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Ancient Britain


Recreation of a human settlement at Kents Cavern, Devon

Through long Ice Ages small bands of hunter gatherers lived largely nomadic lives in Europe. During relatively warmer interglacial times some small groups made their way into what is now southern Britain, crossing the land bridge from the continent. The oldest pre-modern human remains ever found in Britain are about 500,000 years old and were discovered in Boxgrove, Sussex. At Hengistbury Head in Dorset there is evidence of intermittent human habitation stretching back over 100,000 years. Hengistbury Head, now looking out over the Solent, was once a hill next to a river. When the climate was warm enough, nomadic hunting tribes probably camped here near routes taken by migrating animals moving south to the continent.

The south west of England also provides evidence of human habitation during the Ice Ages. In Kents Cavern near Torquay in Devon, archeological evidence reveals intermittent human habitation in warm periods between Ice ages. A jaw bone found at Kents Cavern could be that of a Neanderthal Man, who lived between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago. Sediments found at Tornewton Cave, a few miles inland from Kent's Cavern tell the story of the later episodes of the Ice Age. A layer of stalagmites indicates a cool temperate climate. Then comes a layer of frost shattered stalactites indicating very cold conditions. With the return of slightly warmer temperatures the cave was taken over by hyenas, before bitterly cold conditions returned once again. This was the final Devensian glaciation, 18000 - 15000 years ago. Human activity then returned to the cave following this cold period. Reindeer remains indicate that the cave's occupants were nomadic reindeer hunters. Into more relatively recent times, the oldest modern human remains in Britain were discovered in Sun Hole in the Mendips, and Gough's Cave, Cheddar. The remains found in Gough's Cave date to around 9000 years ago, those at Sun Hole to 12,500 years ago. These people lived during a time of great change. About 12,000 years ago Britain's climate began to warm dramatically, temperatures reaching their peak about 6500 years ago, the English Channel opening up soon after this.



Woodland at Ebernoe Common

With warmer temperatures settlement became more widespread, and extended into Scotland. At this point Britain was covered in a vast forest, the Wildwood, which had slowly covered the ice age tundra, extending down as far south as Bordeaux. From 8000 to 4000 years ago huge areas of forest were burned off by settlers. By 500BC half of England had been cleared. By the eighteenth century Samuel Johnson was travelling through Scotland and reflecting on the compete denudation of a desolate landscape. In 1775 Johnson wrote: "The Lowlands of Scotland had once undoubtedly an equal portion of woods with other countries. Forests are everywhere gradually diminished, as architecture and cultivation prevail by the increase of people and the introduction of arts. But I believe few regions have been denuded like this, where many centuries must have passed in waste without the least thought of future supply." (A Journey To The Western Isles Of Scotland, Chapter 3). Today only 1% of the Wildwood remains, and even this has been influenced by management. Oliver Rackham in History of the Countryside thinks the last of the true Wildwood was cut down in the Forest Of Dean in the thirteenth century. The closest we can get to the Wildwood now are the forests at Glentrool in Scotland, Kingley Vale in Sussex, Ebernoe Common in Sussex, Binswood in Hampshire, and some of the box woodland at Box Hill in Surrey. Place names also give an echo of the Wildwood. Names containing "-ley", "-hurst" or "-field" indicate a settlement originally in a clearing or next to a wood. Before large scale clearing of the Wildwood people used the chalk ridges of what is now southern England to move about. A path network grew up, and a number of these ancient long distance paths survive.



Forest clearance represented a desperate attempt to obtain land for farming. During the ice ages people lived largely as hunter gatherers, and a square mile of land could only support about four individuals. During the Neolithic period, between ten and twelve thousand years ago, people began farming on land cleared of forest. This agricultural revolution allowed about twenty five people to survive on a similar area of land (see The Isles by Norman Davies). But even with this huge improvement there was still competition for the best land, particularly as early agricultural methods tended not to replenish soil. From about 2500BC a period of relative prosperity for Neolithic farmers in Britain came to an end. Archeological investigation shows that formerly cultivated land in Norfolk, Suffolk and Wessex became infested with weeds and scrub during this time. It is possible that the preceding success in agriculture had led to soil exhaustion. In the troubled centuries that followed it seems two measures were taken to find security. First hilltops across southern England were fortified using huge circular banks and ditches - the outlines of these hill forts can still be seen on hills in southern England today, with Maiden Castle in Dorset one of the best examples. Alternatively a representational fort was built. These stylised fortifications consisted of huge monuments, using the same circular banks and ditches seen in the hilltop forts, later with the addition of standing stones. Sometimes a representation of a hill itself was created, as at Silbury Hill near Avebury. In a search for spiritual security these sacred sites used all the features of defensive structures built in search of physical security. They may also have had an astrological role, with certain features of the sites aligned to the sun or moon. The two most famous structures of this kind, Stonehenge and Avebury date to between 3000BC and 1500BC Perhaps you could view these places as fortresses against the Fates. Even today churches show elements of castle design, with towers and battlements a standard feature of church architecture.



Maiden Castle

Life continued with people struggling to come up with new inventive ways to control the world. Unfortunately their inventions continued to bring them renewed insecurity. As metal working improved into the Bronze Age, between 2100BC and 700BC, so did weapons. Hill forts were getting bigger, and monument building continued. Around 500BC iron became more widely used, replacing bronze. Once again there was a leap forward in the technology of tools. On the downside there was another leap forward in the technology of weapons, with a corresponding upsurge in fear and insecurity. This led to the building of over 3000 hill forts in the early centuries of the first millennium. Maiden Castle in Dorset was extended during this period to the huge fortification we see today.

Britain entered literate and recorded history in 325BC when Mediterranean adventurers came to the islands in search of tin. Pytheas of Marseilles made the trip in 325BC, landing in Cornwall. He wrote an account of his journey. It took a visitor to finally put Britain down on paper since native Celts had an oral tradition and opposed writing.

For the most comprehensive collection of artifacts relating to ancient Britain, go to the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London. Here you will be able to see spectacular objects from the Bronze Age and Iron Age. My favorite objects are the sheet bronze cauldrons found at Battersea, dating to between 800 and 650BC.




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