British Iron Age

British Iron Age

In Britain and Ireland the Iron Age lasted from about the 7th century BC until the Roman conquest and until the 5th century in non-Romanised parts such as Scotland and Ireland. This period is also called the era of "Celtic Britain"cite web
title=Celtic Britain (The Iron Age) c. 600 BC - 50 AD
] , as opposed to Roman Britain or the later Anglo-Saxon England. Attempts to understand the human behaviour of the period have traditionally focused on the geographic position of the islands and their landscape, along with the channels of influence coming from continental Europe.

During the later Bronze Age there are indications of new ideas influencing land use and settlement. Extensive field systems, now called Celtic fields, were being set out and settlements becoming more permanent and focused on better exploitation of the land. The central organisation to undertake this had been present since the Neolithic period but it was now being targeted at economic and social goals and in taming the landscape rather than in building large ceremonial structures such as Stonehenge. Long ditches, some many miles in length, were dug with enclosures placed at their ends. These are thought to indicate territorial borders and a desire to increase control over wide areas.

By the 8th century BC, there is increasing evidence of Great Britain being closely tied to continental Europe especially in the south and east. New weapon types appeared with clear parallels to those on the continent such as the Carp's tongue sword, complex examples of which are found all over Atlantic Europe. Phoenician traders probably began visiting some of the British Isles in search of minerals around this time, bringing with them goods from the Mediterranean. At the same time, northern European artefact types reached eastern Great Britain in large quantities from across the North Sea.

Within this context, the climate became considerably wetter forcing the Bronze Age farmsteads which had grown on upland areas relocate to lowland sites.

The people of Iron Age Great Britain

The Roman historian Tacitus described the Britons as being descended from people who had arrived from the continent (which at that time was dominated by the Celts), comparing the Caledonians in modern-day Scotland to their Germanic neighbours, the Silures of southern Wales to Iberian settlers and the inhabitants of south east "Britannia" to Gaulish tribes. This migrationist view long informed later views of the origins of the British Iron Age and indeed the making of the modern nations. Linguistic evidence inferred from the surviving Celtic languages in northern and western Great Britain appeared to back this idea up and the changes in material culture which archaeologists observed during later prehistory were routinely ascribed to a new wave of invaders.

By the 1960s this view had fallen from favour as it was argued that changes in language and artefact types could not necessarily be attributed to large, long distance population movements. Ideas can be transported more easily than people and can account for many changes in the archaeological record. The numerous finds of swords and other weaponry were originally attributed to a warlike society but are now interpreted as items of social status, perhaps given as diplomatic gifts between tribes.

There was certainly a large migration of people from central Europe westwards during the early Iron Age but whether or not people from this movement actually reached Great Britain in significant enough numbers to constitute an invasion is in question. The arrival in Kent of the Belgae in the 1st century BC still requires explanation under any non-invasionist theory however.

Population estimates vary but the number of people in Iron Age Great Britain could have been three or four million by 150 BC with most concentrated densely in the agricultural lands of the south. Settlement density and a land shortage may have contributed to rising tensions during the period.

Between c. 400 and 100 BC there is evidence of emerging regional identities and a significant population increase. Early in the Iron Age, the widespread Wessex pottery of southern Great Britain such as the type style from All Cannings Cross may suggest a consolidated socio-economic group in the region. However, by 600 BC this appears to have broken down into differing sub-groups with their own pottery styles.

Archaeological evidence

Defensive structures dating from this time are often impressive, for example the brochs of northern Scotland and the hill forts that dotted the rest of the islands. Examples of hill forts include Maiden Castle, Dorset and Danebury in Hampshire. Hill forts first appeared in Wessex between 550 and 400 BC in a simple univallate form and often connected with the earlier enclosures attached to the long ditch systems. Few hill forts have been substantially excavated in the modern era, Danebury being a notable exception but it appears that they were used for domestic purposes with examples of food storage, industry and occupation being found within their earthworks. They may have been only occupied intermittently however as it is difficult to reconcile permanently occupied hill forts with the lowland farmsteads and their roundhouses found during the twentieth century such as at Little Woodbury and Rispain Camp.

The presence of hill forts is possibly because of greater tension between better structured groups, although there are suggestions that in the latter phases of the Iron Age they existed simply to indicate wealth. Alternatively, they may have served as wider centres used for markets and social contact. Either way, during the Roman occupation the evidence suggests that as defensive structures they proved to be of little use against concerted Roman attack. Some continued as settlements for the newly conquered Britons. Some were also reused by later cultures, such as the Saxons, in the early Medieval period.

Ptolemy's Albion

Claudius Ptolemy described Iron Age Britain at the beginning of Roman rule, but incorporating material from earlier sources. ["Geography", Book II, Chapter II, on "Albion".]

Tribes & cities
* Novantae
** Locopibia
** Rerigonium
* Selgovae
** Carbantorigum
** Uxellum
** Corda
** TrimontiumRivers
* Longus
* Itis
* Navarus
* AbravanusForestsPromontories
* NovantarumBays & estuaries
* RerigoniusIslands

Iron Age beliefs in Great Britain

The Romans recorded a variety of deities worshipped by the people of north western Europe. Barry Cunliffe perceives a division between one group of gods relating to masculinity, the sky and individual tribes and a second, female group of goddesses with associations with fertility, the earth and a universality that transcended tribal differences. Wells and springs had female, divine links exemplified by the goddess Sulis worshipped at Bath. Julius Cæsar wrote of superstition playing a strong role in Gaulish religion and this is likely to have been mirrored in Great Britain.

Religious practices revolved around offerings and sacrifices, sometimes human but more often involving ritual slaughter of animals or the deposition of metalwork, especially war booty. Weapons and horse trappings have been found in the bog at Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey and are interpreted as votive offerings cast into a lake. Numerous weapons have also been recovered from rivers especially the Thames but also the Trent and Tyne. Some buried hoards of jewellery are interpreted as gifts to the earth gods.

Disused grain storage pits and the ends of ditches have also produced what appear to be deliberately placed deposits including a preference for burials of horses, dogs and ravens. The bodies were often mutilated and some human finds at the bottom of pits such as those found at Danebury may have had a ritual aspect.

The priesthood of this religion was the Druids. Caesar's texts tell us that they were a religious elite with considerable holy and secular powers. Great Britain appears to have been the seat of the Druidic religion and Tacitus' account of the later raid on Anglesey led by Suetonius Paulinus gives some indication of its nature. No archaeological evidence survives of Druidry although a number of burials made with ritual trappings and found in Kent may suggest a religious character to the subjects.

Overall the traditional view is that religion was practised in natural settings in the open air. Several sites interpreted as Iron Age shrines however seem to contradict this view which may derive from Victorian and later Celtic romanticism. Sites such as at Hayling Island in Hampshire and that found during construction work at Heathrow airport are interpreted as purpose-built shrines. The Hayling Island example was a circular wooden building set within a rectangular precinct and was rebuilt in stone as a Romano-British temple in the first century AD to the same plan. The Heathrow temple was a small cella surrounded by a ring of postholes thought to have formed an ambulatory which is very similar to Romano-Celtic temples found elsewhere in Europe.

Death in Iron Age Great Britain seems to have produced different behaviours in different regions. Cremation was a method of disposing of the dead although the chariot burials and other inhumations of the Arras culture of East Yorkshire, and the cist burials of Cornwall, demonstrate that it was not ubiquitous. In fact, the general dearth of excavated Iron Age burials makes drawing conclusions difficult. Excarnation has been suggested as a reason for the lack of burial evidence with the remains of the dead being dispersed either naturally or through human agency.

The economy of Iron Age Great Britain

Trade links developed in the Bronze Age and beforehand provided Great Britain with numerous examples of continental craftsmanship. Swords especially were imported, copied and often improved upon by the natives. Early in the period Hallstat slashing swords and daggers were a significant import although by the mid sixth century the volume of goods arriving seems to have declined, possibly due to more profitable trade centres appearing in the Mediterranean. La Tène culture items (usually associated with the Celts) appeared in later centuries and again these were adopted and adapted with alacrity by the locals.

There also appears to have been a collapse in the bronze trade during the early Iron Age, evidenced by the increase in buried hoards which may have been an attempt to control the supply of the material.

Exports certainly included British weaponry which has been found on the continent although this may represent the diplomatic links discussed above. Hengistbury Head in Dorset had a large natural harbour that was an important port for the import and export of goods with the Roman world. The products which Strabo, the Greek geographer recorded describe Great Britain as providing "grain, cattle, gold silver, iron, hides, slaves and hunting dogs" [A History of Britain, Richard Dargie (2007), p. 17] .

Tens of thousands of coins from the Iron Age have been found in Great Britain. Some, such as gold staters, were imported from mainland Europe, others such as the potins of south east England were crude copies of Greek and Roman originals. The British tribal kings also adopted the continental habit of putting their names on the coins they had minted. A native quarter stater entered circulation in the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age. Hoards of Iron Age coins include the Silsden Hoard in West Yorkshire found in 1998. Of examples that were entirely minted locally a large hoard from the Corieltauvi tribe was found in Leicestershire in 2002.

The end of Iron Age in Great Britain

Historically speaking, the Iron Age in southern Great Britain ended with the Roman invasion. In areas where Roman rule was not strong or was non-existent, Iron Age beliefs and practices continued for centuries. Even in southern England, earlier place names survived indicating that Latin ways had not entirely removed the pre-Roman culture.


ee also

* Iron Age tribes in Britain

External links

* [ A site with a focus on Iron Age Britain] from

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