The Invisible Landscape of our Prehistoric Past (The Early River Valley)

One of the lesser known aspects of the Colne Valley Park are the details of its rich archaeological heritage which span thousands of years and include a significant prehistoric landscape not incomparable with Stonehenge and Avebury! The park would once have been part of a major network of river terraces occupied at various times of the year by early hunters, fishers and foragers, as well as by Neolithic builders and later farmers, all of whom have left enough evidence to get a good idea of what the landscape might have looked like, and what they might have been doing with it.  Although large scale urbanisation in the Greater London area has left little visible to mark these places, on the flip side it means that archaeological investigations have uncovered some interesting aspects of prehistoric life, which help build a picture of how the Colne Valley Park was inhabited and utilised from the end of the last ice-age onwards.  Even earlier than this, Figure 1 is an example of one of the largest collections of Lower Palaeolithic handaxes in Northern Europe.  These tools were found through gravel extraction in Yiewsley, and although the exact provenance of these tools cannot be confirmed it looks like these ancient terraces were probably inhabited as long as 300,000 years ago!


Figure 1

Following the Colne River northwards from the Thames one of the first (and earliest) places of archaeological interest is at Church Lammas, Staines (near place of interest number 20 on the Colne Valley Park Map). Together with Three Ways Wharf in Uxbridge this is one of the most significant places for understanding the landscape and local life of early post-glacial people.  In southeast England generally, and more specifically within the Greater London region, there are very few places which show evidence of daily life from the Later Upper Palaeolithic or Early Mesolithic (around 11,000 years ago).  However, within the Colne Valley Park the quantity, quality and type of tools that were found, along with associated animal bones and where they were located give us some idea of life here post glaciation.  We can get a sense of the type of environment that existed (cold tundra with sparse vegetation), the local materials available to people (river flints and gravels, for example), accessible food options (reindeer meat!), what sorts of activities people engaged in (flint knapping, hunting, butchery etc.) as well as how they occupied the landscape (short-term camps).

Without those archaeological records it might be difficult to get a sense of this as you wander past the Uxbridge office skyline or even the green spaces of Lammas Park in Staines!

Figure 2

Later prehistoric inhabitants of the area also left their mark quite dramatically in this part of the Colne Valley Park, although what would have been their most visible pieces of architecture are now buried underneath the Wraysbury reservoirs and Heathrow airport!  The most southerly section of the Colne Valley Park conceals one of the major monumental constructions of the Early Neolithic, built around five and a half thousand years ago.  Once upon a time it was not just the Stonehenge or Orkney landscapes to hold the monopoly on earthworks; a Causewayed Enclosure to rival Windmill Hill (Figure 2) is now buried nearby junction 13 of the M25 underneath one of the reservoirs on the outskirts of Staines!

Further north along the Colne, sections of several Cursus monuments have been excavated between Harmondsworth Moor Country Park and what is now Heathrow Terminal 5 east of Stanwell Moor.  The largest of these linear features (see Figure 3 for an impression of the Springfield Cursus, Essex) would have run roughly alongside the east bank of the Colne and many artefacts have been recorded here which are contemporary with the period of construction as well as that predating and postdating it.  These pieces of pottery, flint tools and domestic debris tell a story of increasingly diverse aspects of life in this valley, and the changing practices of occupation as we move further forward in time towards the impact of farming, burial and building, and the increasing modifications being made to this river landscape in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

Figure 3

Written by Samantha Brummage

Cover photo credit: 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Suzanne Taylor says:

    Fascinating article!! Thank you so much Samantha Brummage!!


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