The north/south divide doesn’t apply in prehistory – or does it?

Any teacher that contacts us through Twitter, this site or, indeed, face to face, better be ready to be amazed when we point out some amazing archaeology on their doorstep. We’re so used, today, to all the good stuff being in London and the south-east, that it becomes second nature to believe all the good archaeology is in the south, too.

This error is compounded by the myopia that fixates us on Stonehenge and ‘Wessex’. But it’s been a good twenty years since a change in the planning process has transformed what we know about the rest of the country. The hills of Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire were a focus for the two centuries or more before that because there were huge estates of unploughed land there covered in barrows, cursuses and henges.

And because of Planning Policy Guidance Note 16, published in 1990, now transformed into the National Planning Policy Framework (yes, it’s important to know about this, people!), as well as targeted projects, we now have a huge number of exciting sites to shout about in the north and west, and, yes, the south and east of Britain.

Model of Mesolithic house at Mount Sandel, Northern Ireland. By Notafly (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Model of Mesolithic house at Mount Sandel, Northern Ireland. By Notafly (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s take the Mesolithic semi-permanent houses that are cropping up in southern Scotland and northern England (and for this we must thank Spencer Carter of for his extensive notes on this and related subjects), e.g. at Howick, Low Hauxley, East Barns and on the Isle of Man, not to mention Star Carr. The Mesolithic was traditionally seen as the nomadic hunter-gatherer stage before people settled down in the Neolithic. With a house that stood for 100 years? Strange kind of nomads.

Not only that, but better understanding of the chronology of sites and artefacts has proved that many innovations moved from north-south rather than the other way round. Grooved Ware, a late Neolithic style of pottery, was first made and used in the Orkneys before spreading around Britain. Cursuses, those enigmatic double-banked linear monuments, seem to have originated in northern Britain and spread south. But they have been investigated in the opposite direction.

Three Thornborough Henges seen from the air. By Tony Newbould [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Three Thornborough Henges seen from the air. By Tony Newbould [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, because the revelation that other parts of Britain mattered too in prehistory is only a recent one, there have been tragedies where vital information has been lost. The Thornborough henges in Yorkshire are three large henges (earthern circular banked monuments) in a row surrounded by a ritual landscape of barrows, pit alignments and another cursus. Sadly for Thornborough, the underlying drift geology is gravel, which needs to be extracted to make roads and driveways and there is ongoing pressure to destroy much of the archaeology around the henges. It would, of course, be recorded, but the henges would be divorced from their wider context.

Of course, it’s not just north/south, but every region of Britain that isn’t Wessex has it’s amazing monuments. And every region has its experts, too. We’ve been gathering names of prehistorians from around the country who will be willing to talk to teachers about their local Stone Age to Iron Age sites. Why not kill two birds with one stone and teach the new prehistory element through the local history study? And get one of our experts on your doorstep to help you plan.

References and further reading

Bradley, R 2007. The Prehistory of Britain and Ireland. Cambridge University Press.

Harding, J 2013. Cult, Religion, and Pilgrimage Archaeological Investigations at the Neolithic and Bronze Age Monument Complex of Thornborough, North Yorkshire. Council for British Archaeology Research Report 174.

Local prehistory in Pleasley Vale

Prehistory is not just about the big important sites like Stonehenge. Prehistoric archaeology is all around you and can form a new starting point for a local history study. Matthew Beresford of MBArchaeology has been working on the past of Pleasley Vale, just north of Mansfield on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border.

Generally in this region, human occupation during the Ice Age can be traced back no further than 60,000 years ago, when Neanderthals were using the caves as shelter sites, for example at nearby Creswell Crags.

Ground plan of Yew Tree Cave based on nineteenth century drawings (© Creswell Heritage Trust)

Ground plan of Yew Tree Cave based on nineteenth century
drawings (© Creswell Heritage Trust)

The earliest evidence of landscape use at Pleasley Vale comes from the two cave sites within a limestone gorge. No human occupation was found, but a wide variety of Ice Age animal remains were recovered in the late 19th century. Pleasley Vale Cave was discovered in 1862. Inside the cave were the bones of reindeer, woolly rhinoceros, wolf and wild horse – animals that lived in a rather cold climate. The second cave, known as Yew Tree Cave, was explored by William Ransom in the 1860s, where he discovered bones of roe deer, wolf and pig, indicating a warmer climate. Clearly the area was used over thousands of years.

Fieldwalking in the surrounding fields at Pleasley has revealed Neolithic (c.4500- 2500BC) flint tools and Bronze Age (c.2500-700BC) flints and metalwork, including part of a bronze bracelet and a bronze spearhead (found on separate occasions) just to the east of Pleasley Vale very close to the local water source. This may suggest they were offerings placed in the water, a common practice in the Bronze Age period and relating to religious beliefs.

Hayman Rooke’s plan of the Roman villa.

Hayman Rooke’s plan of Pleasley Roman villa.

Pleasley’s Roman villa may well have grown out of an earlier Iron Age settlement. The villa site at Pleasley Vale was first discovered in 1787 by Major Hayman Rooke, a local archaeologist who lived at Mansfield Woodhouse. Rooke and his team found traces of early timber buildings that dated to around AD 80 – this is quite an early date for a farmstead as military occupation was still heavy in the area, largely due to the trouble caused by local Iron Age tribes, the Brigantes in Derbyshire and the Corieltauvi in Nottinghamshire.

Pleasley Vale’s history extends into the more familiar medieval and post-medieval periods, and right up to the modern day. Further information can be found in the publication Pleasley Vale: A Journey Through Time (2012) edited by Matthew Beresford, and is available as a free downloaded via

An education box was also created on the site, and is stored with the Bolsover District Council team at the Greaseworks building at Pleasley Vale. This features educational resources, information, artefacts and activities, and was designed for use by schools and local groups.

Matthew Beresford is an archaeologist and teacher who runs MBArchaeology, specialising in Community Archaeology and education. He leads the archaeology element of the Limestone Journeys project, for which the Pleasley Vale research was undertaken. He is also author of Beyond The Ice: Creswell Crags and its place in a wider European perspective (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2012), and co-runs the hugely popular Ice Age Camp family learning archaeology sessions during the summer. For more information visit

How to find prehistoric remains local to your school

In our survey of teachers about to teach the new primary history curriculum later this year one of the main things respondents wanted information on was the prehistoric remains local to their school. A fuller account of how to do this is given in one of our information booklets, How to research your local prehistory, but here are a couple of tips.

The main way is to contact your local Historic Environment Record (HER). It is now statutory that all local authorities maintain a HER, so search on your local county or unitary authority website for archaeology or historic environment. A small number of authorities have outsourced the function to an external consultant, but it should still be accessible.

Some, but not many, HERs have online databases. One, that Schools Prehistory’s Kim Biddulph worked on many years ago, is Buckinghamshire County Council’s HER at Here you can search by parish, period, type of site or find (object) or simply by using a keyword.

ubpMost HERs have a similar database not fully accessible online, so it will just be a case of contacting the Historic Environment Record Officer (yes, that acronym makes HERO!) and giving them the post-code of your school and an idea of what period you’re looking at. Start with the whole of prehistory and then narrow it down if you get loads of results.

The HER also holds reports of any archaeological investigation undertaken at each site, possibly photographs, and can plot the sites on a map for you so you can find them easily. This is a publicly accessible record so it’s there for you to use. As you’d be accessing it for educational non-commercial purposes, the service should also be provided free, or at least very cheaply.

We undertook a search for Low Ash Primary School in Shipley and found some Bronze Age cairns (stone burial mounds), Iron Age settlement enclosures and, excitingly, some Bronze Age rock art easily accessible in their local park. We put together some notes for the teachers with teaching suggestions, a map of where everything was and a package of images to use on the whiteboard.

sample_low_ashA selection of what’s in the local HERs is on the National Monument Record held by English Heritage. Their website Pastscape has a searchable database, so you need to know your local authority area again and search for prehistory.

If you don’t have time to do all this research, we’re happy to do it for you. Group together in your local cluster of schools and get us to find the exciting prehistoric remains local to you that will bring prehistory alive for your pupils.