This is the period before written records existed. Man’s progress is studied through the remains of plants, animals and humans. Lithics, stone artefacts and tools are important remains for archaeologists.
The Lower Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) era, 450,000 – 120,000 BC, has remains of hand axes found in the Doniford River gravels. The museum has a selection of these from the A. L. Wedlake collection. They are made from local stone known as chert. These have been made into all-purpose tools used by Homo Heidelbergensis, who is thought to be the predecessor of Homo Neanderthalis.
The Upper Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) era saw the advance of an ice cap between 22,000 – 13,000 BC which lowered temperatures. Trees were eliminated and there was an open landscape of grass and moss. Herd animals such as reindeer, wild horse and mammoth herds thrived and they followed regular seasonal migration routes. During drier periods, Man came into the south of Britain to hunt these animals during the summer months. The Museum has a mammoth tusk and teeth found on the foreshore between Blue Anchor and Kilve, dated to 22,000 BC.
The Mesolithic period (Middle Stone Age), 8,300 – 4,000 BC, marks the beginning of a warmer climate in Europe. Trees were re-colonising the land as water levels rose due to melting of the great ice sheets. The larger animals moved north and smaller animals such as wild pig, deer, auroch and elk moved into the newly-wooded terrain.
Mesolithic Man began to move in to hunt in the woods in small groups. Evidence has been found of a new stone toll industry. The microliths – small blades that were attached to arrow shafts – themselves a new invention, are represented in the Wedlake collection in the Museum. In 1942, the late Mesolithic site at Hawcombe Bay near Porlock was excavated. It has been interpreted as a hunting camp sited above Porlock Bay which would have been a marshy estuary at that time.
The Neolithic period (New Stone Age), 4,000 – 2,000 BC, sees examples of flint tools as Man began to domesticate some of the animals formerly hunted. Leaf-shaped arrowheads and disc-shaped scrapers are in the museum collection. It is thought that crops were grown and pottery made and settlements were seasonal.
Ritual monuments from this time can be found and the nearest to Watchet are the cist of the Brendon Hills and the stone circles on Exmoor. Their purpose is a cause of considerable debate.
The Bronze Age climate was warmer still and rainfall rose to present levels. Hunting and seasonal settlement continued. Ritual monuments are represented by the barrows found on North Hill, Minehead, and the hills of the Quantocks, Brendons and Exmoor. Barbed and tanged flint arrowheads from this time are in the Museum collection.
Peat bogs began to form on the higher ground and people moved into lower areas. Settlements were more permanent in defendable locations. The Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age.
A replica Palstave Bronze Age axe on display at the museum.