TIMES REMEMBERED – Pre-history
Written June 2004
About 2400 BC there arrived in Britain a group of people who became known as the Beaker people, so called because of their skill in making pottery beakers. They were followed soon after by a group of people who spoke an Indo-European language and were taller and stronger than Neolithic man. It is not known whether they arrived by armed force or were invited into the country because of their metal-working skills, which introduced the Bronze Age.
Both these groups associated freely with the indigenous population and are found buried together with Neolithic man in round barrows along the Icknield Way. Society was centred on the henge and sun worship. Stonehenge remained the most important centre until 1300BC and the Beaker people’s richest graves were there. They certainly reached as far as Hitchin and traces of their occupation have been found at Shefford. However, Bronze Age finds in Hertfordshire have been comparatively rare.
From about 1300BC the henge civilisation seems to have become less important and was overtaken in the south by a settled farming community. This developed at first to feed the henge people but the farmers learned to enrich the soil with natural waste so that they did not have to move on as the soil became exhausted. Thus the farmers became more important and powerful than the henge men. Moreover, the Beaker people had brought with them a new cereal, barley, which would grow almost anywhere.
From about 700 BC until the coming of the Romans, Western Europe was dominated by tribes known as Celts. These people originated in Central Europe and Southern Russia and had travelled westward in earlier centuries. They were tall in stature with red or fair hair and blue eyes. Why they were known as Celts is a mystery since they were composed of differently named tribes none of which, as far as we know, called themselves Celts. Most importantly was their skill in making iron tools and weapons.
As Roman domination advanced to the west across Europe, Celtic tribes were pushed ever westward and from about 550 BC they began to settle in Britain. The last to arrive, about 150 BC, were the Celtic Brythons, from which we get the name Britons.
With superior iron weapons the Iron Age Celts in Britain gradually drove the Bronze Age inhabitants westward. The remains of early Iron Age settlements are rare in Hertfordshire and we are lucky that two are situated nearby. These settlements developed into Hill Forts and one of the finest is Ravensburgh Castle, near Hexton. It covered 16 acres, oval in shape and was defended by timber laced ramparts and ditches. The other is at Wilbury Hills, Letchworth, adjacent to the Icknield Way. The inhabitants lived in large round huts constructed of planks and wickerwork with a thatched roof. The late Mr W.H.Lane has left us the following impression of a day in the life of these early Iron Age people at Wilbury.
“Entering the stockade at dawn we find ourselves among the cattle and sheep belonging to the settlement. These are not the sleek animals with which we are familiar but a small breed akin to the Black Kerrys of Ireland. The sheep too are of a half-wild breed. The occupants of the nearest hut are seen lying on the floor round an almost extinct fire. The boys arise and drive the animals out to pasture on the slopes. The hunters set out, equipped with bows and arrows, spears and slings. The village smith starts work on a primitive forge consisting of a few stones and a large stone for the anvil. Lighting his fire by striking sparks from a piece of iron pyrites with a flint he blows it up with bellows made from sheep or goat skin, with a hollow reed covered in clay for a nozzle. A piece of ironstone is placed in the fire and heated until it becomes pasty, then taken out and hammered with a hammer stone to expel the impurities. This process is repeated until at last there is produced a piece of what a modern smith would call very impure metal.
These people were agricultural as well as pastoral and this work devolved on the women. The plough was as yet unknown and digging was done with hoes – stones lashed to sticks at right angles. Corn was cut, just below the ear, with a sharp stone, rubbed out of the ear and winnowed by throwing it into the air. The corn was ground between two rubbing stones, the result being like the coarsest oatmeal.
Some women would be making pottery by treading clay to make it plastic and pounding flints to mix in to prevent cracking in firing. Spinning and weaving would also be in the daily programme for women. The spinning was done with a distaff and spindle and weaving with perforated stones attached to the woof threads as the shuttle was passed between them. Women and girls would also troop down to the spring at Cadwell to fill the water pots at midday mealtime.
As evening approaches the hunters return with their spoils, the cattle are rounded up and driven inside the stockade, the gate is secured and the evening meal consumed. Then, crawling into their huts, the inhabitants of Wilbury Camp make up their fires and settle themselves down for a night’s well-earned rest.”