What did people eat in Stone Age to Iron Age Britain?

There’s a great divide between what people ate in earlier prehistory and in later prehistory, and it all comes down to when did farming start. One of the places farming was independently invented was in the Near East in around 10,000 BC. It slowly spread outwards and got to Britain by 4000 BC. This early farming culture is called the Neolithic (New Stone Age).

Early humans

Earlier species of human inhabited Britain at both cold and warm periods in the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) from about 850,000 years ago to around 40,000 years ago. Species may have included Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis. From the earliest times they may have had control of fire, as the earliest hearth was found in Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa dating to about 1 million years ago, although the earliest hearth in Britain was found at Beeches Pit in Suffolk and dates to about 400,000 years ago.

Tusk of the extinct straight-tusked elephant from Swanscombe around 400,000 years ago.

Homo heidelbergensis hunted or scavenged horse and rhinoceros around 500,000 years ago at Boxgrove in West Sussex during a warm period between glaciations. Homo neanderthalensis may have hunted elephants a mere 100,000 years later at Swanscombe in Kent. The now extinct straight-tusked elephant had lived in a very warm interglacial when Britain was probably cut off from the continent temporarily. Elephant bones were surrounded by flint tools that had been made on site, used to butcher it and then abandoned afterwards (Wenban-Smith 2013).


Some of the cave paintings at Lascaux from the Hall of Bulls (aurochs) but also showing deer and horses

Before this all over the world people had got their food by hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering wild food. The hunter-gatherer diet was quite rich. In the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age, which finished around 10,000 BC) certain animals were hunted that had adapted to the cold temperatures of the Ice Age and died out when the climate warmed. In the painted caves of Lascaux, which date to about 15,000 BC, you see horses, bison, aurochs (another species of wild cow – now extinct), giant and red deer but never reindeer, which were actually one of the main animals the people who lived nearby relied on. There are no mammoths represented here either, although they do appear at the nearby Rouffignac cave, but are not usually in the diet of the painters of this date in this area of France.

The cave art of Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire representing a deer and an ibex (a type of goat) then may not be representative of what was hunted for food in Britain at this time around 12,000 BC. A fragment of rib bone from an unidentified animal with a scratched image of a horse’s head on it has led to the suggestion that a few intrepid hunters were up there hunting wild horses on the tundra.

Human bones from Kendrick’s Cave near Llandudno from the Upper Palaeolithic that were tested with stable isotope analysis

The bones of humans found in Kendrick’s Cave near Llandudno in Wales were tested using stable isotope analysis. This measures the ratios of isotopes of certain elements in bone collagen from ancient bone and can give indications about what kind of food is being eaten (marine or terrestrial, animal or plant) and can also indicate where a person had grown up and traveled to. The ratios of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen from the human bone at Kendrick’s Cave suggested that they got about a third of their food intake from marine mammals, and the team who undertook the work suggested this was probably seal meat (Richards et al 2005, 393), even though the animal bones left in the cave were all from terrestrial mammals.

People living on the coast do seem to have continued to heavily use marine resources. Many shell middens survive on the coast of Scotland but the coastline of England has changed so much since the end of the Ice Age that many of these are probably now beneath the sea. In Scotland such middens have yielded shells of many crustaceans and molluscs, as well as fish and marine mammal bones, e.g. Sand at Applecross, Wester Ross which dates to about 6500 BC (Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2009).

Red deer bones and antler at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr in North Yorkshire

By this time we are definitely in what archaeologists call the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) after the ice retreated but before farming was introduced. At Star Carr in North Yorkshire, which dates to about 9000 BC, the vast majority of the food being consumed seems to have been red deer, although bones of other animals like aurochs (wild cows) and wild pigs also appears. The people at Star Carr went to the sea, as we can see from the collection of amber picked up on the beach, and if they ate seafood they didn’t carry it inland. There are scant remains of pike, though, which suggests they did fish in the now vanished Lake Flixton (Robson et al 2016).

Plant remains have also turned up, although they don’t survive very well, of course. They only survive when they are charred, which might have happened if overcooked by accident. Charred plant remains found on Mesolithic sites in Scotland (and elsewhere in Britain) have included crab apple and pear pips, haw berry stones, hazelnut shells and the roots of Lesser Celandine, which would be a little like very small potatoes (Bishop et al 2013).


When farming was adopted from around 4000 BC, everything changed. Stable isotope analysis comparing human bones from the Mesolithic and the Neolithic show a marked change between eating a diet rich in fish to one with little freshwater or marine component at all (although this has been questioned: Milner et al 2003). Signs of malnutrition are often found on early farmer’s bones, caused by a diet of mostly dairy and bread.

Neolithic charred bread found at Yarnton and dating to about 3600 BC.

The earliest preserved bread, charred in a fire, was found at Yarnton in Oxfordshire and dated to about 3600 BC. Wheat and barley grains have also been found charred, of a similar date and some even earlier in many places in the British Isles.

Dairying may have occurred from quite early on in the farming culture of Britain. The remains of lipids, and particularly fats from milk, have been found adhering to the inside of pots in Neolithic sites like Windmill Hill in Wiltshire and Runnymede Bridge in Surrey (Copley et al 2005).

Painted cave art of a woman gathering honey from Cueva de la Araña in Spain, Neolithic or earlier

People in the Neolithic may have had a slightly more interesting diet, though, and there are also remains of beeswax found in pots from Runnymede Bridge and in many pots from farming communities around Europe and Africa (Roffet-Salque et al 2015). This may suggest that bees were being kept in semi-domestication and that honey would be available for farmers. There is a famous piece of rock art from Spain, the Cueva de la Araña (Spider Cave) which seems to show a woman collected honey from a hive on a cliff while bees fly around her. It is not closely dated, and may be Neolithic or much earlier.

Gundestrup Cauldron dating to around 1BC from Denmark (but possibly originally made in northern France)

Large scale feasting sometimes occurs in the Neolithic and in later farming eras. At Durrington Walls near Stonehenge both cattle and pigs were slaughtered at winter-time, presumably for large midwinter feasts. Feasting also seems to be a part of life in the Bronze Age and Iron Age periods, from the discovery of large cauldrons and flesh hooks, such as one decorated with corvids and water birds from Dunaverney in Ireland and dating to about 1000 BC, and the silver Gundestrup Cauldron (probably for some kind of alcoholic drink) from Denmark.

Talking of alcohol, a pottery vessel from North Mains, Perthshire in Scotland had a black greasy substance in it which was sampled. It was found to contain cereal pollen and meadow-sweet pollen, which was used in flavouring alcoholic drinks in more recent times, and the archaeologists suggested the pot originally contained ale (rather than beer which is flavoured with hops and is usually said to be medieval in date, though there is some evidence of hops being used in Roman ale (in Andrews et al 2011, 224-5)). The ale at North Mains dated to about 1500 BC (Barclay 1983). It’s likely that ale goes back a long way.

A pot containing nettle stew carbonised in a house fire in the late Bronze Age Must Farm

A more varied diet comes back in the Bronze and Iron Ages after the introduction of a wider range of crops such as oats, rye, beans, vetch, cabbage and other foods. A pottery bowl with carbonised food and wooden spoon still in it was recently found in excavations at Must Farm near Peterborough, dating to about 1000 BC. The food was analysed and found to be some kind of nettle stew.


A – celery seed, B – coriander seed, C – dill seed, D – olive stone. Found at the late Iron Age settlement at Silchester in Berkshire.

With Roman contact in the late first century BC, some of the elite of southern England took to importing wine and other exotic foodstuffs. At Silchester, a late Iron Age settlement in Berkshire, imported food included coriander seeds and olives. Some ended up in their graves to take them to the next world, or at least show off to mourners. What a waste!



Andrews, P, Biddulph, E, Hardy, A & Brown, H 2011. Settling the Ebbsfleet Valley. Oxford & Salisbury, Oxford Wessex Archaeology.

Barclay, G, 1983. Sites of the third millennium be to the first millennium ad at North Mains, Strathallan, Perthshire. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 123, pp 122-281.

Bishop, R. R, Church, M, J, & Rowley-Conwy, P 2013.  Seeds, fruits and nuts in the Scottish Mesolithic. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 143, pp 9-71.

Copley et al, 2005. Dairying in antiquity. III. Evidence from absorbed lipid residues dating to the British Neolithic. Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 523-546. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2004.08.006

Hardy, K & Wickham-Jones, C 2009. Mesolithic and later sites around the Inner Sound, Scotland’s: the work of the Scotlands First Settlers project 1998-2004. Scottish Archaeological Internet Report 31. http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/sair/contents.cfm?vol=31

Milner, N et al, 2003. Something fishy in the Neolithic? A re-evaluation of stable isotope analysis of Mesolithic and Neolithic coastal populations. Antiquity 78, Issue 299, pp 9-22. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00092887

Richards et al, 2005. Isotope evidence for the intensive use of marine foods by Late Upper Palaeolithic humans. Journal of Human Evolution 49, pp 390-4.

Robson, H. K., Little, A., Jones, A. K. G., Blockley, S., Candy, I., Matthews, I., Palmer, A., Schreve, D., Tong, E., Pomstra, D., Fletcher, L., Hausmann, N., Taylor, B., Conneller, C. and Milner, N, 2016. Scales of analysis: evidence of fish and fish processing at Star Carr. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2016.02.009.

Wenban-Smith, F 2013. The Ebbsfleet Elephant. Oxford Archaeology Monograph Vol 20.

Long Meg and her Daughters, Cumbria

Long Meg and her Daughters as seen from the air. Simon Ledingham [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg and her Daughters as seen from the air. Simon Ledingham [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg and her daughters is a Neolithic stone circle in Cumbria about seven miles north-east of Penrith. It may have had many more stones, but now has 68, and 27 of these are still standing. The ‘daughters’ are the grey stones set in a circle and Long Meg is a 12 foot (3.65m) tall red sandstone monolith that stands just outside the circle to the south-west. She is decorated with pecked spirals and arcs on her eastern face. Long Meg was probably transported a couple of miles from the River Eden or the Lazonby Fells and was erected first, whereas her ‘daughters’ were glacial erratics and put up later. According to local tradition, Long Meg and her daughters were witches who were turned to stone for dancing wildly on the moors on the sabbath. There are many local legends about the stones, including that if Long Meg were ever broken, she would bleed (Burl 1994, 3-6; Soffe & Clare 1988, 552).

Long Meg and her daughters form the sixth largest stone circle in Britain, Ireland and Britanny, 25 times larger than the average stone circle (Burl 1994, 1). It is part of a European megalithic tradition of building large stone monuments that starts in the Neolithic and continues into the earlier Bronze Age. There are several stone circles in Cumbria apart from Long Meg, including Castlerigg, Little Meg, and Swinside. Not many of these stone circles have had a history of excavation, and so it is difficult to pinpoint with much greater accuracy exactly when in the Neolithic or Bronze Age they were constructed and whether they have been rearranged at any point. The eighteenth century antiquarian William Stukeley suggested that Long Meg had been extensively modified within his lifetime, and stones were also moved later in the nineteenth century, so it is possible that the stones are not in their exact original positions (Burl 1994, 4).

Long Meg. PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg. PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite this, for many years it has been noted that Long Meg aligns with the midwinter sunset. The two more northerly ‘portal’ stones of the southern entrance align exactly on Long Meg and the midwinter sunset. The spiral motifs carved on Long Meg are thought to reflect the spiral shadow that the sun makes as it passes through the midwinter day (Burl 1994, 8). It is likely that there were two burial cairns in the centre of the circle, possibly built in the Bronze Age and later than the stone circle itself, that were removed by the landowners over the centuries. There are other stone circles known in Cumbria with stone cairns inside, at Gunnerkeld and Burnmoor, for instance (Burl 1994, 4-5; Clare 1975, 6, 10).

Although not visible on the ground, there was an enclosure to the north of the stone circle and a cursus monument (a long processional route flanked by parallel banks and ditches) to the west that leads to (or from) the River Eden. These were found in the 1980s through aerial photography. The enclosure bank and ditch may have been round a settlement that was lived in at the same time as the stone circle was built (Burl 1994, 6; Soffe & Clare 1988, 552). People from the settlement and surrounding areas may have processed along the cursus to from the River Eden to Long Meg and her Daughters at midwinter to “supplicate for the return of summer, light and warmth” (Burl 1994, 10).

Wordsworth was certainly inspired by the stones, writing in his 1822 poem, The monument commonly called Long Meg:

A weight of Awe not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that family forlorn;

If you are a teacher in Cumbria, you have your own stone circle to teach about and even visit, and don’t have to focus on Stonehenge. There are plenty of other stone circles, rows, single stones or dolmens around the country, too, like the monolith in Rudston churchyard in the East Riding of Yorkshire, stone rows on Dartmoor, and Kit’s Coty in Kent.

References and further information
Burl, A. 2005. A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Burl, H.A.W. 1994. The stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld. Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2nd Series Volume 94, 1-11.
Clare, T. 1975. Some Cumbrian stone circles in perspective. Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2nd Series Volume 75, 1-16.
Clare, T. 2007. Prehistoric monuments of the Lake District. Stroud: Tempus.
Soffe, G. & Clare, T. 1988. New evidence of ritual monuments at Long Meg and her Daughters, Cumbria. Antiquity Volume 62 Issue 236, 552-557.



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


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.

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.

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.

People in prehistory were not stupid

Hi, this is Kim Biddulph here, Schools Prehistory Director. It has been my life’s goal to prove to children and adults alike who visit museums, historic houses and archaeological sites that I have worked at that people in the past were not stupid. I consider it a triumph if someone I have talked with has the spark of revelation that people in the past were just like us.

Me teaching a shadow puppet session at the Pitt Rivers Museum, drawing done by the head of education there, Andrew McLellan

Me teaching a shadow puppet session when I worked at the Pitt Rivers Museum, drawing done by the head of education there, Andrew McLellan

I am helping the Pitt Rivers Museum develop a Stone Age workshop at the moment and I count it particularly important to ensure that the philosophical approach to people in prehistory is the same as that museum’s approach towards the makers of many of the objects in the collections from around the world. It is both an archaeological and anthropological museum. Instead of grouping its anthropology collection into cultures the museum is famous for arranging its collections by type. The original impetus for this was General Pitt Rivers interest in the evolution of the sophistication of objects from ‘primitive’ societies to more ‘civilised’ societies. The museum now keeps the same arrangement but for a fundamentally different reason. The philosophy of the museum is to reject the idea that societies evolve from primitive to civilised and to emphasise the ingenuity of humankind across the globe to solve problems with the materials and technology they have to hand. We all face the same problems, how to house ourselves, feed ourselves, travel, keep warm with clothes and fires, play, adorn our bodies to look important or beautiful, but we all do it slightly differently.

I am concerned that the idea that prehistoric European societies were primitive and have evolved to our civilised state is being taught to children in our schools now. I have heard a teacher say that people invented farming once they learned how to use their brains. I have been told of an occasion when a museum workshop leader said that people invented metal-working once they became cleverer and found an alternative to mere stone. If we say that prehistoric people were stupider than us, it logically follows that we are also saying that our own contemporary societies with similar technology to our prehistoric ancestors are actually stupider than us.

Replica Neolithic pot

Replica Neolithic pot

Let’s approach prehistoric periods with more subtlety and appreciation of their ingenuity. Lets remember that inventions were probably realised following accidents or developed out of small scale changes in behaviour spurred by changing cultural practices. Farming was invented in the Near East and spread (as an idea) across Europe slowly, taking over 6000 years to reach Britain in 4000 BC. The invention of pottery vessels alongside farming was spurred on by the increasingly sedentary lives of farmers in the Near East and someone accidentally dropping clay into a fire, probably. The better control of fire to make better fired pots probably led to the discovery of metal, when a piece of copper ore was dropped into a fire. Imagine a similar scenario for iron, which has an even higher smelting temperature.

The people who took advantage of these new inventions and technologies were not stupid, in fact they were very intelligent, seeing the opportunities that these technologies gave them not only for easier access to food and better tools, but initially probably because the knowledge and practice of this technology gave them an opportunity to get one over on their neighbours.

Early copper and bronze tools were not better than flint. Until bronze-smiths learned how to make better bronze tools, flint was still sharper and stronger than bronze. Early iron was also not better than bronze straight away. Smiths now had to learn to add carbon to the cutting edge to make it stronger and less brittle in order for iron to displace bronze.

An old (white) and replica (black) handaxe handled at one of our training days

An old (white) and replica (black) handaxe handled at one of our training days

You only have to see photos of the amazing paintings at Chauvet Cave in France to know that the earliest anatomically modern humans in Europe were not stupid. But what to say about Neanderthals or other early species of human e.g. Homo heidelbergensis or Homo erectus? How do we talk about the mental capacity of different species of humans? I think, given that they were the ones who first controlled fire, who created beautifully flaked symmetrical handaxes, and may have been experimenting with art hundreds of thousands of years before Chauvet, that we shouldn’t underestimate them either.




We visited the National Association for Primary Education‘s conference last Friday on 24th April 2015. We found a kindred spirit in a teacher who wanted to show his kids that people in the Stone Age were not stupid. You can imagine how we cried for joy! He recommended a video that showed how cave paintings were not just static portraits of animals but were painted in such a way that they were like animations, and would have moved in the flickering firelight. We didn’t have time to get details but the hive mind of Twitter, specifically Helen Hall @JellyheadNelly, found it for us. It was the work of archaeologist Marc Azema, and here it is.

Book review: The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein

This is a wonderful picturebook that invites children to imagine they lived thousands of years ago and invented drawing. You see animals in rocks and clouds, watch animals all day and even come face to face with a woolly mammoth. You see animals running and dancing in the firelight on the walls of the cave where you sleep with your extended family. But no-one else can see what you can see until you pick up a charred stick from the fire and start making marks on the wall where you can see the animals: the first drawing. Then everyone can see what you see and everyone draws on the cave.

Being written in second person is really engaging and different, and the detail in the pictures really backs up that feeling of the reader being the main character in the story and being misunderstood by others. The book could easily be read without any words, with the pictures themselves telling the story. If you focus on the pictures you can see the expressions of the wider family as they disbelieve, fear and finally see the animals on the walls. If children look really carefully they can see that one member of the extended family does see, a baby, the most innocent and least socialised person in the group.

If you examine the end papers either before or after reading the book, you can find some clues as to why certain aspects of the book are in there. There is the dedication which reads:

For Susan, with love. Your beautiful drawings open our eyes to our own imaginations. –MG

Who is Susan? Who is referred to in ‘our eyes’? Perhaps Susan is the author’s daughter and she opens her parents eyes to their own imagination, like the hero of the story eventually opens his/her parents and relations eyes to their imaginations. Under the dedication is the hero looking at an elephant in the zoo, which might link to the hero coming face to face with a woolly mammoth. Perhaps that is a memory of the author’s visit to a zoo. Children will have other ideas too.

A focus on the text will provide opportunities for philosophical discussion. The phrases “Why can’t they see what I see?”, “being a mammoth might not be so different from being you.” and “It is magic.” the ‘it’ being drawing, are a few starting points that would lead to very rich dicussions.

The Author’s Note at the back gives more detail about the prehistorical background, explaining that the book was inspired by the cave paintings found in Chauvet cave in southern France. The author tells us that he had always thought children had invented drawing and when the footprint of a child, perhaps aged about 8, was found in the cave, alongside that of a wolf, he felt vindicated. It would be great to compare the drawings in the book to the drawings in Chauvet Cave, which you can find on the Bradshaw Foundation’s website.

Children could even investigate the premise of the book, which is that art was invented in Europe around 30,000 years ago. This eurocentric viewpoint can be challenged as it may be that anatomically modern humans (AMH) created art long before that but not on cave walls where it has been preserved. AMHs first arrived in Australia, it is thought, about 60,000 years ago and they may have already been drawing. A recent find of a scored shell has been dated to before AMH evolved, about 500,000 years ago. It is likely that an earlier human species, Homo erectus, had scored the abstract patterns on the shell found on Java in Indonesia.

It is also not likely that humans lived in the caves that they decorated, and it would be good to read this book alongside Satoshi Kitamura’s Stone Age Boy book that shows a more authentic way of life of these Ice Age people, living in tents by rock shelters.

Book review: The Ravens by James Dyer

The Ravens is a children’s book set in the late Iron Age, in fact in 54 BC, the year of Caesar’s second invasion of Britain, similar to Adventure on the Knolls which we reviewed earlier (and published by the same publisher). It even starts with a modern boy dreaming about what went on in an ancient hillfort. Where it differs, though, is in the quality of writing and research. It was written by James Dyer, an archaeologist with a specialism in Iron Age hillforts.

The modern boy is called Adam and he is a really good runner. He is training with a rival, a boy called David Azlett and stops on the Mound overlooking Ravensburgh hillfort. The Iron Age story then begins in the next chapter, leaving you wondering whether it’s all in Adam’s head or not.

The Iron Age Adam is tipped to be the new leader of the Boys House at Ravensburgh, but his rival is a bully called Azlett. Adam’s grandfather is advisor to their leader, Cassiv (short for Cassivellaunus, the documented king of the Catuvellauni tribe). Cassiv is away fighting the Romans, who find the British fighting methods, guerilla tactics, each to himself and use of chariots, difficult to deal with. Adam and his friend Marik go with Greggo, a veteran of the wars, to deliver more equipment to Cassiv’s warriors.

With the confidence and freedom of being near-grown boys in the Iron Age, Adam and Marik decide to go and take a look at Caesar’s army for themselves and end up finding out a secret that could see the end of the Catuvellauni and Ravensburgh. Only swift-footed Adam can save the day, and he’s been spotted by the traitor Azlett.

The book is filled with amazing attention to detail, such as the importance Iron Age Britons attached to their appearance, sacrifices made to Iron Age gods and accounts of the campaign from Caesar’s perspective as well as the Britons’. One reference to the now discredited Icknield Way can be forgiven; the book was written in 1990.

The book could be read alongside topic work on Iron Age Britain and the Roman invasion, what it meant to Iron Age people, some of whom welcomed it and some of whom certainly didn’t. You could explore what changes the Catuvellauni might have expected if Caesar had decided to stay instead of going back to Gaul, before looking at what did happen in AD 43.

A trench through the ramparts at Ravensburgh in 1964. Photo courtesy of North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society

A trench through the ramparts at Ravensburgh in 1964. Photo courtesy of North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society

What’s particularly lovely about studying this book is that the author also surveyed and excavated at Ravensburgh, so you can look up the work he did and compare it to what he wrote in the novel. This PDF from the Chilterns AONB in which Ravensburgh sits is quite useful, or there is a quick summary from North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society.