White Hart Crest of the Royal County of Berkshire David Nash Ford's Royal Berkshire History

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Berkshire History
Prehistoric Times

The chalk hills and valleys and the woodlands of the area of the later Berkshire were probably first inhabited during the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age, up to 10,500 years ago, offering good hunting in the stretches of water, grass and woodland and swamps which supported animals such as red deer, hippopotamus, bison or wild ox. The hunting lifestyle persisted after the end of the Ice Age transformed the countryside with new birch, pine, hazel, elm, lime, alder and oak woods. They moved around the area on ancient trackways like the Icknield Way and the Ridgeway across the Berkshire Downs. Some of the earliest hunters lived in temporary seasonal camps at Thatcham and Kintbury during the Mesolithic Age. About 6,000 years ago, however, Berkshire took on the first of several new looks with the arrival of Neolithic farmers who altered the landscape by cutting down trees with their stone tools to clear fields for planting and provide grazing for their animals. Neolithic man left his distinctive mark on the landscape in the form of his religious and funerary monuments. Particularly prominent would have been the prehistoric cursi which were probably used for ritual processions and other ceremonies. A cursus consisted of a long stretch of two parallel banks with ditches which eventually turned at the ends to form an enclosure. In what became Berkshire, there was one at Sonning, one at Buscot and a especially large one, about a mile long, at Drayton, but they are only visible using aerial photography. They would have taken several hundred people to build. Best known of the interment sites from this time are the large 'long' barrows for community burials. There are good examples still to be seen on Gallows Down at Inkpen and 'Wayland's Smithy' at Ashbury.

In time, the use of metal tools and weapons came to the Thames Valley. At first they were of bronze and large hoards of Bronze Age axes have been found at Yattendon and, most recently,  at the entrance to a round house in a Bronze Age settlement on Tower Hill at Ashbury. They may have been the stock of a local metalworker or trader. Most of the round barrows to be found across the county date from this time. The line of eleven barrows at Barrow Hills in Radley must have been quite a site in their day, but they were destroyed in the Middle Ages. However, we still have the 'Seven Barrows' at Upper Lambourn. One of the Radley burials was of a man with gold 'basket earrings' and the famous gold neck torc from Mouslford is of the same date. A number of defensive proto-hillforts were built by these people, including at Uffington Castle and Ram's Hill (in Kingston Lisle). The first of these is closely associated with the famous Uffington White Horse chalk hill-figure, which is now known to have been cut into the adjoining hillside in the Bronze Age. Its significance to the local inhabitants of that time is unknown, but it is generally considered to be a religious totem of some kind. Its image was widely used on later Iron Age coins of the Atrebates tribe: a Belgic people who settled the area around 100 bc. Iron and its associated smelting works had arrived in the future county in about 1,000 bc and, by this time, the area was supporting appreciable farmstead communities. Berkshire's farming characteristics, which lasted into the 20th century, were therefore established in very early times. These Iron Age inhabitants lived in small settlements in round turf or thatch-covered houses, like that discovered at Jennett's Park in Easthampstead. However, they built large hillforts with formidable ramparts for central defence and the safe storage of farm produce, particularly grain. Well known examples can be found at Caesar's Camp (Easthampstead), Walbury Camp (Inkpen) and Perborough Castle (Compton), but they were especially suited to the rolling Berkshire Downs in the North of the county: Blewburton, Segsbury, Cherbury and Uffington.

Next: Roman Times

By David Nash Ford


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