Prehistory in the Chilterns is a huge swathe of time that encompasses all human activity prior to the development of the written word. From Neanderthal hunters to Iron Age chieftains, tens of thousands of years of human life have shaped the Chilterns landscape.
In the warm periods between the Ice Ages, various human species were visiting the Chiltern Hills, attracted, amongst other things, by the flint resources embedded in the chalk. Palaeolithic hand axes have been found at Caddington, dating anywhere from 125,000 – 70,000 BC. Stone tools from Neanderthal craftsmen have been found in a number of spots around the AONB.
The first post-glacial (c.10-11k years ago) human occupation of the Chilterns would have been by hunter-gatherer bands who were attracted by the reliable sources of aquifer-fed water as well as the abundant game which would have gathered. Flint extracted from the chalk was also a desirable resource for the crafting of tools and weapons. For several thousand years the valleys would have been well travelled and home to seasonal camps. By 5,000 years ago, farming was well established. In this Neolithic period, many earth and timber monuments were constructed, often with reference to springs (Waulud’s Bank, Luton at the source of the Lea, for example) or other significant locations in the landscape.
The burial mound at Whiteleaf Hill, dating to somewhere between 5,400-4,400 year ago, makes use of the dominant scarp face, as do the stunning Late Neolithic/Early Bronze age barrows at Five Knolls, Dunstable. A curious mix of pragmatic (marking communal ownership of the land) and the sacred (with meanings we can only guess at) there are a number of nationally significant Neolithic features occurring in the Chilterns, including the recently discovered and now destroyed wood henge at Wendover.
As populations grew, and technological advances such as the adoption of metalworking allowed for increased efficiency in land exploitation, permanent settlements began to emerge in the Chilterns, and these were initially clustered around the chalk streams and valley bottoms; later as iron tools allowed the greater exploitation of more difficult-to-work soil types, the landscape became more densely settled. We see the remains of some of that agricultural expansion in the relict field systems all over the Chilterns.
By the Late Bronze Age and into the Iron Age (between 3,200-2,200 years ago) some of the same significant places in the landscape became the sites of hillforts, large earthwork enclosures which served many functions, but seem to be deliberately positioned in with regard to either chalk streams and springs or visibility over routes of transportation.
Beacons of the Past
The Beacons of the Past project has been running since 2018, bringing Chilterns’ hillforts into the spotlight. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the project commissioned the largest high resolution LiDAR survey (laser scanning) ever flown for archaeology in the UK – one new hillfort was discovered, and lots of new archaeology was found, including Iron Age and Roman enclosures, World War I training trenches, and Medieval field systems.
Far from being a ‘backwater’ in later prehistory, the Chilterns would have been a thriving arable and pastoral landscape. Even when the hillforts largely went out of use in the final centuries before the arrival of the Romans, Late Iron Age farmsteads continue to spread across the region. Archaeological excavations show us the trade links with the continent, the wealth and power of some individuals through the minting of coins, and the export of local goods to further flung regions of southern Britain, such as the highly prized Hertfordshire puddingstone which was superior material from making rotary querns for the grinding of grain into flour.
We define the break between the prehistoric and the historic periods by when people create written records. Therefore, prehistory ends in some parts of the world very early indeed; however, for the Chilterns, the historic period begins around the 1st century AD when Roman writers begin to document in detail their interactions with the people of Britain.