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Bronze Age 2200 BC to 801 BC

The Bronze Age was started by the influx of the ‘Beaker’ people from the Continent who brought the knowledge of metal working to Britain. They also brought a new culture and burial practices as we shall see later. Recent genetic studies of over 400 ancient burials have produced the surprising result that over 90% of the Britain’s gene pool comes from the Beaker people, who originated in the steppes of Northern and Eastern Europe. The reasons for this are unclear but climate change, disease or an ecological disaster could all have played a role.

Recent genetic studies of over 400 ancient burials have produced the surprising result that over 90% of the Britain’s gene pool comes from the Beaker people, who originated in the steppes of Northern and Eastern Europe. The reasons for this are unclear but climate change, disease or an ecological disaster could all have played a role.

Paradoxically the influx of bronze technology had little effect on farming itself. Rather bronze was used for weapons and jewellery which did however need a farming culture that could create surpluses in order to afford such luxuries. One of the great mysteries of the Bronze Age is why so many of these bronze items were taken out of use by being placed in graves as “grave goods” or discarded in apparent ritualistic fashion into the waterways of Britain.

In the Bronze Age, the appearance of Britain began to change as communities started to impose themselves on the landscape, not just to create monuments but to take hold of the land itself. Man-made boundaries begin to proliferate. Regular patterns of fields were laid out and on sloping hillsides the cultivated areas were shaped by constant ploughing. Elsewhere linear earthworks running for kilometres across the landscape separated vast areas of territory. The coercive effort needed for such endeavours implied that communities were working together to impose a permanent system of land management.

On the chalk downs, territories were divided up by ditches running for many kilometres across the countryside and regular systems of small square fields were laid out, probably with timber markers or fences defining individual cultivation plots. Constant ploughing caused soil to move downslope forming lynchets while the boundaries between grew into hedges and eventually stands of trees which could be cropped for wood.

At the same time that land was being apportioned and defined by newly constructed boundaries, homesteads were being set up among the fields. Often these were enclosed by banks and ditches and palisades in various combinations. On the chalk-lands of southern Britain fenced enclosures set within low banks were the norm, each enclosure containing on average two circular houses. This was break from the past when settlements had been far more diffuse and undefined. Settlement boundaries may have had some protective function, not the least keeping animals away from living areas, but there was probably more to it than that. By enclosing the living area, the community was making a visible statement about privacy and ownership. Each enclosed homestead, integrated with its fields, was a separate entity defining the family or kin group.

The intensification of agriculture would have made a careful appreciation of the changing seasons all the more important to the livelihood of the community. It required the creation of a calendar more designed to meet the demands of the farming year than one relying on the solstices. By 100BC the calendar was divided into four quarters:

  • Samhain, beginning on 1 November, heralds the quiet winter period when people are at home repairing and making equipment and tending livestock that are being overwintered
  • Imbolc, beginning on 1 February, marks the time that when lambing and calving takes place and land has to be prepared for sowing
  • Beltane, beginning on 1 May, is when animals are put out to summer pasture
  • Lughnasadh, beginning on 1 August, is the period of harvesting and the preparation of grain for storage and for turning livestock onto harvested fields.

The culling of flocks and herds, with the accompanying feasting, took place in the days leading up to Samhain, which was appropriated by the Christian church to be the festival of All Saints; it was also Halloween in pagan cultures. The aspect of the Bronze Age that has left the most visible sign on the landscape is the construction of bowl barrows. There is a huge barrow cemetery on Petersfield Heath which has been re-excavated over the last 3 years (full results are eagerly awaited.) It used to be thought that, as well as having religious connotations for the burial of the dead, barrows were primarily used as territorial markers. The bowl barrows on the top of old Winchester Hill are a classic case of this sort of barrow.

Barrows on Winchester Hill

Barrows on Winchester Hill

Newly identified barrows form a group on the west bank of the River Meon; there is a further group at Parsonage Farm on the other tributary of the Meon. Just like the barrow cemetery of Petersfield Heath, they are situated close to water sources, an association now being recurrently recognised country-wide. It may be that every centre of population had it own set of local barrows which served a similar function to that of a church in more modern times; most of them are now unknown because they have been ploughed away in the valleys.

Church Farm, East Meon Barrow Cemetery

Church Farm, East Meon Barrow Cemetery