The history of Norfolk is the history of Britain. When humans arrived on these isles, they made their first steps in Norfolk. The earliest footprints in the country are in Happisburgh, and date to around 900,000 years. Back then, Britain was connected to the continent by a land bridge. Familiar species such as red deer and bison followed less familiar species such as tarpan, aurochs, and even mammoths, in search of new pasture. In turn, they were followed by humans.

Our work at sites such as Tasburgh Enclousure (above), Bloodgate Hillfort (South Creake), and Caistor St Edmund shows thriving local cultures in Norfolk from the Neolithic onwards. By this time, the mammoths were extinct, and the tarpan and aurochs were domesticated horses and cattle. Doggerland had long since subsided under the waves, and these settlers arrived by boat across the North Sea. It is noticeable that several of our sites, such as Caistor St Edmund and most obviously Tasburgh, as well as Arminghall, sit along the River Tas; at the end of the Stone Age, it ran into an estuary that spanned most of the North Norfolk coast. This would have made the Tas (below at Caistor Roman Town) readily accessible for settlers coming from continental Europe.

Bridge at Caistor Roman Town crossing River Tas

Around 1500 BC, during the Bronze Age, we see the emergence of structures in Norfolk that imply settlement. These include hearths at Snetterton, and barrows at sites such as Kelling and Salthouse. By the beginning of the Iron Age, around 700 BC, these small swellings had expanded into giant structures. Our hillfort at Bloodgate is part of a string of six fortifications, which stretch across the county. Excavations at Bloodgate suggest layered fortifications up to 4m deep and 200m wide (below), with the fort itself being barricaded by wooden palisades and bisected by walkways. But equally as interesting is what these sites haven’t revealed: there is vey little evidence of human settlement in them, at least as long-term habitations. This suggests they were most likely defensive, or possibly even sites of religious significance. Nor was their significance confined to prehistory: sites such as Caistor St Edmund were still in use by native Britons when the Romans arrived; Fiddler’s Hill was still a site of religious veneration, and continued to be so possibly into the Middle Ages.

Aerial photograph of Bloodgate Hill Fort

In fact, the Romans may have actively tried to integrate local beliefs with the ones they brought. One of the most prominent buildings at Casitor St Edmund was the Temple of Neptune, and figurines have been unearthed nearby that predate the Roman settlement, depicting a local water-based deity. This was an extremely common practice among the Roman Empire: co-opting a local deity, to assimilate the natives more easily. Even before the arrival of the Romans, however, we can see trade between Norfolk and mainland Europe. The best example of this is the pottery unearthed at these sites. In Norfolk, the pottery that demarcates the Bronze Age is known as Beaker Ware, a form of pottery characterised by comb-impressed geometric decoration, which originated in the Central European steppes. In the Iron Age, these were gradually replaced by Belgic and Gallo-Belgic wares. These consisted of a variety of innovative techniques, such as cordoned jars, butt beakers, and black wares most likely made with charcoal. More notably, as their name suggests, they were traded from Gaul and Belgium. Our modern society is not uniquely connected; in the ancient world, there was just as much outreach and exchange between people. Our archaeological work has shown that Norfolk has always been one of Europe’s most important stepping-stones. It has always been a touchpoint for the flow of people and culture between Britain and mainland Europe.