Though the scribes that accompanied the Roman invaders of Britain gave us the first written history of the land that came to be known as England, its history had already been writ large in its ancient monuments and archeological findings. Present-day Britain is riddled with evidence of its long past, of the past that the Roman writers did not record, but which is etched in the landscape. Looking out on the green and cultivated land, where it is not disfigured by the inevitable cities and towns and villages of later civilizations -- those dark Satanic mills so loathed by William Blake -- he can see what seem to be anomalies on the hillsides -- strange bumps and mounds; remains of terraced or plowed fields; irregular slopes that bespeak ancient hill forts; strangely carved designs in the chalk; jagged teeth of upstanding megaliths; stone circles of immense breadth and height and ancient, mysterious wells and springs.
Man lived in what we now call the British Isles long before it broke away from the continent of Europe, long before the great seas covered the land bridge that is now known as the English Channel, that body of water that protected this island for so long, and that by its very nature, was to keep it out of the maelstrom that became medieval Europe. Thus England's peculiar character as an island nation came about through its very isolation. Early man came, settled, farmed and built. His remains tell us much about his lifestyle and his habits. Of course, the land was not then known as England, nor would it be until long after the Romans had departed.
We know of the island's early inhabitants from what they left behind on such sites as Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, and Swanscombe in Kent, gravel pits, the exploration of which opened up a whole new way of seeing our ancient ancestors dating back to the lower Paleolithic (early Stone Age). Here were deposited not only fine tools made of flint, including hand-axes, but also a fossilized skull of a young woman as well as bones of elephants, rhinoceroses, cave-bears, lions, horses, deer, giant oxen, wolves and hares. From the remains, we can assume that man lived at the same time as these animals which have long disappeared from the English landscape.
So we know that a thriving culture existed around 8,000 years ago in the misty, westward islands the Romans were to call Britannia, though some have suggested the occupation was only seasonal, due to the still-cold climate of the glacial period which was slowly coming to an end. As the climate improved, there seems to have been an increase in the number of people moving into Britain from the Continent. They were attracted by its forests, its wild game, abundant rivers and fertile southern plains. An added attraction was its relative isolation, giving protection against the fierce nomadic tribesmen that kept appearing out of the east, forever searching for new hunting grounds and perhaps, people to subjugate and enslave.
The Neolithic Age
The new age of settlement took place around 4,500 BC, in what we now term the Neolithic Age. Though isolated farmhouses seem to be the norm, the remarkable findings at Skara Brae and Rinyo in the Orkneys give evidence of settled, village life. In both sites, local stone was used extensively to make interior walls, beds, boxes, cupboards and hearths. Roofs seem to have been supported by whale bone, more plentiful and more durable than timber. Much farther south, at Carn Brea in Cornwall, another Neolithic village attests to a lifestyle similar to that enjoyed at Skara Brae, except in the more fertile south, agriculture played a much larger part in the lives of the villagers. Animal husbandry was practiced at both sites.
Very early on, farming began to transform the landscape of Britain from virgin forest to ploughed fields. An excavated settlement at Windmill Hill, Wiltshire shows us that its early inhabitants kept cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and dogs. They also cultivated various kinds of wheat and barley, grew flax, gathered fruits and made pottery. They buried their dead in long barrows -- huge elongated mounds of earth raised over a temporary wooden structure in which several bodies were laid. These long barrows are found all over Southern England, where fertile soil allied to a flat, or gently rolling landscape greatly aided settlement.
To clear the forests, it is obvious that stone-axes of a sophisticated design were produced in great numbers. Many of these axes were obtained by trading with other groups or by mining high-quality flint. Both activities seem to have been wide-spread, as stone-axes appear in many areas away from the source of their manufacture. At Grimes Graves, in Norfolk (in the eastern half of Britain), great quantities of flint were mined by miners working deep hollowed-out shafts and galleries in the chalk.
At the same time the Windmill people practiced their way of life and other farming people were introducing decorated pottery and different shaped tools to Britain. The cultures may have combined to produce the striking Megalithic monuments, the burial chambers and the henges. The tombs consisted of passage graves, in which a long narrow passage leads to a burial chamber in the very middle of the mound; and gallery graves, in which the passage is wider, divided by stone partitions making stall-like compartments. Some of these tombs were built of massive blocks of stone standing upright as walls, with other huge blocks laid across horizontally to make a roof. They were then covered with earthen mounds which have in many cases, completely eroded. One of the most impressive of these tombs is New Grange in Ireland. They are the oldest manmade stone structures known, older than the great Pyramids of Egypt.
Sometime in the early to middle Neolithic period, groups of people began to build camps or enclosures in valley bottoms or on hilltops. Perhaps these were originally built to pen cattle and later used for defense, settlement or simply meeting places for trading. Perhaps they were built for religious purposes. Soon, these enclosures began to evolve into more elaborate sites that may have been used for religious ceremonies, perhaps even for studying the night stars so that sowing, planting and harvesting could be done at the most propitious times of the year. Whatever their purpose, we call these sites, most of which are circular or semi-circular in pattern, henges. They include banks and ditches; the most impressive, at Avebury, in Wiltshire, had a ditch 21 metres in width, and 9 metres deep in places.
Many of the timber posts that defined these henges have long disappeared, but many sites still contain circles of pits, central stones, cairns or burials and clearly defined stone or timber entrances. It was not too long before stone circles began to dot the landscape, spanning the period between the late Neolithic and the early Bronze Ages (c 3370 - 2679 BC). Outside these circles were erected the monoliths, huge single standing stones that may have been aligned on the rising or setting sun at midsummer or midwinter. Some of these, such as the groups of circles known as the Calva group in present day Scotland, were also used for burials and burial ceremonies. Henges seem to have been used for multiple purposes, justifying the enormous expenditure of time and energy to construct them.
The arrival of the so-called "Beaker people" named after the shape of their most characteristic pottery vessel, brought the first metal-users to the British Isles. Perhaps they used their beakers to store beer, for they grew barley and knew how to brew beer from it. At the time of their arrival in Britain, they seem to have mingled with another group of Europeans we call the "Battle-axe people," who had domesticated the horse, used wheeled carts and smelted and worked copper. They also buried their dead in single graves, often under round barrows. They also may have introduced a language into Britain derived from Indo-European.
Prehistoric Earthworks and the "Wessex Culture"
The two groups seem to have blended together to produce the cult in Southern England that we call the 'Wessex Culture.' They were responsible for the enormous earthwork called Silbury Hill, the largest manmade mound in prehistoric Europe. Silbury is 39 metres high and was built as a series of circular platforms; their purpose still unknown. Nearby is the largest henge of all, Avebury, consisting of a vast circular ditch and bank, an outer ring of one hundred standing stones and two smaller inner rings of stones. Outside the monument was a mile-long avenue of standing stones.
Stonehenge, in the same general area as Silbury and Avebury, is perhaps the most famous, certainly the most visited and photographed of all the prehistoric monuments in Britain. We can only guess at the amount of labor involved in its construction, at the enormous complexity of the task which included transporting the inner blue-stones from the Preseli Hills in Wales and erecting of the great lintelled circle and horseshoe of large sarsen stones, shaped and dressed. The architectural sophistication of the monument bears witness to the tremendous technological advances being made at the time of the arrival of the Bronze Age.
Grave goods also attest to the sophistication of the Wessex culture: These include well-made stone battle axes, but also metal daggers with richly decorated hilts, precious ornaments of gold or amber, as well as gold cups, amulets, even a sceptre with a polished mace-head at one end. To make bronze, tin came from Cornwall; gold came from Wales, and products made from these metals were traded freely both within the British Isles and with peoples on the continent of Europe. Bronze was used to make cauldrons and bowls, shields and helmets, weapons of war, and farming tools. It was at this time that the Celtic peoples arrived in the islands we now call Britain.
Part 1: The Prehistoric Period, continued