Virtual tour - Ice Age to Iron Age

Take a virtual tour of the Great North Museum's permanent gallery Ice Age to Iron Age

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Imagine a world without electronics, machines or writing, a world without towns and cities, airports or roads. Imagine a world where people work with bone and wood and antler, hides and plant fibres, stone and flint. Moving on foot or in small boats. Imagine a Britain inhabited by many small communities which, over thousands of years pursued many different ways of life.

The Ice Age to Iron Age gallery at the Great North Museum explores how these ways of life changed in Northern England over a period of ten thousand years.

From hunters to farmers

In the Mesolithic, from around 10,000 BC, people fished, hunted animals and gathered wild crops. They lived mobile lives but returned to some of the same places repeatedly. In the Neolithic, from around 4,000 BC, the farming of cereal crops and cattle, pig, sheep and goats was introduced from the continent along with the use of pottery. 

Many communities built houses and tombs from either wood or stone and gathering places were marked out by ditches and banks, or arrangements of wooden posts or standing stones.

Change in the Bronze Age

At the end of the Neolithic around 2,500 BC, at a time of significant interaction across Europe, people made gold and copper ornaments and copper tools and fine Beaker pottery. By 2,200 copper tools were replaced by bronze. The dead were buried in new formalised ways with carefully selected objects and burial grounds were often covered by round barrows or cairns.

We have little evidence for early Bronze Age habitation and by contrast, in the later Bronze Age people built round houses in small clusters and sometimes raised formal field boundaries, but built fewer burial monuments. As well as axes and daggers, bronze was now cast into swords, spearheads and shields. 

After 700 BC, iron replaced bronze as the metal for making tools, radically changing the availability of metalwork because iron ores are far more evenly distributed and plentiful.

The science of the past

Although this all happened thousands of years ago, our understanding of life in Prehistory changes all the time as new approaches are developed. Archaeologists examine artefacts and human remains and analyse excavation reports from the sites where they were found, while radiocarbon dating repeatedly refines our ability to trace sequences of change.

DNA from prehistoric human remains now allows us to assess how closely people were related to those living nearby or further afield in preceding periods, further helping us trace changing interaction between communities. Analysing the chemistry of bones and teeth can help us understand the kinds of foods people ate and even how much they moved around during their lives.

Through such work we move closer to a history of prehistoric Britain, detecting variation and change within each period and building evermore detailed pictures of people's lived experiences and their identities. Collections like these are crucial in preserving the remains of the past so this exciting research can continue.

Continue your journey

Click on the links below to take another virtual tour.