Hunter-gatherers to farmers

Demonstrating flint knapping

Demonstrating flint knapping

The tricky question of how and why hunter-gatherers took up farming is explored in one of our all-day school workshops. Starting outside, using the time frame of the Mesolithic, we explore what life was like for hunter-gatherers. What animals were available for them to hunt? How did they make their houses? What skills did they need to survive? How did they enjoy and express themselves?

We emphasise how hunter-gatherers relied on the environment to provide everything they needed; food, clothes, building material, decorative items. We teach children how to make fire and process bramble into rope, or nettle into cord. Using an anatomy apron and a deer skin we ceremonially gut a ‘deer’ and decide which bits are edible, and which bits can be used for something else like making water bags.

Demonstrating spinning wool

Demonstrating spinning wool

In the afternoon everything changes as we go inside and find out about the farming lifestyle of the Neolithic, from making cloth out of wool, to grinding wheat to make flour. We explore how, because people were producing excess food they needed something to store it in, and so pottery became very useful. Children get to make butter and try out wattling.

Finally, the classes come together to celebrate in the Neolithic way, making a causewayed enclosure with their own bodies, playing musical instruments, singing and clapping. It’s a memorable way to finish off a wow day.

Find more details of this and other workshops here.

Hunter-gatherers used every part of the animal

In the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic before people took up farming they fed themselves by hunting and gathering. But the animals they hunted didn’t just provide food. They provided clothes, containers, glue, tools and so many other necessary things. Though we don’t know if this was the case in Europe, if we look at other cultures, the bounty provided by animals was deeply respected in other hunter-gatherer societies that survived to be recorded by westerners. Though the animals were killed, they were treated as gifts from the spirits and not a bit was wasted.

We have surprisingly large amounts of evidence for various parts of the animal being used, other than the meat. Bones were hollowed out and used as containers or flutes, or they could be splintered into thin slices and made into needles, bodkins and barbed points for hunting.

Bone barbed points from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251555

Bone barbed points from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251555

Other bones were used as scrapers and burnishers for working with hides. Very large hard bones such as those from the wild ox (aurochs) and elk were sometimes turned into axes, like this one found in the river Thames. Antlers were turned into mattocks for digging in the ground, or as soft hammers for flintknapping. And, of course, animal teeth, horns and antlers were used as decoration. Star Carr’s red deer antler frontlets, worn as headdresses, may have been more than decoration. They were probably used for religious ceremonies.

Red deer antler frontlet from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251554

Red deer antler frontlet from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251554

The soft bits of animals have not survived in great numbers for us to find, but there are clues. The skulls of smaller animals such as pine martens, foxes, wildcats, otters and badgers with telltale marks of skinning found at Tybrind Vig in Denmark suggest they were caught for their fur.

Residues of animal fat have been found in shallow stone bowls along the coastline of Germany and Denmark, which may have been used as lamps. Similar traces, though coloured, were found on a wooden plate at Møllegabet in Denmark. The colour came from pigment and may have been used for body painting.

Traces of glue have been found on preserved tools and arrows, but it is invariably pine or birch pitch, not glue from boiled up animal hooves or hide. This might be because hide glue is water soluble so would quickly dissolve.

Although animals were clearly valued for more than their role as prey in the Palaeolithic, demonstrated by all the cave paintings and portable art, in the following Mesolithic this is less clear. But nevertheless, life would not have been possible without them.

Woolly rhinoceros at Chauvet Cave. By Inocybe at fr.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Woolly rhinoceros at Chauvet Cave. By Inocybe at fr.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

References

Benozzo, F. 2010. The Mesolithic Distillation of Pitch and its Ethnolinguistic Reflections: A Holocene Etymology for an Italian Verb. In Scritti in onore di Eric Pratt Hamp per il suo 90. compleanno, ed. G. Belluscio e A. Mendicino. Rende, Università della Calabria, 29-42.

Clarke, J. G. D. 1954. Excavations At Star Carr: An Early Mesolithic Site at Seamer Near Scarborough, Yorkshire. Cambridge University Press.

Davis, S.J.M. 1987. The Archaeology of Animals. Yale University Press.

Heron, C, Andersen, S, Fischer, A, Glykou, A, Hartz, S, Saul, H, Steele, V, Craig, O. 2013. Illuminating the Late Mesolithic: residue analysis of ‘blubber’ lamps from Northern Europe. Antiquity 87, Issue 335, 178-88.

Menotti, F. 2012. Wetland archaeology and beyond: theory and practice. Oxford University Press.

Milner, N, Taylor, B, Coneller, C, Schadla-Hall, T. 2013. Star Carr: Life in Britain after the Ice Age. York, Council for British Archaeology.

Vahur, S, Kriiska, A, Leito, I. 2011. Investigation of the adhesive residue on the flint insert and the adhesive lump found from the Pulli early Mesolithic site (Estonia) by MICRO-ATR-FT-IR spectroscopy. Estonian Journal of Archaeology 15, Issue 1, 3-17.

Wood, J. 2011. Prehistoric Cooking. Stroud, The History Press.

Prehi/stories podcast on the Archaeology Podcast Network

prehislogo2-1Have a listen to our Director’s new podcast on the Archaeology Podcast Network. Prehi/stories aims to discuss stories set in prehistory. Are they a good way to help children and adults learn about prehistory? Do they inspire the prehistorians of the future? Can they inspire the prehistorians of today? Are they better written by prehistorians who aren’t primarily authors, or by authors who do their research?

Episode 2 is all about Wolf Brother, the first of a series of books by Michelle Paver set in the Mesolithic. Guests on the podcast include James Dilley of Ancient Craft, Donald Henson of the University of York and Matt Ritchie of the Forestry Commission Scotland which developed a teacher’s resource to go alongside Wolf Brother that you can download as a PDF. More children’s books will feature on the podcast as Kim talks to archaeologists, natural historians, authors and poets about them.

Celts: art and identity at the British Museum until 31st January 2016

Celts: art and identity at the British Museum

Celts: art and identity at the British Museum

Celts: art and identity exhibition at the British Museum has just started and we made it a couple of days after the grand opening. It charts the development of the European and then insular British art style, mainly in metalwork, from the Iron Age to through the Roman period and into the post-Roman period of Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Gaels. It’s quite refreshing to see the links between these periods rather than to have them rigidly divided. The exhibition then goes on to describe the Celtic revival of the Victorian period and what it means to consider yourself Celtic today.

The word Celt is somewhat problematic for describing the earlier groups of people, as is reflected in the exhibition text from the beginning. The people who lived in Britain didn’t refer to themselves as Celts and the observers from outside Britain didn’t refer to them as Celts either. Greek writers referred to some people on the continental mainland as Celts for a short while. But it was eighteenth and nineteenth century antiquarianism which revealed the lost history of these early periods through sites and finds and labelled them as Celtic. The word is, of course, now used as a cultural self-identified label in Wales, Ireland and Scotland, among other places.

Setting that aside, the objects in the exhibition show a clear development of an artistic style that was widespread in Europe (some of the earlier objects come from the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark) in a peculiarly British way in the Roman and post-Roman periods. It would have been good to have seen some of the continental artwork from these later periods to compare and contrast with the British stuff.

Gundestrup Cauldron. By Rosemania (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/4121249312) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gundestrup Cauldron. By Rosemania (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/4121249312) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wonderful and well-known objects from the Iron Age part of the exhibition include the Gundestrup Cauldron, a wonderful feasting vessel made of silver and decorated with panels showing scenes of gods, animals, sacrifice, magic, music and warriors. Although it was found in Denmark, it was probably made in northern France or southern Germany, showing that there were links and movement of objects, and probably people, between these places. What is even more amazing are the animals that may be attempts by Iron Age craftspeople to depict elephants and rhinoceroses from hearsay.

Basse-Yutz flagons. By British_Museum_Basse_Yutz_flagons.jpg: [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Basse-Yutz flagons. By British_Museum_Basse_Yutz_flagons.jpg: [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Links to the Mediterranean world are also clear, with wine flagons dating to about 400 BC from Basse-Yutz in north-eastern France based on Etruscan examples and a lovely Greek painted cup repaired with gold from Kleinaspergle near Stuttgart in Germany that was traded north around the same time. ‘Celtic’ Europe was not as isolated or barbaric as the Ancient Greeks like to make out.

St Chad's Gospel. By The original uploader was Claveyrolas Michel at French Wikipedia (Transferred from fr.wikipedia to Commons.) [CC SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

St Chad’s Gospel. By The original uploader was Claveyrolas Michel at French Wikipedia (Transferred from fr.wikipedia to Commons.) [CC SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The reconstructed Wetwang chariot and the incredible Snettisham hoards of gold and silver torcs are quite spectacular. Throughout the exhibition are also ‘ritual’ objects, including statues of possible deities, such as the two-faced statue from Holzgerlingen in Germany dating to about 500-400 BC through to an altar to Brigantia from Birrens near Glasgow that dates to AD 120-180 and then on to Christian crosses e.g. the Dupplin cross from Strathearn. Despite the conversion to Christianity, the pagan decorative style is still quite apparent, and is seen in St Chad’s Gospels, which is also on display.

Whether you’re teaching Stone Age to Iron Age Britain, Roman Britain or Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Scots, there’s loads to get out of visiting this exhibition. It’s on until 31st January and there are specific school visit sessions (all free), either self-led or with support from the museum’s facilitators.

We’ve thrown the doors open to all of primary history

While prehistory will remain our primary passion, here at Schools Prehistory and Archaeology, we’re moving forward – in time! “Why stop when the Romans arrive in Britain?”, we thought. Why ignore the awesome Anglo-Saxons and the vivacious Vikings? And why give the Shang Dynasty the cold shoulder?

We’re archaeologists, and all these topics, and most of the others in the Key Stage 2 history curriculum in England, can be studied from the archaeological evidence as well as the measly bits of writing that has survived. So get ready to have all sorts of exciting teaching ideas about the ancient Maya, the Indus Valley, Benin and Baghdad.

The Shang Dynasty of China, for instance, is a Bronze Age culture, and even though writing had already been invented in China by this time, the majority of what we know about the Shang comes from what has been dug up by archaeologists.

A great activity to do with kids to help them understand how bronze was cast can be done with chocolate or jelly. Both substances, like molten bronze, are liquid when warm and go hard when cool. In the time of the Shang bronze was used to make vessels for food and drink, mainly as offerings to the many gods. Make your own vessel by following the instructions below.

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First you need to make a blank out of clay. You can make this exactly how you want the final cast to look and is easier than making a mould with the decoration in reverse. Above are some of the common patterns on Shang vessels.

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You will leave this to dry and then encase it in another layer of clay. This is the mould.

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Remove the mould when it is leather-hard and then leave that to dry.

Replica Shang Dynasty vessel made of ice

Replica Shang Dynasty vessel made of ice

Melt the chocolate or dissolve the jelly in some hot water and then pour it into the mould. You could even make an ice pop. Leave it to set and then break the mould to get at your delicious replica Shang vessel (technically not a vessel as it is solid; the Shang would have suspended a smooth blank inside the mould to cast a vessel).

This and more exciting activities on the Shang Dynasty are all available from the Hamilton Trust.

School workshops on the Stone Age to Iron Age at museums in England

To go alongside our post about museums with prehistoric collections to see, here is a list of museums in England that run workshops on a Stone Age to Iron Age theme. They are grouped by region, again, so hopefully you’ll find somewhere near you. Let us know if you know of a museum near you that runs workshops on prehistory in the comments below. We don’t take any responsibility for the quality of the workshops on offer.

London

The Museum of London at Barbican runs a great overview workshop that involves shadow puppet shows with a story and song for each period in later prehistory, the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age. Children then get to handle replica objects as featured in the story, as well as real archaeological objects from London.

The Museum of London’s London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC for short) in Hackney also runs workshops for schools looking at real objects from the Stone Age to Iron Age found in London to find out what they tell us about people’s lives in prehistory.

South-east

scrapbook 004The Chiltern Open Air Museum near Amersham offers a Stone Age workshop (which our director Kim Biddulph developed for them) exploring the skills and lives of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers where children get to make fire, shelters, bramble or nettle cord and pigments. You can then contrast this with a workshop set in the Iron Age roundhouse where children grind wheat, make bread, churn butter and wattle fences.

Luton Culture offers three prehistory sessions either at the Stockwood Discovery Centre or in school. One is object and chronology based, the second looks at the changes from hunter-gatherer to farmer and the third gets the children creating their own prehistoric art using natural pigments and brushes.

St Albans Museum isn’t all about the Romans, they also run a Prehistory Explorers session in local schools where children find out about how archaeologists work and how they piece together evidence about the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

Celtic Harmony are near Hertford and have a reconstructed Iron Age village where children can learn all about life as an ancient Briton. They run a range of workshops where children can become warriors, farmers or hunters

Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford offers a Stone Age to Iron Age workshop that we developed for them! Children will work out from the clues on the timeline what period their collection of objects comes from and then hunt around the museum for objects to help them solve everyday problems using only the materials available to them in either the Stone Age or the Metal Age.

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford runs a workshop on Life in Prehistoric Britain, which gives children chance to handle artefacts and work out what they tell us about people’s lives and then hunt for objects on display in the museum. Children get to make a replica torc and take part in a prehistoric celebration.

The River and Rowing Musuem in Henley on Thames runs a workshop designed for Key Stage 2 pupils that covers the Stone Age to the Iron Age. It gives pupils the opportunity to handle prehistoric artefacts and have a go at cave painting.

Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury currently runs workshops that can be tailored to a time period including the Stone Age, such as exploring the objects from a burial in A Murder Mystery or comparing several time periods of Buckinghamshire in Time Travellers.

Knole Park in Sevenoaks, despite being better known for it’s medieval deer park and Jacobean house, I am reliably informed that they undertake Stone Age to Iron Age outreach sessions in schools and prehistory walks around the grounds.

Dover Museum focus on the Bronze Age as they have the remains of a Bronze Age boat in the museum. They run a drama workshop on Bronze Age community life, or craft workshops making replica boats or pots. They have set days for booking their workshops.

Braintree Museum offers a new Stone Age to Iron Age workshop designed for Key Stages 1 and 2 to carry out a mini dig, and handle archaeological collections. It also provides the opportunity to try some archaeological tools and try cave painting.

Lewes Castle in Sussex runs handling sessions for schools exploring changing technology from Stone to Bronze and all children handle real prehistoric artefacts from the collections.

Banbury Museum have developed a Time Traveler workshop designed for Key Stage 2 that maps changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age by creating a timeline and handling and investigating objects.

South-west

Kresen Kernow offers an innovative Prehistoric Cornwall workshop – free of charge – to schools right across Cornwall. Linked to the National Curriculum it highlights the social and technological changes which can be traced in Cornwall’s unique archaeology. Featuring a handling session and various activities linked to a site near to your school it will take your children on an immersive journey from the Neolithic to the end of the Romano-Cornish period. For more details see: https://www.cornwall.gov.uk/community-and-living/records-archives-and-cornish-studies/learning/formal-education/topics-and-themes/key-stages-1-2/

Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter run and Stone Age to Iron Age experience for schools that is led by a storyteller. It gives pupils the opportunity to handle genuine and replica artefacts as well as learning about their local environment. The session culminates in a drama performance.

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery runs a workshop on Bronze Age Dartmoor, focusing on the changes in technology in the Bronze Age, but also includes an overview of prehistory from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.

Salisbury Museum runs two workshops on prehistory. One is focused on the Amesbury Archer, a Bronze Age burial discovered near Stonehenge and now on display in the museum. Children get a chance to handle a replica costume of this person and try on prehistoric outfits themselves. In Surviving the Stone Age children are guided through making a survival game that they then play and see who manages to survive the Stone Age.

Wiltshire Museum in Devizes runs a workshop called Journeys into Prehistoric Wiltshire that get children handling objects found in the county and making replicas to take away.

Andover Museum of the Iron Age

Poole Museum runs a workshop called Changing Societies in which the class is split in two and one experiences life as Stone Age hunter-gatherers while the other tries out the Iron Age farming lifestyle. They then get back together and swap notes.

Andover Museum of the Iron Age runs workshops on life in the nearby Danebury hillfort, looks in depth at one of the burials there and also runs a cross-curricular workshop looking at the materials used in the Iron Age.

East of England

Hoeing the fields

Hoeing the fields at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk runs a Neolithic Britain workshop where children get to recreate a hunt in the woods, try out ploughing with an ard and work with various tools.

 

 

 

 

 

Ipswich Museum in Suffolk offers a workshop called “How did life change during the Stone Age?” During this full-day visit pupils investigate, questions and compare two lifestyles in our prehistoric past. Artefacts, art and role-play bring the distant past to life.

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge offers a multi-sensory prehistory session for schools, with object handling. Contact their outreach organiser via their schools learning web page.

Flag Fen near Peterborough is the site of a Bronze Age settlement and ritual platform on the edge of and going into the fens and is also the home of the Must Farm boats that were found recently. They run two sessions for primary schools, focused on prehistory and archaeology.

East Midlands

Derby Museum and Art Gallery runs Adventures in the Stone Age workshop focusing on how humans survived in Europe 40,000 years ago during the Ice Age and can include an optional make and take activity.

West Midlands

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery runs two prehistoric sessions with one including handling objects and the other providing arts and crafts activities. At Sarehole Mill children can make prehistoric shelters, do some digging and visit a real Bronze Age site.

Heritage Education in Warwickshire offers a day long workshop called Stone Age to Iron Age that they can come and deliver in the classroom. The workshop uses replicas of objects from Heritage and Culture Warwickshire’s archaeology collection.

North-east

Hull and East Riding Museum runs three different workshops on the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

Bronze Age axe head and mould. Image copyright Leeds Museums and Galleries.

At Leeds City Museum you can book a timeline workshop where children become the heads on a timeline of bodies from the Stone Age to the present day to get good chronological understanding. At the Discovery Centre down by the canal, there is a Stone Age to Iron Age workshop in which children can handle archaeological artefacts to find out about the prehistory of Yorkshire.

At Dig in York children get to take part in a mock excavation and discover objects. They can then look at burials and beliefs or houses over time from the Stone Age onwards.

At the Yorkshire Museum in York is a workshop called Prehistoric Progress which lets children explore artefacts from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages and work out what the major technological advances were, as well as do practical activities such as make shelters, pots and jewellery.

The Yorkshire Museum of Farming near York has an Iron Age roundhouse and teachers all about Stone Age and Bronze Age life including hunting, farming and making pottery.

The Bowes Museum in County Durham offers a Stone Age to Iron Age workshop specifically designed for Key Stage 2 pupils.

North-west

The Manchester Museum runs a workshops called The Mystery of the Thunderstone where children learn to excavate and record Stone Age and Roman artefacts to solve the mystery of what the thunderstone is.

At Tullie House in Carlisle children get to handle and record objects, role-play ceremonies inside stone circles with real and replica artefacts, and make their own lunula, a crescent moon shaped neck decoration from the Bronze Age.

Touchstones is a museum and discovery centre in Rochdale and runs Stone Age and Bronze/Iron Age workshops for schools. In the Stone Age workshop children make paint and pottery, and in the Bronze/Iron Age workshop they learn about making houses and weaving. They also offer an outreach session in schools and loan boxes of real and replica objects.

The pre-Christian festival of Beltane – what’s the evidence?

Wicker man burning at Butser Ancient Farm

Wicker man burning at Butser Ancient Farm

Today a few places around the country, for instance Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, will hold Beltane (or Beltain) festivals instead of maypole dances and light a wicker man at dusk in a ceremony that supposedly extends back to the pre-Christian (and potentially pre-Roman Iron Age) Britain. But what’s the evidence for this?

We do have a couple of written sources that describe Britain and Europe in the time just before the Roman occupation. Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars specifically mentions that the druids burned a great effigy of a man made of interwoven branches, with people as sacrifices trapped inside,and the Greek geographer Strabo also mentions the practice, though neither specifically link it with Beltane or even mention the name of the festival. Strabo says “having devised a colossus of straw and wood, [they], throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings”. Both sources probably derived from the earlier Greek traveller, Posidonius, so potentially neither of the later writers had seen it for themselves. The description, which also served to justify the imposition of Roman rule over dangerous barbarians, could easily have been exaggerated from the practices of Beltane that survived in the western and northern parts of Britain in much later periods, described below.

The next reference to Beltane is around 900 CE in the Irish text Sanas Chormaic, a time when Ireland was very firmly Christian. The Sanas is a glossary of terms with explanations, and Beltane is described as the time when druids would bring the cattle to the lucky fires to make sure they didn’t get any diseases in the coming year (presumably caused by evil spirits) before being driven out to summer pasture. The mention of druids clearly harks back to an earlier time, but it’s not clear what evidence the author based this explanation on. The author goes on to explain that Bel may mean lucky, or refer to a pagan god called Bial. Because the author, a monk, would have been very familiar with the near eastern pagan god Baal described in the Old Testament, it’s likely he got mixed up.

18th century engraving of a Wicker Man. By UnknownMidnightblueowl at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

18th century engraving of a Wicker Man. By UnknownMidnightblueowl at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Beltane festivals were still being held in Ireland in the 19th century, especially in Leinster and Munster, when both cattle and people leaped over flames to protect them against fairies and witches. They are also mentioned in the Scottish Lowlands in the 16th century and in the Highlands in the 18th century where a bannock bread would be made in the flames. They are also known in the Isle of Man, Cumbria, Devon and Cornwall in the 18th century but not across the rest of England. Although not recorded across much of Wales, they were known in Glamorgan and Montgomeryshire in the 19th century.

From the geographical distribution they look suspiciously ‘Celtic’ (although we prefer British, Celts not being described in Britain in pre-Roman times) in origin. But the corresponding areas of the continent that were Celtic e.g. France and Spain, had no tradition of May celebrations whereas they are found in Germany, Scandinavia and Austria. They may not have been Celtic in origin, then, but to do with a shared pastoral economy that relied on cattle or other livestock, rather than the mainly agrarian economy of south-eastern Britain and south-western Europe, where they practised other May traditions like bringing greenery into the house.

Edinburgh Beltane Festival 2012. By Stefan Schäfer, Lich (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Edinburgh Beltane Festival 2012. By Stefan Schäfer, Lich (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Whether you light up the barbecue or do a bit of gardening this bank holiday, rest assured you are probably continuing a couple of millennia of pagan traditions 😉 And, of course, some of you will be celebrating with modern pagan ceremonies too.

References

Green, M, 1997. Exploring the world of the druids. Thames & Hudson, London.

Hutton, R, 1996. Stations of the Sun. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Museums with Stone Age to Iron Age collections on display

If you are teaching children, or are the parents of children who are learning about the Stone Age to Iron Age topic in primary schools in England, you might want to find a museum to visit to see some objects from these exciting periods on display. We’ll update this blog post as we find or hear about museums with great prehistoric collections, so if you find one, let us know in the comments below. You may also be interested in places where you can visit replica Stone Age to Iron Age houses, or in museums with school workshops on offer. In this post we’re starting from the south and heading northwards by region.

London

The British Museum has two galleries (numbers 50 and 51 on the upper floor) dedicated to Britain and the Near-East from 10,000 BC to 800 BC (Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age) and Britain from 800 BC to AD 43 (Iron Age). The earlier gallery focuses on the invention and adoption of agriculture. The later gallery contains objects such as the Mold Gold Cape from Wales, Snettisham torc hoard, and the remains of Lindow Man.

The Museum of London has a gallery called London before London, with a focus on objects from the Thames itself. Highlights include the reconstructed face of a Neolithic woman from Shepperton, a resin copy of the Dagenham Idol (the original is in the Valence House museum in Dagenham itself) and a partial reconstruction of the interior of an Iron Age roundhouse.

The Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in London might appear not to be a place to go to find out about human prehistory, but they do have a few animal skeletons on display that early humans would have come across when they first arrived in Europe, like giant deer skulls, as well as the skeletons of early humans (hominins) like Homo erectus.

Similarly London’s Natural History Museum also has displays on human evolution as well as those animals that lived in Britain and Europe both in the warm and cold periods of the Ice Ages at the time of hominin and modern human inhabitation.

South-east

Reconstruction of the interior of a Bronze Age roundhouse

Reconstruction of the interior of a Bronze Age roundhouse

Dover Museum houses the Dover Bronze Age boat, which is an incredible and near unique survival from this time. It does also have a partial reconstruction of the interior of a Bronze Age roundhouse complete with mannequins in replica costumes based on finds from Denmark.

Tunbridge Wells Museum in Kent has Stone Age to Iron Age artefacts from the High Weald on display in Room 2 of the museum.

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has a gallery of prehistoric artefacts, including an intriguing pair of spoons, one with a hole and one engraved with a cross. They have been interpreted as a fortune-teller’s kit. Other highlights include carved stone balls from Scotland, Bronze Age gold earrings, an Iron Age coin hoard, and Bronze Age and Iron Age swords and shields.

Some casts of famous Palaeolithic portable art in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Some casts of famous Palaeolithic portable art in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Also in Oxford are the Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum (they are attached to each other). The Museum of Natural History has a display on the evolution of humans, as well as a cast of the Red Lady of Paviland (actually the skeleton of a man dated to around 30,000 years ago found in Wales) and a display on how stone tools developed over time, as well as some casts of beautiful Ice Age portable art. Be aware you will have to deal with questions about the Venus of Willendorf’s body!

Flint arrowheads on the top floor of the Pitt Rivers Museum - not necessarily all from Britain

Flint arrowheads on the top floor of the Pitt Rivers Museum – not necessarily all from Britain

The Pitt Rivers Museum has stone, bronze and iron tools and weapons on the top floor and will eventually also have more archaeology displayed there exploring the quest for food from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.

Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury has a gallery on the prehistoric and Roman history of the county, including drawers full of Ice Age fossils, like mammoth teeth, and then much later objects such as the Late Iron Age mirror from Dorton and an Iron Age coin hoard.

The Higgins Bedford’s collections on display in the Settlement gallery include stone tools discovered by the Victorian collector James Wyatt (1818-1878) in local gravel pits. Two flint hand axes found next to a piece of fossilised mammoth leg bone showed that early humans lived alongside long-extinct animals, showing that humankind was far more ancient than most people at the time believed. A reconstruction of the recently-excavated 3,800 year old burial of a Bronze Age archer from Great Denham shows a high-status young man in his twenties, as revealed by the beaker pottery, bronze dagger and finely crafted stone wrist-guard with which he was buried.

Luton’s Stockwood Discovery Centre has a great gallery showing finds from around Luton, some of which come from Waulud’s Bank in North Luton, an unusual ‘D’ shaped Neolithic enclosure at the source of the River Lea.

Haslemere Museum in Surrey has a collection of flint tools on display from Blackdown, West Sussex.

Guildford Museum has a permanent exhibition of some of the prehistoric artefacts found locally, including bronze spear-heads.

On the south coast is Bexhill Museum in East Sussex which has some local prehistoric artefacts in the Sargent Gallery.

Although The Novium in Chichester was built to house the Roman bath-house and displays mainly Roman collections, it also currently has Bronze Age Racton Man, killed in two fatal blows and buried with his bronze dagger, in a temporary exhibition.

The Redoubt Fortress and Military Museum in Eastbourne has a year-long exhibition on called Treasure which includes some Stone Age artefacts.

South-west

The Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro has an impressive collection of prehistoric artefacts, especially Bronze Age objects including three gold lunulae which are the subject of a beautiful poem by Penelope Shuttle. They also have Iron Age objects including a slate knife from Harlyn Bay and a decorated mirror.

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter has an important collection of prehistoric archaeology from Devon, including 350,000 stone tools from gravel pits near Axminster and finds from Neolithic and Bronze Age burials. It is also the current home of the Kingsteignton Idol.

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery has a gallery called Uncovered which spans from the Bronze Age to the medieval period and has examples of Bronze Age tools and weapons among other things. With any luck some of the objects from the amazing Whitehorse Hill cist burial that were temporarily on display there in 2014 will come back to the museum permanently. If you look carefully, you’ll also be able to see some remains of Ice Age animals in the Explore Nature gallery.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has a temporary exhibition on until June 2017 on Stone Age to Iron Age Bristol including Bronze Age swords and Iron Age jewellery.

Gloucester City Museum has prehistoric objects on display.

Salisbury Museum is an essential accompaniment to a visit to Stonehenge itself (which also has a fantastic museum). The Stonehenge Archer and the Amesbury Archer are both here, the former was a man buried in the ditch of Stonehenge with arrowheads that would have been embedded in his flesh and bones. The Amesbury Archer had come from the Alps and brought with him the earliest dated metal objects in the country.

Wiltshire Museum in Devizes has a great deal of the artefacts from barrows around Stonehenge in its Gold at the Time of Stonehenge gallery, including collections from the Bush Barrow, the Golden Barrow and a possible shaman’s burial. These are important evidence of the role of Stonehenge as a religious monument and focus of high status burials in the early Bronze Age.

The Alexander Keiller Museum is within the henge of Avebury itself and houses the collection of Alexander Keiller who dug at Avebury and nearby Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure (Neolithic meeting places). The remains of burials from the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age are on display here.

Dorset County Museum in Dorchester houses many of the objects found in excavations at the nearby Iron Age hillfort Maiden Castle and currently has an appeal to raise enough money to buy a lovely late Iron Age mirror found in a burial in the Chesil area.

Remains of hunter-gathering and farming communities have been found on land and under water in the Solent and some are housed at Southampton Seacity Museum.

Poole Museum houses the very handsome remains of the Poole Logboat, which is 2300 years old. At 10m long, it is the longest logboat ever found in southern Britain and was found in Poole harbour during dredging.

City Museum in Winchester has displays about the history of the area from the Iron Age.

Andover Museum of the Iron Age is a small community museum, but the Iron Age section has a wonderful collection of artefacts and reconstructions/dioramas, with lots of information on Danebury Hillfort. There is also information on the occupation of the Test Valley from Neolithic to modern times.

East Anglia

Including Cambridgeshire in East Anglia, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of Cambridge University (MAA) has some great collections of prehistoric artefacts, including tools made by early humans from Olduvai Gorge in east Africa, collections from the Mesolithic site at Star Carr in Yorkshire and an Iron Age mirror from Great Chesterford in Essex.

Flag Fen near Peterborough not only has reconstructed Bronze Age houses but also a museum containing some of the huge number of bronze weapons thrown into the fen from the wooden platform that was revealed in a groundbreaking excavation in the 1980s. Recent excavations nearby at Must Farm uncovered the remains of eight logboats, which are also being conserved at Flag Fen and are regularly on display there.

Peterborough Museum has an archaeology gallery including a prehistoric murder victim and one of the finest Iron Age swords ever found.

Chatteris Museum is nearby to Peterborough and currently has an exhibition of the Ancient Human Occupation of Chatteris including 500,000 year old flint axes and many replica objects that can be handled, including a Bronze Age sword and shield.

Wisbech and Fenland Museum has an archaeology collection including an Iron Age decorated scabbard dating to about 300 BC among many other locally found objects.

Ancient House Museum in Thetford, well-known as a Tudor manor house, also has some objects from nearby Grimes Graves (a Neolithic flint mine that can also be visited) including a polished stone axe and bat bones.

Lynn Museum in King’s Lynn has the wonderful Seahenge on display. You can appreciate the size of this timber circle that was found on the coast of north Norfolk with an upturned oak tree in the centre. Other exhibits include a hoard of Iron Age coins hidden in a cow bone at Sedgeford in Norfolk, a find our director Kim Biddulph saw first hand as it came out of the ground!

Photo courtesy of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

Photo courtesy of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

Gressenhall Museum near Dereham in Norfolk has a display on the first farmers in the Neolithic. Norwich Castle, in contrast, has a gallery on the Iron Age. Both of these are part of Norfolk Museums.

Colchester Castle in Essex has a great collection of objects relating to the Iron Age oppidum (a type of early town) of Camulodunon, a fore-runner of Roman Camulodunum. Finds from the Lexden burial include a medallion depicting the Emperor Augustus and were given as a gift to a client king in Essex, possibly Cunobelin, whose coins can also be found in the museum. There are earlier objects too, including a beautiful bronze cauldron from Sheepen that attests to a late Bronze Age feasting culture.

Ipswich Museum houses some Iron Age collections as well as a gallery of the wildlife of Britain from 10,000 BC to today – which animals would our prehistoric ancestors have known? Which animals that we are familiar with today are invasive?

Mildenhall Museum near Thetford hosts some impressive Roman and Anglo-Saxon finds, but it also has a gallery of prehistoric artefacts.

East Midlands

Creswell Crags is on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border and is a gorge in which many caves were inhabited, first by Neanderthals about 50,000 years ago and then by modern humans about 10,000 years ago. The only figurative piece of Ice Age portable art in Britain has been found here, and engraved drawings can also be seen inside the caves.

Buxton Museum in Derbyshire is currently closed fgor refurbishment, but has teeth and bones of Ice Age animals from various caves in the county, as well as some human-made artefacts from prehistory.

Jewry Wall in Leicester has extensive archaeology collections including stone tools.

Prehistoric pottery vessels in Charnwood Museum. Photograph courtesy of Leicestershire County Council.

Prehistoric pottery vessels in Charnwood Museum. Photograph courtesy of Leicestershire County Council.

Charnwood Museum in Loughborough includes local objects dating from the Neolithic to the Iron Age such as tools, jewellery, pottery vessels and a chariot fitting.  A rare Bronze Age axe mould is a recent addition to the displays.  Objects buried with the 4000 year old Cossington Boy are included alongside a reconstruction of his burial.

Bronze Age objects on display in Melton Carnegie Museum. Photograph courtesy of Leicestershire County Council.

Bronze Age objects on display in Melton Carnegie Museum. Photograph courtesy of Leicestershire County Council.

Melton Carnegie Museum in Melton Mowbray includes prehistoric objects from the local area including flint and stone tools and beautiful Bronze Age pygmy cup which may have been used in rituals.  Also features the nationally important Bronze Age Welby Hoard of bronze axes, sword, spear, harness fittings a bowl.  The hoard gave its name to a type of axe. Iron Age finds include a gold coin of the local Corieltavi tribe and pottery from the nearby hillfort at Burrough Hill.

Part of the Iron Age Hallaton Treasure to be seen at Harborough Museum. Photograph courtesy of Leicestershire County Council.

Part of the Iron Age Hallaton Treasure to be seen at Harborough Museum. Photograph courtesy of Leicestershire County Council.

Harborough Museum and Market Harborough Library, Market Harborough includes the fantastic Hallaton Treasure (www.leics.gov.uk/treasure) a collection of Late Iron Age and Roman objects buried at a shrine of the local tribe, the Corieltavi, between 50 BC and just after the Roman invasion of AD 43.  See 2500 Iron Age and Roman gold and silver coins, jewellery, a unique silver bowl, ingots, pig bones and a beautiful and rare silver gilt Roman cavalry helmet which make up this amazing discovery.  Also, see some of the earliest pieces of metalwork from Britain – the Gilmorton Basket Ornaments – a pair of gold earrings or hair ornaments from the Copper Age c.2500 BC.  Other prehistoric objects include a rare cannal coal button dating to the Bronze Age and prehistoric pottery.

The Collection in Lincoln has archaeology galleries that cover Stone Age tools, Bronze Age burials and early metals, and Iron Age swords and shield given to the spirits of the River Witham. The Iron Age Fiskerton log boat is also on display there.

The Norris Museum in Huntingdon is a small museum with some lovely prehistoric collections, including Iron Age cart fittings from Arras culture burials.

West Midlands

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery have stone and metal tools, jewellery and weapons in their collections.

The Herbert Museum and Art Gallery in Coventry has prehistoric objects on display, including some Iron Age metal-working crucibles from the Post Office sorting depot site.

The Market Hall Museum in Warwick is currently closed but will open in 2017 with refurbished displays including some prehistory, especially the giant deer.

The Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent has prehistoric artefacts on display in the archaeology gallery, including prehistoric pottery and early examples of tools and metal-working.

North-east

Yorkshire Museum in York has prehistoric objects on display from flint tools to some of the chariot burials from the Arras culture in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There is also a special exhibition on until 2016 of the Mesolithic objects from Star Carr in After the Ice. In the next two years they will run exhibitions on Bronze Age and Iron Age Yorkshire.

Leeds Museum has displays of Mesolithic and Neolithic flint and stone tools, a Bronze Age jet bead necklace (made from Whitby jet) and both bronze moulds and casts. They also have a partially reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse and artefacts from the Iron Age settlement at Dalton Parlours. These are all in the Leeds Story gallery.

Neolithic carved stone found on Fylingdales Moor. Photo by Graham Lee, North York Moors National Park Authority.

Neolithic carved stone found on Fylingdales Moor. Photo by Graham Lee, North York Moors National Park Authority.

Whitby Museum itself has a collection from the nearby Mesolithic site of Star Carr, Neolithic flint tools, Bronze Age bronze weapons and tools and a copy of one of the Neolithic carved stones from Fylingdales Moor.

Weston Park Museum in Sheffield currently has an exhibition until 20th September 2015 on Life on the Edge, all about life at Creswell Crags in various Ice Ages. Prehistoric objects excavated from South Yorkshire and the Peak District are on display here including  flint implements from Mesolithic sites such as Deepcar and grinding stones used for flour production in Iron Age Wharncliffe.

Tolson Museum in Huddersfield has prehistoric objects on display.

Copies of the Iron Age Roos Carr figures at Dover Museum. The originals are in Hull and East Riding Museum.

Copies of the Iron Age Roos Carr figures at Dover Museum. The originals are in Hull and East Riding Museum.

At Hull & East Riding Museum you can walk through a reconstructed Iron Age village complete with chariot and see the enigmatic Roos Carr figures. There is also the Iron Age Hasholme logboat to see on display.

Scarborough Rotunda displays some archaeological artefacts, as well as Gristhorpe Man, a skeleton buried in a hollowed out tree trunk in the Bronze Age – something qoite common in Denmark but not so much in Britain.

Objects in Ryedale Folk Museum. Photo courtesy of Spencer Carter.

Objects in Ryedale Folk Museum. Photo courtesy of Spencer Carter.

Ryedale Folk Museum in Hutton-le-Hole, North Yorkshire, has displays of flint tools and objects from a waterlogged Iron Age sites along with its reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse.

Swaledale Museum in North Yorkshire also has local prehistoric objects.

The Dales Countryside Museum in North Yorkshire has some local prehistoric objects including flint tools from Wensleydale that date back to the end of the last Ice Age around 13,000 years ago.

The Great North Museum: Hancock houses the prehistoric collections from Wearside, including a logboat, cup and ring marked stones, 174 Neolithic stone axes, Bronze Age burials, hoards, tools and weapons.

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens also has prehistoric objects on display.

The Gainford Stone, a slab of rock carved with prehistoric cup and rings patterns, is only one of a number of local prehistoric artefacts to be found in the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle.

Durham University’s Museum of Archaeology houses locally found prehistoric including cup and ring marked stones, microliths made by hunter-gatherers around 7000 BC as well as artefacts from the farming era including jet jewellery, cremation urns from Crawley Edge, Stanhope and a bronze sword from Houghall.

Palace Green Library in Durham will have a new exhibition devoted to the last 10,000 years of Durham from 26th July called Living on the Hills in the Wolfson Gallery.

North-west

Manchester Museum, part of the university, has objects from Alderley Edge in Cheshire, where there was, among other things, a copper mine in the Bronze Age. Some Palaeolithic objects from Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire are also on show here. There are also bronze hoards from the River Ribble and gold bracelets from Malpas.

The Museum of Liverpool has a gallery called History Detectives which includes some prehistoric objects, including a burial urn from Wavertree that would have contained the burnt bones of someone from the Bronze Age.

Clitheroe Castle Museum has displays about the area’s prehistory as well as history, including burial urns from Pinder Hill.

The Harris Museum in Preston has ancient human and animal bones from the Preston Dock excavations that date back 6000 years, Bronze Age burial urns from the Bleasdale timber Circle and a giant elk from the end of the last Ice Age.

Saddleworth Museum in Oldham has local prehistoric objects on display.

Tullie House in Carlisle has important objects from the Langdale axe factory from which many ground stone axes were distributed across the UK and abroad in the Neolithic period. A Bronze Age display is housed in a replica wooden roundhouse in the Border Galleries.

Stone Age to Iron Age Cantabria, northern Spain, and it’s links to Britain

Spain has its fair share of beautiful heritage, and our director Kim Biddulph and her family found quite a few links between Britain’s and northern Spain’s Stone Age to Iron Age period on a recent visit to the area.

"12 Vista general del techo de polícromos" by Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“12 Vista general del techo de polícromos” by Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A highlight of the trip was a visit to Altamira cave, or, at least, it’s replica. The ceiling painted with bison and horses is recreated in a purpose built museum next to the actual cave. Many of the bison were painted on natural lumps in the ceiling that made them look 3D. We didn’t have time to visit the other painted caves of the region, but will go back to visit again. The cave art of this area and southern France is spectacular, but Britain has some cave art of its own. Around eighty carvings have been found in caves at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire and more at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, and it’s likely more examples will be found.

One single piece of animal bone incised with an image of a horse was also found at Creswell Crags, one of only a couple of pieces of portable art found in Britain. In Santander Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria (MUPAC), we were blown away by the number and sheer beauty of the images carved on bone, antler and tusk.

We think there must have been communication between Britain and Cantabria in the Stone Age. The reason we’re suggesting a link is that in a museum in Bilbao we saw microliths (small flint flakes) that had come from a Neolithic dolmen, Hirumugarrieta 2, dated to around 2800-3000 BC (thanks to Joseba Rios-Garaizar of Arkeobasque for the link). Microliths (tiny precision made flakes that were used to make composite projectiles or other tools) were a type of flint technology used in the British Mesolithic from around 9000 BC up to 4000 BC (thanks to Spencer Carter for the date check), after which they went out of use, but they were certainly still being made and used in the Cantabrian/Basque Neolithic. Travel between the two could have been by foot in the earlier period but the seas were inexorably rising and then a tsunami in c.6100 BC caused by a landslide in the North Sea finally cut Britain off from the continent (see video below), so the two areas developed their own separate ways. Microlithic technology was invented independently in many different areas, though, (for example in south Asia around 35,000 years ago) so the link between Britain and Cantabria may be illusory.

 

Late Iron Age Cantabrian circular tomb stone

Late Iron Age Cantabrian circular tomb stone

Hillforts also become a thing in the Iron Age, just as in Britain, but one of the distinctive features of Cantabria, and neighbouring Basque country, in the late Iron Age are circular tombstones with distinctive motifs. Burials in general are quite rare in Britain in the Iron Age though there are some local traditions, such as the chariot burials in East Yorkshire.

Looking at the prehistory of another country is really useful to bring out the contrasts and similarities between the two and work out how typical Britain’s prehistoric traditions were. But it also reminds us that there wasn’t really a Britain at all until the seas rose and submerged the land bridge that once tied us to the continent.

Look for resources on Stone Age to Iron Age Britain from your local HERO

There are HEROs out there, you know. Yes, it’s an acronym. It stands for Historic Environment Record Officer and they manage the archaeological database for counties, districts or cities. We have mentioned them before as great sources of information on your local prehistory. Now we have more information about the HEROs that are developing resources specifically for teachers on this new topic.

Emmetts Post set into a Bronze Age round barrow on Dartmoor

Emmetts Post set into a Bronze Age round barrow on Dartmoor

We’ve mentioned the Devon HERO before, and their website is loaded with useful local information and resources to teach all aspects of the new history curriculum at both primary and secondary level.

East Sussex County Council’s HERO, Sophie Unger, has been busy. She has taken part in a Teachers CPD day to help primary school teachers to better understand the period and topics they can cover. They are also in the middle of producing prehistoric finds ‘toolkits’ with both original and replica finds and finds cards for the five prehistoric periods which we will loan out or sell to schools. They are also offering two hour schools sessions at their local record office to bring in children to discover how the HER works and use mapping resources to discover local prehistoric archaeology.

Exmoor National Park has developed three loans boxes for schools that cover the Mesolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age and the local HERO loans these out. They have also developed some learning resources on the Moorland classroom, which includes information about the prehistoric heritage of that area. Find out how to get hold of all these resources on the Exmoor National Park website.

Lincolnshire County Council’s HERO, Richard Watts, is working on a project to develop resources to support the prehistory element of the curriculum, including running teacher CPD sessions. Keep an eye on this website and get in touch with them if you’re interested in joining a focus group to shape what they create for schools.

Keep an eye on West Berkshire HERO if you live in that area. They are working with their colleagues in the council who work with schools to develop some resources too.

We’d love to hear from more HERs who are or have created useful resources for teachers. If you’re a teacher and don’t know how to find your local HERO, drop us a line and we’ll find you a contact.