Prehistoric Britain

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Ancient Britain was a period in the human occupation of Great Britain that extended throughout prehistory, ending with the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43.



Britain has been inhabited for hundreds of thousands of years. None of the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain had any written language, so their history, culture and way of life are known only through archaeological finds.

Located at the fringes of Europe, Britain received foreign technological and cultural achievements much later than mainland areas did during prehistory. The story of ancient Britain is traditionally seen as one of successive waves of settlers from the continent, bringing with them new cultures and technologies. More recent archaeological theories have questioned this migrationist interpretation and argue for a more complex relationship between Britain and the continent. Many of the changes in British society demonstrated in the archaeological record are now suggested to be the effects of the native inhabitants adopting foreign customs rather than being subsumed by an invading population.

The first written record of Britain and its inhabitants was by the Greek navigator Pytheas, who explored the coastal region of Britain in around 325 BC. Ancient Britons were however involved in extensive trade and cultural links with the rest of Europe from the Neolithic onwards, especially in exporting tin which was in abundant supply.

The Palaeolithic

Palaeolithic Britain is the period from almost three quarters of a million years ago until around 10,000 years ago. This huge length of time saw many changes in the environment, encompassing several glacial and interglacial periods which greatly affected human settlement in the region. Providing dating for this distant period of time is difficult and contentious. The inhabitants of the region at this time were bands of hunter-gatherers who roamed all over northern Europe following herds of animals.

Lower Palaeolithic

There is evidence from bones and flint tools found in coastal deposits near Happisburgh in Norfolk that Homo erectus was present in what is now Britain around 700,000 years ago. At this time, southern and eastern Britain was linked to continental Europe by a wide land bridge allowing humans to move freely. The current position of the English Channel was a large river flowing westwards and fed by tributaries that would later become the Thames and Seine. Reconstructing this ancient environment has provided clues to the route first visitors took to arrive at what was then a peninsula of the Eurasian continent. Archaeologists have found a string of early sites located close to the route of a now lost watercourse named the Bytham River which indicate that it was exploited as the earliest route west into Britain.

Sites such as Boxgrove in Sussex illustrate the later arrival in the archaeological record of an archaic Homo sapiens subspecies called Homo heidelbergensis around 500,000 years ago. These early peoples made Acheulean flint tools and hunted the large native mammals of the period. They drove elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses over the tops of cliffs or into bogs to more easily kill them.

The extreme cold of the following Anglian glaciation is likely to have driven humans out of Britain altogether and the region does not appear to have been occupied again until the ice receded during the Hoxnian interglacial. This warmer period lasted from around 420,000 until 360,000 years ago and saw the Clactonian flint tool industry develop at sites such as Barnfield Pit in Kent.

A further period of cooling lasted until around 240,000 years ago and saw Levallois flint tools introduced, possibly by humans arriving from Africa. This more advanced flint technology permitted more efficient hunting and therefore made Britain a more worthwhile place to remain during this ice age. However, there is little evidence of human occupation during the subsequent Ipswichian interglacial between around 180,000 and 70,000 years ago. Meltwaters from the previous glaciation cut Britain off from the continent for the first time during this period which may explain the lack of activity.

Middle Palaeolithic

From around 60,000 BC Neanderthal man inhabited southern, unglaciated Britain. From examination of earlier human remains and tools it seems that the Neanderthals evolved from their predecessors rather than representing an influx of new genes. They made more advanced Mousterian tools such as those found at the Oldbury rock shelters in Kent. Later, British Neanderthals developed the sub-triangular bout-coupé handaxe around 50,000 years ago. A butchered mammoth found in Norfolk in 2002 may have been hunted and killed by Neanderthals or may have been scavenged. Other known occupation sites from this period include Kent's Cavern in Devon

Upper Palaeolithic

Neanderthal occupation of Britain was limited and by 30,000 BC the first signs of modern human activity, the Aurignacian industry, are known. The most famous example from this period is the burial of the Red Lady of Paviland in modern day Wales. A final ice age covered Britain between around 70,000 and 10,000 years ago with an extreme cold snap between 18,000 and 13,000 years ago which may have driven humans south out of Britain altogether, pushing them across the land bridge that had resurfaced at the beginning of the glaciation. Sites such as Gough's Cave in Somerset show people returning to Britain towards the end of this ice age, in a warm period known as the Dimlington interstadial although further extremes of cold right before the final thaw may have caused them to leave again. The environment during this ice age period would have been a largely treeless tundra, eventually replaced by a warmer climate, perhaps reaching 17 degrees centigrade in summer which encouraged the expansion of birch trees and also scrub and grasses.

The first distinct culture of the Upper Palaeolithic in Britain is what archaeologists call the Creswellian industry. It produced more refined flint tools but also made use of bone, antler, shell, amber, animal teeth and mammoth ivory. These were fashioned into tools but also jewellery and rods of uncertain purpose. Flint seems to have been brought into areas with limited local resources; the stone tools found in the caves of Devon seem to have been sourced from Salisbury Plain, 100 miles east. This is interpreted as meaning that the early inhabitants of Britain were highly mobile, roaming over wide distances and carrying 'toolkits' of flint blades with them rather than unworked nodules. The possibility that groups also travelled to meet and exchange goods or sent out dedicated expeditions to source flint has also been suggested.

The dominant food species were the wild horse (Equus ferus) and red deer (Cervus elaphus) although other mammals ranging from hares to mammoth were also hunted. From the limited evidence available, burial seemed to involve skinning and dismembering a corpse with the bones placed in caves. This suggests a practice of excarnation and secondary burial, and possibly some form of ritual cannibalism. Artistic expression seems to have been mostly limited to engraved bone although the cave art at Creswell Crags is a notable exception.

By 10,500 years ago the climate was becoming cooler and dryer. Food animal populations seem to have declined although woodland coverage expanded. Tool manufacture in the Final Upper Palaeolithic revolved around smaller flints and bone and antler work became less common. However, the number of known sites is much larger and more widely spread. Many more open air sites are known such as that at Hengistbury Head.


Around 10,000 years ago the ice age finally ended. Temperatures rose, probably to levels similar to those today, and forests expanded further. By 8,500 years ago, the rising sea levels caused by the melting glaciers cut Britain off from continental Europe for the last time. The warmer climate changed the arctic environment to one of pine, birch and alder forest; this less open landscape was less conducive to the large herds of reindeer and horse that had previously sustained humans. Those animals were replaced in people's diets by less social animals such as elk, red deer and aurochs which would have required different hunting techniques in order to be effectively exploited. Tools changed to incorporate barbs which could snag the flesh of a hunted animal, making it harder for it to escape alive. Tiny microliths were developed for hafting onto harpoons and spears. Woodworking tools such as adzes appear in the archaeological record, although some flint blade types remained similar to their Palaeolithic predecessors. The dog was domesticated because of its benefits during hunting and the wetland environments created by the warmer weather would have been a rich source of fish and game. It is likely that these environmental changes were accompanied by social changes with the groups that inhabited Britain at this time. Humans spread and reached the far north of Scotland during this period. Sites from the British Mesolithic include Star Carr in Yorkshire and Oronsay in Orkney. Excavations at Howick in Northumberland uncovered evidence of a large circular building dating to c. 7,600 BC which is interpreted as dwelling. The view of Mesolithic Britons as being exclusively nomadic is now being replaced with a more complex picture of seasonal occupation or in some cases, permanent occupation and attendant land management where conditions permitted it.

The Mesolithic-Neolithic transition

It is likely that the bounteous nature of the Mesolithic environment and ancient Britons' success in exploiting it eventually led to exhaustion of many natural resources. The remains of a mesolithic elk found caught in a bog at Poulton-le-Fylde in Lancashire demonstrated that it had been wounded by hunters and escaped on three different occasions, indicating over-hunting during the Mesolithic. Farming of both crops and domestic animals was adopted in Britain around 4,500 BC at least partly because of the need for reliable food sources. Hunter-gathering ways of life would have persisted into the Neolithic at first but the increasing sophistication of material culture with the concommitant control of local resources by individual groups would have caused it to be replaced. Other elements of Neolithic such as pottery, leaf-shaped arrowheads and polished stone axes would have been adopted earlier as part of the Neolithic 'package'. The climate had been warming since the later Mesolithic and continued to improve, replacing the earlier pine forests with deciduous woodland.

The Neolithic

Traditionally the arrival of the Neolithic in Britain has been seen as a wave of immigration from the continent, supplanting the local hunter-gatherers. Modern archaeology now considers that farming along with pottery and settled living was in fact adopted by the native population who were related to the similarly newly farming Neolithic people across the water. Knowledge of farming and ceramics probably passed between kinfolk through intermarriage, trade and other cultural ties. Links with continental Europe are demonstrated by finds of axes made from exotic stone such as jadeite. In 1997, DNA analysis was undertaken on a tooth from a Mesolithic man whose remains were found in Gough's Cave at Cheddar Gorge. When compared with the DNA of modern locals, it was found that one subject was a direct descendant of the 9,000 year-old man. Such findings have cast doubt on the traditional view of successive waves of mass immigration annihilating earlier peoples. Historical examples where only the ruling, clerical and mercantile classes travelled long distances may be applicable to prehistory too.

The construction of the earliest earthwork sites in Britain began during the Neolithic in the form of causewayed enclosures, sites which have parallels on the continent. Evidence of growing mastery over the environment is embodied in the Sweet Track, a wooden trackway built to cross the marshes of the Somerset Levels and dated to 3807 BC.

The Neolithic Revolution, as it is called, brought about a more settled way of life and led to societies becoming divided into differing groups of farmers, artisans and leaders. Forest clearances were undertaken to provide room for cereal cultivation and animal herds.

Provided with reliable food supplies, populations grew, so that time and manpower were available for building monumental sites such as henges and long barrows. Ritual deposition of tools and pottery took place often in or alongside water. More secular practices that developed during the Neolithic include the long house and industrial flint mining such as that at Cissbury and Grimes Graves.

The Bronze Age

In around 2,500 BC a new culture arrived in Britain, often referred to as the Beaker culture. Believed to be of Iberian origin (modern day Spain and Portugal), Beaker techniques brought to Britain the skill of refining metal. At first they made things from copper, but from around 2,150 BC, smiths had discovered how to make bronze (which was much harder than copper) by mixing copper with a small amount of tin. And thus the bronze age arrived in Britain. Over the next thousand years, bronze gradually replaced stone as the main material for tool and weapon making.

Britain had large reserves of tin in the areas of Cornwall and Devon in what is now southwest England, and thus tin mining began. By around 1,600 BC, the southwest of Britain was experiencing a trade boom, as British tin was exported across Europe.

The Beaker people were also skilled at making ornaments from gold, and examples of these have been found in graves of the wealthy Wessex culture of southern Britain.

Early Bronze Age Britons buried their dead beneath earth mounds known as barrows, often with a beaker alongside the body. Later in the period, cremation was adopted as a burial practice with cemeteries of urns containing cremated individuals appearing in the archaeological record. People of this period were also largely responsible for building many famous prehistoric sites such as the later phases of Stonehenge along with Seahenge

There is some debate amongst archaeologists as to whether the 'Beaker people' were a race of people who migrated to Britain en masse from the continent, or whether a prestigious Beaker cultural "package" of goods and behaviours (which eventually spread across most of western Europe) diffused to Britain's existing inhabitants through trade across tribal boundaries. Modern thinking tends towards the latter view. Alternatively, a ruling class of Beaker individuals may have made the migration and come to control the native population at some level.

There is evidence of a relatively large scale disruption of cultural patterns which some scholars think may indicate an invasion (or at least a migration) into southern Great Britain circa the 12th century BC. This disruption was felt far beyond Britain, even beyond Europe, as most of the great Near Eastern empires collapsed (or experienced severe difficulties) and the Sea Peoples harried the entire Mediterranean basin around this time.

The Iron Age

See British Iron Age for more detail.

In around 750 BC ironworking techniques reached Britain from southern Europe. Iron was stronger and more plentiful than bronze, and its introduction marks the beginning of the Iron Age. Ironworking revolutionised many aspects of life, most importantly agriculture. Iron tipped ploughs could churn up land far more quickly and deeply than older wooden or bronze ones, and iron axes could clear forest land far more efficiently for agriculture.

About 900 BC, British society changed again. Broadly termed the Celtic culture, it had by 500 BC covered most of the British Isles. The Celts were highly skilled craftspeople and produced intricately patterned gold jewellery and weapons in bronze and iron.

Iron Age Britons lived in organised tribal groups, ruled by a chieftain.

As people became more numerous, fights broke out between opposing tribes. This led to the building of hill forts. Although the first had been built about 1,500 BC, hillfort building peaked during the later Iron Age. Large farmsteads produced food in industrial quantities and Roman sources note that Britain exported hunting dogs, animal skins and slaves.

Late pre-Roman Iron Age (LPRIA)

The last centuries before the Roman invasion saw an influx of refugees from Gaul (modern day France and Belgium) known as the Belgae, who were displaced as the Roman Empire expanded.

From around 175 BC they settled in the areas of Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex and brought with them pottery making skills far more advanced than anything produced previously. The Belgae were partially Romanised and were responsible for creating the first settlements large enough to be called towns.

The last centuries before the Roman invasion saw increasing sophistication in British life. About 100 BC, iron bars began to be used as currency, while internal trade and trade with continental Europe flourished, largely due to Britain's extensive mineral reserves. Coinage was developed, based on continental types but bearing the names of local chieftains.

As the Roman Empire expanded northwards, Rome began to take interest in Britain. This may have been caused by an influx of refugees from Roman occupied Europe, or Britain's large mineral reserves. See Roman Britain for the history of this subsequent period.

See also

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