Britain BC - Francis Pryor's Top Rated UK Bronze Age Sites

By Richard Moss | 20 February 2003

Left: Francis Pryor's documentary, Britain BC, reveals new ideas about how pre-Roman British culture might have flourished. Picture © Channel 4.

With summer finally threatening to make an appearance we revive one of our favourite trails; Francis Pryor's top 10 Bronze Age sites. Most of them are places with a definite outdoor theme - perfect for the long summer holidays!

When the Romans finally departed British shores in AD407 they left behind a wonderful legacy of roads, art, villas and steam baths - or at least that's the conventional theory. Some historians have even ascribed the origin of that most venerable of British traditions, the pub, to the Latin invasion force.

But a new Channel 4 documentary series, Britain BC, (first episode February 20) seeks to change our view of the way British civilization had developed prior to their arrival and to restore some of the knowledge we have lost about our thriving, pre-Roman, purely British civilization.

The writer and presenter behind this bold venture is the archaeologist Dr. Francis Pryor. An acknowledged expert on the Bronze Age, a key figure in the discovery of the Flag Fen Bronze Age site and often seen on C4's Time Team, his mission is to show us how British civilization was flourishing long before the Roman Legions invaded our shores.

"As far as I'm concerned the Romans arrived when the story was two-thirds told," says Dr. Pryor. "People have always concentrated on these later arrivals because they are recorded in literature, but we're only just beginning to look at the effect these invasions had on British culture."

Shows the Rillaton Gold Cup.

Right: The Rillaton Bronze Age Pot - one of the treasures of the British Museum - evidence of how a sophisticated civilization flourished in Britain BC.

With the screening of the Channel 4 two-parter, Dr. Pryor hopes our appetite for British pre-history will be both rekindled and redressed.

"It's very much easier and sexier to show film of the Bayeux Tapestry and people having their legs and arms chopped off," he says of recent British history documentaries, "whereas prehistory tends to be approached by the way of physical remains in the ground."

And therein lies the problem. Britain boasts a vast range of important megalithic and prehistoric sites, but many are inaccessible to the public and difficult to understand, as Dr. Pryor readily concedes. "They are just piles of soil, they are barrows, you've seen one you've seen them all. They only become important when you discover what they stood for and how and why they were placed in the landscape and how they have changed through time."

But with recent developments in the techniques of excavation, archaeologists have begun to correct this imbalance, enabling people like Dr. Pryor to paint more vivid pictures and bring the past alive.

This means there are an ever increasing number of heritage sites that can be visited, enjoyed and understood by the general public and Francis Pryor has given the 24 Hour Museum some of his favourite locations.

Here you can actually see for yourself the rich and dynamic culture that prospered before the Romans, Saxons, Vikings and even the Normans invaded and hijacked the British cultural landscape.

Left: imposing earthworks such as those at Silbury Hill are testament to the skills of pre-Roman British cultures. © English Heritage, picture Judith Dobie.

An excellent place to begin any investigation into the forgotten civilization of Britain is the Isle of Orkney. The whole area is unsurpassed as a treasure trove of prehistoric, Iron and Bronze Age sites.

"It's the complete experience for anyone interested in the Iron Age," says Dr. Prior. "You've got a complete landscape. Nothing has been smashed by modern development, so you can actually work out how the various sites related to each other."

Skara Brae is perhaps the most famous site, discovered in 1850, it contains 8 houses of a common design and would have been home to 40 or 50 people. It is believed habitation began around 3,100BC and continued for 600 years.

It is just one in a series of remarkable prehistoric sites that go together to build a complete picture. "They didn't just operate as one-off sites - a tomb or a burial site or whatever it might be, they all work with each other."

photo of a coastline with a neolithic barrows and stone tombs

The whole Isle of Orkney boasts many perfectly preserved megalithic sites. Picture © Historic Scotland.

One of the most spectacular tombs on the island is Maes Howe, which was built before 2700 BC and is of a type unique to Orkney. The structure is 40 metres long and seven metres wide and the entrance passage is aligned to the southwest so as to be illuminated by the mid-winter equinox.

It is probably the finest megalithic tomb in the British Isles, with a large mound covering a stone-built passage and a large burial chamber with cells in the walls.

There are also major ceremonial sites in the vicinity of Maes Howe. The Stones of Stennes, which date to 2900BC, have a perfect setting amidst the wild moorland. The stones are broken up into two sites: the Ring of Brogar, or Temple of the Sun, and the smaller Ring of Stennis, which represents the Temple of the Moon.

Leaving behind the treasures of Orkney and moving south into the Celtic heartlands of Wales, there is a spectacular site that affords visitors the chance to explore a unique Iron Age environment.

With more than six kilometres of tunnels, Great Orme is the largest prehistoric mining complex in the world, and the only Bronze Age mine open to the public.

"I rate it quite possibly as the top visitor experience in pre-Roman Britain," says Pryor. "You actually go deep into the ground and you are in a Bronze Age world. There's nothing recreated."

Visitors venture into this ancient world via a series of narrow Bronze Age tunnels, one metre wide and nearly two metres high before discovering large, spectacular chambers. The surface also features a 4000 year old opencast mine, and a smelting site where copper ore was smelted into copper - just part of the surface archaeology tour that features reconstructions of various mining processes.

Right: Maiden Castle hill fort.

Evidence of the thriving British pre-Roman culture is all around us. Our countryside is rich with Iron and Bronze Age bowers, or forts. There are more than 1,350 known hill forts in England, but for Pryor the vast structure of Maiden Castle in Dorset is of particular interest.

"Maiden Castle is well worth a visit because it is so massive, it dwarfs human beings."

Even today, the ramparts of this fortress are frighteningly high and steep. It dates back to around 3500 BC when the first Causewayed camp was constructed on the site. It must have been a terrible prospect for the Roman Second Legion Augusta who actually managed to over-run this fortress in AD44.

The fort covers an area of 47 acres (19 hectares) dominating the landscape for miles around. When excavations were carried out, the bodies of 38 defenders were discovered - laid to rest by their Roman conquerors. Each was given the comfort of a flagon of beer and joint of meat to sustain them in the afterlife.

One of the most important Bronze Age Sites in Europe is Flag Fen. The site was discovered when a mechanical digger working on one of the fen drainage ditches pulled up some timber that appeared to have been split in a very distinctive manner. The team of archaeologists, led by Dr. Pryor, sent the timber for radiocarbon dating and it was returned having been dated to 1000 BC.

"The main thing about Flag Fen is it is so superbly well preserved. The whole place was waterlogged and that means you've got timber, leaves, twigs, pollen, and flowers preserved. That's something that simply doesn't occur on most sites," says Pryor.

Today the site features a visitor centre dedicated to the Bronze Age. The public can view 3,000-year-old timbers in a specially built Preservation Hall, whilst reconstructed Iron Age and Bronze Age Roundhouses allow you to step back in time and see how our ancestors lived. The Museum of the Bronze Age contains artefacts found on the site.

Left: the Seahenge timbers, discovered in the sands off Holme-Next-The-Sea in Norfolk, can presently be seen at Flag Fen.

"It's the only place in the world that you can go and view pre-historic timbers still in situ in the ground. We've also done extensive reconstructions; we've reconstructed Iron Age and Bronze Age houses," says Dr. Prior. "We've got animals there and it's also the only place in my knowledge that you can get inside a Bronze Age field system."

Flag Fen currently houses the Seahenge timbers, discovered off the Norfolk coast.

shows the majestic and mysterious stones at Avebury in Wiltshire, a World Heritage Site.

Right: the majestic and mysterious stones at Avebury in Wiltshire, a World Heritage Site.

Another important setting for Dr. Pryor and an excellent place to visit is the area around Avebury in Wiltshire, which is peppered with megalithic and prehistoric sites.

"It probably had a lot to do with the Avebury landscape," explains Dr. Pryor. "People refer to them as ritual landscapes, but it's a sort of religious theatre, you move from one site to another, experiencing different things."

The village of Avebury in Wiltshire actually gives its name to one of the greatest stone circles in the British Isles.

The Avebury Stone Circle comprises an enormous circular earthwork; 400 m wide, with a deep external ditch with a circumference of over 1200 metres. Inside is a 400-metre diameter circle of immense standing stones, and inside that there are two more stone circles each 100 metres in diameter.

It's a complex and alluring monument, featuring the remnants of stone avenues and up to 600 megaliths.

Right: Stonehenge is a World Heritage Site that draws many visitors from all over the world.

The area is also rightly famous for the world's most spectacular stone circle - Stonehenge. You may think you have heard all there is to know about this World Heritage site, but for Dr. Pryor it continues to throw up new insights into the lives of the early Britons.

"We now understand how the Stonehenge landscape may have worked. The key to this is a site that is very similar in its layout called Woodhenge, just over the hill from Stonehenge." Click here to visit the National Trust web page for the area.

"What people are currently suggesting is timber sites like Woodhenge and Seahenge may well have been shrines where people departed this world for the land of the ancestors. These ancestors were represented by stone and the living were represented by wood."

This breakthrough in our understanding allows us to understand how these megalithic landscapes worked. "It's quite complicated, one of the things that has actually come out of our research is how complex these sites are, and how complicated people's religious lives were."

Left: an Iron Age roundhouse © Wessex Archaeology.

Another important experience that will further illuminate any personal investigation into this hitherto hazy world is West Kennet Long Barrow.

"Again it's near Avebury, and it's well worth going into," says Dr. Pryor. "It's a chambered treat that you can actually walk into. In land terms it's about the same period as Stonehenge."

It originally consisted of a mound 100 metres long with of a core of boulders capped by layers of chalk rubble. It's an elaborate megalithic structure consisting of five chambers opening off an axial passage.

The entrance passage is fronted by a semi-circular forecourt with a flanking facade of massive stone uprights aligned along a north-south axis.

Right: the discovery of the Dover Boat is one of the key Bronze Age discoveries of the last century.

The final stop off point in Dr Pryor's megalithic trail is Dover Museum, which houses the Dover Boat. "It's one of the most important maritime discoveries of the last century - it's incredibly important," explains Dr. Pryor.

The Dover Boat dates from the Bronze Age, around 3,550 years old and would have been capable of crossing the channel, carrying a substantial cargo of supplies, livestock and passengers. It was probably propelled by at least 18 paddlers.

The discovery of the boat in Dover strongly suggests early cross channel trade. The quality of the workmanship suggests a high degree of skill, specialisation and organisation.

Left: the specially constructed gallery for the Bronze Age boat enables visitors to Dover Museum to inspect the 3,500 year old craft.

Much research work remains to be done on the Dover Boat and all the sites mentioned above - but visitors will be amazed at the mysterious worlds they open up. The range and quality of the heritage sites that tell the story of pre-Roman Britain is constantly expanding and improving.

As for the best megalithic site to visit in the UK? Dr. Pryor is easily, if unfairly, drawn. "My personal favourite site has to be Flag Fen - I found it and it's part of my soul." But then Francis Pryor invests his subject with a lot of soul as you will understand if you watch his TV series and enter his megalithic world.

Find out more about Megalithic Britain on these two excellent web sites:
www.megalithic.co.uk
www.themodernantiquarian.com

Francis Pryor has written a book called Britain BC, which will be available in September, published by HarperCollins. The second part of his documentary of the same name is showing on Channel 4 on Thursday, March 27.

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