VCH Explore

Explore England's Past

Prehistoric and Roman Settlement

'British Camp', an Iron Age hill fort in the Malvern Hills, Herefordshire

The occupation of Britain by modern humans (Homo sapiens) began before the last ice age (c.68,000­–8,000 BC), but the first distinctive signs of prehistoric settlement date from c.12,000 BC in a period known by archaeologists as the Upper Palaeolithic. Humans lived by hunting and gathering, fashioning tools from flint, antler, bone, and mammoth ivory. They sheltered in caves, occasionally decorating their walls with art. The nomadic lifestyle continued into the Mesolithic period (c.8,000–4,000 BC), when flint tools became progressively smaller and more refined. The recent discovery of a circular building at Howick in Northumberland dating from c.7,600 BC may suggest that peripatetic settlement was giving way to seasonal or even permanent occupation during the Mesolithic.

The Neolithic period (c.4,000–2,500 BC) saw the introduction of farming to the British Isles and with it came a more sedentary way of life. Woodland was increasingly cleared to make way for cereal cultivation and animal herds. Communities expressed their identity and beliefs through the construction of funerary and ceremonial monuments in the landscape. The process of establishing farms and fields continued during the Bronze Age (c.2,500–800 BC), when settlements typically comprised round houses constructed of stone or timber. During the Iron Age (c.800 BC–AD 43) settlements were increasingly enclosed as pressure on land increased and land ownership became important. By 500 BC many communities chose to live in enclosed hilltop settlements known as hillforts, where significant numbers of round houses were contained within massive earthwork circuits of banks and ditches.

The period of Roman rule in Britain (c.AD 43–410) began with the construction of forts by the Roman army, some of which spawned the development of Roman towns, such as Gloucester and Exeter. Britain’s new urban settlements contained public buildings and often had a grid-iron street plan. In the countryside villages and small towns sprang up alongside Roman roads and Iron Age round houses were often replaced with rectangular timber-framed or masonry dwellings. The larger houses, known as villas, frequently contained mosaic floors, painted walls, and under-floor heating. Villas became increasingly elaborate as the Roman period wore on, but from c.350 both towns and villas saw a marked decline in their fortunes, often culminating in partial or total abandonment in the 5th century.

Theme Items

This Roman Highworth ceramic pot was discovered in the village of Highworth in June 2008.

The Holland Brook, sometimes called the Holland River, has been rather overlooked as an important landscape feature of Tendring Hundred (the older