Orwell's Prehistory

Before Orwell was Orwell

By Terry Sissons

Where have we been all this time? 

Some 1600 years ago Anglo-Saxon farmers settled in what is now the parish of Orwell.  But what about before then?  Before Orwell became Orwell? 

First - The Big Bang

The universe burst into existence almost 14 billion years ago.  For the next 10 billion years, all the bits of matter of which Orwell is now composed were being transformed in the hearts of stars, recycled, and transformed again and again. 

With the beginning of our solar system 4 ½ million years ago, the matter that is now Orwell contributed to the mass that is our planet Earth.  Seas, land, and even bacterial life have been here for at least 4 billion years. 

Since then, what is now Orwell has been around the globe, under water, on dry land, barren and forested, very hot and very cold.

Almost half a billion years ago, land life took up the first earthly residence we know about, though possibly not in Orwell.  We do know for certain that 145 million years ago, something happened that is vitally important to Orwell.

Clunch and Orwell’s water supply   

145,000,000 years ago, during the Cretaceous Era when dinosaurs still ruled unchallenged, the chalk deposits now part of our clunch pit were laid down.

Photo:Orwell Clunch Pit

Orwell Clunch Pit

A this time, the sea receded, leaving leaving a trench nine meters deep stretching from Buckinghamshire to south Norfolk.   Compacted chalk from higher ground gradually washed down ultimately filling the trench.  Further hardened by silica, this ridge of chalk is our “clunch.”  Because it rests on a base of impermeable grey marly chalk below, water flows down from  the clunch and creates hillside springs below.  This source of fresh water and the generous supply of clunch as a building material ultimately made places like Orwell ideal village locations.

Humans Come to Britain

We don’t have any written records until the Romans arrived in the first century BC, so we are dependent on archaeological evidence left behind by the first inhabitants.  Members of the Homo genus lived here at least 950,000 years ago.  They were human and belonged to the same genus to which Homo sapiens belong and which evolved in Africa some 250,000 years.

Flint tools, and animal and plant remains found in Norfolk were left behind almost a million years ago by ancient humans able to survive in an intensely cold climate.  These findings are the oldest artefacts found thus far reflecting human habitation.  They have led some to call Norfolkthe “Cradleof British civilization.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1292777/First-Britons-arrived-950-000-years-ago--lived-Norfolk.html

Exactly when they arrived, we don’t know, but the first members of our own species, Homo sapiens, were living in Britain by 29,000 years ago.  They stayed for at least eight thousand years until the last Ice Age made human life impossible here for the next six thousand years. 

The British Isles separate from Europe

200,000 years ago, water from a gigantic ice-dammed lake in what is now the North Sea broke through its barrier in a massive mega-flood.  What we call the English Channel split the British Isles from the mainland continent of what is now Europe.  The flood was catastrophic in size, and early humans and other life forms could no longer walk back and forth to France.  It gave the British Isles a separate and unique identity and changed history forever.  

The Last Ice Age

The last Ice Age began in Britain 21,000 years ago.  Although there were warmer periods that were not quite so cold, this glacial period lasted for almost ten thousand years and depopulated Northern Europe and Britain.  In London it laid down ice as thick as three miles and even created a bridge reconnecting Britain and France which lasted until rising sea levels in 6500 BC once again separated the British Isles from its neighbours.

In the midst of this cold some 14,700 years ago, several thousand hearty returnees came back to southern Britain.  We do not know a great deal of how they did it using Old Stone Age methods, but analysis today shows that 80% of the DNA among modern Britons originated with this small group determined to conquer the cold.

The ending of the Ice Age made life easier, and the Neolithic or New Stone Age is evident by 6000 years ago.  Domesticated animals and arable farming were introduced, and pottery remains have been found from this period.

In under two millennia, metal work was being made by smelting copper and tin together.  These Bronze Age techniques may have been brought by Celtic tribes from Germany who began to arrive in south west Britain 4,500 years ago, and eventually also settled in what is now Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. 

Later artefacts reflecting Iron Age techniques first appear in Britain about 800 BC.   These led, among other significant improvements, to the introduction of the iron-tipped ploughshare.  Because iron is so much tougher than bronze, it made possible the cultivation of heavy clay soils – like so much of the soil in Orwell – and greatly improved potential farming productivity here.  An Iron Age roundhouse, discovered by archaeologists close to the A603 at Hoback Farm, is evidence of at least one farming group living near Orwell in this period.

The Romans Come and Go

Julius Caesar tried to invade Britain twice in 55 B.C. and 54 B.C. and his army did defeat the tribes that were waiting for him but both times his boats were destroyed by storms and he went home.  90 years later in 43 AD, Emperor Claudius arrived with 40,000 troops. 

For 350 years under Roman rule, Britain was generally peaceful and prosperous, benefitting from the roads and towns, and the rule of law imposed by the Romans.  But Britain was a distant province of the Roman Empire, and when barbarian invasions began to threaten closer to home, Rome gradually began to recall its troops.  By 410 they had all left Britain, leaving the country vulnerable to the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

The Anglo-Saxons come to Britain

The history of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England is still being debated, but it may have begun with the arrival in the 4th century of Angles, Saxons and Jutes - mercenaries from northern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands - who were invited to help the Romano British fight off attacks from the Picts and Scots in the north of Britain. They came in long wooden boats, mounted with a single sail enhanced with the manpower supplied by many oars, eventually bringing their families and livestock with the intention of settling permanently.  While the Romans were still here they were beaten back, but when the Romans left, Britain was basically undefended.

By 450, the Anglo-Saxons succeeded in staying in Britain, dividing into the Kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, Kent, and Anglia, each with its own royal family.  As the place names still suggest, the East, South, Middle, and West Saxons settled in Essex, Sussex, Middlesex, and Wessex respectively.  The Jutes, calling themselves “the Kentings”, went to Kent.  The Angles came to East Anglia.

At the time, much of England was covered in forest, and the population in the entire country was probably not greater than ten thousand or even less.  Compared to the 50 million people living in England today, it was uncrowded.  It was not hard for the hearty fair-haired Anglo-Saxons to clear the forest  for farming and set up their farmsteads.

Places like Orwell, with its supply of fresh water, were ideal.  It is not a surprise that by 550 AD Anglo-Saxons were settled here and, although we don’t know exactly where their first houses were, we know that they buried their dead at Edix Hill, just east of Malton Road.  By 1086 their scattered settlements had been drawn together to form the village of Orwell and people have been here ever since.

Footnote: The Historic Environment Record for Orwell lists archaeological finds from every period of history, from the Neolithic to the 20th century. If only those 'finds' could talk !

This page was added by Sue Miller on 15/01/2014.

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