The Prehistoric Thames Valley

Despite living in London for most of my life, I only recently went to visit the Museum of London. The museum in general covers the entire history of the city, and has some great objects to go and stare at, especially in the medieval period for me. However, what I want to focus on right now is what the museum covers of period before the city, or any trace of it, even existed. This is the first part of the museum you’d see if you visit, and it covers the history of the Thames valley from before human settlement, and right through the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, and beyond of course.

The River Thames has played a vital role in the development and story of London for the last 450,000 years. It is only 352 kilometres from source to the sea, but throughout time it has continuously shaped the local landscape. It has been used by humans as a highway, a boundary, a food store and a sacred stream. In London today most of the Thames has artificial embankments, but in prehistory the river was wider and shallower, and probably flowed in a number of different channels. To Julius Caesar the river was known as Tamesa – ‘the flowing one’.

Artist’s impression of the prehistoric River Colne, a tributary of the Thames.

The Palaeolithic period up to 8800BC is characterised by climate change. Gradual, but continual cycles of warming then cooling, with periods when Britain was too cold to be occupied. During warmer times nomadic hunter-gatherers moved in and out of Britain, via a land bridge, following herds of animals. People would have eaten big game like mammoth and reindeer along with foraged foods such as nuts, fruit and roots. At the beginning of the Ice Age in this period, the Thames was much longer and ran through a different part of the UK. It started in the Welsh uplands, flowed across the English midlands and eventually joined the river Rhine in the southern part of what is now the North Sea. Nearly half a million years ago it was diverted into its present valley by ice sheets. Since then, it has changed course many times because of changes in global climate and sea level. Each time the sea level dropped, the river had to cut its way down through the land to reach the sea, leaving behind a dry flood plain. Nowadays, these former flood plains, or gravel terraces, are rich in archaeological finds, which were carried there by Ice Age flash floods. These include basic flint tools such as ‘hand axes’, as well as animal bones.

200,000 year old mammoth jaw found in Ilford, East London.

From 8800BC was the Mesolithic. As the climate warmed in this period the landscape changed from tundra to woodland. Hunter-gatherers continued to move in and out of Britain until it became cut off permanently from Europe around 6500BC. People began to manage the land to lure smaller prey such as red deer and wild boar into forest clearings. Tools changed and smaller worked flint was used to create weapons such as arrows. Evidence of transient Mesolithic occupation is provided by scatters of flint knapping debris found along the riverside of the Thames. The area of the Thames and its tributaries were widely used by mobile hunters and gatherers taking advantage of the rich fishing and wild fowling opportunities. As well as fresh water, the Thames provided these prehistoric people with a wide range of natural resources such as reeds, rushes and timber for building. The river bed was also full of flint nodules which were vital for making sharp tools. As mentioned, the wildlife was plentiful, and there were many types of fish and birds, and small mammals like beavers and otters. Larger animals, including deer and cattle, also came down to the river to drink. Seasonal runs of salmon, migrating birds and the occasional beached whale would have supplemented this diverse diet. Together, this made the Thames Valley a very prosperous place to live.

The fertile river banks were also prime soil to be farmed for grain, and this started to take place in the Neolithic period up to 2500BC. During this period there was a transition from nomadic hunter gathering towards small scale farming. Animals such as sheep and goats were domesticated and crops including spelt were grown. Excavations on the gravel terraces of the upper Thames at Yarnton in Oxfordshire show clear evidence of Early Neolithic farming. Here a rectangular ditched mortuary enclosure was constructed, a rectangular hall or communal longhouse defined by postholes, plus numerous pits and other postholes. It appears that Yarnton was an area of open grassland which was not continuously occupied, but was inhabited on an intermittent or seasonal basis for a long period of time by early pastoral farmers. The animal bones found at the site consist mostly of cattle, sheep, goat and pig. The presence of charred grain and bread demonstrates that cereals were produced nearby.

Various Stone Age tools on display at the Museum of London.

During this time we see the first evidence of monuments and large earthworks such as henges and cursus. Although centuries of cultivation of the Thames gravels have destroyed almost all the standing earthworks within this region, aerial survey has revealed a landscape covered with cropmarks of all periods. These surveys have also revealed long barrows, cursus monuments, causewayed enclosures, numerous ring ditches, mortuary enclosures and multiple henge monuments. One area of the Thames Valley where its cropmarks have been extensively excavated is Heathrow Airport. Work here revealed part of the Stanwell early neolithic cursus, which was later replaced by a series of late Bronze Age ditched fields. Interestingly, the Bronze Age settlement at Heathrow initially respected the line of the cursus; it was only encroached upon later, perhaps implying that over time its significance or sacred status was forgotten.

And it was the Bronze Age itself that came next from 2500BC to 800BC. The introduction of metal working changed lives and society. It is likely that those who controlled the supply, making and trade of bronze became more important and powerful. Britain was now a fully settled farming society. Widespread settlement would have led to friction between groups, and conflict over territory, and thus People began to live in more permanent roundhouses and protect their land. The emergence of weapons also becomes more prevalent during this time, perhaps for this reason. The Thames would have played an important role in these new issues, as the river acted as both a physical and psychological barrier. Settlements built on its islands used the water as a first line of defence. The remains of a number of wooden bridges have been found along the Thames. In the last century BC, the Thames also acted as a tribal boundary. Archaeologists have mapped out prehistoric territories using coins, and their conclusions suggest the river might have represented the boundary between neighbouring groups. According to Julius Caesar, the river was ‘fordable at one point only, and even there with difficulty’.

Bronze spearheads at the Museum of London.

Large numbers of objects have been recovered from the Thames during dredging. These include human remains, particularly skulls, as well as weapons, tools and ornaments made from stone, bone and metal. Many are beautifully made and seem to have been placed in the river deliberately. This happened in rivers across northern Europe. There may have been a variety of reasons why prehistoric people did this. Was it to appease the river’s power in times of flood? The later second millennium BC was a period of climatic deterioration and rising river levels. These events may have prompted the development of a new water-oriented cult, replacing an earlier sky or earth oriented cult. This new cult could explain the numerous discoveries of bronze tools and weapons during dredging of the lower Thames, as offerings to the river.

From 800BC is the Iron Age. New strong iron tools enabled people to plough heavier soils and clear more forest. This created a farming boom which In turn saw an increase in the population. People had different roles in society such as druids, craftspeople and farmers. Wealthy leaders showed off their prestige with decorated gold and bronze objects, jewellery and imported goods. Coins were produced as symbols of power. Eventually the Romans write about life in Britain, even prior to their invasion of the island, and this ends the prehistory of Britain. London was established as Londinium in AD43 on a site that guarded the Romans’ bridgehead on the north bank of the Thames and a major road nexus.

That covers the history of prehistory in the Thames valley, and London before London. To see artefacts from this whole period, and further beyond up to the present day then take a trip to the Museum of London, I really recommend it! I should have gone a long time ago myself.

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