Fun Facts: Ancient Britain and Ireland
"The sky is overcast with continual rain and cloud"
Tacitus, Agricola, about Britain
In Kincardineshire in northeastern Scotland, timber fragments from a
building 78 feet long, 39 feet wide, and 30 feet high have been dated to
around 4,000 B.C. The large size of this building would appear to
indicate a high level of civilisation in the area, over 1,000 years before Stonehenge
or the pyramids of Egypt were built.
The arrangement of stones at
Stonehenge, likely the most famous Neolithic religious site,
on the Salisbury Plain in southern England, results from several phases
of construction that took place between 2,500 B.C. to around 2,000 B.C.
The stones used in its construction came from two places. The bluestones,
which form the inner, earliest, semicircle, came from the Preseli Mountains
around 385 kilometres away. The larger sarsens, weighing up to 45
tonnes, were brought to Stonehenge from the Marlborough Downs, 30 kilometres
to the north.
Stonehenge may be a giant Neolithic calendar.
The design of Stonehenge is such that, on the summer solstice (June 21),
the rising sun is aligned with the avenue and perfectly bisects the
stone circle. Stonehenge may have had other purposes, but whether it
did or not is now a mystery.
Stonehenge is not the only ancient monument in the British Isles with
apparent astronomical significance. For example, the New Grange (also
spelled Newgrange) tomb, in County Meath in Ireland, constructed around
3,000 B.C., was constructed so that the burial chamber is perfectly
illuminated by the rising sun on the winter solstice (December 21).
The earliest known unit of length was used around 2,300 B.C. by
megalithic tomb builders in ancient Britain. Called the megalithic yard,
the name used by the builders is unknown, but its length was about 2.722 feet.
The first time that humanity "used up" a natural resource
was 4,000 years ago, when the supply of tin ore, needed to make
bronze, was used up in the Middle East around 2,000 B.C. The rich
tin mines of Cornwall, England were dug in the thirteenth century B.C.
by Phoenicians looking for tin. In over 3,000 years of mining, around
three million tons of tin have been removed from the Cornish mines,
and they still have not been exhausted.
Those convicted of crimes in fifth-century B.C. Britain were tossed
into a quagmire.
In the third century B.C., Pytheas, a Greek geographer
and explorer, sailed along the Atlantic coast of Europe,
explored Great Britain, sailed north to "Ultima Thule" (Norway)
and traversed the Baltic Sea as far as
the Vistula. His work On the Ocean, while it has not
survived, is the earliest first-hand information
on northwestern Europe.
When the Romans built Hadrian's wall, they built a moat, not only around
the outside of the wall, but also around the inside, at a cost of a million
days' labour. The exact purpose of the inside moat has never been determined.
Only a few years after building it, the Romans decided to fill it in.
"Old King Cole" was a real person. Coel was a fourth-century British
prince who is said to be the father of St. Helen, who was the mother of Roman
emperor Constantine. Coel appreciated music, which may be why the nursery
rhyme makes mention of "his fiddlers three".
Queen Boadicea is believed to be buried on a site now covered by the number 10 platform of King's Cross Station.
St. Patrick (circa 385–461), who in his youth had been enslaved in Ireland, was
the first prominent historical figure to speak out against slavery.
St. Patrick was not Irish. He was British, likely
from modern-day Wales, and never set foot in Ireland before he was kidnapped
by Irish raiders. After escaping, he became a priest and a bishop and
returned to Ireland as a missionary. He was made the patron saint of
Ireland due to his success in converting the Irish.
Navigatio Santi Brendani Abatis, a ninth century
manuscript, describes the many adventures of St. Brendan the
Navigator, who supposedly undertook a seven-year voyage across
the Atlantic Ocean, eventually reaching what might possibly
have been Newfoundland. In 1976–77, Tim Severin, a
British scholar, crossed the Atlantic on a boat
constructed based on the details described by Brendan, demonstrating
the feasibility of such a voyage.
Because there were virtually no tides in the Mediterranean Sea,
the ancients knew almost nothing about them. The first Greek to
mention tides was the explorer Pytheas, who explored the North
Atlantic in 270 B.C. However, when Julius Caesar invaded Britain
over two hundred years later, he lost a large number of ships after
not beaching them high enough, as he didn't take tides into account.
A broch is a circular iron-age structure found only in Scotland.
Standing up to five storeys in height, they are built from stone, with no
mortar used to bind the stones. Their purpose is unknown.
Over 100 are known in Scotland.
While bagpipes are today identified with Scotland, they date from ancient
times and may have been introduced into the British Isles by the Romans.
The legend of the Loch Ness Monster began circa 565, when
St. Columba claimed to meet a water beast at Loch Ness and granted it
"perpetual freedom of the loch".
On May 13, 1983, workers digging in a peat bog in Macclesfield,
located in Cheshire, England, discovered a woman's skull. Local
police had long suspected that Peter Reyn-Bardt, then 57, had
murdered his wife, Malika, who was last seen in 1960. Convinced
that they now had Malika's remains, detectives confronted Reyn-Bardt,
who confessed to the murder. One month before the trial, however,
experts from Oxford learned that the skull belonged to a woman who
died in the third century A.D. Despite this development, Reyn-Bardt
was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 1906, a victim of a murder 2,500 years previous was discovered in Great Britain, in Littondale Cave, near Arncliffe. The body was believed to be that of a woman around 40 years of age, who met her death from a blow by some sharp-pointed weapon, as there is a small irregularly shaped hole, penetrating the inner table of the skull. Probably the blow did not prove instantly fatal, and she crawled up the cave to its innermost recesses to die. (source)
More than 900 stone circles, between 2,000 and 5,000 years old, have
been identified in Britain.
A "henge" is a circular enclosure formed by banks and ditches,
inside which may reside one or more circles of stones, such as at
Stonehenge, or a circle of wooden posts, which would have decayed
long ago, or various other things. Over 70 henges are known in Britain.
In May 2002, the richest Bronze Age burial site ever found in Britain was discovered in Amesbury, around three miles from Stonehenge. While burials of men of high standing might typically contain up to 10 artifacts, this burial contained nearly 100, including gold earrings, bronze weapons, copper knives, pottery beakers, flint arrowheads and tools, and stone wristguards. Dubbed the "King of Stonehenge", the
man lived between 2,400 B.C. and 2,200 B.C., around the time when Stonehenge was erected.
Due to these dates and to the man's wealth and the proximity of his burial to Stonehenge, archaeologists speculate that he played a role in the construction of Stonehenge.
When the man known as the Amesbury Archer or the "King of Stonehenge" died, he was between
35 to 45 years old, a reasonable age for the Early Bronze Age. The skeleton indicated that he had been disabled for much of his life by a major injury to his left knee, which had resulted in an infection in the bone, which would have left him in constant pain. The infection would have discharged and smelled bad.
He also had a tooth abscess that had penetrated his jaw and would also have been painful and smelly.
The man known as the Amesbury Archer or the "King of Stonehenge" was not a native
of the British Isles. Tests on the man's teeth revealed that he was from central Europe
and born in the Alps.
The oldest known road in the world is in England. Called The Sweet Track,
the road, a mile long and only 12 inches wide, is around 6,000 years old.
It was only used for about a decade before it was flooded and covered by 30
feet of peat, and only recently rediscovered.
The largest human figure in the world is the Long Man of Wilmington, at
231 feet 6 inches tall. It stands on the edge of the downs near Eastbourne
(East Sussex) and holds a staff in each of his raised hands. The figure is
of unknown origin; it is not known whether it was first cut by a prehistoric
tribe or as late as the eighteenth century.
The pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain or Ireland were not called "Celts"
until the eighteenth century. The Romans described the inhabitants of the
British Isles as Britanni.