Early British history

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:15 pm

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, prehistoric

From nothing to the Roman occupation

Once upon a very long time ago, but not necessarily at the same time, Britain was inhabited by extremely large lizards, woolly rhinos, mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers, giant cattle called aurochs, enormous bears, deer with antlers as long as a person – indeed, all manner of wild animals not often spotted on your local High Street.  Our distant ancestors would not have been familiar with dinosaurs, which died out around 65 million years ago; but they would have known those other vanished creatures – perhaps, with the assistance of a changing climate, helping to drive some to extinction.

It is reckoned that the first primitive primates evolved about 55 million years ago, the first true hunter-gatherer, Homo Erectus, walked the earth about 1-2 million years ago (give or take) and the direct ancestor of modern man, Homo Sapiens, made an appearance a mere 195,000 years or so before you arrived.  The first evidence of a humanoid presence in Britain itself goes back about 700-800,000 years, to primitive hunter-gatherers who left their tools, and their footprints, in the tidal muds at Happisburgh, Norfolk.  These were the earliest northern Europeans identified so far.  They were not humans as we know them, however; they weren’t even like politicians.  The oldest human remains found in Britain to date are those of so-called Boxgrove Man; parts of a fossilised tibia and a couple of teeth uncovered at a site in West Sussex have been dated at about half a million years old and belong to an extinct species, Heidelberg Man (Homo heidelbergensis).  The partial skull of Swanscombe Man (or, probably, Swanscombe Woman), discovered up the road in Kent is slightly younger – perhaps 350,000 BC.

Modern Homo Sapiens arrived in Britain much more recently, about 25,000 years back, though climatic changes probably meant that occupation did not become permanent until perhaps 12-10,000 BC.  The last ice age, around 10,000 years ago, covered Britain in ice down to a little south of the English Midlands.  At that time Britain was not an island, but physically joined to continental Europe across what is now the North Sea.  This drowned land, known as ‘Doggerland’, is believed to have been fertile and possibly relatively well-populated.  It gradually gave way to the rising sea as the ice melted around 8,000 years ago (6,000 BC), and the land adjusted through a process of isostatic rebounding as the weight of the ice was removed, leaving the last land bridge somewhere in the region of East Anglia and Kent; eventually, that too was inundated.  It is doubtful whether the significance of the event was widely recognised at the time – possibly the original hard Brexit. Experts tell us that the highest part of Doggerland, Dogger Bank, remained as an island until c5,000 BC, when it was finally overwhelmed by an enormous tsunami, created by a volcanic eruption off the coast of Norway.

Caveman, Forestier

The Neolithic Period (the new, or later, Stone Age) in Britain, from around 4,500 BC, saw permanent settlements, farming and the use of stone tools.  Long barrows – burial chambers – were built from around 3,700 BC and are among the oldest surviving structures in the country.  They seem to have been communal graves.  From about 3,300 BC, our ancestors built stone circles and ‘henges’ (usually an earthwork with a ditch).  There are at least 1,000 stone circles in Britain, along with a plethora of other stone monuments, including single megaliths, aligned stones and avenues.

The Bronze Age in Britain seems to have been introduced by the so-called ‘Beaker People’, migrants characterised by their bell-shaped pottery who arrived sometime around 2,000 BC and who buried their dead in individual round barrows.  Hill forts were also built in the Bronze Age – the remains of more than 2,000 of them punctuate Britain’s landscape today.  The first hill fort was built about 3,500 years ago (1500 BC), though most date from the Iron Age (about 750 BC).  Broadly speaking, development spread into Britain from continental Europe and was therefore generally slower in the north of the island, further from these influences.  We know that there was regular contact with mainland Europe, and the discovery of intricately fashioned gold torcs (decorative neck rings) in a field in Staffordshire in 2016 suggests sophisticated trade or social exchange. The torcs have been dated to perhaps 400 BC and are thought to have originated from what is now France or Germany. The largest collection of Iron Age gold, silver and bronze artefacts found in Europe to date has been uncovered over a 60 year period at Snettisham, Norfolk. Dating from c70 BC, the Snettisham Treasure includes beautiful, complete, items of jewellery as well as fragments, coins and ingots.

By the later part of the Iron Age, just prior to the Roman conquest (43 AD), the predominant culture in the British Isles was Celtic, apart from a significant portion of Scotland, which was occupied by the Picts – who may, or may not, have been ethnically Celtic.  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 our story, along with their language and culture, after being absorbed by the Scots in the 9th century AD. In any event, immediately before the Roman invasion, the people of Britain were probably tribal, but highly organised.  They lived in farmsteads or villages, perhaps surrounded by a fence or wall.  We don’t know what they called themselves.  The only written references to them comes from the Roman writers, Ptolemy and Tacitus, and it is through them that we hear of tribes such as 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.

For thousands of years before the written word, generations of people lived their lives in Britain; they were born, had their childhood, grew to adulthood, worked, died and made their mark on the landscape.  We may know little of their hopes and dreams – but they must have had them.  They cleared vast tracts of forest and left behind hundreds of memorials to their endeavours – stone circles, burial chambers, hill forts, ancient settlements and trackways, giant figures carved into hillsides and strange standing stones.  The purpose of many of these structures is unknown – but much debated.  Their memory is also preserved in Britain’s museums, which contain thousands of artefacts, ranging from primitive stone and bone tools, to exquisite and stylish Celtic jewellery.

Celtic. jewellery, torcs, British MuseumA Bit About Britain’s History is available in a single volume, with timelines, in both paperback and e-book format.

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