The secrets of the archaeologist’s trade – how to identify the sites around us and how to get a feel for life as it was lived way back then from the sites’ details – are freshly uncovered in the revised new 4th edition of my book Visiting the Past: A Guide to Britain’s Archaeology. But here’s just a sample taster of what you might spot from some of the wonderful sites – grand and small and local – as we take a journey through the ages of Britain’s archaeology.
Early human species lived in Britain, leaving footprints and dropping a stone axe at Happisburgh, Norfolk, 900,000 years ago. Homo heidelbergensis also left stone hand axes and bones at their butchery sites half a million years ago As Ice Ages came and went, Neanderthals appeared in Britain and later, by 30,000 years ago, modern humans also arrived. The evidence for them is pretty much restricted to their bones which we can view in museums such as the Natural History Museum in London.
This was the age of nomadic hunter-gatherers whose homes have long since rotted away. But they left piles of shells in the middens (rubbish areas) outside their rock shelters. You can visit one at Sand on the Applecross Peninsula in Scotland. 11,000 years ago, people danced in headdresses made of deer skulls and antlers (on display in the Yorkshire Museum), presumably to bless the hunt.
At this time, much of the sea between Britain’s east coast and Denmark used to be lush land (which we now call Doggerland)? Many ancient tools that are dredged up from the (now) North Sea were made in the Mesolithic age, before the sea levels rose.
Six thousand years ago, folk began to build permanent settlements. Astonishingly preserved evidence of Neolithic life has been found on the Orkney islands, north east from mainland Scotland. You can visit 5,600-year-old homes (Knap of Howar, the oldest upstanding house in N. Europe is unmissable!), villages (such as famous Skara Brae), the ceremonial site of the so-recently discovered Ness of Brodgar, multi-person tombs (ranging from the cathedral-like Maeshowe to the almost cute Cuween Cairn), and stone circles that were in vogue from the 6m high Stones of Stenness (c.3,100 BC) to the perfect circle of the Ring of Brodgar (built in the early Bronze Age in c.2,400 BC).
The discovery of how to make shining bronze from copper and tin changed the world. When the ‘Beaker People’ came to Britain in c.2,200 BC, they brought their own culture, bronze goodies, and an elite class who were buried in their own personal tumuli (burial mounds) with all their material goods – swords, daggers, pots of food, gold grave goods and jewellery. This innovative age spawned a whole array of styles of tombs but stone circles were still a part of ceremonial life too; even the famous huge sarsen stones of Stonehenge (which had been begun in the late Neolithic) were erected in the Bronze Age.
It was a rich age, full of rock art, wooden walkways, roundhouses and settlements, trade and farming, all of which have left their mark in our landscapes (and even in shipwrecks at the bottom of the sea!).
After an Icelandic volcano erupted in 1159 BC, 20 years of devastating continuous winters in NW Europe followed; peat formed on what had been the best farmland and the early Iron Age dawned at a tough time. Land hunger created clashes made sharper by the new discovery of how to turn ubiquitous iron ore into lethal swords.
The remains of forts like Maiden Castle in Dorset and Tre’r Ceiri in Wales are solid and impressive. Scotland perfected the building of windowless towers called brochs; visit Orkney’s Broch of Gurness and Shetland’s towering Mousa Broch to sense just how imposing these places were!
All sorts of buildings were invented: roundhouses continued but wheelhouses, blockhouses, crannogs teetering on stilts above the lakes, and even enigmatic earth house tunnels became common.
Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 & 54 BC but it was Emperor Claudius’ invasion in AD 43 that turned England and Wales into Britannia, a province of Rome. First, the forts spread, stretched along Hadrian’s Wall and, for a while, beyond into Aberdeenshire. New urban town life followed. Roman country villas such as Fishbourne, Brading or Lullingstone, amongst many others, are some of the best archaeological sites you can visit; posh dining rooms with mosaics, a wealth of smart dining crockery and glassware, maybe even fragments of wall paintings make for a colourful experience. And nearly every museum in England and Wales has something from the Roman times!
The Romans were followed by the invading Anglo-Saxons and Vikings with their settlements and warrior bling. Next, medieval sites include stunning ruins of abbeys, monasteries and castles that make for fabulous days out. Churches often have medieval origins that dominate them or perhaps can only be glimpsed. More subtle hints of medieval life in medieval field systems are still visible, and clues to industrial watermills and furnaces lurk in the countryside. In the centuries that followed forts and houses were modernised, church decoration ebbed and flowed with the Reformation and royal switching of churches, and the industrial revolution steamed across the land.
Knowing what to look for at sites like these brings the past vividly to life. Join me in Visiting the Past and walk in the footsteps of those who lived hundreds, and even thousands, of years ago!
By Gillian Hovell