The 10 Wonders of Ancient Britain
Britain’s ancient history is written all over the landscape.
The ancient history of Britain comes in two parts. The first part is prehistoric Britain, between the arrival of the first humans on what is now Britain (about 42,000 years ago) and the start of recorded history with the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD. There is no known surviving written language from this period, so almost everything that we know about the people of Britain in the prehistoric period is based on archaeological finds and the recordings of the subsequent Roman settlers and other cultures with a written record who traded with them. Our limited understanding of their language, lifestyle and culture seems particularly lacking when compared with the wealth of knowledge that we have about their Roman successors.
This second stage in the history of ancient Britain began in 43 AD, and lasted until around 410 AD. This is the Roman or Classical stage of the history of ancient Britain, and at the point where it ended, we no longer speak of ‘ancient’ Britain, but instead early medieval Britain. Roman Britain is not entirely without its secrets – we don’t know exactly when or how Christianity was established there – but its wealth of written records means that it holds far fewer mysteries than prehistoric Britain does. We have records of taxes, of troop movements, of religious worship, of financial transactions and more. We even have letters home written by Roman soldiers stationed in the forts that would become part of Hadrian’s Wall, bringing history vividly to life. They complain about the cold, request their relatives send them warmer clothes, and are baffled by the eating habits of the locals. Among them is one letter received by the wife of a military leader from her sister, saying how much she misses her and would love to see her at her birthday party.
But what both periods share are the monuments that they left behind. In this article, we take a look at some of the most noteworthy wonders of ancient Britain that you can still visit today.
No discussion of Britain’s ancient past can exclude Stonehenge. Britain has at least 1,300 stone circles, but Stonehenge is one of the most complete, and certainly the most famous. The nearby area is full of ancient remains, dating as far back as 8,500 BC. The site as we know it today was built sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC, and may have been developed over hundreds of years. It’s a ring of standing stones raised within earthworks. Each of the stones weighs around 25 tons, and they’re around 4.5m high.
No one knows what the purpose was of the site. It’s aligned in the direction of sunrise at the summer solstice and sunset at the winter solstice, which has led some to theorise that the site was used either for worship or for astronomical calculations.
2. Caerleon Amphitheatre
Just north of Newport in Wales lies Isca Augusta, a Roman fortress founded around 75 AD and acting as the headquarters of Legion II Augusta until at least 300 AD. A legion consisted of over 5,000 soldiers who remained in service for at least 20 years. Still visible at the remains of Isca Augusta are the ruins of the bath house, the barracks and the fortress wall. But the most impressive part of the site is the remains of the military amphitheatre.
The amphitheatre is an oval shape, with eight separate entrances – not dissimilar to a modern football stadium. It’s estimated that it would have held six thousand people. It was clearly important to the forces stationed at Isca Augusta, because it was rebuilt three times over the period that the fortress was in use. It would have been the site of gladiatorial combat as well as being used as a parade ground.
3. Uffington White Horse
South of Uffington in Oxfordshire is the prehistoric hill figure of the Uffington White Horse: a 110m horse made by creating deep trenches and filling them with white chalk. It was constructed in the late Bronze Age, sometime around 700 BC, though a precise dating isn’t possible. It is definitely prehistoric; unlike comparable chalk figures like the Cerne Abbas Giant, which may only be three or four hundred years old, there is a lengthy written record of the horse dating back to least the 11th century, and its design is consistent with Celtic artwork.
There are several things that are remarkable about the Uffington White Horse. One is its sheer size. Another is that it appears at its best seen from a considerable distance or better yet, from the air, yet it was built when neither long-distance communication nor flight were possible. But probably the most noteworthy is that the figure quickly disappears under plant growth if it isn’t cleared regularly – so its existence is testimony not only to its creation thousands of years ago, but to centuries upon centuries of unbroken maintenance too.
4. Avebury Stone Circle
A list of Britain’s ancient monuments could consist solely of stone circles, but we’ve limited ourselves to the most famous two. Avebury stone circle is less than 20 miles from Stonehenge, and in fact consists of three stone circles: the largest one in Britain around the outside with a diameter of 332m, and two smaller ones inside it. The inner stone circles were probably constructed first, around 2,900 BC, and the outer one around 2,600 BC. The fact that this is around the same time as Stonehenge and Silbury Hill (see below) has led some archaeologists to suggest that their construction represents a widespread religious revival during this period.
Like Stonehenge, the purpose of Avebury is unknown. Unlike Stonehenge, it doesn’t have any clear astronomical alignments (though many have been suggested). It’s been suggested as a site of religious worship; but there’s too little evidence to be sure.
5. Maeshowe and Midhowe Chambered Cairn
Many of Britain’s most remarkable ancient ruins can be found on the islands of Orkney and Shetland. That’s not just because these islands are remote and have therefore been relatively less disturbed by the various forces that have led to the destruction of ruins elsewhere. It’s also because Orkney in particular was the cultural centre of the British Isles 5,000 years ago, where the first grooved pottery was made and the first stone circles built.
Maeshowe and Midhowe are just two examples of this. They are chambered cairns, tombs with a distinctive internal structure that’s unique to Orkney, with chambers along a central passageway. In Maeshowe, at the time of the winter solstice, the rear wall of the central chamber is illuminated by a shaft of light from the setting sun. Maeshowe was also visited by Vikings in the 12th century. Their graffiti can still be read on the walls of the chamber, and includes comments on the beauty of the women they knew, and how they came to the cairn looking for treasure.
6. Skara Brae
Another of Orkney’s incredible ancient sites is Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement that was inhabited from around 3,180 BC to 2,500 BC. It consists of eight houses clustered together, which have an average size of 40 square metres (for comparison, the average size of a British house today is 85 square metres and for a flat it’s 57 square metres), mostly consisting of a large square room with a central stone hearth for heating and cooking. Many have the same layout of furniture, with a larger bed to the right of the doorway and a smaller bed to the left, leading to the conclusion that the larger bed was for the husband and the smaller one for the wife. The houses also had a primitive form of indoor toilet. Around 50 people would have lived in the settlement. They lived by raising cattle and sheep, growing barley and making distinctive grooved pottery, which appears to have been traded along the west coast of Britain.
Skara Brae is noteworthy not only for the remarkable insight it offers into the lives of people thousands of years ago, but also for how it was discovered. A severe storm in the winter of 1850 stripped the earth from the top of the site revealing the outline of the houses beneath, where they had lain unknown and undisturbed, possibly for millennia.
7. Mousa Broch
A broch is an Iron Age round tower found only in Scotland; Mousa Broch is the best preserved example, found on the island of Mousa in Shetland. It was built around 100 BC and is over 13 metres high. It has one entrance and an internal stair to reach the top. Inside, there are the remains of a hearth, floor tank and small rooms or storage spaces set into the walls. No roof remains, but archaeologists generally agree the broch would have had a thatched or timber roof.
What brochs were used for is – guess what – unknown. Their thick walls and location at strategic points suggest a military function, but there’s no archaeological evidence to support this. Nor is there positive evidence for other theories, such as the idea that they were places of refuge for a community, or even a form of castle or stately home. It’s also been suggested that they weren’t built for any single purpose, but that the design was reused in different places for different sorts of buildings.
8. Silbury Hill
Silbury Hill is the tallest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, at a height of 39 metres. It’s an artificially constructed chalk mound, built around 2,400 BC. Given prehistoric tools, it’s been estimated that it would have taken 18 million man-hours to construct – or 15 years of work for 500 men. To put that into context, as a percentage of the overall population, that’s three times as many people as are currently in the British Army. It represents a remarkable feat of organisation as well as engineering. A Roman settlement was recently found to have existed at the foot of the hill.
Like many of the nearby sites (including Avebury stone circle, about a mile away), the purpose of Silbury Hill is a mystery. It may be that there was a structure built on top of the hill that hasn’t survived, or that rituals took place on top of the hill, where they could have been seen for miles around. It’s also been suggested that the building of the hill had a ritual purpose, so that its construction was more important than its finished form.
9. Maiden Castle
On the site of a previous Neolithic barrow, Maiden Castle is an Iron Age hill fort, constructed in 600 BC and hugely expanded in 450 BC, making it the largest hill fort in Britain. By the time the Romans arrived, it was occupied by the Celtic Durotriges tribe, and Roman historian Suetonius records skirmishes between them and the Legion II Augusta – the same Legion whose base was at Isca Augusta.
The fort at its height had an area of 47 acres, or about 27 football pitches. It was surrounded by a series of ditches and ramparts to a height of 3.5m, though its use was not solely military; the fort would have been densely inhabited, and also served as a centre for trade. Archaeologists also feel that the level of fortifications were excessive to the defensive purpose of the fort, suggesting that they may also have served as a status symbol.
10. The Roman Baths at Bath
The hot springs at Bath produce water at a temperature of 46°C through geothermal heating. Long before the Romans arrived, the spring was a site of worship for the Celts, who dedicated it with the goddess Sulis.
Once the Romans occupied the area, their practice of associating local deities with their own gods and goddess led to the worship of Sulis as an aspect of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. A temple was built to Sulis Minerva in 60 to 70 AD, and a bathing complex was built and expanded over the next 300 years until the Romans left Britain again. Bathing was an important function of Roman life – using the bathing house wasn’t just about cleanliness, but also represented an opportunity to socialise and be pampered. The spring at Bath was also believed to have healing properties, and Romans came from across the Empire to be healed there.
Images: stonehenge; caerleon amphitheatre; uffington white horse; avebury stone circle; maeshowe and midhowe chambered cairn; skara brae; mousa broch; silbury hill; maiden castle; roman baths; roundhouse;