There is archaeological evidence of human settlement and land use in the area which later became Oxfordshire beginning in the early Neolithic (4,000-3,500 BC). The previous periods, the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, are known only from scattered finds, mostly stone tools. The Neolithic record suggests clearance of woodland, planting of crops and tending of animals, as well as ritual practice. The evidence is largely invisible to the eye, uncovered by excavation, often ahead of development, and particularly in the better-preserved conditions of the Thames floodplain. Types of site characteristic of this period are:
· causewayed enclosures (that at Abingdon yielding some of the earliest evidence, from c.3,500-3,600 BC)
· cursuses, large-scale earthworks, with parallel banks and ditches
· henges, circular ditch and bank enclosing pits or timber structures, with three known in Oxfordshire
· stone circles, including the Rollright Stones of c.2,000BC
· long barrows, chambered burial mounds, particularly in the Cotswolds and Berkshire Downs
· house sites. Evidence is rare but discoveries at Yarnton are thought to date from the early Neolithic
From the Bronze Age we find continuing evidence of settlement and farming, and also of burial and trade. Characteristic are:
· small cemeteries surrounded by a ring ditch and sometimes covered by a round barrow
· major, long-distance routeways through Oxfordshire, notably the Ridgeway and Icknield Way
· The White Horse hill figure at Uffington, now dated to c.1,000BC
A list of major Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in Oxfordshire can be viewed here and the full Solent Thames Research Framework - Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Oxfordshire can be viewed at STRF Neolithic and early bronze age.
Iron Age Oxfordshire
Iron Age Oxfordshire saw significant changes. In the early Iron Age (c.800- 300BC) settlements became larger, and wooden, thatched roundhouses between 8 and 15 metres in diameter the standard domestic structure. Wheat and barley were grown, and cattle and sheep kept. The development of settlements in the valleys of the Thames and its tributaries are best known but numerous cropmark sites in northern Oxfordshire confirm settlement there also. A rare Middle Iron Age cemetery has been excavated at Yarnton. Hillforts are also characteristic of Iron Age Oxfordshire, only one, Swalcliffe, showing signs of settlement. The Late Iron Age saw major changes. Roundhouses and storage pits are no longer used, pottery types change, and coinage (with the first written words) appears. Flooding forced the abandonment of many settlements on the floodplain and lower terraces. Large ditches and ramparts around settlements, called oppida, appear at this time. So did large dyke systems, including Aves Ditch and the north Oxfordshire Grim’s Ditch, which covers some 8800 hectares just east of the river Evenlode, and is of unknown significance.