Maternal ancestors: Bronze age, iron age, Roman Britain

This is the last of a series of posts on my deep maternal ancestors, identified through analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which is passed only from the mother to the child and so provides a trail of maternal ancestors identifiable through the mutations accumulated in the mtDNA. In this post I summarize the “recent” maternal ancestors who lived through the beginnings of agriculture in Britain, the British bronze age, the British iron age, the Roman occupation, and post-Roman Britain.

The previous posts can be found at:

Mitochrondral Eve: the deep maternal ancestor of us all

Deep maternal ancestors: out of Africa into ice age Europe

Maternal ancestors: ice age Europe and Britain

Urwen

Urwen

The most recent identifiable subgroup of my mtDNA haplogroup is Haplogroup U5a1a1* Group B. Urwen, the maternal founder of this subgroup, probably lived around 6000 years ago. I somewhat arbitrarily give her a date of 5300 years ago, the time when British took up farming, which would make Urwen approximately my great*292nd grandmother.

The earliest evidence of agriculture dates from around 10,000 to 8,000 years ago in the Middle East. Agriculture spread west across Europe and reached Britain around 5,300 years ago. The genetic evidence now strongly suggests that indigenous populations adopted agriculture, rather than being replaced by agricultural populations from the east, with the latter contributing only a relatively small proportion to the modern European gene pool.

Urwen lived in the neolithic period (late stone age) at a time when the British were adopting agriculture and sedentary living, leading to the gradual decline of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The new farmers grew cereal grains such as wheat and barley, this was supplemented at times with wild, un-domesticated plant foods such as hazelnuts. The Neolithic also saw the construction of a wide variety of monuments in the landscape, many of which were megalithic in nature. The earliest of these are the chambered tombs of the Early Neolithic. Newgrange in County Meath, western Ireland, is a chambered tomb built around 5200 years ago, about the time that Urwen lived.

Entrance to Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland

Entrance to Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland

Wayland’s Smithy is a Neolithic long barrow and chamber tomb site located near the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, which I visited in 1979. This barrow was built in two phases, a timber chambered oval barrow built around 5700 years ago and the second stone chambered long barrow around 5400 years ago, the time of Urwen.

Wayland's Smithy, White Horse Downs, Oxfordshire.

Wayland’s Smithy, White Horse Downs, Oxfordshire.

The Neolithic age was followed by the Bronze Age in Britain, lasting from around 2500 BCE to 800 BCE.  At first, items were made from copper but from around 2150 BCE smiths had discovered how to make bronze (which is much harder than copper) by mixing copper with a small amount of tin. With this discovery, the Bronze Age began in Britain. Over the next thousand years, bronze gradually replaced stone as the main material for tool and weapon making.

Britain had large reserves of tin in the areas of Cornwall and Devon in what is now Southwest England, and thus tin mining began. By around 1600 BCE, the Southwest of Britain was experiencing a trade boom as British tin was exported across Europe. The rich Wessex culture developed in Southern Britain at this time. The weather, previously warm and dry, became much wetter as the Bronze Age continued, forcing the population away from easily-defended sites in the hills and into the fertile valleys. Large livestock farms developed in the lowlands which appear to have contributed to economic growth and inspired increasing forest clearances. Higher ranking dead were buried under barrows and many of these can still be seen in Wiltshire.

During the British Bronze Age, large megalithic monuments similar to those from the Late Neolithic continued to be constructed or modified, including such sites as Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill I visited  Stonehenge and Avebury in 1979 along with a number of other megalithic monuments in Britain, Scotland and Ireland.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge

Avebury stone circle, 1979.

Avebury stone circle, 1979.

Around 750 BCE, iron working techniques reached Britain from Southern Europe. Iron was stronger and more plentiful than bronze, and its introduction marks the beginning of the Iron Age. Iron working revolutionised many aspects of life, most importantly agriculture. Iron tipped ploughs could churn up land far more quickly and deeply than older wooden or bronze ones, and iron axes could clear forest land far more efficiently for agriculture.

Iron Age Britons lived in organised tribal groups, ruled by a chieftain. As people became more numerous, wars broke out between opposing tribes. This was the reason for the building of many hill forts; there are over 2,000 Iron Age hill forts known in Britain. Population estimates vary but the number of people in Iron Age Great Britain could have been three or four million by the first century BCE, with most concentrated densely in the agricultural lands of the South. The average life expectancy at birth would have been around 25, but at the age of five it would have been around 30.

The end of the Iron Age extends into the early Roman Empire, but in parts of Britain that were not Romanized, such as Scotland, the period is extended a little longer, say to the 5th century. The first extensive Roman campaigns in Britain were by the armies of Julius Caesar in 55 and in 54 BCE, when my great*80th grandmother was alive.  But the first significant campaign of conquest did not begin until 43 CE, in the reign of the Emperor Claudius. Roman Britain was the part of the island of Great Britain controlled by the Roman Empire from 43 CE until ca. 410 CE. There are Roman remains to be found all across Britain, below the line of Hadrian’s Wall. In the forest of Dean, on the Welsh border, I walked several miles along a still clearly visible paved Roman road. Further southwest in Wales, I visited the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon.

Roman Amphitheatre, Caerleon, 1979.

Roman Amphitheatre, Caerleon, 1979.

Following the conquest of the native Britons, a distinctive Romano-British culture emerged under provincial government, which, despite steadily extending territorial control northwards, was never able to exert definite control over Caledonia (Scotland). Most Romans departed from Britain around the year 410, which began the post-Roman period (5th–6th century CE), but the legacy of the Roman Empire was felt for centuries in Britain. The departure of the Romans took place in my great*61th grandmother’s time.

The population of Britain may have decreased after the Roman period by between 1.5 and 3 million. This reduction may have been caused by environmental changes or by plague and smallpox (around 600 CE, the smallpox spread from India into Europe). The Plague of Justinian entered the Mediterranean world in the 6th century and first arrived in the British Isles in 544 or 545, when it reached Ireland. It is estimated that the Plague of Justinian killed as many as 100 million people across the world. It caused Europe’s population to drop by around 50% between 550 and 700.

While historians now generally think the term “dark age” is a misnomer for Europe in the post-Roman period, it probably can be applied to post-Roman Britain as little is known about that period and the few contemporary sources are contradictory, biased, and partly recounting legendary stories. These include On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (written by a monk called Gildas around 540 CE) which contains a narrative of British history from the Roman conquest to Gildas’ time; it includes references to Ambrosius Aurelianus and the Britons’ victory against the Saxons at the Battle of Mons Badonicus. This battle may have occurred around 493-500 CE. The next significant history was written by the Venerable Bede around 731 CE, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This also mentions the Battle of Badon, as occurring 44 years after the arrival of the Saxons “ when they made no small slaughter of those invaders”. The earliest surviving text mentioning “Arthur” at the battle is the Historia Brittonum, written around 828 CE by Nennius.  It contains the first reference to “Arthur” in a list of 12 battles that he is supposed to have fought as war leader of the Britons. Over the following centuries, the legends of King Arthur grew enormously, and when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote The History of the Kings of Britain in 1136 CE, Arthur’s reign was its climax. I took the photo below in 1979 at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. I first visited Tintagel a long time ago as a five year old, and I still have the book that my parents bought there for me recounting stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall.

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall.

If Arthur came to power around the time of the Battle of Badon in (say) 491 CE, that would have been in my great*58th grandmother’s time. Of course, I know nothing about most of the 58 maternal ancestors, though it is likely they all lived in Southern England. The first of these that I have documented evidence for is my great-great-grandmother, Amelia Buckmaster, who was born in 1809 in Hounslow, Middlesex, England and who died in 1892 in Wallingford, Berkshire, England.

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4 thoughts on “Maternal ancestors: Bronze age, iron age, Roman Britain

  1. Yes, I have found that European history and prehistory has become much more personal and that situating ancestors (known or inferred) in context brings them to life as well as history.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Writing Challenge: Names | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist)

  3. Pingback: Nine Stanes, Eslie the Greater and Eslie the Lessor | Mountains and rivers

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