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Bronze Age Britain

The Stone Age spans the period of the last Ice Age during which the glaciers advanced down over Northern Europe and the area which is now the British Isles was uninhabited by man. The period before the glaciation is known as the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), that which followed the Neolithic (New Stone Age) - Britain was uninhabited by man during the Ice Age itself.

The names of the periods of the Stone Age are derived from the Greek words "palaeo" (old), "neo" (new) and "lithic" (stone).


The Palaeolithic inhabitants of the area which is now the British Isles (which was then part of the European mainland) inhabited caves and did not use metals fashioning their implements instead from unpolished stone. They did not weave cloth and used no pottery although they did draw animals on rocks and bones. There is no evidence that they kept domesticated animals although the caves in which their remains have been found also contain the bones of tropical animals such as hyenas and rhinoceros indicating that the climate was far warmer than it is now.

Remains of the Palaeolithic people have been found in caves at Brixham in Devon and Kirkdale in Yorkshire. They abandoned the area of the British Isles some 15,000 years ago when the last Ice Age brought glaciers as far south as the Thames basin.

About 200,000 years ago, Britain was still connected to the European mainland and was subject to a series of Ice Ages as the glaciers moved south and receded northwards again. Nomadic Paleolithic hunter gatherers with their flint weapons moved into the area which is now southern Britain in small family groups following the animals which provided their food.

During the warmer interglacial periods, Palaeolithic man hunted mammoth and bison and collected berries and fruits. Constantly moving around in small family groups, these people were cotinually concerned with their survival and little else.

Over thousands of years, changes in Palaeolithic culture occured; the shapes of their stone tools and weapons gradually became more sophisticted and the discovery of post-holes made by them indicates that they were making temporary shelters using the trees of the forests which surrounded them.


Mezzolithic ('Middle Stone Age') is the name given to the period starting around 7,000 BC and lasting some 2,000 years.

The British Isles were separated from Continental Europe by the sea as the Last Ice Age receded and the climate was similar to that of modern Lapland with an abundance of birch tree forests. The forests were full of temperate creatures such as beaver, deer and reindeer.

Human numbers in the area of the British Isles were still low, probably about 3,000 or so individuals, and presented no major impact on the environment. These people used finely-crafted stone tools and had domesticated the dog to help them in hunting their prey.


The Paleolithic folk who migrated into tundra of the area which is now Britain as the ice retreated northwards at the end of last Ice Age were quite different from their Palaeolithic predecessors.

Like the Palaeoliths, the Neolithtic people did not possess the craft of working metals but used stone implements instead. The flints which they used, however, were of flint and unlike those of the Paleoliths these implements were polished.

These people did not live in caves but built houses (usually in lakes for security), cultivated the land, wove cloth and made and used pottery although, unlike the Neoliths, they did not leave any graphic art. They buried their dead in the numerous long barrows which have been found in the British Isles.

Stonehenge appears to have been erected in the Neolithic period and not by the Druids (who belong to the Iron Age) as some have suggested.

The Neolithic people were of a short and dark stock which still forms a large proportion of the natives of Northern Spain, Southern France and Northern Italy. It is also to be seen in the British Isles in Wales and the Scottish Highlands where the Paleolithic inhabitants of Britain were driven to seek sanctuary against the superiority of the bronze weapons of invading Gaels or Giodels.

The people of the New Stone Age drifted gradually across Europe from the Middle East and crossed the English Channel to reach the southern British Isles about 5,000 BC.

The climate had become warmer and the forest cover thicker and animals which could be hunted for food became rarer. The people of the New Stone Age had domesticated cattle, goats, horses and pigs and tilled the soil with light hoes freeing themselves from the need to follow the animals which had previously provided Stone-Age man with food.

Domesticationof livestock and agriculture enabled these people to live in permanent settlements and they grouped their homes mostly on the chalk and limestone uplands.

Neolithic people made crude pottery with rounded bases which were easier to stand upright on grass or in the lap without toppling over than flat-bottomed pots. They were made by hand, without the use of a wheel, and crudely fired.

Rounded bone and stone scrapers were being used to treat skins and to polish stone weapons.

Neolithic people with their domesticated livestock, primitive technology and cultivated fields near their permanent settlements had began to live a form of human existance which we would recognise rather than the animal-like existence of their Stone Age predecessors.

We tend to think that "civilisation" and the erection of complex structures arrived in the British Isles with the invasion of the Romans in the first century AD but many sophisticated structures pre-date the Roman invasion by thausands of years. Skara Brae on Orkney dates back to 3,200 BC and consists of a complex of ten stone houses, complete with stone furniture and interconnected by a maze of covered stone passages, the whole having been enclosed in an earthen mound. The "built-in" furniture, a notion which we have only returned to in the latter part of the 20th century, included seating, storage space and beds. The complex even includes a rudimentary drainage system.

When one considers the appalling conditions under which the agricultural labourers of, say, rural Dorset or Wiltshire lived in the 18th and 19th centuries or the squalid conditions prevailing in the industrial slums of the 19th century, the settlement at Skara Brae must be considered quite luxurious in comparisson, if rude by modern standards.

Skara Brae, part of a World Heritage Site, recieves 55,000 visitors a year raising concerns about damage to this ancient site by the visitor numbers.


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