Deep Past 8 : Enter the Flintstones


In the last post, I covered the arrival of people from the start to the time at which the hunter gatherers seem to have been elbowed out of the picture. For you lovers of jargon, that is is the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. I tend to believe everything from Hollywood so my take on it is a simple progression from Raquel Welch, in her fetching furs in the film 'One Million Years B.C', to the urban stone age sophistication of the Flintstones. 

These 'Neolithic' incomers were our first farmers. They took their time getting here; farming is thought to have originated in the East some 6000 years earlier and edged in our direction at less than a mile a year.

Farming can support more people than hunter-gathering, so the head count grew rapidly. While their predecessors adjusted their lives to survive in the landscape they found, the newcomers more effort into shaping it to suit their needs. This was the start of the clearance of the original and extensive wildwoods which continued for centuries. People sometimes assume that our forests vanished relatively recently; in fact most of them started to disappear a long time ago. 

If you could look out over the landscape of northern Home Counties in the later Stone Age, you might be surprised to see just how much of it was being farmed and how much movement there was. What you wouldn't see, is large settlements. Notwithstanding, the people left feint but discernible traces of their passing, mainly barrow tombs and so many flint tools that you can buy examples on Ebay for a pittance. (Really! Take a look). 

Finally there is something visible to write about.  But at this juncture I must suppress my excitement.  I am interested in what can be seen and try to incorporate what I fondly imagine are the best bits, shorn of finer detail, in the the notes for my bike routes and some other posts. But a series of anecdotes doesn't paint a picture of how the area came to look like it does. Some context is needed. My aim here is to provide that, in the broadest possible terms, mindful of your time and the possibility that you are reading this on a phone. 

A lot has been written by archaeologists and local history buffs about the prehistory of the home counties. Much has been deduced from old records and aerial photographs which reveal traces of old fields, monuments and buildings which are indiscernible at ground level. Sometimes they also dig up stuff, most of which probably ends up in a drawer somewhere.  

The techniques they use figure out how the landscape has changed over time are quite inventive and include the study of buried seeds and snail shells, both of which apparently survive quite well. Different types of snail like different types of landscape and while there are still arguments about this, they point to extensive tree coverage surviving during the stone age, with the mix depending on the climate at the time. The downs might have had better soil cover at the outset the woodland was probably patchy, but both would be progressively reduced through the Stone and Bronze ages. Maybe they were more like the Chilterns today, which seem to have always been quite wooded? 

Woodland Wessex Downs

Woodland Chilterns 

The lower ground was cleared in places suited for settlement. In practice that meant workable soil and a water supply. People have suggested that sheer hard work involved in manually ploughing the heavy clay would have made the clay vales unpopular. I suspect they paucity of springs might have played a part as well.   

It seems possible that one reason why people started building the monuments in Wiltshire is that there were natural clearances in the landscape, which were popular with the animals they welcomed to dinner.

The springy grass cover that the sheep now enjoy is quite recent and mostly down to rabbits. It has been noticed that the areas where the rabbit population was significantly reduced by myxomatosis revert to scrubland. 

Even if their achievements are puny compared with the peoples of the Middle East, you have to admire the organisation and sheer amount of grunt work the early population put in. Those stones don't move themselves! But they didn't play much of a role in shaping the lay of the land today. Later, the Romans bequeathed their enduring road network and whatnot, but our countryside today really began to take shape with the arrival of the English, and at this stage of the tale, that is still a post or two away. 

So:  To get back on the long and lonesome road...... 

OS maps show those Barrow Tombs scattered all over the place. Some date back to this period, some are newer. 
OS / North Wessex Downs Cycle Route 

Many haven't been excavated so we just don't often know which are which, the only clue is in the shape.  Many are just bumps in the grass but there are some you can go inside. Long Barrows are usually Stone Age. Round Barrows become prevalent rather later, in the Bronze Age. You can see both types of barrow in the pic below.. 

Thurfield Common, Herts. 

Take a look at one of the finest on my North Wessex West Downs Bike Route. Link: Waylands Smithy  Another might be the Barrow on Whiteleaf Hill near Prices Risborough. See: Whiteleaf Hill Barrow Many of the river valleys contain traces of settlements or other activities. Pitstone Hill near Tring seems to have been a flint mine. 

Waylands Smithy 

You will probably have heard the theory that the Ridgeway or Icknield Way became  major routes during this age. While they are undoubtedly ancient this is difficult to prove, but I suppose that the high ground might have offered an easier journey than a route through the increasingly populated countryside.  

While there wasn't much major building in the Home Counties, there was a lot further west in Wiltshire. The great monuments at Stonehenge, Avebury, Silbury etc were all started by these early farmers and subsequently added to, albeit still without  the car parks and visitor centres. There were also the mysterious cursus and causeways, earthworks that could stretch for miles and whose position paid scant attention to the landscape but respected existing graves and monuments. Again, these are hard to detect at ground level and we cannot be quite sure who built what, let alone why! 

If you are interested in how they lived, English Heritage tried to recreate a settlement using archaeological evidence from around Stonehenge. Here is a link to their project: 
Neolithic Village. The pic below is a recreation of a far grander Neolithic house excavated at Horton near Slough and dated to the beginning of the period i.e. about 5800 years ago. If you want more, visit:  (Link)  Butser Farm : The Horton House

The Horton House

Once again, England was behind the curve. In Iraq in them 'thar days, people were already living in cities of maybe 60,000 people who, when they weren't inventing inconsequential fripperies like accountancy or writing, were building huge structures like the 100ft high Ziggurat. And while South East England was the first part of England to get new fangled ideas from Europe by virtue its proximity, England on the whole was a 'late developer'. Even chilly Orkney seems to have been more sophisticated. If you really want to see how far they got in the British Neolithic, head north; you really can't beat the soundly built and well-appointed stone houses at Skara Brae. Link: Skara Brae  

There would also have been a lot more long-distance trade and, since Britain was now an Island, most of it would have been seaborn. As you might expect this included ornamental and practical goods like axe heads made from desirable stones, but it also seems to have included a primitive form of wheat. Also the animals that they chose to herd or domesticate were mostly not native, the main exception being pigs. Wow! I wouldn't want to try and get a cow onto one of their small boats!  

Around 4,500 years ago, these first farmers followed the hunter-gathers into history's store cupboard. Their successors were the first metalworkers in England, who are the subject of the next post.

The  next post in the series : Bronze & Iron


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