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Archaeology and Early History



The human history of the Dartford area spans more than 400,000 years. During this time there were extreme climatic changes varying from full Ice Age conditions to warm, almost tropical inter-glacial phases producing a rich diversity of landscapes, flora and fauna. At various times animal species as diverse as cave lion, monkey, rhino, straight-tusked elephant, bear, mammoth, deer, elk, lemming and bison frequented the Dartford area.

Three substantial and perfectly matching pieces of the 300,000 year old Swanscombe Skull, found by archaeologists at Barnfield Pit, Craylands Lane, Swanscombe near Dartford in the 1930s and 1950s, are among the oldest human remains ever discovered in Europe. Evidence suggests that Swanscombe Man, actually a woman in her early twenties, represents a slightly primitive form of modern man (Homo sapiens). Dartford’s archaeology reaches back almost to the frontier of human existence in Western Europe. There was a tribe of Clactonian people resident at Swanscombe even earlier than the Swanscombe Man tribe. Thousands of their primitive stone axes have been found in the oldest deposits at Barnfield Pit, Swanscombe.

Archaeologists classify these early peoples on the basis of the tools (artefacts) they made and left behind. Over 100,000 flint artefacts (mainly flint handaxes) were recovered from the Swanscombe site. Hardly anything other than stone tools have survived. Animal bones, teeth and fossilised footprints, as well as snail shells and microscopic pollen grains retrieved from Dartford’s important prehistoric sites provide vital clues as to the flora, fauna, landscape and environmental conditions existing at particular points in time.

Small groups of humans who frequented the Dartford area during prehistoric times generally lived a nomadic lifestyle close to the banks of what would eventually become the River Thames. In those far-off days, the River Thames (a tributary of the River Rhine) was divided into channels separated by gravel and sandy banks. These people were hunter-gatherers who followed herds of wild animals from place-to-place, trapping them at their watering holes.

   Harpooned fish and axe
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Archaeologists divide prehistory into three main sub-divisions, the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic), the Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic) and the New Stone Age (Neolithic). The terms Bronze Age and Iron Age are given to the late periods of prehistory when people discovered how to make metals for the manufacture of tools, jewellery, and domestic utensils.


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   Bronze-Age flint arrowhead
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The first proper farming communities were established in the Dartford area approximately 5,500 years ago during the New Stone Age (Neolithic). The adoption of new farming methods meant that people were no longer totally dependent on hunting for their daily food and long-term survival; they could now enjoy a more settled existence and plan their farming programme. Forests and woods were cleared to create small fields. Crops were cultivated, and domesticated animals reared. Axes, hoes and rakes were made using flint, wood, leather and animal bone. Tools made during the Neolithic era show a high standard of workmanship. The hunting of animals continued alongside farming activities. A number of finely worked Neolithic arrowheads have been found close to the centre of modern-day Dartford. There are indicators that a Neolithic settlement existed in the valley of the Ebbsfleet, a stream which flows into the River Thames at Northfleet east of Dartford. Pieces of pottery retrieved from this site appear to be related to the Peterborough phase of Neolithic culture.



The first metal users came to England from Brittany and the Rhine area about 1,900 B.C. They are known as Beaker People because of the distinctive beaker-shaped pots they used. Bronze was the first metal to be made. It was a precious and expensive commodity used for the manufacture of knives, swords, daggers, bowls and jewellery. Gold was used for the manufacture of luxurious jewellery. Dartford Heath was an important centre of activity during the Bronze Age. Spectacular hoards of gold brooches and bronze axes have been found in this part of Dartford.


   Hulbury billhook
Click to enlarge


Iron Age settlers reached England from the seventh to the first centuries B.C. Iron Age pottery, agricultural implements and brooches have been found in and around the Dartford area. There was a significant Iron Age village site at Farningham just along the Darent Valley from Dartford, and another settlement consisting of two hut circles at Stone to the east of Dartford. Deposits of Iron Age pottery have been found at West Hill, Dartford.


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Dartford may be described as an accident of geography. There might not have been any settlement at all at Dartford had it not been for the fact that the Romans built a military road from London to the Kent coast, and that road had to cross the River Darent by means of a ford. The rich soils of the Darent Valley also attracted the Romans and their villa estates, which produced corn to feed the inhabitants of London (Londinium) the Roman capital of the island of Britannia.

As early as 55 and 54 B.C. Julius Caesar led two military expeditions across the English Channel with the intention of invading the island of Britannia. He faced fierce opposition from the Kentish native tribes. Caesar was assassinated in 46 B.C. The Emperor Claudius, sent another invasion force to Britain in the year A.D. 43. This time the Kentish tribes were defeated in the Battle of the Medway and the Roman invaders quickly gained control despite opposition from Queen Boudicca and the Iceni tribe.

The Roman occupation of Britain was to last nearly four centuries, during which time the daily lives of the native population were transformed. The Romans introduced many new ideas, new inventions, a whole new system of administration and law, roads, towns, villa estates, new methods of farming and economic activity. Britain was quickly transformed into a Province of the Roman Empire. So long as Roman administration remained effective, the native population continued to think and act like Romans.

Dartford was in the front line of the Roman conquest of Britain, and for four hundred years almost every aspect of local life was influenced by the thinking and lifestyle of an alien power with its own religions, culture and language. This was the first time in history that Dartford developed as a recognised settlement next to the main London-Kent Roman road (later known as Watling Street).

As previously mentioned, the lush and fertile Darent Valley provided an ideal venue for some of the largest and most important villa estates in the south of England, at Darenth, Lullingstone and Farningham. Important Roman settlements existed between Crayford and Welling (Noviomagus) and at Springhead (Vagniacae) on the borders of modern-day Dartford and Gravesend. Dartford itself was the site of a large and important Roman cemetery (East Hill) and had its own modest Roman villa with another villa sited at nearby Wilmington.

With the slow collapse of the Roman Empire in the late fourth and early fifth centuries A.D., the Romans officially left Britain in 410 A.D. Many of the new ideas and inventions introduced by the Romans were quickly forgotten. Former Roman settlements like Dartford declined in importance, the main Roman roads fell into disuse and disrepair, and the general standard of living was greatly reduced.


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The Anglo-Saxon settlement of Kent began during the first half of the fifth century A.D. Constant warfare between tribes in continental Europe and the flooding of the coast of Holland and North Germany encouraged a number of different ethnic Saxon tribes to flee from their native homelands to seek a better life and more settled conditions. Even before the Romans had left Britain in 410 A.D. groups of Saxons, Jutes and Angles were already moving into prime agricultural areas in southern England and the Midlands.

The first settlers to move into Kent originated from Jutland. The Jutes settled mainly in East Kent. West Kent, including the Dartford area, was settled by Saxon tribes and Frankish people from Germany, Northern France and Belgium. In the early days of migration, the River Medway acted as a dividing line between the Jutish Kingdom of East Kent and the Saxon Kingdom of West Kent. However, over many decades, with intermarriage and trading, the various groups of Saxons lost their individual ethnic culture and traditions and formed one indistinct grouping generally referred to in the history books as Anglo-Saxons.

Little is known about the siting, size and nature of Saxon settlements in and around Dartford. Any traces of their sunken-floored huts made from timber, wattle and thatch have long-since disappeared. A few occupation sites have been identified in the local area, some of these were sited close to former Roman villa sites. Some of the largest or most interesting Saxon cemeteries in Kent have been found in and around Dartford - at Dartford, Riseley (Horton Kirby), Horton Kirby, Darenth, Farningham and Polhill.

In the absence of other archaeological evidence, cemeteries offer conclusive proof that there were people living in and around Dartford in Saxon times. Grave-goods buried with the dead are an important indicator of the status, wealth, culture, beliefs and lifestyle of the population. Most of the archaeological evidence from local sites suggests that there was a significant influx of Saxon settlers into the Dartford area between the fifth and seventh centuries A.D. Surprisingly, there is no firm evidence to suggest that the peace and tranquility established by the Saxons was later broken by Viking invaders who attacked and raided many other settlements throughout the south east - including London.

Small Saxon settlements evolved into larger and more permanent villages as time progressed. The modern-day names of many of the villages around Dartford contain elements characteristic of the Saxon language thus proving that they already existed before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Wilmington, Sutton-at-Hone, Horton Kirby, Farningham, Lullingstone, Eynsford and Swanscombe were all founded in Saxon times. Many local churches (including those at Wilmington, Darenth, Swanscombe, Fawkham and possibly Dartford) show clear evidence of Saxon architecture. Entries in the Domesday Book compiled by the Normans in 1086 demonstrate that the Saxons settlements, which evolved over a period of five hundred years or more, were well administered and organised, with an emphasis on agriculture and animal husbandry.


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