Explore 10 Historic Landmarks of Bronze Age Britain

Exploring the ancient historic monuments of Bronze Age Britain

Head back 4,000 years into Britain’s past, to one of the most-exhilarating periods in the history of the British Isles. The start of the Bronze Age was a time of great excitement. Agriculture and livestock farming were widely established during this time, megalithic structures were built, older Neolithic monuments were modified, and the Bell-Beaker period gradually established new cultural ideas, including complex metalwork. Sandwiched between the Neolithic and the Iron Age, Bronze Age Britain lasted some 1,700 years, from around 2,500 BC to 800 BC.

Today, relatively little remains on the surface of those pioneering communities and ancient farmers who walked the forests and uplands of Bronze Age Britain. But for those who are prepared to seek them out, traces of their existence abound. Henges, ring cairns, and ancient barrows and other relics, attesting to the multitudes who lived and died in Britain’s age of bronze. This article documents some of the greatest historic landmarks of that period.

Must Farm

(Images: Dr Colleen Morgan 1, 2)

One night, thousands of years ago, disaster struck a remote corner of Cambridgeshire. A fire ripped through a riverside village, consuming the wooden jetty. As residents fled, the jetty collapsed, sending homes tumbling into the mud. By the first light of dawn, the community was no more.

For the villagers, watching their homes succumb to the raging fire must’ve felt like the end of the world. But for archaeologists working four millennia later, it presented a remarkable opportunity. As the wooden houses collapsed into the river, their weight forced them to sink into the mud, preserving them. When they were finally uncovered in 2015, they were remarkably intact. No other British Bronze Age village had so successfully withstood time’s onslaught.

The discovery was hailed as “the British Pompeii”. Not only were the wooden structures preserved, they still retained signs of their hasty abandonment. A pot was discovered that still contained the remains of a half-cooked meal, left behind when the villagers fled the fire. The site, known as Must Farm, is without doubt one of the most important historic landmarks of Bronze Age Britain found to date.

Grimspound

The dramatic Bronze Age settlement of Grimspound on Dartmoor

Bronze Age Grimspound (Images: Vince Hogg; Own Herby)

High up on Dartmoor, near the great ridge that runs toward Widecombe, lies one of most-haunting Bronze Age ruins in the whole of Britain. Grimspound was built from granite at the same time as Moses was receiving his Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. A collection of stone huts ringed by a defensive wall, the settlement was as remote and forbidding as they come.

Thanks to the acidic nature of the soil on Dartmoor, nothing organic has survived from Grimspound down the centuries. As a result, there’s really precious little we know about it. But that doesn’t detract from the overall experience of visiting this once-great ancient village. Opened to the public by English Heritage, Grimspound lies in a valley often shrouded in mist or sliced with freezing rain. Looming out of the shadows, the historic landmark takes on an almost mystical quality; a haunting fragment of a bygone time.

Brean Down

The ancient Bronze Age archaeological site of Brean Down (Image: Don Cload)

There’s a reason ancient ruins like Grimspound or Must Farm are celebrated: unlike many remains, they are visible. While anyone can witness mud-preserved wooden huts, or great stone villages constructed millennia ago, most Bronze Age artefacts aren’t so visible to the untrained eye. Where an archaeologist may see evidence of earthworks, burial mounds and enclosures, many just see rolling terrain. Such is the case with Brean Down.

A rocky ridge jutting out from the coast of Somerset, Brean Down is certainly exciting from an historic point of view. There are the remains of Bronze Age salt works, of Bronze Age animal enclosures, of tools and burial mounds. Huts once stood here, and their foundations have been excavated many times. For most of us, though, these remains are hard to distinguish from the dramatic landscape surrounding them. It would take a trained eye to explain all the many, wonderful mysteries of this site.

Flag Fen

Flag Fen

Bronze Age reconstruction of Flag Fen (Images: Kev747; Midnightblueowl)

In the old, sunken fens of East Anglia, traces still remain of one of the Bronze Age’s great engineering projects. The Flag Fen causeway was a vast wooden platform that unfurled across the marshes, running for over a kilometre to a small artificial island. But it wasn’t just its length that was impressive. The causeway was constructed by sharpening wooden posts and driving them deep into the mud in rows of five. The resulting structure used over 60,000 timbers, many originating from trees not found for miles around.

Thanks to the sheer effort involved in the causeway’s construction, and some items like earrings, brooches and gold uncovered at the island, it is now thought Flag Fen was a place of religious worship. That we know of this historic landmark of Bronze Age Britain at all is due to a piece of almost-comical good luck. In 1982, Francis Pryor was surveying the area for English Heritage when he tripped over a piece of wood sticking out a ditch. The wood turned out to be part of the remains of the Flag Fen causeway, leading to its subsequent excavation.

Napton

Likely location of the ancient Bronze Age site of Napton (Image: Google Earth)

Like Brean Down, Napton is a place that was once of significance to our distant ancestors. It’s likely a small Bronze Age settlement once stood here, where people lived out their lives over many generations. But again, as with Brean Down, there is precious little evidence left that can be perceived by casual visitors. Out in the middle of a sea of green fields, about 700 metres south of Tomlow, the remains of Bronze Age Napton have blended in almost totally with their surroundings.

All that really remains today are traces of a ring ditch and a possible round barrow; a kind of low mound built of earth that was often used for burials. Of these, the round barrow is visible if you happen to be strolling past and looking out for it. The ring ditch can really only easily be discerned on satellite, and even then you have to squint and use your imagination. Thanks to expert analysis at the ancient Bronze Age site, the past is definitely alive at Napton.

Bryn Cader Faner (Ring Cairn)

The ancient Bronze Age ring cairn of Bryn Cader Faner (Image: Porius 1)

Like an unclenching fist, Bryn Cader Faner rises from the Welsh hillsides, its jagged stone fingers reaching out to the sky. This historic Bronze Age ring cairn still has a raw power that has been awing visitors for centuries. One of the most-dramatic pre-Iron Age ruins in the whole of Wales, Bryn Cader Faner has unfortunately been mistreated over the years, to the point that it’s now a mere shadow of its former self.

In the 19th century, the historic landmark was looted by grave robbers, who dug up what is now assumed to have been an ancient grave, and made off with whatever artefacts were inside it. Then, in the 20th century, the British Army used it as target practice in the run-up to World War Two, permanently damaging some of the ancient Bronze Age stones. Given this level of mistreatment, it is remarkable the cairn has survived at all. But survived it has. Today, it’s even considered one of the area’s top historic landmarks for tourists to visit.

Nine Ladies Stone Circle

Nine Ladies Stone Circle

Nine Ladies stone circle in the Derbyshire Peak District (Images: Simon Harrod; Bryan Ledgard)

A mysterious little stone circle in the heart of Derbyshire, the Nine Ladies have been impressing visitors with their understated beauty for centuries. One of the first 26 ruins in England, alongside Stonehenge, to be offered protection by the ground-breaking Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882, the site has been legally preserved ever-since. And with good reason. The Nine Ladies are one of the finest Bronze Age remains in Britain.

Even the name alone evokes romance and mystery. While we obviously have no idea what the circle’s builders called it, the Nine Ladies name comes from a Christian tradition that states the rocks depict nine women who were turned to stone for the crime of dancing on a Sunday (a punishment we can’t help but feel was a tad harsh). Yet the modern circle contains little trace of Christian belief. A place where pagan worshippers gather on the solstice, the Nine Ladies today is somewhere where you’re more likely to encounter New Age beliefs than Old Testament teachings.

Bush Barrow

The ancient Bronze Age remains of Bush Barrow (Image: Derek Harper)

In the sweep of ancient sites concentrated in the region around Stonehenge, perhaps none is so simultaneously spectacular and subtle as Bush Barrow. Part of the Normanton Downs Barrows, Bush Barrow is a vast pile of earth; a mound with a diameter of 49 square meters, but that only rises a mere three meters into the air. From a distance, it looks like a low, pleasant hillock, somewhere to take a gentle afternoon stroll. But Bush Barrow is so much more than that. It was here that some of Britain’s greatest grave artefacts were excavated.

Dug up in 1808 by William Cunnington and Sir Richard Hoare, the grave’s contents are enough to send a shiver down your spine. There were ceremonial gold daggers from ancient Ireland. A mace carved from fossilised rock. An antique knife. And two strange gold hexagons known as lozenges, made by someone with an excellent knowledge of geometry; something you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in Bronze Age Britain. Thanks to this spectacular haul, Bush Barrow is part of the extended Stonehenge and Avebury UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprising some of the most important and mysterious historic landmarks in the British Isles.

“Seahenge”

Seahenge, aka Holme I timber circle (Image: thetempletrail)

In the early days of Britain’s Bronze Age, something remarkable happened. A heavy oak tree went crashing down onto Holme beach in Norfolk, its trunk soon buried in the mud. Not long after, locals began hammering deep wooden posts into the ground around it, creating a large timber circle. When it was finally uncovered in 1988, after thousands of years buried deep beneath the mud, the press instantly coined a name for it: Seahenge.

While Seahenge had little in common with Stonehenge, and was likely used for a different purpose, the name stuck. Ironically, it was the only thing to remain constant in the following years. Despite objections, archaeologists excavated the Holme beach site (also known as Holme I) completely, shipping Seahenge itself off to Lynn Museum, preserving the wood and reconstructing it in a controlled environment. Yet, strangely, this wasn’t the end of the story. A few years later, another wooden circle was uncovered buried in the wet sand near the original Seahenge. Testing showed it dated from the same ancient summer. Holme II is still in situ, and there are currently no plans to dig it up.

Clava Cairns

(Images: Daveahern 1, 2)

For a few dozen miles around Inverness, a vast swathe of ancient history lies, waiting to be uncovered. Dotted across the Scottish landscape are about fifty Clava Cairns, ancient stone burial cairns, typically angled to face the midwinter sunset. Mysterious historic landmarks built thousands of years ago, they represent a haunting link to Scotland’s Bronze Age past.

Although Clava cairns are found elsewhere, it was those around Inverness that gave them their name. At the original Balnuaran of Clava, three of these cairns were found squashed up close together, their surfaces marked with carved indentations. This trio of cairns is remarkable for its level of preservation, which has to be seen to be believed. Even today, after millennia of exposure to harsh weather and generations of indifferent humans, the enigmatic Bronze Age artefacts still retain a sense of their original shape, forged in ancient rock.

Related: 10 Historic Landmarks of the Neolithic British Isles

 
 


 
 
 

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