produced. Certainly there was no single or continuously developed prehistoric belief system. For long periods, however, there were religious practices concerning the dead, their afterlife, and their influence on the living.

Winter sunlight at Stonehenge

Winter sunlight at Stonehenge

COMMUNAL TOMBS

When people began to farm the land in about 4000 BC, and to settle in permanent territories, they started to place their dead in huge communal tombs, such as West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire, and Uley Long Barrow, Gloucestershire. Only a small proportion of the populations that raised these tombs were buried in this way, however. Why these particular men, women and children were selected is unknown.

Nor is it clear why sometimes their bones were deposited only after their bodies had rotted elsewhere – perhaps in ceremonial mortuary sites connected with contemporary communal gathering places like Windmill Hill, Wiltshire.

From about 3500 BC new types of communal monument appeared: linear ‘cursuses’, banked circular earthwork ‘henges’ and, from about 3000 BC, stone circles such as Castlerigg (Cumbria), Avebury (Wiltshire) and, of course, Stonehenge. These monuments appear to show people attempting to create sacred spaces that were kept apart from everyday life, or used as ceremonial gathering places.

Wayland's Smithy

Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire, a Neolithic long barrow, was so-called because it was later believed to have been lived in by the Saxon smith-god Wayland. It was built over an earlier burial barrow between 3460 and 3400 BC.
© Stephen Dorey/Alamy

RITUAL LANDSCAPES

Stonehenge – an early form of earthwork henge to which stone circles were later added – is undoubtedly aligned to the rising sun at midsummer and the setting sun at midwinter. Not all stone circles were aligned on heavenly bodies, but it is clear that the procession of time and the seasons, and the movements of the sun and moon, were highly significant to prehistoric people.

Monuments of varying types, built over quite long periods, were now incorporated into artificial ‘ritual landscapes’, still visible around Avebury and Stonehenge. Presumably these were the setting for elaborate religious ceremonies, possibly connected to a preoccupation with the fertility of people, animals and crops.

At Grime's Graves in Norfolk (mined from about 2600 BC) ritual offerings accompanied the closure of worked-out flint mines, apparently to encourage renewal.

Winterbourne Stoke

Winterbourne Stoke Barrows is one of the most impressive barrow ‘cemeteries’ in Wiltshire. This group of burial mounds includes a Neolithic long barrow from between 3750 and 3400 BC and later, Bronze Age round barrows from about 2000 BC.

ROUND BARROWS

Neolithic sacred places and ritual landscapes clearly remained significant well after they had fallen out of fashion. Many hundreds of Bronze Age round barrows were built near Stonehenge and Avebury.

By far the most commonly found prehistoric monument in England (and often located in groups, such as Winterbourne Poor Lot Barrows, Dorset), round barrows cover individual burials or cremations, sometimes accompanied by rich grave goods. They mark a shift from communal monuments to a focus on particular people and their power.

As the Bronze Age progressed, cremation became more common, with ashes being deposited in a small pit or pottery urn, within an older or new barrow.

Selection of bronze age grave goods

These gold and amber objects were found with burials under Bronze Age barrows on Normanton Down, near Stonehenge. Such particularly opulent collections of grave goods suggest that the individuals buried here were of great wealth and status.
© English Heritage (courtesy of Wiltshire Museum, Devizes)

SPRINGS, GROVES AND DRUIDS

From about 800 BC, in the early Iron Age, there was an even greater change. Evidence for burials is rare, but people increasingly cast valuable items – weapons, metalwork, even gold – into rivers, pools and springs, apparently as sacrifices to water gods.

According to the Roman writers who provide the earliest written accounts of prehistoric religion, late Iron Age worship focused not on built temples but on ‘sacred groves’, the haunts of Druids, whose name means ‘oak-knowers’.

Julius Caesar, writing propaganda for a sensation-loving Roman public, describes Druids conducting human sacrifices, but also as philosophers, preaching about the transmigration of immortal human souls from one body to another; and Tacitus describes the Druids making a last stand against the Romans on the Isle of Anglesey in AD 61.

Beyond these records, almost nothing is known about Druids. Yet for centuries they dominated concepts of prehistory, and were wrongly portrayed as the builders of Stonehenge – a monument abandoned at least a thousand years before they are first heard of.

    'step into englands story