Prehistory

Prehistory: Daily Life

One of the major changes in prehistoric Britain was the gradual shift away from hunter-gathering towards settled agriculture. 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. 

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 discoveries of huts at Howick in Northumberland, and Star Carr, Yorkshire, dated to 8770–8460 BC, suggest that the wanderings of some Mesolithic people followed a seasonal pattern. It’s thought that they visited the same places for hunting, fishing or winter shelter.

A recreated Neolithic house
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 in Gloucestershire and West Kennet Long Barrow in 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.

A Bronze Age 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 is supposed to have 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. The wool could be 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 guts. By the early Neolithic period they were sewn with linen thread, made from flax, which was also woven into late Bronze Age clothing.

Reconstruction drawing 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 settling in substantial round houses, often grouped into permanent villages like Grimspound on Dartmoor. The perimeter wall at Grimspound 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.

 

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. 

Prehistory Stories

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