Prehistory in Friars Cliff

Contributor: Ken West

Prehistory is the period of time before written records and ended when Britain was invaded by the Romans. We can safely assume that much of the prehistoric remains once present in Friars Cliff have been swept away by the sea. After the last Ice Age, about 10000 BC, the coast was much further out, probably on a line between The Needles and Old Harry Rocks. Yet 8500 years later, a Bronze Age tumulus was built as evidence that prehistoric people lived here. That tumulus exists today in Glengarry Way, an attractive green space between houses and bungalows in Friars Cliff. It mirrors around a dozen similar constructions on Hengistbury Head. They are evidence that a flourishing Bronze Age community lived in the area but what about earlier periods.

Hunter Gatherers in Friars Cliff

Hunter gatherers were established on the River Avon by 8000 BC as proved by archaeology higher up the river in Amesbury, Wiltshire. As the environment lower down the river, by the sea, was richer then we can assume similar occupation here. These people were nomadic and moved around according to the seasons. As so little is known, in 2019 there were calls for a survey of both the River Avon and Stour valleys to ascertain potential archaeology.  

Around 4000 BC, farming, more properly called horticulture, began and people settled.  Water was the main highway because roads and tracks did not exist. The rivers Avon and Stour extend way inland and have a flow that is ideal for logboat use. The water meadows along both rivers are extensive and offered light, fertile silt soils for the growing of crops. We can assume a pagan riverine culture developed because these people were able to build Stonehenge round 3000 BC. This suggests that they were both sophisticated and successful.

Gateway to Stonehenge

What we now call Christchurch harbour was the gateway to Stonehenge. If the bluestones used in the first building phase at Stonehenge were rafted from Wales then they would have passed Friars Cliff. Also, when The Amesbury Archer and his entourage of Beaker Folk came from what is now Europe he would have probably travelled up the Avon from here. His burial at Amesbury in 2200 BC created the richest grave goods ever found in Britain. His grave is recreated in Salisbury Museum and includes the first examples in this country of copper and gold.

Dorset & the Durotriges

The riverine culture survived, sometimes prospered, throughout the Bronze and Iron Age. In this latter period, from 100 BC, the tribal headquarters was probably located on Hod Hill near Blandford Forum and accessed via the River Stour. During this period the hillfort at Old Sarum was probably the most important location on the River Avon. As awareness of the Romans on the continent expanded, quantities of wine and other goods were imported from Brittany into Christchurch Harbour, placed into small boats and sent upriver. The goods exchanged for the wine appear to be Kimmeridge shale and ores from many parts of Britain. The Romans, after they invaded around 43 AD, were the first to write about this culture and called these people the Durotriges, which means dwellers by water and sea side. From this word we have derived the word Dorset. The trade with Brittany progressively collapsed and transferred to Poole and Southampton.

This pagan prehistory is often ignored. This is because the town of Christchurch, originally called Twynham, is recorded as being founded in 650 AD. This included the building of a church that preceded the Priory, which was built in 1094. We need to be aware that a diversified, pagan culture existed here before the introduction of Christianity.

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