Few things can be more interesting to the traveller than to survey, from some elevated spot, the road by which he has journeyed, and to observe its course as it winds away in the distance and is lost on the horizon. It is an interest of a similar character, only immeasurably greater in degree, which we experience in looking back to the horizon of time and examining the works that remain to us of the earliest civilisation in our land.

The road behind us is dim, and the traces which our far-away fathers have left upon the hills and plains of England are so multitudinous, and yet so little understood, that it is necessary to make use of certain definitions and limitations of the subject, if we are to arrive at any conclusions which shall be at once accurate and intelligible.

First, let us say that for the purposes of this work we use the word “neolithic” as a general term, applicable not only to stones bearing the imprint of a certain style of workmanship, but to all the works done by the earliest men of whose lives we can find traces, and also to the workers themselves. Palæolithic man is below the horizon. {vi}

The human interest of this wider aspect of the subject far transcends the attractions of flints and sherds in a museum. It is true that the chipped or polished surface of the stones, and the outlines of the pottery, not only show manual dexterity, but bear witness to the nature of the life which was led by the workers. This evidence is, however, only subsidiary to the greater testimony of plain and hill.

Next, although the traces of the work done by neolithic man are probably to be found over the greater part of the world, we shall limit ourselves to our own doorstep, where the interest is most immediate.

Even when thus restricted geographically, we find that we are gazing into a profundity of time which is scarcely to be measured in centuries. When we consider that to follow the will-o’-the-wisp which we call progress, is of the essence of man’s contract with things in general, we perceive that it would be unreasonable to regard this vast period as one, or to assume that considerations applicable to one of its epochs will be applicable to all. Again we must limit ourselves.

Two stages only can be defined. Of these the earlier may be called the Hill-period, and the later the Plain-period. The demarcation is fairly distinct, in spite of the fact that the diverse remains of the two periods frequently occur in the same neighbourhood.

The men of the earlier period were earthworkers, those of the later period, stoneworkers. The former {vii} were concerned only with the primitive necessities of life, and their settlements, built of earth, are of the earth, earthy, and the purpose of every part of them is purely utilitarian. The latter, as at Avebury and Stonehenge, built vast sun-temples in the open country, and showed great mechanical skill in moving and setting up the ponderous rocks which now form their monuments.

It is quite otherwise in the Hill-period—that earlier time to which the present work will be limited. On the downs we find that the dominating idea of the hillmen was terror of the plains, which had become habitable in the later period. But, before we may pursue the subject further, we must justify ourselves in daring to describe, even in general terms, a life so far removed from our own.

It is necessary to bear in mind that we are dealing with works which were executed on the downland, and that there, when once the chalk has been scored, or an embankment built, the seal that has been set is imperishable, unless man himself again comes to destroy his own handiwork. In wooded lands the falling and decaying leaves will in time reduce all to the same dead-level; in cultivated land, ploughshare and worm are constantly transforming the surface; in a loose soil the drifting sand will in time fill up the hollows; on the mountain-side the storms and streams destroy, and on the lowlands the floods obliterate the records. But, on the uplands of the downs, man’s {viii} work is practically everlasting. There, the ever-renewed mantle of short, dense turf spreads itself over the surface, moulds itself to every detail, and reproduces in its green outlines the forms which were graven in the white chalk below. Egyptian sand has not been more faithful to its trust; and the English turf has preserved for us the record of a forgotten civilisation, whose works are to be seen, league after league, upon the downs.

We cannot assign a date to these earthworkers of the Hill-period. One of our furthest landmarks in point of time is at Stonehenge, but there we find that the stones are shaped, and morticed and tenoned, though there is no evidence of any metal tool having been used upon them, and we see that the earthworks in connection with the stones of the temple are comparatively insignificant. We are indebted to Sir Norman Lockyer for the fact that we may say with much certainty that the date of Stonehenge is within two hundred years of either side of b.c. 1800.

Avebury, another great temple in a plain, is older, for the stones are unshaped, and the earthworks are immense. We do not know by how much Avebury is the older of the two; but even there, immense though the earthworks are, they seem to have lost their significance as works of defence. The trench and embankment are not in their usual position with regard to one another. The trench is not on the {ix} outside—the side exposed to attack—as it is in all the other works with which we are acquainted, but on the inside, nearest to the temple.

The days of the hill settlements—of the terror of the plains—must be far away from the days when men worshipped on the levels of Avebury. How far back we cannot say; perhaps the time should be measured in thousands of years.

The larger earthworks of this period may be divided into two well-defined forms. First, and most striking in appearance, is the embankment and trench, thus in transverse section:

Cross-section of embankment and trench

This form is generally found at a considerable elevation, on the crest of a hill, and the breastwork was evidently designed as a defence against an enemy who used projectiles.

The second form, less commanding in appearance, is far more frequently to be seen, and is usually at the base of a hill on the edge of a plain. It is not too much to say that in most unploughed valleys running up into the downs we shall find this second form of defence. In the aggregate, hundreds of miles {x} of it must still remain. Here there is no breastwork, but only a simple platform generally constructed thus, as shown in transverse section, and several such platforms are often to be found one above another.

Cross-section of earth platforms, known as shepherd's steps

They vary greatly in size, but very frequently show a rise of sixteen or twenty feet, and have a level platform of twenty to thirty feet in width. In Wiltshire they are sometimes known as “The Shepherd’s Steps.”

They are not a natural formation. They are not neolithic cultivation areas such as may be seen above Eastbourne or near Avebury. They are generally constructed only just above level ground, and without any regard to aspect, but cunningly planned to occupy the most advantageous positions against an enemy advancing from the plain.

But they have no breastwork; they were not designed against a foe who used projectiles. Our fathers laboured upon these platforms, here, there, and everywhere, because of their terror of the plains.

Who was the enemy in the plains? Who was the {xi} foe that used no projectiles, and was best met on the lip of a level platform?

We shall find that the answer to this question is given to us at Poundbury Camp, near Dorchester. Part of the earthworks which form the defences show a combination of the two forms which we have hitherto described, the platform taking the place of the trench, thus in transverse section:

Cross-section of earthworks at Poundbury Camp

Poundbury Camp was the cattle station in connection with the huge encampment called Maiden Castle, with which it is connected by a well-marked neolithic road, and is situated in comparatively open country near Dorchester. We know of no other example of this combination of the two forms of defence, and we infer that it was more especially the herds which had to be protected by the level platforms—against, that is, the foe who used no projectiles, and who lived in the wooded plains.

This foe was the Wolf. The wolf, seeking his prey in the neolithic herds, was the compelling influence which drove man into the uplands, and led him to expend such an infinitude of labour on the “shepherd’s {xii} steps” which mark off the bases of the hills wherever we find the traces of our neolithic forefathers.

These level wolf-platforms were of necessity placed as far away from the camp as possible, to avert the stampeding of the cattle in the night. If the wolves had got near to the cattle-compound, and still more, had a wolf-fight, with its noise and flames, taken place in the immediate neighbourhood of the herds, a stampede would pretty certainly have resulted.

Keeping in mind the grey forms flitting through the night, we can grasp the significance of the other works which we find upon the downs; the secular contest with the wolf furnishes the key to the enigma.

Of all the lesser works upon whose significance we are now able to throw a new light, the most interesting and the most important is the Dew-pond. We have in the text endeavoured to show that certain dew-ponds are neolithic structures, and it is evident that the upland country, devoid as it is alike of streams and springs, would have been uninhabitable by neolithic man had he not been able to secure an artificial supply of water.

He was not the master of a supply from the lowlands—the lowlands were held by the wolf—and all through the winter his herds must needs be kept in camp on the uplands. Without an unfailing supply on the hilltops, life was not possible to him, and perchance there was a time when the habitability of this country depended upon a solution of the problem of securing it. {xiii} The very ingenuity of the means by which he succeeded shows how desperate was the need.

We now give a transverse section of a dew-pond.

Cross-section of a dew-pond

We have in the text discussed the thermo-dynamics of this structure, which, as constructed by neolithic man, could only be successful on the chalk. The subject is a large and important one, and by no means exhausted. As to whether or no there was indeed a time when the habitability of this country depended upon this device—that is as it may be. But we are convinced that the habitability of large tracts in this planet, now desolate, depends to-day upon the adoption of some scientific modification of this neolithic device. Over a thousand sheep may be watered daily at one dew-pond when it is in good working order, and every morning finds it replenished.

We are uncertain as to whether the tumuli and barrows ought to be referred to the Hill-period or the Plain-period. Possibly the barrows belong to the former and the tumuli to the later period. In any case, the wolf dominates even the mode of sepulture which was adopted for the dead. The dead were placed under a mound which was sufficient to protect {xiv} them, and there is also much evidence which goes to show that cremation was widely practised. We beg to acknowledge our indebtedness to the Editor of the Cornhill Magazine for his kind permission to make use of an article which we contributed under the title “Prehistoric Man on the Downs.”

112 Fenchurch Street, E.C.