Prehistoric Chilterns

From Neanderthal hunters to Iron Age chieftains, tens of thousands of years of human life have shaped the Chilterns landscape.

The word ‘prehistory’ refers to a huge swathe of time that encompasses all human activity prior to the development of the written word. From Stone Age tools to Bronze Age barrows, the evidence of this prehistory can be seen across the Chilterns Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), interweaving the rich landscape with human stories.

There are lots of great places to experience our prehistoric way of life in the Chilterns AONB. Discover Ice Age animals at College Lake nature reserve, find ancient hillforts at Ivinghoe Beacon and Grangelands and Pulpit Hill, and walk in the footsteps of ancient people along the Ridgeway National Trail. Visit our interactive map to discover even more family days out and historic adventures across the Chilterns.

The first humans

During the Palaeolithic Period (Old Stone Age; 2.6 million years – 11,700 BC), there were warm periods between the advancement of the ice sheets (glacials). From around 900,000 years ago, when these warm periods allowed expansion, various human species would have visited the Chiltern Hills, attracted, among other things, to the chalk and the resources it offered: from flint for making tools and weapons, to clean water for drinking. Visitors included ancestors like Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis. These early humans came and went as the ice advanced and retreated.

Early human species would have been hunter-gatherers and would not have settled in one area. Instead, they would have followed game, foraging opportunities and water sources, looking for materials, and adapting to the climate. For thousands of years, the presence of modern humans (Homo sapiens) appears sporadic in Britain, until around 12,000 years ago – the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (often called the ‘last ice age’). As the climate warmed, resources would have become abundant, and it became possible for humans to survive here on a more permanent basis.

Evidence of these early species include Palaeolithic hand axes found at Caddington (dating anywhere from 125,000-70,000 BC), and stone tools from Neanderthal craftsmen found in several spots around the AONB.

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Flint tools from the Chilterns (Allen Beechey)

Settling down

Around 11,000 years ago, the ice sheets from the Last Glacial Maximum receded. For several thousand years, the Chilterns’ valleys would have been well-travelled and home to seasonal camps inhabited by nomads. Human occupation would still have consisted of bands of hunter-gatherers attracted to the reliable sources of aquifer-fed water and abundant game.

As farming became established in what we call the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age; 4,000-2,000 BC), humans began to settle down. Many earth and timber monuments were constructed close to significant locations in the landscape such as springs. Waulud’s Bank, Luton, is one such monument sitting at the source of the River Lea; while the burial mound at Whiteleaf Hill, near Monks Risborough, makes use of the dominant chalk scarp face.

There are a number of nationally significant Neolithic features in the Chilterns, which show a curious mix of the pragmatic – marking ownership of the land – and the sacred, with meanings we can only guess at. These include the recently discovered “woodhenge” at Wendover. Discovered during excavation work as part of the development of High Speed 2 (HS2) this, and subsequent finds, show evidence of occupation at the site through the Stone Age into the Bronze Age and beyond.

Growing populations and changing technologies

During the Bronze Age (2,000-700 BC), populations grew, technology advanced and people used more and more metal for weapons and tools. This increased the efficiency of the way they could exploit the land, and permanent settlements began to emerge in the Chilterns, initially clustered around the chalk streams and valley bottoms. We see the remains of some of that agricultural expansion in the relict field systems all over the Chilterns. The seven barrows at Five Knolls, Dunstable, were created at around this time.

By the Late Bronze Age and into the Iron Age, significant places in the landscape started to become the focus for the construction of hillforts – large earthwork enclosures that served many functions, but seem to be deliberately positioned close to either chalk streams and springs, or with visibility over transportation routes.

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Five Knolls, Dunstable Downs (Martin Addison)

Beacons of the Past: discovering the Chilterns’ hillforts

The Chilterns Conservation Board (CCB) delivered an exciting project, engaging and inspiring communities to discover, conserve and enjoy the Chilterns’ Iron Age hillforts and their prehistoric chalk landscapes. Supported and part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the project provided community involvement through remote sensing and survey, practical excavation, and research, and a programme of events and educational activities.

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A thriving arable landscape

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 continued 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 used for making rotary querns (circular stones that sit together) for the grinding of grain into flour.

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Puddingstone quern fragment (Allen Beechey)

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Farming across the Chilterns

Agriculture has been taking place in the Chilterns in one form or another for thousands of years, shaping the soils, landscape and habitats. Over time, farming in the Chilterns has created a mosaic of arable and grassland habitats, stitched together by species-rich hedgerows, and interspersed with woodland, commons and ponds.

Moving on

The break between the prehistoric and historic periods of time is defined as the point when people created written records. Thus, prehistory ends very early indeed in certain parts of the world; but in the Chilterns, it ends around the 1st century AD when Roman writers begin to document their interactions with the people of Britain in some detail.

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Hillforts of the Chilterns

The Chilterns has one of the largest concentrations of hillforts in the UK. Created for a variety of reasons - from keeping livestock, to showing off status - these mounds, ditches and remnants include a whole range of prehistoric enclosures that were an important part of Iron Age life. Many have left a mark that can still be seen on the landscape today.
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Discover the timeline of the Chilterns

There has been a rich and varied geology and history in the Chilterns – from the Cretaceous Period, when shallow seas laid down the distinctive chalk of the area, right up to today’s working landscape.
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Plan your trip to the Chilterns!

Search the interactive map: select from a list of categories to bring up icons showing the location and information of walks, bike rides, places to visit, tasty local products and plenty more across the Chilterns area
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Challenging HS2

Find out how we are actively working to hold HS2 and their contractors to account, to reduce environmental damage and seek the best designs possible.
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