Life in Prehistoric England

By Tim Lambert

Stone Age Hunters

The first people lived in England at about 450,000 BC. At that time England was much warmer than it is today. Animals like elephants, lions, and rhinoceros lived in England alongside deer, horses, bears, and wolves. The humans made simple stone tools and lived in caves.

In 15,000 BC people were still living in caves but they made much more sophisticated tools of bone and stone. They also made clothes from animal skins and they made ‘jewellery’ of animal teeth and shells. These early people hunted animals like horses, deer, and wild cattle.

In those days England was covered in tundra but about 8,500 BC the climate grew much warmer. Forests spread across England. At the same time, England was cut off from Europe.

About 7,500 BC a group of humans lived at Star Carr in Yorkshire. They were hunter-gatherers. They hunted deer, wild cattle, pigs, and elk. They also ate birds, fish, and shellfish. By this time humans had also domesticated dogs. They may also have made boats.

Stone Age Farmers

Then about 4,500 BC farming was introduced into England. Using stone axes the farmers began clearing the forests that covered England. They grew crops of wheat and barley and they raised herds of cattle, pigs, and sheep. However as well as farming they also hunted animals such as deer, horses, and wild boar and smaller animals such as beavers, badgers, and hares. They also gathered fruit and nuts.

At the same time, the early farmers mined flint for making tools. They dug shafts, some of them 15 metres (50 feet) deep. They used deer antlers as picks and oxen shoulder blades as shovels. They also made pottery vessels but they still wore clothes made from skins. They erected simple wooden huts to live in.

The early farmers made elaborate tombs for their dead. They dug burial chambers then lined them with wood or stone. Over them, they created mounds of earth called barrows. Some of these barrows still survive.

From about 2,500 BC in England, the Neolithic (new stone age) farmers made circular monuments called henges. At first, they were simple ditches with stones or wooden poles erected in them. The most famous henge is, of course, Stonehenge. It began as a simple ditch with an internal bank of earth. Outside the entrance stood the Heel Stone. The famous circles of stones were erected hundreds of years later. Stonehenge was altered and added to over a thousand-year period from 2250 BC to 1250 BC before it was finished.

After 2,500 BC a new culture had spread across England. The inhabitants are known as the Beaker People because of the pottery beakers they made. They were bell-shaped and were often decorated with bone or cords. However, it is not known if the Beaker People were a new race who migrated to England from Europe or if the people of England simply adopted a new culture.

Bronze Age England

At any rate, by 2,000 BC English society was changed by the invention of bronze. Metal artefacts appeared in England as early as 2,700 BC although it is believed they were imported. By about 2,000 BC bronze was being made in England.

Bronze is made of 9 parts copper and one part tin. It is, of course, harder than stone and provided more efficient tools and weapons. The Bronze Age people also rode horses and they were the first people in England to weave cloth. Bronze age women held their hair with bone pins and they wore crescent-shaped necklaces.

In the late Bronze Age (1,000 BC-650 BC) forts were built on hills so warfare was, it seems, becoming common. This may have been because the population was rising and fertile land was becoming harder to obtain.

Meanwhile the Bronze Age people continued to build barrows, although cremation was practiced. The dead were buried with useful artefacts. Presumably, the living believed the dead would need these in the afterlife. Unfortunately, since they had no written records nothing is known about the Bronze Age religion.

We know that Bronze Age people lived in round wooden huts with thatched roofs but nothing is known about their society or how it was organised. However, there were almost certainly different classes by that time. Tin and copper were exported from Britain along with animal hides. Jet and amber were imported for the rich.

Life in Celtic Times

Then about 650 BC iron was introduced into England by a people called the Celts and the first swords were made. Warfare was common during the iron age and many hill forts (fortified settlements) were built at that time. (Although there were also many open villages and farms). The Celts fought from horses or light wooden chariots. They threw spears and fought with swords. The Celts had wooden shields and some wore chain mail.

Most of the Celts were farmers although were also many skilled craftsmen. Some Celts were blacksmiths (working with iron), bronze smiths, carpenters, leather workers, and potters. (The potter’s wheel was introduced into Britain c.150 BC). Celtic craftsmen also made elaborate jewelry of gold and precious stones. Furthermore, objects like swords and shields were often finely decorated. The Celts decorated metal goods with enamel. The Celts also knew how to make glass and they made glass beads.

Celtic society was hierarchical. At the top was a class of nobles headed by a king or chieftain. Below them were the craftsmen (of whom metalworkers were the most important). Then came the farmers who provided the food supply and also fought for the chief. There was also a class of slaves in Celtic England. However, the Celts were divided into tribes. There was no political unity among them and a great deal of fighting.

Trade with Europe was common. Metals like copper, tin, iron, and lead were exported from England. Wool, cloth, skins, and grain were also exported. Luxury goods like fine pottery and expensive metal goods were imported from Europe. At first, the Celts used iron bars as a form of currency but by about 50 BC they were using gold coins.

The Celts lived in roundhouses. They were built around a central pole with horizontal poles radiating outwards from it. They rested on vertical poles. Walls were of wattle and daub and roofs were thatched. Around the walls inside the huts were benches, which also doubled up as beds. The Celts also used low tables.

Celtic men wore tunics and trousers and women wore long dresses and mantles. They used bronze mirrors. Women wore belts around their dresses made of cloth, leather, or bronze rings. Celtic men soaked their hair in limewater to make it stand up straight. They wore mustaches but not beards. Wealthy Celts wore gold ornaments around their necks called torcs or torques. The Celts made dyes from plants, woad, for blue, madder, for red, and weld for yellow.

For amusement Celts played board games. They were also very fond of music and played flutes and lyres. In good weather, they held horse or chariot races. The Celts also enjoyed hunting wild boar on horseback.

The Celts had priests called Druids. The Druids were very important in Celtic society. As well as being priests they were scholars, judges, and advisers to the kings. The Celts were polytheists (they worshipped many gods and goddesses). They did not build temples but instead worshipped at natural sites such as groves of trees, springs, rivers, and lakes. Sometimes the Celts sacrificed valuable goods by throwing them into lakes and rivers.

In Celtic times the practice of building barrows died out. Instead, people were interned in individual graves. They were still buried with grave goods showing the Celts had a strong belief in an afterlife. They believed that when you died your spirit went to a place called the Otherworld. The Romans claimed the Druids practiced human sacrifice but this claim is doubtful.

The main Celtic festivals were Imbolc at the beginning of February at the start of the lambing season, Beltane at the beginning of May, when cattle were sent out to graze in the fields after being kept indoors and fed on hay during the Winter, Lughnasadh in August when the crops were growing ripe and Samhain at the beginning of November.

That was the time when animals were brought in from the fields for the Winter. The Celts could not grow enough hay to feed them all so those not needed for breeding were slaughtered. The Celts grew crops in rectangular fields. They raised pigs, sheep, and cattle. They stored grain in pits lined with stone or wicker and sealed with clay. The Celts also brewed beer from barley.