Prehistory

An Introduction to Prehistoric England (Before AD 43)

Prehistory is the time before written records. It’s the period of human history we know the least about, but it's also the longest by far.

The earliest known humans arrived in these lands around 900,000 years ago. Prehistory stretches from then until the Roman invasion in AD 43. In the hundreds of thousands of years before history began, these lands underwent huge climactic, societal, political, technological and geological changes. 

Along with artefacts discovered by archaeologists, the henges, hillforts and burial sites still visible in the landscape today can give us with fascinating glimpses into the lives of the people of prehistoric England.

Ages and Ages

To deal with the massive spans of time in this period, archaeologists traditionally divide prehistory into three main periods: the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages, named after the main technologies used at the time. And each period is subdivided – for example, the Stone Age into the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic (Old, Middle and New Stone Ages).

These terms are seen as old-fashioned by some archaeolgists, who prefer to use more specific terms like Beaker period to reflect subtle developments in society, culture and technology. But the old, broad chronological divisions are still useful.

Archaeologists are using some of the most cutting-edge technology to find out more about our distant past. 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 are all helping to challenge long-held ideas and raise new questions about this fascinating opening chapter of England’s story.

Trethevy Quoit on Bodmin Moor
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.

The Earliest Humans

In 2010 archaeologists working near Happisburgh in Norfolk uncovered flint tools dated to about 900,000 years ago. The people who used them were early humans (known as hominoids) who periodically visited Britain in warmer eras between Ice Ages.

During this time Britain wasn’t an island, but a peninsula of the European continent. What is now the river Thames ran into the North Sea at Happisburgh.

The oldest human remains so far found in England 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.

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

HUNTERS AND GATHERERS (9500–4000 BC)

Continuous human occupation of Britain began as the climate improved at the end of the last Ice Age. People in Britain at this time were still hunters and gatherers who made use of wild plants and animals. Although most of these people were probably nomadic, recent discoveries of buildings suggest that some had settled lifestyles.

By about 6500 BC, rising seas had inundated the land bridge with Europe, making Britain an island.

Prehistoric ceremonial macehead
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)

FIRST FARMERS (FROM 4000 BC)

Perhaps the most important development in human history, farming was first introduced to Britain around 4000 BC. The people who brought the techniques to the island must have travelled from Europe by boat.

Although they farmed pulses, barley and wheat, people still relied on wild food and resources. And rather than settle in one place, they still moved around within territories. These territories were focused on great communal monuments. Some were gathering places like the causewayed enclosure at Windmill Hill, Wiltshire (built about 3650 BC). Others were burial sites with impressive long barrows. 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).

SACRED LANDSCAPES (3500–2300 BC)

New types of monuments appeared in the middle and late Neolithic periods, including timber circles like Woodhenge (about 2300 BC), earth mounds such as Silbury Hill, Wiltshire (about 2400 BC), stone circles like Castlerigg, Cumbria (about 3000 BC), and earthwork henges such as Knowlton, Dorset.

Henges and circles were sometimes combined. The stone circles at Avebury and Stonehenge (both about 2500 BC) are among the best examples of this. And in some places, several different types of monuments were built in the same area over long periods. You can get a good sense of these sacred landscapes at Marden Henge, Avebury and Stonehenge.

During this period, 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

BRONZE AGE (2300–800 BC)

In about 2300 BC the first metal weapons and jewellery began to arrive in Britain, along with a new kind of pottery known as Beaker. 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 exotic imported goods. These burials have been found in the area around Stonehenge, but also in Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

Often these burials were grouped in barrow cemeteries, such as Flowerdown Barrows, Hampshire, and Winterbourne Poor Lot Barrows, Dorset. These rich, individual burials signify a shift from 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 in Devon. Elsewhere, competition for land and a need for security prompted the construction of the earliest hillforts.

IRON AGE (800 BC–AD 50)

In the early and middle Iron Age people built bigger and more elaborate hillforts like Maiden Castle in Dorset and Old Oswestry in Shropshire. They also began to make weapons and tools out of iron. Evidence of 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 and the emergence of tribal centres such as Lexden Earthworks, Essex, and Stanwick Iron Age Fortifications, North Yorkshire. And it’s during this period that Britain came into contact with the Roman world, as at Silchester, Hampshire.

And with this contact came the first written records of life on the island, from Greeks and Romans. The most famous notes were made by Julius Caesar, who raided Britain in 55–54 BC. Accounts from the period mention chariot warfare and religious leaders called Druids, who supposedly worshipped in oak groves and performed sacrifices.

Nearly a hundred years after Caesar’s raids, the emperor Claudius ordered a full scale invasion – and this time the Romans intended to stay.

Prehistory Stories

More about Prehistoric England

  • Prehistory: Architecture

    The structures that survive from prehistory might not be what we’d normally think of as ‘architecture’. But these buildings still inspire awe today

  • Prehistory: Art

    Art is one of the most enigmatic aspects of prehistory. It often has meanings and functions that are beyond our present understanding.

  • Prehistory: Commerce

    Goods and skills must have been bartered or exchanged in prehistoric Britain from early times, but very little evidence has survived.

  • Prehistory: Daily Life

    The arrival of farming from about 4000 BC had a profound effect on every aspect of daily life for the people who lived on our islands.

  • Prehistory: Landscape

    How Neolithic people linked complexes of person-made monuments into artificial landscapes.

  • Prehistory: Networks

    The arrival of farming, the building of great communal monuments and the knowledge of metalworking all transformed prehistoric Britain.

  • Prehistory: Power and Politics

    Power in prehistoric Britain was expressed symbolically, through the likes of mighty communal monuments, rich grave goods, and massive hillforts.

  • Prehistory: Religion

    There was no single or continuously developed belief system in prehistoric Britain, but we can make informed guesses about what different prehistoric people believed.

  • Prehistory: Conflict

    Violence and conflict undoubtedly occurred in prehistoric Britain, but the archaeological evidence is often subject to varying interpretations. 

Read More

  • Next Era: Romans

    In AD 43, intent on regime change and military glory, the Emperor Claudius launched a full scale invasion of Britain. The Romans stayed for nearly four centuries and left their mark on the country.

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