II Prehistory

The earliest history of settlement in Lincolnshire is obscure for several reasons. The frequent flooding, drainage and intensive cultivation of the land mean that many early sites and objects either have been destroyed or are buried so deep under silt and peat that they are irrecoverable. Until the recent advent of aerial photography, there has been no sys­tematic exploration of the county’s archaeology, and the historian thus has to rely on chance finds which give only a partial picture of the life of early man in the region; they do not necessarily show where he lived though they may show where he was active.

Map of Prehistoric Lincolnshire
4. Prehistoric Lincolnshire

Since the soils of large parts of the area which is now Lincolnshire were very suitable for early settlers, there can be little doubt that some areas were relatively heavily settled, though the evidence is at present thin. But even so, it is unlikely that the population of the region was very numerous until about 500 years before the Romans came. A few large families or clans roaming the fens and forests over long periods could account for all the Stone Age finds from the county. Occupation sites began in the late Neolithic and early Bronze periods. A major resettlement by local migration from the uplands to the valleys in the Late Bronze Age, spread over several hundreds of years and apparently due more to climatic and associated vegetation changes than to successive waves of invaders, is the best interpretation of the materials from this period; for archaeologists today tend to stress continuity of occupation rather than conquest and dispossession. In the Iron Age, too, it may have been that the threat and fear of invasion rather than invasion itself brought about significant cultural and social changes; but one of the few facts that most archaeologists are agreed upon is that the population of this region apparently increased rapidly from about 500 B.C.

Travel and communications

More people travelled through the region than settled here in the centuries before the coming of the Romans. The geography of the area couraged early man to pass through rather than occupy the land, and during most of the prehistoric period the parts to the east of the limestone belt remained something of a backwater, culturally well behind the rest the county. In the very earliest phases, when what is now the North Sea was a rich plain, Linçolnshire comprised an area of foothills giving access to the higher land further to the west, and the earliest explorers may have passed through, on foot from east to west; but when later the sea flooded in and created the North Sea, the shape of the coastline despite some useful landing points encouraged those who now came by water to by-pass the region either to the north via the Humber, Ouse and Trent or to the south via the Wash, Welland, Nene and Ouse.

The overland routes of prehistoric Britain also tended to take early man through the region rather than persuade him to settle in it. Along the top of the limestone belt lay the great trackway (the Jurassic ridgeway) which ran from the south west of Britain into Yorkshire; it entered Lincolnshire at or near Stamford, ran over the uplands between the river courses to Coldharbour near Grantham, to Honington and along the scarp to Lincoln. A secondary route (Mareham Lane) followed the eastern edge of the limestone (probably for much of the time the coastline) to the Lincoln Gap where it joined the other road. From there the route lay north along the Cliff edge (Pottergate) to an early ferry on the Humber. This seems to have been the main route into the north, for the Trent and the Humberhead Marshes blocked access from other directions into the fertile lands of south Yorkshire.

Other prehistoric routes are known in the county. One (Sewstern Lane) ran from East Anglia and the Welland valley to the Trent near Newark, another (Salters Way) from the coast over the heathlands south of Grantham (Saltersford and Saltby) and into the Midlands. On the Wolds, High Street passed along the western edge from the Humber at South Ferriby to near Horncastle, and Barton Street ran along the eastern side from Barton to near Burgh le Marsh. Linking roads between High Street and Barton Street across the southern Wolds (the Bluestone Heath Road) and between Mareham Lane and the Jurassic Way across the Heath can be traced, and there are signs of connections between the Wolds and the limestone belt, along the river Bain at the southern end of the Wolds to the Witham and thence via Billinghay and Ruskington to the Ancaster Gap, and secondly a shorter and probably later route from the Wolds via Langworth to the Lincoln Gap. But some of these routes were used by the Romans and their prehistoric origins are not certain.

Hunting and gathering

Men probably first came to Lincolnshire in the inter-glacial periods as seasonal visitors, roaming in small groups hunting, fishing and gathering food, cutting wood, scraping skins and living rough. They moved over the low-lying land, as we see from the Kirmington flint tools dating from perhaps 250,000 B.C. (though these and other finds may have been carried some distance by later glaciations); later they were confined to higher ground by flooding and by the huge inland sea created by the melting glaciers – their flakes and hand axes are to be found in what were then woodland areas. Such conditions lasted for hundreds of years; between about 150,000 and 50,000 B.C., hunters and explorers from the Cresswell Crag caves in Derbyshire some 35 miles/56km away entered the region.

After the last of the major glacial periods (c70,000 – 10,000 B.C.) which created the landscape and river systems into what broadly speak­ing we see today, man re-appeared about 8500 B.C. in a countryside which gradually grew more luxuriant as the climate grew warmer. Middle Stone Age hunters chased reindeer and bison through the tundra, and later assisted by dogs followed deer, oxen, pigs and horses in a woodland that changed from birch, hazel and pine to heavy forests of oak, elm and lime. Britain was joined to the continent at this time so that the migrant population probably came on foot moving from the rich low-lying plains to the east of Lincolnshire into the higher lands; the region was the very limit of human settlement.

A few sites were occupied, mostly on small west-facing pockets of sandy soil in the Scunthorpe area (Risby Warren and Sheffield Hill), and in the lower Trent valley (Willoughton), around Grantham, in the Ancastér Gap (Sudbrooke) and on the south and west slopes of the Wolds (Hall Hill, West Keal). The rich glacial soils of new boulder. clay were apparently still not exploited for farming, and typical finds from this period are flints for arrows and spears, knives and scrapers, axes and picks; some of these may have been produced in large numbers for trade.

The first farms

The date of the earliest farming communities in Lincolnshire is disputed; sometime between 4000 and 3000 B.C. would seem to be about right. The settlements, located now mainly on the boulder clay, were pastoral with sheep, goats, pigs and cattle, rather than arable. The melting of the ice and the rise in sea-level which separated Britain from the continent may have made many areas too wet for cultivation. The distribution of sites suggests that these farmers entered the region from the south west along the Jurassic Way. Some of them passed to the Wolds along the rivers Slea and Bain; the 15 or so long barrows on the Wolds were probably built by these people; Giants Hill at Skendleby, the only one excavated, was found to contain eight burials dating from about 3500-2700 B.C.

Their farms seem to have been on lower ground than their burials. One or two larger and more settled communities are known in north west Lincolnshire (Dragonby) and in the Welland valley in the south. So far few finds have been located in the Fens but this may be because their farmsteads and burial places have been overlaid by peat and silt. Sites in the Welland valley are only now being revealed by aerial photography, and the number of finds from the cleared forest areas of the lower Trent valley and in the Lincoln Vale suggests that there may have been more Neolithic occupation in the fenland areas than we have evidence for at present. The finds from this first period of settled farmers include rough pottery, with flared-rim bowls and round-bottomed pots being particularly distinctive. Stone implements were apparently im­ported, flints from Norfolk and polished stone tools from Cumberland and west Wales. The area no longer lay on the edge of human settlement; the frontier was further west and north.

The first metalworkers

About 2000 B.C. Britain attracted heavy settlements of people known to archaeologists as Beaker Folk. Although formerly felt to be aggressive warriors and conquerors, it is now thought likely that the progression from New Stone Age to Bronze Age was more peaceful and characterised by continuity rather than dispossession.Their fine red-clay pots with thin walls and flat bottoms, often decorated and sometimes with handles suggesting that they were used for drinking, are accompanied by many other objects, and the next 600 or so years may have seen groups of people living alongside each other with a wide range of different cultures, classes and religious and burial customs.

These settlers seem to have come into the area via the Humber and the rivers of the Wash (especially the Witham,the Bain and perhaps the Slea). They probably left many of the round barrows found on the Wolds, in the Marsh and along the eastern edge of the limestone uplands. Few of these survive intact after centuries of intensive farming, and some that are confidently ascribed to the Bronze Age may be later mounds (mills, gallows etc). Several have been excavated; some were re-used for later burials. ‘Flat cemeteries’ containing both inhumation and cremation burials are known as well as groups of barrows. The most important sites so far are at Stroxton, Little Gonerby and Long Bennington near Grantham, Broughton near Scunthorpe, Thoresway on the north Wolds, Bully Hills at Hougham by Louth, the ‘Butterbump’ near Skegness and Tallington in the Welland valley.

Occupation sites are less well known. The land was seemingly sinking once more and low-lying areas were being flooded. It may be that most of the new people by-passed the wetter lands for Yorkshire or the Midland plain. Those who settled chose sandy soils and gravels as in north west Lincolnshire (Risby Warren and Dragonby), the southern Wolds and the Ancaster Gap; but near Grantham sites on the limestone and ironstone are known as well.

Stone implements continued to be owned by these metal users – flint daggers, polished knives and even a flint sickle; and their pottery included large so-called ‘bucket urns’. But the distinctive feature of this period is the metal work. Ornaments and weapons (probably ceremonial) were being made in copper and gold before 2000 B.C. but these metals were quickly supplemented by bronze. The range of bronze objects from Lincoinshire is wide – awls, knives, daggers (one from a barrow with a whetstone), razors, axes and ear-rings. As time went on, palstaves, spearheads and rapiers appeared in place of daggers. Gold ornaments include an armlet from Cuxwold in the north Wolds and a torc from near Haxey. A hoard from Appleby near Scunthorpe contained bronze objects which were apparently deliberately broken; it may have been buried as a votive or ritual deposit.

The later Bronze Age

From about 1300 to 600 B.C. a further change in climate and vegetation took place; the warm dry Continental weather gave way to the cooler, wetter Oceanic. This was when much of the Lincolnshire peat was laid down; the forests of Axholme for instance became a bog. But the chalk and limestone uplands seem to have been largely abandoned in favour of well-drained river valleys – especially the Welland and the Trent and some of the clay valleys of the limestone belt. Finds from the Fens seem to indicate some settlement there, and the southern Wolds saw some late Bronze Age occupation with perhaps continuity from earlier periods. The heaviest concentration still lay in the north west, with another cluster near the Lincoln Gap. Most of the evidence however consists of chance finds; settlement sites are still rare although one may lie at Washingborough and another at Brigg.

The metalwork of these people was of a high order. At first objects were imported but some native metal-working can be adduced. New stronger materials were introduced and it became possible to work in sheet metal – swords and spears with leaf-shaped blades, socketed axes and buckets are known. Some were of high quality like the Witham sword and the Billinghay sword and shields; these river finds may have been votive offerings. Hoards have been found at Caythorpe, West Halton and Burton on Stather close to the route into Yorkshire where population was apparently increasing at this time. The Lincolnshire region lay at the northern edge of Britain’s metal-working area; these hoards may thus be associated with trade, but at least one, Nettleham near Lincoln, seems to be connected with a local metal-working industry.

The discovery of a number of dug-out canoes, a coracle at South Ferriby and a plank-built boat at Brigg, indicates some river-borne traffic and/or ferry services. Many come from the lower Witham between Lincoln and Tattershall but others have been found on the Ancholme, the lower stretches of the Trent and the Welland at Deeping.

The Iron Age

Bronze Age cultures persisted in parts of the area alongside the newer cultures of the Iron Age down to the coming of the Romans. Although Lincolnshire has not yet produced clear signs of a heavy Iron Age occupation, there is enough to indicate that the newer cultural waves of the period 500 to 120 B.C. had their impact on the region. Iron Age Lincolnshire formed part of a wider territory stretching from Yorkshire to the Thames, bound together by trade and exchange and by new traditions of burial, pottery making, metalwork and decoration.

Finds of the earliest Iron Age farmers are many but settlement sites are rare. Few inhumation cemeteries have been discovered. Much of the evidence comes from the south of the county, along the limestone belt and from the north west, but there are also signs of farming in the Fens and Marsh and of salt-making on the coast. An occupation site in the Ancaster Gap showed signs of arable farming (wheat and barley), stock rearing (cattle, pigs and sheep), domestic animals (horses and dogs), residence (pits, pottery, horn fragments and brooches) and domestic activities such as grinding and weaving (querns, loom weights and spindle whorls). Fragments of ornaments and (again seemingly cere­monial) swords, scabbards and shields have been dredged from the Trent, and the famous bronze shield and the bronze trumpet from the Witham near Tattérshall indicate that individuals or groups of taste, wealth and power lived in the locality. The Ancaster Gap site was apparently more of a peasant farmstead or hamlet, although not all the area has been excavated; but nearby the hill fort at Honington, guarding the Jurassic Way at its crossing of the Ancaster Gap, reveals powerful organisation and sophistication in this region. Yarborough Camp at Kirmington is another Iron Age hill fort, and Round Hills Ingoldsby and Careby Camp are possible examples.

Later in the Iron Age signs of the people usually recognised as Celts appear in coins and trade objects similar to those from all over the south east of Britain. High quality metal work in bronze, gold and silver, much of it with parallels on the continent, reveals the presence of skilled armourers and master craftsmen and a rich noble class which patronised them. The harness pieces from Ulceby are particularly fine and suggest, if not the use of chariots, at least the ceremonial use of horses.

Settlement sites from the late Iron Age (c. 150 -45 B.C.) are more plentiful and some continued in occupation into the Roman period. They are dense in the Grantham area (Colsterworth, Ancaster and Old Sleaford), at the north end of the Wolds (South Ferriby with its coin hoard, Kirmington and Dragonby) and in the Welland valley (Tallington), but other areas await investigation. Some of the material suggests that a number of settlers entered the region direct from the continent instead of passing through south east England and moving north. Coarse handmade pottery existed alongside fine wheelmade wares, some of them imported, and pins and buckets throw light on the way of life of these people, querns on their farming.

The Lincolnshire region became notable for the wide range and high quality of its metal work, and some of its products were exported to other parts of Britain.The use of animal motifs, especially heads (as in the Kirmington spout) in brooches and other bronze ornaments, was particularly characteristic. There was some decline in this advanced metal art in the last years of the Iron Age.

The history of this region in the years immediately before the coming of the Romans is obscure. Only one fort from this period is known for sure, Colsterworth in the south west, a later Roman posting town. The area shows signs of outside influence; some continental coins were in use (Grimsby and Sleaford), and coins of the Brigantes north of the Humber, of the Coritani of Leicestershire and of the Catuvellauni to the south have been found in the region. Although there is little evidence of Belgic settlement in Lincolnshire, the sites at Ancaster, Old Sleaford (perhaps a provincial centre; they were certainly minting coins there before the Romans came) and Dragonby suggest the presence of new settlers. It may be that Lincolnshire was at that time what it was after the Romans left, a territory disputed between larger neighbouring powers. On the whole the Coritani prevailed; by the first century B.C. they seem to have welded the various elements of a wide region covering north Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, parts of Nottinghamshire and parts of Lincolnshire into a complex group under a rule based on Leicester and perhaps other more local centres such as Lincoln; their area of influence extended up to the Humber though it may have excluded the Wolds where there are indications of people related to the Celtic tribe of the Parisi from Yorkshire. By the time the Romans came, almost the whole area of Lincolnshire seems to have been under the control of the Coritani.