Long before the Vikings and the Romans came to Britain, even before the Celts and the Gaels moved in, the ancient Brythonic tribes of England, Scotland and Wales - the original Britons - already had well organized and sophisticated societies. They were capable of building massive - and often still mysterious - projects and of crossing the English Channel in boats to trade goods and raw materials. Archaeologists are still uncovering some of their most remarkable achievements, many of which could be at least 2,500 years older than the Pyramids.
You can find stone circles, ancient earthworks, Neolithic dolmens and burial mounds all over the UK. There is even a recently discovered Seahenge made of oak timbers and an upside down oak tree, precisely dated - using tree rings - to 4050 BC.
If prehistoric people fascinate you, a visit to the UK will leave you spoilt for choice. These destinations are my own favorites:
Salisbury is a pretty walled city with Medieval lanes and a cathedral with the tallest spire in Britain. It's a great base for exploring the many attractions of the Wiltshire and nearby Somerset regions. But for anyone interested in prehistoric Britain, Salisbury is the gateway to what is arguably one of the most important prehistoric landscapes in the world.
It's all part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Stonehenge, Avebury & Associated Sites, which pretty much says it all.
Not a castle in the modern sense, Maiden Castle, about 8 miles from Weymouth in Dorset, is a hugh and intimidating Iron Age fort, a giant earthwork that covers 47 acres (big enough for 50 soccer pitches) and dates from about 3,500 BC. It was still being used to defend the surrounding countryside when the Romans invaded in AD44. British archaeology expert, Dr. Francis Pryor - who has made a BBC program about Maiden Castle - says the ramparts are frighteningly high and steep and reports that when it was excavated, the bodies of a number of defenders, buried by the Romans, were discovered. According to Pryor, the Romans thoughtfully provided each buried Briton with a flagon of beer and some meat for the afterlife.
At one time, the fortress was densely populated. Evidence of many roundhouses, grain storage, textile and metal working have been found. Excavations in the 1930s also found about 20,000 "slingstones", small rounded pebbles from nearby Chesil Beach, stored in large pits and ready to be thrown at enemies.
If you go: Maiden Castle is only about 2 miles from Dorchester but Weymouth, on the coast, offers better choices for a variety of styles of accommodations and a chance to fit in some beach and sailing time.
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Orkney is covered with remarkable Stone Age monuments, so many and so important that in 1999, a large part of the the Orkney mainland was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some of the most interesting, at more than 5,000 years old, predate both Stonehenge and the Pyramids by millennia. Visit the island northeast of the Scottish mainland to see:
- The giant Standing Stones of Stenness with their ceremonial hearth stone
- The Ring of Brodgar, a nearly perfect circle of standing stones that is more than 340 feet in diameter
- Maeshowe, a chambered burial mound desecrated with graffitti...carved by Vikings
- Skara Brae, a 5,000 year old village that still looks familiarly domestic.
And now archaeologists are revealing a huge ritual center, on a spit of land called the Ness of Brodgar, that could be the largest neolithic, non-funerary ceremonial site ever discovered. So far 14 buildings, including three large chambered structures, have been uncovered and there are likely many more.
If you go - Indulge in fabulous cold water seafood in one of Orkney's Restaurants with Rooms.
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Llandudno - A Seaside Resort Close to Ancient Monuments
The early people of Wales must have built most of their dwellings and religious buildings of wood, wattle and daub. Or perhaps their most important ancient monuments were destroyed in their battles with various waves of invaders - not least of which were the English. Whatever the reason, this westernmost reach of Great Britain has fewer large Neolithic monuments than elsewhere.
If you are fond of country walking, you will likely encounter dolmens or portal tombs - large megalithic structures topped with heavy, flat stones that are peculiar to the British Isles and Brittany in France - as well as earthworks signifying burial mounds and hill forts. Local walking guides that you can pick up from tourist information offices, news agents and book shops will point out the significance of any you pass on your walk.
If you're serious about your prehistoric explorations, head for the Victorian seaside resort of Llandudno in North Wales and you'll be within easy striking distance of two of the best prehistoric sites Wales has to offer.
- The Great Orme Ancient Mines are 4,000 year old, Bronze Age copper mines, discovered in 1987 when the headland known as the Great Orme was being landscaped. Over time, archaeologists and other experts have excavated more tunnels and surface features, revealing what is believed to be the largest prehistoric mine ever discovered in the world. You can take a self-guided tour and spend as much time as you like wondering over the way the ancient miners released the precious ore using tools made of stone or bone. The Great Orme forms one of the arms of Llandudno and the immense headland overlooks the town.
- Bryn Celli Ddu, a cromlech or chambered tomb, is one of the best examples of this kind of Neolithic structure in Wales. And it's only about 25 miles from Llandudno on the island of Anglesey (reached by a bridge over the Menai Straits.
If you use Llandudno as your base, you're also within easy reach of Snowdonia National Park and some of Wales' best castles. And, if you decide to explore Anglesey, who knows, you might bump into Kate and Prince William, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement, Shetland
Like Scara Brae on Orkney, discovered when a storm washed away the beach that had covered it for millennia, Jarlshof on Shetland was also revealed by a chance act of nature. At the end of the 19 centuries, storms damaged low cliffs at the southern end of Shetland and disclosed a buried settlement. Here the story diverges from the 5,000 year old tale of the dwellings on Orkney. Jarlshof was continuously occupied for more than 4,000 years. Archaeologists have revealed:
- remnants of a Neolithic village, first settled 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.
- a Bronze Age smithy
- an Iron Age village
- a later Iron Age broch, or round tower, a roundhouse and a byre
- a first century Pictish village of wheelhouses - so called because their roofs were supported by radial system like spokes in a wheel.
- a 9th to 13 century Norse settlement including a Viking longhouse and later barns and corn kilns.
- the "Old House of Sumburgh", a 16th century laird's manor.
The name of the place, Jarlshof (or earl's house) is latest of all, having been bestowed upon it by Sir Walter Scott in one of this novels. The original name was Sumburgh.