Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Somerset

Somerset is a county of different landscapes, including the boggy areas of the Levels and the hills of the Mendips or Quantocks, Exmoor National Park as well as having a stretch of coastline. There are also many caves, which preserve remains from many periods. It has some very interesting archaeology from all periods, into the Roman period at the city of Bath and medieval occupation at Glastonbury Tor.

Some of the main sites in chronological order are:

  • Cheddar Gorge, By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29721907

    Cheddar Gorge – there is evidence of cannibalism from Gough’s Cave in the late Upper Palaeolithic, about 14,700 BP. Three skulls, one of a three-year-old child, were turned into cups and some bones were clearly butchered. It is unknown whether this was done out of desperation or for ritual purposes (Bello et al 2011). There’s also a possible engraving of a mammoth in Gough’s Cave (Mullan et al 2006). Cheddar Man, also buried in Gough’s Cave, is later in date (7150 BC – in the Mesolithic) and was not cannibalised. Remarkably, his DNA was sequenced and a descendant was found teaching in a local secondary school!

  • Aveline’s Hole – near Burrington Combe on the north side of the Mendips is a series of caves, and Aveline’s Hole may have the remains of Mesolithic engravings on its walls (Mullan & Wilson 2004). It certainly did have the remains of maybe 50 Mesolithic people buried there (Schulting & Wysocki 2002), which is an exceptionally rare thing in Britain.
  • The Sweet Track in the Somerset Levels was constructed in the winter of 3807 or the spring of 3806 BC. This precise date comes from the tree-ring dating sequence of the timbers used to construct the track that were preserved in the boggy earth (Hillam et al 1990). It seems to have been underlain by and be a replacement of another track, known as the Post Track, at 3838 BC.
  • Stanton Drew stone circle By Steinsky – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31802

    A number of stone circles at Stanton Drew probably date to the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. There are three stone circles, the Great Circle second only in diameter to Avebury, an Avenue to the river Chew and a number of outlying standing stones, including a Cove, similar to Avebury and overlying an earlier burial chamber. Geophysical survey has shown there were many timber circles there, similar to Woodhenge and the Sanctuary in Wiltshire (Oswin & Richards 2011).

  • Standing stones are also known from Exmoor, as well as the remains of stone walls of circular houses from the Neolithic and Bronze Age.
  • Earlier Bronze Age round barrows covering burials are found in many places in Somerset, for instance on the Brean Down peninsula south of Weston-super-Mare. A hillfort was also constructed on this peninsula in the Iron Age (Bell 1990).
  • Glastonbury Lake Village was an artificial island, often called a crannog, in the Somerset Levels and was occupied around 250 BC with up to 18 houses and possibly about 200 people.
  • The largest hillfort in Britain is in Somerset at Ham Hill. Recent excavations revealed the bodies of hundreds of people who had possibly been slaughtered and defleshed around the time of the Roman invasion.

Some museums and other places to visit in Somerset include:

  • Cheddar Gorge where you can explore the gorge and caves where Palaeolithic cannibals lived.
  • Weston Museum in Weston-super-Mare is currently closed for refurbishment but should be open soon and will have plenty of evidence from prehistoric west Somerset.
  • The Museum of Somerset in Taunton also has some good prehistory collections.
  • The Glastonbury Tribunal, a fifteenth century building, houses the Glastonbury Lake Village Museum.
  • Stanton Drew is on private land but there is public access.
  • You are free to roam Exmoor National Park and the national park also has an education team to help facilitate a visit.
  • Brean Down is National Trust land and so can be easily explored.
  • The Mendips are an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with many prehistoric sites to visit.

References

ApSimon, A.M, Donovan, D.T, Taylor, H, 1961. The Stratigraph and Archaeology of the Late Glacial and Post-Glacial Deposits at Brean Down, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 9 (2), pp67-136.

Bell, M 1990. Brean Down excavations 1983-1987. London, English Heritage.

Bello, S.M, Parfitt, S.A, Stringer, C.B 2011. Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups. PLOS Onehttps://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017026.

Hillam, J, Groves, C.M, Brown, D.M, Baillie, M.G.L, Coles, J.M & Coles, B.J 1990. Dendrochronology of the English Neolithic. Antiquity 64 (243, pp 210-220.

Meiklejohn, C, Schulting, R, Musgrave, J, Babb, J, Higham, T, Richards, D & Mullan, G 2012. The Aveline’s Hole 9 cranium: a partial solution to a long-standing enigma. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 25 (3), pp 275-294.

Mullan, G.J & Wilson, L.J 2004. A possible Mesolithic engraving in Aveline’s Hole, Burrington Coombe, North Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 23 (2), p75.

Mullan, G.J, Wilson, L.J, Farrant, A.R, Devlin, K 2006. A possible engraving of a mammoth in Gough’s Cave, Cheddar, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 24 (1), pp 37-47.

Oswin J & Richards, J 2011. Stanton Drew 2010. Geophysical survey and other archaeological investigations. Bath and Camerton Archaeological Society.

Schulting, R & Wysocki, M, 2002. The Mesolithic human skeletal collection from Aveline’s Hole: a preliminary note. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 22 (3), pp 255-268.

 

 

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.

When do you start teaching Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age?

There are two meaning to this question. Do you start teaching this topic in September? Are you teaching British history chronologically starting with Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age in Year 3? Do let us know.

The other meaning is, when in prehistory are you going to start? We’ve been working on some updated timelines and we can take you through some possible starting points as well as give you an overview of the prehistoric period.

The non-statutory guidance in the National Curriculum starts with comparing Neolithic (sic) hunter-gatherers with farmers at Skara Brae. If you want to start with this topic, you’ll need the first timeline. It starts in the Mesolithic, which is actually the time of hunter-gatherers rather than the Neolithic as suggested in the NC.

Later Prehistory timeline

Notice that we have used kya, for thousand years ago, and BC for this period. beyond this BC becomes a little redundant. Also note the march of sheep from the Near East to Britain. Climate changes affecting the sea level are key to understanding the Mesolithic. After the Ice Age as the climate warmed, the glaciers melted and sea levels rose. Britain had been attached to the continent by a land bridge across the North Sea (called Doggerland after the Dogger Banks) and the Channel. Around 6200 BC this sea level rise was exacerbated by a marine landslide off the coast of Norway which caused a tsunami that finally flooded Doggerland and caused Britain to be cut off from the continent.

But if you were to start the topic in 12kya, you would miss being able to talk about cave art, which we have heard here at Schools Prehistory that lots of teachers want to do. Cave paintings or engravings and portable art all date to the Upper Palaeolithic, when Homo sapiens first arrived in Europe. Not much is known in Britain, but there is some at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. If you want to start at this point, you’ll need this timeline.

Timeline starting 40kya

 

The Upper Palaeolithic is within the last Ice Age and was connected to the continent throughout. Ice sheets covered Scotland and most of northern England and at the last glacial maximum, around 20kya, would have stretched from the Wash to the Severn. Nevertheless, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did venture this far north at various points and it is thought that people were moving great distances for hunting. If you do start teaching from this point onwards, you also get the great opportunity to talk about Neanderthals, who died out around 24kya but co-existed with Homo sapiens in Europe for about 15,000 years. What a great P4C topic!

But if you do start only at 50kya, you miss out on being able to talk about the oldest human footprints found outside Africa – those of Homo antecessor at Happisburgh in Norfolk. They date all the way back to 800kya – nearly 1 million years. So, if you think East Anglia is as sexy as we do, here’s a timeline that can help.

Timeline starting 800kyaApologies for the slightly messy look. It still needs some work. What you’ll notice when you get back this far, is that there isn’t just one Ice Age, there are several. In between some of the glacial periods, sea levels may have risen high enough to cut Britain off from the continent a few times before receding again as the ice advanced once more. The earliest hearth known in Britain dates to 400kya, though it is thought that humans could control fire much earlier from evidence in Kenya and Ethiopia.

There may be many of you who balk at teaching 800kya of history, and we totally understand. The arrival of farming in Britain may be a good place to start, as it’s only 4000 BC. This technology sees the start of so many massive changes, from permanent settlement to dividing the landscape into territories and fields, and ultimately to massive population growth, pressure on resources, social stratification and violence. It also spurs on technological advancements like using fire to make metal tools and the invention of new ways of travelling, like the wheel. The introduction of farming was accompanied by changes in religious and funerary practices that give rise to huge ceremonial monuments needing massive communal effort to create. It would be a good place to start. Here’s a more detailed timeline for the Neolithic (late Stone Age) to Iron Age.

Neo BA IA timeline

 

One Million Years of the Human Story in Britain

Just before half-term our Director, Kim Biddulph, visited a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London that just might be worth looking at if you’re a teacher planning to teach prehistory for the first time. It is called Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story and is fronted by a pensive Neanderthal model created by artists from the Netherlands. He has a Homo sapiens companion and the character in each is breathtaking.

The exhibition is on until September so it’s a perfect time for teachers to visit and learn about the first million years of human prehistory in Britain. It’s not just a story of two species. As you walk in you are greeted by busts, also by the Kennis brothers, of other human species that visited this part of the world, starting with Homo antecessor, which may have been the human species responsible for leaving muddy footprints on a Norfolk beach 800,000 years ago.

The news about the extreme age of the Happisburgh footprints was released just before the exhibition opened, and there is a section dedicated to this amazing find. What was most incredible to see were some preserved pine cones from the coniferous forest close by at the time these early humans walked across the land bridge from the continent.

The exhibition gives you some idea of how we know what we know about the last million years – mainly it’s from butchered animal bone and the flint tools that did it. There is also the end of a wooden spear found on the foreshore at Clacton in 1911 and thought to date to about 420,000 to 360,000 years ago. Videos along the exhibition give a flavour of different time periods, with new ways of making stone tools coupled with images of the animals they were intended to butcher.

Dipping dark band is burned horizon at Cutting 2, Beeches Pit, Suffolk 1992. © Tim Holt-Wilson

Dipping dark band under the seated person is the earliest hearth in Britain at Cutting 2, Beeches Pit, Suffolk 1992. © Tim Holt-Wilson

One of the most difficult ideas to get your head around is the changing environment over this immense period, and the exhibition tackles this with the videos, images of landscapes and strategically placed taxidermy throughout. The Clacton spear was exhibited alongside the cranium found in a quarry in Swanscombe, Kent, probably that of an early Neanderthal woman. The accompanying video showed the site of the earliest evidence for fire in Britain, around 400,000 years ago at Beeches Pit near West Stow in Suffolk. Britain was a peninsula of Europe for most of the past million years, but was cut off by rising sea levels more than once during this time, the last occasion being about 6000 BC.

But the Neanderthal man and the anatomically modern human man facing each other in the final room is the most amazing sight, and quite touching. Homo sapiens arrived in Europe from Africa to find another human species with white skin living here, and it looks like at least a few of our species interbred with these cousins of ours. Whether we also wiped them out is a matter worth debating with students. How would they feel to meet a member of another human species?

This is where the story ends; the exhibition doesn’t take it into the period when we were the only human species left on the planet. That’s just an addendum to an amazing story of human perseverance, ingenuity and adaptation.