British History - Pre-History

The period from the end of the Ice age, around 10,000 years ago, to the arrival of the Romans is a story of slow but continual development in areas that we take for granted nowadays, such as agriculture and technology.
People re-occupied Britain after the last Ice age ended and the glaciers had receded. They were following the animals that they hunted with simple stone and wooden tools.
A Stone Age flint arrow head would have been sharp enough to cut an animals flesh and hopefully severe an artery
Agriculture was introduced several thousand years later, having its roots in Africa (no pun intended).
A few more thousand years later man has discovered how to make bronze, a mixture of tin and copper, and technology begins to improve. New harder tools are made, increasing the efficiency of agriculture.
Before the plough was invented a tool called an Ard was used to break up soil ready for planting crops. This was a simple tool made from suitably shaped pieces of wood that were available from the local environment. It would be pulled by Oxen.
An Ard is used for breaking up soil ready for planting crops. An ard was used before the plough, which used an iron share, was invented
As the communities expand, large scale projects are undertaken in the form of 'henges' or stone circles. Money was very rare, so the working capital would have been grain or other local produce and security, this being exchanged for labour. Conflict arises between the larger more organised communities, now armed with Bronze weapons, and hill forts are built in response that rapidly develop into the capital of sorts, the local citizens now under a common overlord.
Around 750bc a new wonder material, Iron, is being used. Technology takes several leaps forward, greatly improving agriculture and mankind's ability to cause harm.
Two hundred and fifty years later the Celts start to arrive in Britain, as part of a general expansion over all of Europe from their homeland in the Alps.
The Celts are masters of iron working and their superior agricultural skills are evidence of the successful application of the new material.
The introduction of coins by the Celts stimulated trade between the tribes across Europe
Coins are introduced around 150BC, partly due to the ever expanding influence of Rome. The coins are issued both as tokens to symbolise loyalty to a Chief and to support trade. Trade with Europe increases dramatically, and the tribes on the South East coast benefit enormously from this.
This period is characterised by a lack of documentation, the tradition was to record things orally in stories rather than writing them down.
In 55BC Julius Caesar set his eye on Britain and within a hundred years everything was to change.


Bronze is an alloy, which means it is made from more than one metal. The materials used to make Bronze are Tin and Copper in the proportion of 60% Copper and 40% Tin. Bronze is softer than Iron but less brittle, it also resists corrosion better than Iron; forming a surface layer of oxide rather than rusting away completely. Bronze has a lower melting point than iron making it easier to cast. Bronze was used for making jewelry and coins instead of gold and silver, which were much rarer metals.
A late Bronze Age axe head - click to launch an interactive image
Above - Bronze Axe head
Bronze was first made about 4000BC in the middle east mainly around modern day Iraq and Iran. The trading of Copper and Tin was very important as the two metals are not usually found in the same place. The most important source of Tin in Europe was Britain, which was one of the reasons the Celts, and later the Romans, settled in Britain.
Even after Iron was being produced Bronze was still an important metal due to the ease of manufacture and its low friction.


Iron first started to appear in the Middle East around 1800BC, mainly as small objects. Iron didn't appear in Britain until much later.
Early iron was not as strong as Bronze, being harder but more brittle. Iron also rusts quickly, but is lighter.
Iron is not an alloy like Bronze and so its manufacture did not depend on trade as much as Bronze did; this eventually made it cheaper to produce and more readily available.
As ironworking became better understood the strength of iron improved and it slowly replaced bronze as the first choice of metal for most applications.
Iron was used excessively by the Celts who were masters of crafting metal.


Celtic settlements tended to be fortified on high ground
A Celtic settlement on high ground
As technology improved, and its use in agriculture and hunting increased, so the human population increased too. It was inevitable that these expanding communities would eventually start to compete for resources and this led to the building of defensive works around the settlements, located preferably on the top of large hills.
Hillforts were usually surrounded by a defensive ditch
Hillfort defensive pattern
Most hill forts followed the same pattern having alternating concentric embankments and ditches, the idea being to exhaust any attacking force before they got to the settlement at the top.


The origins of the Celts are unclear; they are thought to have originated in the European Alps somewhere around Switzerland and then expanded all over Europe including Germany, France, Britain, Spain, Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. The Celts didn't have a single leader or homeland but shared a common material culture and a similar language that is still represented today by the Irish, Cornish, Welsh and Breton languages.
The Celts came to Britain around 500BC during the beginning of a cultural period known as La Tène after a site discovered near Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. It was the transition between the Bronze and Iron ages and the Celts are particularly associated with their skilful use of Iron, applying it very effectively in the production of agricultural tools.
The artwork of the La Tène period is often quite complex and sophisticated, conflicting with the usual image of native barbarians existing in a wild and violent society. The Celtic preference was to decorate themselves, (as evident by the high level of artistic sophistication present in personal belongings like swords, mirrors and jewellery) rather than decorate their buildings, which were primitive by comparison.
The usual living accommodation was a circular hut having a single room with walls made from mud and a thatched roof. The Celts would live in extended family groups, occupying a village often located in a defensive position such as a hillfort. These families would belong to large tribal groups that controlled certain areas of the country. At the time of the Roman invasion of Britain two of the most influential tribes were the Icenii in Norfolk and the Brigantes in northern England.

A Celt Warrior

Celtic society was divided into three main classes: the warrior aristocracy, the Druids who were the religious leaders and all the rest. Women were also regarded highly amongst the Celts, which was unusual during ancient times, some like Boudicca and Cartimandua even becoming tribal leaders.
The Celts were a warlike people who tended to have battles that frequently devolved into individual combats; where the victor would cut off the head of the loser and display it on a pole outside his hut. Many of the Celts would fight naked, simply covered by artwork made from a blue dye extracted from a plant called woad. It is believed that this dye, as well as being used for tattoos to intimidate the enemy, also had a medicinal value, being able to constrict the skin; a property which was useful for treating wounds. The British warriors, in addition to using infantry and cavalry tactics, also employed chariots in battle.


A Henge is a circular area of ground surrounded by a boundary made from an internal ditch with a surrounding external embankment. Inside the boundary there is usually a structure, made from stones, that is thought to have been used as a calendar to identify certain specific events in the year such as the summer and winter solstices. Knowing these dates would have been important to a society dependent on agriculture as they could be used to calculate the best times for planting and reaping crops etc.

Pre-history - Timeline 8000BC - 55BC

8000 Britain is re-occupied after the Ice Age by Hunter-Gathers from Europe
5000 Neolithic period - simple stone tools are made and agriculture is introduced to Britain from Africa.
2500 Bronze age - tools are made from bronze which increases the efficiency of agriculture. Communities develop to the point where large projects, such as the the building of stone circles, can be undertaken.
1000 Hill forts are built indicating a move from co-operation to competition between larger communal groups.
750 Iron age - metal working techniques develop to use the new material iron; much stronger and hard wearing than bronze it allows more sophisticated tools and weapons to be made. Trade increases with the continent.
500 Celts - masters of ironwork and agriculture arrive in Britain from Europe. The Celtic culture eventually dominates southern Britain.
150 Coins are introduced indicating that trade activities are taking place over a much broader area.