Give an account of prehistoric farming practices

Farming is when people and communities produce food from land through arable farming or by herding and tending livestock. Nowadays farming methods have become more sophisticated due to mechanisation but in the past it was very different. By examining archaeological evidence we can see how ancient people farmed their land in order to survive.

The origins of farming can be traced back to approximately c.6000BC in the south-east, in Greece, Macedonia and the Balkans. During this time farming changed from the traditional hunter-gathering to growing crops such as wheat, barley, peas and lentils. Once this type of farming was established permanent settlements were built and this eventually spread to Europe (Story of farming). The gradual change from hunter-gatherer to farming meant that people settled in one place instead of nomadic wandering.

They lived in small wooden huts that were plastered with mud and roofed with reeds or grass.

During the Mesolithic and Neolithic ages, around 5500-6300BC, farming was developed in Britain. At this time evidence shows that farmers used polished stone axes, pottery and new flint technology to raise animals and grow crops. In the upper Thames area and in the Fens (East Anglia) archaeological sites prove that in this period hunter -gathers and farmer existed at the same time. Farming is thought to have started in Britain around 4500BC or earlier

People crossing the Channel from the Continent in large coracles, brought seed corn, cattle, sheep, pigs, and dogs (a breed similar to fox terriers) with them. In order to grow their crops, woodland and shrub was cleared by cutting and burning then the seeds were planted in the ashes. After a few harvests they would then clear another patch and start again. Picks from deer antler, and shovels made from oxen shoulder blades were used, but their main tools were stones axes.

Before agriculture, people were hunter-gathers so because they were nomadic settlements were not developed but once farming began settlements were established. The Neolithic period in Britain is characterised by the presence of the stone axe. These pieces of archaeological evidence were pierced in order to be effectively fastened to a wooden handle for working wood.

An area with evidence from the Bronze Age is Fen Gate. There were water meadows suitable for grazing in the summer, but flooded in winter. The post alignment and platform were built here, across the kilometre strait, which formed the entrance to Flag Fen basin. Farmers lived on the edge of the water meadows in small round houses constructed from timber, turf and some reed thatch. In the depths of winter, the family and sheep would gather together, with the flock in one or two outhouses. In the early spring, the sheep grazed in small hedged fields. Later, in April or May, adults and children drove their livestock down drove roads to the water meadows. When meadows started to flood again, in late autumn, the sheep would return to their fields. These farmers also hunted in the wetlands for fish, ducks and geese. They gathered nuts and berries and made carts and spears.

Around the 1800 BC the first metal technology arrived in Britain with what seems to have been a new group of people who, because of their fine pottery, are known as the Beaker Folk

Flint was still used, but the preferred material for cutting and fighting was bronze, which is an alloy of copper and tin.

Owing to a drop in sea level the Fens were now drier than they had been. This led to more people settling on the Fen edge and “islands” making the Fens more usable than ever before.

This series of complex sites and drove-ways (some excavated others seen in aerial photography) show the growing sophistication of the society of the age.

It appears that these people were mainly herdsmen, but salt was being made from the brackish waters of the River Nene.

In Britain metalwork was introduced around 2300BC, during the Bronze and Iron Ages, by immigrants and this marked a significant changed in agriculture. An important invention during this time was the wheel. This allowed horses and oxen to be driven and larger masses to be moved which was beneficial to for farming. An example of this is the ox-drawn plough which increased agricultural productivity as larger areas of land could be cultivated and field systems were developed.

The change in agricultural methods during the Bronze Age meant that a wider variety of crops were grown including bread wheat, oats and barley. Evidence suggests that later during this period, in the North of England, sheep and cattle farming were becoming increasing regular. (

After the Bronze Age, around 600BC, came the Iron Age when iron was introduced and the ‘Celtic’ society emerged (p21). At this time most of the land across the south of Britain was managed. A wide range of crops were being grown on farms and field boundaries were either marked with hedges or fences. Land around rivers was used for meadows and hills and open land were used to graze animals.

Rising sea levels at the beginning of the Iron Age made the Fens wetter and brought about radical change.

This linked with the introduction of iron tools around 600 – 700 BC. Again excavations in Fengate show settlements changed, people were growing crops and the increase in seawater coming up the river meant a greater production of salt.

High phosphate levels (indicating the presence of animal dung) when excavating helps to decide whether the buildings were used by animals or people or in some cases both.

Buildings with low phosphates and concentrations of broken pottery were probably used by people; those with high phosphates and few finds are most likely to have been animal shelters.