Topic Guide: Prehistoric Britain


© English Heritage

    • Take a look out of the window. What do you see? Houses? Fields? Lots of concrete? It hasn't always looked that way.

      People have been living on these islands that we now call Britain for thousands of years. All that time they've been building and making all sorts of things.

      This topic guide is about prehistoric people and some of the special places they built - places you can still visit today.

      Shows a photo of the standing stones at Stonehenge, in silhouette against an orange sky, with the sun peeking through them.© English Heritage
      Nobody knows for sure why Stonehenge, in our picture, was built, do you have a theory?

      'Prehistory' is a word used to describe a period of time - the thousands of years between humans first developing, up until when they began to write things down.

      Writing developed in different ways, at different times in different parts of the world, so it's hard to be exact about prehistory dates.

      In Britain 'prehistory' is usually used to describe the time between about 450,000BC up to when the Romans arrived in 43AD, almost 2000 years ago.

      Because there are no written records, everything we know about the prehistoric period has been worked out from the things those early people left behind - things like their homes, graves, tools and even skeletons.

      Shows a photo of a green grassy field, with sheep grazing in the distance and three large grey stones standing upright in the foreground. England© The National Trust
      Do you think the sheep notice the stone circle here at Avebury?


      Probably the most famous prehistoric monument in the UK is, of course, Stonehenge (at the top). These huge standing stones in Wiltshire draw visitors from all over the world.

      Take a look at the Interactive Stonehenge Map from English Heritage to find out all about the stones and the area around them.

      Up the road from Stonehenge, in the village of Avebury, is the Avebury Stone Circle (above). It's smaller in scale than Stonehenge, but just as magical.

      Very close to Avebury, Silbury Hill is well worth a visit. This strange-looking hill is man-made, created about 4,300 years ago. Visitors aren't allowed to climb the hill (to avoid damage), but you can get close enough to have a good look.

      Last one in Wiltshire, promise: West Kennet Long Barrow. Again close to Avebury, this was used as a grave for over 1000 years and dates from Neolithic times. You can actually walk into the tomb when you visit.... beware the white ghost with its faithful hound, who is rumoured to appear on Midsummer's Day.

      Shows an aerial photo of a large hill, with earthwork 'terraces' or ramparts curving around its edge and fields stretching into the distance beyond it.© English Heritage
      Maiden Castle in Dorset, the giant of our list, towers over the countryside around it.

      Heading down to Dorset, don't miss Maiden Castle Iron Age Hill Fort. Imagine 50 football pitches, all joined together. That's how big Maiden Castle is.

      It's thought work began on the fort back in the Bronze Age, 5000 years ago. Later, Iron Age people made the most of the huge hill by building massive earth 'ramparts' that are still there today.

      Up to Oxfordshire now, and to Britain's oldest hill figure, the Uffington White Horse. Have you noticed the huge chalk pictures carved into hills around the UK? Well, this horse is a very special example of the art.

      It's believed to date back to between 2000 and 3000BC, but, like many prehistoric sites, no one's completely sure why or when it was carved.

      Shows a photo of a stylised white horse, carved into a grassy green hillside. Up to Derbyshire and one of Show Me's favourite prehistoric destinations.© Vale and Downland Museum
      Can you make out the shape of the Uffington horse? It looks as if it's galloping over the hill...

      Up to Derbyshire and one of Show Me's favourite prehistoric destinations. Never mind being a cool place to visit in real life, Cresswell Crags has a great website too.


      Wales is home to one of the most important Bronze Age sites in the UK - the Great Ormes Head Mine. Objects have been found all over the country made out of bronze and copper from Great Orme, telling us not only that prehistoric people mined there, but that they traded and travelled with the metals too.

      Shows a photo of the inside of a large burial chamber, with stone lined walls and a stone passageway leading outside.© Historic Scotland


      Off to the Orkney Islands in Northern Scotland now, which have far more than their fair share of amazing prehistoric sites.

      We've chosen three places in particular to tell you about. The first, Maes Howe (also spelt Maeshowe) is a tomb, or burial chamber. The chamber is famous for two reasons.

      It was built in about 3000BC and is an incredible space, but also, thousands of years later in 1153, a group of Vikings broke into the tomb to shelter from a storm. They carved graffiti all over the walls, leaving us a wonderful record of Viking 'runes' (writing).

      Next up on Orkney are the Standing Stones of Stenness, the remains of two giant rings of stones that can be seen for miles around. Visit the Orkneyjar website to find out more about them. It's written for adults but has some good pictures of the stones.

      Shows a photo of the remains of some stone walls, on a grassy mound overlooking a beach and blue sea.© Historic Scotland
      Prehistoric residents of Skara Brae would have had a lovely view of the sea... do you think they played in the sand?

      Last, but absolutely not least on our list is Skara Brae Prehistoric Village. This collection of prehistoric homes was revealed on the Orkney mainland after a heavy storm in 1850.

      The houses are incredibly well preserved, as they were buried for about 4000 years. Click on Orkneyjar to read more about the village.

      So, you've had a whirlwind tour of some of the UK's many prehistoric treasures. Now it's up to you to visit them.
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