But every now and again comes a discovery that helps us see them as the humans, much like us, that they really were.
New research has established that a fingerprint left on a 5,000-year-old piece of pottery in Orkney was likely made by a 13-year-old boy.
The shard was discovered at Ness of Brodgar, which was once a substantial complex of monumental buildings where celebrations of important political and celestial events are believed to have taken place.
The print was one of a number left by people of various ages on shards found in the area, which experts believe suggests that the site may have been used to teach pottery to young people.
This theory has also been suggested about similar fingerprints, also left by different age groups, that have been found on Bronze Age pottery in the Levant.
In about 3100 BC – at around the same time as the first bluestones, the smaller standing stones, were being erected at Stonehenge – Ness of Brodgar was home to a major settlement with buildings surrounded by a large stone wall.
Evidence of tiled roofs, coloured walls and numerous examples of decorated stone have been found there, more than hinting at the presence of a relatively advanced civilisation.
But while great monuments built long ago can be impressive, fingerprints left by people teaching and learning a vital, everyday craft feel more emotive, more personal.
And it’s about as close to touching hands with the past as it’s possible to get.