Before The Romans

Greetings! I am back to my blog writing. I also tend to work just a little bit ‘in advance’, in case of unexpected delays, as happened recently! So, carrying on from a blog post the other week about prehistoric Britain, I am definitely not going in too deeply as to ‘what happened next’ in this country but giving you now what is perhaps more interesting information as we reach the Neolithic age. This was the period of domestication of plants and animals, as well as the arrival of farming and a more settled, sedentary lifestyle. For example, the development of Neolithic monumental architecture, apparently venerating the dead, may represent more comprehensive social and ideological changes involving new interpretations of time, ancestry, community and identity. In any event, the ‘Neolithic Revolution’ introduced a more settled way of life and ultimately led to societies becoming divided into differing groups of farmers, artisans and leaders. Forest clearances were undertaken to provide room for cereal cultivation and animal herds. Native cattle and pigs were reared whilst sheep and goats were later introduced from the continent, as were the wheats and barleys grown in Britain. However, only a few actual settlement sites are known here, unlike the continent. Cave occupation was common at this time.

A ‘Seamer’ Yorkshire type flint axe used for cutting down trees in the Later Neolithic, found in Bedlam Hill.

The construction of the earliest earthwork sites in Britain began during the early Neolithic (c. 4400BC to 3300BC) in the form of long barrows used for communal burial and the first enclosures linked via causeways, sites which have parallels on the continent. The former may be derived from the long house, although no long house villages have been found in Britain, just individual examples. Evidence of growing mastery over the environment is embodied in the Sweet Track, a wooden trackway built to cross the marshes of the Somerset Levels and dated to around 3800BC. Leaf-shaped arrowheads, round-based pottery types and the beginnings of polished axe production are common indicators of the period, also evidence in the use of cow’s milk comes from analysis of pottery contents found beside the Sweet Track. According to archaeological evidence from North Yorkshire, salt was being produced by evaporation of seawater around this time, enabling more effective preservation of meat. Pollen analysis shows that woodland was decreasing and grassland increasing, with a major decline of elms. There is evidence that winters were typically 3 degrees colder than at present, but summers were some 2.5 degrees warmer. The Middle Neolithic (c. 3300BC – c. 2900BC) saw the development of monuments close to earlier barrows and the growth and abandonment of causewayed enclosures, as well as the building of impressive chamber tombs. The earliest stone circles and individual burials also appeared. Different pottery types appeared during the later Neolithic and new enclosures called henges were built, along with stone rows and the famous sites of Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill, so building these seems to have reached its peak at this time. Industrial flint mining began, along with evidence of long-distance trade. Wooden tools and bowls were common, and bows were also constructed. Changes in Neolithic culture could also have been due to the mass migrations that occurred in that time, but the science of genetic anthropology is changing very fast and a clear picture across the whole of human occupation of Britain has yet to emerge.

We then move into what is seen as the Bronze Age, as new techniques in the skill of refining metal were brought to Britain. Previously, items had been made from copper but from around 2150BC metal-smiths had discovered how to smelt bronze, which is much harder than copper, by mixing copper with a small amount of tin. With this discovery, the Bronze Age arrived in Britain and over the next thousand years, bronze gradually replaced stone as the main material for tool and weapon making. Britain had large, easily accessible reserves of tin in the modern areas of both Cornwall and Devon and thus tin mining began. By around 1600BC the southwest of Britain was experiencing a trade boom as British tin was exported across Europe, evidence of ports being found in Southern Devon, whilst copper was mined at the Great Orme in North Wales. Some of the people were skilled at making ornaments from gold, silver and copper, as examples of these have been found in graves of the wealthy Wessex culture of central southern Britain. Early Bronze Age Britons buried their dead beneath earth mounds known as barrows. Later in the period, cremation was adopted as a burial practice with cemeteries filled with urns containing cremated individuals appearing in the archaeological record, with a deposition of metal objects such as daggers. People of this period were also largely responsible for building many famous prehistoric sites such as the later phases of Stonehenge along with Seahenge, also known as Holme I, a prehistoric monument located in the village of Holme-next-the-Sea, near Old Hunstanton, Norfolk. A timber circle with an upturned tree root in the centre, Seahenge, along with the nearby timber circle Holme II, is dated to have been built in the spring-summer of 2049BC, during the early Bronze Age in Britain. Contemporary theory is that they were used for ritual purposes, in particular Holme II has been interpreted as a mortuary monument that may originally have formed the boundary of a burial mound. The Bronze Age people lived in round houses and divided up the landscape. Stone rows are to be seen on, for example, Dartmoor. These people ate cattle, sheep, pigs and deer as well as shellfish and birds, they also carried out salt manufacture and the wetlands were a source of wildfowl and reeds. There was ritual deposition of offerings in the wetlands and in holes in the ground. There is evidence of a relatively large scale disruption of cultural patterns which some scholars think may indicate an invasion (or at least a migration) into Southern Great Britain c. the 12th century BC. This disruption was felt far beyond Britain, even beyond Europe, as most of the great Near Eastern empires either collapsed or experienced severe difficulties. Some scholars consider there are six ‘living’ Celtic languages, the four continuously living languages of Breton, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, along with the two revived languages Cornish and Manx. A recent study has uncovered a migration into southern Britain during the 500-year period 1300BC – 800BC and these newcomers were genetically most similar to ancient individuals from Gaul, with higher levels of ancestry. During 1000BC to 875BC, their genetic markers swiftly spread through southern Britain, making up around half the ancestry of subsequent Iron Age people in this area, but not in northern Britain. This evidence suggests that, rather than a violent invasion or a single migratory event, the genetic structure of the population changed through sustained contacts between Britain and mainland Europe over several centuries, such as the movement of traders, intermarriage, and small scale movements of family groups. This has been described as a plausible reason for the spread of early Celtic languages into Britain. Whilst there was much less migration into Britain during the Iron Age, it is likely that Celtic reached Britain before then. Interestingly, a study has also found that lactose tolerance rose swiftly in early Iron Age Britain, which was a thousand years before it became widespread in mainland Europe, suggesting that milk became a very important foodstuff in Britain at this time.

A ‘Wandsworth Shield’ from around 750BC – 43AD.

Around 750BC ironworking techniques reached Britain from southern Europe. Iron was stronger and more plentiful than bronze and its introduction naturally marks the beginning of the Iron Age. Iron working revolutionised many aspects of life, most importantly agriculture, as iron tipped ploughs could turn soil more quickly and deeply than the older wooden or bronze ones, and iron axes could clear forest land more efficiently for agriculture. There was now a landscape of arable, pasture and managed woodland. There were many enclosed settlements and land ownership was becoming important. It is generally thought that by 500BC most people inhabiting the British Isles were speaking ‘Common Brythonic’, according to the limited evidence of place-names recorded by Pytheas of Massalia. By the Roman period there is substantial place and personal name evidence which suggests that this was so, Tacitus also states in his Agricola that the British language differed little from that of the Gauls. Among these people were skilled craftsmen who had begun producing intricately patterned gold jewellery, in addition to tools and weapons of both bronze and iron. It is disputed whether Iron Age Britons were ‘Celts’, with some academics actively opposing the idea of ‘Celtic Britain’, since the term was only applied at this time to a tribe in Gaul. However, place names and tribal names from the later part of the period suggest that a Celtic language was spoken.

The Stanwick Horse Mask, La Tène style mount, British, 1st century AD.

The traveller Pytheas, whose own works are lost, was quoted by later classical authors as calling the people ‘Pretanoi’, which is cognate (having the same linguistic derivation) with ‘Britanni’ and is apparently Celtic in origin. The actual term ‘Celtic’ continues to be used by linguists to describe the family that includes many of the ancient languages of Western Europe and modern British languages such as Welsh without controversy. Iron Age Britons lived in organised tribal groups, ruled by a chieftain. As people became more numerous, wars broke out between opposing tribes. This was traditionally interpreted as the reason for the building of ‘hill forts’, although the siting of some earthworks on the sides of hills undermined their defensive value, hence the term may represent increasing communal areas or even elite areas. Except some hillside constructions may simply have been cow enclosures. Although the first had been built about 1500BC, hillfort building peaked during the later Iron Age and there are over 2,000 Iron Age hillforts known in Britain. By about 350BC many hillforts went out of use and the remaining ones were reinforced. Pytheas is quoted as writing that the Britons were renowned wheat farmers. Large farmsteads produced food in industrial quantities and Roman sources note that Britain exported hunting dogs, animal skins and slaves.

The last centuries before the Roman invasion saw an influx of Celtic-speaking refugees from Gaul, now approximately modern day France and Belgium, known as the Belgae, who were displaced as the Roman Empire expanded around 50BC. They settled along most of the coastline of southern Britain between about 200BC and 43AD, although it is hard to estimate what proportion of the population they formed there. Also a Gaulish tribe known as the Parisi, who had cultural links to the continent, appeared in northeast England. From around 175BC, the areas of Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex developed especially advanced pottery-making skills. The tribes of southeast England became partially Romanised and were responsible for creating the first settlements (known as oppida) large enough to be called towns. The last centuries before the Roman invasion saw increasing sophistication in British life. About 100BC, iron bars began to be used as currency, whilst both internal trade and trade with continental Europe flourished, largely due to Britain’s extensive mineral reserves. Coinage was developed, based on continental types but bearing the names of local chieftains. This was used in southeast England, but not in areas such as Dumnonia in the west. As the Roman Empire expanded northwards, Rome began to take interest in Britain and this may have been caused by an influx of refugees from Roman occupied Europe, or Britain’s large mineral reserves. There is so much more to tell about Great Britain, but that’s all on the subject – for now at least!

This week…the Riot Act.
There is a phrase sometimes used by people, for example angry parents who might threaten to ‘read the riot act’ to their unruly children in order to tell them off. But in 18th-century England, the Riot Act was a very real document and it was often recited aloud to angry mobs. Instituted in 1715, the Riot Act gave the British government the authority to label any group of more than 12 people as a threat to the peace. In such circumstances, a public official would read a small portion of the Riot Act and order the people to “disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to their habitations.” Anyone that remained after one hour was subject to arrest or removal by force. The law was later put to the test in 1819 during the infamous Peterloo Massacre, in which a cavalry unit attacked a large group of protesters after they appeared to ignore a reading of the Riot Act.

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