Pre-Roman Settlement in the United Kingdom

There is little evidence for early Neolithic settlement in this country, with the exception of sites like Skare Brae in Scotland. It is considered that most settlements were probably scattered isolated farms, which consisted of rectangular houses built from timber with thatched roofs. Both Fengate, Ballygally in Northern Ireland and Haldon in Devon are good examples of this type. These houses have two occupation levels, which are separated by a sterile level, which leads to the suggestion that they were used as seasonal dwellings.

Skare Brae


 Evidence no longer survives from this period, because the materials used in the construction of buildings have eroded away, leaving only post holes, rubbish and grain pits as the only evidence of their existence.

In the Orkney’s flagstones were used as building materials, sites such as Skare Brae and Ringop. Both of these sites seem to be villages, with most of the houses between 4-6 metres square. The roofs were probably turf with timber supports, these types of building are most likely to be uncommon during the Neolithic period as similar sites have yet to be found more widespread across the country. The most likely settlement sites in the UK are considered by most to be Causeway enclosures,most commonly found in Southern England.

Causeway Enclosure

Causeway enclosures are earthwork monuments that were built in the first half of the fourth millennium and were in use for around 1000 years. these sites are considered to some of the earliest monumental sites of the Neolithic period. They are considered to be in the most part Neolithic, but there are no specific dates for their use, so it is possible that they were still in use in the Bronze age and later.

 The size of these enclosures vary in size ranging from 3 acres in Widebury, Wiltshire to 20 acres at Windmill hill also in Wiltshire. They consist of open hilltop platforms surrounded by a circuit of ditches and embankments. The ditches are not continuous all the way round. they are intercepted with causeways randomly placed, acting as land bridges. The ditches are about 10 feet wide and usually around 5 feet deep.Though were there is more than one ditch then the ditches get deeper the further they go out from the inner ditch.

A variety of interpretations have been put forward for the explanation and use of these sites ranging from settlement sites through to defensive ones. Items found at these sites have suggested that they were possibly gathering points. the reason for this is that the items discovered during excavations have indicated that they originated from different parts of the country. Which has given form to the theory that they may have ben used for markets and festivals.

My opinion is that they were multi functional sites that had a defensive capacity. If the site was used for a length of period, it would need the need to be defend-able. A small group of causeways have shown signs of warfare. These sites have a more continuous ditch and are placed on top of a hilltop or spur. “Organized warfare was not new; it had been practiced for a millennia in pre-historic times”, Arthur Ferrill 1985.

At Cairn Brae in Cornwall, which has a substantial hand built wall of boulders. At the base the width is 2 metres and enclosures a site of about 2 acres.There is also evidence that the buildings were burnt out and over 3000 arrowheads have been found at the base of the wall. This would show a battle of some considerable scale, which would also suggest that conflict of any scale was not usual. At Crichley Hill, there is also a stone wall and ditch. There is evidence of the wall being defended with the use of a timber palisade.

 We have to assume that if these causeway enclosures were used as a settlement sites, as I believe, then we should then consider that they were most likely defensible, but is it a defensible position. The causeways would look like to the attackers as an easy route into the settlement, but these causeways could be easily held by a small group of defenders. “Prehistoric armies were capable of practicing warfare in a highly sophisticated fashion. In fact men can be organized effectively for war in groups of less than 500.” Arthur Ferrill, 1985.

We have to remember that the attackers if given the choice between charging across ditches and then scrambling up a bank or smashing through a hand full of defenders on a causeway, then any sensible attacker will take the easy option, it would also be the most direct and quickest route into the settlement. “Inside every army is a crowd struggling to get out and the strongest fear with which every commander lives, stronger than the fear of defeat is that his army reverts to a crowd” John Keegan, 1993.

Yet the causeway could could be defended from three sides, the front of the causeway and the side of the bank. As we already know Neolithic used missile weapons. If you have missile weapons being used from three sides then you effectively get a triangulation of fire . This would also be in a confined area of space, which would only allow the attackers at the front to bear arms against the defending fighters.This in effect would create a killing ground on the causeways, the defenders could also release people from other causeways to flank the attackers from the rear as well. “The bow more than doubled the range of the spear, and since the arrow was smaller and easier to carry, it was possible to deliver a greater volume of fire against the enemy. When Neolithic man took position in a line and fired on command, he unleashed a powerful barrage of arrows.” Arthur Ferrill, 1985.

Bronze Age Settlement

 Most of the housing in the Bronze age consisted of crude huts within a an area of ground, which was hallowed out. The walls would have been made out of a variety of materials, such as stone, or daub and wattle. Other huts were constructed with large upright timbers forming an inner circle covered with thatch roof resting on uprights and sloping down to the outer wall.

Round House

Upland area where the land and grazing was at a premium homesteads are often built on hillsides to maximise the land use. These are often called unenclosed platform settlements and were constructed by digging out a niche into the hillside, with the earth and stone removed and used to build a platform.

 The hut circle would then be constructed on to the platform. In the Bronze age a more settled economy appears to have become the norm, due to the evidence of more huts and enclosure sites. Belle Tout in Sussex has two enclosures, which have evidence of several built structures. In Southern England there is evidence, which is associated Deveral Pottery, of settlements, which are enclosed rectangular banks and ditches surrounding circular huts.

On Dartmoor there are enclosures known as Pounds, which consist of stone walls, which enclose a series of huts. these would have been thatched with a ring of inner posts, with stone outer walls. Where there are no entrances it is believed that these sites were for defence, though not against human but animal predators.

 Through Archaeological evidence, it suggests that on some sites the walls were built after the huts. None of the sites are exactly the same, for instance some sites consist of an enclosed settlement with several huts inside, because others consist hut circles with and without the the enclosing walls. Whereas others consist of scattered enclosed walls with 1 or 2 huts inside and several freestanding huts outside the walls. this suggests that most of these sites have expanded over a period.

In the later part of the Bronze age we start to see the emergence of mini hill forts. these were made up of a large hut, which was surrounded by a large bank and inner and outer ditches. there is a strong growing belief that Hill Forts were in use before the Iron Age. These sites would have possibly consisted of palisades and ditches, surrounding huts and pits, similar to sites like Mam Tor in Derbyshire.

Highdown Hill

Excavation in 1959 of the Iron Age hill fort revealed remnants of a late Bronze Age huts, 2 hearths and cooking pits. one hut seemed to be built on the side of another, with a range of post-holes and 2 different floor levels. Thus, suggesting long term use of the site. All of the pottery finds were dated to the late Bronze Age and were from 2 different huts.

The hill fort is believed to have been built during the first invasions and is considered that was after the Bronze age settlement was destroyed. Though it is possible that the Bronze age settlers destroyed the site and built the Hill Fort to protect what they already had. As the site shows there is no evidence of it being destroyed by violent means. It is possible they developed their own existing settlement because of the social changes happening around them.


Another type of settlement particular to this period is the Crannog. these are settlements built upon a lake, built by driving wooden timbers in to the lake bed with a wooden platform placed on top, this provided a base for the housing. Most of these sites were placed on natural outcrops close to the lake-shore.


 Wooden causeways or log boats have have linked them to the shore, some of these have been found preserved on the lake bed. The design does suggest a defensive purpose, but the problem with this is, that a planned attack may be deterred initially, but if the attacker decided to lay siege on the bank. The they could wait out the defender into starvation and surrender. So it would show that this design of settlement was probably for prestige and status and not defence.

Henge’s and Stone Circles

 These are not settlements but are more monumental constructions that are vitally important to this period of history. Henge monuments began life in the early Neolithic period and were used continually right through the Bronze age. These types of monuments are unique to the UK and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The term henge denotes various ceremonial sites. Henge’s span the transition from the neolithic right through to the early Bronze Age. Most of the earliest sites are generally found in the north and Central England, sites such Arbor Low, in Derbyshire.

Most are circular or near circular in plan and can range from 9 metres through to 200 in diameter. They are generally defined by a bank and ditch and an internal ditch as well. the ditches can sometimes be around 2-4 metres deep, though Avebury has a far greater ditch, with an estimated depth of around 15-20 metres. Most henge’s have at least one entrance and were considered a development on from the causeway enclosure, but this is not the case, as causeway enclosures are not found outside of south Central England.

The smaller sites tend to be more circular in structure with one entrance; where as larger sites tend to have more than one. Generally the site entrances are not placed on a nationally common alignment, but tend to be more regionally based. There are two types of Henge, these are denoted by the number of entrances they have. A class 1 henge has only one entrance, where a class two will have 2 or more entrances.

 In some henge’s stone circles occur, though timber posts have been found in a large proportion of excavated sites. Other features have included circles of pits, central stones, cairns or burials as well as stone or timber entrance posts. Some henge’s such as Durrington Walls and Woodhenge are believed to have contained timber buildings which some believe were temples.

Stone Henge’s are a later development on from the typical bank and ditch henge. Stones were added as part of a later development to a site. It is considered by most that stones were introduced in the early to middle Bronze Age. Dating evidence suggests that class 1 henge were built from a round the 4Th millennium through to the 3rd. Whereas class 2 henge began around the middle of the 3rd millennium through to the 2nd.

Towards the end of the Bronze Age, there appeared another type of structure, the stone circle. These were constructed in Ireland and in Britain, and were constructed in large numbers, but are mainly concentrated in two small areas. The first in the Sperrin mountains of the counties Londonderry and Tyrone in Ireland, whilst the second is in the mountains of the counties Cork and Kerry in Eire. Although both are circles of stone, they are distinctive from one another. The Ulster group are larger, but more irregular and composed of smaller stone. often, a row of stones is set at a tangent to the circle.


Ferrill, Arthur; The Origins of War: From the Stone Age to Alexander the Great” Thames & Hudson, 1985

 Keegan, John; A History of Warfare, London, 1993

 Pryor, Francis; Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland Before the Romans, HarperPerennial; New Ed edition, 2004

Pryor, Francis; Britain AD; A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons, Element Books; TV Tie in Ed edition, 2005

Pryor, Francis; Farmers in Prehistoric Britain; NPI Media Group, 2006 Pearson,

Michael Parker; Bronze Age Britain, B.T. Batsford Ltd; New Ed edition, 2005 Scarre, Christopher; The Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2007

Thomas, Julian; Understanding the Neolithic, Routledge; 2Rev Ed edition, 1999

 Burl, Aubrey; The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale University Press; 2Rev Ed edition, 2000

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3 Responses to Pre-Roman Settlement in the United Kingdom

  1. Good post – look out for our upcoming ‘Ancient World in London’ series, when we’ll be detailing the best ancient sites in and around the British capital.

  2. UK Freebies says:

    Great page! I will most definitely recommend you to my friends. Please keep up the great updates. Are you on Twitter too??

  3. An all round well thought out post.

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