Six thousand years ago, the Trent Valley was home to an ancient people; wandering farmers who worshipped strange gods of Nature.
These were not wild “cave-men” who wandered with no purpose. They were farmers, who understood the needs of their animals. They knew where to find food for their animals when the river flooded; they knew when the waters returned from the land to the river that is was time to move their animals to the rich floodplains and marshes.
For tools, these people had wood, bone, antler and stone. While the valley would have provided the first three, Trent gravel is not good for stone tool making. The food they produced would have been a valuable commodity that could be traded for flint excavated from mines in the Peak District and to pay skilled flintknappers to produce the intricate cutting tools needed to make their farming lifestyle possible.
These farmers were nomadic but not in the way we may think today. Rather than undertaking vast migrations they moved around their local 'patch', relying on an intimate knowledge of their landscape for the best locations to graze their herds as the seasons changed. The cattle they kept would have been hardy, tough beasts, with little resemblance to the animals seen on local farms today.
The people still gathered wild food and if the opportunity presented itself, wild meat too. Their homes would have been simple shelters they could take down and move with them and their cattle; draft animals capable of carrying heavy loads and working on the farm.
These ancient people had hard lives but unlike their ancestors from the Middle Stone Age (known as the Mesolithic) who were purely hunter-gatherers, these people did have time when they were not totally concerned with surviving. They created features in the landscape to celebrate their beliefs, places we can still see today.
What did these features look like? There were many different types and we still cannot be sure of their purpose or what took place there. One of the most striking are known as “Hengiform” monuments. Just as people on Salisbury Plain built their places from stone (e.g. Stonehenge), in the forests of the Trent Valley, people used trees. Just as the builders of Stonehenge and Avebury did, they to built tall earth banks to surround and enclose their sacred sites.
Natural landmarks were important to the Neolithic people. Where the River Tame meets the Trent is a fine example. Nearby the area known as Catholme was an important site for farming and religion. Aerial photographs taken during the Second World War revealed a curious pattern in the fields at Catholme. The remains of ancient structures were affecting the growth and greenery of modern crops in a way no-one could see from the ground. We call such features “Cropmarks.” When archaeologists investigated these cropmarks they found the remains of three rings of large wooden poles that once would have been an awe-inspiring sight. When one considers that these trees were felled with stone tools and dug into the floor with tools made of bone, the investment in time spent to build these structures illustrates how important these places were to these people.
While we don’t know exactly how the Catholme Complex was used, it is reasonable to presume it helped track the seasons but would also have been a sacred site, a place to meet and a place to barter and trade. As well as henges made of wood, the area around Catholme had several Cursus sites nearby at Barton, Alrewas and Efflinch. These were paths bordered by tall earth banks, possibly a route for religious processions.
This area is rich in archaeological remains. It is humbling to see the amazing effort made by people using only simple tools. It tells us they were organised and that their agriculture was successful enough to allow time for work other than producing food.
It tells us the story of a society, different from ours but sophisticated in its own way. With its in-depth understanding of nature and animals and knowledge of how to use them to best advantage. It illustrates of culture and trade. The forerunner of our modern world in more ways than one may first think.
Quarrying along the Trent has given an unexpected insight into the people of its past. Quarry developments almost always lead to archaeological surveys being required, often out of sight of the general public. The discoveries by archaeologists have told us much about the Trent Valley. It was one of the first routes people took into Britain’s interior when humans returned after the last ice age, its North-South corridor allowing access into primaeval lands with space for those seeking a place to live, hunt, forage and graze their livestock.
Thanks to Will Lord for providing information and advice on the subject matter.
Simon Buteux and Henry Chapman whose research guided this article. You can find out more about the ancient history of the River Trent and Tame at Catholme in the book 'Where Rivers Meet: The Archaeology of Catholme and the Thame-Trent Confluence'.
Main photo © 2021 David Hawgood / CC BY-SA 2.0