A History of Hampshire

A History of Hampshire

Hampshire before the Roman Occupation

The first human inhabitants of Hampshire of whom anything is known were brutish hunters, many of whom lived along the river valleys, existing on what they could kill, and making no attempt to farm the land. The climate was damp and cold, and the downs were heavily forested with yew, and difficult of access. The Isle of Wight was part of the mainland, till the waters of the English Channel flowed into the great Solent river system, and cut the Island away, probably destroying much evidence of the life and culture of Mesolithic Hampshire man, of whom it is certain that flint was his essential material. From flint he made his weapons and primitive tools, objects manufactured in enormous quantities on certainly easily-recognised inland sites, at Old Winchester Hill, at Beaulieu, and in the New Forest, some sites near large ponds supplying water-fowl and fish for the makers of flint weapons. At Oakhammer Pond, near Selbome, some 3,000 flint implements were recently recorded. Flint, so long a traditional and local building material in Hampshire was thus the raw material which provided the county’s first industry.

In comparison with the people who came after them, these early flint users have left little trace on the Hampshire countryside. Their successors, the peoples of later pre-history, a long period of years before the Roman Conquest at A.D. 43, have left behind much visible and enduring evidence as to their communities, their way of life and particularly their way of burial after death. All over Hampshire can still be seen the great hill forts, the groups of tumuli, the barrows of many kinds, the ancient tracks and primitive fields which provide a variety of evidence for the field archaeologist and the excavator.

Later, about 2,000 years before Christ, primitive farmers arrived in Hampshire, who knew bow to hoe the land and to domesticate and graze animals. They could make primitive pottery, and wore garments of cowhide, for they could not weave. Some, perhaps were cannibals. The clearance of the chalk downs began. In the districts bordering on Hampshire these Neolithic people built causeway camps (for example, on Windmill Hill, Wiltshire, and on The Trundle, Sussex), where an autumn poleaxing of cattle took place. They buried their dead carefully in communal long barrows like those at Danebury, Moody’s Down, Chilbolton Down, and Bevis’s Grave (now destroyed) at Portsdown.

In about 1800 B.C., a new invader came to southern England. These Beaker folk, so-called because of the shape of their pottery, buried their dead individually in round barrows. Unlike their predecessors they grew little wheat; their main crop was barley. They still used flints, but had some objects of metal. A girl buried at the top of Stockbridge Down had a small bronze awl in her grave, as well as a beaker. The gradual disappearance of the Beaker folk, or their integration with other cultures marks the beginning of the Bronze Age, when metal objects came into general use.

Bronze was the metal of the rich and various objects which tell so much about these new invaders, their wide trading contacts with the Continent, their warrior aristocracy. Their chief port appears to have been at Hengistbury Head; here have been found ornaments of bronze and amber which may imply trade with the eastern Mediterranean. In the Middle Bronze Age cremation became the usual form of burial; in this and in the Early Bronze period individuals were buried in round barrows of various types of which many can still be seen on or near the ancient ridgeways across the Downs. The Seven Barrows of Burghclere are unusually placed, in a valley, the great group of Popham Beacons form a delightful part of a high downiand landscape. There are others on Butser and in the Isle of Wight, where the ancient ridgeway from the Needles has at least 12 barrows scattered on it. Barrows are of distinctive types, bell, disc, saucer, and pond; the great bell-barrow at Bishop’s Waltham was probably the burial place of some Bronze Age chieftain.

In about 1000 B.C. new invaders came to Hampshire, Deverel­Rimbury people, called after two of their burial places in Dorset. They left behind many scattered burials in Hampshire, particularly in the Christchurch region, and one of their farms has been excavated at Thorny Down near Boscombe Down East. They herded their cattle in large ranches and enclosures. Two bronze twisted torques found at Plaitford and many other finds on the borders of Hampshire show that they were not just peasant farmers, but wealthy men able to buy goods of quality and of distant origin. A trader’s hoard of axes, found at Nether Wallop, are of a type originating in Brittany. It was indeed from north-western France that the next wave of invaders came to Hampshire, urged there perhaps by a need of land and by tribal unrest. Again, their landing-place in the county may have been Hengistbury Head. They were Celtic-speaking users of tools and weapons of iron, practising new and improved methods of fanning. Unlike their predecessors, they were practically self-sufficient and widespread trade was not a feature of their economy. They grew large quantities of barley, storing the grain in carefully prepared pits and granaries.

As yet nothing is really known of their farm buildings in ‘Hampshire, but these Iron Age farmers, whom archaeologists divide into three successive chronological groups, Iron Age A, B and C, have left some really notable marks on the countryside, for they were the makers of the great hill forts, constructed and reconstructed at different times but intended as places of refuge and defence against further invasion threats from the Continent. Amongst the defences thus constructed in about 250 B.C. are the simple hill forts of Quarley and Ladle Hill, the latter particularly interesting because the wave of invasion apparently died away and the fortification was unfinished. Julius Caesar’s defeat of the Venetil of Brittany nearly 200 years later meant that many refugees came to Hampshire and Dorset, some of them landing at Hengistbury Head. The year 56 B.C., therefore, has been called a turning-point in the fortunes of Wessex, and many of these people, whose characteristic weapon was the sling, eventually found refuge in the great fortress of Maiden Castle. Thousands of sling stones were recently found in the defence there, for Maiden became the great tribal headquarters of the refugee Gauls who became known in Wessex as Durotriges, controlling not only Dorset but also the western borders of Hampshire. Some of their primitive coins were minted at Hengist-bury, and it has been suggested, on coin evidence, that their boundary on the east was the Hampshire Avon.

The greater part of Hampshire, however, was eventually possessed by refugees from Caesar’s government in Northern Gaul, and though the native inhabitants appear to have tried to secure the county by the re-fortification of some hill forts, notably those along the Test valley at Danebury and Bury Hill, it was an effort made in vain.

In the south-east of the county, the refugee leaders of the Gaulish Atrebates, King Commius, whose first settlement was probably at Selsey, penetrated into Hampshire, and may or may not have been about to get as far north as Silcbester before be died in 20 B.C. His son or grandson, Eppifius, was the first British ruler to use the word Rex on his coins. Silchester, known to the Romans as Calleva Atrebatum, seems to have been the capital of the Atrebates in Hampshire, but most of their land was eventually conquered by the Catuvellauni of King Cunobelinus (Cymbeline) whose capital was Colchester (Camulodunum), and whose son, Caractacus, was too powerful an influence to be left undisturbed by the Roman Emperor Claudius. The civilisation which the Romans found in Hampshire can conveniently be called Celtic, but it was a combination of various elements, and there was no uniform pattern. In the greater part of the county, the dominating influence was, that of the later refugee tribes, the Atrebatic and Catuvellaunian peoples whose culture is so often called Belgic, but who controlled many peasants and simple farmers of older non-Belgic Iron Age stock. Political power was in the hands of the warriors and the Druid priests. It would be a mistake to suggest that the Belgae in Hampshire had a culture which surpassed that of their Roman conquerors, but Celtic civilisation did in fact reach a high standard. Belgic invaders brought with them a new type of plough with which they were able to cultivate difficult and heavy land not previously used for grain production. They were thus able to grow vast quantities of cereals which they stored in pits and in large jars; traces of Celtic fields, small and square, survive in many parts of the county. Though recent excavation has revealed little evidence as to the nature of possible Belgic ‘towns’ in Hampshire, it seems reasonably certain that the hill forts used and re-used by earlier people as places of refuge were not their centres. Venta Belgarum may have been one of their marketing towns, as its later Roman name certainly would suggest, but it was not important enough to have a mint. The primitive coinage of Celtic Wessex, a coinage of silver and gold, implies not only trade, and wealthy sections of the community able to purchase luxury goods, but also a desire to imitate that Roman civilisation which was soon to impose its uniformity all over England.