Poems about prehistory – a great way to start or end a unit

Last week we sent a tweet out to teachers who were starting to plan their curriculum next year and working out what to teach about Stone Age to Iron Age Britain. We got a reply from @RobertaWedge.

Here’s a sample of The River’s Tale by Kipling:

But I’d have you know that these waters of mine

Were once a branch of the River Rhine,

When hundreds of miles to the East I went

And England was joined to the Continent.


I remember the bat-winged lizard-birds,

The Age of Ice and the mammoth herds,

And the giant tigers that stalked them down

Through Regent’s Park into Camden Town.

This got us thinking that a poem about prehistory would be a great way to start a unit of work about prehistory, or even to end it, and ask pupils to write their own poem. We asked prehistorians on Twitter for some more poems, and this is what they came up with.

A gold lunula from Germany

A gold lunula from Germany. By Michael Gäbler [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

@MatthewPope, a palaeolithic archaeologist at UCL, liked this poem about Bronze Age ornaments at Truro Museum in Cornwall, Three Lunulae by Penelope Shuttle. Here’s a sample:

Gold so thin

only an old woman

would notice its weight


Crescent moons of gold

from the sunken district

of the dark,

out of the archaeologist’s earth


The women of the lunulae,

threw no barbaric shadows

yet a vivid dance

lit up their bones

Standing stones in Cumbria known as Long Meg and her Daughters

Long Meg and her Daughters. David Medcalf [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

@robhedge, a self-styled flint geek, shared this poem by Wordsworth called The Monument, about the Neolithic stone circle Long Meg and her Daughters in Cumbria.

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.

Jonathan Last, also known as @johnnythin, a prehistorian working for English Heritage, brought our attention to Turn by Owen Sheers, a poem about a piece of Ice Age art at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

At first glance no more than an ochre flake,

a skimming stone that might have been picked,

fitting so well as it would


into the ‘C’ of thumb and forefinger,

to be launched, a stuttering ellipsis,

into the heart of the river.


But look what we’d lose if it had.

This reindeer, alive in the lines

of its haunch, neck and hoof,


scratch-shaded above the suggestion of a sheath,

its motionless movement

etched by a burin struck from flint.

We seem to have gone back in time through these poems. How fitting that the next set of poems was collected on his blog by an evolutionary biologist, then, Ross Barnet (Twitter handle @DeepFriedDNA). Here’s a snippet of Fossils by Ogden Nash:

At midnight in the museum hall

The fossils gathered for a ball

There were no drums or saxophones,

But just the clatter of their bones,

A rolling, rattling, carefree circus

Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.

But, we have missed out the Iron Age! To go forward in time to the immediate pre-Roman past, @HenryRothwell promised some hillfort poems. And he came up trumps with this set collected by Susan Scheid on her blog Prufrock’s Dilemma. One of the poems is On Wenlock Edge, about the Wrekin in Shropshire, by A. E. Housman:

The Wrekin. By Russell Corbyn [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Wrekin. By Russell Corbyn [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman At yonder heaving hill would stare:The blood that warms an English yeoman,

The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.


There, like the wind through woods in riot,

Through him the gale of life blew high;

The tree of man was never quiet:

Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

In a serendipitous moment, archaeologist Gavin MacGregor (@gmacg_1) posted on his blog about new poetry written about Aberdeen’s urban watercourses in a collection called Upstream by Lesley Harrison. One is entitled Prehistory and starts:

land       mass

out         crop

sand      stone

rain       fall

We have made a tour of Britain through these poems, from London to Cornwall to Cumbria and up to Aberdeen. We’ve also had a tour through time, from the Iron Age to the Palaeolithic. Some recurring themes have come up, rivers, animals, dancing, people. What will your pupils write about? I’ll leave you with a section of a poem by Gareth Owen called Miss Creedle Teaches Creative Writing:

Are you imagining a time before you were born?

What does it look like? Is it dark?

(Embryo is a good word you might use.)

Does the music carry you away like a river?

What is the name of the river? Can you smell it?

Foetid is an exciting adjective.

As you float down the river

Perhaps you land on an alien planet.

Tell me what sounds you hear.

If there are indescribable monsters

Tell me what they look like but not now.

(Your book entitled Tackle Pre-History This Way

Will be of assistance here.)


For an anthology of poems on the theme of climate change, Jo Bell, UK Canal Poet Laureate, wrote on the theme of Doggerland, the submerged landscape beneath the North Sea that was once dry land and provided a walkable route from what is now Britain to the mainland European continent. It’s a thought-provoking link to the issue we face today of rising sea levels.

Read the poem on the Guardian website here: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/21/a-climate-change-poem-for-today-doggerland-by-jo-bell