Greenwich

PREHISTORIC TIMES

If you've read the prehistory of Blackheath, you'll find much of the information here is the same. This is because there are few historical resources to draw from on this area alone, and our primary focus is Blackheath and Greenwich. However, there is a little more evidence scattered around Greenwich that has come from archaeological digs. So, if you've read the Blackheath prehistory section, you can skip this part and move down the page to our focus on Greenwich below.

 

If (like us), you're a bit geeky about how things started, this is a very brief history on the landscape back in the days before history things were written down.

 

It's hard to imagine what the landscape of our area was like in prehistoric times but there was a time when hippos wallowed in the River Thames, and lions prowled where Trafalgar Square now stands.[1] The climate went through several major changes: from ice ages too cold for life to survive to climates where animals and habitat flourished. What we now know as Great Britain was once physically attached to Europe. For thousands of years, the ice age made Britain barren. The people of these times weren't settlers – they travelled to follow the herds and the climate.

London Palaeolithic Landscape.png

Between 100,000 – 10,000 BC, the climate was a mess. Ice to warmth to ice again. (If you'd like more details on this, there's a really good link here that explains all the landscape and climate changes in their technical terms). From around 9,700 BC, things began to change. The ice age was over, glaciers melted, and Britain started to become a fertile land so in walked our ancestors, across Doggerland – across the southern part of what we now know as the North Sea.

Thankfully, the River Thames existed even then – our constant marker in history – but instead of elephants, hippos and lions swanning about as if they owned the place, the land became populated with more familiar wildlife like deer, elk and wild cattle. Our ancestors had arrived and settled and it was the start of something interesting – the beginning of the beginning. 

Palaeolithic People

The Thames acted as a vital resource and focal point for our ancestors, offering a source of water, vegetation and potentially, aquatic food resources. Its banks would have provided raw material such as flint nodules so stone tools could be produced. Certain sites along the river would have given a clear view of the valley, proving useful for following herd movements.[2] 

9,700 BC

From this point onwards, the climate remained relatively stable, and forests, shrubbery, and fauna blanketed the land. We don't know just how dense these woodlands (termed wildwood rather than forests) were in Blackheath and Greenwich, but we do know that the general landscape was typically covered with oak, elm, ash, elder and lime.[3]

 

In order to survive, our ancestors had to learn to manage and control their environment and to use the land for livestock, hunting and settlements. They often did this by clearing the wildwood through felling and fire because it created grassland that would attract game and herds.

Early River Thames in Mesolithic Period

In 'Walking the Heath' there is mention that fires from the forest of Anderida (Wealden, Kent), headed towards Blackheath and Dartford, scorching the land so badly that nothing but heather and gorse could grow for centuries.[4] 

Around 6,200 BC a great tsunami took place without warning. Within the space of minutes, people from the Shetlands down to the eastern side of Britain were swept away. The tsunami was catastrophic for the coastlines, the habitat and its communities. Access to Britain over Doggerland ceased to exist and Britain became an island. 

PREHISTORIC GREENWICH

During the prehistoric period, the marshland around the River Thames would have given way to scrub and tree cover further inland. A Neolithic axe recovered from the marsh suggests there was a period of tree clearance. This is where the inhabitants set fire to the wild woodlands to clear areas of trees so they could establish grazing land. Much of what we know as England was covered in forests and shrubs in the prehistoric days. 

Archaeological digs have also found Bronze Age peat, which suggests there was the right kind of conditions for people to settle in Greenwich during certain seasons when they can use the soil for vegetation and wildlife. However,  direct evidence for occupation in prehistoric ages is limited to occasional finds, so we really don't know much about the locals during this time.

 

Interestingly, there is evidence of an ancient river that ran east-west under the train station and across the north end of Greenwich Park.[5]

 

Prehistoric artefacts found:

Map of prehistoric artifacts in Blackheath and South East London

Now we have an understanding of how things began back in the prehistoric days, we're going to take a rather massive jump to when history started to be recorded – the Romans and Greenwich

 

Citations

[1] https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/the-making-of-an-island.html

[2]  London before London: Reconstructing a Palaeolithic Landscape by Caroline Judy

[3] Secrets of the High Woods Research Agenda Alice Thorne and Rebecca Bennett June 2015

[4] Walking the Heath: an introduction to its history, Neil Rhind (author), Roger Marshall (author) Blackheath Society, 2017

[5] Stevenson, Mark. English Heritage, London Borough of Greenwich: Areas of High Archaeological Potential Appraisal. October 2011. (this is a really good source online if you are interested in further information with more detail. 

General reading Crane, Nicholas. The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present. Weiden & Nicolson.