Exploring Kent's Past

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Palaeolithic (700,000 BC to 10,000 BC)
Our human ancestors first entered what is now Britain during the Palaeolithic period.  These early people were very different from us as modern humans only arrived in Britain c. 30,000 years ago. Most of the evidence for human activity during this long period comes from stone tools. Large lumps of stone, usually flint, were knocked and chipped into more useful forms such as handaxes which were used for cutting and scraping meat off dead animals. The Kent that these humans lived in was also very different from today. For much of the time Kent was a frozen tundra with great ice sheets reaching as far south as London. At other times Britain was warmer than today and animals like hippopotamus, monkey and elephant were common. As the temperature, and therefore the sea level, rose and fell, so the shape of the landscape changed. For much of the time Britain was connected to the rest of Europe and only finally became an island quite recently (c.8,000 years ago). Kent is a very special place for Palaeolithic archaeology and has far more finds than any other county, many of them from pits and quarries. The oldest human skull ever found in Britain comes from Kent – the Swanscombe Skull. Most of these finds come from the Lower (older) and Middle parts of the Palaeolithic and there are fewer from the Upper, more recent, part of the period. In part this may be because of one last big freeze that began c. 26,000 years ago and ended c. 15,000 years ago. During this phase, as in some other earlier cold periods, humans may not have lived in Britain at all.

 

Mesolithic (10,000 BC to 4,000 BC)
The Mesolithic period began at the end of the last ice age at which time Britain was still joined to the Continent. The climate warmed quickly after the Younger Dryas cold stage and as the ice melted, sea level rose rapidly at first until Britain became an island once more. Life was still harsh, though, at the beginning of the period the landscape was cold and barren and food was probably scarce. People moved from place to place, following the animal herds and gathering plants. Gradually, they began to develop new and more sophisticated forms of flint tools including blades, choppers, points for arrows, and axes. There are relatively few sites from this period in Kent, mostly from the later Mesolithic period and consisting of scatters of flints, such as at Finglesham and Sandway Road.
 
Neolithic (4,000 BC to 2,500 BC)
The Neolithic period was one of the most important in human history with major changes in technology and society. After hundreds of thousands of years of hunting animals and gathering plants, for the first time people began to farm the landscape. New ideas and technologies also emerged. For the first time pottery was produced and we see evidence of complex ritual beliefs. This can be seen in large ceremonial stone burial chambers, one group of which is termed the Medway Megaliths. Other ritual sites include special enclosures called ‘causewayed enclosures’ such as those at Kingsborough Farm or ‘henges’ like the one at Sandwich. Woodland began to be cleared, not permanently at first, and eventually a more settled way of life developed. Not everything changed though for example wild foods continued to be an important part of the diet.
 
Bronze Age (2,500 BC to 700 BC)
The Bronze Age, as its name suggests, marks the first use of metalwork, for tools, weapons, jewellry and ceremonial purposes. Although, particularly in the early part of the period, flint continued to be used too. Woodland clearance greatly extended, farming became more widespread and large field systems began to divide up the landscape with ditches and banks such as at Coldharbour Road, Gravesend. Settlement evidence becomes more common and groups of round houses have been found, sometimes set within an enclosure. People developed new industries such as weaving, metalworking (bronze, gold and copper) and salt production. Ritual remained important though. In the early part of the period some people were buried in large circular monuments called ‘barrows’, often grouped together as at Monkton in Thanet. Burials have been found with a range of grave good such as swords, beakers, knives and tools, jars and jewellery. Some of these items had been traded great distances, even by ship from the Continent. The oldest sea-going boat in the world, the Dover Bronze Age boat, was found at Dover and can be seen in Dover Museum.
 
Iron Age (700 BC to AD 43)
The Iron Age marks the period in which the use of iron replaced bronze and iron tools and weapons became widespread in Britain. People continued to live in villages of round houses or small farmsteads and practiced similar industries and crafts as they had for hundreds of years. Life became increasingly complex, however, and a greater range of objects, from a wider range of places, are found on Iron Age sites. Towards the end of the Iron Age, the impact of the Roman Empire can be seen in a greater range of imported goods and the adoption of coinage for the first time. A new type of site called an oppidum developed with possible examples at Boughton Quarry Camp, Canterbury and Rochester. These sites, common in Continental Europe, were somewhat similar to early towns with a mixture of economic and political functions. Another type of site that developed in this period in Kent was the dramatic ‘hillfort’. Kent has several examples of these including Oldbury Hill, Castle Hill (Tunbridge Wells) and Bigberry Camp near Canterbury.  The Roman Empire impacted on Britain violently for the first time when Julius Caesar attacked in 55 and 54 BC. In 43 AD they returned and changed Britain forever.
 
Roman (AD 43 to 410)
In AD 43 the Emperor Claudius ordered the Roman army to invade Britain. Gradually the traditions of Rome combined with those of the native Britons to create a situation quite unlike anything Britain had seen before. For many Britons, life continued largely as before with settlement being focused on small rural villages based on round houses in enclosures. For some of the upper classes, however, life changed radically with the introduction of ‘villas’, large farms that followed a Roman architectural design, often with corridors, wings and courtyards and equipped with the latest in Roman luxuries such as fine mosaics and central heating. Towns with temples, markets and stone buildings such as at Canterbury and Rochester developed and were linked by an extensive road network. There were also new small towns built of timber such as at Westhawk Farm. Industrial sites grew up across Kent with salt working and extensive pottery making on the north Kent coast and iron working in the Weald. Religious centres also developed and Kent contains one of the most unusual at Springhead where several temples were built around a natural spring. As the Roman period continued, however, and the power of the Empire diminished, new threats emerged and some towns were defended by strong town walls. Powerful forts, as at Richborough and Reculver were built to defend the coastline from raiders and as bases for the fleet. In 410 the Roman Empire withdrew its army from Britain and the Roman period drew to a close.
 
Anglo-Saxon (AD 410 to 1066)
After the end of Roman occupation in the early 5th century people from the continent, mainly northern Germany and southern Scandinavia, began to settle in eastern areas of Britain. From the middle of the 5th century onwards they began to gain dominance over the native population. The infrastructure of Roman Kent feel apart and towns and villas were abandoned. During the 6th century Kent dominated the other southern and eastern Saxon kingdoms but this gradually declined as more powerful kingdoms arose. This early history has produced little large-scale settlement evidence but a great deal of burial evidence. The early settlers were pagan and numerous graves containing rich grave goods including jewellery, weapons and utensils have been found such as at Saltwood near Folkestone. St Augustine brought Christianity back to Kent in AD 597 following which churches began to be built in Kent such as St Mary’s Reculver or St Pancras, Canterbury.

 

Medieval (AD 1066 to 1540)
Much of modern Kent was formed in the medieval period. Most of the county’s towns and villages took shape during this time as the former Saxon settlements grew in size and population. The Norman Conquest of 1066 saw the construction of a number of castles by which the new rulers intimidated and controlled the population. Some of these were built in towns such as Rochester, Dover and Tonbridge. Others were built by the local rulers in the countryside such as at Thurnham and Sutton Valence. From time to time war visited the county and both Rochester and Dover were besieged in the early 13th century. The church became very powerful during the medieval period. Canterbury was one of the most important towns in the country as the seat of the Archbishop – England’s most important churchman. Rochester also housed a cathedral and there were large minsters and abbeys across the county while even today most parishes have a medieval church. Throughout the period trade continued with the rest of England and with continental Europe. Kent’s ports were among the most important in England, forming part of the ‘Cinque Ports’ federation (Dover, Hythe Romney, Sandwich and Hastings in Sussex). There were also other industries such as tanning, tile-making, wool production, weaving, iron-working and brewing.
 
Post-Medieval Kent (AD 1540 – modern)

Kent’s history since the medieval period has seen explosive growth. During this time the population of the county has grown enormously and most towns are now much bigger than in the past. Some new towns have grown up around industries such as coal mines, or defensive sites and docks such as at Sheerness. Whole areas of Kent have been dedicated to large-scale industries like the Medway valley north of Snodland where the cement industry has transformed the landscape. New transport links such as railways, motorways, trams and canals have allowed people and goods to be transported great distances quickly and airports and ferry terminals have connected Kent with the rest of the world. Some aspects of life that were important in the past have become less important, such as the church, but others have continued to affect life in the county. For much of the post-medieval period Kent remained in the forefront of England’s defence and fortifications such as the Western Heights, Dover, the Royal Military Canal and Martello Towers continued to be built to deter invasion. Kent’s location also meant that sea-power was important to the county and Chatham Dockyard became one of the most important military dockyard in England. More recently the county was the likely location for German invasions in the First and Second World War and defensive bunkers and pillboxes, airfields and defence lines can still be seen today as can more recent defences against nuclear attack such as the Cold War bunker in Gravesend.

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund