Prehistoric Doncaster

We talk alot about recorded history on this web site, i.e AD 43 onwards. When the Romans arrived on our shores records began to be kept and many people mistakenly believe that this was the begining of our town. If you thought that you would be wrong.

When we talk about prehistoric Doncaster we are referring to an era between 10,000 BC and AD 43 which is quite a long time period. Progress was slow and laborious. Homo sapiens inhabited our land for tens of thousands of years and modern humans, those like me and you arrived in Britain at least 25,000 years ago, that’s before the last ice-age even started. In fact, it was this ice-age, moving north to south , that beat themclick to enlarge back into Southern Europe. Our landscape then was a desolate, barren and lifeless one pretty much uninhabitable. Because most of the earths water was turned to ice the sea levels were around 417 feet lower than they are today. This meant that one could wander from England to both Ireland and Europe without getting ones feet wet!

The retreat of the ice sheets and the warming of the climate led to settlers returning to our area about 10,000 bc. Palaeolithic (old stone age) hunter gatherers used caves and natural outcrops for shelter and as bases for hunting. To aid them with this, they produced tools, blades and axes from a readily available material, namely flint, and a number of these tools have been discovered in the Doncaster area over the years. A single flint blade was discovered in the centre of Doncaster during an excavation at St Sepulchre Gate in 1976, this piece has been dated to the late upper palaeolithic period, circa 10,000 – 7,500 BC. In addition to this, other similar finds have been unearthed at Rossington, Bawtry and Hatfield Woodhouse.

The next, more recent era, is the Mesolithic (or middle stone-age) period, circa 7,500 – 4,000 BC. During this period the landscape is beginning to repair itself. It is being transformed from a treeless icy landscape to a more wooded one, this, in turn, increased the potential for human habitation as plant and animal sources grew stronger. Mesolithic groups would have made good use of this transition, following grazing animals during the warmer months and moving to coastal hunting grounds as winter set in. The fact that these settlers led such a nomadic lifestyle means the evidence of their presence is sometimes a little hard to find, that said, there is evidence of a camp/settlement in the Don Gorge between Sprotbrough and Conisborough.

The New Stone-age ( neolithic) period, 4,400 – 2,500 BC,  was characterised by the introduction of farming and a synthetic changing of the landscape, by this I mean ‘Long Barrows’. These are large burial mounds, two of which have been discovered and identified at Sprotbrough and Melton Warren at the west side of Doncaster. Although evidence of this period is extremely scarce in South Yorkshire, Doncaster has found other sites with a concentration of neolithic flint tools.

Flint tools were great and in many ways essential for the lifestyle back then, but technology advances and new and better ways of doing things are sought. Introducing, the Bronze-age. circa 2,500 – 800 BC.

The Bronze-age saw the introduction of copper and bronze working, which is great news for the modern archaeologist as extremely well preserved metal axe and spearheads have been found around Doncaster. Although this was a revolution of its time, manufacture of these implements was a highly skilled trade and so not everyone had the knowledge, or indeed the ability to create them. This is evidenced by a find from St Sepulchre Gate where a bronze age flint dagger was uncovered, illustrating the fact that older tools were still very much in use during a time when better technologies were available. Just because Ferrari’s are available doesn’t mean I am in a position to trade in my Toyota! The way we cared for the deceased was evolving too, we were moving away from burials and towards the  cremation of remains. Thanks to this change a number of cremation urns have been discoverd in Doncaster helping to build a better picture of our ancestors then. It has been speculated that the natural terrace of ground to the south of the river Don would have provided a suitable site for a cemetery at this time. The first discovery of this type of cremation came in the shape of an urn enearthed from a sandpit in Dockin Hill in 1844, it contained a small cup and an axe head, similar finds have been discovered in St Sepulchre Gate and French Gate.

Finally we arrive at the Iron-age, 800 BC – 43 AD. At this time, South Yorkshire s a whole fell victim to extensive farming like never before. The advent of aerial photography proves this fact very well. From the air we can clearly see the extensive areas of fields and settlements, defined by ditches, enclosures and trackways. The underlying disturbances cause the crops and vegetation to behave differently with bare soil showing different colour shades. We can confidently date these forms to that of the Iron-age by analysing their shapes and comparing them to other, similar archaeological excavations. We can also date these by looking at the terrain and what is happening below ground. Overlying evidence, i.e. a Roman road might cut across a rectangular enclosure thus identifying it as pre-Roman.

By the late Iron-age, Doncaster was in a pretty strategic position geographically, lying right on the border between the tribal groupings of the Brigantes to the north and the Corieltauvi to the south, in fact it is likely that the boundary line was the River Don. There was a ford across the Don very near the present site of Doncaster at this time making the crossing point an extremely important place for both tribes. All that said, when it comes to evidence of Iron-age habitation of Doncaster, there is surprisingly very little, the two main discoveries are the town ditch and a section of wattle fence that were unearthed during excavations on the north side of Hall Gate during 2003.