The Harlow area has been occupied since the Late Palaeolithic period (c. 12,000 - 10,000 BC). However, the evidence from the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic (10,000 - 3,500 BC) and Neolithic (3,500 - 2,000 BC) periods consists only of scattered flint flakes and tools. The Bronze Age (2,000 - 600 BC) is better represented, by a line of burial sites along the southern bank of the River Stort, including a group of eight burial urns at the temple site. In the Iron Age (600 BC - AD 43), Harlow lay on the tribal boundary between the Catuvellauni in Hertfordshire and the Trinovantes in Essex. At the temple hill there were two roundhouses of mid to late Iron Age date and numerous Iron Age coins, small finds and animal bones. The quantity and pattern of distribution of the coins, coupled with what appears to have been deliberate damage to the small finds suggests that the site had a religious rather than domestic function. The discovery of coins of a late Iron Age date in the Holbrooks area suggests that the Roman town occupied a pre-existing Late Iron Age site.
Roman Harlow consisted of a temple, which developed from the Iron Age temple, and a widespread area of occupation, interpreted as urban in nature, to the north and east of it. Within this area of occupation there is evidence for both masonry and timber buildings, an internal road-pattern and manufacturing areas, as well as a masonry building which has been variously interpreted as a second temple and a public building. The town seems to have grown in response to the presence of the temple.
The evidence for the Saxon period is lighter, although there is sufficient to indicate settlement within the area. There is a Saxon structure at Harlow Temple, interpreted as a pagan shrine by R. Bartlett (pers. comm.). Saxon pottery and metalwork have also been recovered from the Harlow area. In addition the placenames evidence does suggest a Saxon presence in the area. The area was certainly settled by the end of the Saxon period, indeed it was the centre of the Saxon administrative division known as the Harlow Hundred, which stretched from Roydon to Hallingbury.
Medieval Harlow was a polyfocal settlement and the dominant landowner was the Abbey of St Edmunds in Bury, Suffolk. The oldest part is Harlowbury, which was the manorial centre and there may also have been an early medieval village on this site. The medieval town of Harlow (Old Harlow) is sited to the south-west of Harlowbury on the east-west Hertford to Dunmow road. It grew as a result of the granting of a fair and a market on the site in 1218, although there is some evidence that there had previously been a small settlement and market there in Stephenís reign (1135-54). Abbot Hugh gave the tenants a charter allowing them to hold their tenements Ďas freely as our burgesses of St Edmund and our other burgessesí. However an inquisition held in 1290 concluded that the market tenants were of villein status, even if they paid rent rather than carrying out customary services. To the south-east of Old Harlow and physically distinct from the main urban focus is Churchgate Street where the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin is sited. The medieval economy appears to have been based on the market and the collection and preparation of wool. There is also documentary evidence of potters in Harlow (in the Potter Street area to the south of the medieval town) since the 13th century (Newton and Bibbings 1960), and two kilns dating to c.1500 have been found on Harlow Common.
With the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 the Abbey of St Edmund's ceased to be the major land-holder in the area. There appears to have been a period of depression in the post-medieval period, with the market being held only sporadically; this coincides with a period of encroachment on and further infilling of the market area. However, in contrast to the fortunes of the market, it was during the post-medieval period that Harlow rose to archaeological prominence due to its pottery industry, which was based around Potter Street, Latton Street, and towards Harlow Common, which supplied the bulk of the slipware pottery found in London. Examples of Harlow metropolitan ware have also been found as far afield as New England and Virginia (Noel Hume, 1969 and 1970).
In 1947 the area was designated as the site for Harlow New Town, one of the eight new satellite settlements to be built around London to relieve housing shortage. The New Town boundary enclosed four parishes, Parndon, Netteswell, Latton and Harlow, as well as the Roman Town and Old Harlow, and a number of smaller villages, halls and churches. Frederick Gibberd was appointed planner-architect for the project; his master-plan was completed in 1949 and he was subsequently responsible for much of the housing erected in accordance with it. The New Town was characterised by urban building-types in a rural setting.