Land Use in Britain – Stone Age to Iron Age

Stone Age.
Bronze Age.
Iron Age.
Bibliography for all segments (opens in separate page)

Stone Age:

Palaeolithic people probably lived as small bands of hunter-gatherers. Britain’s climate, flora, and fauna were vastly different than they are today. The bones of rhinoceros, lion, and deer were found within the deposits that yielded Britain’s earliest Homo sapiens skull (found in a terrace of the Thames at Swanscombe.)

Home, stone age home

Prior to the introduction of agriculture, Mesolithic peoples in Britain subsisted mainly upon hunting, fishing and gathering. Native flora included nuts and berries. The native fauna comprised red and roe deer, pigs, horses, wolves, and wild aurochs (ancestral to the Celtic shorthorn.) Cereals, sheep, goats, and domesticated cattle were not native to Britain. It is believed that Neolithic immigrants, already familiar with agriculture, introduced these species from the continent around 4500 BC. The only evidence of possible immigration over the following 500 years was the appearance of the highly influential “Beaker” peoples, named for their distinctive pottery. Alternatively, the Beaker folk may represent a ruling elite emerging from within the indigenous population.

3,500 years old, 40 cm (16 in) high "Giant Beaker of Pavenstädt"
Evidence of early forest clearance is scattered across Britain. The earliest farming in Britain probably dates from as early as 5000 BC – predating the Neolithic immigrants. Prior to 6000 BC dry conditions had prevailed in Britain, resulting in natural fire-cleared openings within the forests. The beginning of animal and plant husbandry may have been associated with the serendipitous discovery of concentrations of desirable fauna and flora in the forest clearings that had resulted from natural fires. Mesolithic farming probably involved simple fostering of species already present, or the intentional introduction of desired “stranger” plants into forest clearings.

An array of Neolithic artifacts, including bracelets, axe heads, chisels, and polishing tools. Neolithic stone implements are by definition polished and, except for specialty items, not chipped.
A great deal of forest had been permanently converted to cultivation by 3000 BC. Long-term woodland regeneration dating from around 3500 BC does suggest that farmers moved to clear new land as cultivated fields became exhausted. Permanent grasslands also replaced previously cultivated tracts – this has been interpreted either as evidence of a transition to pastoral farming, or of population decline.

Ploughing with ard and oxen.

The ard was a primitive form of plough used to gouge cross-hatches into the soil. The ard broke the soil but did not turn a furrow.

Increasing generation of bog and peat accompanied a climatic change (climatic trends figure) from the warm, dry Boreal phase to wetter Atlantic conditions. The Neolithic agricultural transition, dating from 4000 to 3000 BC, roughly coincided with the climatic change and was marked by technological advances in stone artifacts. The Neolithic agrarian communities also left archaeologic evidence as “causewayed enclosures” and collective tombs – stone “megalithic or chambered tombs,” timber “long barrows,” and earthen “round barrows.” The great henge monuments of the “Wessex Culture” date from the third millennium. Stonehenge had been erected by 2000 BC – at this time British agriculture was well established in the most fertile areas. The population of Britain around this date is very difficult to determine. Extrapolating from burials in collective tombs, authorities estimate a population of around 10,000 to 15,000 people.

Stone Age.
Iron Age.

Video (new window): Building Celtic roundhouses .
BBC interactive: construct a Celtic roundhouse.
BBC video: Archaeologists recreate Neolithic huts for Stonehenge project (new window).

Bronze Age:(around 3000 B.C. to 600 B.C.)

The sites of many Bronze Age settlements, typified by stone walls or ditches enclosing clusters of round huts, have been discovered in the British Isles. The size and make-up of agrarian communities differed regionally. Construction and agricultural techniques varied from one geographic area to another, as did the soils. The lighter lowland soils, particularly those overlying chalk and gravel, and the heavier Keuper Marl soils bear evidence of long-term crop cultivation. Bronze Age immigrants expanded the population and pushed settlement into the poorer upland and forest soils. There is ample evidence of extensive sectors of arable farming in the Highland regions, in contrast to the modern pastoral farming of these areas. However, most upland cultivation appears to have been small-scale and exploitive (cultivate, abandon, move on) – unlike the permanent, conservationist agriculture then beginning in the lowlands. Transitory cultivation of the Highlands probably destroyed the forest regeneration cycle, transforming the uplands into the “wilderness” of today.

It is believed that cooler, more extreme weather, associated with the transition from Atlantic to Sub-Boreal and then to Sub-Atlantic conditions influenced or provoked the Bronze Age agricultural expansions and the immigrations from the continent. The climate during the Sub-Atlantic phase was similar to Britain’s recent climate – but, the much less efficient agricultural techniques supported a considerably smaller population. An agricultural community has few effective responses to shortages – cultivate previously idle land, improve agricultural techniques, migrate, or face privations and starvation.

recreation of "sweet track" on Somerset Levels

At the “Somerset Levels” trackways of logs, were laid down across a wet raised-peat bog to permit access to dry fields. The bog evolved atop former woodland over a period of one and a half to two millennia. Evidence indicates that the environs had been exploited as early as the third and fourth millennia, but that the drier climate in the second millennium BC made trackway construction unnecessary. The climate appears to have become colder and wetter after about 1250 BC, deteriorating further around 850 BC when construction of trackways intensified. The British climate appears to have been wettest around 650 BC.

artist's impression of bronze age hill fort settlement

The period of Neolithic monument construction ends with the appearance of hill-top enclosures around 1000 BC – these semi-fortified settlements were typical of the Iron Age and the Belgae, immigrants from continental Europe. The changes in construction preceded both the arrivals of continental “Celtic” immigrants and of Iron implements. The shift in the emphasis and location of human activity appears to be related to population pressures and shifting societal power balances. Today, the best example of an iron-age fort is Maiden Castle near Dorchester – built on the site of a causewayed camp around 300 BC, the fort fell to a Roman attack led by Vespasian in 44-45 AD.

Stone Age.
Bronze Age.

Iron Age:
(600 B.C. to the first century A.D.)
model of oppidum

The beginnings of a permanently cultivated field-system date from the Iron Age. The landscape gradually changed as agricultural practices and styles of landholding evolved. The focus had shifted from construction suggestive of a powerful ruling elite (monuments and burial chambers) to enclosed hill-top structures for the communal defense of permanently cultivated fields. This trend culminated, by the eve of Roman invasion, in construction of hill-forts in the north and west, and of Belgic oppida in the south-east (large scale settlements delimited by banks and ditches.) The inhabitants of oppida used coinage of their own issue, and lived in a proto-urban community. Later Roman and medieval urban settlements were also established on low ground adjacent to water.

outlines of iron age settlement

Areas to be ploughed were delineated by ditches, earth banks plus ditches, earth banks, fences, and stone or sarcen walls – boundaries were even marked by reference to round barrows. In contrast to deliberately constructed field borders, lynchets developed as a result of the accumulation of erosive debris at the edge of fields. The field boundaries generally employed local materials and followed local geology, but defied natural topography in some regions. These “Celtic” fields, irregular squares of about one acre, were cultivated in a regular cycle of crops (and perhaps fallow) by cross-plowing with the ard, a sharpened bough drawn by oxen. Iron Age tools included spades, hoes, small sickles, and a rotary hand mill called a quern.

top: saddle quern and rubbing stone
bottom: rotary quern with holes for wooden pegs
Circles of post-holes mark the locations of Iron Age dwellings and sheds. The rather flimsy structures of medieval villages were constantly rebuilt. Dwellings consisted mostly of huts with “wattle and daub” walls framed by rough-hewn timbers. Buildings most often took the form of a longhouse or byre-house. Latrine trenches were often dug down the center of dwellings, separating people from livestock. Dwellings must have been extremely uncomfortable by modern standards – dark, stinking, smoky, draughty, leaky, muddy, and vermin-ridden.

The population of Britain just prior to the Romans’ arrival has been estimated at around 2 million people. (Approximately 1/30 of the current population.)

Shelter - Mesolithic to Viking (new window):

Stone Age.
Bronze Age.
Iron Age.

Playlist Wild Food.

Land Use in Britain – Overview.
Land Use in Britain – Romans and Vikings.
Land Use in Britain – Normans bring Feudalism.
Land Use in Britain – Beyond Early Modern.
Land Use in Britain (full version) – The Agricultural Revolution.

Land Use in Britain – Bibliography.

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