Updated: Mar 4
We begin our timeline of Prehistoric Britain with the start of the Palaeolithic period, defined by the earliest evidence we currently have of humans arriving in Britain, 950,000 years ago (y.a)*. The different periods (and their sub periods) are dictated by a number of factors. Climate change is a big contributor to the way humans changed, in Britain the retreat of the ice sheets led to the end of the Palaeolithic and the start of the Mesolithic. New technology can also be a factor, for example: the Mesolithic ends with the arrival of farming and the Neolithic ends with the arrival of metal and beaker pots.
*You’ll notice these periods are referred to as years ago (y.a) instead of BC/AD that’s used later in the Neolithic periods and beyond. The BC/AD framework is inappropriate for time periods which can have a radio carbon (C14) date with an error margin of over 2000 years. Dates after Mesolithic defined by transition periods rather than earliest dates from specific sites. These dates are based on BC/AD chronology, in-line with current archaeological literature.
Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age)
Lower Palaeolithic (Happisburgh): circa. (ca.) 950,000 y.a
The Lower Palaeolithic is defined in Britain by scarce sites that yield quantities of stone tools such as flake tools, cores and handaxes. Currently, the earliest evidence of humans in Britain comes from Happisburgh (pronounced Hays-borough) at around 950,000 years ago.
It is very unusual for human remains to be found from this period, making the task of identifying the type of hominid present very difficult. Based on tool types found, the first hominins in Britain are probably a sub-group of Homo erectus, possibly H. antecessor or H. heidelbergensis.
Tracking the movements of these groups is very challenging, as there are very few sites from the same time (they are often divided by thousands of years at least).
Britain would have been connected to the European mainland, making it easier for human groups (and fauna) to move in and out. Generally, these early humans are thought to have relied on both hunting and scavenging, based on the discovery of sharpened wooden spears from Clacton (Essex) dating to 420,000 years ago and evidence from Boxgrove (West Sussex) dating to 500,000 years ago.
The stone tools technology of these early humans is often all that survives. Though the production of an iconic tool such as a handaxe results in hundreds or even thousands of flint flakes being detached, these waste flakes were typically scattered and moved by later natural processes such as transportation by river. The name “handaxe” is perhaps a poor one, as it implies these tools were used to hack at timber like a modern hatchet. However, it is quite clear that these tools were primarily butchery tools used to dismember carcasses. They can be produced in 10-20 minutes and can be found in their hundreds at some sites. This both suggests humans reused and revisited the location, and that these tools were generally not carried and curated for another time. By remaining in flint-rich areas, there was no need to carry a handaxe around when a fresh one could be made at one of the reused hunting/scavenging sites.
Middle Palaeolithic (Rickson’s Pit, Kent): ca. 300,000 ya.
The Middle Palaeolithic is best known as the time of our Neanderthal cousins. Like the Lower Palaeolithic, this period is best represented by stone tools and limited survival of human bone. Far stronger evidence from the European continent (especially France, Spain and Italy) suggests Britain, though still connected by a landbridge, was not a landscape permanently settled in.
Neanderthals were skilled toolmakers, producing razor sharp flakes via the prepared core technology or “Levallois” technique. Baker’s Hole (Kent) produced a large number of stone tools of the levallois style, representing the best known early Middle Palaeolithic site in Britain. The tools made were used for scraping, cutting (butchery) and spear tips. These spear tips are clear evidence of hunting activities in Neanderthal groups. Butchered bones from mega fauna such as mammoth and woolly rhino suggests some kind of hunting strategy must have been used to bring down these large and dangerous animals.
Sites such as La Cotte St. Brelade (Jersey) show hunting parties used the landscape to help direct herds into bottlenecks or up against cliffs before dispatching them. Cold phases during the Palaeolithic would have meant Britain was inhospitable at times. As archaeological deposits are often dated via the geological deposit they are found in (relative dating), instead of dating via organic material such as bone or charcoal (absolute dating); some deposits of gravel in between those that have evidence of people can be completely devoid of stone tools.
Upper Palaeolithic (Pin Hole, Creswell Crags): ca. 35,000 ya.
The Upper Palaeolithic sees the arrival of anatomically modern humans (us!). Europe would have been a climatically hostile environment due to the last Ice Age, and Britain must have seemed a distant frontier on the edge of the world. It is worth pointing out however, that this was not the first time (what would be) Britain faced a cold spell or “stadial” (interstadials represent warm phases). There is plenty of evidence of modern human groups on the European mainland, while the evidence in Britain is very limited. This suggests infrequent and non-permanent occupation at sites such as Creswell Crags (Nottinghamshire), where a limestone gorge offers shelter in the form of caves and overhangs.
The technology of these humans would have been prepared core-based, but not Levallois (which produces a limited number of large, preferential flakes). Instead it was laminar (layers of) blades of a similar size and shape which could have been retouched into spear points, knives and scrapers. As well as stone, modern humans made tools and art from bone and antler which demonstrates a huge development in technology as different materials offer different qualities.
Cold environments have their own ecosystems of flora and fauna, and Ice Age Europe during the Palaeolithic was no different. Modern humans hunted large mammals such reindeer, horses and bison as well as smaller prey such as birds, fish and small mammals. Bones found at upper Palaeolithic sites often show the hunters that lived there specialised in certain types of prey. The big three in NW Europe were reindeer, horse and bison. It is likely that hunters also took opportunities to hunt small game (as discussed), though their smaller, fragile bones are often poorly represented archaeologically, which in turn skews our view of their hunting strategies.
Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age)
Earliest Mesolithic (Thatcham V, context 5): ca. 11,300 ya.
A dramatic warming phase changed the once open British grassland with sheltered patches of birch and pine, to widespread mixed woodland of oak, hazel, lime and elm. The reindeer and horse hunters who occasionally visited Britain were drawn further north following the prey they had become adapted to. This climatic vacuum effect may have led to longer occupation in Britain by these Palaeolithic - Mesolithic transition groups. If this were the case, these groups would have had to change their hunting focus to the red deer and boar that inhabited the more temperate woodland. The change in prey focus would have encouraged a change in technology.
The larger blades of the Upper Palaeolithic begin to shrink in size, along with the tools produced from those blades. Some of the earliest Mesolithic sites such as Thatcham (Berkshire) show a broad reliance on terrestrial prey species. Sites such as Star Carr in the Vale of Pickering (Yorkshire) show how groups interacted with the landscape. Here people set up camp on the edge of a large lake in late spring to summer and hunted red deer. The site was used for hundreds of years, so it is likely it was used at different times of year too.
Latest Mesolithic (Cnoc Coig, Oronsay): ca. 6300 ya.
With the British Mesolithic in full swing, groups divided their year between summer and winter camps. By moving to different areas (like their Palaeolithic ancestors), Mesolithic people reduced the impact on their local environment. Staying in one location and using up all the food resources and firewood could spell disaster. Like the Palaeolithic before, the archaeology of this time is often limited to a few flint scatters.
A Mesolithic site on the Northumberland coast at Howick provided evidence of what some camps may have looked like at this time. Reconstructions have been created that show a teepee-like design, it is impossible to tell whether the shelters were covered in turf, animal hides or thatched with grass. The people at Howick relied on a sea food based diet, which is common in the Mesolithic at coastal sites. In many cases, all that remains of these coastal camps are huge midden mounds (rubbish heaps), that are full of shells, bones and broken tools.
Neolithic (New Stone Age)
Early Neolithic: 4100 - 3800 BC
The change away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle has been attributed to a number of things, mainly the arrival of agriculture from the east. However it is more likely that a selection of pressure led to influx of what we now call the Neolithic. Increased population in the late Mesolithic would have put a strain on resources. While on the European continent, a cultural collision (and subsequent pressure) between the Linear Pottery Culture (Linearbandkeramik) from the east, and Impressed Ware cultures from the south led to trading expeditions up the east and west sides of Britain. Notably, some of the earliest Neolithic monuments in Britain such as chambered tombs follow the style they were geographically influenced by.
The first major impact on the British landscape however, were hundreds of flint mines dug into the chalk hills of Sussex. The people who dug these had one thing in mind: land clearance. The tools they needed for that objective were flint axes. Thousands of tonnes of flint nodules were dug from the Sussex hills at places like Cissbury Rings and Harrow Hill. From those, thousands of axe heads were knapped (flaked) and ground on sandstone blocks to create polished axe heads, which were fitted into a wooden handle. Once areas of woodland had been cleared, groups were able to stake their claim to areas and invest time into creating fields, pasture and settlements.
The main crop grown appears to have been barley and emmer, alongside livestock of pigs and cattle (domestic sheep would become more widespread later). The first type of Neolithic domestic structures seen in Britain are longhouses. These wooden, rectangular buildings range in size from 20 - 45m in length and several metres in width. They are closely associated with the Linear Pottery Culture (LBK) from the east, where exceptional examples of LBK settlements such as at Oslonki (Poland) had a settlement of 30 longhouses in a fortified enclosure. Houses for the dead in the early Neolithic take the form of long barrows, some of which had chambers (others were just earth mounds).
Middle Neolithic: 3800 - 2600 BC
The middle Neolithic is often somewhat overlooked as it did not bring such massive changes to the British Isles. However distinct changes from the early Neolithic are important in understanding the change in technology and landscape. One type of monument built and used in the early Neolithic and abandoned in the middle Neolithic was the causewayed enclosure. These are best described as circular monuments of generally concentric banks and ditches (though the rings of banks and ditches are not continuous). Instead, people begin building more rectangular spaces now called a “cursus”, which are again enclosed by a ditch and bank (though this time the bank and ditch are continuous). Cursuses are generally far longer than their width, the longest in the UK is around 10 km in length! Their purpose is poorly understood, and their continuation from the end of the early Neolithic into the middle Neolithic does little to make them easier to understand. Associations with existing long barrows (often at the terminal ends) could imply ceremonial walkways, while the presence of arrowheads at the terminal ends could suggest they were proving grounds for young hunters. The tool technology changes a little in the middle Neolithic, though ground and polished stone axes are present, they are less common.
Arrowheads in the early Neolithic are typically leaf shaped in style (though of course there are many variations within that), in the Neolithic these change to “chisel” or “transverse” arrowheads. The change in arrowhead style is rather dramatic, and could suggest broader social changes. A classic arrowhead design would generally have a sharp tip at the distal end, like a leaf arrowhead. However, chisel arrowheads have a wide, flaring distal end which tapers back into the butt of the arrowhead (where it would be glued and bound into the arrow shaft).
Interestingly, there is a decline in the hunting of wild animals in the middle Neolithic which could mean a reliance on arrowheads that have high penetrative power lessens. Social tension may have meant there was a requirement to dissuade neighbours from stealing livestock with non-lethal arrowheads. When social tension occasionally erupted into violence, burials were required. In the middle Neolithic, large group burials in long barrows are replaced by burials of single or a few individuals and the creation of passage tombs.