Great Britain’s history begins 5,000 years ago with a mysterious ancient people whose only vestiges are earthworks and stone circles like Stonehenge. Because of Stonehenge’s massive popularity, you may want to consider visiting other ancient ruins such as Avebury or Maiden Castle.
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The Age of Stonehenge
As the age of Stonehenge has remained in question, archaeologists have used carbon dating to determine that the earliest phase of Stonehenge began around 3000 BC, while the sarsen stones were erected even earlier. The great trilithons, which feature one great stone laid like a lintel over two vertical stones, were probably set up when Stonehenge was already a thousand years old. Was it a temple, a burial ground, an astronomical observatory, a healing center, or a royal dwelling place? Interested and ingenious people have been speculating for hundreds of years, and archaeological work in the Stonehenge area continues up to the present. What we lack, of course, are written records from the builders—every theory is based on fragmentary discoveries and deductions from limited evidence.
It’s pretty clear, however, that tens of thousands of people were involved in its construction. The sheer size of the stones and the fact that many of them were quarried in Wales at a site more than 100 miles away bear witness to a phenomenal amount of hard work and a hierarchical social organization.
In 1882, Parliament passed the legislation that recognized the need to protect Britain’s ancient monuments. Stonehenge was put on the list right away, along with 67 other prehistoric sites. Government protection included the decision to return some fallen stones to the upright position. One of the great trilithons, which had fallen over in 1797, was restored in 1958.
Among the many theories about Stonehenge, one was advanced by the American astronomer Gerald Hawkins, in his 1963 book Stonehenge Decoded. In his view, Stonehenge was a kind of computer for predicting solar and lunar eclipses far into the future, a theory that other astronomers found convincing.
When DNA analysis was added to radiocarbon dating, our ability to understand the human dimensions of Stonehenge in its heyday increased. When burial remains were analyzed, workers were of Mediterranean descent and from present-day Scandinavia. Long before the rise of the Roman Empire, Stonehenge appears to have been a destination visited by people from throughout Europe.
Prehistoric England—Beyond Stonehenge
If you’re interested in exploring prehistoric Britain, southwestern England has many other important sites. Avebury is bigger than Stonehenge but slightly less impressive because it lacks any structures.
The whole of this area, Dorset; Wiltshire; Somerset; and part of Hampshire, the area that Thomas Hardy called “Wessex,” is dotted with old hill forts, some of which date from the Neolithic era when hunters and gatherers were settling down to become farmers instead.
Archaeologists have shown that Maiden Castle was built over a long period of time. The cumulative effect is superb—a succession of great ditches and embankment ramparts enclosing a massive oval interior, giving wonderful views over the surrounding lowlands.
Another impressive Iron Age hill fort is Cadbury Castle in Somerset, widely believed in former times to be the real site of King Arthur’s Camelot. Excavations have shown evidence of a battle there at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in about 43 AD. In addition to Maiden Castle and Cadbury Castle, the remains of other hill forts are scattered widely throughout the south of England.
Even more striking, in its way, is Silbury Hill, because in this instance, the hill itself was actually built by human labor. It is conical, almost 100 feet high, standing on otherwise level ground, and has a flat top with a 100-foot diameter.
Silbury Hill was a gathering place every Palm Sunday for people from the surrounding villages in the 17th and 18th centuries. As with Stonehenge and Avebury, however, its original purpose remains uncertain, despite plenty of plausible-sounding theories.
Along with the earthworks and stone circles, the southwest contains some wonderful prehistoric objects, including the Uffington White Horse, on the border between Oxfordshire and Berkshire. The bedrock of the area is chalk, naturally white, and the horse was made by scraping out trenches, removing the grass and earth, and filling them with crushed white chalk.
Across this district of great prehistoric riches, lies the Ridgeway, an ancient route along the hilltops that since 1973 has been a recognized and government-protected national footpath. It goes from the southwest, in Dorset, starting close to Stonehenge and Avebury, all the way to East Anglia, on high ground nearly all the way.
In the hill country of Devonshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Cumbria there are many more stone circles and remains of ancient earthworks. Among the best is Castlerigg in Cumbria, part of the Lake District, where a circle of 40 stones create a ring in one of the most scenically dramatic areas of the district.
In Scotland, too, the remains of prehistoric cultures are widespread. Many are at or below ground level, where there isn’t much to see, but more than a 100 brochs still stand proud, albeit, half ruined.
Brochs are mysterious circular buildings, double-walled, and built using rocks without mortar, over which (as with everything I have mentioned today) archaeologists have speculated and debated.
The best-preserved of them all is at Mousa in Shetland, still about forty feet high with an internal, spiral staircase between the walls. On the mainland, the two best, close to one another, are Dun Telve and Dun Troddan in Glenelg, on the coast of the Western Highlands.
Scotland’s best prehistoric site, however, Skara Brae, is on the Orkney Islands off the North Coast. These windswept treeless islands are among the most inaccessible places in Europe but can be reached by plane or ferry boat by anyone with enough time, money, and determination.
Skara Brae’s antiquity is a great point of emphasis among Scottish nationalists, who have campaigned in recent years for full independence from Britain, and did so with renewed vigor after the “Brexit” election of 2016. Skara Brae enabled them to claim that civilization came to Britain not from the classical south of Europe but from the north, making Scotland the earliest civilized site on the whole island.
Whichever site claims absolute primacy, collectively, Britain’s prehistoric remains make it an immensely rewarding place to visit. All the sites prompt you to consider the literally thousands of years in which men and women tried not just to stay alive but also to elaborate on the bare bones of existence with ritual, decoration, and architectural achievement.
Interactive Map of All Prehistoric Britain Locations Mentioned in This Lecture