While at university, I did an open unit in British pre-history. We studied the history of the UK from 100,000 BC to 43 AD. This is very specific, but with good reason – in 43 AD, the Roman Emperor Claudius (of ‘I, Claudius’ fame, which is an awesome book by the way) started the Roman invasion of Britain which lasted until 410 AD. 43 AD therefore marked the end of Britain in it’s isolation, and the start of the ‘modern’ era.
The period is broadly divided into five parts. The Palaeolithic, which is by far the longest and lasted until 10,000 BC, is the classic flint, reindeer horn, stone age level civilisation. The Mesolithic, 10,000 – 5,500 BC, starts to get more sophisticated: for example, they started added barbs to their weapons to make it more difficult for the animals to get away.
The Neolithic was an explosion of culture. This is where the pottery really gets going, agriculture, painting, villages and proper society become standard features. People start living in one place, and start making monuments. This is the era of Stonehenge, Avebury, the Rollright stones, and the Thornborough Henges complex in Yorkshire.
People also started making tombs, which is why my mother and I ended up in the middle of a field in Somerset on a bright, sunny day in April.
This is the entrance to Stoney Littleton, in Somerset. It is a Neolithic chambered tomb, also known as a long barrow, and it was probably built between 3,500 and 2,400 BC. It is 30m long, 15 wide and 3m high. When it was rediscovered in 1760 by the Reverend John Skinner, he reportedly found ‘2 or 3’ skeletons, as well as some burnt bones. These are now lost, as unfortunately many of these early archeological finds were looted or sold with disregard to their continuing historical and cultural value.
Because of the lost information, nobody is entirely sure what went on in the tomb. Was burning bodies standard practice, or was that a mistake? Were many people buried here, or just a few? In other words, was this for the rich or the many?
Archeology is full of unanswered questions, but that doesn’t stop it from being delightful. Plus, you can play inside the tomb, which is both scary and incredible.
After the Neolithic came the Bronze Age, and after that the Iron Age, both of which are pretty self explanatory. In Britain, the Iron Age is marked by a very high density of hill forts. One of these is called Cadbury Castle, but it was never a castle in the traditional sense. It is famous for the circular ditches which surround the hill, and were dug by hand by the inhabitants for protection. There is also evidence of wooden fences and a large fire shortly before the site was abandoned.
Most importantly, look at that view!
I love history of all sorts, and ancient history is especially magical. Once upon a time, someone just like me, who had never read a word or seen a giraffe, stood on that hill and looked out over the landscape. What did they see? What did they think? How did they think?
Until next time! xx
p.s. the featured image is, I think, the north-east circle at Stanton Drew, built in Somerset between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago. I’m willing to be proved wrong though.