The people who lived during the Palaeolithic were nomadic hunter-gatherers who used stone tools
They have left behind no large buildings or permanent settlements. Remains from this period are very hard to find and often in caves
Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) were early humans who lived in Europe from about 400,000 years ago until 30,000 years ago. Neanderthals would have looked different from our own species of humans, but maybe not very different! Their bones show they were short and strong, meaning they were well adapted to living during the ice age, when it was much colder than it is today.
The last Neanderthals lived in Europe at the same time as our own species (Homo sapiens).
Although they eventually died out, genetic evidence shows that we all have some Neanderthals amongst our ancestors.
Neanderthals were intelligent humans, but different from our own species.
They were capable of communicating, probably undertook ritual activities and may have produced art.
Models of a Neanderthal (left) and an early modern human (right) © Natural History Museum
Handaxes were used in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic by Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals. They would have been held in the hand rather than attached to handles, like axes today. Their sharp edges were used for chopping or cutting.
Handaxes were produced by hitting stone nodules with stone, antler or bone hammers.
This process is known as knapping. Flint was often chosen because it is easily flaked by striking (look at the ridges and the ripples on the surface of the flint in the photograph) but other types of stone were also used.
Some handaxes are very beautiful, which suggests that the other species of humans who made them were not so different from us, with values and interests beyond simply making a tool that worked.
Handaxes were used for half a million years but when modern humans evolved they developed new techniques of knapping stone tools.
Rather than shaping a flint nodule directly, they prepared a ‘core’ from which they could strike long narrow flakes, known as blades. These provided longer cutting edges and were suitable for attaching to handles or ‘hafts’.
Stone tools are often the only parts of very old sites to survive because they do not rot (unlike wood and other plant remains).
Stone tool study is therefore very important to archaeologists of early periods.
Microscopic analysis of cutting edges can sometimes tell us what the tools had been used for.
Palaeolithic hand axes: Artist: Alun Bull © Historic England
Palaeolithic flint handaxe from Boxgrove © AHOB
Britain has not always looked as it does now. During the Palaeolithic there was a succession of cold periods called ice ages or ‘glaciations’, interspersed with warmer periods or ‘interglacials’.
As well as the climatic effects, the appearance of Britain was altered by the physical impact of the glaciers and changing sea levels linked to the expansion or melting of the ice. Not only did the plants and animals that lived here change as it became warmer and colder, but the shape of our coast and the course of our rivers have also changed.
During the Lower Palaeolithic Britain was not an island, it was connected to other European countries: France, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.
The area that still joined Britain to the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark is called Doggerland by archaeologists.
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An archaeologist inspects the human footprints on the beach at Happisburgh. © Martin Bates
Happisburgh (pronounced ‘Hays-borough’), on the Norfolk coast, is the site of the oldest human footprints in Europe, and the earliest evidence for humans in Britain.
Stone tools discovered here are dated to between 950,000 and 800,000 years ago.
The footprints were discovered on the beach and have now been destroyed by the sea. Analysis of the prints suggests they were made by a group of five people, probably three adults and two children. They were probably a family group, walking in a muddy estuary. They may belong to an early human species known as Homo antecessor.
At Lynford quarry in Norfolk archaeologists found an ancient stream channel containing woolly mammoth bones and Neanderthal stone tools, dating to about 60,000 years ago.
The remains of at least 11 mammoths were found, mostly large males. Humans had broken some bones for marrow and taken others away for their meat. Forty-seven handaxes were found at the site, tools well-suited to cutting meat.
However, we do not know whether people were hunting the mammoths or scavenging animals that had died naturally or been killed by other predators.
Other animals found at Lynford include brown bear, hyena, woolly rhino, reindeer and bison. The environment at the time would have been open grassland with few trees and the winters were very cold.
Mammoth tusks in the stream channel at Lynford during excavation.
© Historic England
Beeches Pit, Suffolk
The first humans evolved in the warmth of Africa.
In order to survive in the cooler climates of Britain and northern Europe our ancestors would have needed clothing and fire to keep them warm.
At Beeches Pit in Suffolk, there is evidence of burning which suggests people were making fires about 400,000 years ago. They were also knapping handaxes, perhaps while they sat by the fireside.
They were living in dense deciduous woodland which would have been cold and dark at times.
Evidence for clothes is even harder to find but we can assume our ancestors wore animal skins or furs to protect them from the cold, as there was no cotton, wool or other fabrics for them to use.
Reconstruction illustration giving an artist's impression of tool-making at an early Upper Palaeolithic hyena den, excavated near Oakham in Rutland, as it may have appeared 30,000 - 40,000 years ago.
Artist: Judith Dobie. c.1995 - c.1999. © Historic England [IC126/008]
A reconstruction of the Upper Palaeolithic campsite on Hengistbury Head.
© Historic England
Hengistbury Head, Dorset
Hengistbury Head is a site in Dorset which dates to the end of the Palaeolithic period, about 14,000 years ago. Unlike many sites from this period which are preserved in caves, Hengistbury is an open-air campsite from where people could have looked out over their hunting grounds.
Although today it overlooks the sea, this would have been dry land in the Upper Palaeolithic.Hundreds of stone tools have been recovered here, including types of tools found widely across other parts of northern Europe.
Archaeologists can reconstruct how people made their tools by doing a 3D jigsaw to ‘refit’ the pieces struck from a core.
Studying where different types of tools and debris were recovered has suggested that different areas of the site were used for different activities, including making tools and preparing animal skins (‘hides’).
A reconstruction drawing showing a group of Homo heidelbergensis humans in the Boxgrove landscape around 500,000 years ago. Artist Peter Dunn. © Historic England
The oldest human bones from Britain were found at Boxgrove in Sussex. They belong to a human species called Homo heidelbergensis, which was probably the direct ancestor of the Neanderthals. The humans who lived here were tall and muscular.
The Boxgrove site is about 500,000 years old.
Stone handaxes were found, as well as animal bones with marks where they had been chopped up, indicating that humans were butchering the animals.
At this time the site was a watering hole which attracted animals as well as people. Although the climate was similar to today, the animals living around Boxgrove included species now found in Africa, such as lions, hyenas and rhinos, as well as extinct species like giant deer. The people who used this site would have risked animal attacks!
© Natural History Museum
Three pieces of skull from an early Neanderthal were found at Swanscombe, Kent, at different times during the 20th century. The skull fragments were scattered over an area which also produced thousands of handaxes.
At this time people did not usually bury their dead, so human bones only survive by chance. The Swanscombe skull is not very muscular and so it is thought to be from a woman.
The size of this and other skulls means that we know Neanderthal brains were just as large as ours.
The woman lived during a relatively warm period about 400,000 years ago, between the worst of the ice ages.
She lived and died in a landscape of marshes surrounded by grassland, where rhinos and wild cattle grazed, and woods, which harboured fallow deer and straight-tusked elephants.
The interior of the cave system at Kent’s Cavern, Devon.
© Kent’s Cavern Ltd
Kent’s Cavern, Devon
Kent’s Cavern in Torquay, Devon, has a long history of use and of research. Recent work produced what may be the earliest evidence for our species of modern human in Britain about 40,000 years ago, however, archaeologists are still arguing about the age of this specimen!
Other finds in the cave date from a later occupation 14,000 years ago. These include a rod of mammoth ivory, antler harpoons, bone needles, and various types of stone tools.
Tools from here and Creswell Crags are so similar they may have been made by the same group of people.
These finds suggest Upper Palaeolithic people moved widely across Britain and did not live permanently in caves like Kent’s Cavern.
Instead they would have used the cave temporarily while undertaking other tasks, such as hunting.
Human remains from Gough’s Cave.
© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
Gough’s Cave, Somerset
The remains of modern humans from Gough’s Cave in Somerset have revealed a grisly secret.
Around 15,000 years ago some human bodies were being butchered, the bones chewed and cracked for the marrow.
Cups were made out of people’s skulls.
Archaeologists think that the cannibalism and use of the skull cups may have been part of funeral rituals at the time, but we do not know whether people were doing these things to the bodies of their loved ones or their enemies.
The finds from Gough’s Cave show that Palaeolithic people did not always behave like we do today.
People’s beliefs and customs have changed over time just as much as their tools and technology.
Reconstruction of the burial of the ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland
© National Museums Wales
'Red Lady' of Paviland, Gower
One of the most amazing Palaeolithic sites in Britain is a cave in Gower, south Wales, where a young man of our own species was buried around 34,000 years ago.
The site is important because it is a very old example of special treatment of the dead, and the skeleton is well preserved.
The site was discovered nearly 200 years ago by the palaeontologist and clergyman William Buckland. He thought the body was that of a woman because it was wearing jewellery, and wrongly dated it to the Roman period!
The body had been buried in a special way, which no doubt relates to people’s religious beliefs at the time. It was decorated with ground-up red stone (ochre), which was still visible when it was excavated.
Also found with the burial were periwinkle shells and mammoth ivory jewellery.
Creswell Crags cave art. Probably the head of a bird (an Ibis?).
© Historic England [DP030334]
Creswell Crags, Derbyshire
Creswell Crags on the Derbyshire/ Nottinghamshire border is a network of caves with evidence for Middle and Upper Palaeolithic activity by Neanderthal humans and our own species.
On the walls of Church Hole Cave, more than 20 carvings have been identified, including animals, birds and symbols.
These were made by modern humans and date to the end of the Palaeolithic, at least 12,800 years ago, making them Britain’s oldest art. Other Palaeolithic art from the caves includes a beautiful carving of a horse on an animal bone.
The large mammals carved on the cave walls include wild cattle, horse and red deer. Animal bones found in the caves show that modern humans were also trapping Arctic hare for their fur.
During the Mesolithic, sea levels gradually rose.
Doggerland is the name archaeologists have given to an area between Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark which is now under the North Sea.
Doggerland gradually flooded as a result of climate change and sea level rise from the melting of glaciers after the last ice age.
At the start of the Mesolithic Doggerland was a very large area, and would have been lived in by numerous groups.
The area flooded gradually, and finally disappeared about 7500 years ago.
Until that time Doggerland would have provided a connection between Britain and Europe, people would have traded and exchanged things, and might have spoken a common language.
After Britain became an island, they would have needed boats to travel to the continent and there is less evidence for contact.
It is not until the middle of the Mesolithic that Britain finally became an island, about 8000 years ago. After Britain became an island, people would have needed boats to travel to the rest of Europe. As a result archaeologists have found less evidence for contact with the continent during the rest of the Mesolithic.
This next image shows that by about 6,000 years ago the coast of Britain looked much as we would recognise it today.
A Mesolithic camp
Mesolithic people hunted wild animals, fished and gathered wild plants.
They would have moved widely, depending on when and where different resources were available. Some sites have evidence for use in particular seasons.
Mesolithic settlements vary greatly in size from small campsites used for anything from a single afternoon or a few months, to areas where large groups gathered at certain times of year.
The reconstruction drawing shows what a Mesolithic camp might have looked like.
The first evidence for houses in Britain comes from this period, but most of our archaeological evidence comes from camps, that are now marked only by scatters of stone tools.
However, these can be very informative about how old the site is and what tasks took place there.
Mesolithic camp. © Historic England
Stone tools: Microliths
Mesolithic flint-tipped arrow from Sweden, showing how
microliths were hafted © Antiquity
The most characteristic Mesolithic stone tools are called ‘microliths’, which means ‘small stones’.
Microliths can range from a few millimetres long up to about 5cm.
They were made by knocking bits off longer flint blades and come in a range of forms, including narrow rods, triangles and crescents.
Microliths may have been used for a range of tasks, often stuck onto wooden handles using glue made from tree sap.
Archaeologists have found examples of arrowheads made from several triangular microliths stuck onto a wooden arrow shaft.
Stone tools: Axe
As well as the small microliths, Mesolithic people also needed larger stone tools, such as axes for woodworking. When the cutting edges of these axes became blunt they could quickly be resharpened by striking another flake (known as a ‘tranchet’ flake) off the edge.
Unlike earlier handaxes Mesolithic axeheads were fixed into handles made of wood. Although they were carefully shaped they were not polished like axes of the Neolithic period.
Extract from DP081187 Mesolithic tranchet stone axe. © Historic England
Bone and antler objects
Barbed points are one of the most famous Mesolithic artefact types.
They are long rods of antler or bone with ‘barbs’ (points projecting backwards from the main point) down one or both sides.
They might have been used as harpoons for fishing, or as spears for hunting large animals on the land.
Barbed bone points. © National Museum of Scotland
Archaeologists building a reconstruction of the Mesolithic house from Howick © ARS Ltd
Occasionally in the Mesolithic people spent longer periods in one place and built substantial huts or houses. Much of our evidence for these comes from northern parts of Britain, including Howick on the coast of Northumberland, where Mesolithic people were living almost 10,000 years ago.
Mesolithic houses were circular and were built from wooden posts. They were probably home to an extended family, including children, parents, and grandparents or uncles and aunts.
At Howick, the hut was made from a hollow in the ground, about 6m across, containing a central fireplace and a ring of holes that would have held posts. These posts would have been used to hold up the roof and walls – like in the photo shown.
The location of artefacts found in the huts shows that different areas were used for different activities, including food preparation, making stone tools, and sleeping. The excavators found thousands of burnt hazelnuts, which Mesolithic people would have roasted, stored and eaten during the winter.
Oronsay, Inner Hebrides
Mesolithic people living by the coast often collected shellfish for food and discarded the remains in rubbish dumps called shell middens.
Most of these middens are quite small but on the little Hebridean island of Oronsay are a number of large mounded middens, dating to the late Mesolithic around 6000 years ago.
The mounds are composed mainly of limpet shells, but other items found within them include cowrie shells used as jewellery and the bones of various animals including seals, dolphins, fish and sea-birds.
Human bones have also been found in the Oronsay middens, suggesting they may have been used for funerary rituals.
Oronsay midden © RCAHMS
Star Carr site © York University
Star Carr, Yorkshire
Star Carr is an early Mesolithic site near Scarborough in North Yorkshire, which was inhabited not long after the end of the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago. It lies on the shore of a former lake where Mesolithic people built a wooden platform and other structures.
Star Carr is unusual in several ways: it is larger than most Mesolithic sites, which are small hunting camps, while the wet conditions at the edge of the lake have preserved objects of wood and bone which do not normally survive on very old sites. These organic objects include barbed points and antler frontlets.
People would have travelled widely in the landscape around Star Carr to hunt animals, collect antlers, gather plants, and collect flint for making stone tools.
Underwater remains from the Mesolithic site at Bouldnor Clliffs under excavation.
© Maritime Archaeology Trust and Roland Brooks
Bouldnor Cliff, Isle of Wight
Bouldnor Cliff is an underwater site off the Isle of Wight. Because the site was submerged by rising seas about 8000 years ago, wooden remains are preserved, as well as stone tools.
Some of the wood has evidence of Mesolithic carpentry techniques, which is very rare.
The waterlogging at the site has also preserved evidence of food remains, and the use of plants to make fibres --- Mesolithic string!
Because the site is in shallow water it has been excavated by maritime archaeologists using diving equipment.
This approach is very specialised, and requires a lot of training.
Here you can see a maritime archaeologist using a frame to record the locations of finds.
IC0095/068 Simple reconstruction illustration depicting new and old timber posts erected to the north-west of Stonehenge in the Mesolithic era, between circa 8500BC and circa 7000BC.
By John Ronayne. May 2013.
Stonehenge and Blick Mead, Wiltshire
The area where Stonehenge was later built saw some significant activity in the Mesolithic period and it is possible that this may help explain why the site was so important in later periods.
During construction of a car-park near the stones, archaeologists found a group of very large post-holes that held large timbers of pine at different times during the Mesolithic.
It is possible that these posts would have been carved like totem poles.
Nearby, at a site called Blick Mead, many thousands of stone tools have been found near a spring which would have formed a convenient location for settlement.
Nomadic Mesolithic people probably gathered here seasonally.
Mesolithic burial practices at Aveline’s Hole imagined by an artist.
© English Heritage [IC035_015]
Aveline’s Hole cave, Somerset
Aveline’s Hole cave in Somerset is the largest Mesolithic cemetery in Britain. It was used between about 8400 and 8200 BC.
The cave was excavated in the 19th century when skeletons of 50 or more Mesolithic people were found, although many of the remains have since been lost.
As well as the bones of people, beads made from animal teeth and shells, a red mineral, and fossils were recovered. These may be from the clothes or jewellery of the people buried in the cave, or might have been specially selected to be buried with them.
Recently discovered carved rock art from the cave may also belong to the Mesolithic period.
March Hill. © Seren Griffiths
March Hill, West Yorkshire
This area of the South Pennines was a focus for late Mesolithic groups. People were present at sites like March Hill for at least 1000 years from around 7000 to 6000 years ago.
We do not believe that people were living up here permanently, but thousands of tiny microliths are found all over the hills, especially at locations overlooking small, narrow valleys.
These might have been good look-outs for hunting.
The types of stone used here to make tools come from the east and west coasts of northern England.
Mesolithic people camping in the Pennines might have travelled widely to collect good stone, or could have swapped things for it with other groups.
The Neolithic marks the beginning of farming in Britain, around 4000 BC, and ends with the appearance of bronze-working around 2200 BC
Bouldnor Cliff, Isle of Wight
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Farming in Neolithic Britain depended mainly on livestock (cattle, sheep and pigs) and grains (wheat and barley). There were no chickens or turkeys!
All these domestic species were brought from the continent in small boats.
Archaeologists still debate how many people came over with them, and where they came from.
We know from animal bones found during excavations that in the early Neolithic cattle were the most important species.
People probably followed their herds in a nomadic fashion, not too different from Mesolithic hunter-gatherers.
In the late Neolithic pigs became more important.
In contrast to the Mesolithic, wild animals were rarely exploited, although antler was used to make picks for digging. People ate very little fish and some archaeologists believe there was a taboo because rivers were sacred.
Neolithic settlement at Durrington Walls, Wiltshire, in 2500BC.
By Peter Lorimer © Historic England. [IC095_082]
It is the first time that people start deliberately planting and harvesting crops. However, growing crops appears to have been less important in the Neolithic than herding animals, though there are a few sites where large quantities of grain have been found.
People also ate a lot of wild hazelnuts, as they had done in the Mesolithic.
Eating cereals required a lot of hard work; ploughing and planting seeds, harvesting the grains, cleaning and processing them to make flour.
People needed new tools for this such as sickles and grinding stones.
They may also have made beer for the first time.
Neolithic grain production © Historic England Photo Library Ref:J930178
As well as the first evidence for farming, in the form of domesticated plants and animals, people also made pottery for the first time.
Although they continued to use stone tools, they had new techniques for producing axes (polished stone).
We have more evidence for houses in the Neolithic, as well as new types of site used for burials, gatherings and ceremonies, which archaeologists refer to as ‘monuments’.
People started using pottery for the first time in the Neolithic. The pots were handmade (not on wheels) and fired in simple pits or bonfires.
Bits of stone or shell were added to strengthen the clay and help stop it breaking when it was fired. These can help archaeologists tell where pottery came from.
Early pottery was not very strong and was easily broken but it meant that people could cook and store food in different ways. Microscopic residues extracted from pottery fragments show that many pots contained dairy products.
Neolithic pottery was often decorated, which might have been an important way of showing which groups people belonged to.
Sometimes pottery fragments and other rubbish were disposed of in special ways, usually in small pits.
These traditions reflected important beliefs which are very different from modern treatment of rubbish.
Even broken pottery might have been powerful or magical in the Neolithic world.
A reconstruction drawing of Neolithic pottery from Windmill Hill. © Historic England.
Stone tools: Polished axes
Neolithic people made stone and flint axes in a different way to Mesolithic people.
After using hammer stones to knap a nodule and produce a rough shape, the axes were ground or polished to produce a sharp edge and the smooth shape shown here.
These axes were mounted onto wooden handles and could be used for chopping and cutting.
They were also impressive objects that might have been important for the status of people in the past.
To have one of these axes might have made other people think you were important, powerful, brave or wise.
Stone axes were traded widely across Britain, which also shows how important they were.
Some are so delicate they must never have been used.
In these cases, the practical usefulness of these objects might have been less important than using them as status symbols.
Neolithic polished stone axe. © Historic England
As well as pottery and stone, Neolithic people would have made objects out of wood and other organic materials, but these rarely survive.
Examples of Neolithic woodworking have been found at Etton causewayed enclosure near Peterborough, including an axe haft and a bowl.
There are also a number of wooden finds from the Thames including a club from Chelsea (which looks like a modern rounders bat) and a small statue of a human figure from Dagenham.
Two finds made recently near Carlisle, Cumbria, are very rare wooden ‘tridents’ found in an ancient river channel.
The tridents are 6000 years old. They were made from planks of oak wood, and with the handles (which are not shown in the image) they would have been nearly 2m long.
Archaeologists are not sure what the tridents were for.
On the left is a picture of the trident in the ground, on the right is a reconstruction Detail © Oxford Archaeology North
A Neolithic house at the Skara Brae village © Sharon Soutar
Skara Brae, Orkney
Unlike the longhouses of the early Neolithic, the later part of the period saw a different style of house – roughly square with rounded corners and about 5 x 5 m in area.
At Skara Brae in Orkney the well-preserved houses were built of stone and connected by passageways.
The houses also had stone furniture, including cupboards or ‘dressers’ at one end, box ‘beds’ at either side, and a central square fireplace.
A rock art panel on Doddington Moor.
© Historic England. [aa045828]
Doddington Moor, Northumberland
In some areas of Britain, where suitable rocks are exposed, Neolithic rock art is found. One good example is on Doddington Moor in Northumberland.
There are a number of rock art sites here, where Late Neolithic people carved patterns and motifs, mostly ‘cup and ring marks’ where carved rings surround one or more small depressions or cups.
These types of motif are found across Britain, and from countries along the Atlantic coast of Europe. Over 5000 cup and ring mark sites are known from Britain.
As far as we can tell, the rock art does not depict actual things, such as humans or animals, maps or the stars. They may have served as signposts in the landscape or held some unknown, possibly sacred, meaning for the prehistoric people who made and looked at them.
A Neolithic axe factory at Langdale, showing quarrying waste in front of the rock face. © Mark Edmonds
Langdale axe factories, Cumbria
The Langdales are hills and mountains in the Lake District. They were the location of Neolithic stone quarries known as axe factories. The waste stone from this process can still be seen at these sites today.
Langdale stone is very good for producing polished stone axes, but it also has a distinctive green colour.
A green axe from the Alps, Switzerland, had been brought all the way to the Sweet Track in Somerset, so the colour and other properties of Langdale axes were probably important too.
Getting to the axe quarries would have been risky and dangerous, and the stories about your adventures getting there would have impressed people.
The journey might have been as important as the stones you brought back!
Conserved Neolithic wood from the Sweet Track. © Trustees of the British Museum
The Sweet Track, Somerset
The Sweet Track (named after Mr Sweet, the peat digger who discovered it) is the oldest wooden trackway known in Britain. It was built across a marsh in Somerset.
As shown in the picture here, long poles were driven into the marsh so they could support planks for people to walk on.
Archaeologists used tree-ring dating to find out that the track was built in the winter of 3807-3806 BC.
The track was not just a way of crossing a marsh. Objects found next to the track suggest that Neolithic people performed ceremonies here.
The finds included a green stone axe from the Alps, pottery and a wooden bowl.
Another Neolithic trackway in Somerset produced a carved human figure made of ash wood.Such finds show that Neolithic people’s beliefs about water and the landscapes they moved through may have been very different from our own.
Reconstruction of one of the houses at Horton. © Wessex Archaeology
Neolithic people lived in very different types of houses to those found in the Mesolithic. They were still mostly constructed from wood, but varied in shape and size.
In the early Neolithic some people built timber halls or longhouses which were rectangular in shape, and sometimes very big!
It seems likely that these large buildings were not ordinary dwellings but more like village halls or community centres.
Four early Neolithic houses (3700BC) were found at Kingsmead Quarry, Horton, Berkshire. The largest was 15m x 7m in size.
Inside archaeologists found pottery, flint tools and arrowheads, a rubbing stone for grinding grain and charred food remains.
Grimes Graves flint mines. © Historic England [15717/27]
Grimes Graves, Norfolk
This is an aerial photograph of the Grimes Graves flint mines in Norfolk. You can see how big the site is by looking at the cars in the car park on the right. Each of the depressions to the left of these is a Neolithic mine.
At least 433 shafts were dug to mine flint from deep underground.
The biggest were 14m deep and 12m wide. Neolithic people had no metal tools, and used antler picks and stone tools to dig. They may have used torches of burning branches and animal fat.
Most of the mining at Grimes Graves took place between 2600 and 2400 BC.
The flint dug out of the mine shafts would have been used for stone tools, including polished axes.
Mining flint would have been a dangerous undertaking. Some of the shafts seem to have been the sites of ceremonies, perhaps to ensure success or luck.
Carn Brea. © Seren Griffiths.
Carn Brea, Cornwall
Carn Brea is a Neolithic hilltop (or Tor) enclosure in Cornwall, equivalent to the causewayed enclosures found in other areas of Britain.
The site was in use for a long time, at least until the Iron Age, but the first time people came there was in the early Neolithic.
The site was enclosed by a stone wall, ramparts and ditches. Within the enclosure were several flat areas where houses were built. Evidence for burning and finds of hundreds of flint arrowheads suggest the site was attacked. Similar evidence came from the causewayed enclosure at Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire.
Pottery found at Carn Brea was made with a distinctive type of stone, which comes from about 30 km away. People living here might have traded this pottery with communities living far to the east in Wessex.
Thornborough Henges. © Historic England
Thornborough Henges, Yorkshire
Henges were circular enclosures used in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. They usually have a large ditch with a bank outside.
At Thornborough in Yorkshire a group of three large henges, each about 240 m across, form an impressive alignment stretching for over 1.5 km. Henges had fewer entrances than the earlier causewayed enclosures. This might have meant that only certain people were allowed inside.
At Thornborough there is little evidence of what took place inside but some henges elsewhere contained structures such as circles of upright stones or timber posts.
If henge ditches were built for defence we would expect them to be outside the banks, so instead these sites might have been used for special ceremonies. It has even been suggested that they were built this way to keep ghosts or spirits inside!
West Kennet long barrow. © Historic England [24861_021]
West Kennet, Wiltshire
West Kennet is an example of a type of early Neolithic burial monument called a long barrow. The barrow is a large mound of soil about 100m long and 25m wide at its east end.
Inside the mound at this end are a passage and five chambers built out of stone, where the bones of about 36 people were buried in around 3600 BC.
Long barrows and chambered tombs of different kinds are found all across Britain. Not all had large stone chambers filled with bones like West Kennet; some contained timber burial structures or had no burials at all.
Some locations have groups of monuments which suggest these areas were special places in the Neolithic. The landscape around West Kennet includes other important Neolithic monuments such as Windmill Hill and Avebury.
Around the same time that long barrows were in use, Neolithic people also constructed large enclosures defined by banks and ditches. These earthworks were dug in sections, with the gaps between them allowing people and animals to enter. These are the ‘causeways’ which give the sites their name.
Over 70 causewayed enclosures were constructed in Britain, mostly in the south, between 3700 and 3500 BC. They were not occupied all the time. Neolithic people probably met there seasonally to do things such as settle arguments, trade cattle or get married.
At Windmill Hill, near Avebury, archaeologists found deposits of animal bones in the ditches that may be the remains of feasts.
At Hambledon Hill in Dorset, human remains were de-fleshed and buried as part of complex funeral rituals.
A reconstruction drawing of the Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure. By Judith Dobie © Historic England [e870088.tif]
Stonehenge Cursus. © Historic England [27527_029]
Stonehenge Cursus, Wiltshire
Cursus monuments are long and narrow earthwork enclosures that were built between 3600 and 3000 BC. They range in size from about 100m to almost 10km long but they usually contain very few finds so their purpose is hard to discover.
However, they are often thought of as processional ways, through which people crossed sacred or important parts of the landscape.
Few cursus monuments survive as visible monuments above ground but one exception is the Greater Stonehenge Cursus, which is around 3 km long.
When the archaeologist William Stukeley noticed this monument in the 18th century he thought it was a Roman arena and gave it the Latin name for a chariot race track - cursus!
Avebury with Silbury Hill in the background, in snow © Historic England [NMR 15403/11]
Avebury and Silbury Hill, Wiltshire
The first henges were probably constructed in Orkney around 3000 BC, but the largest are found in southern England, at Avebury, Marden and Durrington Walls in Wiltshire, and Mount Pleasant in Dorset.
The henge bank and ditch at Avebury enclose an area of over 400 m across and the ditch is 11 m deep. Britain’s largest stone circle follows the inner edge of the ditch.
Outside Avebury are a number of related monuments, including two avenues of standing stones that would have guided visitors to the henge entrances.
1 km south of Avebury is the great mound of Silbury Hill, which was built around 2400 BC, a few hundred years after the henge.
While we know a lot about how and when Silbury Hill was constructed no-one is sure why it was built.
Top right inset: Reconstructions of houses from Durrington Walls (right). © Historic England.
Neolithic settlement at Durrington Walls, Wiltshire, in 2500BC. Reconstruction drawing by Peter Lorimer © Historic England. [IC095_082]
Durrington Walls, Wiltshire
At Durrington Walls in Wiltshire recent excavations uncovered remains of houses that were very similar in plan but made of timber and chalk.
These discoveries show that there were connections between the north and south of Britain 4500 years ago, and that people in different areas used the materials available to them to build similar-looking homes.
Stonehenge. © Historic England.
Stonehenge is probably the most famous prehistoric monument in Britain. It has a long and complicated history of construction from the Neolithic to the early Bronze Age.
The site includes outer circles and inner horseshoe arrangements of massive sarsen stones, brought from about 30 km away, and smaller bluestones from south Wales, 240 km away. These were put up around 2500 BC.
The stones are unique in a number of ways, including their shaping, the lintels that join the tops of the upright stones, and the distance they were brought. Some archaeologists think the bluestones were transported all that way because they were believed to have healing properties.
Surrounding the stone circle is a circular ditch and bank that was first constructed around 3000 BC. For much of the period, before the stones arrived, the site was used as a cemetery.
Reconstruction drawing of what the Amesbury Archer might have looked like. © Wessex Archaeology
The Amesbury Archer, Wiltshire
The Amesbury Archer was buried near Stonehenge in the late Neolithic. He was an important person, possibly a metalworker. Finds buried with him included Beaker pots, archery equipment (hence his name), copper knives and metalworking tools. His two gold hair ornaments are the oldest evidence for gold in Britain. His hair may have been dreadlocked.
At the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, metalworking was a specialist task and closely guarded secret. People may have thought it included magical processes.
Specialists like the Archer may have been seen as powerful and dangerous.
Scientific analysis of his teeth shows the Archer grew up in Europe, in the Alps.
Another burial nearby was of a close male relative (perhaps his son) who grew up in Britain.
These findings show that some people travelled long distances across Europe at this time, which may have added to their prestige.
The Bronze Age dates from the first appearance of bronze in around 2200 BC to the introduction of iron around 800 BC.
Bronze is a mixture of copper and tin, making it much harder and more useful than the pure copper found with the Amesbury Archer.
The Sweet Track
West Kennet long barrow
Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure
Avebury and Silbury Hill
The Amesbury Archer
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Bronze Age Metalwork
Metal objects were usually cast in moulds. They include tools (especially axes), weapons and ornaments. Bronze axes look very different to the stone axes produced in the Mesolithic and Neolithic and were much sharper than stone.
Metal axes were given their shape by making a mould and then pouring molten metal into it.
There were many different shapes of axe head and different ways of fixing them to wooden handles. As well as axes, a range of other items were produced in bronze, including tools (chisels, sickles), weapons (swords, spearheads) and ornaments (pins, rings).
The Great Orme, Llandudno, is the site of a 4000-year-old copper mine. Copper ore (rock rich in metal minerals) was collected on the surface and in deep underground mine shafts. The mines covered an area of at least 240m by 130m, and were up to 70m deep. 6.5km of Bronze Age tunnels have been identified so far. Over 33,000 bone tools and 2400 stone hammers used for mining have been recovered. Conditions would have been very unpleasant in the narrow tunnels.
Britain was also one of the only sources of tin ore in north-west Europe. Tin is essential to make bronze, and is found in Cornwall and Devon. It would have been traded across Europe in the Bronze Age.
Bronze Age Pottery
Lots of different types of pottery were used throughout the Bronze Age.
One of the most important – and the earliest - is Beaker pottery, which is usually highly decorated. Beakers are so-called because they are thought to have been used for drinking, possibly beer!
This type of pottery first appeared in the Late Neolithic period and is found across much of western Europe, including in the burial of the Amesbury Archer.
This suggests trade or movement of people across Europe.
In Bronze Age Britain local styles of Beaker pottery developed. Archaeologists mainly find ‘Beaker’ pots in graves, rather than in places where people lived everyday.
Later on, Bronze Age people used other types of pottery, which archaeologists have named after either their shapes (e.g. Collared Urns), what they may have been used for (e.g. Food Vessels), or the places they were discovered (e.g. Deverel-Rimbury ware).
In the early Bronze Age human burials were often covered by large circular mounds of earth or stone, known as round barrows.
Many barrows are surrounded by a ditch and in some cases where the mounds have been destroyed by modern ploughing these ring-ditches are all that survive.
Round barrows are very common across many parts of Britain. For example, there are over 350 in the landscape around Stonehenge.
At first most of the people buried under round barrows were buried as whole bodies in a crouched position, sometimes in a coffin. Over time cremation became more common, with the ashes being collected and put in a pottery urn, which was often placed upside down within the barrow.
Farming and fields
The origins of our countryside of villages, fields, hedgerows and trackways lie in the middle part of the Bronze Age, around 1500 BC.
This is when field systems were laid out and the first roundhouses built.
In many areas these small Bronze Age fields have long since been replaced but in some places prehistoric field patterns still survive.
At Halshanger Common, Devon, remains of Bronze Age fields are preserved, with banks running in long parallel lines across the photographs.
The individual fields are then divided within these strips, so they look a bit like brickwork in a wall.
Within the area of the fields on Halshanger Common are seven settlements (villages), the largest with at least 15 stone roundhouses, a type of house typical of the late Bronze Age and Iron Age (see Grimspound).
Seahenge before its excavation.
© Historic England Ref:N990007
As well as round barrows other types of circular monument are found in the early Bronze Age. ‘Seahenge’, on the north coast of Norfolk, is a timber circle with an upturned tree (with the roots in the air) at its centre. Because the site was waterlogged archaeologists were able to work out that the ropes used to move the tree trunk into place were made from twisted stands of honeysuckle.
The outer ring was built of split oak tree trunks, with the bark facing outwards. A ‘Y’ shaped timber formed the entrance to the circle and access to the centre was probably restricted to only certain people. Tree-ring and radiocarbon dating (as used at the Neolithic Sweet Track) show that the circle was built in 2049 BC.
Marks from at least 50 different bronze axes have been found on the timbers.
Since these axes would have been quite rare at the time they suggest the act of building the circle brought a wide community together. Bronze axes have also been found on the beach nearby.
A decorated prehistoric canoe from Must Farm.
© Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
Must Farm and Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire
Some of the most remarkable Bronze Age finds have come from the Fens near Peterborough. At Must Farm a settlement was built on a timber platform on an old river bank. Around 900-800 BC it burnt down and fell into the river channel, where many fragile objects have been preserved, such as pots which still contain food.
Further along the river a group of nine Bronze Age logboats were found, along with fish traps and metal objects.
Nearby at Flag Fen a 1km-long timber causeway was built across the wetland. Part of this was made into a wooden platform, around which hundreds of pots, metal and stone objects were deposited, probably for ceremonial reasons.
The activity in the wetlands began c 1750 BC, and went on for about 1200 years. On the dry ground at Fengate finds of Bronze Age fields and roundhouses indicate that people were living and farming nearby.
The preserved Dover boat in The Bronze Age Boat Gallery.
© Copyright Dover Museum and Bronze Age Boat Gallery
The Dover Boat, Kent
The Dover Boat is over 3500 years old and was built to cross the sea. Only part of the boat was found during excavation but it is estimated to have been up to 15m long. It would have been propelled by paddles and may have travelled along the coast and across the English Channel to trade goods such as bronze, shale, pottery or livestock.
The boat was made of wooden planks, which were held together by thin twisted pieces of wood (‘withies’) and wedges. This meant the boat was much wider than log boats like those from Must Farm. The trees used to make the Dover Boat were about 350 years old when they were cut down.
Similar types of boat have also been found in the Humber estuary in Yorkshire.
Top - Grimspound. © Historic England. [aa008409]
Bottom – reconstruction drawing of Grimspound by Ivan lapper. © Historic England. [IC047_002]
Grimspound, on Dartmoor in Devon is a later Bronze Age village, lived in between about 3500 and 3000 years ago. The stone foundations of 24 round huts excavated at the end of the 19th century are still visible.
These huts would have been covered with conical roofs of turf or thatch. The people who lived in them would have cooked on a central fireplace.
The village was surrounded by a large boundary wall enclosing an area about 150m across. It is more likely to have been used to keep animals in or out than for defence. The people living at Grimspound were farmers who kept livestock and grew crops. At this time the soils on Dartmoor were more fertile than they are today.
In other parts of Britain Bronze Age roundhouses were usually built of timber rather than stone and do not survive as visible features today, except when excavated by archaeologists.
Cliffs End Farm, Ramsgate. © Wessex Archaeology
Cliffs End Farm, Kent
At Cliffs End Farm, Ramsgate, Kent, a group of burials were found in a large pit.
The first burial in the pit was that of an elderly woman who had been killed, perhaps as a sacrifice. There were several other complete skeletons as well as just scattered bits of human bone. All of these people lived – and died, in the late Bronze Age, around 3000 years ago. Also within the pit were the bones of cattle, lambs and a buzzard. More burials took place here a few centuries later in the Iron Age.
Scientific analysis of the human bones has shown that there were three groups of people: some were local, some came from Scandinavia and some from southern Europe; this was largely a cemetery for migrants. Along with older examples, like the Amesbury Archer, this shows that some people travelled long distances across Europe in the Bronze Age.
The ‘Near Lewes’ hoard. © Trustees of the British Museum
‘Near Lewes’ hoard, Sussex
This group of objects was found ‘near Lewes’ in Sussex. Dating to around 1400-1250 BC, it is known as a ‘hoard’. Hoards are collections that archaeologists believe were buried together as ceremonial offerings, or to keep valuable things safe.
At Lewes more than 50 objects - bronze axes, bronze torcs (neck or arm rings), finger rings, gold discs, pins, bracelets and necklaces with amber and ceramic beads - were buried in a pot.
The hoard includes axes local to the Brighton area, and things from France, Germany and the Baltic, showing the importance of cross-Channel trade at this time, and suggesting that the hoard had great importance to the people who buried it.
Objects from the cist at Whitehorse Hill.
© Dartmoor National Park Authority
Whitehorse Hill, Devon
A very well preserved set of grave goods was recently found in a square stone burial chest (‘cist’) within a natural peat mound on Dartmoor. The cist contained the cremated bones of a 15-25 year old person, probably a female, who died between 3900 and 3700 years ago.
The bones had been wrapped in a bearskin and placed on a layer of purple moor grass.There was also a basket containing a woven band with tin studs, 200 beads of shale, amber, clay and tin, two pairs of turned wooden ear studs and a flint tool.
These objects are very rare and include things traded from a very long way off. Although young, the person buried here was clearly very important, perhaps part of a leader’s family.
The Mold gold cape. © Trustees of the British Museum
The Mold Cape, Flintshire
The cape was found by 19th century workmen digging for stone in an old burial mound in Mold, Flintshire, North Wales.
It is 3900 to 3600 years old. The shape means that you would not be able to move your arms very well, so it was probably used for ceremonies, rather than everyday wear!
The cape was too small to be for a man – it would only fit a smallish woman or a child, and they were probably very important.
The cape would have been hammered out of a gold lump. The decoration looks like strings of jewellery or folds of cloth, and would have been hammered into the gold sheet. Lots of amber beads, maybe between 200 and 300, were also in the grave, but many of these and the bones from the grave have been lost.
Iron tools and weapons are found for the first time, while gold and other metals continued to be used for jewellery and ornaments.
Towards the end of the period coins started to be made.
People lived in roundhouses like those of the Bronze Age but settlements became bigger.
Some sites have evidence for defence, such as hillforts and brochs.
Must Farm and Flag Fen
Cliffs End Farm
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Broch of Gurness
The Holmfield Iron Age chariot burial: the skeleton of a man lies between the wheels of a chariot buried in a large pit. © Oxford Archaeology.
Plan of the Wetwang Slack burial. © Trustees of the British Museum.
We have very little evidence of human burial from the Iron Age compared to earlier and later periods. But in the Yorkshire Wolds people buried their dead in large cemeteries of square barrows
(as opposed to the Round Barrows of the Bronze Age).
While most people were buried with only a pot, or a brooch, or nothing at all, some richer graves have been found including a number of ‘chariot burials’ (though the chariot would have been more like a wagon).
One such burial of an Iron Age woman who died 2300 years ago was excavated at Wetwang Slack. She was buried with a mirror, a joint of meat, and the chariot, which was taken apart and placed with her. Archaeologists have speculated about why she was buried like this. She might have been a chief, a religious person, someone with special skills, or perhaps she was special or different for other reasons.
Lindow Man. © Trustees of the British Museum
Lindow Man, Cheshire
The body of a late Iron Age man was found in Lindow bog, Cheshire. It is very unusual to find human remains, except bones, but in this case the bog preserved the skin, hair, and insides of the man, who was about 25 years old when he died. He had a beard and a moustache, and neat fingernails. Food preserved in his stomach included bread made from wheat and barley.
Other ‘bog bodies’ have been found at Lindow and elsewhere in Britain, but they are more common in Ireland and Denmark. Some people found in bogs died naturally, but others, including Lindow man, had suffered violent deaths.
It is possible that Lindow man was killed as part of a religious ceremony. He might have been a priest or person of some importance.
One of the Snettisham Iron Age hoards.
© Trustees of the British Museum
Snettisham hoards, Norfolk
Hoards similar to those found in the Bronze Age continued to be deposited in the Iron Age. Some of these are clustered at particular ritual sites where spectacular finds have been made (see also Hallaton).
At Snettisham, Norfolk, 11 metal hoards have been found within a large enclosure. They included gold and silver ‘torcs’, coins and metal ‘ingots’ that may have been used as money. The Snettisham hoards were buried around 70 BC.
This picture shows a group of torcs. The one on the left was made from 1kg of twisted strands of gold and silver. The complicated ends were cast in moulds. The objects had been buried in a very specific order which suggests a ceremonial deposit or offering.
Torcs were a type of ornament worn around the neck. Unlike modern necklaces they would have been difficult to put on or take off.
Maiden Castle. © Historic England Ref:IC064_013
Maiden Castle, Dorset
There are over 1000 hillforts in England and Wales. These are enclosures surrounded by ramparts and are usually found, as the name suggests, on hilltops. Some of them, like Danebury in Hampshire, have lots of evidence for settlement inside while others may only have been used temporarily, or for keeping animals.
Archaeologists do not agree on whether defence was the main purpose of hillforts or if they were simply designed to look impressive. In either case, constructing a hillfort would have required organisation, manual skills, labour and leaders.
Maiden Castle in Dorset is the largest hillfort in Britain. It was in use from the 4th century BC until the Roman conquest. It is surrounded by steep ramparts and at one time was inhabited by several hundred people. Fewer people lived there by the time the Romans arrived, but a small cemetery contains the bones of people who may have been killed fighting the Romans, including one skeleton with a catapult bolt in his spine.
The Battersea Shield.
© Trustees of the British Museum
The Battersea Shield, London
The Battersea shield was found in the River Thames. It probably dates to the 2nd or 1st century BC. It is 80 cm long and is made from sheets of bronze covering a wooden shield.Because of the very thin metal and its fine red enamel (glass) decoration it was probably not designed to be used in battle. Instead it may have been made as a ‘status symbol’, to impress people with how important its owner was. It might have been put into the river as an offering to the gods.
The swirly ‘Celtic’ decorations, called the La Tène style after a site in Switzerland, are found on other Iron Age metalwork over a large area of Europe.
Llyn Cerrig Bach is a lake on Anglesey where numerous metal objects were deposited for ceremonial purposes between about 300 BC and AD 100. This collection includes swords, spearheads, a bronze trumpet, pieces of a wagon, horse harnesses, and a cauldron.
The collection also includes two sets of chains. The big links probably went round the necks of people who may have been slaves. We know from Roman writers that some British people were traded as slaves in the Roman Empire.We do not know why the chains were deposited here but they may have been an offering to the gods. Deposits in wet places (rivers, lakes and bogs) were common in the Bronze Age and Iron Age; other examples include Flag Fen and Lindow Moss.
Glastonbury Lake Village when it was first excavated. © Historic England Ref:BB72/02822
Glastonbury Lake Village, Somerset
Glastonbury Lake Village was an Iron Age settlement in Somerset, built in a swamp on an artificial island about 100m across. People lived there between about 250 and 80 BC, after which the site was gradually abandoned, perhaps because of flooding or because the river channels became blocked.
The site was excavated between 1892 and 1907. The wet conditions had preserved the timbers from many roundhouses (up to 14 at any one time), a surrounding fence and a landing stage for boats.
The village may have been home to as many as 200 people, who raised sheep and grew cereals but also ate wild plants and animals from the wetlands.
Finds from the site are numerous and provide evidence for manufacture and trade as well as daily life. They include pottery, tools for making fabric and sharpening knives, materials for metalworking, a wooden frame for stretching animal skins, baskets and parts of a cart.
Hallaton coin hoard, Leicestershire
At Hallaton in Leicestershire amateur archaeologists found an open-air hilltop shrine, containing Iron Age coin hoards, parts of Roman helmets and remains of feasting. It was in use around the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in the 1st century AD.
Rather like Snettisham the rituals carried out here involved the deliberate burial of a number of hoards of metalwork, in this case mostly coins.
In total more than 5000 Iron Age coins were found, more than had been found in the entire region up to that time! But perhaps the most impressive find was a Roman cavalry helmet with silver decoration.
Other activities on the hill included feasting on sacrificed pigs, as shown by a mass of bones found buried by the entrance, which was symbolically guarded by dog burials.
Carn Euny. © Historic England.
Carn Euny, Cornwall
Carn Euny is an Iron Age village in Cornwall. The site was occupied for circa 500 years, from the 5th century BC. People lived in roundhouses with stone foundations, walls were made from woven wood panels covered in clay (‘wattle and daub’), and thatched roofs were supported by wooden posts.
On the site now you can also see drainage gullies, and holes for the wooden posts. The site is unusual because of a well-preserved underground stone tunnel known as a ‘fogou’, which is roofed with large stone slabs.
We do not know what the tunnel was used for. It might have been for storage, or to hide in, or for ceremonies. Similar underground tunnels are found at Iron Age settlements in other parts of north west Europe.
Gurness Broch. © Historic Environment Scotland.
Broch of Gurness, Orkney
In western Scotland hillforts were not built in the Iron Age. Instead defended settlements with towers are found, these are called brochs.
The Broch of Gurness in Orkney is one of the best preserved examples of this type of settlement.The village began between 500 and 200 BC, and was abandoned after AD 100. It covered an area 45m in diameter, and was surrounded by deep ditches and ramparts. A circular tower was built, and later surrounded by stone houses with yards and sheds. The houses have a large central room and stone furniture.
The broch tower was probably the home of an important farming family. A central fire, stone furniture, and a well are present in the broch. The walls are very thick and the tower could have provided a defence against other groups.
Glastonbury Lake Village
By the end of the Iron Age Britain was divided into a number of tribal territories. The first Britons whose names we know were tribal rulers at this time, their names recorded by Roman writers or on coins.
After 100 BC southern Britain increasingly came under the influence of the Roman Empire. New types of object started to appear, including wheel-made pottery and coins. There were also new kinds of settlements, especially large ones known as ‘oppida’ (singly ‘oppidum’), which were often enclosed by large ditches.
Examples of oppida include Camulodunum (Colchester) in Essex, Silchester in Hampshire and Stanwick in Yorkshire. They often formed the ‘capitals’ of tribal territories: late Iron Age Britain was divided between a number of different tribes including the Brigantes at Stanwick, the Atrebates at Silchester and the Catuvellauni at Colchester.
Oppida were important trading centres at a time when links to the continent were developing. The British tribal leaders may have enhanced their status by acquiring exotic goods from the Roman Empire.
A typical Iron Age coin, showing an ear of corn on one side and a horse on the other.
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The ‘Stone Age’ is an extremely long period of time.
It is divided into 3 periods:
The Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age alone goes back nearly 1 million years. It is also divided into three parts:
This timeline shows the entirety of British Prehistory, which finishes with the Roman invasion.
Everything else since then lasts just 2,000 years.