A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 1

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"Till dim imagination just possesses
 The half created shadow."

INTERESTING as are the glimpses of that pre-historic race, which in the dim ages of long ago roamed over the most accessible parts of the land, now known as the British Isles, it is unnecessary to do more than sum up slightly the vague scraps, that form all the knowledge we possess of this remote period.

Through the mysterious dawn of our country's history, early man moves fitfully to and fro, and it is difficult even dimly to discern his shadow. It is only by piecing together the scattered fragments of existing remains, and comparing them with the possessions of uncivilised mankind in other parts of the world, that we get a picture—half-imaginary, if you like—of the social condition of primitive man in this land, which was then a part of the European Continent. He has many names. He is called Palaeolithic Man, that is. Old Stone Man, or the Cave Man. He was short of stature and heavy of limb. He made his home in a cave where such existed, which afforded him shelter from the rain and a refuge from the wild beasts that shared the country with him. It has been suggested that he must have been a good sportsman, or these very beasts would have exterminated him altogether. His weapons were limited to stone, ivory from the tusks of the mammoth, and bone from the bison and reindeer, whose flesh formed his food. The pre-historic hunt was rather to procure the means of existence than for the pleasure of killing. With his ponderous stone implement, early man slew his beast; with a flint knife, or by means of hot pebbles, he cut up the flesh; he cooked it over his fire, kindled by the friction of sticks, in a vessel of wood or skin. There was no waste, for he scraped the skin inside with a sharpened flint, made a bone needle, and threading it with a reindeer sinew, he stitched for himself a garment for the cold weather. Stringing together the teeth of the animal on sinews, he made necklaces and other barbaric ornaments.

With the inherent instincts of an artist, he scratched a picture of his friend the mammoth on his tusk, and the reindeer on his antler, the discovery of which has shed some dim light on these early days. With no definite thought of a hereafter, he was probably indifferent to the fate of his dead. There is a scarcity of human bones belonging to this age, from which it has been inferred that either he had resort to cremation or that he presented the dead bodies of his kinsfolk to the hyenas who prowled about his cave in search of prey.

An immensity of time passed away. Structural changes passed over the land. The valleys uniting these islands with Europe became submerged. The wild North Sea swept over the dry land, across which the "grisly bear and the sabre-toothed tiger had walked after the primitive Briton," and the British Islands were completely surrounded by water.

Across the stormy seas, in primitive log canoes, came another people to possess the land. Neolithic Man, that is, the New Stone Man, or, indeed, the Iberian, was at once more civilised and interesting than his predecessor. He brought over with him the animals which are domesticated in England to-day—the dog, the sheep, the cow, and the pig. Instead of the woolly rhinoceros and the curly-tusked mammoth, we find forest and marsh alive with wild boars, reindeer, wolves, and wild cats.

The New Stone Man was far more accomplished than the Old Stone Man. His weapons, though still exclusively of stone, were far more highly finished implements wherewith to kill, the fine polish and thin cutting edge denoting superior skill and intelligence. With these he began to clear the thick forest, and in the clearing to make for himself a dwelling, which was a sort of artificial cave. He dug a pit to a depth of some ten feet below the surface, and covered it with a roof of interlaced sticks plastered together by clay. He entered it by a sort of tunnel sloping down to the floor, which also answered the purpose of chimney.

Near his dwelling he sowed wheat or flax, to be utilised for the rough weaving of those early days. For in these ancient habitations of Neolithic Man have been found stone spinning-whorls, chalk weights to stretch the warp, and long combs to push the woof; two bits of their dresses have been preserved near their lake dwellings though the garments woven have long since perished.

A picture of the social condition of the New Stone Man has been drawn by an able historian. He bids us, in imagination, make our way through a track in the dense virgin forest to one of the rough clearings. There we may find a cluster of these pit houses, recognisable by the thin smoke issuing from the entrance. Around are small plots of ripening wheat, troops of horned sheep and short-horned oxen, and possibly a few fierce dogs, acting as guardians of the primitive homestead against the attacks of bears, wolves or foxes.

Outside we can imagine the short, swarthy inhabitants slightly dressed in wool or in skins, with necklaces and pendants of stone, bone or home-made pottery. Some are cutting wood with well-sharpened stone axes fixed in wooden handles, some sawing it with saws of carefully notched pieces of flint; some are fashioning wooden bows for arrows tipped with pointed flint heads, while some are scraping skins for clothing or carving harpoons out of bone. Some—presumably the women of the party—are spinning thread and weaving it with rudely-constructed looms. It was a simple pastoral (existence, with few needs and fewer possessions; the horizon of life was distinctly limited. To minister to the material needs of his nature was the main object of Neolithic Man's existence. His mind was as the mind of an untaught child, till, as the ages rolled onward, something told him that eating and drinking were not the chief ends for which he was created.

He could see silent hills, and the green valleys watered by stream and marsh: he knew the daily movements of sun, moon, and stars: he could hear the rush of many waters, the roar of the wind-tossed sea, the rumble of thunder across the heavens, the fluttering of leaves, the carrolling of birds, and the chirping of insects as day passed into night. After a lengthened period of simple wonder and amazement, questions presented themselves to his untutored mind, and a yearning to learn the cause of these things took possession of him. Nature was great, mighty, beautiful, but she was never still. There was movement everywhere; therefore, he argued, there must be spirits dwelling in everything—spirits to move the leaves and roll the thunder across the sky, to urge the rivers into motion, and hurry the sun and moon by turns through day and night.

These vague ponderings made him relinquish the old habit of his predecessors of casting dead bodies to the hyenas. The spirits that dwelt in the trees and rivers dwelt also in man. When the body died, the spirit that had moved it departed elsewhere, possibly into some animal or other body, till in time it reached the dwelling-place of all the spirits.

Hence arose the Neolithic system of burial. When the men, women, and children of the homestead died, they were buried in little walled rooms made of stone, over which were erected mounds, known to-day as "barrows." The skeletons found in these primitive graves are often found in a sitting posture. A woman has been found with her baby in her arms in one of these, while in another a man and woman, presumably husband and wife, sat opposite to one another, their foreheads touching and their hands clasped. Food vessels and drinking-cups were buried with the dead for their use hereafter, and it is probable that slaves and animals were slain, in order that their spirits might accompany that of the dead man on his last mysterious journey. Time passed, and with time came change.

In the general movement westward of the Aryan tribes from Central Asia came the fair-haired Celt, first to trade and then to stay. It seems strange that the forest-clad island, with its damp, chilly climate and gloomy skies, should have proved such an irresistible attraction to the strangers from Gaul, but so it was. Forthwith he set himself to conquer the existing New Stone Man in order to possess the land.

His triumph was due to the fact that he brought with him a superior, bronze weapon for killing his enemies, for which even the polished and well-sharpened stone implement of the New Stone Man was no match.

So the tall, fair, grey-eyed Celt prevailed over he short, dark, swarthy Iberian, and the New Stone Age gave way to what is known as the Bronze Age in the British Isles.

A new stage in civilisation was now reached. For it is obvious that the treasures of the earth were closed to those whose only weapons were of stone. It was only when the hard, sharp-edged metal tool was placed in his hands that man could hew his way to the mineral wealth and open up new possibilities of civilisation. The new-comers had made considerable progress already before ever they reached these shores. Amongst other accomplishments, they could plough, they could shear sheep and weave woollen garments, they reckoned their time by months, determined by various phases of the moon, and they spoke a distinct language, which exists to-day in remote parts of our island home.

They soon opened up trade with Phœnicians and Greeks from the south of France, and the first record of commerce, about the fourth century B.C., marks an interesting development in the social condition of our early ancestors. The Greek mathematician who conducted one of the earliest of these expeditions from Marseilles most probably introduced the first coined money to these islands. And one may suppose that the little ships that so bravely made their way across the unknown and then desolate waters of the English Channel returned to their moorings with tin from the Cornish mines, superseded later by iron ore from the British hills.

Attracted probably by this commerce—certainly not by climate—tribe after tribe of Celtic origin made its way to the British Islands, the land of "cloud and rain," until scattered traces alone remained of the old Iberian, and under the name of the ancient Briton, the men of the Bronze Age had it all their own way.

On the very threshold now of authenticated history, imagination fades before fact, shadows stand forth in the light of day, and pictures of the social conditions of the dwellers in this land, the ancient Britons, become more real and more interesting.

As it was in tribes and clans they came over, so it was in tribes and clans they lived. Groups of huts and villages arose, testifying to the new-born ideas of defence, not only from wild beasts, but from human foes.

The sites of these villages were often chosen in open lakes or marshes, in the centre of which an island was improvised. The same idea, in later days, prompted men to construct moats round their castles, only in the one case the water was round the island, while in the other the island was constructed in the water.

The site of the new home being chosen, a raft of tree trunks was formed, on the top of which were laid layers of earth and stones, until the whole mass sank and grounded on the bed of the lake. Then upright oak piles were driven close together as park palings round the edge of the sunken island, and inside the palings were built clusters of wooden huts, roofed with wicker-work smeared over with clay, or, in technical language, "wattle and daub."

Each hut had a door three feet high, which must have caused the ancient Briton to stoop badly, for he was a taller man than his predecessor, being some five feet nine in height. In the centre of each hut was a stone hearth for a fire, over which the family presumably cooked their food by day, and round which they probably slept by night in the cold weather.

Their food was compounded of corn and wild fruits, the flesh of wild and domestic animals, hazel and beech nuts. They stood in no need of sauces or relishes—their seasonings were supplied by a healthy and vigorous constitution, fresh, sweet smelling air, and exemption from the over-anxiety of to-day. For drinks they had milk, cider and mead—a mixture of wheat and honey—the ancestor of our modern beer. "This drink," remarks the sailor mathematician from Greece, "produced pain in the head and injury to the nerves," which remark needs no comment to-day.

It is sometimes easier to picture a primitive people by trying to realise what they had not got, rather than by what they had.

Let us then imagine a life with no smoking, no wine, no tea, no coffee, no butter, no sugar, no potatoes, no eggs, no fowls—food stuffs apt to be popularly considered as essential to life. Nevertheless, the ancient Briton was a man of fine build and strong physique, ever ready to do and dare. True, he was short-lived in comparison with modern man, as he died about the age of fifty-five, but he was longer-lived than his predecessors, who had died for the most part at forty-five: so presumably the conditions of life were already improving.

The ancient Briton wore his hair long and shaggy, the women arranging theirs in shocks or pyramids held together by metal hairpins twenty inches long.

Though the skins of animals may still have clothed a number of the primitive inhabitants of these islands, yet the majority probably dressed in cloaks of wool or garments of linen. Woollen caps, woollen shawls with fringe at the end, and woollen gaiters have been found in graves belonging to this period, suggestive, it has been pointed out, of Dr. Jaeger's modern manufacture. Remains of leather, representing some sort of primitive boots, have likewise been found, together with other interesting relics of the period. Their occupations were more varied than those of their predecessors. They made a rough sort of badly burnt pottery, decorating it skilfully with various patterns, composed for the most part of dots and straight lines arranged in geometrical crosses, network, or zigzag. Their skill in carpentering, too, is somewhat surprising, and their wheels, ladders, doors, buckets, and bowls are ornamented with cut patterns of great exactitude.

Their preparations for inter-tribal warfare were still distinctly barbaric; the hilts of their huge, pointless swords were adorned with the teeth of animals; on the axles of their chariot wheels were attached scythes to mow down their enemies.

They faced death fearlessly, and, with the characteristics of their descendants, never knew when they were beaten. Perhaps this courage in the presence of danger was due to the fact that to these warriors of old death was merely the passing of the spirit that had prompted life into another body. And the deification of ancestors arose in addition to the deification of Nature. Honour to the dead was intensified, and to this period possibly belong the mysterious and hardly yet explained monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury. Whether these colossal memorials were temples for tombs of great men, surrounded as they are by three hundred barrows in the neighbourhood, they are marvellous in the skill of their workmanship, and they testify to a past which is still pitifully speechless and yet, with all its barbaric attributes, contains the embryonic characteristics of our modern existence to-day.