From the enigmatic Stonehenge in the south to the monumental Hadrian’s Wall in the north, archaeology in England is as rich through time as it is in geographical distribution. The earliest evidence of humans dates back to before the Last Glacial period. Beginning just before the end of the Ice Age and on into the Medieval period there were successive arrivals of people who brought with them new ways of living: the first farmers, the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons, all contributing to the temporal and spatial diversity of archaeological sites in England we can visit today.
Stonehenge, one of the most well known and much loved prehistoric sites in England.
England is one of four countries in the United Kingdom that became a unified state at the beginning of the 10th century. The name comes from the Angles, one of a number of Germanic tribes that began invading the island from the mid-5th century AD. The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are today an archipelago commonly referred to as the Irish and British Isles. It was not, however, until after the end of the Last Glacial period when glaciers were melting and sea levels started to rise that these islands became islands and began to take the shape they do today.
Palaeolithic until 10,000 years ago
Mesolithic 8000-4000 BC
Neolithic 4000–2200 BC
Bronze Age 2200-750 BC
Iron Age 750 BC–43 AD
Roman Britain 43–410 AD
World War 1 1914–1918
Interwar Britain 1918–1939
World War 2 1939–1945
What is today the English Channel was during the Lower Palaeolithic a large river flowing from east to west, of which the Thames was a tributary. Consequently, there was no significant aquatic barrier for human ancestors moving easily between continental Europe and England. Archaeological evidence now along the Norfolk and Sussex coast from this time in the form of stone tools shows that early species of Homo were living in the area about 700,000 years ago. But, it is not until about 30,000 years ago that anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, arrived in Britain, just before the extreme cold of the last Ice Age that lasted from about 22,000 to 13,000 years ago. It is generally thought that the Irish and British Isles were uninhabitable during this period, and humans moved further south.
Hunter-gatherers with stone tools ascribed to the Upper Palaeolithic returned to England about 12,000 years ago as the climate began to warm. By 10,000 years ago the glaciers began to melt and sea levels started to rise. As a result, at about 9,500 years ago Ireland was cut off from Britain and by approximately 6,000 years ago Britain was cut off from continental Europe. This period is called the Mesolithic; during this time the dog was domesticated and there is growing evidence that hunter-gatherers lived more permanently in one spot, or area.
The change from a hunter-gatherer to a farming way of life is still contested and not fully understood for England. Some archaeologists believe that the process of becoming Neolithic farmers, that is subsisting on domesticated plants and animals and leading a sedentary lifestyle, was brought about by resident communities taking on these new strategies. Other archaeologists suggest farming in England was effected by new communities coming across from continental Europe replacing the indigenous populations and their hunter-gatherer ways of living. Whatever the outcome of this debate, it was during the Neolithic that some of the ubiquitous funerary monuments were constructed. Long barrows and chambered tombs, such as West Kennet Long Barrow, and other substantive earthworks gave way to henges and stone circles of the later Neolithic, such as Stonehenge and Avebury. Some of these structures, certainly Stonehenge, continued to be used and developed into the Bronze Age.
Towards the end of the Neolithic, about 4,500 years ago, a number of new features were introduced into England. One was a specific style of pottery, the so-called beaker pottery, and another more significant innovation was the skill to be able to create metals. At first it was copper, but by mixing copper with tin the prehistoric metalworkers created bronze, hence the Bronze Age. Over a period of about a thousand years bronze replaced stone, and such was the quality and quantity of bronze at this time that bronze from England was exported across Europe. By the start of the first millennium BC iron replaced bronze, and so we have the Iron Age. Iron ore was more plentiful than those ores used for the making of bronze, and iron itself was a much harder metal. The use of iron had a great impact on farming practices: iron axes were more efficient at clearing forests for agriculture, and iron ploughs made churning up the soil much easier than wooden or bronze implements. Iron Age communities were not only skilled in producing functional iron implements, metalworkers were highly skilled craftsmen who began producing intricately patterned objects in gold, from jewellery to other ceremonial objects such as shields and helmets.
Towards the end of the Iron Age Gaulish tribes displaced by the expanding Romans in Europe from what is now France and Belgium began to arrive in England. These people were already influenced by the Romans, and it is they that started the Romanisation of Britain, before the ultimate Roman conquest of England in 43 AD. It is thought that these northern Europeans were responsible for the first hill forts, or oppida, along the southern coastline, such as the very well known Maiden Castle.
Although it was under Julius Caesar that the Roman army began to move into England in any great numbers, around 55 BC, it was not until 43 AD under Emperor Claudius that the conquest of England began in earnest. Iron Age England already had significant contact and exchange with continental Europe, but the Roman invaders introduced significant innovations in agriculture, architecture, urbanisation, and industry. And, it is the physical remains of these innovations that have survived to the present. The country houses, or Roman villas, with their exquisite mosaic floors, found throughout England are just one manifestation of this new Romano-British culture.
For the Romans England was known as Britannia, and it included much of the island – up to the border with Caledonia, present day Scotland. The Romans were never able to exert any significant control over Caledonia. What was the northern border of Britannia is still visible today in Hadrian’s Wall, which was completed in about 128 AD. The border was briefly pushed further north, to the Forth-Clyde rivers where the Antonine Wall was constructed.
There were, in much of the later decades of Roman rule of Britannia, many invasions by the so-called barbarians. This, and the collapse of the Roman Empire more generally, brought an end to the Roman occupation of England around 410 AD. The end of Roman rule in Britain allowed the Anglo-Saxons to settle and establish several kingdoms that became the primary powers in England. During the Medieval Period England was transformed over several centuries from a diverse, warring and fractious land of petty kingdoms into one of Europe’s most centralised, powerful and richest states. This transformation is clearly seen today in the diverse archaeology of Medieval England, whether it is the Medieval additions to the Roman wall that surrounded London, or the many castles and early Christian Abbeys up and down the country.
Besides the diversity of in situ archaeology, to suit all manner of interests in the past, England has some truly outstanding museums. There is a healthy tradition of local museums, as well as some of the world’s most famous museums; the British Museum in London immediately comes to mind. Established in 1753, largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane, today the British Museum has amassed an excess of seven million objects in wide-ranging collections that come from all over the world. Together these collections are amongst the largest and most comprehensive of any museum collections in the world. But some of these collections are not without controversy: the so-called Elgin Marbles originally from the Parthenon in Athens and the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, for example are just a few objects whose ownership by the British Museum is intensely contested.
The archaeology of England is certainly well known for a number of high-profile sites such as Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall. And understandably, these attract many visitors each year. This is, however, partly because of a long and now well established tradition of archaeological research in the United Kingdom, much more for archaeophiles to visit. Our regional lists of sites and the archaeological tours included here provide recommended guides for those who want to explore the Archaeology of England further.
The division of England adopted here is primarily geographical, 12 regions defined by a distinct geographic identity. Archaeological sites and museums in each region are then listed according to the ceremonial counties of England. These ceremonial counties are appropriate here as they tend to be more geographic than administrative. Sites and museums that are located within the unitary authorities of Bournemouth or Poole can be found listed in the ceremonial county of Dorset. The following is a list of the 12 regions and their constituent counties.
This triangular peninsular jutting out into the Atlantic has rugged coastlines around upland massifs – known to us as Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and Exmoor. On the uplands throughout the region are numerous Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, stone circles, stone alignments, and megalithic dolmens. There is very little Roman archaeology west of Exeter, Isca Dumnoniorum to the Romans. In the far western ends of this region, prehistoric communities continued until the Christian era. Around the coastline are numerous hillforts and castles and would have provided a first line of defence of England against anyone entering the English Channel from the west. During the Medieval period many of these castles became quite impressive, some of which continued to play a role in Britain’s defensive systems into the 20th century and the two World Wars. Off the south-west coast of mainland Cornwall are the Scilly Isles, which were during the Bronze Age larger than today. As sea level shave risen since, these islands have reduced in size, but there are still many Bronze Age monuments on what would have been higher land.
Prehistoric sites in parts of this region attracted the attention of antiquarians as long ago as the seventeenth century. Given one of these is Stonehenge, it is still an area that draws in archaeologists. Consequently this is one of the most well researched areas of archaeology in England. Geographically this is a diverse region, with sandy heathlands on the south coast, and chalky downlands that create the typical image of southern England. The south coast has many good natural harbours, and so this area has been the focus of much cross-channel trade since early prehistory. Perhaps one of the most well known downland is the Salisbury Plain, now extensively used for military training but it is here that the Stonehenge – Avebury prehistoric landscapes are. In the west are the low flat plains that make up the Somerset Levels – home to some of the most interesting prehistoric lake villages occupied by up to 200 people in roundhouses.
This region is made up of two large chalk downlands that run east-west, both of which are rich in archaeology. The North Downs starts in Kent and runs the length of south-east England to north Hampshire. This is an area made up of chalk ridges and low hills. As an area with great agricultural potential, it has attracted people since the Neolithic, who built distinctive long barrows in this area. The presence of iron ore made this area particularly attractive in both Roman and Medieval times. To the south are the South Downs, which run from Beachy Head in the east to the North Downs in the west. Along the South Downs is the United Kingdom’s newest designated National Park, ie. the South Downs National Park. An area rich in archaeology, from early prehistory through to the Medieval period.
Despite centuries of extensive development, there is still a lot of archaeology in London to see, particularly Roman and Medieval archaeology. And of course the capital city has some world class museums. The Museum of London, for example, has a collection of over seven million artefacts from the early Stone Age to the present, only a fraction of which are included in some wonderfully designed displays that chart every period of London’s past. Also, the Petrie Museum of Egyptology is one of the most important collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology. What is now Greater London, broadly that area within the circular M25, has been occupied since the early Stone Age living on the banks of the Thames and its tributaries. Stone artefacts are still being covered in these river gravels, some of which can be seen in the Museum of London. Londinium, the Roman settlement on the north banks of the Thames River, sparked the development of what is now one of the most important cities in the World. Remains of the amphitheatre and the wall are still in situ. The wall was rebuilt and modified since, and today provides a fascinating city walk that follows the Roman and Medieval history of London.
Find archaeology sites and museums in London
An area known for its picturesque villages, the Cotswolds is a popular tourist attraction. The area is defined by the Cotswolds hills and the valleys of many tributaries of the Thames River, the source of which is near Kemble. Some of the villages here date back to the eleventh century. Before the Medieval period, the Cotswolds was extensively occupied by the Romans, and now there is some of the finest Roman archaeology in England here. The Roman villas are certainly amongst the grandest in all of Britannia, don’t miss the villas at Chedworth and Great Witcomb. Many striking hillforts were constructed along the escarpment during the Iron Age. Earlier farming communities built some extraordinary sites in this region, there are many causewayed enclosures and a large variety of barrows. The Bronze Age barrow building tradition here was particularly strong.
This region is defined by two ranges of hills running from the north-east to the south-west, separated by the Ouse River valley. The northern range of hills is an extension of the Cotswold hills, while the southerly Chilterns is an extension of the Wessex downlands. Archaeologically, this is a rich area. Along the major rivers there are numerous early prehistoric settlements, with the ceremonial monuments on higher ground. By the later prehistoric periods the area was heavily occupied, with many Iron Age hillforts situated on higher ground. The Chilterns in particular became an important area for agricultural production in Roman times, and on into the Medieval. There are the remains of many villas that belonged to wealthy Romans. Many of the modern towns and villages have origins in the Middle Ages, but a number of hamlets and small villages were deserted by the eighteenth century.
Find archaeology sites and museums in: Bedfordshire | Buckinghamshire | Hertfordshire | Northamptonshire
Much of northern East Anglia, from Cambridge to The Wash is low-lying land covered in peat or alluvium deposits. With the exception of the Isle of Ely and other ancient islands, the remains of prehistoric and Roman occupation of the area are under these deposits. Sites such as the Bronze Age settlement of Flag Fen have exceptional preservation because of the waterlogged conditions within which they have been preserved. Following the coast from The Wash to the Thames estuary, the land has been good for agriculture since prehistoric times. During the Medieval period East Anglia was not only populous, it was also very prosperous, as a result there are some very rich Anglo-Saxon cemeteries here. Central East Anglia was not particularly suitable for cultivations and there is little evidence of intensive settlements. The chalky nature of the ground rich in flint meant this was a good area for flint mining, the most well known of which is Grime’s Graves – the largest flint mining site in England.
The very westerly part of this region is rich in early prehistoric ceremonial sites and by later prehistoric hillforts. During the Medieval period this became the borderlands between England and Wales, and known as the Welsh Marches. Here Marcher Lords, appointed by the King of England, had special rights in return for their loyalty and protecting the Kingdom from the Welsh. Many of the villages of Medieval origin have at their centre a castle or a fort of one sort or another. East of the Welsh Marches is the Severn Valley, which became more densely populated in the Bronze Age once the area was cleared of its woodland, which made the area more attractive to Iron Age communities and the Romans. There are many Iron Age hillforts and settlements, as well as Roman towns. The midlands plain to the north has evidence of a strong Roman presence, but it is in fact one of the less well known regions for archaeology in England.
Find archaeology sites and museums in: Cheshire | Herefordshire | Merseyside | Shropshire | Staffordshire | West Midlands | Worcestershire
The East Midlands is a region of marked contrasts. The southern end of the Pennines makes up the Peak District National Park in the west, which has some of the highest land in England. To the east are some of the most low-lying lands in England – some of which is below zero. The uplands were occupied from the Neolithic, but quite heavily so from the Bronze Age onwards. This area has some fine well-preserved Neolithic burial sites and many Bronze Age funerary monuments. Because of the low lying nature of the land to the east many of the prehistoric sites are buried below peat and riverine and marine sediments. There are numerous Iron Age hillforts and a variety of enclosures on the higher grounds of the Trent Valley. From the fourteenth century the low-lying wetlands were reclaimed for agricultural purposes.
Find archaeology sites and museums in: Derbyshire | Leicestershire | Lincolnshire | Nottinghamshire | Rutland
In the west of the Yorkshire region are the Pennines. North Yorkshire is mostly taken up by the Yorkshire Dales National Park. This is an area of harsh and isolated landscapes in which are preserved prehistoric and Roman field systems. The harsh nature of this area made it attractive for the austerity of Medieval monastic communities. Roughly running down the middle of this region is the Vale of York. Settlement of this low-lying area goes back to early prehistoric times. Roman settlement was extensive, with a large and important fort at Eboracum – present day York, which went on to become a major Medieval city. The eastern, coastal side of Yorkshire includes the North York Moors in the North and the Yorkshire Wolds to the south, separated by the Vale of Pickering. The Moors appear to have been densely populated during the Bronze Age, if the number of funerary monuments here is anything to go by. The Wolds were also densely populated, from the Neolithic through to the Medieval times. The number of deserted Medieval villages shows this area was up to four times more densely settled than it is today.
Find archaeology sites and museums in: Yorkshire
The north-west region of England is dominated by the Lake District, an uplands of outstanding natural beauty that is a designated national park and a popular tourist attraction throughout the year. Early prehistoric use of this are is slight, but pastoralism seems to have been well established by the Bronze Age. The fertile valley floors and coastal plains were favoured in prehistory, and here we find some spectacular prehistoric ceremonial monuments, such as Castlerigg Stone Circle – one of the most dramatically sites stone circles in Britain. In the coastal plains to the north of the Lake District is the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, and other Roman forts and settlements can be found along the coast to the west of the Lake District.
Find archaeology sites and museums in: Cumbria | Greater Manchester | Lancashire
The geography of this region varies greatly east to west, influencing the archaeology, in particular the prehistoric habitation in the area. In the west are the uplands, in which are the sources of rivers that flow east through a coastal plain to the North Sea. Early prehistoric communities migrated between the coastal lowlands and the uplands on a seasonal basis. Neolithic communities favoured the lowlands, but the uplands was used for new settlement opportunities during the Bronze Age and on into the Iron Age. It was the Romans who established this area as a cultural and political border when they constructed Hadrian’s Wall (broadly following the Tyne River) at the beginning of the first millennium AD. During the early historic period the land between the Tyne and Tweed Rivers became the borderlands between England and Scotland. And it is here that we find a diversity of fortified homesteads, forts and castles, some of which are the amongst the most substantial of anywhere in the United Kingdom.
Find archaeology sites and museums in: Durham | Northumberland | Tyne & Wear
The organisations listed below promote archaeology in many different ways. Some are charged with protecting and managing the many archaeology sites in England. Others actively encourage a deeper appreciation and respect for archaeological sites through regular meetings and field excursions for members. Many of these have an active membership body, and always welcome new members.
Council for British Archaeology
Founded in 1944, the ‘CBA’ is an independent educational charity that works throughout the United Kingdom to promote the appreciation and preservation of the historic environment. The organisation is open to all with an interest in the past, whether you are a professional archaeologist, and active volunteer or just an interested enthusiast. Members join a group, and there are regional groups through the country. Events are arranged throughout the year. But by far the most spectacular of these is the ‘Festival of Archaeology’, a programme of events of all kinds that take place at participating archaeological sites, museums and other organisations over a period of at least two weeks. In 2016 the festival takes place from 16 to 31 July (see more on the Festival of Archaeology website).
Royal Archaeological Institute
Founded in 1844, the Royal Archaeological Institute is the leading archaeology society in the United Kingdom. The Institute promotes the research and appreciation of all aspects of archaeological, architectural and landscape history in the British Isles. And it encourages anyone sharing these interests to join the society. Members benefit from an active programme of events, such as monthly lectures and annual meetings, and specialist conferences and tours to historic sites. The institute also actively supports research and the dissemination of this research by awarding research grants and publishing The Archaeological Journal – an internationally respected journal of archaeological research.
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The Prehistoric Society
The Prehistoric Society promotes the research and appreciation of the prehistoric past around the World; from the origins of humanity to the origins of writing. Although registered as a company and charity in England and Wales, the membership reflects the organisation’s international focus – over 1500 members in over 40 countries. A variety of events are hosted by the Society, including lectures, meetings, conferences and site visits, often in collaboration with other regional or local archaeology groups. The Society regularly publishes an informative newsletter for its members, as well as the prestigious Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society – which is published by the Society with Cambridge University Press.
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Historic England, short for Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, is a professional body charged with caring for England’s historic environment, not just archaeology. It is a public, non-departmental body of the British Government, supported by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The organisation is the government’s statutory adviser on all matters to do with England’s historic environment. The principal task of the organisation is to monitor and report on the state of England’s historic heritage. To achieve this the work of Historic England includes, advising local, regional and national bodies, as well as commissioning, promoting and funding primary research. Historic England also oversees the National Heritage Collection, a collection of over 400 historic properties and monuments around England that are open to the public and managed by English Heritage.
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The English Heritage Trust, as it is officially known, is a registered charity that manages the National Heritage Collection – over 400 state owned historic properties and monuments in England. These include such popular and much visited archaeological sites as Stonehenge in the south and a number of sites along Hadrian’s Wall in the north. Attractions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not included. Besides making these sites available to visitors, English Heritage arranges many activities and events at many of the sites throughout the year. The organisation also operates a membership scheme – whereby members get free access to all properties and many of the events, and reduced entry to others. The scheme is open to residents of England and other countries. Membership fees are very reasonable, and it only takes an average sized family a few visits to recover the initial outlay. Besides free access to the sites and most special events, membership provides a number of benefits, including free or reduced entry to historic sites in a few other countries. Thinking about joining, then read this detailed account of the benefits of joining English Heritage.
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Founded in 1985 as a not-for-profit organisation, the National Trust is an independent charity that is the largest private landowner in the United Kingdom. The Trust’s work is to preserve and protect historic places and spaces, as well as sites of natural beauty. Widely thought to be only interested in English historic houses, the trust also owns and protects historic landscapes ( for example the Lake District), historic urban properties (such as the Victorian Workhouse at Southwell), and nature reserves (Wicken Fen was the first, registered in 1899). Of course, the National Trust also has many archaeological sites, the first on its list was the Neolithic White Barrow. The Trust also owns Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall. The National Trust is one of the largest membership bodies in the World; with 4.24 million members registered in 2015. Membership is open to all, whether resident in the UK or abroad, the benefits of which are free entry to and free parking at over 500 properties in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
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The British Archaeological Association
Founded in 1843, the British Archaeological Association promotes the study and appreciation of archaeology, art and architecture of the Middle Ages in the United Kingdom and Europe. The organisation welcomes membership applications from professional archaeologists, students of archaeology and anyone with an interest in art and architecture of the past. A varied programme of events is provided for members, including monthly lectures held in London, conferences and study days held in cities of Medieval significance in the UK and occasional in Europe (the 2016 conference for example is in Paris). And every two years the BAA hosts an international conference on the Romanesque period. The BAA also actively supports primary research on Medieval art and architecture and promotes this research through various publications. An appropriate organisation for anyone with a particular interest in Medieval archaeology in England.
RESCUE – The British Archaeological Trust
RESCUE is an independent charitable trust that advocates for the historic environment in the United Kingdom and abroad. Council members take an active interest in campaigning for the protection of the archaeological and historical sites, most recently such campaigns as those for Old Oswestry hillfort (Shropshire, England), City of Adelaide clipper ship (Australia), and Stonehenge (Wiltshire, England). As an independent charity RESCUE relies on donations and memberships to fund its advocacy. Anyone with an interest in campaigning for and/or supporting campaigns to protect the historic environment is encouraged to join .
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The official tourism website for England, with detailed information on travelling to and touring around England, including information about special events.