Introduction: the Geology and Landscape around Godalming
Godalming in 1779, shown from the north east (from Mead Row) (Godalming Museum Collection B000.146.13)
The River Ock joins the River Wey at Godalming, so that the town is sited at the junction of two river valleys. It is sheltered by sandstone hills to the south and to the north-west. The valley of the Ock leads out south west towards Witley. The Wey valley leads to Eashing in the west and to Guildford and the gap where the river crosses the North Downs in the north-east. Godalming sits on a low plateau, raised above the flood plain and close to two crossing points over the Wey (originally fords; now the Town and Borough Bridges). The town was founded by the Saxons, probably in the 7th century, but the site was also attractive to earlier people. There is evidence for Palaeolithic mammoth hunters, Mesolithic hunter-gathers, and Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age farmers in the local area.
These notes present some of the evidence for how people lived here in prehistory, from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. Local archaeological finds have been used to tell the story wherever possible, but sometimes (especially in the early periods) it has been necessary to use examples from elsewhere in Surrey, or even further away.
The landscape and its underlying geology shaped people’s lives in prehistory, as they did up until very recent times. These notes refer to local features such as the river gravels, the chalk downs and the Greensand hills which are shown on the geological map below.
Folkestone beds - sandy
Folkestone beds - loamy
Bargate beds (sandstone)
Hythe beds (sandstone)
Credit: Geological Survey of Great Britain: Ordnance Survey
The Stone Age
What was the Stone Age?
The Stone Age was the time when humans made and used stone tools.
When was the Stone Age?
The Stone Age began more than 2 million years ago in Africa. Stone Age people reached Britain over 800,000 years ago. Around 4,500 years ago people in Britain began to use metal to make some tools and weapons and our Stone Age came to an end. The Stone Age lasted a very long time. For more than 99% of the time humans have lived in Britain we lived in the Stone Age.
Dates in prehistory
Much of our understanding of prehistory, particularly early prehistory, is based on just a few archaeological finds. A single new discovery can change everything. The recent excavation of an early Palaeolithic archaeological site at Happisburgh (pronounced 'Hazeboro') in Norfolk showed that there were humans in Britain over 300,000 years earlier than had been previously thought. You will find contradictory dates in even quite recent publications. Dates in prehistory are generally expressed as “years ago” or as “BC” (before Christ). In these notes “years ago” has been used. Dates in prehistory are only approximate!
Stone Age Periods
The Stone Age is divided into three periods: Palaeolithic; Mesolithic and Neolithic
Old Stone Age
From the Ancient Greek words Paleo = old and lithic = stone
World wide: 2.5 million– 10,800 years ago; in Britain over 800,000 – 10,800 years ago. The Palaeolithic was, by far, the longest of the Stone Age periods (and the longest of any period in the human past).
Imagine a clock face. The minute hand sets off from the number 12 as the first humans arrive in Britain and our Palaeolithic begins. Each minute lasts over 13,000 years. The “minute” hand moves almost the whole way around the clock face before the Palaeolithic comes to an end. Just after it moves past “one minute to”, the Mesolithic begins. The whole of the rest of human civilisation, from the Mesolithic up to the present day, develops during that last minute.
This long period, during the last Ice Age, saw many changes in the climate and landscape and the evolution of new types of human.
Middle Stone Age
Meso = middle
10,800 – 6,500 years ago
As the climate warmed up at the end of the Ice Age, the landscape became heavily wooded. Mesolithic people developed new types of flint, bone and antler tools and weapons to survive in this new environment. Mesolithic people were nomadic hunter-gatherers.
New Stone Age
Neo = new
6,500 – 4,500 years ago
The Neolithic saw the introduction of farming. For the first time, humans settled in one place, growing crops and caring for animals. For the first time, they could own more than they could carry and they started to make and use pottery. Farming could sustain a bigger population than hunting and gathering. Neolithic people were able to organise the construction of spectacular monuments – including Stonehenge
The Palaeolithic was during the Ice Age.
Despite its name, it was not always cold in the Ice Age. There were cold periods called stadials and warmer periods called interstadials.
There is a timeline illustrating this on the website of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project http://www.ahobproject.org/Downloads/Chart.pdf
Surrey during the Stadials
During the cold periods most of Britain was covered in ice. At times, the ice came as far south as where the River Thames is today. Just south of the ice sheets, Surrey was like the lands around the Arctic Circle today. In the winter the ground was frozen and covered in snow. Below the top soil, the ground remained frozen all year round. During the short summers there would be grass, moss and lichen, small shrubs, and sedges growing around bogs and pools. This type of vegetation is called tundra.
Palaeolithic Surrey? This is a photograph of tundra in Siberia today (Tundra in Siberia by Dr Andreas Hugentobler: Wikimedia Commons)
During the summer, reindeer, mammoths, woolly rhino and wild horses visited Surrey.
A Mammoth: A reconstruction of a woolly mammoth We know what mammoths looked like because well preserved frozen mammoths are sometimes found in the perma frost of the Arctic Circle (Woolly mammoth restoration at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, British Columbia by S F Wolfman: Wikimedia Commons)
Mammoth Tooth in Godalming Museum. This mammoth tooth was dug up by Victorian builders in Bridge Street in Godalming. A mammoth tusk was once dug up in Peperharow Road but has since been lost. (Godalming Museum Collection B980.230)
Palaeolithic Elstead? Pingos in Northwest Canada. A pingo is created when water underground freezes, pushing the earth above it up into a mound. During the last stadial there was a pingo close to where Elstead is now. As the climate warmed up, the ice melted and the Elstead pingo collapsed. It became a bog which is still there today (Pingos nr Tuktoyaktuk, NW Territories, Canada by Emma Pike:Wikimedia Commons)
Walking to France – Britain as a Peninsula
As the winter came, the animals were able to retreat south into France. During the Ice Age so much of the world’s water was frozen in the ice that sea levels were lower than today. The English Channel did not exist and Britain was joined to mainland Europe.
You can see illustrations of the land bridge and how it changed over time on the British Museum website http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/all_current_projects/featured_project_happisburgh/early_britain_happisburgh.aspx
The University of Exeter currently has a project, the Doggerland Project, examining the lost prehistoric landscape beneath the North Sea http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/title_89282_en.html
Stadials were extreme events which made dramatic changes to the landscape and destroyed much of the evidence for earlier human and animal life. Glaciers scraped away soil and rock and carved new valleys. When the ice melted, enormous quantities of melt water gouged new routes across the landscape and left behind gravel terraces. Maps of Britain as a peninsula show a river which no longer exists (called the Bytham) flowing into the North Sea, north of the landbridge and demonstrate how the course of the River Thames has changed. In Surrey the Wey flowed north of the North Downs for most of the Palaeolithic.
Surrey during the Interstadials
During the warm periods the ice retreated and southern Britain could be as warm as it is today, or even warmer. Forests of birch and pine trees grew and animals like hippos, straight tusked elephants, lions, spotted hyenas, bison and deer migrated into Britain. People came too. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers – they did not live in one place but moved around, hunting animals and gathering plant foods and other resources.
Happisburgh is an important archaeological site in Norfolk, excavated by archaeologists as part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project. Here, archaeologists found evidence for a group of early humans on a river-side site http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/all_current_projects/featured_project_happisburgh.aspx
Palaeolithic people in Surrey probably also chose to live near rivers: it was easier to move along river valleys than through the forest; the water was useful and attracted animals and people made tools from the stones in the river bed.
Different types of humans in the Palaeolithic
The Palaeolithic lasted so long that there was time for different types of humans to evolve.
The Smithsonian website “What does it mean to be human?” http://humanorigins.si.edu/ has illustrated information about different types of human.
The different types of human (also called hominids or hominins) are all named homo - Latin for man. Antecessor is Latin for ancestor.
Archaeologists believe that the first humans in Britain were a type called Homo antecessor. It is thought that Homo antecessor made the tools found at Happisburgh. No human bones this old have been found in Britain, but fossil bones from this time, identified as Homo antecessor, have been found in Spain.
Homo Heidelbergensis was first identified in 1907 near Heidelberg
Archaeologists excavating a 500,000 year old site at Boxgrove in West Sussex found a Homo heidelbergensis leg bone. They were able to work out that it belonged to a tall strong man. He was about 5 ft 11” in tall and weighed 200lb (14 stone). He was probably around 40 years old when he died. Skulls found on other sites suggest that his head would have been flatter (less domed) than ours, his eyebrow ridge would have stuck out further and his chin less far.
Homo heidelbergensis made and used stone and wooden tools, hunted and gathered plants for food, made shelters and used fire. This may have been the first type of human in Surrey.
Flint Handaxe in Godalming Museum: This handaxe was found in the Farnham river gravels which were created by melt water following the Anglian cold stage, around 400,000 years ago. Many flint handaxes like this have been found in the river gravels. Archaeologists believe they were made by Homo heidelbergensis during an earlier warm stage (Godalming Museum Collection B980.292)
Neanderthals (Homo Neanderthalensis)
Named from fossil bones found in the 1850s in the Neander valley in Germany (“Thal”= valley in German)
A different type of human reached Britain over 60,000 years ago (“5 minutes to” on our clock). Neanderthals were shorter than modern humans; the men were about 5 ft 5 in tall and the women about 5 ft 1 in. They were more muscular and strongly built than us. Their heads were flatter and longer than ours. They had large noses and slanting cheekbones. Their eyebrow ridges stuck out more than ours and their chins stuck out less.
There is evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead, perhaps with food offerings. They made and used many different kinds of stone tools. They made and wore clothing and lived in shelters. Their short, wide bodies and even their large noses meant that they could survive well in the cold and Neanderthal tools have been found with the remains of mammoths.
Mammoth’s tooth and flint handaxe: these were found together in a gravel pit near Bramley in around 1930. Workmen digging gravel out of the pit also found other mammoths’ teeth and some bones of a giant deer ( Surrey Archaeological Collections 39, 1931 p144-5)
Flint Handaxe in Godalming Museum: This flint handaxe was found by Victorian builders building a house in Hallam Road in Godalming. It is the oldest human artefact ever to be found in Godalming. It is 60 – 50,000 years old and was made by a Neanderthal (Godalming Museum Collection B980.302)
Homo sapiens (modern humans)
Sapiens is Latin for wise. This type of human in the European Stone Age is also called Cro-Magnon after an archaeological site in France
Modern humans reached Britain around 40,000 years ago (around “3 minutes to” on our clock). Cro-Magnons made tools and other objects out of bone, antler, wood and ivory, as well as stone. They created beautiful paintings and carvings of the animals they saw around them. They made jewellery and musical instruments.
From about 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals and modern humans were both living in Britain. There were very few humans of either type and they would not have met often. We don’t know what happened if they did meet. Did they get on or did they fight? The DNA of Europeans and Asians alive today shows that we have some Neanderthal ancestors.
We don’t know why the Neanderthals died out. Towards the end of the Ice Age the climate was very unstable, changing from cold to warm and back again very quickly, even within the lifetime of one human being. Perhaps the Neanderthals found it harder to adapt than Homo sapiens.
In Hidden Depths (p 15) there is a reconstruction drawing of a late Palaeolithic (Cro-Magnon) camp at Church Lammas near Staines. Archaeologists found shallow pits, which may have been for digging up flint, along with flint tools and post holes which showed where wooden poles had supported shelters and other structures.
Around 10,800 years ago the climate began to get warmer. The ice melted and sea levels rose. Around 8500 years ago the sea level rose high enough to cut Britain off from mainland Europe and Britain became an island. As the climate warmed up, juniper, birch, pine and hazel trees grew in Surrey, followed by oak, elm, lime, holly, alder and ash.
Mesolithic people developed new types of tools and weapons to help them survive in the densely forested countryside. They hunted the deer, wild pigs and wild cattle which lived in the woods and caught fish in the rivers. They needed to protect themselves from bears and wolves. They made small flint flakes by hitting a carefully shaped block of flint (a core) in just the right place. They shaped the flakes of flint into sharp points. Archaeologists believe that they fixed these points into wooden shafts to make arrows, spears and harpoons. Mesolithic people used flint to make other tools as well, including adzes for woodworking and scrapers to scrape the fat off animal skins, to turn them into clothing, blankets, tents, bags and other things. They made tools and weapons out of bone and antler, but it is rare for these to survive.
Mesolithic flint tools on display in Godalming Museum: These tools were all found in the local area. There is a particularly good collection of Mesolithic flints from Sweetwater near Witley. A very large number of Mesolithic flints have been found in West Surrey. They are most often found on the Greensand hills and it may be that this is where Mesolithic people liked best to live (Godalming Museum Collection: B980.350; B980.361; B980.362; B980.656)
Mesolithic people were nomadic hunter gatherers. They probably lived in small family groups of around 10 – 40 people and moved around the countryside, making use of seasonal resources (for instance runs of salmon in the rivers). There may only have been a few of these groups in the whole of Surrey.
Mesolithic people may have deliberately cleared areas of woodland by burning the trees. This created clearings where grass grew, attracting animals like deer. It also encouraged the growth of hazel which produced both nuts and useful wood. Young shoots of hazel can be woven into baskets or fish traps, or used to make hurdles or shelters. A sequence of burning and regrowth over many years would impoverish the soil and encourage the growth of heathland. Scientists now believe that some of the heathland in West Surrey dates back to the Mesolithic.
Artist Victor Ambrus created this picture of a Mesolithic camp site at North Park Farm near Bletchingley (east Surrey). Archaeologists excavating the site found thousands of flint flakes as well as places where fires had been lit. They even found the shells of hazel nuts. Archaeologists believe that Mesolithic people made repeated visits to this site over a period of almost 4000 years. (Surrey County Archaeology Unit)
During the Neolithic our ancestors stopped being hunter-gatherers and began to be farmers. For the first time they settled in one place. They used stone axes and fire to clear trees and to make fields where they grew crops and kept animals. Neolithic people began to make pottery. They kept sheep and probably made cloth from wool and flax. They also kept cattle and pigs. They grew wheat (an early type called emmer wheat) and barley. They used flint sickles to harvest the grain and flat stones, called quern stones, to grind it into flour. They used flint to make arrowheads, scrapers and other tools, and flint and other types of stone to make axes. Stone axes made in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and the Lake District have been found in Surrey, suggesting that these were treasured possessions which were traded over long distances.
Farming can support a larger population than hunting and gathering and Neolithic society was probably more structured than earlier societies. Neolithic people were able to work together to create impressive monuments like Stonehenge.
A henge is an enclosure created by a bank and a ditch. Sometimes, as at Stonehenge, the henge is marked by standing stones. The remains of a henge have been found in north Surrey, near Shepperton. The Shepperton henge was a circular chalk bank surrounded by a ditch, about 22 metres wide. An entrance through the ditch and bank faced the midsummer sunrise. An avenue of pits or wooden posts led from the henge to the River Ash. A water hole, boiling pit and hearth outside the henge are thought to have been used for ceremonial feasts. Shepperton henge was built around 5,500 years ago and may have remained in use for over 1000 years. You can see a picture of the excavation of the Shepperton Henge in Hidden Depths (p 68).
Neolithic people sometimes buried their dead in barrows (mounds of earth). A Neolithic long barrow was found at Badshot Lea, near Farnham in 1936. Most of it had been destroyed by a chalk quarry, but archaeologists were able to work out that it was originally around 140 ft long.
Neolithic pots found at Badshot Lea long barrow (The Prehistory of the Farnham District, 1939, Surrey Archaeological Society Collections special volume)
Neolithic people used antler picks and shovels made of cattle shoulder bones to make these earthworks, as well as for other work, like mining flint.
Neolithic Tools on display in Godalming Museum: These include antler picks found at Ockford Bargate stone quarry, flint arrowheads found around Puttenham, part of a flint sickle and polished flint axes found at Shackleford and around Puttenham (Godalming Museum Collection: B980.24; B980.325; B980.336; B980.721; B980.725; B980.731; B980.732; B980.808; B980.352)
Neolithic polished flint axe head found at Shackleford: Polishing a flint or stone tool was a new technique developed in the Neolithic. It would have taken a long time and may have been done to make the tool stronger. Neolithic stone and flint axe heads had wooden handles. Examples of complete axes which have been found at underwater archaeological sites in Switzerland show that the handles were well made, usually from ash, the wood used for tool handles today. Neolithic axe handles were carefully designed to add weight to each blow of the axe. Some even had antler shock absorbers to protect the user from the shock of the blow (Godalming Museum Collection: B015.12)
Bronze Age “Godalming”
Around 4,500 years ago people started to make some tools and weapons out of metal. At first they used copper and then mixed it with tin to make bronze (a harder metal).
An early Bronze Age copper axe found in Farncombe ( Winifred E Phillips, Bronze Age Metal Objects in Surrey, Surrey Archaeological Collections 64, 1967)
The design of bronze axes changed over time: the axe on the left was found in Guildford. There is a replica of this type of axe in this loan box. The later axe on the right was found in Weybridge (Winifred E Phillips, Bronze Age Metal Objects in Surrey, Surrey Archaeological Collections 64, 1967)
Bronze Age flint arrowheads: Copper and tin are not very common metals - the nearest source of tin to Surrey is Cornwall. Many Bronze Age tools and weapons were still made out of flint. These arrowheads were found at Binscombe, near Seale and on Holloway Hill in Godalming (Godalming Museum Collection B980.331.6; B980.337; B980.358)
Late Bronze Age gouge: This bronze gouge was found in Mead Row. It would originally have had a wooden handle (Godalming Museum Collection B983.12)
Bronze spear head found in Godalming (Winifred E Phillips, Bronze Age Metal Objects in Surrey, Surrey Archaeological Collections 64, 1967)
Many beautiful and valuable bronze objects have been found in the River Thames. They seem to have been thrown in deliberately, probably as offerings to the gods. This was a tradition which began in the Neolithic and continued through the Iron Age.
Exploring Surrey’s Past p. 75 and http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/explore-online/pocket-histories/river-thames-prehistory/
The Thames was also an important trading route in the Bronze Age. However the types of Bronze Age pottery, tools and weapons found in West Surrey suggest that the local area had stronger links with Wessex, to the west, than with the wealthy and well connected Thames valley to the north.
Pots for the living: Bronze Age pots found at Green Lane (left) and Dippenhall (right) near Farnham
(The Prehistory of the Farnham District, 1939, Surrey Archaeological Society Collections special volume)
Pots for the dead: Bronze Age burial urn found at Wonersh. It had been buried upside down over the cremated remains of a Bronze Age person, in a stone cist (a box made of slabs of stone). Similar burials have been found in Bronze Age barrows. Bronze Age round barrows have been found at Crooksbury Common, Horsell Common and at Chiddingfold (Bronze Age Urns of Surrey, Surrey Archaeological Society Collections vol 35, 1924)
Bronze Age farmers in West Surrey kept cattle, sheep and goats. They grew emmer wheat and barley.
A Bronze Age Quern: this type of quern is called a saddle quern. It is used to grind grain into flour by rubbing the top stone on the bottom one. This was found at a site called the Junction Pit near Farnham (The Prehistory of the Farnham District, 1939, Surrey Archaeological Society Collections special volume)
Spindle whorls found on Bronze Age sites show that Bronze Age people used drop spindles to spin wool. Clay loom weights show that they wove woollen cloth.
Clay loom weights. These were found at Green Lane near Farnham. They were used to hold the warp (upright) threads taut on a Bronze Age loom (The Prehistory of the Farnham District, 1939, Surrey Archaeological Society Collections special volume)
Bronze Age people rode horses; pieces of horse harness were found by archaeologists excavating at Runnymead Bridge.
Iron Age “Godalming”
The Iron Age began when people began to make tools, weapons and other objects out of iron. Iron is a more common metal than copper or tin. Locally it was smelted from ironstone found in the Wealdon clay, using charcoal which was also readily available in the heavily wooded Weald.
Iron Age farmers in Surrey grew emmer wheat, barley, oats and spelt, as well as peas, beans and vetches. They grew some crops as animal fodder and stored them to feed their animals in the winter. They kept cattle, which could have been trained to pull wooden ploughs, making it possible to work heavier soils. They also kept sheep, goats, pigs and chickens. They spun and wove wool.
Clay loom weight: Iron Age loom weight found near St Martha’s Hill, Guildford in the 1930s. It was found with a kiln which may have been used to make loom weights (An Early Iron Age Oven at St Martha’s Hill, Guildford, Surrey Archaeological Society Collections vol 43, 1935)
Iron Age people hunted wild animals, especially wild boar, but this was probably more for sport than for food. They rode horses and used them to pull chariots in battle.
Iron Age people lived in round houses built of wood, with thatched roofs and walls made from wooden planks or wattle and daub (woven wooden panels covered with clay). In Hidden Depths (p 25) you can see an artist’s reconstruction of an Iron Age settlement excavated by archaeologists at Tongham, north of the Hog’s Back.
There are several hillforts in West Surrey which date to the Iron Age. There are hillforts at Caesar’s Camp and Hillbury near Farnham, at Hascombe and at Holmbury, and Anstiebury and Felday towards Guildford.
Archaeologists disagree about why hillforts were built and how they were used. It has been suggested that hillforts were …
One hillfort could have been used in several different ways and it certainly seems that different hillforts were used for different purposes.
Maiden Castle in Dorset is a well known hillfort with a long history stretching from the Neolithic into Roman times.
It has evidence for many buildings within the hillfort and for fighting, perhaps between Iron Age people and Romans.
Hascombe Hillfort on the 1913 Ordnance Survey map: there is a public footpath up to the hillfort from the White Horse pub in Hascombe
Hascombe Hill fort, like Holmbury and Anstiebury is on the edge of the Greensand hills. It is in a strong position with good views and originally was defended by a double bank and ditch. Excavations at Hascombe Hillfort uncovered some evidence for people living and working there. Archaeologists found spindle whorls, loom weights and quern stones and evidence for emmer wheat, spelt, barley and oats. There was also evidence for iron working early in the site’s history. Fragments of pottery included a piece which was made in Cornwall. Archaeologists also found clay sling shot, which could be evidence of a fight, but may have been used for hunting. Hascombe and Holmbury appear to have been built in the mid Iron Age and to have fallen out of use by the later Iron Age, when Anstiebury was built. (See Hidden Depths p97).
The Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in 43 AD and this date is usually taken as the end of the Iron Age. Many of the Iron Age (Celtic) tribes in Britain surrendered to the Romans without a fight and it seems likely that the Attrebates, the tribe whose territory included Surrey, did so. Certainly there is very little evidence for the Roman Army having spent any time in Surrey, or for any fighting. Life may have gone on much as usual for most of the inhabitants of the local area.
Two important religious sites in Surrey began in the Iron Age and continued through the Roman period. The temple at Farley Heath was dedicated to the Celtic gods Taranis, Succellus and Nantosvelta who were associated with ironworking. Another Iron Age / Roman temple has been found at Wanborough. People made offerings of coins at both sites and you can see some of the finds from Wanborough on the British museum website.
Websites you may find useful
The Museum of London website “Schools and HE” section has a whole section on Prehistoric London, including:-
The British Museum website also has some excellent resources. Their Teaching History with 100 objects section includes several prehistoric objects, including a handaxe from Happisburgh.
To find out more about Prehistoric Surrey look at the Exploring Surrey’s Past website (click on “Times” to find summaries of the different prehistoric periods in Surrey)
For the Palaeolithic: www.cresswell-crags.org.uk