Although Colchester is well-known for its important Roman remains, there is evidence for human activity in this area many millennia earlier.
Colchester's early prehistory includes finds of handaxes, flint flakes and cores which date from around half a million years ago. Pollen cores from Marks Tey provide evidence for the end of the Anglian glaciation some 0.42 million years ago, and form the most complete pollen sequence for this period in Britain. Here, a lake formed on top of deposits left by the retreating ice. At the bottom of this lake, sediments containing the pollen of plans and trees accumulated. Analysis of this pollen and the identification of plant and tree species has allowed the reconstruction of the environment at the end of the Anglian glaciation.
Artefacts dating from the Palaeolithic have been found in and around Colchester since the late 19th century, and handaxes, perhaps the most characteristic artefacts of this period, have been found at several sites across the Borough.
By the Neolithic period communities were cultivating cereals, rearing domesticated livestock and producing pottery and had adopted a more settled way of life. In and around Colchester there is limited evidence for activity dating from this period, with most evidence taking the form of surface finds of individual objects such as axeheads. However, excavations at Culver Street in the 1980s and more recently at Colchester Garrison Urban Village revealed Neolithic pits which may relate to nearby occupation sites.
The Bronze Age is represented in the archaeological record by Early Bronze Age flint tools including knives and arrowheads, and later finds such as bronze palstaves and axeheads. There are also several spectacular Bronze Age finds from the area around Colchester including a large Middle Bronze Age cauldron found at Sheepen and a Late Bronze Age sword found on the foreshore at East Mersea. There are also several later Bronze Age barrow cemeteries around Colchester, some of which have been excavated.
The Iron Age is an important period in Colchester's past as it sees Colchester's emergence as a tribal capital known as Camulodunun (later Latinised as Camolodunum). By the Late Iron Age the influence of the Roman world can be seen in and around Colchester as Roman pottery including amphorae and tableware starts to appear. Several high-status Iron Age burials have been excavated, for example at Lexden and Stanway, which clearly demonstrate the desire amongst the elite to adopt Roman customs and to acquire high status objects from the Roman world.