Age of Cosmology A History of Ancient Britain


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Age of Cosmology

Neil Oliver continues the epic story of how Britain and its people came to be. He explores the age of the first cosmological priests, back in the Stone Age.


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This is the story of how Britain came to be.

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Of how our land, and its people, were forged over thousands of years of ancient history.

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This Britain is a strange and alien world.

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A world that contains the hidden story of our distant, pre-historic past.

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We began as hunters who came from mainland Europe

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before Britain was an island.

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Instead of hunting mammoth and reindeer in the snow,

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he hunted red deer in the wild wood...

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..and continued into a new age,

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as the first farmers built monumental tombs to their ancestors.

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Nothing like this had ever been seen before in Britain.

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Now the journey continues

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with the next chapter in our epic story.

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What everybody is waiting for is the sunrise!

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An age of cosmology when our lives were ruled by the sun and the stars.

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The birth of earthly power and social class,

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set against some of the greatest wonders of the ancient world.

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I'm going back almost 6,000 years

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to a Britain in the throes of the Neolithic revolution.

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The first farmers were forging a whole new relationship with the land...

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..a land that was alive with spiritual meaning.

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The wild wood that bordered their fields,

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the boundary between land and sea...

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..and mountains

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that touched the very sky.

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Places like the Lake District,

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with its dramatic valleys and crags, held a special power.

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If your understanding of the world was rooted in stone,

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then this landscape, that seems to shout the very word "stone",

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would have seemed especially important.

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And here in the central fells, the shout is particularly clear.

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Archaeologist Mark Edmonds has spent 30 years on the trail

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of the ancient people who came here in search of something very special.

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5,000, 6,000 years ago, chances are no-one is living here full time.

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They come here because the highest ground probably has good grazing.

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But what drew them up here was not the chance of living here full time,

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that would happen many years later.

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It was the stone that brought them up, that they came for.

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Over 5,000 years ago, Neolithic people climbed these same precarious paths.

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What they were heading for were high outcrops of volcanic rock called Greenstone.

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The crags that are worked the most are some of their highest and most difficult to get to.

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I think that's part of the attraction of the place, that it involves risk and danger.

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-OK, so nearly there.

-Mmm-hmm.

-Nearly there.

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The debris of ancient stone-working still lies all around.

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Hundreds of off-cuts of very special stone axes.

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-This is what we've climbed for.

-Look at this stuff, this is amazing!

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-I know, it's ridiculous, isn't it?

-It's the volume of it.

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So every single bit of this is the result of people making tools?

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There was stone to be had that could be worked to a fine finish.

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-This was a must have raw material?

-It's an extraordinary raw material.

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-So this whole area was an axe factory?

-Yep.

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You don't find many of the axes themselves up here,

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but fortunately I have brought some with me

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and this is what we call in the trade a rough-out.

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So that's halfway through the process of making?

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Yeah. It's absolutely exquisite.

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It's a thing of beauty, unfinished or not.

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This is what they looked like when they left the crags.

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Pop that down there.

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Once you get into the Lowlands where people would have been living,

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that's when the more glacial, slow process of grinding, polishing

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would be undertaken to get them down to something like that.

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How long does it take to get from that

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-to the finished article?

-You can see in the two forms

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already the idea of what it's going to look like is there.

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In accustomed hands, you can make one of these in about 45 minutes, flaking as you go.

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This, at least several hundred hours, possibly even thousands of hours

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to get a good lustre and polish which brings out the colour of the stone.

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Why go to that effort? It doesn't make it a better axe, does it?

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It doesn't, it doesn't improve the effect of the tool.

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I think what's important about these things is not that they're tools,

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but they were also important because they were tokens of identity.

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They said something about the people who made them and used them.

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It wasn't just the stone that made these axes special,

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but where it came from -

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the sky.

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Although it's a mountain, what we're dealing with here is a monument,

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a place that draws people up, draws people together,

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at which they can work the stone

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to produce objects that matter to them,

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because they say something about who they are.

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So in sense the journey from the low country up here, takes several days,

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exposing yourself to danger, to the risk of falling, to come up into the clouds sometimes as well,

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is as much a rite of passage as anything else,

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an activity that's as much ceremonial, possibly spiritual as it is practical.

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The Cumbrian axe factory reveals a relationship between people,

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their landscape, and stone itself.

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This belief system would change over time.

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It would develop into something more complex, and for us, something fantastically enigmatic.

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Something that represents the beginning of a whole new age in our history.

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A time experts refer to as the Age of Astronomy -

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when we moved away from this more earthly ancestor worship

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towards something much more cosmic.

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What we see is a radical change in thinking

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that manifested itself in something staggering -

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the construction of monuments in stone

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on an unprecedented and massive scale,

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some of them astronomically aligned.

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What's becoming clear is that for people living 5,000 years ago,

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this new age wasn't bringing a new way of thinking about their ancestors.

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Rather it was a new way of thinking about themselves

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as individuals within an increasingly complicated society

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and an internationally connected world.

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All of that, and the universe itself.

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Where did we fit into time and into the cosmos?

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In a valley just beneath the greenstone axe factory,

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there's evidence of these new ideas.

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Places like this have an atmosphere.

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When you happen across one in the landscape

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it makes you pause and think and wonder -

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you know, what's going on?

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Stone circles are almost unknown outside Britain and Ireland,

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but we have hundreds of them.

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And they're often found in the most dramatic of locations.

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First of all, this place, these stones, mattered.

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This is quite a small stone circle, but still the effort involved

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suggests you don't go moving things this size just for fun.

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And building monumental structures like this

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was part of a tradition that lasted for over a thousand years.

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5,000 years ago, people living here in Cumbria, and all over Britain,

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were making spiritual connections that had never been made before...

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..not just between their lives and the land,

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but between their lives and the sky,

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the cosmos as well.

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Perhaps the very idea of heaven.

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This is a new Britain, the Neolithic reaching its very height,

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and it's one of the most mysterious and glorious periods

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in all of pre-history.

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Welcome to the Orkney islands, off the northern tip of Scotland.

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I've come here to explore a landscape that holds

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some of the best-preserved Stone Age structures in Britain.

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Here, there are relics of the lives and the beliefs

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of people who lived here at the very height of the Neolithic.

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Orkney is a wild place, whipped by North Atlantic winds.

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Even from the air there's not a tree to be seen.

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But it's more than the wind that's responsible.

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There were trees on Orkney, once upon a time.

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But it's thought that the first farmers cut them down

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to prepare fields for crops and keeping animals

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and given that Orkney's not a big place, it didn't take long to clear the lot.

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Fortunately, though, Orkney was rich in another building material.

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The whole island is made of this - horizontally bedded,

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fractured sandstone that splits very easily into useful slabs and sheets.

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And around 3,300 BC the people living here began to use this stuff

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to build some of the most enduring structures of the ancient world.

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Magnificent stone tombs and vast stone circles

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give us a unique insight into an extraordinary moment in our history,

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When we first turned our spiritual gaze towards the heavens.

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Here, even domestic houses have been preserved in stone,

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the very homes of the people who were pioneering this new age.

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Some of the most special are perched on the far west coast of Orkney.

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Here it is, Skara Brae.

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It's an extraordinary place,

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and it lets us get as close as we could possibly hope to

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the way domestic life was lived on Orkney in the Stone Age.

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The village was occupied for over 600 years, from about 3,100BC.

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What you've got are eight houses arranged on either side of a long winding passage,

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and because the whole thing is semi-subterranean,

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it does a great job of keeping the wind out, cutting down the draughts.

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'And because there wasn't any wood available, it wasn't just

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'the houses that were built of stone, but everything inside as well.'

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Right.

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This is the inside of one of the houses.

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What you notice right away is a big square hearth for a big roaring fire.

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These are bed recesses, places where people would have laid out their bedding.

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This arrangement here

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looks a bit like a dresser because it is a dresser.

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It's directly opposite the only entrance

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so it's the first thing that guests see as they enter,

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and on these shelves you would put the things that mattered,

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the equivalent of somewhere to put the good wedding china.

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Everything about this design, this house, is so clever and so human.

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But wonderful and evocative though this place undoubtedly is,

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it's all a bit too neat and tidy, a bit sterile, the grass is too mown.

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The first time I came here I heard a song in my head,

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and I've heard it every time since - it's Flintstones,

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meet the Flintstones, modern Stone Age famil-ee.

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What you want here in addition to the sights

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are the sounds of conversation and lives being lived,

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the smells of that human activity.

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But we can get closer.

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-You all right?

-Yeah, lead on!

-OK, here we go.

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'Alison Sheridan, a specialist in pre-historic artefacts, is showing me one house

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'that's so well-preserved people aren't usually allowed inside.'

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It's not the easiest place to get into, is it?

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No, but it's cosy!

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So what would life have been like for the Skara Brae residents, do you think?

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It would've been pretty comfortable by the standards of the age,

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because you've got this wonderful central hearth,

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so it may have been dark because of the roof but it would have been warm.

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They've also got a convenience, they have a toilet.

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How do you know that's a toilet and not a storage space?

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Well, there's a drain underneath it.

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-And they did find poo!

-Really?

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-So the hard evidence is there?

-Yes.

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'Remarkably, these houses also contained artefacts,

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'the precious possessions of the people who were living here 5,000 years ago.'

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I never found anything like this in my entire life.

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Miserable bits of broken stone was all I ever found.

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-So what have we got?

-Anything but miserable bits of stone. These are absolutely amazing.

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What are they generally called, if you were to group them as a class of find?

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Enigmatic carved stone objects.

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Only because archaeologists haven't worked out what they are.

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And in the absence of materials we would consider precious,

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like gold or silver, these have to be the equivalent of it.

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Because of the time and the skill they represent.

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Yes, we're in an age before the earliest metal.

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So the stone itself is not intrinsically valuable

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but as an object, it meant a lot.

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What about the rest?

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These pieces of jewellery...

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-They found something like 8,000 beads in this structure.

-In this house?!

-Yes.

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Right. So on a practical level, it says someone has the time to do this

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rather then being out growing, herding, whatever.

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Someone can set aside part of their day, perhaps all of their time to specialising,

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-and being provided with everything else they need by the rest of the village?

-That's right.

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These are just wonders - which one can I have?

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Take them all!

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We know where you live!

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But as well as jewellery and carved stones,

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this house also revealed a darker secret.

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Intriguingly, two adult women's skeletons were found under the bed.

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-Uniquely.

-Below floor level?

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Yes, it's as if during the lifetime of the house, they lived here,

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-they died here, they were buried here.

-And put under the bed?

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Like Granny under the bed. It was a house for the living, but also a house for the dead.

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The precious artefacts and the presence of human remains

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might mean that these houses were special.

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No-one can be sure, but the people who lived here

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might not have been ordinary farmers

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but some of the earliest priests of a new religion.

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Within just a few miles of Skara Brae, built around the same time, is this...

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A stone tomb constructed on a truly grand scale.

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Fantastic.

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Already you get the sense that you've left one world behind

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and come somewhere different.

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And what you're rewarded with

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after bending down and struggling through

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is access to a masterpiece, in every sense of the word.

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What you also see right away is the similarity between the interior of

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this tomb and the interiors of the houses in Skara Brae.

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And in fact there was a house here once upon a time.

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And a circle of standing stones, all before the tomb was ever built.

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It's a classic example of somewhere domestic being altered,

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becoming something other, something ritual.

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Over here,

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again, a shadow of something domestic -

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it's a recess, similar to a bed,

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but of course the people put away in there are having a much, much deeper sleep.

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Maeshowe is a triumph of ancient architecture,

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not only in its stonework,

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but in the way it's been positioned in the landscape.

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For a few days each midwinter,

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the setting sun is framed by two distant hills

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on the neighbouring island of Hoy.

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And as the sun drops onto the horizon,

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it shines through the passage, lighting up the inner chamber.

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Maeshowe was aligned to the heavens

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and to the dramatic features of the Orcadian landscape.

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When you look around here,

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you realise that you're surrounded by hills and water.

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It's a natural amphitheatre.

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It's a stage set for drama.

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And it's here, across the promontory from Maeshowe,

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that the Neolithic people of Orkney

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decided to build another extraordinary monument in stone.

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The Ring of Brodgar is one of the biggest stone circles we know about anywhere.

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It's over 100m across, and while there are 21 stones standing today,

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in its original form there would have been as many as 60.

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And that's not all...

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This stone circle was also surrounded by a ditch -

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not just any ditch, this is ten metres across

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and over three metres deep and it's not just cut into the soil,

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it's been cut into the living bedrock.

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It's been estimated that it would have taken 100 men six months just to cut the ditch.

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This is on an epic scale.

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The Ring of Brodgar is vast,

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but incredibly, it actually forms part of something even bigger.

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And here's a clue...

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The ditch isn't actually complete.

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There's a causeway right here and another one on the other side.

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It's thought that these are an entrance and an exit,

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which means perhaps the stone circle isn't itself a destination,

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it's some kind of portal maybe,

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something you pass through on the way to something else.

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And that somewhere else is down there, just across the peninsula.

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The Ring of Brodgar points you across a narrow land-bridge

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towards another even older stone circle, the Stones of Stenness.

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Few of the original stones survive, but those that do

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reveal yet more connections to this monumental landscape.

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What's striking here is the way some of the stone are positioned.

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This pair here are aligned so that when you look through the gap,

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Maeshowe is perfectly framed against the hillside.

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Originally there would have been a complete ditch encircling the monument.

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And the thinking is that that ditch would have held water, so it would have appeared as a moat.

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So maybe what you have 5,000 years ago is the builders,

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the architects of this monument

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creating an island within an island,

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a miniature, a microcosm of their world as they saw it.

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The creation of monumental architecture around 5,000 years ago

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can be seen in a sense as an evolution of earlier Neolithic culture.

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After all, these people had been building

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huge earthen enclosures and vast cursus monuments for generations.

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It was the connections between the monuments

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and astronomical alignments that was new.

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The earth, the landscape, was as important as it had always been.

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But now it was being seen as part of a bigger picture.

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The skies, the sun and the moon, the heavens.

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That's what this Age of Astronomy seems to have been all about.

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Our human need to understand our place in the cosmos

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still resonates today.

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This is midsummer,

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just before dawn at the most famous stone age monument of them all.

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This place, Salisbury Plain...

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..has been attracting people for millennia, and it still does.

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There are literally thousands of people here.

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Some of them have come to worship ancient gods,

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some to connect with Mother Earth.

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Some have come in search of themselves.

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But to be honest, I think a lot of them are here just because everyone else is, just for the spectacle.

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DRUMMING

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Of course, what everybody's waiting for is the sunrise,

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which will be over there, and by my reckoning,

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will be in, oh, several minutes' time.

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Can't wait!

0:25:250:25:27

Funny thing is that it's actually very hard to see the sunrise

0:25:360:25:40

because of all these stones and all these people.

0:25:400:25:43

Oh, there she blows.

0:25:560:25:58

Presumably, its arrival today means,

0:26:100:26:14

well, something different to every one of these people here.

0:26:140:26:17

There's several thousand of them, so that's several thousand meanings.

0:26:170:26:22

Take your pick.

0:26:220:26:23

But what did Stonehenge mean to the people who gathered here 5,000 years ago?

0:26:280:26:33

To begin to answer that, you have to go back to the stones themselves.

0:26:350:26:39

And I don't mean the most obvious ones.

0:26:410:26:44

The sarsen stones, and the huge trilithons,

0:26:440:26:47

they weren't part of the original monument.

0:26:470:26:50

If you want to get back to the start of Stonehenge, you have to look at

0:26:500:26:54

these smaller stones that are all around the interior.

0:26:540:26:58

Unlike the sarsens, which were dragged here from just 20 or so miles up the road,

0:26:580:27:03

these are from much, much further away, off to the west.

0:27:030:27:07

The wild south-west of Wales.

0:27:230:27:26

High in the Preseli Hills, the rolling landscape

0:27:270:27:30

is broken by huge outcrops of a very distinctive stone.

0:27:300:27:34

Now, the thing is, studies have shown that this kind of stone

0:27:400:27:44

is identical to the original boulders of Stonehenge,

0:27:440:27:48

built over 200 miles away in that direction.

0:27:480:27:51

'Geologists call this a spotted dolerite.

0:27:510:27:54

'And this is the only place in Britain where this particular type exists.'

0:27:540:28:00

This has been amazing to me for more than half of my life.

0:28:000:28:03

I mean, why do it at all?

0:28:030:28:05

What motivated them? Why these stones, from here?

0:28:050:28:09

Now, it does have to be said there are a couple of things about this rock that are unusual.

0:28:110:28:17

First of all, I'm going to don my Stone Age goggles...

0:28:170:28:19

..and hit this as hard as I can.

0:28:210:28:22

Now, on that fresh face there...

0:28:270:28:30

..if I wet that freshly broken face,

0:28:310:28:36

look at that, isn't that lovely?

0:28:360:28:37

See how it changes colour? It goes this soft blue shade.

0:28:370:28:42

Obviously, it's why this stuff is known as bluestone.

0:28:420:28:46

And it's speckled throughout with these little flecks of feldspar.

0:28:460:28:50

These properties, these unique freckles, would have made this rock seem very special.

0:28:500:28:56

It might even have seemed magical.

0:28:560:28:58

We might never know exactly why this place and these crags were chosen.

0:29:000:29:06

But it reminds me of the Lake District axe-makers on a much grander scale.

0:29:060:29:13

What we do know for certain, though, is that this place was important.

0:29:130:29:17

So important that it filled ancient people with an urge so powerful

0:29:170:29:22

that they were able to find the strength and the will to move over 200 tonnes of this rock

0:29:220:29:27

and use it to set up the first stone circle of Stonehenge.

0:29:270:29:32

Now THAT takes some belief.

0:29:320:29:34

5,000 years ago, the Stonehenge we see today simply didn't exist.

0:29:420:29:47

Instead, there was a much simpler circle.

0:29:490:29:52

After their long journey from Preseli, the bluestones were put up in a great big circle,

0:29:560:30:01

round the outside, on the inner edge of this bank.

0:30:010:30:04

So for 500 years or so, the bluestone circle WAS Stonehenge.

0:30:040:30:09

And then, for some reason, the people living around here

0:30:090:30:13

decided to give themselves an even bigger challenge.

0:30:130:30:16

Around 2,500 BC, a new generation of builders

0:30:210:30:26

created their ultimate monument.

0:30:260:30:29

Using massive blocks of local sandstone, they constructed something unprecedented -

0:30:290:30:35

a ring of standing stones capped with lintels.

0:30:350:30:38

Inside, a horseshoe of yet more stones.

0:30:420:30:45

And at the same time, for good measure,

0:30:470:30:49

they moved the original boulders of bluestone right into the centre.

0:30:490:30:55

Unlike the bluestones, these gigantic sarsens

0:30:550:30:59

were only transported 20 miles or so, from up the road.

0:30:590:31:03

But given that each one weighs anything up to 40 tonnes,

0:31:030:31:07

well, the effort required to shift them was phenomenal.

0:31:070:31:10

This new Stonehenge marked special days in the cosmic calendar -

0:31:130:31:18

spring and autumn,

0:31:200:31:22

as well as the well known alignment on the midsummer sunrise.

0:31:220:31:25

But the midsummer sunrise exactly matches another event -

0:31:320:31:37

the setting sun...

0:31:370:31:38

..at midwinter.

0:31:400:31:41

The latest evidence suggests that our most famous prehistoric monument of all

0:31:430:31:49

might not have been a celebration of summer and life...

0:31:490:31:52

..but a commemoration of winter...

0:31:540:31:56

..and death.

0:31:570:31:58

Like the Orkney monuments, Stonehenge is not alone.

0:32:050:32:10

Nearby, this field contains all that remains of

0:32:100:32:14

an ancient site of winter gathering.

0:32:140:32:17

Have a look at these!

0:32:230:32:25

Animal bones and teeth.

0:32:250:32:27

Just a sample of the thousands of animal remains

0:32:270:32:31

found scattered all across the site.

0:32:310:32:33

These are pig bones.

0:32:340:32:36

Piglets are usually born in the springtime

0:32:360:32:39

and the vast majority of the pig remains at Durrington Walls

0:32:390:32:43

show that adult animals were slaughtered at around nine months -

0:32:430:32:46

that's in midwinter.

0:32:460:32:49

Also, the teeth reveal that the animals had been

0:32:490:32:54

specifically fattened up prior to the feasting,

0:32:540:32:58

and we can tell this because the teeth are rotten.

0:32:580:33:01

What we have here isn't just casual feasting.

0:33:010:33:05

This is one final commemoration, one big celebration of life,

0:33:050:33:12

before the ancestors commenced their journey to Stonehenge

0:33:120:33:16

and the land of the dead.

0:33:160:33:17

It's thought that each winter,

0:33:190:33:21

people would come here from hundreds of miles around

0:33:210:33:24

to commemorate the lives of their ancestors...

0:33:240:33:27

..and to ensure the souls of the recently dead

0:33:290:33:31

reached the safety of the afterlife at Stonehenge itself.

0:33:310:33:35

I think it's fascinating that everyone believes they know Stonehenge.

0:33:410:33:46

It's like the Mona Lisa or the Pyramids.

0:33:460:33:49

It's so familiar, it's hard to see it with fresh eyes.

0:33:490:33:53

I think we've discovered something by coming here.

0:33:540:33:57

I think we've discovered a new Stonehenge,

0:33:570:34:00

and it's as far from the golden warmth of a midsummer sunrise

0:34:000:34:04

as it's possible to get.

0:34:040:34:06

It's somewhere that still carries a charge.

0:34:080:34:11

You can feel it.

0:34:110:34:13

And if you come here at midwinter,

0:34:130:34:15

you can feel that charge just a little bit more.

0:34:150:34:18

The coldness of the stones, the open landscape.

0:34:200:34:24

It's not hard to believe

0:34:240:34:26

that this place is somewhere that belongs to the dead.

0:34:260:34:31

When we look back to the time of the great monuments of the Neolithic,

0:34:560:34:59

we see a whole new age dawning, in belief, but also in society.

0:34:590:35:05

There's no doubt that the creation of these vast monuments was a religious act.

0:35:080:35:13

It's about finding and defining a place in the universe,

0:35:130:35:17

in time, in life and in death.

0:35:170:35:19

The special objects found at Orkney,

0:35:200:35:23

the arrangement of the temple complex,

0:35:230:35:25

these things imply the existence of a priestly class

0:35:250:35:29

that the farmers themselves were supporting.

0:35:290:35:33

And the sheer scale of these enterprises,

0:35:330:35:35

the planning and engineering required by Stonehenge,

0:35:350:35:39

by the Ring of Brodgar, suggests that some group was in charge,

0:35:390:35:43

and they were out to impress.

0:35:430:35:45

Because these monuments themselves were connected.

0:35:450:35:49

We know people were moving between these great monuments

0:35:510:35:55

because of this.

0:35:550:35:57

It's a style of pottery.

0:35:570:35:59

It's called grooved ware because of the grooves that decorate the surface.

0:35:590:36:05

It was made first of all in Orkney.

0:36:050:36:08

It's also the first pottery we know of in Britain and Ireland

0:36:080:36:13

with a proper flat base.

0:36:130:36:15

This style of pottery was subsequently found at Stonehenge,

0:36:150:36:19

in the south of England, and it's found at all points in between.

0:36:190:36:24

What the experts are now imagining is a kind of elite world travel, if you like,

0:36:240:36:29

where important people

0:36:290:36:31

moved between the great Neolithic monuments on a kind of Grand Tour.

0:36:310:36:37

On three, lads.

0:36:370:36:39

Haon, do, tri!

0:36:390:36:41

'5,000 years ago,

0:36:460:36:48

'there was only one way for a serious Neolithic traveller to get around.'

0:36:480:36:52

Is she doing what she's supposed to, Clive?

0:36:520:36:55

She's doing exactly what she's meant to do, so very impressed.

0:36:550:36:58

-And it's completely dry.

-She is.

0:36:580:37:02

'I'm joining the crew of a sea-going currach, built by Irish boat-builder Clive O'Gibney,

0:37:020:37:08

'using 5,000-year-old technology -

0:37:080:37:12

'a frame of hazel, covered with cow hide, and sealed with pitch.'

0:37:120:37:17

It's as smooth as spreading a nice piece of butter on bread.

0:37:170:37:20

-Every now and again I can convince myself I'm in time with somebody.

-That's it.

0:37:200:37:25

If it's with me, Neil, we're in trouble. We're both out.

0:37:250:37:28

-'Rowing's all very well...'

-All right, lads, give it a crack.

0:37:290:37:32

'but Clive believes that longer voyages would have required some sort of sail.'

0:37:320:37:37

OK. Now I'm going to go overboard if we do this.

0:37:370:37:40

In the Neolithic, there was no cloth technology,

0:37:400:37:45

so Clive has used hazel rods and strips of cow hide.

0:37:450:37:49

No-one has ever attempted anything remotely like this before.

0:37:490:37:54

We need everybody to be calm.

0:37:540:37:57

I'm going to move that way with the sail, over towards you.

0:37:570:38:01

Whoa, whoa, whoa!

0:38:010:38:03

You're all right, lads, sit down.

0:38:040:38:06

Do you hear it?

0:38:080:38:10

All the way.

0:38:100:38:11

'It's a heavy and cumbersome rig...

0:38:150:38:17

'..but amazingly, it actually seems to work!'

0:38:190:38:22

So how does it feel, Clive, seeing this for the first time?

0:38:320:38:35

I'm delighted with myself.

0:38:350:38:36

-It's one thing imagining it, but to actually feel it working...

-Feel it.

0:38:360:38:41

I wanted to hear it, I wanted to feel it and that's what we're getting now.

0:38:410:38:45

-It's one of the best experiences I've had in my life.

-It's definitely a sailing currach.

0:38:450:38:48

It's definitely a sailing currach, there you go, Neil.

0:38:480:38:53

-Will we just go to England?

-Aye, come on.

0:38:530:38:55

I've got the lunch, and a dram of something in there.

0:38:550:38:58

It's easy to imagine boats like this

0:39:010:39:03

sailing between the great sites of Neolithic Britain,

0:39:030:39:07

carrying people, ideas, beliefs, and precious objects.

0:39:070:39:15

One remarkable find epitomises this age of elite travel.

0:39:230:39:28

It was discovered just north of Dublin,

0:39:280:39:30

but it's thought it was made across the sea in Britain.

0:39:300:39:35

This is a ceremonial macehead.

0:39:430:39:45

It's 5,000 years old, there or thereabouts,

0:39:470:39:50

and it's made from a single piece of beautifully worked flint.

0:39:500:39:53

In every possible way, it's an object of wonder.

0:39:540:39:57

Now, the person who made this wasn't just technically skilled,

0:40:000:40:06

but also an artistic genius.

0:40:060:40:08

Do you see the way that that spiral there suggests two eyes?

0:40:100:40:15

And the hole to take the shaft of the mace could be the mouth.

0:40:150:40:19

The hole for the shaft has been drilled out.

0:40:190:40:24

Now this is from a time before any metal,

0:40:240:40:26

so the drill bit was a piece of wood

0:40:260:40:29

and the abrasive action has been achieved by using sand or ground quartz.

0:40:290:40:34

But even saying that, you're still looking at countless hours, days,

0:40:340:40:39

maybe even weeks of painstaking effort to create that perfect smooth hole.

0:40:390:40:43

It's technically flawless,

0:40:460:40:48

but it also reveals a level of sophistication

0:40:480:40:51

and refinement of design that you simply don't see

0:40:510:40:55

in any other artefact of the period in Britain or in Ireland.

0:40:550:41:00

This new art speaks of power and prestige.

0:41:020:41:07

Of an emerging world of priests and chieftains, people whose status

0:41:070:41:11

was displayed in the possession of rare and exquisite objects.

0:41:110:41:15

As well as Stonehenge and Orkney,

0:41:220:41:24

it seems that these people also came to Ireland.

0:41:240:41:28

5,000 years ago, travellers sailed or rowed up here, the River Boyne,

0:41:310:41:37

to the most sacred landscape of them all,

0:41:370:41:39

The Bru na Boinne, the "Palace of the Boyne".

0:41:390:41:42

This is another sacred landscape,

0:41:510:41:53

constructed around 3,200 BC, which means it probably predates

0:41:530:41:59

the bluestone phase at Stonehenge, and the stone circles of Orkney.

0:41:590:42:03

This could be where it all began.

0:42:030:42:06

And right at the centre, a mecca for tourists from all over the world

0:42:060:42:10

is this massive passage grave, Newgrange.

0:42:100:42:14

Of course, the mound as you see it today isn't original.

0:42:200:42:23

It was excavated in the 1960s and then reconstructed in this...

0:42:230:42:28

well, very confident style.

0:42:280:42:30

I'm in two minds about it, actually. On the one hand,

0:42:300:42:33

it's very striking and attracts a lot of people,

0:42:330:42:36

maybe inspires a lot of people to find out more.

0:42:360:42:38

But on the other hand, it's a bit brutal and a bit overdone.

0:42:380:42:42

It's kind of like "Stalin does the Stone Age".

0:42:420:42:45

Inside, though, its magic still rings out.

0:42:530:42:56

This is the very earliest building of the new Neolithic cosmology,

0:42:570:43:03

created hundreds of years before even the Egyptian pyramids.

0:43:030:43:07

What strikes you immediately is how much this feels like Maeshowe

0:43:100:43:13

on Orkney, with this narrow low passageway

0:43:130:43:17

leading from the world of light to the dark world within.

0:43:170:43:20

And in fact, this may have been the inspiration for Maeshowe,

0:43:200:43:23

because this tomb was built first.

0:43:230:43:25

And again, like Maeshowe, there are three recesses

0:43:350:43:39

that once upon a time would have held the remains of the dead.

0:43:390:43:43

But this one is altogether more rough-hewn than Maeshowe.

0:43:430:43:47

It lacks the perfection, it's more Stone Age, if you like.

0:43:470:43:50

Like Maeshowe on Orkney,

0:43:530:43:55

Newgrange is carefully aligned on the movement of the sun.

0:43:550:43:59

Above the entrance

0:43:590:44:00

there's a stone frame that lets light into the passage, a roofbox.

0:44:000:44:05

If I get down here, you can see what I mean.

0:44:080:44:12

On a day like today, it doesn't let a lot of sunshine in,

0:44:120:44:17

but once a year,

0:44:170:44:19

on December 21st, the winter solstice,

0:44:190:44:21

the sun is directly in front of the entrance

0:44:210:44:25

and the roofbox lets the sun all the way up this passageway

0:44:250:44:30

until it illuminates the entire chamber.

0:44:300:44:33

It lasts for about 17 minutes,

0:44:350:44:37

and then the chamber is plunged into darkness for another year.

0:44:370:44:41

Now, that trick makes this place

0:44:410:44:45

one of the earliest astronomically aligned buildings anywhere in the world.

0:44:450:44:49

Like the other monuments, Newgrange marks midwinter.

0:44:520:44:56

But here, there's an additional clue to Neolithic belief.

0:44:560:45:00

That time flows in a cycle.

0:45:000:45:03

And even in death, there is a promise of rebirth.

0:45:030:45:07

There's a reason for the alignment of the passageway.

0:45:120:45:15

It's to allow the sun to illuminate this stone and pick out this carving,

0:45:150:45:21

the only carving in the recess.

0:45:210:45:23

It's something called a triple spiral,

0:45:230:45:26

the very earliest example of a triple spiral.

0:45:260:45:30

It's one continuous carving with no beginning and no end.

0:45:300:45:35

It's a kind of perfect form.

0:45:350:45:37

The illumination of this carving once a year,

0:45:370:45:40

in a piece of religious theatre, lay at the very heart of the beliefs

0:45:400:45:45

of the people who designed and built this place.

0:45:450:45:49

The great sacred sites of Newgrange, Stonehenge and Orkney were magnets

0:45:510:45:57

for elite travellers who,

0:45:570:45:59

5,000 years ago, took inspiration and ideas from one another.

0:45:590:46:04

What we're left with today are monuments that are unique in Europe,

0:46:040:46:08

created by powerful and commonly held religious beliefs.

0:46:080:46:14

From the Orkney Islands in Scotland to the Preseli mountains in Wales,

0:46:140:46:18

from the Lake District in the north of England to Stonehenge in the south

0:46:180:46:22

and finally here in Ireland, it's all connected.

0:46:220:46:26

And all that time, there must have been some sort of priestly caste

0:46:280:46:32

marshalling all that effort.

0:46:320:46:34

The people who carried the maceheads.

0:46:340:46:37

And in some of the tombs surrounding Newgrange,

0:46:370:46:39

there are clues to their sacred beliefs, and, in particular,

0:46:390:46:43

to the treatment of some of the first elites of ancient society.

0:46:430:46:46

Within sight of Newgrange lies yet another tomb, Knowth.

0:46:530:46:57

More than 400 of its stones are covered in swirling, abstract art,

0:47:080:47:13

almost half of all the megalithic art in the whole of Western Europe.

0:47:130:47:17

This is where the precious macehead was found.

0:47:230:47:28

And it wasn't the only spectacular discovery.

0:47:280:47:30

Archaeologist George Eogan has been studying Knowth for 50 years.

0:47:320:47:36

You could picture that you had a religious person, the equivalent of a priest

0:47:400:47:45

who could stand here

0:47:450:47:47

before the entrance, and in between,

0:47:470:47:52

you have this splendid sandstone, six feet or so in height,

0:47:520:47:58

with a vertical line which leads up the centre of the passage.

0:47:580:48:02

So what would have happened inside?

0:48:020:48:04

Who gets in there?

0:48:040:48:06

I would think only a small number of people went inside,

0:48:060:48:11

probably even an individual,

0:48:110:48:13

who just took the remains and placed them in the tomb.

0:48:130:48:18

-Can we have a look?

-We can indeed.

0:48:180:48:20

Good. Lead on.

0:48:200:48:21

Back in 1968,

0:48:280:48:30

George was the first person in modern times to break into the tomb.

0:48:300:48:35

-How long is the passage?

-About 140 feet.

0:48:350:48:38

-Are you winning?

-It'll take me a long time. No hurry.

0:48:430:48:47

I can see why you don't have this place open to the public, George.

0:48:540:48:58

-It's not the easiest place.

-No.

0:48:580:49:00

Oh, my. Oh, I say.

0:49:020:49:06

-Look up.

-Now, that's a bit good.

0:49:060:49:09

And this is as it was? This hasn't been reconstructed?

0:49:120:49:15

No, not at all.

0:49:150:49:18

What was it like the very first time you came in here?

0:49:180:49:21

How did you feel to be the first person in here in goodness knows how long?

0:49:210:49:25

Well, it was unbelievably exciting.

0:49:250:49:29

What George found were the untouched remnants of ancient sacred rites,

0:49:360:49:41

a time capsule of Neolithic belief.

0:49:410:49:44

And scattered in and around this exquisitely carved basin

0:49:460:49:50

was evidence of something new in Stone Age society -

0:49:500:49:53

burnt human remains.

0:49:550:49:57

These are some of the earliest remains

0:50:040:50:06

of ritual cremation ever found.

0:50:060:50:09

The skull is easiest to find, because the skull is very distinctive.

0:50:090:50:14

It has an inner and outer layer,

0:50:140:50:16

and some spongy bone in between.

0:50:160:50:20

Although only fragments survive,

0:50:200:50:22

under expert eyes, these remains reveal a wealth of information.

0:50:220:50:28

Some areas of the skull are more important than others.

0:50:280:50:31

This part in particular is the petrous portion of the temporal bone

0:50:310:50:36

and it survives very well because it's thick.

0:50:360:50:39

From this, I can identify which side of the skull it came from,

0:50:390:50:44

so it's useful in determining the number of individuals.

0:50:440:50:47

If I have two left temporal bones, I have two different individuals.

0:50:470:50:51

Forensic science reveals that Knowth contained over 100 cremated bodies.

0:50:530:50:58

But those cremations were accumulated over centuries of use.

0:51:010:51:05

The radiocarbon dates showed that that was over approximately a 300-year time span.

0:51:060:51:12

That works out at one cremation every two to three years.

0:51:120:51:17

So therefore, cremation wasn't that common.

0:51:170:51:20

What Laureen Buckley's work shows is that the new practice of cremation was unusual.

0:51:210:51:28

This rarity, and the discovery of the Knowth macehead,

0:51:280:51:31

suggests that it was an honour

0:51:310:51:33

reserved for only the very highest levels of late Neolithic society.

0:51:330:51:37

The cremated remains at Knowth show that there was a hierarchy

0:51:420:51:47

at play which determined how your mortal remains were treated.

0:51:470:51:50

Put simply, if you were important, your remains were burnt, cremated.

0:51:500:51:55

And presumably that meant that your spirit was being treated differently

0:51:570:52:03

and was going to go somewhere different

0:52:030:52:05

than the remains of those left behind on Earth simply to be buried.

0:52:050:52:09

I'm going to have my own experimental cremation right here in the shadow of Knowth tomb.

0:52:130:52:18

The thing is, cremating a body

0:52:210:52:24

is about much more than just lighting a fire,

0:52:240:52:27

it's a technological challenge,

0:52:270:52:30

which is why I've brought two Dublin firemen with me.

0:52:300:52:33

We need to get it between 1,500-1,700 degrees Celsius

0:52:370:52:40

in order to totally cremate the body.

0:52:400:52:43

And how long does it have to sustain that temperature

0:52:430:52:47

to do away with something like a human body?

0:52:470:52:50

About two to three hours, but then the idea of building the pyre like this is that it holds its structure.

0:52:500:52:54

As it ignites, the structure remains intact and then collapses inwards.

0:52:540:52:59

Lovely.

0:52:590:53:00

Since I can't find anyone to volunteer,

0:53:030:53:05

we've taken a trip to the local butcher's.

0:53:050:53:08

At around 70 kilos,

0:53:080:53:10

a medium-sized pig makes a good substitute for an average adult man.

0:53:100:53:14

Almost a third of its weight is fat and that's important,

0:53:180:53:22

because although wood is needed to get things going,

0:53:220:53:25

the main fuel in a cremation is the body itself.

0:53:250:53:28

We've ordained that our cremations

0:53:550:53:57

are performed out of sight and out of mind,

0:53:570:54:00

but this is really what it's all about.

0:54:000:54:02

Flesh and bone being consumed by the flames and turned into smoke.

0:54:020:54:07

I quite like it.

0:54:100:54:11

It's a process that takes hours,

0:54:140:54:17

time enough to reflect upon a leader's life

0:54:170:54:21

and their journey to another world.

0:54:210:54:23

You have to try and imagine the impact of this on people

0:54:250:54:28

5,000 years ago.

0:54:280:54:30

When a chieftain or priest died,

0:54:300:54:34

their body would be consumed by fire and be reduced to virtually nothing.

0:54:340:54:40

And then to see the few earthbound remains,

0:54:430:54:47

a handful of dust and crumbling bones,

0:54:470:54:50

picked out of the embers and placed in a recess in that tomb for ever...

0:54:500:54:57

..while all the rest of them had disappeared into the sky.

0:55:000:55:05

Who can imagine what impact that would have?

0:55:050:55:07

The following morning, and only a few smoking embers remain.

0:55:160:55:20

As a first attempt at Neolithic cremation, I think that's quite good.

0:55:220:55:27

The flame has done away with most of the body.

0:55:270:55:30

So I've sent that pig into the afterlife, if you like.

0:55:300:55:33

The discoveries in Ireland show a new society emerging

0:55:400:55:43

though the late Neolithic, a society where status mattered.

0:55:430:55:48

It determined the objects you possessed in life,

0:55:500:55:53

and how your body was treated in death.

0:55:530:55:55

This was a society where ideas travelled,

0:56:000:56:03

and where new beliefs were manifested

0:56:030:56:05

in the greatest ancient monuments the world had ever seen.

0:56:050:56:10

And it's in those very monuments that today,

0:56:100:56:13

we're able to glimpse the very birth of a whole new concept of existence.

0:56:130:56:18

From around 3,000 to 2,500BC was the time when we became aware

0:56:200:56:25

of our place, not just here on Earth, but within the cosmos.

0:56:250:56:30

The great tombs, the stone circles,

0:56:300:56:34

they were an attempt to make sense of the movement of the sun and the moon,

0:56:340:56:38

of an entire universe that shapes and governs our lives, and our time.

0:56:380:56:43

Those forces went way beyond the reach of the ancestors.

0:56:500:56:54

So much so, that from now on when some people died,

0:56:540:56:58

they were to be sent to a new place, a different place.

0:56:580:57:02

Not down into the earth, but up into the sky.

0:57:020:57:06

It seems to me that it was in the Neolithic that people conceived of an idea that endures to this day,

0:57:060:57:13

that somewhere up here was heaven.

0:57:130:57:17

'Next time, my journey continues...'

0:57:240:57:26

Look at that!

0:57:280:57:29

'..as I discover a new age...'

0:57:290:57:32

That is magic.

0:57:320:57:34

-'..one forged in metal...'

-Are you impressed?

0:57:340:57:37

Very. I'm deeply, deeply impressed.

0:57:370:57:40

'..by a new people...'

0:57:400:57:41

He knew how to get metal, how to make metal and how to work metal.

0:57:410:57:47

'..a people inventing a whole new way of living.'

0:57:470:57:50

As well as men working down here, there must have been children.

0:57:530:57:57

Some of the spaces are just too small.

0:57:570:58:00

Neil Oliver continues his journey through the world of Ancient Britain as he encounters an age of cosmological priests and some of the greatest monuments of the Stone Age, including Stonehenge itself. This is a time of elite travellers, who were inventing the very idea of Heaven itself.