NOTE TO READERS:
Welcome to Ancient Britain. Before we begin our tour, a few words of explanation may be helpful.
The prehistory of Britain spans the period from some undetermined date in the remote past to, for our purposes at least, the Roman invasion of AD 43. Since the early 19th century, archaeologists have divided this vast expanse of time into general periods according to a method known as the Three Age System. The earliest of the three ages is the Stone Age, followed by the Bronze Age and finally the Iron Age. Each of the ages identified within this system has been named after the chief material which the prehistoric people of that time used to make tools and weapons. It has long been recognized that not all ancient people throughout the world, or even throughout the British Isles, began using metals, for example, at the same time, and that assigning specific dates to the various ages is therefore impossible. Nonetheless, the Three Age System provides a useful framework for establishing a sequence of technological progression in the period before written records.
We have chosen to tour ancient Britain, however, not in chronological sequence, nor by locality, but by looking at several distinct types of ancient monuments and seeing what they tell us about prehistoric society as a whole, and about the ways in which people in different parts of Britain, and in different times, responded to common needs for housing, defense, worship, and so on. In some cases, categorizing the ancient monuments proved no easier than establishing a firm date for the beginning and end of the technological ages. Sites like Flag Fen have yet to yield up all their mysteries, and can be interpreted in terms of either domestic living or ritual worship. Other sites are more fully understood, but clearly served multiple purposes. And then there are enigmas such as Silbury Hill, which seem to defy every attempt at classification. We have included it in with our look at Stone Circles–admittedly a rather awkward fit–in recognition of its apparent connection with the nearby Avebury Circles. Likewise, our tour of Prehistoric Villages includes a description of Grime’s Graves–a Neolithic flint mine–because of the importance of flint tools in the day-to-day life of the Stone-Age people.
Some readers may well feel that these sites belong in some other category, or in none of those that we have defined. Indeed, our arrangement is not meant to imply any strictly scientific classification; we have simply attempted to describe some of Britain’s most interesting and evocative monuments and chose these categories as a convenient framework, much as archaeologists have done in dividing prehistory into distinct ages.
There are, of course, many, many more magnificent prehistoric sites throughout Britain and Ireland than we are able to describe in any depth in the space of a single issue of British Heritage. We have tried to choose a representative sample, and several of the accompanying maps show the locations of other nearby sites of interest. Readers who would like to learn more about these and other monuments will find a good selection of titles in our Reviews department, as well as several excellent books published by English Heritage featured in the Showcase department.
We hope you enjoy the tour. When you are through, please take a few minutes to let us know whether you enjoyed the format of this special issue, and whether you would like to see more similar issues.