The destination for history

From Boxgrove Man to Stonehenge: England's prehistory explored

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Contrary to what your schoolbooks and National Trust tea towels might have told you, English history didn’t begin with William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy. English history began, not with a Norman, but with a Roger.

Roger was a pretty average individual: he stood around 5ft 11in, lived in south‑east England and died – alas – at the age of around 40. Strictly speaking, Roger wasn’t human, but nobody’s perfect.

Roger lived near the pleasant West Sussex village of Boxgrove (good schools, pretty church, Zumba classes in the village hall every Thursday). We don’t know much more about him than that. But then, how much will people know about you in half a million years’ time? Roger lived near Boxgrove around 500,000 years ago. That’s practically before humans were invented.

Roger was a specimen of the pre‑human species Homo heidelbergiensis, and is known as ‘Boxgrove Man’, which doesn’t quite tell the whole story; a better name would be ‘Boxgrove Shin’, as that’s all that was left of Roger when we found him. Everything else we know about him has been figured out through expert analysis, beginning with ‘the shin bone’s connected to the knee bone’ and proceeding from there. We don’t know very much about Roger’s day‑to‑day habits, although we do know that he was found in the vicinity of a butchered rhino pelvis. Make of that what you will.

As for the ‘Roger’, that can be attributed to the peculiar whims of archaeologists. England’s oldest man was named after his discoverer, Danish bone‑boffin Roger Pedersen, who unearthed the shin‑bone in November 1993.

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Contemplating our ancient history can be mind‑bending. For most of recorded history, we have simply had no idea how incredibly venerable we are – as a species, as a planet, and as trace elements in a 13.7‑billion-year-old universe.

The seventeenth‑century Irish archbishop James Ussher famously used Biblical scripture as evidence that the world was created in 4004 bc, and has been vigorously derided for it ever since.

But he was far from alone in massively underestimating the amount of time we humans have so far spent here on earth. The challenge of contemplating prehistory was certainly too much for the antiquarian John Bayford, who, upon finding elephant bones and an ancient spear point near Gray’s Inn Road in London in 1715, assumed that the spear point had been used to kill one of Emperor Claudius’ elephants on the Romans’ entry into Britain in ad 43. He was around 398,000 years out.

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It’s true: elephants roamed free in prehistoric England. Long before even old Roger de Boxgrove arrived on the scene, around 900,000 years ago, the swamps of south‑east England abounded with hippos and elephants. 700,000 years ago, England’s climate was more Mediterranean than Nordic; 400,000 years ago, early humans dwelt on the banks of the mile‑wide Thames among rhinoceros, lions, macaque monkeys, dolphins, straight‑tusked elephant, bison, giant oxen, and wolves. Meanwhile at West Stow, in Suffolk, prehistoric whiz‑kids came up with a new‑fangled invention called ‘fire’.

It all makes it seem as though the events we think of as ‘history’ happened only yesterday. London looks and feels like an old city, but it’s been there for barely an eye blink, compared to the prehistoric bones that have been found beneath it: woolly mammoths down the Strand, reindeer at South Kensington station, rhinoceros at Battersea power station, and – as though to cock a snook at our ideas of what constitutes ‘history’ – hippos in Trafalgar Square, in the shadow of that ‘historical’ figure Lord Nelson.

Taking the long view, a hippopotamus is a far more representative icon of England’s history than the decidedly modern Nelson. Now there’s an idea for that fourth plinth.

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The first breakthrough in unearthing our prehistory came not in London, but in Yorkshire (where history is history, and don’t you bloody forget it). Kirkland Cave, high in the Dales, was examined in 1822 by the Oxford academic William Buckland – who found it strewn with exotic animal bones. Buckland surmised that the cave had been home to prehistoric hyenas, and was therefore littered with their leftovers (exploding an alternative thesis that attributed the presence of the bones to the Great Flood of Genesis). 

Buckland was so enraptured by his hyena hypothesis that he adopted one as a household pet. He called it ‘Billy’. It had a habit of upsetting house guests by noisily crunching guinea pigs under the settee.

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Now let’s get bang up‑to‑date by taking a look at a well‑known example of cutting‑edge contemporary architecture: Stonehenge. (What? Even by the most extreme estimates, the construction of Stonehenge is far nearer to us than to Roger de Boxgrove – when he passed on, Stonehenge was still at least 400,000 years in the future, making it as outlandish to him as architecture of the year 402,014 would seem to us.)

5,000 years of history is all very well – but how much would you pay for a few blocks of Cenozoic silcrete, a nice bit of rhyolitic tuff and an unworked sarsen stone? In 1915, Cecil Chubb paid £6,600 – and became the last owner of Stonehenge. ‘I thought a Salisbury man ought to buy it and that is how it was done,’ he said. In 1918, though, he generously gave it back to the nation.

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In 2013, frog bones from thousands of years before Stonehenge was built were discovered buried near the ancient stones, just as those ancient hippo remains were excavated in Trafalgar Square. But these were not any old frog bones. They had been cooked (and possibly breadcrumbed)! This led archaeologists to a shocking conclusion: the English had been eating frogs’ legs. In fact, it seems that the English invented it between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago, long before it occurred to anyone else.

Extracted from English History: Strange but True by Richard Smyth

 

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