During the ice age, perhaps 500,000 years ago, occurred the Palaeolithic people, hunter gatherers, who hunted the animals, long extinct, that could withstand the conditions then prevailing. These peoples survived for many millennia armed with weapons chipped from flints, retreating south as the ice-cap crept toward the equator and returning north as warmer conditions prevailed. Britain was then connected to the Continent by river valleys, but after the last glaciation, the land began to subside and the climate to become hotter. Shortly before 6000 BC Britain became separated from the Continent.
About 4000 BC the Neolithic age began, starting a revolution in man’s way of life in what is now England. Agriculture, which had been practised for many centuries in the Near East, was introduced by new races of men, and the precarious method of obtaining food by hunting was superseded by the production of food in farms. This settled mode of life may be regarded as the first step on the road to civilisation since it made the exchange of goods and ideas possible. In those times the southern coast of Britain was beginning to assume something like its present outline; its valleys filled with dense forest and only the down-lands fit for habitation.
There is at present no known evidence that our district was inhabited by a Neolithic tribe, but the excavations of 1935-7 at Maiden Castle showed that they were the first inhabitants of that site. These are the people who buried their dead in the long barrows one finds on the downs, and who held the land for six to seven hundred years when another great advance in man’s material welfare was introduced by the art of smelting copper and tin to form bronze implements.
The art of making bronze articles was known on the Continent before 1800 BC, and ultimately our southern coast was invaded by tribes from Brittany who were well acquainted with the manufacture and use of bronze. They are known as the Beaker folk. Armed with polished stone weapons and flint-tipped arrows they dispossessed and enslaved the Stone Age population.
The art of spinning and weaving wool was brought to this country by the Beaker people. Practically no domestic architecture remains of these people but their well-known temples at Avebury and Stonehenge are monuments to their building ability and to the compelling power of their religion. Their appreciation of art is shown by the high standard of decorative design used in their metal-work. From 1700 BC many invasions from the north coast of France brought considerable improvement in the technique of bronze founding and the effectiveness of weapons, but agricultural development was seriously hindered by tribal warfare.
It was not until 750 BC that a more settled form of husbandry was established by invaders – the Deveril-Rimbury people who introduced ox-drawn ploughs with which they tilled the small, square fields in, what is now known as, the Celtic field system. Our district comes into the picture now, for it was at Rimbury that a cemetery of these people was first found. Other evidence of Bronze Age people in this neighbourhood is provided by several of their swords which have been recovered from the Backwater.
During the Late Bronze Age, progress toward civilisation was much more rapid than at any previous time; Britain had never been so well populated, trade flourished and life generally was more comfortable than ever before.
The Bronze Age lasted in this country for more than a millennium and was ended by the arrival of Celtic tribes who used iron in the manufacture of tools and weapons.
Iron had been in use in the East for 2,000 years or more before it reached Britain about 500 BC. The occurrence of iron in this country made cheaper and better tools available for a bigger proportion of the population. Maiden Castle, which had remained uninhabited during the Bronze Age, was occupied and fortified with a single rampart and ditch by the Early Iron Age people sometime between 400 and 300 BC when much the same thing happened at Chalbury and other hill camps in Wessex.
During the last century BC, migrants from the Low Countries – the Belgae – arrived in force in South-Eastern England. These people effected profound changes by their improved methods of agriculture. They no longer depended on the poor soil of the uplands for their crops but, by means of a much superior type of plough, cultivated the richer soil of the valleys. They also introduced the art of making pottery on a wheel, they used coins instead of iron bars as currency, and their art was of a very high standard.
Though their houses were but poorly constructed they were used to such luxuries as wine and fine pottery which they imported from the Continent in exchange for corn, fat stock, slaves, etc. , a trade that opened up the road for the Roman Conquest of Britain. It was in their time of continuous and fierce tribal fighting that Maiden Castle was strengthened by the multiple ramparts, which still persist.
C & J Hawkes: Prehistoric Britain, 1949, Pelican Books, A 115
J Hawkes: Early Britain, 1945, Britain in Pictures series
V L Oliver: The Pre-Roman……Occupation of the Weymouth Area, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History & Antiq.F.C., 1923, Vol XLIV, 31-.
Dr. Francis Pryor, BBC, Ancient History in Depth, Overview: From Neolithic to Bronze Age, 8000 to 800 BC http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/british_prehistory/overview_british_prehistory_01.shtml