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A Crash Course in Bristol History #2: Prehistory, Iron Age, Romans, & Saxons

November 5, 2019


Archaeological evidence suggests there was
settlement in what is now Bristol around 60,000 years ago. Then, as now, the River Avon ran through the
area. From the Indus River Valley civilisation to
Ancient Egypt, all of the oldest examples of human civilisation we have began around
river beds. Bristol is no different. Hence, it should probably come as no surprise
to discover that these 60,000 year old artefacts were found at Pill, St. Anne’s, and Shirehampton. Places which are all right next to the River
Avon. We don’t know much — or anything — about
what Bristol was like during this period. Though, we can assume that — much like the
rest of humanity — Bristolians would have been hunter-gatherers until the Agricultural
Revolution 15,000 years ago. In my video on the prehistory of Mexico, I
explain that the Agricultural Revolution was the moment when humans stopped travelling
from place to place and starting farming stuff. In other words, for humanity, the Agricultural
Revolution marks the moment when people stopped being backpacking, hipster nomads and started
settling down.We can also assume that, much like the rest Britain, Bristolians would have
used stone tools until the Bronze Age which lasted from about 4,000 years ago to about
2,750 years ago.*Iron Age Bristol*After that came the Iron Age which lasted from around
750BC until the Romans took over in 43AD. It’s when the Romans turned up that the
recorded history of Bristol — as well as the recorded history of Britain — really
starts.It’s because of written records from the Romans and a handful of archaeological
finds that we know what Iron Age Bristol would have looked like. One common kind of habitation was a seasonal
stone house. These types of circular homes would have been
built with stone slabs right next to the River Avon and some have been found littered with
pottery and animals bones. Families would have lived in these homes during
the summers months, grazing their livestock on the wetland grasses, and then retreated
elsewhere during the winter as the areas flooded. Evidence for these sorts of settlements exist
along many places on the River Avon and the Severn Estuary — with finds in Wales and
Gloucester as well as Bristol.There is some evidence of rulers of sort during this period
as well. Hillforts around the South West and Bristol
would have been occupied by families with a lot of wealth (relatively speaking). These hillforts were designed to keep outsiders
out and insiders in, but there’s little evidence of any real power struggles between
these different hillforts.*Roman Bristol*When the Romans took over in 43AD, Bristolians
would have switched to a more Roman way of life. What makes Bristol somewhat unique is that
this change appears to have happened relatively peacefully. There are likely many different reasons as
to why this may be. Still, as a Bristolian myself, I like to imagine
that it’s because we’re just so damned chilled out that we didn’t particularly
notice or care that the Romans had taken over. Bristolians today feel much the same way about
the invasion of twenty-something Londoners to our city.Evidence of Roman roads and settlements
are scattered all over modern day Bristol. However, the most notable of these was the
settlement at Abona and Filwood Park. There also would have been villas at what
is now Kingsweston and Brislington.We can’t say all that much about Roman Bristol accept
for that pockets of it had huge amounts of wealth. The Villa in Kingsweston — for example — would
have contained a Roman bath and even had a mosaic floor.Still, a few isolated settlements
around the River Avon is one thing. An actual town with a singular identity is
quite another. The earliest evidence of Bristol being called
“Bristol” doesn’t come from the Romans but from the Saxons who occupied the area
after the Romans left.*Saxon Bristol*The name Bristol is can be traced directly back to
the Old English name Brycgstow which I definitely pronouncing wrong but is now written on the
screen so you can sell how its spelt. It’s because of the fact that this name
looks and sounds so heinous to modern Bristolians that Brycgstow became Bristol. One of the key reasons for this change is
Bristolians’ tendency to add an “l” sound to the end of words. Now, admittedly, this is a very old-fashioned
Bristolian thing to do and I don’t know any Bristolian under the age of 150 who does
it today, but it was once a thing that many Bristolians did. Idea becomes “ideal”, Asda is sometimes
pronounced “Asdalls” and Brycgstow became Bristol.But what did Brycgstow mean? Quite literally, “a place on a bridge”. As in, a town founded on a bridge. What bridge I hear you ask? Why, only the most famous bridge in the whole
city.*image of Clifton Suspension Bridge*Okay… Maybe the second most famous.*image of Bristol
Bridge*That’s right. Bristol Bridge. It’s around here where the city of Bristol
was founded. It may have been on the exact spot where Bristol
Bridge now sits, but we’re not really sure. Still, we know that it would have been around
here somewhere.What’s really cool is that, as of 2017, Bristol Bridge is still something
of a centre to Bristol. What’s also cool (or perhaps a bit weird)
is that — when you think about it — Bristol Bridge really means “place on a bridge”
Bridge.Anyway, in 2017, just a stone’s throw from “place on a bridge” Bridge is St.
Peter’s Church. Situated in what is now called Castle Park,
this church has stood for about thousand years and the city has basically been built around
it. Before it was a church, evidence suggests
that a minster (a type of Saxon government) was founded here around 900AD and — according
to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (one of the best historical records we have on Saxon Britain)
— the Minster of St. Peter’s Church and the town of Bricgstowe were pretty important
for trade.This makes sense geographically, with the River Avon giving Bristolians access
to the River Severn, the Bristol Channel, St. George’s Channel, and even the Atlantic
Ocean. This was great for the people of Bristol who
would have had access to mysterious artefacts from places as far flung as Dublin, Wales,
and even Nottingham.However, it was bad news for the slaves. Men, women, and children from North England,
Wales, and other places would be sold at Bristol because of its unparalleled access to a market
as far away as Ireland. This is roughly when the Slave Trade in Bristol
began. And, sadly, that trade wouldn’t end for
another 800 years.Still, we’re getting far too ahead of ourselves. For now, I want to take a brief moment to
talk about the kind of people the Bristolians were.*Who Are The Bristolians?*In the Anglo
Saxon Chronicle, there is reference to five distinct groups of British people living in
Britain: the English, the Britons, the Scottish, the Pictish, and the Latin. To understand Bristolian history, we only
need to concern ourselves with the Britons. They were also known as the Welsh, or may
have been a separate group to the Welsh, but we’re not sure.What we do know, however,
is that they came from what was then called Amorica and what is now known as the Britanny
Peninsula in France. They settled in what is now Wales (which makes
sense because the Britons were also known as the Welsh) and also across most of the
South West — and some of the mid and North West — of England.The connection between
the Britons and the people of Armorica dates back to before the Roman empire. So, while it’s possible that Britons would
have been living Bristol and the surrounding area before the Roman Empire, it’s hard
to say whether or not they are the descendants of Bristolians today. Did the Britons kick the Romans out of Bristol
and of Britain after Roman rule of Britain ended? Or did the Romans simply assimilate into Briton
culture as the Saxons became the new rulers of Britain and Bristol? And to what extent did the Saxons (the rulers
of the rest of England who came from central Europe after the Roman Empire ended) take
over from the Britons who were there first?The simple answer is: we’re not sure. Historical data is scarce because people didn’t
write enough things down.We’re also not sure whether the people of Briton came from
Armorica or the people or Armorica came from Britain. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle argues the former,
but other sources argue the latter. So there’s something of a chicken and the
egg story going on here. With such a hotpotch of different people settling
and ruling over Bristol, it’s hard to say much for sure about religion. However, based on the age and the significance
of St. Peter’s Church, it’s fair to say that the town had more or less entirely converted
to Christianity from Paganism by about the 10th Century.In the next video, though, religion
will play a much bigger role in the history and the development of the city. In that video, we’ll talk about how Bristol
developed through the Middle Ages and how it — like all of England — was irreversibly
changed by the year 1066. For now, though, thanks for watching.

3 Comments

  • Reply large baguette November 19, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    great video mate

  • Reply kikwoka November 27, 2017 at 9:12 am

    This is really cool! I want to settle down in Bristol – I love it so much. Thanks for showing me the history of it. It's really cool to see all these places I recognise in a video, with their history acknowledged 🙂

    Well written and presented ^^

  • Reply Aaron Chapman March 21, 2019 at 9:43 am

    Cool videos dude, your fellow Bristolian.

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