Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Birth of Britain

by Mark Patton

Twenty thousand years ago, the land-mass that we now call Britain was part of the European continent, and a great river flowed through what is now the English Channel. The Thames, the Rhine and the Seine were all tributaries of this river. Permanent ice-sheets covered much of the land, and reindeer, woolly rhinoceros and mammoth roamed across tundra that is now beneath the sea. Between ten and twelve thousand years ago, the last ice-age came to an end: ice-sheets melted, sea-levels rose and the islands took on the form that we know today. Forests replaced tundra and, as mammoth and woolly rhinos became extinct, their place was taken by roe deer, red deer and wild boar. People continued to live, as they had for tens of thousands of years, as hunters and gatherers, but they had to adapt to their new environment, developing, for example, a new range of weapons (including the bow and arrow), and small flint points, known as microliths, to tip their arrows and spears.

Microliths and reconstructed weapons from Mesolithic Britain. Photo: Mark Widowson.

Climatic and sea-level changes were not always sudden. Some of the landscapes that were used by these hunter-gatherers are below the modern sea-level, and experts from Wessex Archaeology have been able to reconstruct one of these landscapes, 8 miles south of the present Sussex coast (

This Mesolithic fish-trap was found in excavations at Victoria Quay, Dublin. Photo: Diageo.

The lives of these people have been fictionalised by Margaret Elphinstone, in her novel, The Gathering Night, and by Michelle Paver in her novels for young adults.

This "Mesolithic" way of life continued in Britain for more than five thousand years but, on the continent, a new way of life was gaining ground, and was gradually edging closer to the English Channel. It was a way of life that had begun in the Near East, and which was based on the cultivation of cereal crops (wheat, barley) and the domestication of animals (cattle, sheep, goats and pigs). By 4500 BC, this "Neolithic" way of life was firmly established in northern Germany, northern France and the Netherlands, and by 3500 BC it was equally well-established across the British Isles, but how, exactly, did this happen?

Did farming people from the continent cross the channel with their seed-corn and their animals, and displace or intermarry with the native hunter-gatherers? A pair of rectangular post-built houses, recently discovered near Maidstone in Kent (, might suggest so: they date between 4120 and 3830 BC, and are strikingly similar to the houses in use on the continent at the same time. Then again, did the native hunter-gatherers of Britain interact and trade with farming communities on the continent, gradually adopting their way of life? A site at Ferriter's Cove, in Co. Kerry in Ireland, points more towards this idea: the people who lived there at around 4350 BC seem to have been hunting wild pigs and fishing, much as their ancestors did, but continental-style polished axes were also found there, along with the bones of domestic cattle. The most recent evidence is admirably summarised in a new work of non-fiction by Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe.

Cunliffe recognises that there are many questions still to be answered, but what is clear is that, within the space of just a few generations, an entirely new lifestyle had been adopted. From Kent to Kerry, and from Cornwall to the Orkney Islands, people were adapting the landscape to their own needs rather than adapting their lifestyles to their environment. With this came new types of enclosure, and new types of burial, and almost certainly new understandings of the great questions of life and death.

The Neolithic enclosure of Windmill Hill, Wiltshire. Photo: English Heritage, National Monuments Record.

The Coldrum long-barrow, a Neolithic burial mound in the Medway Valley of Kent.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the embrace of the new lifestyle seems to have been total. Deer and wild pigs remained common in Britain through the Middle Ages, but Neolithic people seem not to have hunted them. Chemical analysis of the human bones found in Neolithic tombs suggests that fish was shunned almost completely by these people, even in those communities that were located on or near the coast. Perhaps there was some religious or similar taboo, or did hunting and fishing simply seem as anachronistic as horse-drawn wagons do today? Either way, the agricultural way of life, which would, in time, make possible the growth of cities, kingdoms and empires, was here to stay.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. I enjoyed this article and would be interested in knowing your source for the no fish or game in the neolithic diet.

    By the way your amazon links don't work properly (viewed from my android phone).

  2. Thanks, Charlie. I'm sorry about the links: they work from my PC, so I'm thinking there must be a compatibility issue. My sources include various papers in M.Parker-Pearson (ed) 2013, Food, Culture & Identity in the Neolithic & Early Bronze Age, Oxford, BAR (International Series) 1117; as well as M.P. Richards & R.E.M. Hedges 1999 "A Neolithic Revolution? New Evidence of Diet in the British Neolithic," Antiquity 73, 891-7; and R.J. Schulting 1998 "Slighting the Sea: Stable Isotope Evidence for the Transition to Farming in NW Europe," Documenta Praehistorica XXV, 203-218.

  3. Interesting article. The video was welcome too. Love seeing these reconstructions.


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