Prehistory: Flint Tools, Bronze and Iron

Although the current continuous settlement at Crawley dates only from the Saxon era, there is plenty of evidence of human activity on the site of Crawley from prehistoric times.

Hominids such as homo heidelbergensis, a presumed ancestor of both homo sapiens and homo neanderthalensis, were known to inhabit the general area at least half a million years ago. Fossilised remains of two individuals were discovered at Boxgrove, near Chichester, in 1993 and 1996. Both samples date from about 500,000 years ago, and evidence of habitation by hominids at the Boxgrove site extends back another 200,000 years.

Continuous habitation of the British Isles by anatomically modern humans, however, began only after the end of the last ice age, around 15,000 years ago.

Paleolithic Hunters

For the few thousand years up to the middle ages, the area between the North and South Downs was largely covered by forest. Animals such as deer congregated on the ridges in the forest, and it is at two of these ridges that we find the earliest evidence of human activity on the site of Crawley. Flint tools used by hunters, dating from around 5,000 B.C., have been found on the ridge that runs from Pease Pottage to Horsham, and at Bewbush.

These tools share the characteristics of the ‘Horsham Culture’, which existed for around 2,000 years. The flint came mainly from various flint mines on the South Downs, but also from two local sources:

  • Along Parish Lane in Pease Pottage.
  • By Hogs Hill farm in Southgate.

There is no evidence of any settlement associated with these flint tools. The hunters were presumably nomadic within a relatively limited area, and may have set up seasonal camps in the forest.

Bronze Age Crawley

The earliest direct evidence of permanent settlement in Sussex dates from the late Bronze Age, around 500 B.C., and is associated with the steady arrival of people from mainland Europe.

A bronze sword, dating from around this time, was discovered in Langley Green in 1952. Three Bronze Age burial mounds can still be seen near the contemporaneous ridgeway track that runs between Pease Pottage and Colgate. A fourth burial mound may exist near Ifield Mill pond.

The existence of burial mounds implies a level of political organisation that grew out of permanent settlement, even though no specific evidence for such a settlement has survived.

Iron Age Crawley

Iron production techniques arrived in the British Isles from mainland Europe around 500 B.C.

The raw materials to produce iron were all readily available in the Crawley region:

  • Iron ore existed close to the surface of the ground in the northern part of Sussex.
  • Lime, extracted from the local clay soil or directly from the Downs, is mixed with the iron ore.
  • Charcoal is easily produced in a forest, and its higher temperature when burning results in purer iron than can be obtained through burning wood.
  • Baked clay provides a suitable container for the iron ore during heating.

Many small iron furnaces, known as bloomeries, existed in Southgate and Broadfield. Pottery associated with these sites show that most date from the period of the Roman occupation, although some were older. Other evidence of Iron Age settlement, such as refuse ditches and slag heaps, has been found in Southgate.

Roman Crawley

Although Julius Caesar had mounted two exploratory invasions in 55 and 54 B.C., it wasn’t until A.D. 43 that the Romans permanently settled in Britain. By this time the iron industry had become established in the forest clearings on the site of Crawley.

What the Romans did for Crawley started with the construction of the two main roads that joined the south coast with London: firstly Stane Street, from Chichester, which passes about ten miles west of Crawley, and later the road to Brighton, which passes about six miles to the east. Both roads were easily accessible using the ancient ridgeways. The construction of Roman roads was done by local labour under Roman supervision.

The existence of these roads provided some trade links for the local iron industry, although a good deal of its products would have been for the use of the Roman army and navy. The expansion of the iron industry during the Roman period included at least one substantial building in Southgate, judging by the evidence of roof tiles, although no other traces of this building have survived.

The Roman administration normally sub-contracted control of the domestic population to the local rulers, in this case to those based at Fishbourne near Chichester. At the Crawley iron works, however, they appear to have taken direct control, which is suggestive of the importance of the industry to the occupation.

Pottery from this site dates mainly from the early years of the occupation, which implies that the local iron industry lost its importance to the Romans once the frontier moved further north.

Next: Crawley under the Saxons and Normans