A Brief History of Birmingham

The Stone Age

c500 000 to c4000


The Stone Age covered a vast period of time from c500 000 to c4000 years ago and saw the extinction of earlier species of humans and the emergence of our own species.


The Stone Age is divided into three parts: the Old Stone Age or Palaeolithic, the Middle Stone Age or Mesolithic, and the New Stone Age or Neolithic.


The Palaeolithic - the Old Stone Age
The Lower Palaeolithic - the Early Old Stone Age
The human race evolved in Africa over a million years ago, but it was to be hundreds of thousands of years before human beings spread to every part of the world. With no sea separating Britain from the European mainland half a million years ago, the first humans were able to walk across the plain that is now the North Sea from northern France and the Low Countries. The lie of the land very different to the present; coastlines, hills, valleys and rivers did not take their present shape until after the last Ice Age 10 000 years ago. The first colonisers may have followed the course of a lost river, now named the River Bytham. This great river, identified now only by gravel deposits, drained the southern Pennines and the south-west Midlands, flowed eastwards via Stratford-upon-Avon and Leicester through East Anglia and northwards across land that has now become the North Sea. A number of Old Stone Age sites are known along the course of this ancient river, the nearest to Birmingham being at a gravel quarry, now a land-fill site, at Waverley Wood Farm south-west of Coventry.


Archaeological digs here have revealed an enormous amount of information and include finds of extinct species of bison, elephant, horse, mole, shrew and water vole. Finds of insect species allow a picture to be built up of the site half a million years ago. The River Bytham was some 150m wide and meandered across a broad flood plain. Along the river were reed swamps, further away were water meadows and yet further stretched a dry grassland plain. On higher ground beyond the plain was woodland of pine and spruce. At this time the climate was generally cooler than the present.


And there is evidence of human presence. A single quartzite flake in mint condition is evidence of stone tool manufacture. Four handaxes and other tools, the oldest found in Britain, are evidence of a temporary camp made by a group of hunters attracted here by the herds of game. Three of the axes, which had never been used, are made of a hard volcanic rock originating in North Wales and in the Lake District. No flakes of this rock have been found on the site which implies that the axes had been brought here from elsewhere, evidence of long-distance trade. Two of the axes are so similar in workmanship that they were surely made by the same hand. They are now in the Warwickshire Museum. Fossil evidence of Neanderthal man has been discovered in Kent and Sussex, but no human bones have been found near Birmingham.


Britain's most severe glaciation was the Anglian 478 000 years ago, when ice sheets miles thick covered the Midlands and reached as far south as London. For over 50 000 years Britain was uninhabitable. The weight and movement of the glaciers changed the landscape dramatically. Mountains were ground down, new valleys carved and new rivers such as the Severn and the Avon came into being. The River Bytham disappeared altogether. The warm Hoxnian interglacial peiord 400 000 years ago led to recolonisation by humans and is evidenced in the south of England by the discoveries over time of thousands of handaxes and other stone tools. There is, however, no sign of occupation in our area. A further eleven glacial cycles followed, including an interglacial period when Britain was host to animals such as hippopotamus now found in Africa. 100 000 years ago melting waters caused a rise in the sea level which flooded the English Channel and made Britain temporarily an island for the first time leaving it again devoid of human habitation.


The Middle Palaeolithic - the Middle Old Stone Age
Evidence has been found from this period c60 000 years ago of the return to Britain of Neanderthal people using a more sophisticated handaxe. There is no evidence of human activity in the Midlands, but the fossils of bison, horse, mammoth, reindeer, woolly rhinoscerous and wolf have been unearthed at Whitemoor Haye Quarry north of Lichfield.


The Upper Palaeolithic - the Late Old Stone Age
Our own species replaced the Neanderthals completely c40 000 to 30 000 years ago defining the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic. Our ancestors used expertly fashioned stone and other tools. In Goats Cave at Paviland on the Gower peninsula in South Wales a young man was found ceremonially buried. Bones of mammoth, bear, woolly rhinoceros, elk and hyena were found nearby. In caves at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire assemblages of various artefacts were found including representations engraved on bone of a horse's head, a reindeer and a stylised human form.


The Devensian glaciation 15 000 - 20 000 years ago covered Britain in ice roughly north of a line between the Bristol Channel and the Humber estuary. It reached as far south as Birmingham. This country was again uninhabitable until c13 000 years ago. A further very cold spell led to the abandonment of Britain again until c10 000 years ago when the glaciers melted for the last time and the Middle Stone Age began.


No human bones have been found near Birmingham, but in Warwickshire and Worcestershire have been found the fossilised bones of Old Stone Age animals: auroch (the ancestor of European bison and domestic cattle), elephant, hippopotamus, hyena, mammoth, stag and wolf. Nearest to Birmingham were auroch, elephant and stag found at Shustoke and mammoth bones at Dudley and Minworth.


Only a small number of Old Stone Age tools have been found in Birmingham, and all found by chance. It is probable that there was only ever a tiny population of nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Birmingham area living on temporary sites in open well-drained country on sand and gravel drift above the flood-level of the rivers. Old Stone Age tools may be found other than where they were dropped having been moved by Ice Age glaciers or by huge rivers of melting ice or moved in modern times by human action.

 


The Mesolithic - the Middle Stone Age
The Middle Stone Age followed the Ice Age. After the retreat of the ice, huge herds of bison, deer, horse and cattle roamed the tundra with nomadic hunters following. Britain was not an island but joined to mainland Europe until c6000 BC. As the climate continued to get warmer the tundra became more and more heavily forested. Great forests, rushing rivers and swampland dominated the landscape. There is evidence of hunter-gatherers. Finds of flint from outside this area suggest travel and trade. A period following the end of the last Ice Age c10 000 to 7000 years ago. Mesolithic evidence includes small flint tools known as microliths. These might be used together in a wooden handle to form a knife or used to make barbs or arrow tips. The way of life was nomadic possibly following herds of animals to hunt and gathering plant foods.


At Star Carr near Scarborough in Yorkshire archaeologists have found Middle Stone Age evidence. A regular winter camp site over 7000 years old has been excavated by a former lake in the Vale of Pickering. The camp would have been used by several families. People used flint-tipped fishing spears and bows with flint-tipped arrows to hunt elk, deer, pigs and aurochs (giant cattle). The skull of Britain's earliest domestic dog was found here. Birch trees were felled with flint axes and the bark used to make containers.


In southern England evidence has been found of shelters made of branches and of pits covered with rushes. Middle Stone Age people were nomadic, hunting and gathering food where it was available, but they would settle in one place as long as they had shelter, water and food. As with the Old Stone Age in the Birmingham area there seems to have been a very small population of nomadic hunter-gatherers who kept to well-drained open sites on sand and gravel drift where tree cover was less dense.


None of the Birmingham finds were by chance. The Sutton Park flints were discovered by careful observation along worn paths; others by fieldwalking, archaeologists walking side by side in line across ploughed fields deliberately searching for objects.


Only poor quality flint is found naturally near Birmingham in glacial drift. Flint objects found here are small, of poor quality stone and often have the cortex (the poor outer layer) still in place; this is never found in the good flint areas of the south of England. Finds of flint flakes indicate that people had settled in a place long enough to make tools and use them. Settlements would be near water and probably at the edge of woods where the light encouraged more fruit, nuts and animals.

 


The Neolithic - the New Stone Age
This is the period when the first farmers and animal herders appeared, a period of cooling climate. Evidence includes polished stone axes and pottery. In Britain the Neolithic started c7000 years ago and lasted until the Bronze Age c4000 years ago. Forests were increasingly cleared for farming during the New Stone Age, although dense forest remained on the clay lands in the east of the Birmingham area. There is clear evidence of occupation though only a small thinly scattered population is likely. There were perhaps only 20 000 people across the whole of Britain. Stone tools from Cornwall and Wales show evidence of travel and trade.


New Stone Age settlers came to Britain from the Baltic and Mediterranean. The new settlers were farmers who sowed seeds to grow crops for food. They kept sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, horses and dogs. They also have hunted for food but now they lived in one place in small farming villages where they grew crops and kept herd animals. New Stone Age people made clay pots and spun wool and wove cloth.


Exactly how the clearance of the great forests was achieved by a small Neolithic population is unknown. Stone axes would have been of little use in feeling substantial hardwood trees, neither does fire make much impact. It may be assumed that they first cleared areas of light cover first and that grazing animals prevented regrowth even in areas of denser forest. However, it was done, it is likely that by the end of the New Stone Age substantial inroads had been made on the forests that had previously covered almost the entire country. This would not have been the case in the area later known as the Forest of Arden. There was substantial forest here until the Middle Ages.


Excavation from Carn Brea near Redruth, Cornwall has revealed a hill-top village of 3700 BC with a boulder wall two metres high which protected the homes of 200 people. The co-operative labour of 30 people working for six months would have been needed to build the wall alone. The village was surrounded by wheat fields. About 3400 BC the village was abandoned; evidence of fire has been found as well as some thousand arrow heads around the site.


No evidence of villages or fields has been found in Birmingham from the New Stone Age; subsequent ploughing and building would easily obliterate any traces. Neither has evidence of pottery been found. Discoveries have been made of more stone tools than from earlier times, but these are primitive when compared with implements from further south. Arable farming would have been possible on gravelly sandy sites where the tree cover was less dense and the land easier to work, Pastoral farming would have taken advantage of gravel areas near rivers but which stood above the swampy flood plain. It would appear that the Birmingham area was thinly populated and culturally backward, a fact attributable to dense forest and the difficulties of cultivation.


Stone axes were too heavy for hunting. They may have been used to clear land for agriculture. Scrubland would have been burned and the axes used to fell small trees and bushes. New Stone Age people were farmers, but the number of arrowheads found suggests that they were also hunters or warriors. Unlike the Mesolithic period, Neolithic flint tools are generally made from larger pieces of higher quality raw flint which has been imported from areas of chalk geology.