A History of Surrey

A History of Surrey

Prehistory

In about 1887, Frank Lasham, a Guildford stationer, printer and amateur archaeologist, made the acquaintance of a roadmender — working in the Worplesdon area. This man took an intelligent interest in ‘stoanes’ and his keen eye had spotted a shaped core of flint, which had been thrown out on the road among a load of gravel during repairs. The flint was identified as a Palaeolithic hand axe, of a type which represents the earliest evidence of human activity in the area we now call Surrey.

Lasham traced the source of this road ballast to pits at Farnham. By encouraging the gravel diggers with financial rewards for any flints showing the handiwork of early man, Lasham was able to amass a collection of over 300 of these worked flints. They were not the first to be found in the area but, by publishing notes of his discoveries, he brought the importance of the gravel deposits around Farnham to the attention of a number of other researchers.

The Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age in Surrey spanned, perhaps, nearly half a million years. Throughout this time our area was a small part of a peninsula of land joined to the mainland of Europe. For long periods the climate was bitterly cold and vast sheets of ice covered the land to the north of Surrey. These cold periods lasted many thousands of years but were interrupted by warmer interludes, when average temperatures rose sometimes even above those of today. Elephants roamed the land while hippopotamuses splashed in river pools.

The river system of Surrey as it is today evolved during this period. As the rivers adjusted to oscillations in climate, they eroded their valleys, captured adjacent streams and changed course, leaving behind sheets of alluvial deposits mainly in the form of flint gravel. At Farnham these gravels lie on terraces above the present course of the river Wey, which at one time flowed through the valley now occupied by the river Blackwater. Each terrace has produced the characteristic hand axes of Palaeolithic man.

Palaeolithic man was a nomadic bunter and he is traditionally associated with animals of the tundra, particularly the mammoth. When conditions allowed, he followed his quarry north and in the summer months may even have hunted along the very edge of the ice sheets. His wanderings periodically brought him to the land we now call Surrey. His was a basic culture, an integral but small part of the ecology, which lasted for a vast period when set against the time of modern man. Only his flint tools have survived, discarded on a now extinct land surface, many of them battered and rolled by the river action which constantly resorted and redeposited the valley gravels.

Well over 1,000 hand axes have been recorded in the county, and while the gravels of Farnham are perhaps the best known source, there are a number of others. Many hand axes have been discovered in gravels associated with the river Thames, but it is sites at Walton-on-the-Hill on the North Downs and in the Limpsfleld area in the east of the county which are of particular interest. Here worked flints are not associated with gravel as at Farnham but with clay-with-flints and brickearth deposits. Although periglacial conditions and erosion have changed the land surface in these places, the worked flints found may be close to where they were originally discarded. There have also been many isolated finds throughout the county and most Surrey museums have collections of them.

It is only towards the end of the Palaeolithic period that cultural changes are evident, marking the arrival of modern man about 40,000 years ago. Flint was still the main source material for his tools, from which he manufactured sharp blades and burins. This was a sophisticated hunting culture making use of other materials in addition to flint, such as antler and bone derived from the animals he hunted. However, evidence for early Homo sapiens in Surrey is very scanty and confined to just a few examples of his flint tools. These include a tanged spearhead found at Peper Harow, near Godalming, in the late 1920s and a large backed blade discovered at Leatherhead in 1983. Upper Palaeolithic man still hunted across an open tundra, his main quarry included reindeer, bison and horse.

Around 10,000 BC the climate began to show a marked improvement and gradually the treeless open tundra gave way to forests of birch and pine and later of oak, elm, lime and alder. These changes in habitat led to changes in man’s hunting techniques, which ushered in the period known as the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age. Flint was still the principal source for tools but the range of these tools showed that man had adapted very efficiently to the role of nomadic forest hunter/gatherer.

The most characteristic tools of the Mesolithic period are the microlith, tiny worked blades and points which were used in a variety of ways such as the barbs of wooden harpoons, and the ‘tranchet’ axe, a very effective tool for chopping wood. Many thousands of Mesolithic flint tools have been recovered from all over Surrey. Indeed, in some areas in the south-west of the county, on the lighter soils of the Lower Greensand, hardly a ploughed field or sandy heath is missing a few examples. Whilst there is evidence that these areas were favoured during the Mesolithic age, the distribution map of finds is undoubtedly distorted by the ease of discovery in the open countryside of that part of the county. For more than a century archaeologists have concentrated their field walking here and ignored more difficult areas, especially where suburban housing has now filled the fertile fields of a once entirely rural county.

There have been several claims for the discovery of the remains of Mesolithic dwellings in Surrey. If true, they would represent the earliest dwellings of any kind in the county. Pits excavated at Abinger in 1951 and at Weston Wood in the 1960s were thought to be the bases of dwellings, which would have been roofed over with branches and vegetation or perhaps even skins on a frame of wood. Currently, archaeologists are dubious of these claims – the purpose of the pits is not known and they may not even be of a Mesolithic date. Small pits dug into gravel near Farnham, which were excavated just before World War II, have also been claimed as ‘pit dwellings’ but, whilst these pits might indeed have been of the right date, it is now suggested that they may be evidence of flint quarrying.

Around 6,000 BC, rising sea levels coupled with the sinking of the land on the east side of Britain, a process which continues to this day, led to the breaching of the land bridge with mainland Europe. Isolated from their cousins across the Channel, the Mesolithic groups in Britain developed their own variations of the basic types of flint tools, especially the microliths.

Armed with the highly efficient flint ‘tranchet’ axes, there can be little doubt that Mesolithic man was capable of clearing quite large areas of forest. Perhaps the Surrey landscape of this period consisted of fairly dense woodland interspersed with scattered man-made clearings of various sizes. Here single family groups or larger clans would camp for varying periods of time before moving on to follow the game or harvest fruits, berries and seeds. It is possible that some of the Mesolithic peoples independently developed the cultivation of certain useful plants in these forest clearings. There may even have been the semi-domestication of other animals besides the dog.

It has long been accepted that the present sterile acid heathlands of south-west Surrey are a man-made feature – the result of the over exploitation of a thin soil by early farming communities following the removal of the tree cover by axe and fire. There is evidence of a marked increase in population during the late Mesolithic period and perhaps the development of these heathlands began at this time as clearings were made to encourage grazing animals. Trade across the Channel, if not the actual invasion of peoples in large numbers, would also have spread the concept of animal husbandry and crop growing.

Whether through colonisation from mainland Europe, or via indigenous developments, or both, farming became established in southern England soon after 4,000 BC. These first farmers still used flint for many of their tools, for metallurgy was unknown to them. This period, known as the Neolithic or New Stone Age, also heralded a succession of technological developments, in particular the making of pottery. In Surrey, as in other parts of Britain, it is the Neolithic peoples who were the first to build structures whose remains in many cases are still visible today.

The most important of Neolithic structures in Surrey are a causewayed enclosure excavated recently at Yeoveney Lodge near Staines, a long barrow or burial mound discovered in the late 1930s at Badshot Lea, near Farnham, and the Stanwell cursus. This ritual processional way is at least two and a half miles long and consists of two parallel ditches dug about seven yards apart running north-north-west from Stanwell village to disappear beneath the runways of Heathrow Airport. It was originally discovered by aerial photography but mistakenly interpreted as a Roman road. However, archaeologists have recently discovered late Neolithic pottery in the fill of the ditches and shown that this important structure, second only in size to the famous cursus in Dorset, pre-dates an adjacent Bronze Age barrow. The whole of this area of Surrey, part of Middlesex until 1965, has been shown by aerial photography and excavation to be rich in prehistoric features and must have been of particular importance to the peoples of that period, perhaps for ritual and religious reasons. Such structures also indicate the establishment of a complex society in Neolithic times.

Neolithic society must also have developed a sophisticated system of trade. Outside Surrey there is much evidence for the commercial mining of the best quality flint for trading over large areas. The nearest extensive flint mines so far discovered were on the South Downs in Sussex. Within Surrey such evidence is thin, although over the years there have been a number of claims for the discovery of flint mines. Of these, the most likely was discovered at East Horsley and investigated by archaeologists in 1949. Two medieval mine-shafts were found to have been dug into an area showing Neolithic mining activity, perhaps opencast.

Many Neolithic flint axes were ground and finely polished, an immensely time-consuming task, and were almost certainly objects of status or even ritual significance to their owners. Polishing techniques were also used on other stone objects such as flint scrapers and also on axes made of stone other than flint. Such axes are of great interest as evidence of trade, particularly during the late Neolithic period. Both chance finds and systematic excavation have, over the years, led to the discovery of more than a hundred axes fashioned from stone derived from places many miles beyond the bounds of the present county. The source of the material includes places as far apart as Cornwall, the Lake District, Wales, Northumberland and County Antrim in Northern Ireland.

Neolithic pottery was hand made, the earliest being thick-walled and lacking decoration. Later more finely potted types were developed with incised decoration of diagonal or transverse lines or chevron patterns. Neolithic man also used other materials such as bone and wood in the manufacture of artefacts but such finds are sparse in Surrey and consist mainly of antler picks and simple bone points.

The Bronze Age heralds, of course, the introduction of metallurgy to the British Isles. Raw copper was first worked here in about 2,500 BC, but its introduction was quickly followed by the discovery that an alloy of copper and tin, namely bronze, produced a hard metal ideally suited for the manufacture of an extensive range of artefacts. These included daggers, spears, swords and particularly axes. Such axes became increasingly sophisticated in design as the Bronze Age progressed and had a development spanning over 1,000 years. There have been isolated finds of bronze axes over much of the county, whilst small hoards have been discovered in various places in south-west Surrey. In addition, large hoards of bronze artefacts including axes have been found along the Thames valley, most recently during archaeological investigation of a site at Egham. In common with a number of other hoards this major find, which included broken pieces of swords and ingots of bronze, was probably the scrap metal cache of a bronzesmith.

Finely crafted bronze swords began to make their appearance around 1,200 BC and several have been retrieved from the river Thames. However, despite the quality of such objects, Bronze Age man had not discarded flint as a medium in which to manufacture a large range of tools. This period represents the peak of flint craftsmanship and many exquisitely worked tanged and barbed arrowheads of the period have been found in Surrey. Bronze Age man also worked in antler, bone and wood.

The most visible surviving evidence of Bronze Age man is that of his round burial mounds or barrows, constructed in a variety of types. There were simple bowl barrows, bell harrows with a flat berm round the base of the mound, and the appropriately named saucer harrows with only a low mound in the centre surrounded by a ditch and bank. Whilst Surrey cannot boast examples as fine or numerous as those to be found in Hampshire and Dorset, there are still some significant examples. For example, there is a triple bell barrow on Crooksbury Common near Tilford and a ditched bowl barrow less than a mile away at Culverswell Hill. On Chobham Common there is a group of ten and on adjacent West End Common a line of four joined barrows. Barrows of this period usually covered pottery funerary urns containing cremations.

A major Bronze Age site, excavated in advance of the building of the M25 bridge over the Thames at Runnymede, produced extensive evidence of occupation on what had once been an island in the river. Here were found metalwork, evidence for the manufacture of horse trappings from antler and a wide range of domestic and personal items. These included loom weights and spindle whorls, indicating textile weaving, and imported goods such as bronze razors and pins, shale and bronze bracelets and amber beads – objects which related to the everyday lives of those who had made the island their home nearly 3,000 years ago.

The manufacture of iron objects in Britain is currently considered by archaeologists to have commenced about 700 BC. Typically, the Iron Age period is most visually represented by its massively constructed hillforts, but archaeologists are now inclined to think that some of these forts had their origins in the Bronze Age. ‘Iron Age’ forts in Surrey considered to fall into this category are St Ann’s Hill near Chertsey, St George’s Hill, Weybridge, and Caesar’s Camp near Farnham. These forts are orientated towards the north and the river system of the Thames and its tributaries. They reflect an emphasis on the rivers as the main thread of communication throughout the period preceding the Iron Age. There have been a variety of suggested functions for these forts. They were almost certainly tribal centres but, perhaps, also religious centres, and all important market places, particularly for the agricultural produce of expanding farming communities. The later Surrey hillforts -Hascombe, Holmbury, Anstlebury and Dry Hill, near Lingfield, were not constructed until 200 BC at the earliest and additionally served as strongly defended refuges during times of danger.

The vast majority of the Iron Age peoples in Surrey were farmers, living in round houses constructed on a framework of wooden posts. They husbanded animals including cattle, sheep, goats and pigs and kept horses and dogs. They grew barley, oats and emmer wheat. Evidence for their way of life in Surrey has been recovered by archaeologists from excavation of the remains of their farmstead settlements at a number of sites, including Hawk’s Hill near Fetcham and Brooklands near Weybridge. The outlines of the field systems they constructed have survived in many places along the North Downs.

The Iron Age peoples were also sophisticated traders, who were responsible for the introduction of the first system of coinage into Britain. Large numbers of their coins have recently been discovered at the Romano-Celtic temple site at Wanborough, just north of the Hog’s Back.

The role of the hillforts seems to have ceased abruptly about the time of Julius Caesar’s incursions into southern Britain in 55-54 BC. The reasons for this are unclear but the 90 years before the final assimilation of Britain into the Roman Empire appear to have been a period of much change and regrouping. There is evidence for the expansion of peoples from the already heavily farmed chalk of the North Downs onto the light but still fairly rich soils to the south of the Hog’s Back around Puttenham, Compton and Godalming. Tribal kingdoms were established, centred around proto-urban settlements, called oppida, although one has not been identified for the central southern territory, which would have included the Surrey area. It may have become part of the territory of the Atrebates, which included Sussex, and parts of Hampshire and Berkshire.

The pattern of settlement in prehistoric Surrey was controlled by several factors – the nature of the underlying rocks, giving a great variation in soil types and vegetation, the pattern of rivers and water supply and man’s ability to control the environment. As his technology improved so did his influence upon the landscape. By the end of the prehistoric period, marked abruptly by the Roman invasion of AD 43, that influence was already well advanced in shaping the man-made landscape of Surrey which we see today.