When you are next standing in the baggage check-in at Heathrow Airport spare a thought for those who have been there before you, the people who inhabited the landscape of the Terminal 5 site in the ancient and recent past.
As long ago as 500,000 BC hunters using stone tools moved across the Heathrow landscape but the evidence for this amounts only a handful of worked flints and the odd animal bone. By about 8,000 BC Mesolithic people were visiting the area, perhaps only in certain seasons. The landscape of this period was covered by large forests interrupted by small clearings. By a bend in a stream these people dug a group of pits and filled them with flint tools and burnt offerings during ritual ceremonies that brought together the inhabitants of the surrounding areas to negotiate access to the resources needed for everyday survival. This meeting place remained an important location.
By the Neolithic period our picture of human activity at Heathrow changes. The forests were cleared and pottery was made for the first time. Monuments of earth and timber dominated the Neolithic landscape. The most impressive of these is the Stanwell Cursus, which stretched for almost four kilometres, cutting across the Mesolithic pits. The cursus may have been a processional route or a barrier dividing the river floodplain from the higher land. The people living in the area came together here to both build the monument and to celebrate communal ceremonies at important times in the solar calendar. Later in the Neolithic smaller linear and circular monuments were probably used for similar ceremonies involving smaller groups of people. These special locations brought families together as communities to make agreements over land, food and water in a landscape that was gradually being tamed and divided. The monuments remained important locations even when they had grown old and derelict.
By 1,000 BC the landscape of monuments had been transformed into stretches of farmland divided by ditches and hedges, similar to our modern rural settings. The Bronze Age farmers dug waterholes for their livestock, and votive offerings of wood and pottery have been preserved in these waterlogged deposits. The farmers lived in family groups in small hamlets and created trackways to reach their fields and animals. The small settlements were eventually deserted and the Iron Age descendants of the Bronze Age farmers built a large single settlement of roundhouses where they lived as a community. The Iron Age inhabitants did not own or use expensive materials but may have been wealthy in their own terms – land, animals and crops. The descendants of the Iron Age settlement continued to farm the land during the early Roman period, their customs and routines initially unaffected by the Roman conquest. But eventually the changes brought about by Roman rule and administration altered this rural community and, by about 200-300 AD, the pattern of fields and tracks that had survived from the Bronze Age were replaced by large droveways designed to drive livestock to distant market towns. The Heathrow inhabitants had lived for thousands of years within the narrow confines of the local landscape but were now focussing on a wider world.
Although the Heathrow landscape is covered in the traces of medieval field systems, few traces of medieval structures remain. A complex of farm buildings and animal enclosures was occupied between the 12th to 15th centuries AD, but the people farming this land had no memory of the meaning of the Neolithic monuments, which were still visible in places. But some of the medieval field boundaries echo the pattern of the Bronze Age field systems, perhaps because the hedgerows had been maintained over the millennia.
Despite hundreds of years of modification of the location of the new Terminal 5 complex, there are elements of continuity that survive in the landscape, giving the past and present inhabitants of this area a bond of shared history.