The British prehistoric period roughly dates from 1 million years ago to AD 43 and the Roman conquest. It is generally split into three periods: the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.
In this session you will look a variety of artefacts from the Stone Age and think about the people that made and used these fascinating objects. As well as the resources on this page, the Museum also has a Stone Age loan box which can be borrowed by schools or groups, and contains real artefacts to handle.
Activity One: Understanding the Pre-history Timeline
The prehistoric timeline is split into three main sections, the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The Stone Age lasted a REALLY long time, and so archaeologists often split it up into different sections. They also use other words to describe these sections. Have a look the "Stone Age Britain" timeline below and see if you can find some new words that archaeologists use when describing periods of time in the Stone Age. Write down the new words you see.
Palaeolithic: meaning Old Stone Age
An ancient period or level of human social and cultural development, catigorised by the use of simple chipped stone tools and hunter-gatherer societies.
The oldest and longest period of human social and cultural development, characterised by hunter-gatherer societies using flaked stone tools such as flint handaxes and moving round the landscape as they followed the herds of large animals which they hunted.
Mesolithic: meaning Middle Stone Age
An ancient cultural period between the Palaeolithic with its simple stone tools, and the Neolithic with its polished stone tools. Tools from the Mesolithic show a greater variety. Farming begins to develop, but most people still live as hunter-gatherers.
The period after the end of the last Ice Age, when hunter-gatherer societies adapted to a new warmer environment and a new range of animal species. They developed a new range of flint tools including small blades set in bone or wooden handles, and flaked flint axes for working wood.
Neolithic, meaning New Stone Age
A period of important cultural evolution and technological development. Stone tools include ground and polished axes. People began to domesticate plants and animals, which led to agriculture and a profound change in humans’ way of life. Communities settled in permanent villages, developed crafts such as pottery and built huge earth and stone structures for communal burials and rituals, such as long barrows and henges
Activity Two: What would survive
The prehistoric period started and ended a VERY long time ago, so not everything made or used by prehistoric people survives. Some materials can last a very long time in the ground, some will be damaged and corroded, and some rot away completely.
Look at the pictures below of different types of materials and try to guess which would survive from prehistory, which materials would be damaged and which materials would rot completely.
(Note: this is a very simplified way of sorting materials, as it is very dependent on ground conditions)
Hover your mouse over each picture to find the answer.
Wood will rot away when left in the ground, especially if the ground
If animals do not destroy the bones, skeletons take around 20 years to dissolve in acidic soil. However, in sand or neutral soil, skeletons can remain intact for hundreds of years.
Leather typically takes 25 to 40 years to rot in the ground. However, leather can last a very long time in dry or very cold conditions.
If conditions are stable, stone artifacts can last for thousands of years. They can be damaged by acidic condtions or through erosion.
Different metals react diffrently in the ground. When iron comes into contact with water and oxygen it rusts. Silver tarnishes when exposed to oxygen but does not rust. copper and its alloys like bronze as they also react with water and oxygen, turning into copper minerals.Gold is very unreactive.
Fabrics made of natural fibres such as cotton and linen quickly rot in damp condtions. A cotton shirt can decay in 6 months. Synthetic fabrics like nylon last much longer, at least 40 years but these were not invented untill very recently.
What have we learned
How well archaeological remains survive depends on the materials they were made of, where and how they were discarded, and the environment in which they were left. Organic remains generally decay or rot in a short time unless preserved in special conditions. Inorganic remains survive better, though they too can rust, tarnish, or otherwise break down in unstable conditions.
These include people, plants, animals, and anything made of plant or animal matter. These will tend to decay unless preserved in a low-oxygen or very cold environment. Bogs and ice can preserve organic remains.
These include stone, metal, fired clay or pottery cement, plastic, and glass (some of these materials such as plastic are modern materials and would not be found at prehistoric sites). These were never living and will not rot or decay the way organic remains do. They survive especially well in a low-oxygen or very dry environment.
Make a list of the furniture and objects the room you are in.
Make a Venn diagram as shown on the right. Think about whether each object is organic, inorganic, or has elements of both media. Put the organic objects in one circle, the inorganic in the other and those with elements of both in the centre. Assume 1,000 years have passed, and the room has not been specially preserved. List what will be left after all the organic materials decay.
How people lived
Modern humans (Homo sapiens - thats us!) evolved between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago, in the Palaeolithic. Before that, our other palaeolithic ancestors lived as long ago as 2.5 million years. Palaeolithic Homo sapiens and our ancestors would have lived in simple shelters, huts or caves, and hunted or gathered their food - they did not farm or keep livestock.
They used basic stone and bone tools, starting with stone axes, to help hunt many different animals and birds, including woolly mammoths, deer and bison. They cooked using controlled fire, maybe starting 1 million years ago. They also fished and collected berries, fruit and nuts. They are likely to have dressed in animal skins, and modern humans were the first people to leave behind art.
During the Mesolithic, from 10,000 B.C.E. to 6,000 B.C.E., humans continued to make and use stone tools. They developed new types of tool, especially small flint blades called microliths which could be set in hafts and handles to make arrows, spears, harpoons and other tools. They often lived nomadically, and Mesolithic campsites have been identified near rivers, lakes or the sea, where they could exploit animals, fish and birds for food and other resources like bone and hides. They felled trees and could make structures and dugout boats from wood, using flaked flint axes.
In the Neolithic, roughly 6,000 B.C.E to 2,200 B.C.E, people changed from hunting and gathering to farming and food production. They domesticated animals and farmed cereal crops. They used flaked and polished stone axes to clear woodland for crops and pasture, and to construct timber huts and other structures, such as ploughs. A more settled lifestyle encouraged different crafts to develop. They made pottery, which required careful control of bonfires to ‘fire’ the pots. Weaving textiles is another craft which probably began in the Neolithic.
Early Neolithic communities built impressive earth and stone structures such as chambered tombs and long barrows to house their dead (Some Bronze Age long barrows can be seen at Therfield Heath in Royston) and built causewayed camps on some hill tops which shows they could organise large and complex projects with many people. Later in the Neolithic they built stone circles and monuments which we call henges with a circular earth bank and ditch inside it. These were seem to be associated with burials and rituals, and it is also apparent that these early agricultural communities had a very keen understanding of the passage of the seasons, starts, moon and sun which must have been central to the agricultural like cycle.
Activity Three: What do we find?
Archaeologists learn about the past by looking at objects left behind by people in the past. Prehistoric people left a variety of objects behind depending on the area in which they lived and whether they lived in the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic or Neolithic.
The pictures and videos below show a range of objects left behind by prehistoric people.
Study the pictures and videos below; look at the shapes carefully and see if you work out what these tools are made from, how they might have been made and what they might have been used for.
To help you, read the paragraphs about how stone age people lived again and think about the kind of work they would have needed the tools for. Scroll to the final slide to see when the tool was made and what it was used for.