Colour photograph showing a stone cave wall lit at a shallow angle from below to produce shadows from the incised lines
Detail of Upper Palaeolithic cave art at Creswell Crags © Historic England: photo by Alun Bull
Detail of Upper Palaeolithic cave art at Creswell Crags © Historic England: photo by Alun Bull

Early Prehistory

Following recent finds at Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast, we now know that the early human occupation of Britain spans nearly a million years.

These pages explain Historic England's work on early prehistory through recent and current projects, and provide links to documents which explain more about early prehistoric sites and the challenges they pose. They mainly cover terrrestrial projects, but similar considerations apply to submerged landscapes.

The challenge of deep time

Chronologically speaking, 'early prehistory' covers over 99% of the history of England, ending with the arrival of the first Neolithic farmers about 6000 years ago. It spans two geological epochs, the Pleistocene and the Holocene, which together comprise the Quaternary period.

By far the longer of these was the Pleistocene, which comprised a series of Ice Ages. In the coldest periods Britain was unoccupied, but during many of the warmer interglacials people returned. The archaeological period that covers the Pleistocene epoch is called the Palaeolithic. A summary time chart for the period has been produced by the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project.

After the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,500 years ago, we entered the present geological epoch, called the Holocene, when Britain was recolonised by Mesolithic groups.

During this huge period of time our ancestors led a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, so even when people were present in Britain they would have been very few in number. Accordingly, the archaeological record for the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic is intermittent and ephemeral. Very ancient sites of human activity may be deeply buried and found by chance, for example through quarrying or coastal erosion. More recent evidence often occurs closer to the surface, usually in the form of flint scatters, but is still easy to overlook.

Despite these difficulties, the lure of the remote past is the opportunity to record and explore ways of life very different to our own, and before 40,000 years ago it is a record of extinct human species. Just by their extreme rarity some of the finds from these periods are of international importance, and it is always possible that the discovery of a single bone or flint tool could rewrite our history.

What is Historic England doing?

Through a number of recent and current projects, we are seeking to:

  • Synthesise current knowledge and future priorities
  • Develop techniques for locating and mapping deposits with high potential for early prehistoric remains
  • Better understand the environments in which early prehistoric people lived
  • Encourage partnerships with industry and other agencies to report and record finds
  • Address the challenges in protecting and managing Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites
  • Raise awareness by ensuring Historic Environment Records (HERs) have accurate and complete information about these periods
  • Produce guidance documents to assist in the development and dissemination of best practice

We have produced a number of documents that explain more about early prehistoric sites and the challenges they pose.

We have funded publication of an award-winning book in the Oxford Archaeology Monograph series called Lost Landscapes of Palaeolithic Britain, which draws together previous research in a way that makes it accessible to heritage professionals who are not specialists in the Paleolithic period.

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