The Earliest Essex People

The Earliest Essex People

The date of the appearance of Early Man in Essex can be ascertained only in the vaguest terms. When Britain was still joined to the continent there may have been people who pushed across what we now call Europe towards the west of the landmass. Some of those pioneers settled along the river valleys of today’s Essex, where the climate was encouraging and the supply of water plentiful.

Evidence of the settlement of these early Palaeolithic people in Essex is scanty but definite. Worked flints and flakes dated from around 13,000 BC have been found in the Come valley and at Shoeburyness. One of the reports on recent work issued by the Council for British Archaeology, No 34: Archaeology in Essex, gives the best account of evidence supporting the settlement of ancient man in this county. It puts forward the theory that, as sea level in palaeolithic times would have been 100 feet or so below the present level, the camping sites of these first settlers now lie under deep, inaccessible sediment. They were followed, around 8.500 BC by Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) immigrants during a period lasting to around 2.500 BC, the second stage in the story of Essex man as a hunter and food-gatherer when the climate was warm, moist and favourable to their way of life.

The flat, tundra-like countryside was slowly being clothed in pine and birch trees with animals migrating through them in their seasonal travelling – animals which to man the hunter were the embodiment of his vital food, clothing and bone for implements. The cleverly chipped flint points and cutters used in exploiting the creatures he killed have been found at Widford near Chelmsford, near Manningtree and on the coast at Stone Point north of the Naze, at the beginning of the Walton Channel. An antler found near Waltham Holy Cross on the western boundary of the county shows signs of its adaptation as a tool by Mesolithic man. These early Essex ancestors had also mastered the technique of making pottery.

A large number of flint implements have been recovered recently from sand and gravel pits at White Come, Dawes Heath, Thundersley and in the region of Elsenham Cross. These, together with similar finds from the Cloister site at Waltham Abbey and a field at Great Baddow, are thought by experts to have been used by these early Mesolithic people. The White Colne site included depressions in the ground which it is thought were pits dug more than 5,000 years ago to make subsurface dwellings for survival through the winter. By the close of this period the scattered communities, living by hunting animals and gathering the fruits of the forest and the grain of the clearings, were hearing from new immigrants tales of life in the more ancient eastern civilisation.

The new wave of settlers, the Neolithic (New Stone Age) people were set on new paths by these influences; they changed from chance food-gathering to purposeful food production, founded hill camps, made religious buildings and earthworks and learned the craft of moulding tools, weapons and utensils in bronze. Essex had no stone from which a Stonehenge could be erected but it has been proved by recent archaeological excavation that on the slope of the rise from the river Chelmer to Springfield a timber ‘henge’ had been erected at the end of a long ‘cursus’ – land enclosed by two high banks and their associated ditches running parallel over hundreds of yards. The effort required of such primitive people to carry out this work must have been enormous, but expert .J D Hedges says, ‘They are perhaps the least understood of all prehistoric earthworks and are thought to be unique to Britain. Along With causewayed enclosures and henges they provide insights into social organisation and motivation not witnessed prior to the Neolithic age.’ Other possible examples yet to be investigated are situated at Lawford, Great Holland, Wormingford, Little Horkesley, and Dedham.

The continuation of man’s successful development is shown in further finds in the Come Valley and Wicken Bonhunt and in two important collections of ‘microliths’ – small flakes of flint fashioned to fit on wood, bone or horn as tools or weapons – gathered from the area of Walton-on-the-Naze and from Hullbridge on the Crouch. These tools have been dated by experts to around 5.000 BC and there are enough of them to suggest that the Walton site was a manufacturing area for tools and weapons which were traded far inland.

At Hullbridge, worked flints have been recovered which ante-date the Bronze Age pottery also found on the north bank of the Crouch. It is amazing to think that Stone Age people could use these flint tools to such good effect that they could cut down a large tree, hollow out its trunk and thus fashion a ‘dug-out’ boat some ten feet long and three to four feet wide in which they put to sea to dredge up oysters, cockles and other shellfish. Walton has yielded just such a dug-out, and a paddle, dated to around 4.000 years ago, was found in the marshy mud off Lion Point above Walton in 1936.

Over the period of some 2.000 years down to 2.000 BC, these New Stone Age people in our county showed their resilience and their resourcefulness. They cleared the forest for their settlements, they reared animals instead of hunting and they grew cereals from gathered grain, storing the harvest to see them through the winter. They ground it to flour with ‘querns’ – stone handmills, and their ingenuity in flintknapping produced a very wide range of specialist tools to make daily living easier. Yet for all this evidence of their artefacts there are very few clues to fill out the wider picture of their social organisation, and their religious rituals. There is also a paucity of evidence on or under the ground of their simple homes, though sites have been identified from their pottery, tools and grinding stones. Such sites have been found in general distribution across the county, from Thurrock and Mucking to Danbury, Rivenhall, Lawford and, away to the northwest, Newport. Other sites quoted by the CBA report as producing examples of high quality Neolithic flints and pottery have been found along the coast from the mouth of the Blackwater to that of the Stour. The sea, in geological changes, had flooded such settlements, deposited its mud and slime and then, after centuries, had retreated to leave these relics of our Essex ancestors locked in a layer of ocean-bed detritus.

As the North Sea was being formed and England finally became separated from the continent. Essex received a large number of immigrants and traders who dared to brave the channel in their primitive boats. The Beaker Folk, so-called from the beaker-shaped pottery decorated with patterns in horizontal bands found in their graves, made the journey in large numbers. People living on the Beechenlea estate in Chelmsford probably do not realise that Beaker folk had made their homes there some 4,000 years before that. These people were the forerunners of the Earl Bronze Age, beginning around 2,000 BC. It lasted about 300 years, giving way over a period of 1,000 years to the Middle and then the Late Bronze Age with its obvious improvements in arts and crafts, based on the techniques of the civilisations established in the Mediterranean region. In Essex the Bronze Age has been reckoned to have started in the period 1,200-1.400 BC, continuing on down to 300 BC. In those scattered settlements by lakes and rivers, where the all-pervading forest gave an air of brooding mystery and a religion of spirits of the woods, of water and of fertility, decorative art, art for the sake of it, was born. All the museums in the county have pieces of pottery made from local clay, items of practical utility, yet patiently adorned with pricked and incised decoration. The implements made in bronze by these people often imitated those stone tools which man had laboured so long to perfect; but bronze workers soon found that a spearhead lashed to a shaft was not nearly as efficient as one moulded in one piece with a socket into which the shaft could be forced. So man used his reason to master his materials and as the Age progressed the bronze mouldings became more technically perfect, at the same time carrying a finish and sometimes decoration which was quite superlative.

Here in Essex the hoards of the bronzesmiths give unassailable evidence of their time and place in history. The smith had routes by which he travelled between the settlements, offering his services, selling new tools and weapons and replacing or restoring old ones. His material was heavy, so he made caches of it, to be picked up as he came that way again in the next season. We can see this from the discovery of just such a hoard at Hatfield Broad Oak in 1893, which included not only the metals to be fused (copper and tin), but also the earthenware pot in which it had been buried. That hoard is now in the Colchester and Essex Museum. A hoard from High Rodling is in the British Museum and another, from Romford, can be seen in the Saffron Walden Museum. Other hoards have been found at Baddow. Danbury. Elmdon. Wendons Ambo. Fyfield. Thundersley and Grays, showing that Essex was more settled in Bronze Age times than is realised by most people today. Spears, daggers, swords and axes from all over Essex can be seen in large numbers in national and local museums.

Because Essex was the first landfall across the sea from France and the Low Countries, waves of immigrants coming across introduced all the news and ideas of that burgeoning civilisation, while further to the west of England old ways, old beliefs and more primitive crafts lingered on. So while Essex folk embraced the new civilisation based on the use of iron, people in the west were still painfully moulding their bronze tools. During this Iron Age from, say. 550 BC to the coming of the Romans in AD 43, the inhabitants of Essex were coalescing into organised groups; tribes we might call them, which had considerable intercourse and trade with Europe, the outposts of the Roman Empire and with Rome itself. In fact the Latin names of these tribes are still used: the Trinovantes occupied eastern Essex, based on their fort Camulodunum at Colchester; the Catuvellauni ruled the west from their fort at Verulamium (St Albans); the Iceni to the north had their capital at Caistor, which the Romans called Venta Icenorum. South of Essex, across the Thames, the Canti tribe were settling down in what is now called Kent.

We cannot leave the Iron Age without mentioning a very special trade in Essex which left marks on the landscape that are still evident today. People who do not really know Essex say it is flat. How surprised they must be when they open their map and find ‘Red Hills’ shown right on the coast – which could not be flatter! The fact is that they are not very big hills, they are just mounds – man-made mounds more than 2,500 years old. Some of them are 30 acres in extent, even though they rise no more than five feet above the original soil. I say ‘original’ because these mounds are not soil dug out and heaped up by Iron Age man; they are the waste product he left behind. It is not as if there are just wide-spreading low Red Hills; despite the fact that many of them have been ploughed down or washed away by the sea, there are still up to 200 left all along the coast from Burnham to Clacton.

The old history books only mentioned them as a complete mystery. Modern archaeology tells us the reason for the Red Hills was salt. Ancient man needed salt. He collected it on the sea shore, dried out from tidal pools by the summer sun. He saw that sea water, heated up, would boil away and leave its salt behind. That salt, the gold of the Iron Age, could be traded far inland for other vital necessities like tools, weapons and hides. So he made big, wide, shallow pans of thick, crude pottery, put them as near the tide as he could, filled them with sea water, then lit a fire beneath them, using the brush and timber he could gather on the foreshore. When the water boiled away he scraped up the salt, added it to a growing store, then set off inland with it to trade.

Sometimes the pans broke; their pieces were simply left lying in the growing pile of ashes. The amount of such detritus accumulating over a hundred years of salt production defies the imagination. Since Roman pottery has been found in these piles of reddish burnt soil and ashes, there is proof that the Essex salt industry continued on into Christian times and that is why the Red Hills reached such enormous proportions. Many of them were dug out and scattered over farmers’ fields from the 18th century onwards when the value of wood ash as a fertilizer became appreciated.

The archaeologist Paul Drury, writing in 1980, tells us: ‘125 early and middle Iron Age sites are known in the count, mostly casual finds of pottery in gravel or brickearth pits. He suggests that the more field systems of pre-Roman origin are discovered, the more one must accept that the Iron Age farmers had considerably altered the landscape by the time the Romans marched in, in AD 43. And, of course, these farmers went on sowing crops and rearing animals from which the Romans demanded their tribute. From the eighth to the seventh century BC the Bronze Age settlers and craftsmen merged with the men mastering the new technology of working in iron. Iron, so strong and so malleable under heat, superseded bronze. Further developments with the use of iron, including fittings for the potter’s wheel, had been introduced by the time Julius Caesar appeared on the scene around 55 BC.

Hill forts were a characteristic of settlement in the Iron Age as a whole and surprisingly, considering its general lack of high hills. Essex is not deficient in them. Tiler were constructed on the edge of necks of higher land, with a good view on three sides where possible. Ambresburv Banks in Epping Forest is the best-known example. Gryme’s Dyke is a 3 1/2 mile-long rampart built as a western defence for the great tribal capital of’ Camulodunuin. Epping Forest contains another fort in the shape of Loughton Camp. From its southern side it was possible to see cleat’ across the Thames to Kent. The strange RepeIl or Paille ditches at Saffron Walden date from this time, though the skeletons found on the site are from a later. Saxon cemetery. The camp on the hill overlooking Audley End is another landmark, and so is Wallbury Camp at Great Hallingbury, where the double ramparts enclose no less than 33 acres. This is one of the later earthworks, without the complicated Series of ditches which protected a serpentine entrance. Apparently this was a place designed for the quick assembly and rapid deployment of a body of fighting men. Other sites identified as Iron Age fortifications are at Danbury, Asheldham, Witham and South Weald.

One site which yielded invaluable information about our Iron Age ancestors is Little Waltham. Though a find of funerary pottery was found quite crushed, flattened by its heavy blanket of silt, it has been restored to its former beauty and can be seen in the Chelmsford and Essex Museum, along with a complete report of all the finds associated with the clan which built its round huts in the vale of the Chelmer where the Little Waltham bypass now speeds the modern traffic on its way. Another motoring connection is made at Dagenham, for there, not far from the vast complex of the Ford factory, in the marsh right by the river, was found the ‘Dagenham Idol’. Nearby the skeleton of a deer was found, and this, it has been postulated, could have been a sacrifice to win the favour of this god of fertility.

It may well be that while a craftsman was carving the Dagenham Idol, there were people of the tribe at Saffron Walden carving out a maze, by the tread of their feet, for similar religious purposes. The Maze, at the eastern end of the Common, abutting Chater’s Hill, is claimed to be the best earthen maze still surviving in England. Such mazes have always been associated with the fertility rites of these ancient peoples. Even down to the 18th century, according to a record of the time, the Maze was the scene of fun and games for the boys and girls of the town. A girl would stand in the centre of the Maze while a boy tried to reach her, following the windings of the way worn in the turf, without leaving the path or falling over.

The Maze covers a circle of about 100 feet in diameter with concentric circles cut in the turf around a centrepiece of raised earth. At each corner there is also a smaller platform, and the whole maze is enclosed by a low bank. Aerial photography shows a dark circular patch just to the west of the present maze which is thought to have been the first ‘Stamping ground’ of a prehistoric tribe which trod these paths in a dance they hoped would placate and bring the blessings of a great god of fertility. Two points for walkers of today – you are supposed to start on the north side, and you walk in the ditch, not on the raised turf. As we follow in their footsteps we cannot appreciate the intensity of their Frenzied dancing in the hope that their gods would cause their crops to flourish in the coming year: for if their crudely cultivated corn failed, they faced starvation.

It was the immigration of the Belgae people from the lowlands into Kent around 75 BC that profoundly influenced the development of Essex as a whole. Within 20 years they had spread north across the Thames, and by 50 BC the Belgac were a force to be reckoned with – gradually absorbing the smaller native tribes. They brought with them the invention of the wheeled plough – coulters for such a plough were excavated at Great Chesterford, an old native township later fortified and completely walled by the Romans.

At this time the leader of the Catevellauni was Cunobelin. He had taken over northern Essex and by the first half of the first century AD had built up his capital at Camulodunum into a great commercial centre. The reign of Cunobelin is considered as the beginning of the Romanisation of Britain – as much by trade as by invasion.