Early British history

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, prehistoric

Like many places, prehistoric Britain was once inhabited by large lizards, woolly rhinos, mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers and so on – though not necessarily all at the same time. Inevitably, A Bit About Britain focuses on relatively recent history, going back a mere few thousand years.  Of course, the human story begins much, much earlier than that – though it is not our purpose here to speculate when the first man appeared on earth, or what he was.  But the first evidence of human presence in Britain goes back some 950,000 years – primitive hunter-gatherers, who left their tools and footprints in Happisburgh, Norfolk.

Modern Homo Sapiens actually arrived in Britain about 25,000 years ago, though climatic changes probably meant that occupation was not permanent until maybe 12-10,000BC.  The last ice age was about 10,000 years’ ago, covering Britain in ice down to south of the English Midlands.  At that time, Britain was physically joined to continental Europe across what is now the North Sea in the vicinity of East Anglia, the land, known as ‘Doggerland’, giving way to the rising sea as the ice melted about 8,000 years’ ago (6,000BC).  It is doubtful whether the significance of this event was widely recognised at the time – possibly the first hard Brexit.

The Neolithic Period (about 3,000BC ) saw the construction of burial chambers and ‘henges’, like Stonehenge.  The so-called ‘Beaker People’ of the early Bronze Age around 2,000BC constructed ‘barrows’ – burial chambers – examples of which can be seen dotted around the landscape.  There are also in excess of 2,000 hill forts in Britain today; the first hill fort was built about 3,500 years’ ago (1500BC), though most date from the Iron Age (about 750BC).  Development was slower in the north, further from continental European influences.

By the later part of the Iron Age, just prior to the Roman conquest (43AD), the predominant culture in the British Isles was Celtic, apart from a significant portion of Scotland, which was occupied by the Picts.  The Celts migrated to these islands over a long period of time, probably from central Europe, and are still here in places; the Picts aren’t.  We know very little of the Picts – the name comes from the Latin meaning ‘painted people’ – and they disappear from the story, along with their language, after being absorbed by the Scots in the 9th century.

Caveman, prehistoric, NeanderthalImmediately before the Roman invasion, Britain was peopled by a number of different tribes.  Some are unknown and others we know very little about; the only written reference to these tribes comes from the Roman writers, Ptolemy and Tacitus.  The tribes included the Durotriges in modern Dorset/Wiltshire, the Atrebates in parts of Sussex, Hampshire and Berkshire, the Iceni in Norfolk and Suffolk, the Brigantes in Yorkshire, Durham and Lancashire, the Votadini in south east Scotland, the Caledones in the Highlands and the Picts in the north east.

Prehistoric man made his mark on the landscape of Britain as well as leaving behind scores of sites that can be visited today, which include stone circles, burial chambers, hill forts, ancient settlements and trackways, giant figures carved into hillsides and mysterious monuments and standing stones. Britain’s museums contain hundreds of artefacts, ranging from primitive stone and bone tools, to beautiful pre-Roman jewellery.

Celtic. jewellery, torcs, British Museum

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