Earliest times: Britain’s prehistory

Earliest times: Britain’s prehistory

Two thousand years ago there was an Iron Age Celtic culture through­out the British Isles. It seems that the Celts, who had been arriving from Europe from the eighth century BC onwards, intermingled with the peoples who were already there. We know that religious sites that had been built long before the arrival of the Celts continued to be used in the Celtic period.

For people in Britain today, the chief significance of the prehistoric period (for which no written records exist) is its sense of mystery. This sense finds its focus most easily in the astonishing monumental architecture of this period, the remains of which exist throughout the country.

Such places have а special importance for anyone interested in the cultural and religious practices of prehistoric Britain. We know very little about these practices, but there are some organizations today (for example, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids – а small group of eccentric intellectuals and mystics) that base their beliefs on them.

Britain has not always been an island. It became one after the end of the last ice age. The temperature rose and the ice cap melted, flooding the lower-lying land that is now under the North Sea and the English Channel. Britain was hardly habitable until probably around 50 000 BC.  During this time a new type of human being seems to have arrived, who was the ancestor of the modern British. These people looked similar to the modern British, but were probably smaller and had a life span about 30 years.

Around 10 00 BC, as the Ice Age drew to a close, Britain was peopled by small groups of hunters, gatherers and fishers. By about 5000 BC Britain had finally become an island. About 3000 BC Neolithic (or New Stone Age) people crossed the narrow sea from Europe. They probably came from either the Iberian (Spanish) peninsula or even the North Africa coast. They were small, dark, and long0headed people, and may be the forefathers of dark-haired inhabitants of Wales and Cornwall today. They settled in the western parts of Britain and Ireland, from Cornwall at the southwest end of Britain all the way to the far north.

These were the first of several waves of invaders before the first arrival of the Romans in 55 BC. It used to be thought that these waves of invaders marked fresh stages in British development.

The great “public works” of this time, which needed huge organization of labour, tell us a little of hoe prehistoric Britain was developing. But some monuments still remain and give clues to some phenomena. After 3000 BC the chalkland people started building great circles of earth banks and ditches. Inside, they built wooden buildings and stone circles. These “henges”, as they are called, were centers of religious, political and economic power. By far, the most spectacular, then and now, was Stonehenge, which was built in separate stages over a period of more than a thousand years. Stonehenge was built on Salisbury Plain some time between 3050 and 2300 BC. It is one of the most famous and mysterious archaeological sites in the world. One of its mysteries is how it was ever built at all with the technology of the time (the stones come from over 200 miles away in Wales). Another is its purpose. It appears to function as а kind of astronomical clock and we know it was used by the Druids for cere­monies marking the passing of the seasons. It has always exerted а fas­cination on the British imagination, and appears in а number of novels, such as Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles.

The precise purposes of Stonehenge remain a mystery, but during the second phase of building, after about 2400 BC, huge bluestones were brought to the site from south Wales. This could only have been achieved because the political authority of the area surrounding Stonehenge was recognized over a very large area, indeed probably over the whole of the British Isles. The movement of these bluestones was a n extremely important event, the story of which was passed on from generation to generation. Three thousand years later, these unwritten memories were recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of Britain, written in 1136. Stonehenge was almost certainly a sort of capital, to which the chiefs of other groups came from all over Britain. Certainly, earth or stone henges were built in many parts of Britain. They seem to have been copies of the great Stonehenge in the south. These days Stonehenge is not only of interest to tourists, but is also а gathering point for certain minority groups such as hippies аnd ‘New Age Travellers’. It is now fenced off to protect it from damage.

After 2400 BC new groups of people arrived in southeast Britain from Europe. They were round-headed and strongly built, taller that Neolithic Britons. They soon became the leaders of British society. Their arrival is marked by first individual graves, furnished with pottery beakers, from which these people get their name: the “Beaker” people. The Beaker people probably spoke an Indo-European language. They seem to have brought a single culture to the whole of Britain. They also brought skills to make bronze tools and these began to replace stone ones. Stonehenge remained the most important center until 1300 BC. However. From about 1300 BC onwards the henges civilization seems to have become less important, power seems to have shifted to the Thames valley and southeast Britain. Hill forts replaced henges as the centers of local power.