01:01. The Deeps of Time – Cognition.

What follows is very much a ‘work in progress’. I began writing what I thought might become a narrative history of Roman Britain in the late 1980s, and quickly realised that such a thing is not possible. The very best that could be done would be to build up a speculative history; which is to say a narrative that, to the best of my knowledge, could be the way things did actually occur. This, then, is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but intermediate between the two, in the same way that the sources are neither history nor prehistory but what can be termed proto-history. I left things to gather dust from about 2000 to 2011, but I have since taken matters up again and I have been pottering on. I have made additions and alterations, and I have straightened out the footnotes and bibliographies. If you are really interested, leave a message in the comment box below and I will email you an updated version of the text that you require.

Cheers,

Stephen Symons.

Britannia Capta Part 1.

The Island of the Mighty

 

Chapter 1.

The Deeps of Time. Cognition.

Time is a river, an infinitely complex braided river that meanders across the vast plain of human experience. It has its watersheds in the dim, dark, distant hills of the deeps of time and flows out from the coast of the present into the boundless ocean of the unknown, and unknowable, future. Somewhere on that vast, dark plain, mankind acquired the power to think.

01:1:01. So, who are all these people, anyway….?

            When Caesar’s legions landed on the coast of Kent a little over two thousand years ago, they encountered stiff resistance from large and well-armed bands (one cannot really call them armies) of fighting men. Tall, fair-skinned men they were, remarkably similar to those the legions had encountered in northern Gaul. So similar were they, indeed, that Caesar considered them to be the same people. As time went on and Roman armies penetrated further into the hinterland of the great island, they encountered other, slightly different types. The historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, writing from direct personal experience at about the turn of the first century of the Christian era, spoke of several ethnic types inhabiting the British mainland and came to some interesting ethnographic conclusions:

   “ The reddish hair and large limbs of the Caledonians (the peoples of modern highland Scotland) proclaim a Germanic origin: the swarthy faces of the Silures (of southern and central Wales), the tendency of their hair to curl and the fact that Spain lies opposite, all lead one to believe that the Iberians crossed in ancient times and occupied that part of the country. The peoples nearest to the Gauls likewise resemble the (Gallo-Belgic) peoples ofGaul. It may be that they show the effect of a common origin.” [Tacitus: Agricola 11].

            The Greek geographer Strabo (circa 63 BCE – circa 22 CE), while allowing that the two peoples were related, nevertheless thought that the British and their cousins of Gallia Belgica were rather different from each other:

   “The British are rather taller than the Gauls, not so blond and of looser build. As an indication of their size, I personally saw some inRomewho were little more than boys standing as much as half a foot above the tallest of the City, although they were bowlegged and in other respects lacking any gracefulness of body.” [Strabo: iv:5:2].

            Who were these people? The Romans called them Britannici, or Britonnes, or sometimes the derisory diminutive Britunculi, a pejorative comparable to modern English terms such as ‘wog’, or ‘dago’; significantly, they are never known to have been referred to as Celtae or even Galli. Always they are spoken of by their own quite distinct name. The Greeks, influenced by the writings of Pytheas of Massalia who had voyaged around the north-west of Europe in the fifth century before the birth of Christ and who circumnavigatedBritain, typically showed a more scientific attitude than the Romans. The inhabitants that Pytheas encountered he referred to as “Pretannikai” and the island “Prydein”. A Greek, he made an effort to record the name that he heard the locals use for themselves as near as he could to their own usage. The Romans, chronically bad linguists, mispronounced everything they heard and latinised it, mispronouncing the initial “P” as a “B”. A well-travelled and well-read man with an obviously keen mind, he would have heard of Keltoi, hairy savages who dwelt north of his ancestral land and made the occasional raid. There is nowhere any suggestion that he or his contemporaries referred to the people of Prydein as Keltoi, nothing to suggest that they noted any commonality between the two peoples.

The languages spoken inBritainwere dialects of the ancient Celtic tongues, the dominant material culture was “Celtic”, and “Celtic” social, political and religious usages prevailed. The inhabitants ofBritainat that time are today commonly referred to as “Celts”. But what does that mean? The term “Celtic” is today a very broad one, meaning one thing to an archaeologist, another to a prehistorian, something else again to a musician or folklorist  or a bone carver, and something yet again to a follower of football. To many “Celt” has become synonymous with “Irish”. It is very much a matter of subjective identity and interpretation. Historical interpretation is essentially retrospective and subjective; human being-in-the-world is a continuum of interpretation and reinterpretation, of interpretations of interpretations. Interpretation of the past too often supposes that there is an over-arching entity called “human nature” that is essentially timeless and immutable. But this is not the case. Such things as ethics, morals and values are but reflections  of our interpretations of our worlds, and are constructed out of a primal and fundamental need to make sense of those worlds and translate them into terms that we understand. Ethics and morals are not timeless. They are as ephemeral and transient as out perceptions of the world, and as riddled with contradictions. Our constructions of the past are simply that: superstructures of meaning built out of our own perceptions of what might have been, of how things should have been. Those things – events, conditions, personalities – may have been, in other perceptions of reality, in fact very different or, indeed, they may not have existed at all.

            Inextricably linked with this need to interpret the world is our sense of identity, our perception of ourselves individually and collectively, and how we relate to and interact with the world. But ethnic identity is a notoriously slippery eel:

“Ethnic identity is based on shifting, situational, subjective identifications of self and others, which are rooted in on-going daily practice and historical experience, but (are) also subject to transformation and discontinuity” (Jones 1997 p13)

            A basic fallacy perpetuated today is the notion that ethnic groups of the past – Gauls, Romans, Britons, Celts, Cimbri, Heruli – are directly ancestral to modern ethnic groups – French, Italians, British, Irish, Germans. This is coupled with the perception that past material assemblages directly reflect the existence of past ‘peoples’ or ethnic groups. The legacy of culture history has implicit in it the mistaken axiom that cultural continuity equates to ethnic continuity. Those who today use the term “Celt” to refer to modern populations as keepers of some ancient  and ancestral continuity tell more of the modern person’s sense of, and need for, a suitable descriptor for their modern identity than anything about the ancient inhabitants themselves.

The bloodlines continue, but can the peoples of the ancient west of what is nowEuropebe truly considered as culturally and ethnically ancestral to modern populations?

            Even the term “Europe” is a contentious one as the concept of Europein the modern sense did not exist in ancient times. The Greeks recognised three continents, Europa, Asia and Libya, as the three constituents of the oecumene, the habitable world, although this seems to have been used by Herodotus, at least, as a distinction between noble Greece and evil Persia (Hay 1957 p3). The Romans accepted the tripartite oecumene, but for Rome, increasingly, the civilised world was centred on the Mediterranean, or mare nostrum, our sea, and everything beyond was barbarism. The concept of Europe was one of passion, not politics (Hay 1957 p3.) and political difference was made between civilisation and barbarism, a division demarcated, by the time of the High Empire, by the Rhine and the Danube. The development of the modern concept of Europe was an outgrowth of the growing political power of Latin Christianity as headed by the Popes. During the early middle ages Christianity was increasingly seen as equating to Civilisation, and every one else outside the bosom of the Church was a savage. The explosion of militant Islam in the seventh century presented an enormous threat to Christendom, bringing Christians into further solidarity with one another and hardening the ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude. It may be no coincidence that the Battle of Tours in 732, in which a composite Christian army under the Frankish Lord Charles Martel defeated the invading Saracens and finally halted the western and northern advance of Islam, saw the creation of a brand new word. Isidor Pacensis, who wrote the earliest known account of the events, talks of Europeenses – Europeans (Hay 1957 p25). The concept of Europe began as mainlandGreece and evolved into Civilisation, and from there into Christendom, but it was not until the Enlightenment that it finally came to rest in its present form as a firmly political entity.Europe is a modern political concept and did not exist in the ancient world.

            Did such a thing as a ‘Celtic consciousness’ exist? (Green 1995 p10)

            The term ‘Celt’ was coined by the Greeks (Keltoi) to signify certain groups of barbarians with whom they from time to time came into contact and the word appears to be etymologically connected to an Indo-European word meaning “to shout”. The term, which may have been coined by the Greeks but is more likely to have been a loan word from the language of the people whom it describes, may then suggest that one tribe called themselves “the screamers”, or “Those who Shout Fearsomely in Battle”. But did the Celts think of themselves as a more or less homogenous group, or not? And how precise were the ancient authors in the use of this term? Did they mean a specific group, or did it simply become a general term for the barbarian ‘Other’, synonymous with words such as barbarian, stranger, or foreigner (Green 1995 p4)? Many ancient writers – Herodotus, Strabo, Plato, Arrian, Livy, Plutarch and Avienus to name a few – mention Celts (Keltoi or Gallici), so we command a considerable body of literature from which to infer the attitudes of the Greeks and Romans to the Celts, and how they perceived them. The Roman perception was one of obsessed terror. Indeed this metus Gallicus, terror of the Celts, was so great that it led the Senate to perform minime Romano sacro, that least Roman of all rites; human sacrifice. Upon interpretation of the Sibylline Books, a Greek couple and a Celtic couple were buried alive in the Forum Boarum in 228 BCE, again in 216 BCE after Cannae, and yet again in 113 BCE after the Celtic Scordisci virtually annihilated a Roman army under C. Porcius Cato and ravaged a far south asAquileia (Twyman 1997).

But we have no idea of how the Celts perceived themselves. That there existed a people (or peoples) referred to by the ancients as ‘The Celts’ is not in doubt. That some community of language, art, spiritual perspectives and political organisation extended across Central Europe from Scotland to the Black Sea at the beginning of the Christian era is not in contest, but did this community represent a genuine ethnos or simply the spread and adaptation of a cultural package that a continuum of more or less genetically similar peoples found attractive and thus gradually adopted? The expansion of Roman power throughout temperate Europe stopped a cultural florescence that reached its peak of expression in the classic La Tene culture of Central Europe  in the last four centuries before the Christian era in its tracks, and over the next five centuries there occurred a fusion of cultures that created such entities as Gallo-Roman and Romano-British societies. The Germanic invasions of the fourth – sixth centuries of the Christian era effectively obliterated these societies, sweeping away all traces of Celtic elements in early Medieval Europe save for remnants in the remote west and north of the British Isles.

            Was this to be in reality the last refugium of a pan-European race? We cannot know, for we simply do not know how these people identified themselves. The Celts might have been a true, distinctive ethnos, culturally unified although politically fragmented. To speak of a “Celtic Empire”, as has been done (Ellis 1990, Scullard 1951 p76), is a nonsense, retrojecting an modern, alien concept onto a society that had nothing analogous of its own and never could have existed. Or ‘Celt’ may simply mean no more than a set of closely related languages and a shared artistic style.

The inhabitants ofBritainat the time of Caesar’s invasions were, ethnically, a mixture of various stocks grafted onto the bloodlines of the ancient Palaeolithic and Neolithic peoples who, for all intents and purposes, can be called the aborigines ofBritain. Because of this admixture, and because of the unquantifiable nature of their pedigree, and because of the ambiguities and misconceptions surrounding the term, I do not, for the purposes of this essay, refer to the inhabitants of the British archipelago at the time of the Roman Conquest as Celts but as British.

And what is that? What is “British”? This is a term almost as contentious as Celt, and it is necessary to strip it of its modern connotations. Modern political boundaries and modern national identities are irrelevant to the time periods under discussion here, but the often troubled relationships between the four major national identities of modernBritainover the last three centuries have created varied and frequently contentious interpretations of the concept inherent in the term “British”. The British tradition as it has developed over these three centuries has become synonymous with a “Greater Englishness” within which the other ethnic identities ofBritain- Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, Irish – have been subsumed, extending English domination over those cultures and acquiring their characteristics. The British identity is perceived to be organic, that is to say having an unbroken continuity of development since pre-modern times. As it is generally felt that there is no such thing as “English Nationalism” in the sense that other nations are nationalistic as the English nationality has never been disrupted or even seriously threatened, “British” and “English” are often and all too erroneously seen as the same thing, a perception epitomised by the widely held belief that the Union flag is the English flag (Barclay 2001 p5). It is impossible to define this concept “British” unequivocably as it is subject to personal interpretation and identification.

Suffice to say that the answer varies from place to place, from epoch to epoch. The modern inhabitant ofGlasgowis quite a different creature to the native ofCambridge. The natives ofTruroand Abergavenny andHullare all different again. The Mesolithic hunters of Star Carr were vastly different to the Neolithic builders who erectedStonehenge. The warriors of Boudica who cut IX Legio to pieces beneath Petilius Cerealis were nothing like the bowmen who cut down the flower of French chivalry atPoitiers, or the young men who flew the bombers of the Royal Air Force against Nazi Germany. These were many different peoples, many different races, many different tribes, but all have one thing in common: all were British according to the perceptions and traditions of their times.

This essay is primarily concerned with the nature of the native societies of Late Pre-Roman Iron Age Britain, the Roman invasions and conquest of Britain, the impact of those processes on those societies, and the creation of the entity now known as Romano-British. But these matters can only be understood, insofar as modern understanding of them is now possible, when seen in context. And to set that context, we have to go back a bit further in time.

A long, long way back.

01:01.02. In The Beginning….

The first “British” were hominids who walked the hills and moors ofBritainlong before the human race as we know it emerged. Human-like ancestors of Homo Sapiens Sapiens hunted in the forests and marshes of what would one day becomeBritainlong, long before the seas swept in and separated the islands from the Continental mainland. Hominid groups such as Homo Erectus began drifting up from Africa and east from theCaucasusinto southern and western Europe at least a million years ago. The pace was incredibly slow and it took, on present evidence, at least half a million years more for these people to reach thenorth westofEurope. By the time of the Cromerian warm period, populations of hominids were beginning to settle in what is nowBritain. During this epoch, the British isles were simply the westernmost extension of Eurasia, and what is now theNorth Seawas a land of undulating plains with a range of hills in the middle. Eastern Britain was drained by a vast river system the flowed east to be joined by the Rhine, which, together with other tributaries, fed the mightyChannelRiver. It has been postulated that hominid groups first penetrated the British Isles at this time, following this river system, and particularly what is known as theBythamRiver(Denison1995).

Named after Castle Bytham inLincolnshirewhere it was first identified, the stream was the largest river system of its time and arose somewhere near modernBirmingham. It flowed eastwards from the west Midlands and southern Pennines via Leicester to King’s Lynn, where it turned south, then east again at Lowestoft and then on to its confluence with the Rhine and the

Thames, a junction that now lies under theNorth Sea. Evidence of Cromerian occupation from at least fourteen sites along its course (Denison1995) would suggest that its wide river valley, offering ample water, abundant vegetables and good hunting, was the entry route for the first hominids to take up residence inBritain. The whole river system was subsequently destroyed by glacial action during the Anglian ice age of 478 – 423 kyr BCE, but no pre-Anglian artefacts have been discovered along the contemporaryThamescourse, the second-greatest river system of the time. This may indicate that the first “British” arrived in their new home by way ofSpain,FranceandBelgium, following the chalk ridge west to theChannelRiver, then north and west along the valley of the Bytham.

Much has been surmised about this almost unthinkably remote period, and a considerable amount is known about the physical environment. A very large amount of information on fauna and flora and stone working technology enables informed speculation about the creatures that the hominids hunted, and who, no doubt, hunted them, and about their environment. It permits the reconstruction with some accuracy of something of their material culture. But nothing was known of those ancient societies. They left no records or anything that might give a clue to their thinking, and the material artefacts of nomadic groups are minimal.

Then, in December 1993 came one of the most remarkable discoveries of modern archaeology. Excavations at Boxgrove, seven kilometres east of Chichester inSurrey, were carried out in advance of commercial exploitation of the local gravel deposits. The result was the discovery of a series of relict land surfaces dating to the Cromerian warm period of between circa 524 – 478 kyr BP. It provides a remarkably complete record of climactic and environmental conditions in what is now southernBritainduring a temperate stage before the coming of the great Anglian Glaciation. During the excavation period (it ended in November 1996) it became the largest and most complete examination of its type in the world and revealed the remains of the earliest known hominids in western Europe: first a piece of left tibia, then a tooth. These discoveries and their associated milieux have caused a radical rethink of assumptions about our Palaeolithic ancestors.

Described tentatively as Homo cf Heidelbergensis, Boxgrove Man (the tibia is definitely that of an adult male) is considered to have been descendant from the ancient Homo Erectus groups that began migrating out of Africa as much as half a million years before his day, and related to the roughly contemporaneous owner of the Mauer Mandible found at Heidelberg at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was probably ancestral to modern Homo Sapiens and possibly to the extinct Neanderthal race. The bone fragment reveals that he stood at least 1.8 metres in height and was powerfully built, weighing perhaps 80 kilograms or more. The teeth, which came from another, slightly earlier, individual, reveal that he suffered from severe periodontal disease. Cutmarks on the buccal-labial surfaces reveal that he used his powerful teeth as a ‘third hand’ in the same way that modern communities of Inuit do, holding the meat while it is being worked and butchered with hand-held tools.

Half a million years ago the site of what is now the Boxgrove excavation was a plain that lay in front of a chalk cliff, (Roberts et al 1997; p353) an ideal spot for large herbivores. A stream meandered across the plain down to the sea, creating as it went a watering hole. The climate was temperate, much as it is now, and the mixedoak forestthat covered theSussexplain was home to a wide range of animal species, some familiar, others long vanished: shrews, voles and beavers, roe and fallow deer, bears, moose, horses and rhinoceroses. The presence of the remains of the hazel dormouse is particularly diagnostic: a most climate-sensitive species with an essentially southern distribution, these creatures are limited to a specific range of habitats, typically deciduous woodland with dense undergrowth and a well-established herb layer, and occasionally scrubland and reedbeds (Roberts et al 1997 p347). The excavated area was used by a hominid group for the hunting and butchering of large animals, the nearby chalk cliff being an excellent source of raw flint suitable for the manufacture of the tools needed for the flaying and butchery of their quarry. And quarry it was, not scavenged carcasses, dispelling notions of our Pleistocene ancestors as carrion eaters. The perception, frequently held, that our hominid ancestors were “small and highly vulnerable, in no position to hold onto game in the face of determined carnivores, (and) would have been opportunistic scavengers” (Bender 1996 p86) simply does not hold up under scrutiny. The butchered bones of at least three rhinoceroses, a creature with no known predators (apart from us) at that time, would attest to bands of skilled and daring hunters slaughtering these large and formidable animals and butchering them on the spot to carry large loads of meat back to a camp site (Roberts 1996). Butchery was done with stone tools of Acheulian type, and of sophisticated manufacture (e.g. Roberts et al 1997 pp336 – 346). Several hundred examples were recovered, found scattered about the watering hole.

The discovery of Acheulian tools at this ancient site throws a cherished cultural theory out of the window. It was for long held that the earliest populations in Britain used and made tools of the Clactonian type from the end of the Anglian ice age (423kyr BP); they were later replaced by (or evolved into) a population that developed the typical Acheulian tool kit (from c 400kyr BP), which lasted until the Ipswichian interglacial (c 125kyr BP) (Ashton & McNabb 1995). The discovery of Acheulian tools predating Clactonian by at least 50,000 years has caused a radical reappraisal of this model. The cultural significance of morphological variation in middle and upper Palaeolithic stone tools has been a theoretical given for well over a hundred years now, and involved three basic assumptions: that tools evolved from coarse pointed forms to more elaborate ovate forms, that different patterns and shapes reflect a culturally imposed “mental template” in the mind of the knapper, and that the various assemblages represent the differing cultural traditions of different societies (White 1998 p15).

New data and a careful re-appraisal of the evidence would suggest that the differences in type are simply the result of the qualities of different types of raw material available. Hominids were not blindly following traditional cultural imperatives – the “mental template” –  but were intelligently and pragmatically selecting the best possible materials with the best possible properties and shaped them according to functionalist necessities. Cognitively, this indicates an ability to hold long sequences of motor skills in the mind and the ability to adjust those sequences to external stimuli and to the results of previous action (White 1998 p33), a most significant indicator of intellectual sophistication. The tools are culturally significant in that they represent not so much a culturally dictated form as a socially necessary continuum of variations applicable to specific needs (White 1998 p34). In other words, the hominids knew what they wanted, were perfectly aware of which materials were best for which purposes, knew how to obtain the desired materials and were very able to improvise and make do with inferior quality raw material if and when the need arose. They knew what they were doing and did it very well. Function determines design, and the quality of the basic raw materials must be reflected in both the form and the quality of the finished product. The whole elaborate edifice of classification that would differentiate, for example, Clactonian and Acheulian, must be extensively rethought.

The implications of this evidence are considerable. The Hundsheim rhinoceros could yield up to 700kg of edible material – meat, offal and bone marrow – as well as hide  implying either much larger groups than has hitherto been suspected or that meat was cured and stored for later use (Roberts 1996). This in turn suggests not only habitation at one site for extended periods, but also food sharing, forward planning and co-operative activity, and thus the need for language to articulate these concepts, as well as a significant level of skill in working stone, bone, wood, hide and horn (Roberts 1996). At least one stone scraper recovered shows evidence of having been used for the scraping of hides to make leather, and soft hammers of antler show the wear typical of hard use over a long period (Roberts 1996a). The climate at the time was temperate, much as it is today, but unless they were hardier than is presently believable, these people could not have survived a British winter without some form of protection from the elements. There is also clear evidence that these people were able to adapt to severe changes in climate, as flint artefacts have been found at Boxgrove in almost every ecological stratum representing the warmest to the coldest eras (Pitts & Roberts 1997 p309).

Thus the Boxgrove people clearly wore leather clothing – crude, perhaps, but effective nonetheless – , were capable of building efficient windbreaks and shelters, and kept possessions in the form of tools and weapons, indicating at least the beginnings of the concept of personal ownership and hence personal identity. Evidence that a horse was killed with a heavy wooden javelin, possibly similar to those revered from Schöningen inGermany, is further suggestive of personal possessions. Such a tool is difficult and time-consuming to make, and requires considerable skill to use. It is hard to believe that such things were quickly whipped up, used once and then discarded (Wenban-Smith et al 2000 p249). They surely would have been curated and may even (dare I say it?) have acquired some symbolic value. Interpretation of hominid behaviour drawn from Boxgrove and similar sites (e.g. Red Barns, dated to c. 425 – 300 kyr BP) may have to invoke a rethinking of or concepts of archaic humans:

“Archaeologically, an interpretation of behaviour has been developed on the presumption that we can legitimately invoke behavioural models based on an essentially Modern style of behaviour. This runs contrary to much other current and recent work  which has focussed upon conjecturing plausible behavioural models in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic based on more situational responses to resources in the landscape.” (Wenban-Smith et al 2000 p250 – 251).

Overall the emergent picture is one of a much more complex and sophisticated society than had previously been envisaged. Without doubt this was a group with an almost certainly complex, stratified social organisation. It can be argued that a form of hereditary social stratification is present in such simple hunter-gatherer societies and arises from the need of the social group to manage its environment and resources for the common good, as the Boxgrove people were apparently doing. It acquires its hereditary nature because that is how such groups transmit their knowledge and traditions to their heirs, but it is not autocratic because the use of resources is shared by all (McKay 1988 p25). Although not, perhaps, very innovative, the Boxgrove people and their kindred were very adaptable and showed a fine mastery of their environment, hunting creatures par excellence.

But the group was lacking in certain of the basic criteria of modern societies. Their material remains show no traces of anything that may even remotely be construed as art or ritual or metaphysical beliefs. Nothing recoverable survived that would give any clue to the nature of their campsite, so further speculation on the complexity of their social organisation is truncated. It is surmised (Roberts 1996a) that the excavated area was the working site where animals were skinned and coarsely butchered, the useable products then being taken for further processing at a residential area above the cliff. Moving imperceptibly but irresistibly, the grinding of the Anglian Glaciation ice scoured the land above the cliff of all traces of ancient habitation, leaving only the hunting site buried under its sheltering lee.

Excavations at Clacton-on-Sea inEssex(the eponymous site of the now dubious “Clactonian” tool culture) have yielded chopping tools and similar flint artefacts that were deposited perhaps 300 kyr BP. At Swanscombe, a campsite on a former terrace of the River Thames was first used by people with a “Clactonian” industry and later by others who made pointed hand-axes. Skull fragments associated with the second occupation have been dated to more than 272 kyr BP [Phillips 1980: p41]. The slow years rolled on, the ice edged forwards, retreated, edged forwards, retreated again. The Cromerian warm epoch was followed by the 50,000 year-long Anglian Glaciation, which gave way to the 50,000 year Hoxnian interglacial beginning at about 428 kyr BP. The Hoxnian was followed by the very long Wolstonian Glaciation when, for almost 180,000 years, the ice intermittently covered much ofEurope, punctuated by relatively brief interstadials. The warm Ipswichian period lasted from 130 kyr BP to about 70 kyr BP, but it must be noted that studies of river terrace stratigraphy, aminostratigraphy, and mammalian biostratigraphy suggest a much more complex sequence of climactic events than is here presented, suggesting in turn a far more complex pattern of human colonisation, settlement and abandonment than may have previously been suspected (White & Schreve 2000 p2). During glacial maxima the British landmass would have been completely devoid of hominid populations, completely new populations arriving as conditions improved.

The climactic changes caused by this movement were profound and world-wide as huge amounts of water were locked up in ice caps. Today about ten percent of the Earth’s water is locked up ice, but during the height of the Pleistocene glaciations the ice removed closer to thirty per cent, with a concomitant reduction in sea levels by as much as 150 metres below those of today.

Britainbecame an island, rejoined the Continent and became an island again as the seas rose and fell depending upon how much of the world’s waters were locked up in the ice caps. The valley of theThameswas by turns a tropical jungle, the home of hippopotami and lions, and a frozen, Arctic wasteland. Slowly there developed creatures who came more and more to resemble the men and women of today. Slowly human intellectual architecture evolved, following a still gradual but ultimately exponential curve. Anatomically modern humans first appear in the archaeological record by about 100 – 120 kyr BP.

Beginning about 70,000 BP, the climate again began to cool heralding the beginning of the Devensian Glacial. Before too long the sea level began to drop as the ice increased andBritainbecame once more part of the European landmass. Once again humanity had to adapt to creeping desolation and cold, butBritainwas not entirely covered. The ice canopy penetrated as far a northernWalesand north centralEnglandabout as far as theHumber. But something was happening to the race of Homo Sapiens.

01:01:03. What is human?

Sometime around 50,000 – 40,000 BP some sort of critical intellectual mass seems to have been reached and human societies began to show signs of activity outside the purely functional.

“The transition from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic involves changes in all aspects of the archaeological record, in artefact technology and typology, in the evidence for subsistence patterns, in the nature and distribution of habitation sites, in burial patterns, in the regional configuration of artefact type distributions and in the material expression of symbolic behaviour” (Gilman 1996 p222).

From this time on there is increasing evidence of radical changes: for the first time the dead are buried with every appearance of some sort of ritual, objects become decorative as well as merely functional, body ornamentation was adopted, art appeared. Complex composite tools, and the first mechanical instruments to augment muscle power – spear throwers and bows – appear at about this time (Gilman 1996 p222). The appearance of these novelties was by no means instantaneous, nor unprecedented, as the earliest attested instances of all are found deep within the Middle Palaeolithic. The new varieties of stone tools, and the technology to make them, all appeared occasionally within the Middle Palaeolithic, as did worked bone tools, composite tools and formal burial (Gilman 1996 p225). The difference is that these occurrences were rare. After about 40,000 BP they become increasingly common and much more widely spread. The ability to transmit and absorb ideas was becoming more and more efficient, an indicator, perhaps, of increasingly elaborate language.

People began to paint pictures of animals and humans on cave walls, a process that would culminate in the magnificent but adamantly enigmatic rupestrian art of such caves as those at Atlamira,Lascauxand Trois Frérès. Faunal remains begin to suggest a much broader mortality spectrum, meaning that hunters were no longer limited to taking slower, weaker or solitary animals, and were able to take not only any beast within a species, but a much wider range of species (Gilman 1996 p223). Hunting bands were getting larger and better organised. Technological innovation and changing social organisation were dramatically improving human predation. Human populations grew and individual group sizes increased greatly. Distinctly regional styles of material culture began to appear (Gilman 1996 p224). This shift was most noticeable in southernFranceand northernSpainfor the simple reason that it has there been most extensively uncovered and studied, but the phenomenon is evident throughout the Old World from southern Africa to southernRussia.

Aesthetics, spirituality and abstract thought began to be expressed in archaeologically visible forms, marking the beginning of epoch known today as theUpper Palaeolithic.

            What was this “critical mass” of cognitive ability that, in overall terms, occurred as a very sudden, almost explosive, burst of intellectual florescence? Human intelligence may be seen as a modular process in which different areas of skill or knowledge are encapsulated but not necessarily interlinked. Ancient hominids, for example, clearly possessed highly developed bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence – the ability to control motor functions and handle objects delicately – as evidenced by the beautifully crafted stone tools of those times, yet they seemed unable to work bone in anything more than the most rudimentary of ways. In other words, they possessed a highly developed stone-working intellectual module, with the ability to strike and chip, and a poorly developed bone-working intellectual module, lacking the ability to cut, saw or drill: the two sets of information could not be consolidated into a unified database that extended the manual dexterity required for stone-working to encompass other media. Human and animal intelligence evolved in this modular manner over countless ages, but the major feature of human cognitive evolution has been increased accessibility between mental modules resulting in a more generalised intelligence (Mithen 1994 p29). The best metaphor for this process may be that of the Romanesque Cathedral (Mithen 1996).

            In this analogy the human mind is characterised as being a large cathedral with several chapels separated from each other by thick walls with low vaults, so that the sounds of services in one chapel are inaudible elsewhere in the cathedral (Mithen 1996). Thus elements of intelligence in the ancient human mind may have been ‘trapped’ in different compartments, each operating on its own specialised database and unable to communicate with the others. It had long been known, for example, that a sharp stone could cut meat or wood efficiently. It was also known that a longish piece of stick gave greatly enhanced leverage for whacking nuts off trees or for grubbing roots out of the ground. It was only when the walls between these two cognitive modules broke down that the databases were integrated and somebody realised that by putting a sharp stone on the end of a longish stick, combining the two properties of cutting efficiency and leverage, that the hafted axe was invented. Much later other modules were integrated into this newer module: the knowledge that a rough surface has a much higher co-efficient of friction than a smooth one would have led to the addition of a handgrip, and the awareness that a piece of string attached to the haft and tied around the wrist prevents the tool from flying out of a sweaty hand eventually led to the invention of the martingale. This process, to continue the metaphor of cathedral architecture (Mithen 1996), can be likened to the development of the Gothic cathedral in which sound and light emanating from different parts of the building are allowed to flow freely, unimpeded by walls and vaults, to produce a sense of limitless space. In cognitive terms, the barriers between modules began to break down, allowing more and more interaction, more and more integration of information. Productivity became creativity, and mechanical intelligence was cross-fertilised with social intelligence, opening up wider and wider vistas of technical and social possibilities, with all the flexibility and innovation that that would imply.

The modular metaphor for human cognition, the notion that certain cognitive abilities may be dedicated to particular behavioural domains (Mithen 1995 p32), could well be true of all animals but only humans seem to have been able to dissolve the inter-modular barriers – to integrate the database, so to speak – and thus to develop an intelligence that, which retaining its essentially modular architecture, is truly general. This is the stuff of creativity, the stuff of dreams. Perhaps the Middle -Upper Palaeolithicmay be characterised as the time when humans were first able to make dreams come true, and to turn those dreams into physical things that could survive over the millennia.

Although nothing as spectacular as the cave art of Lascaux is known to exist inBritain, this trend was beginning to evidence itself there. Somewhere around the year 25,000 BP, in a cave in Derbyshire’s Cresswell Crags, a piece of horse rib worked with a crude but unmistakable human figure was deposited amongst the usual debris of awls, scrapers and leaf points. In another cave nearby lay another bone decorated with a horse’s head, the earliest known piece of representative art yet found inBritainand carved in an age when that area was arctic wasteland. At about the same time, near Goat’sHoleCaveon the GowerpeninsulaofSouth Wales, a man died. He was buried in a prone position, the body covered with red ochre at the time of interment. Close to the thigh bone were found two small piles of shells that may have been the contents of a decayed pocket. Between forty and fifty small, cylindrical rods of ivory lay on his chest, together with fragments of ivory finger-rings [Manley 1989: p21].

What was their material culture like? We can only guess. Wind and rain, the action of snow and ice and flood, the snuffling attentions of unthinkable generations of small burrowing creatures, and the work of six thousand years of ploughing have combined to destroy all but the most durable and fortuitously hidden of items. People who follow the herds have few material goods, and those that they have are mostly of wood and leather, bark and sinew, grass and bone. Such things decay back into their native dust within months and only the most wildly improbable of chances could lead to their preservation over twenty-five millennia. There is even less chance of their discovery in recognisable form after such a time. But a small glimpse of that ancient society is possible and it is revealing.

By 25,000 BP Britain was populated by people who looked physically no different to those of today. They laughed, they loved, they knew hope and fear. The appreciated art, made music and produced intricate and beautifully crafted artefacts with an eye to more than mere utilitarianism. They looked to the future and perceived something of an afterlife. They had spiritual perspectives and religious ceremonial. They cared for each other, tending the injured and laying out the dead with respect. They wore clothes that were tailored to fit and contained pockets. They wore ornaments: necklaces and bracelets, and ear and finger rings, for ritual purposes perhaps, but also from a sense of delight in the pretty things for their own sakes. They spoke a language  quite probably as grammatically and syntactically complex as any spoken today, but they did not stay. At about 25,000 BCE there was a sudden and dramatic deterioration in climate right across northernEurasiaand the roaming communities began to press further and further south. Available data would presently suggest that Britain was effectively depopulated by 23,000 BP (Horsley et al 1997 p35) and that the exodus from Northern and North West Europe may have been both sudden and rapid, triggered perhaps by a climactic threshold effect (Housley et al 1997 p36). Environmental imperatives drove them south to such places at the Chatelperronian site at Grotte de Renne on the River Yonne inFrance. Here, at about 33,500 BP (McKay 1988 p55), a group of people lived in huts some 3 – 4 metres across and partially paved with flat limestone slabs. Theirs was a hunting economy based on the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros in an environment that was open forest tundra. Their diet was largely meat, with vegetable nutrition derived in considerable degree, perhaps, from the partly digested contents of the huge herbivores’ stomachs. In an environment where easily accessible edible plants would have been scarce and highly seasonal, the pre-processed vegetable matter obtained from the beasts’ cavernous stomachs would have been a most useful addition to the cooking pot.

By 18,000 BP the Devensian glaciation was at its height, driving the peoples of the North andNorth Westto refugia in the Ukraine/Central Russian Plain and to South West France/Calabria (Housley et al 1997 p36). There may have been a single great sheet of ice fromNorthern IrelandtoSiberia, although it may have been in several sections; the question of whether the British and Scandinavian ice sheets actually met is a matter of on-going scholarly debate. What is beyond doubt is that what is now theNorth Seawas, if not dry land, then at least above sea level, a western extension of the great Northern European Plain that extended from the Urals to the Orkneys. It was, at the height of the glaciation, an undulating land of deadly cold much like periglacial and Arctic conditions today. Few terrestrial mammals would have ventured out upon this sere and bitter land, save, perhaps, lemmings, but as time passed and the climate improved, the ecology would have begun to slowly blossom. The Dimlington stadial of about 16,000 – 13,000 BP developed into the warmer Windermere period and it is possible to envisage what has been termed Doggerland (Coles 1998 p45) as a green and flourishing environment between about 13,000 – 11,000 BP. A hypothetical reconstruction of the geography of Doggerland at this time (Coles 1998 p60-62 and fig. 9) is possible.

The Norwegian Trench was a wide and long estuary into which flowed the Greater Elbe, a river system that drained centralGermany, westernJutlandand eastern Doggerland. The Shetlands, and the Viking-Bergen submarine rise were archipelagos, visited, perhaps by walrus and seal hunters. A small chipped flint tool captured by a British Geological Survey dredge from the seabed halfway between the Shetlands and the west coast ofNorwaymay well have been dropped by one such hunter (Coles 1998 p45). Between the Greater Elbe and the river system comprising the greater Ouse that drained easternBritain, lay the Dogger Hills. To the south the greatChannelRiverflowed into the sea somewhere between Britanny andCornwall, fed by the Thames, the Rhine, the Somme and theSeine. Vegetation was sparse at first but as time passed and soils developed, birch would have appeared together with willow, juniper, pine and poplar. Mammoth, aurochs, horse, arctic fox, bears, beaver and wolves populated a vast grassy parkland (Coles 1998 p60). Inevitably human communities followed and Doggerland became inhabited by Maglemosian hunters. Sea levels remained reasonably constant during this period for, although the European glaciers had retreated, the waters would not begin to rise until the vast ice sheets that had for millennia grippedNorth Americabegan to retreat at about 11,000 BP.

The warm period turned cooler again with the coming of the Younger Dryas between 11,000 – 10,000 BP (circa 10,900 – 9,600 BCE). This was not a period of glacial return, but one of much lower average temperatures during which the vegetation retreated once more and the grassy plains and light woodland of Doggerland became tundra and reindeer displaced the mammoth andred deer. Although distinctly cool, the Younger Dryas was nevertheless a brief blip in a climactic graph whose line was steadily climbing. The world was changing and the ice was in retreat. A new era was beginning and this period, the Holocene, is usually held to have begun with the height of the Younger Dryas roughly 12,000 years ago.

Gradually, human groups began to percolate back into the north-west, daring pioneer hunters at first, perhaps following seasonal prey such as reindeer, a phase that lasted perhaps 500 – 600 years. As suitable areas of sufficiently varied resources were discovered and a more diverse animal community became established, families and larger bands penetrated further and further into the slowly re-awakening lands. The first people to begin the recolonisation of the north west of Europe after the Last Glacial maximum seem to have been post-glacial Palaeolithic Magdalenian hunters pushing up from their refugia in the south to pursue woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, bear and horse (Charles 1996 p9) reaching central Germany by 14,800 BP (Housley et al 1997 p38). The Magdalenian culture, first identified at the type-site of La Madeleine in south-west France, began to develop its cultural characteristics at around 30,000 BP and, as the ice began to retreat, people of this cultural tradition gradually spread north, reaching the Ardennes area perhaps as early as 16,000 BP. Magdalenian hunters were active in this area during the period 14,000 – 12,000 BP (Charles 1996 p5 and table 1), although the dating of many artefacts remains in dispute (Charles 1996 p6ff).

By about 13,000 BP humans had recolonised theNorth Westfrom Southern Britain across Doggerland toDenmarkandNorthern Germany(Housley et al 1997 p38). People were pushing to the limits of habitable lands, into an environment that was warming but still bitter. The earliest securely dated site in Britain is at Robin Hood Cave in the Cresswell Crags of Derbyshire, where a small community of hunter-gatherers was subsisting largely on arctic hare in about 12,400 BP (Charles 1998 p132). More or less contemporaneous evidence from Cheddar in the south west would suggest that the earliest incomers there had a more varied diet, with horse and red deer featuring largely on the menu as well as another item: the remains of at least five humans, their bones showing distinct butchery marks, have been found intermixed with other food debris (Charles 1998 p133). This may indicate some now unrecoverable and bizarre burial rite, but the case for the proposition that the locals were not too dainty to indulge in a bit of cannibalism is strong indeed.

This period marks the earliest beginnings of what is now perceived as another phase in increasingly complex human social development. Human societies were evolving and adapting to a new and still changing environment, and technologies were developing to cope. That period was what is now termed the Mesolithic.

01:04. Transitions.

            The Mesolithic period ofnorth westEuropemay be typified as a time of increasing social and economic complexity: a degree of sedentism can be detected, as well as higher population densities. There was a more intensified food procurement strategy, and technological elaboration. The lifestyle was mobile, incorporating a variety of different settlement and activity sites of varying degrees of permanence, size and complexity (Wickham-Jones & Dalland 1998). The development of exchange networks, social differentiation and the emergence of territorial claims (Zvelebil 1996 p331) are all suggested archaeologically and may be extrapolated with the help of modern ethnographic parallels, although this latter is a tool that must be used with great caution.

            While studies of modern hunter gatherer societies may give some insights into the social and political structures of Mesolithic societies, there is a limit to the number of analogies that may be drawn. Firstly, modern hunter gatherers, no matter how remote their territories, have all had some degree of contact with more advanced societies and are therefore contaminated: the observer interacts with the observed through the process of observation. Secondly, modern hunter gatherers such as South African Bushmen, Australian Aborigines and Arctic Eskimo are locked into marginal environments that have remained unchanged for millennia (McKay 1988 p32) and thus allow little scope for social change through adaptation to environmental change. Thirdly, although analogies may be drawn from activities in modern environments that approximate that of Mesolithicnorth westEurope, the fact remains that that environment was unique and no longer exists. For example, modern birch forests are at present found only in high altitudes or in very cold environments, whereas in the early post-glacial, lowland birch forests flourished in approximately modern day temperatures (Spikins 1999 p32). The prehistoric hunter gatherers of western Europe roamed an environment that was not only extremely rich in resources but also subject to continual and sometimes drastic change. Social structures were thus subject to a much wider range of pressures and groups therefore had available to them a correspondingly wider range of choices when confronted with change or crisis. Such a range of possibilities would surely have fostered innovation and social flexibility.

            Human populations in thenorth westofEuropecertainly had been and were being subjected to some seriously drastic, even dramatic, climactic and environmental changes during a relatively short space of time and those societies responded with innovation and change in their structures and habits. What was their society like? Some speculation may be made.

            It is probable that the people who began to colonise Doggerland some 14,000 years ago belonged to what is now known as the Maglemosian culture, which takes its name from the type-site of Maglemose near Mullerup on the west coast ofDenmark. Traces of the Maglemosian peoples have been detected all acrossDenmark, north-westGermany, southern Scandinavia, and along the southern coasts of theBaltic Sea. Closely similar remains have been found as far east as Poland and as far west as Star Carr and Deepcar in Yorkshire (Grøn 1995 p56) and burial practices are essentially similar from southern Scandinavia to north west France. The use of red ochre, a practice that can be traced back to deep within the Palaeolithic, the use of deer antler, a potent symbol of re-birth and renewal, as grave furniture, and bone and horn grave goods as opposed to stone artefacts, are virtually ubiquitous across almost the entirety of this vast area (Bradley 1998 p24-5). The inference must be that a substantially similar cultural continuum extended right across Doggerland from the Hebrides to the coast of the great freshwaterLakeAncylus, now theBaltic Sea. Careful examination of the traces of these people, and cautious comparison with modern ethnography, has produced a faint picture of the probable Maglemosian lifestyle.

            They constructed dwellings that have left slight but identifiable and dateable traces, although the word “dwelling” is here used fairly loosely and may signify a proper hut with walls and a roof, or a tent, or windbreak such as at the probably contemporaneous site at Rushy  Brow, Lancashire (Howard-Davies 1996 p156). Some may have been no more than a fenced area. Generally speaking these “dwellings” were more or less rectangular or trapezoidal in plan with an area of between 8 m2  and 56 m2. They were temporary structures, although many seem to have been rebuilt two or more times, and it is surmised that they were of seasonal use (Grøn 1995 p52), although interpretation is difficult and always open to alternatives. Traces of a structure excavated near Vedbeak inDenmark are instructive. A centrally placed hearth was found, near which were some flint knives. Nearby were cooking pits, an axe manufacturing site, and five (possibly six) burials, four of which were of perinatal infants and one of an older child, perhaps a little under a year old. One interpretation would see this as a late summer fishing camp dating from about 5,000 BCE. Another would suggest that this was a women’s birthing hut, and the burials were of stillborn infants or perhaps of babies that were disposed of because they were unwanted, perhaps because they were imperfect in some way, or were the wrong gender, or simply for population control: infanticide was common in ancient societies (Beausang 2000 p75).

A very large number of Mesolithic habitation sites were on, or very close to, a watercourse, stream or lake, which would imply that boats were an important means both of transport and food gathering (Grøn 1995 p52), and that water foods – fish, molluscs, water fowl – were important dietary staples. The smaller constructions were always on or by the water, and the larger are further inland (Grøn 1995 p52), which would imply that summer was spent by the sea and winter in the woods for two reasons. Firstly it is warmer in the forest during winter where there is more shelter and the bitter cold of frozen lakes is further away. Secondly, it is still cold in winter and consequently more time would be spent in the warmth of the hut, which would in turn suggest that a larger hut would be more convenient. All appear to have been orientated to give maximum protection from the prevailing winds and maximum exposure to sunshine (Grøn 1995 p60)

            Some “dwellings” were indeed very short-lived, even ephemeral. The probable hunters’ camp at Rushy Brow in Lancashire (Howard-Davies 1996 p160) may have been used for no more than a day or two, perhaps even a few hours only, as, although there are definite signs of at least two shelters, there is no trace of a hearth. Scatters of lithic material evidence the use of low-grade chert for blades and arrowheads, and two samples show damage consistent with impact or twisting in a wound. Very few domestic type tools such as scrapers were recovered, but a few fragments of very unusual black shale beads, similar to those found at Star Carr, did come to light (Howard-Davies 1996 p161). Over all, this looks like a hunting stand where a small group of hunters, perhaps no more than two, camped very briefly while on extended foray away from the base camp one summer in 8,500 BCE (Howard-Davies 1996 p161), perhaps, when the last fragments of glacial ice still lingered atop the Pennines. It was an ideal area for hunting, being, at that time, at the tree-line where birch, hazel and pine give way to grassland and browse is thickest and at its most lush (Howard-Davies 1996 p162).

            Because they intended to be away no more than a couple of days they did not bother to bring cooking gear; instead, they brought food with them, cold meat, perhaps, and some sort of vegetable patty. Consequently, they did not even bother to light a fire, the sight and smell of which would have alerted the waryred deer. They set up their windbreaks against the easterly wind, knapping flints in order to do something useful while filling in the hours of tedious waiting for the appearance of their prey. They made a successful kill close by and butchered their prey at the site, although one of the hunters accidentally broke his fine bead necklace and some of the individual beads were trampled underfoot in the process of collecting them up for re-stringing. Having collected up the precious items and butchered their kill, the hunters then set off back to their base camp, never, perhaps, to return to this precise spot again. Such a camp would have been typical of the era. A wide-ranging analysis of Mesolithic sites in northernEngland(Spikins 1999 p13 – 14) shows an overwhelming preference for hunting camps to be placed in the 350 – 450 OD range, on sunny east and south-east facing positions, overlooking valleys and spring heads, and commanding very wide views. Such sites, obviously, are both the warmest and driest available, they are ideally suited as lookout points to locatered deer, and they are all scenic. It may be that Mesolithic people enjoyed sitting back now and again and admiring the view, just as we do today.

            Another, broadly contemporaneous, site at Fife Ness,Fife,Scotland(Wickham-Jones & Dalland 1998) offers further insights into the Mesolithic way of life. A small, temporary structure such as a windbreak or tent was built and used for a brief time one autumn in c. 7500 BCE (dates range from 8275 ± 65 cal bc to 8545 ± 65 cal bc)(Wickham-Jones & Dalland 1998 3:1). It lay between 70 and 300 metres from the contemporary shoreline in a treeless area, although there were dense forests not far inland. An arc of pits indicates that it was a semi-conical construction of a flimsy nature, with an internal hearth and evidence for flint working that suggests that tools were largely brought onto the site ready-made and were retouched and modified as needed. The early date is important: one of the earliest in Scotland and the earliest (so far) on the east coast, it is proof that Mesolithic occupation was not simply confined to the west coast (Wickham-Jones & Dalland 1998 6:3) as had previously been suspected.

Because of its ephemeral nature, the residents of the site are surmised to have come to that spot from some other, larger and more permanent camp, and the very small quantities of flaked flint compared to other sites acrossScotlandand northernBritainsuggest that something out of the ordinary was going on there. But what? It was quite clearly a specialised activity centre. Whatever it was that these people were doing, it obviously involved high temperatures and a lot of burnt flint (Wickham-Jones & Dalland 1998 6:3). The hearth was central to the operation. A clue to the mystery may be offered by the fact that Fife Ness is an important stopover point for migrating birds. Coincidentally, the windbreak was oriented to protect from winds from the north east, the prevailing winds of autumn, which is just at the time when huge numbers of migrating birds arrive. The logical conclusion would be that the site was a temporary camp for the collection, slaughter and smoking of birds and seafood for winter supplies, although nothing can be proven. In reality it may have been used for something so completely alien to modern experience, or so banal, that we cannot now imagine its true purpose (Wickham-Jones & Dalland 1998 8:00)

            The floors of Maglemosian huts were constructed of bark supported by layers of branches, a very efficient means of insulating the inhabitants from the cold and damp of the bare ground, and would enable small, sharp pieces of flint wastage from knapping work to fall through harmlessly where they could not stick into vulnerable feet or backsides. The basic spatial organisation of the dwellings involved one hearth and one adjacent microlith concentration, which would imply a male area for the manufacture of flint tools and a female area for the processing and cooking of food. Dwelling sizes, and microlith distribution and hearth sizes strongly suggest the work spaces of individuals (Grøn 1995 p54), which in turn would imply that the dwellings were those of a nuclear family – an adult couple, plus a few children. The hearths were generally closer to the door than the male work area, and parallels with modern hunter-gatherers has led to the intriguing suggestion (Grøn 1995 p54) that there was a special spiritual significance to this positioning: the entrances of dwellings are often related to important female deities.

Winter dwellings often had two sets of flint scatters and two sets of hearths, indicating that families may have pooled resources in the face of the rigours of winter. Concentrations of three to five such single or dual family dwellings as observed, for example, at Åmosen in Denmark (Grøn 1995 p55), would suggest social group sizes of 15 – 25 individuals, a population level that tallies well with most estimates of such bands. As time passed dwellings grew larger and more elaborate. On Golden Ball Hill in Wiltshire three large dwellings were built in about 4500 BCE in the very last days of the Mesolithic inBritain. The flint floors, the largest of which was a substantial 15 metres by 10 metres, were made of carefully selected smooth flint pebbles which presumably underlay a matting of rushes or straw, and the size and positions of the postholes indicate what must have been quite an imposing structure (Denison1997 p4). The little cluster of houses enjoyed a commanding view over the vale of Pewsey towards Salisbury Plain in the heart of what was even then in the process of becoming a major ritual landscape: the great Neolithic monuments of West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury and the vast Silbury Hill lie little more than 6 – 7 kilometres to the north.

            There is evidence that trade networks developed and became remarkably elaborate and extensive. Raw materials frequently travelled considerable distance. For example, at Waun Fignan Felan in the Black Mountains of Wales, there have been found items of beach flint that could not have travelled less than 29 kilometres, greensand chert that is 80 kilometres from its nearest primary source, and mudstone beads that have been provenanced at a distance of at least a hundred kilometres away in north and west Wales (Barton et al 1995 p105). Often such material was significantly modified by the time it reached its final site, having been reduced at its point of origin into prepared tools, core preforms or blade blanks (Barton et al 1995 p106), a very sensible arrangement as, even allowing for the extensive use of boats, everything had at some stage to be carried on someone’s back, and the less weight and the more “added value” the better. Chert, a silicate closely related chemically and geologically to flint, was used in the manufacture of a wide range of stone tools when the higher quality flint was unavailable. Generally speaking, the knapping qualities of chert are inferior to those of flint, although some of the finer cherts are actually superior to the poorer flints, and the material is found extensively in all the Carboniferous limestones of northernEngland(Hind 1998). Seldom used for cutting tools, it was nevertheless used extensively for other implements such as scrapers, awls and fabricators, perhaps to conserve valuable flint for its most efficient usage. Some of the finest chert derives fromWhitePeakin the South Pennines, but artefacts of this specific material are found across northernBritain, well outside the range of individual groups, and was used more and more frequently as the centuries passed (Hind 1998).

            Clearly, it was passed from hand to hand, obviating theories of direct procurement that hold that the knapper acquires his/her raw material directly from the ground. Trade was involved, and it reflects the advanced organisational and technological abilities of the people involved (Barton et al 1995 p106), but its nature in a non-capitalist society, and its mechanisms amongst territorially based hunter-gatherer groups remains a matter for speculation. A growing body of evidence, particularly that for the repeated burning of woodland to create clearings attractive to game, suggests that Mesolithic groups had fixed territories which they knew intimately and from which they seldom strayed, having a strong sense of place and of their own ‘patch’ (Young 1998). That these territories decreased over time is suggested by lithic analysis from northern England It has been noted that early Mesolithic material from Pennine sites derives from as far away as Lincolnshire, while late Mesolithic sites use almost exclusively local material, a pattern evidenced from studies elsewhere in Britain and in Europe, demonstrating a decrease in the distances travelled by hunter-gatherer groups as time passed (Spikins 1999 p10). Population pressure, resulting in increased competition for resources, may well have led to increasingly formalised and reduced territories. Chronological analysis further indicates that camp sites in these territories were in continual use for a very long time indeed, extending right through the Mesolithic and well into the Neolithic, suggesting a surprisingly stable society with a cultural tradition that endured for centuries, even millennia (Spikins 1999 p13).

Increasing territoriality and concepts of possession of land may have increasingly restricted groups to well-defined areas except under certain controlled conditions. This would have led to a demand for desirable materials that did not exist within one’s own range but were available elsewhere. The regular meeting of conjugal groups for family reunions, for collective rituals and the exchange of marriage partners would have been ideal fora for the exchange of gifts. Such items would have thus gained symbolic and ritual meaning as well as purely practical value. Certain special items, or types of items, or even materials, could have acquired potent biographies that ultimately completely transcended any possible practical use, becoming sacred items. Indeed, such exchanges could have been a means of the creation of genealogies, being confirmed at marriages and passing along through families, becoming imbued with a social significance that extended not only into the past but forward into the future, transcending time itself and existing on a totally different plane of being to ordinary objects (Edmonds 1993 p73). Knowledge of the material itself would have become a desirable thing: for instance, learning where stone tablets could be found and the special ways in which they had to be worked could have contributed to a sense of identity (Hind 1998) both individual and corporate.

            Above all, such items, together with their attendant stories and mythologies, would have brought distant communities together in spirit (Hind 1998), forging a much wider sense of identity than that of the individual band or closely related group of bands. Ideas and artefacts may have enjoyed a much wider circulation in Mesolithic societies than has been hitherto suspected.

01:01:05. A Wide Society.

            Sea travel may also have been far more extensive than would otherwise have been thought as a re-interpretation of the evidence of the so-called “passage-graves” or “passage-tombs” may suggest. For a hundred and fifty years it has been taken as canon that megalithic monuments such as the “passage-graves” were constructed by early Neolithic immigrant farmers who brought their architectural technology with them – the ex oriente lux theory. Radiocarbon dating has proved beyond doubt that the megaliths of Western Europe are older than anything equivalent in the east, putting that theory to rest: “Suddenly and decisively the impressive megalithic tombs – are set earlier than any comparable monuments in the world” (Renfrew 1976 p133) That they were used as graves is not in doubt as many finds would attest (Renfrew 1976 p134), but was this their primary purpose? There is very little reliable evidence for the initial construction of these monuments: most of the available data refers to secondary material that was deposited later, and almost all show evidence for having been re-built, re-used and re-re-used sometimes over a period of millennia with the result that evidential support for the notion that they were in origin either Neolithic or graves is, at best, weak (Rault 1997 p5), and henceforth we should refer to them as dolmens rather than the perhaps misleading and certainly semantically loaded terms “grave” or “tomb”. There may be an alternative explanation (Rault 1997).

            Extensive surveys of a very large number of megalithic sites demonstrate that a great majority show very striking similarities, so much so that it has been argued that their builders shared a common belief that a certain form was necessary for their purposes, whatever those might have been. Monuments on the south and south-western coasts ofScandinaviafrom Skane to Vastergotland suggest a rich but varied mythological tradition was active during the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, a tradition that strongly informed the construction of the various types of megaliths. The passage graves of Vastergotland particularly appear to duplicate the natural landscape in the careful manner of their design, arranged along the axes of the igneous mountain blocks, stones arranged to duplicate the highs of the distant mountains in contrast to the lows of the plateaux, and the chambers oriented so that when one enters one is also approaching the mountains as well as the inner mysteries (Tilley 1995 p76). Without doubt the mountains would have been central to the spirituality of those who dwelt near by them; they were the homes, perhaps, of ancestral spirits  who mediated between the living and the cosmos, and became places of ritual pilgrimage (Tilley 1995 p 77).

So similar are the monuments that a commonality and continuity of structural techniques, spiritual perspectives and architecture may be assumed to the extent of proposing that many were constructed according to a widely-known “blueprint” that was in use across the British Isles and up down the entire North Sea and Atlantic littoral. Even more radical is the proposition:

   “What is even more surprising is that there are two carving-types, found in Armorica at Petit Mont and in Ireland, for example at Sess Kilgreen and several of the Loughcrew dolmens, which appear to show on a different scale an impression of the chamber-forms of monuments like Nelhouët and la Ville-Pichard respectively. Naturally, this does not demonstrate that the carvings themselves actually need have been used as templates for monument construction, but it does suggest that their shared, complex and accurate geometrical designs may indicate contemporaneity and/or a means of visually representing a shared design, not apparently functional in origin, which the depictors/constructors considered sufficiently important to be executed in great detail over a wide geographical area”. (Rault 1997 p6).

            Sites included in the survey are as widely spread as Loughcrew (Ireland), Ville-Pichard and Kerdrain (Armorica), Anneville (Jersey), Gronhoj (Denmark), and inIberia, particularly along theTaguswhere vast middens “of almost industrial size” have been dated to 7 – 8,000 BCE (Rault 1997). The sites are mostly of the Ville-Pichard type, but variations include the Béthélec and Nelhouët types. Associated carvings and symbols spread over a very wide area geographically. By the late fourth millennium a repertoire of symbols was common to communities from the Orkneys, throughIrelandandBrittany, down toIberia. This may well have been a symbolism of the elite, as it is usually associated with elaborate monuments, ritual artefacts and special habitation sites (Shee Twohig 1993 p97).

            The picture that the foregoing evokes is one of communities of coastal peoples with an economy based on fishing. Instead of a disparate scattering of little groups, increasingly under siege from and doomed to extinction by intrusive immigrant farmers, we can envisage a long-standing and vibrant economy based on long-distance contact (Rault 1997 p15) and open to the full and free exchange of artefacts and ideas. The megaliths, in this light, can be seen as the culmination of the achievements of an ancient society fully capable of developing its own monumental architecture and with the engineering skills and social complexity to translate their dreams into lasting, concrete form, creating their own landscapes.

            The question that must inevitably follow on from this is to ask why people should begin to create their own landscapes, or indeed to begin to modify the natural landforms in such a way as to implant specifically human markers in them. Ethnographic accounts of modern hunter-gatherers  would suggest that animism may have been the prevalent spiritual continuum of the Mesolithic. The natural landforms would have had their own transcendental powers. Lakes and rivers, hills and trees, mountains and caves would have acquired symbolic meaning and spirits would have abounded, all with their differential powers. The spirit of a boulder would have been small and relatively weak and thus apt to manipulation or even coercion, whereas the spirit of a mountain would have been mighty indeed and there would have been little that that could be done about it. One could only pay respect to it and perhaps do what one could to ensure that it remained benevolent or at least aloof. Why complicate matters by creating things that would surely have become repositories of yet another category of meaning and power?

            It may be that we are seeing here the dawning of a differentiation between nature and culture, of the creation of the concept of “otherness” that eventually creeps into every human society. Boulders could be moved, shaped, rearranged, their spirits subordinated to the power of men. In their new configurations they would become the symbols of social groups who could assert authority and control over certain classes of spirit and thus the social group was no longer ephemeral and transient. It was acquiring permanence and the power that goes with it, and its relationship with the natural world was entering a very different footing to that which had existed in the past. The chain of causality is vastly different from our own, but it has its own internal logic. If this was the case the consequences were far-reaching for they betokened a shift in perception that was fundamental. Belief systems and world views that were rooted in the remotest past were changing and men were learning more and more the techniques of control. The old Mesolithic structures of belief were losing their force, and a new conceptual realm slowly but surely opening up, a world in which the central idioms were power and control. Once unleashed, the ability to control is endlessly addictive, and humanity has never since been able to shake off this addiction. A new conceptual world was opening up, a world that contained the ideal climate for the growth of a totally new range of human achievements.

And what of the natural landscape? This time Doggerland blossomed much more rapidly with the returning warmth; the soils had simply been frozen, not scoured away. Vegetation, perhaps, had not been displaced entirely, some hardy individuals and species surviving in sheltered refugia, and it had not been pushed back as far as it had been by the Great Ice. Grasses and shrubs were the pioneers, followed by light birch, then hazel, with oak and alder and elm, and limes on the uplands of the Dogger Hills. Browsers followed rapidly: horse, aurochs, roe andred deer, elk and wild boar populated the rolling plains. Otters and beavers and vast numbers of birds of all kinds claimed the rivers, lakes and marshes (Coles 1998 p63-65). The floral and faunal colonisation was rapid. Humans, ever eager to exploit virgin territory, would have followed in short order and the lands became favourable for permanent settlement. The arrival of the hazel tree with its nourishing and abundant nuts may mark the beginning of human occupation.

In its full flower, Doggerland would have been large and lush, a wide, rolling land of vast natural resources. Much discussion has been made concerning the diet of the Mesolithic period and little now can be made of the traces of possible foodstuffs recovered from habitation sites, but surely the diet must have been varied as the range of natural resources available. Large mammals would have been greatly favoured, for the tastiness of the meat and the ease of its preparation, as well as its “belly-filling” qualities, the provision of secondary products such as bone and hides, and its socially significant procurement strategies. But the hunting of large game is difficult and dangerous and subject to the vagaries of chance. Surely many hunters, setting out hopefully, would have failed to find a suitable quarry and would have had to have been content with small mammals caught opportunistically. Although these latter, such a hares, squirrels and hedgehogs, represent smaller food ‘packages’ there are vastly more of them than of large mammals, and they are easily caught in traps and snares. Small carnivores such as badgers, foxes and pine marten yield excellent furs and are also available as food. (Spikins 1999 p35). Coastal communities would have harvested the abundant sea mammals such as seal, walrus, and, perhaps, dolphin and whale. It is extremely doubtful that Mesolithic marine technology extended to the building of boats capable of hunting whales on the high seas, but the occasional beached animal would surely have been a source of jubilation and feasting. The coastal waters would have abounded in cod and herring, and the rivers teemed with salmon in season and eels at any time.

Vegetable foods are a source of continuing speculation, and the ratio of meat to plant foods is hotly debated. The role of meat in the Mesolithic diet is entirely speculative, and its proportion of the ancient diet may well be inflated both by archaeological survival and by current preconceptions (Spikins 1999 p34)). Large mammal remains survive reasonably under good conditions, but plant remains do not; such traces as may be recovered archaeologically could well be intrusive, or simply part of the natural ecology of the place. Plant foods – nuts, berries, fruits and herbs as well as such things as wild onion and the tubers of the water lily – would surely have been exploited, but they all require preparation and processing to a much greater extent than meat, and many – such as acorns – are toxic unless properly processed. Suffice to surmise that the Mesolithic diet was both rich and varied, with big game the food of choice, but anything edible was fair game depending on availability, local knowledge and technology and, possibly, taste and cultural dictates.

But the world continued to change and the conditions that brought about the flowering of Doggerland bore in themselves the seeds of its eventual destruction.

Water levels began to rise and flood low lying land, lakes rose and the seas migrated up river valleys, turning them into estuaries. Doggerland became a peninsula, then an island. Viking andBergenIslandsvanished beneath the rising seas. For most of this time the rise in water tables and sea levels was slow, perceptible only over generations. Again, there may have been no change for centuries then a sudden and catastrophic marine incursion deluging hundreds or even thousands of metres inland. The tides rose high and higher, and retreated less and less. TheChannelRiverbecame an estuary that penetrated deeper and deeper and wider and wider, until the final breach occurred. Eventually the last land link betweenBritainand the Continent, the chalk ridge connecting easternKentwith northernFranceandBelgium, was severed, perhaps in a single spectacular welter of surging waters. Estimates for the date of Britain’s return to insularity vary widely, from 7500 BCE to as late as 3800 BCE (Coles 1998 p67), but it is widely accepted that by 5000 BCE Britain was once more completely surrounded by marine waters. A low-lying island as big asDenmark,DoggerIsland, lay in the midst of theNorth Sea, its southern shores on about the same latitude as the Humber Estuary. Various smaller islands may have lingered for a while betweenEast AngliaandHolland(Coles 1998 fig 11).

Without doubt Doggerland was the home of human communities from the earliest Mesolithic (c 9000 BCE), and many groups lived out their lives for generations, even millennia, on land that is now under the sea. Doggerland was not, could not have been simply a ‘land bridge’ a pathway for nomadic hunters en route from east to west. For thousands of years much of it was densely forested rolling land that abounded in game of all sorts, all manner of edible plants, and all the raw materials necessary for the Mesolithic way of life. The similarity of stone and bone artefacts across Northwest Europe as far asBritainis powerful evidence for consistent and considerable social contact across the region for an extended length of time.

The land was changing inevitably, inexorably. As estuaries migrated up the great rivers, and marshes and lakes grew and deepened, so the wandering bands pushed further on toBritain, north to Scandinavia or east intoEurope. And what of those who, instead of following the ever-lengthening shore lines east and west and north, retreated into the ever-dwindling land mass? One of the hallmarks of Mesolithic society was an increasingly small territorial range for the by now perhaps only semi-nomadic communities, and inevitably some of the dwellers in the Dogger Hills would have increasingly sought refuge on higher and higher ground. Mesolithic territories were often clustered along the drainages of major rivers (Barton et al 1995 p110) and out onto the coastal plains. On-going marine transgression would have further and further constrained living areas as well as reducing access to valuable resources.

The Dogger Hills may have become an island as early as 7000 BCE, but the AMS dating of a recently trawled bone (or antler) artefact to 6050 BCE would suggest a human presence as much as a thousand years later. Inhabitable land may have lingered for a very long time indeed, but eventually it vanished. What of the inhabitants? Were they able gradually to emigrate toBritainorEuropein canoes or on rafts? Marine technologies were available in the Mesolithic as evidenced by traces of the use of boats in Maglemosian society (Grøn 1995, chap. 5), and the Aegean was certainly traversed in pre-Neolithic times (Halstead 1996 p299) by people who traded such things as Melian obsidian and presumably brought many domesticates, both animal and vegetable, from Anatolia to Greece and Crete. No anachronistically advanced technology need be postulated for such island-hopping, and travel along the coast and amongst the islands of theNorth Seacould well have been a commonplace (Rault 1997).

Or did they succumb at last to the rising waters, clinging desperately to some last scrap of rock or sand bar until a final, fatal wave finally washed them away? We shall never know. Folk memories of such terrible things may linger on to become conflated over time with other such tales, eventually adding  local colour and poignancy to the world-wide Great Flood genre of legends that seem to have existed amongst almost every society in the ancient world.

As the weather gradually and sometimes erratically warmed, the big game of the glacial epochs – mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, sabre-tooth cat, lion, giant elk – gradually melted away with the ice that had created their environment. By c. 12,000 BCE the mammoth had disappeared from Lowland Britain (Housley et al 1997 p43), and by c. 9500 BCE the giant Irish elk had become extinct in Britain, the victims perhaps of increasingly efficient human predation in an environment that had become marginal for survival [Phillips 1980: p112]. Communities evolved different, sometimes radical, strategies to cope with these changes. As an example, by about 7000 BCE the people of the HebrideanislandofColonsaymay have had to become largely vegetarian. There is evidence of large scale nut processing at this time; a large shallow pit containing thousands of hazel nut shells suggests a considerable degree of community activity and forward planning for the collection and conservation of an important vegetable staple food. It is possible that there were no red deer, the principal game animal in that area, on the island at the time and thus the people were forced to relay untypically largely on vegetables due to a lack of large game (Denison 1995a).

By c. 8500 BCE, at Star Carr on the River Derwent in Yorkshire, hunters working from their campsite on the shores of a vanished lake sought the abundantred deer[Phillips 1980 p122] as part of their routine of seasonal migration from theYorkshirecoast to the Pennine Uplands. The Star Carr hunters left behind them a set of antlers still attached to the bone, through which holes had been drilled so that it could serve as a headpiece attached by thongs. A ritual item for use in religious ceremonies involving a stag-god, perhaps, a precursor to the famed Cernunnos? The earliest known Morris dancer’s head-dress? Thered deerwere central to the economy of this people. Surely they would have occupied a central place in their mysteries. This hardy folk manufactured barbed spearheads  and other implements from deer antler and appeared to be familiar with the techniques of herd management: almost always the animals taken in the hunt were stags, seldom does or juveniles [Manley 1989: p27], although the bone evidence may be open to other interpretations. For example, male deer with full horns may have been prized as much for the trophies that they provided as for their meat and hides.

By means of such lore, slowly and painfully garnered over countless generations and for whatever purposes, people were beginning to evolve the basics of a pastoral society, having reached an intermediary stage between simple hunting and true animal domestication. The fundamental precepts for the development of farming had begun to emerge, the world was changing again. By 5500 BCE a technical and social revolution was beginning to reachBritain, a revolution of such sweeping and fundamental significance that the world would never again be the same. How it arrived, or even if it arrived rather than developing spontaneously, can never be known, but eventuate it did and it would doom the ancient hunter-gatherer societies to a slow but inevitable extinction. This revolution was agriculture and settled society: civilisation could at last begin.

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