Prehistory

Prehistory: Landscape

Landscape design is nothing new. Neolithic people linked complexes of person-made monuments into artificial landscapes, often incorporating natural features like rivers, springs and hills.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, the largest prehistoric artificial mound in Europe
Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, the largest prehistoric artificial mound in Europe

THE AVEBURY LANDSCAPE

Among the most easily traceable are the ‘ritual landscapes’ developed over a long period in the Kennet valley around Avebury, Wiltshire. The earliest components, dating from about 3650 BC, were Windmill Hill, a causewayed enclosure, and chambered communal tombs including West Kennet Long Barrow.

Over a thousand years later, Avebury Henge and Stone Circles., the largest in Britain, were constructed nearby. Initially it was an immense ditched earthwork ‘henge’, just over three-quarters of a mile in circumference. Soon afterwards its interior was ringed with about 100 standing stones, enclosing two more stone circles.

West Kennet Long Barrow
One of the largest Neolithic chambered barrows in Britain, West Kennet is over 100 metres long and was built in about 3400 BC. Now covered with turf, it originally had bare chalk sides, which would have been visible for miles around.

MAKING LINKS

The henge’s builders connected it to at least two other pre-existing sacred sites. The standing stones of West Kennet Avenue, which extend for 1½ miles, link it with The Sanctuary; Beckhampton Avenue connects it to the Longstones.

The most striking feat at Avebury was the creation between 2400 and 2300 BC of Silbury Hill on the valley floor near the source-springs of the river Kennet. It is the the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, and is still dominant in the landscape today. Although we don’t know why it was built or what it was used for, it may have been the central focus of the whole area.

Stonehenge was also the focus of a ritual landscape. It’s surrounded by other monuments built before and after it, but it’s also linked to the River Avon by a ceremonial avenue about a mile and a half long.

Visual links with natural features were clearly important to monument-builders. For instance, Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria was built in the centre of a kind of natural ampitheatre – a plateau surrounded by mountains.

Windmill Hill
Part of the Avebury World Heritage Site landscape, Windmill Hill is the largest known causewayed enclosure in Britain. It consists of three concentric but intermittent ditches, and is thought to have taken 48,000 hours of labour to build, over several years.

ENDURING SANCTITY

Landscapes accumulated sacred importance over long periods. Stanton Drew Circles in Somerset were raised over an earlier long barrow; and Arbor Lowhenge in Derbyshire may owe its siting to nearby Gib Hill barrow.

Existing Neolithic landscapes certainly became a focus for raising Bronze Age round barrows. Over 260 survive within a 2 mile radius of Stonehenge. Elsewhere, round barrows were carefully sited on prominent hilltops and ridges. Even with their original gleaming white chalk covering grassed over, and their height much reduced by time, they still dominate the landscape in many upland regions.

Arbor Low Stone Circle
An extensive henge monument, Arbor Low Stone Circle lies on the high moors of the Peak District. Consisting of a giant earthwork bank and ditch enclosing a circle of 50 limestone slabs, it would have dominated the Neolithic landscape.

DIVIDING THE LANDSCAPE

From about 1700 BC people devoted their energies to creating physical land boundaries: walls, banks and ditches, sometimes on an enormous scale. In lowland areas these have generally been overlaid by millennia of farming. But they are still clearly visible on the moors and uplands where cultivation was later abandoned.

Among the best surviving examples are the Dartmoor ‘reaves’. These long, straight stone walls or earthen banks mark out systems of large rectangular fields – as for example around Grimspound and in the Upper Plym Valley.

During the Iron Age, much more substantial dykes were built, like those at Grim’s Ditch in Oxfordshire, Bokerley Dyke in Dorset, and Argam Dyke in east Yorkshire. These probably defined entire tribal territories.

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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