Prehistoric Britain

Prehistoric Britain

The story of prehistoric Britain began when the ancestors of humans first appeared in Britain around 900,000 years ago. Homo sapiens arrived around 30,000BC. The earliest humans were hunter-gatherers who lived in caves or very simple shelters. They survived by hunting animals and finding food to eat. In the Early Stone Age, thousands of years ago, Britain was part of mainland Europe and was covered with ice. During the Middle Stone Age, Britain was linked to Europe by a wide land bridge called Doggerland allowing humans to move freely. The current position of the English Channel was a large river flowing westwards and fed by tributaries that later became the Thames and Seine. Britain became an island at the start of the Late Stone Age, by about 6000 BC when the melting of the ice sheet had created the English Channel. During this period, another great change appeared and it was that people learned to farm. They cleared large areas of land and settled down to live in small communities. Neolithic people used flint, antler and bone to make tools, and developed the skill of making clay pots. They buried their dead in large tombs, known as long barrows, and built huge stone circles for outdoor ceremonies.

Bronze Age people lived in small communities led by a warrior chief. They gathered together for religious ceremonies and built circular tombs, known as round barrows, for important men and women. The Beaker culture also spread to Britain. Their way of life involved making pottery and metal, holding feasts and building stone circles.

It was during the Bronze age (after 2500 BC) that circles of standing stones began to be erected in Britain. By far the most famous is Stonehenge, but at least 900 stone circles survived long enough to be recorded. Many stone circles were erected within existing "henges", i.e. circular earthworks consisting of a ditch and bank surrounding a central table).

Stonehenge is a wonder of the ancient world. It also provides us with an insight into the life and secrets of Britain in 2500 BC. It was built on Salisbury Plain some time between 5,000 and 4,300 years ago. 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 (as some of the stones come from over 200 miles away Wales). Another is its purpose.

During the Iron Age, farming flourished and the British population grew very fast. But it was a very violent time. Tribes fought against each other and many people lived in hill forts to protect themselves.

Iron Age Celtic culture was spread throughout the north-west European islands. It seems that the Celts had intermingled with the people who were already there; we know that religious sites that had been built long before their arrival continued to be used in Celtic times.

The Celts were the most powerful people in central and northern Europe. They were farmers and lived in small village groups in the centre of their arable fields. They were also warlike people. They built villages and hill forts, and used iron weapons and tools. The Celts fought against the people of Britain and other Celtic tribes. Celtic people called Britons settled in Britain. Celts called Gaels lived in Ireland. Celtic society was tribal - each kinship group was ruled by a king. Below the king were nobles who were warriors - some of them wealthy enough to afford finely decorated amour. The priestly class - Druids - had little political power by the period immediately before the Romans. High-class women sometimes played important political roles in Celtic society.

The Celts probably arrived in Britain in two waves: the Goidelic-speaking Celts between 2000 BC and 1200 BC and the Brythonic-speaking sometime in the period 500 BC to 400 BC. (Modern Welsh and Cornish are descended from Brythonic; modern Scottish and Irish Gaelic from the Goidelic). There was also a smaller wave of settlement of Belgic Celts in Southern England during the first century BC - possibly fleeing from the Roman invasions.

The Celtic language has had almost no influence on modern English, being largely obliterated during the Anglo-Saxon invasions. The ancient Celtic word "uisge " (water) survives in various place names - for example, the River Ouse, and (combined with the Latin word for a camp, castra) the town of Exeter. It is also the root of whisky.

The prehistoric period ended in Britain in AD43 when the Romans arrived. In 55BC Julius Caesar tried to invade Britain, but he was driven back by British warriors. The next year he tried again and failed. His second invasion was probably an attempt to conquer at least the southeast of Britain. Almost 100 years later, in AD43, the Roman general Agricola launched a new invasion. This time the Romans conquered the ancient Britons and Britain became part of the Roman Empire. Slowly, people stopped living in tribes and began to follow a Roman way of life. Some ancient Britons retreated to Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, where they continued to follow their Celtic customs. Many others decided not to move. They stayed on in Britain and learned to live like the Romans.


Written records of English history appear only after the arrival of the Romans. For the many centuries before, there exists only archaeological evidence of Britain's inhabitants.

Among some historical information that is available from before then, we can mention a written record made by the Greek navigator Pytheas, who explored the coastal region of Britain around 325 BC. However, there may be some additional information on Britain in the "Ora Maritima", a text which is now lost but which is incorporated in the writing of the later author Avienus.

A few Roman writers described the ancient Britons. Their writings provide a valuable source of evidence for life in Iron Age Britain. Julius Caesar also wrote of Britain in about 50 BC after his two military expeditions to the island in 55 and 54 BC.