Prehistory

Prehistory: Power and Politics

Power in prehistoric Britain was expressed symbolically, whether through the mighty communal monuments of the Neolithic period such as Stonehenge, in the rich grave goods found in individual burials from the early Bronze Age onwards, or by the massive hillforts (like Maiden Castle) that typify the Iron Age.

Maiden Castle, one of Europe’s largest hillforts
Maiden Castle, one of Europe’s largest hillforts © Skyscan Photolibrary/Alamy

SYMBOLS OF AUTHORITY

We cannot know what kind of people exercised power among the nomads who roamed Palaeolithic Britain (about 900,000–9500 BC).

They may have been the strongest hunters, or the wisest older men and women, or people with perceived spiritual gifts. Reindeer-antler ‘batons’ like those found at Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, have been interpreted as their symbols of authority.

Uley Long Barrow
Uley Long Barrow (also known as Hetty Pegler’s Tump after its 17th-century owner) is one of the largest Neolithic long barrows in Gloucestershire. Between 15 and 20 skeletons have been recovered from the site, each buried with an assortment of grave goods. © Steve Speller/Alamy

ORGANISATIONAL POWER

The settled farmers of the early Neolithic period (4000–3000 BC) left far more obvious symbols of power - or at least of considerable organisational ability. The construction of great communal tombs like the long barrows at West Kennet and Belas Knap needed thousands of hours’ work by many people. It has been estimated that the outer ring ditches of the roughly contemporary Windmill Hill, Wiltshire, required 48,000 person-hours to dig.

Such targeted effort needed management, and we do not know whether it was forced labour under hereditary rulers, or a genuinely communal enterprise. Nor do we yet understand the connection between the endeavour and the comparatively small number of men, women and children who were buried within the tombs (36 at West Kennet, perhaps only 15 at Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire). Were these the families and descendants of the organisers, or were they honoured for some other reason?

Gold breastplate discovered during excavations of Bush Barrow
This magnificent gold breastplate was discovered during excavations of Bush Barrow, half a mile south of Stonehenge, which revealed a princely burial of about 1900–1700 BC. The wealth of the grave goods and prestigious burial location close to Stonehenge suggest a person of immense power and importance. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

NEW POWER SYMBOLS

The construction of Silbury Hill and later stone phases of Stonehenge (about 2500–2000 BC) were infinitely more formidable feats of logistics. The transport of bluestones from south-west Wales and of the much heavier sarsens from the Marlborough Downs implies influence extending far beyond Salisbury Plain. So do the nearby burials of people from distant parts of Britain and, in the case of the Amesbury Archer (buried about 2400 BC), from the Continent.

The completion of great monuments such as Stonehenge must have conferred tremendous prestige on their patrons.

From the early Bronze Age, however, individual power and prestige were expressed in a new way: through the furnishing of burials in round barrows with magnificent grave goods. Few were more impressive than those at Bush Barrow near Stonehenge (1900–1700 BC), which included a lozenge-shaped gold breastplate, a huge bronze dagger with a handle inlaid with tiny gold pins, and a ‘sceptre’ with a fossil-stone head.

Bronze dagger found in a barrow in Milston, Wiltshire
Discovered during excavations of a barrow in Milston, Wiltshire, this dagger has a wooden handle decorated with small bronze studs and a pommel of ivory from a marine mammal, possibly a walrus. The pommel is very worn, suggesting that it may have come from an earlier dagger, passed on as a treasured heirloom. © English Heritage (courtesy of Wiltshire Museum, Devizes)

IRON AGE HILLFORTS

Whatever their defensive function, the hillforts that typify the Iron Age (800 BC–AD 50) were more straightforwardly visible symbols of power, whether of whole tribes or (more probably) of individual chieftains or dynasties.

Another means of expressing prestige was, seemingly, the public sacrifice of valuables like bronze shields by throwing them into rivers and bogs. Conversely, rich Iron Age burials are rare, a notable exception being Lexden Tumulus near Colchester. It was decked with prestigious goods revealing links with Rome, and datable to about 10 BC. Its occupant was probably Addedomarus, king of the local Trinovantes tribe, otherwise known only from his coinage – another new symbol of power.

IRON AGE HILLFORTS

Roman sources henceforth allow us to put names to rulers: Cassivellaunus, Caesar’s opponent in 54 BC; Cunobelin (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline); and his son Caratacus, who led the resistance to Roman invasion in AD 43.

They also describe rivalries between tribes, and even within dynasties.

The pro-Roman Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, who divorced and deposed her anti-Roman husband, Venutius, and of course Boudicca of the Iceni, serve as reminders that power in late prehistoric Britain was not exclusively exercised by men.

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. 

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