A resumé of the prehistoric period in the British Isles. This is the shortest section in Annals but covers the longest period of time. There are signs of human activity in Britain going back more than 12,000 years before the first recorded events appear in Britain's historical sequence.
Way back in time our islands were abruptly broken from the mainland mass of Europe by rising seas. There are signs that a few hunter gatherers were marooned here. We know nothing of those small groups who foraged for seeds and nuts and fruit and edible fungi and followed the herds of herbaceous-eating animals which provided their meat. They have left a few signs of habitation, a few bones, a scattering of stone tools and nothing much else.
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Ages slowly passed and the Mesolithic bands of hunter-gatherers faded away into a more technologically advanced Neolithic culture. Land was cleared and small fields were enclosed where their crops of primitive grain were grown and their domestic animals were retained. Their flint tools, weapons and shards of pottery litter the soil to this day. They probably lived in small social groups but their numbers steadily increased and their presence is evident all over Great Britain. Over time they began to construct megalithic monuments to honour unknown gods or for some other mysterious purposes; Stonehenge, Avebury and their impressive burial chambers and hill forts still leave us with a sense of awe at their organisational skills.
By this time the sea was no longer the almost impassable barrier of previous ages. Our shores were visited by traders and invaders from many parts, such as the Beaker people named after the bell-shaped earthenware pottery which characterises their culture. They moved right across Europe, reaching Britain about 2500 BC. Current thoughts are that, once they elbowed their way into Britain, they quickly took over and replaced the original Mesolithic/early Neolithic gene pool.
No written records from this period exist; it is unlikely that any of the British cultures who existed through this long period of time ever invented a method of writing. We have no idea what languages they spoke and only a hazy, probably inaccurate, idea of their appearance.
Time moved slowly forward and within a few centuries bronze objects began to be manufactured. Bronze is an alloy made of copper and tin. For more than a thousand years Cornish tin was traded to metal workers across the seas in Europe and the Mediterranean region. Stone tools were gradually abandoned and gold began to be used for ornament and to denote wealth and status in what we call the Bronze Age. Beautiful bronze tools, weapons and ornaments demonstrate the technological achievements of those people. Their burial mounds or round barrows still dot hill and vale throughout Britain and every year new traces of them are found by metal detectorists and at construction sites.
Although this Bronze culture was contemporaneous with the great civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Knossos and Mycenae, there is no trace of splendid cities and palaces in Britain. People lived here at the time Abraham shepherded his flocks across Canaan and the Egyptians built their pyramids, but we don’t know their names. They have left no written or pictorial record of their existence; no Homer speaks of their heroic deeds and loves: no pictures or sculptures records their daily lives - we know more about Achilles and Moses than we know about our ancestral predecessors in those far off times.
The age of bronze was succeeded about 500 BC by a new culture from the continent. Iron weapons and implements were introduced and agriculture was organised on a larger scale, with fields marked out in regular rectilinear plots. The newcomers are known as Celts. They probably mixed into the existing population rather than destroying it by outright conquest. This melded population is what we know as Ancient Britons.
However, even at this late stage, ancient Britons left no written records. It was their conquerors who give us the first recorded glimpse of ancient Britain and its inhabitants. Thanks to Tacitus and Ptolemy, we know the Roman names given to some of the tribes who populated Iron Age Britain and the geography of the country which the Romans conquered and assimilated into their empire. At last Britain, or Britannia as the Romans called it, was part of the world’s historical record. Hibernia and Caledonia, with their share of magnificent ancient monuments, remained outside the Roman domain and their story remained unknown until the following era.
Circa 16,000 BC A hypothetical land bridge between Euro-Britain and Ireland is cut by rising sea levels during a warming period?
Circa 6,000 BC Britain is separated from the European mainland by the English Channel and North Sea. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers are isolated on British and Irish shores.
Circa 3,500 BC A Neolithic culture based on pastoral and arable agriculture develops alongside pottery and weaving crafts and burial cultures, leaving long barrows, hilltop enclosures such as Maiden Castle and the Ceide Fields system in Ireland as evidence.
Circa 3,200 BC A megalithic passage tomb at Newgrange is constructed in Ireland.
Circa 2,500 BC The Beaker culture, characterised by its distinctive bell-shaped pottery, arrives in Britain from mainland Europe.
~ Henge monuments, including Stonehenge, become widespread throughout Britain and Fenland settlements are established.
Circa 2300 BC Copper is mined and exported at Ross Island, County Kerry, Ireland
Circa 1,500 BC Bronze Age cultures develop with round barrows containing cremated remains and refined metal-working techniques.
~ Tin mining begins in Cornwall for use with copper from other areas in the manufacture of bronze artefacts.
~ Ireland in particular produces native gold which is fashioned into a variety of jewellery objects.
~ Fenland settlements continue to develop sites similar to the lake-dwellers’ crannochs in Ireland.
Circa 1000-800 BC The Must Farm settlement of houses built on stilts above a Fenland river is constructed near present day Peterborough.
Circa 500 BC Celtic culture arrives from the continent with iron weapons and farming implements.
Circa 330-320 BC Pytheas of Massilia (Marseilles), a Greek explorer, circumnavigates Britain and writes about the Cornish tin trade with the Mediterranean.