The Iron Age
What sources do we have to inform our views of this period of history? Sadly, what little written information exists is second and third hand, the Romans commenting on what they found in Britain, and what had gone before. So it is from archaeology that we derive most data.
This archaeological evidence, however, provides a limited and selective picture. Most building was based on wood and thatch, so is long gone (though postholes and other signs of habitations have endured). The greatest amount of structural evidence is in the form of hill-forts, something apart from the mainly agrarian society in the lowlands with few centres of population. In a society far from blessed with material riches not much was thrown away for us to find in ancient dumps, limiting our knowledge of everyday life – re-use of pots even when smashed, say as part of a wall, means everyday items are rare. And the objects found in burials and that were thrown into rivers and bogs as offerings give a distorted view, coming from those at the top of the social scale.
Nevertheless we can piece together, with much guesswork and surmising, a narrative of Iron Age Britain. This narrative changes over time radically, as would be expected of such a lengthy period. From basic iron tools at the outset craftsmanship and technology by the end produced magnificent artefacts such as the silver and gold torque found at Snettisham in Norfolk . Hill forts like that at Old Oswestry in Shropshire show how capabilities progressed: wood huts followed by stone buildings, the earthworks and banks becoming more complex as time passed.
Who were the people of the Iron Age? Largely it seems they were Celts, originally from Central Europe, who settled in large numbers in Britain having moved across the continent. But others such as the Belgic tribes who settled parts of Southern England in the century or so before the Roman invasion were also part of the Iron Age population here.
The ingress of the Belgic tribes was one of the factors, among many, that saw a change in the nature of Iron Age society: originally it seems to have been agricultural, with few towns or even villages of note; but as populations grew with agricultural success, so did the pressure on land, made worse by newcomers competing for resources. Thus late in the period centres such as what today is Colchester grew up – Cymbeline, descendent of Belgic invaders, ruled that town as the centre of his holdings.
From what we can tell those working the land, raising sheep and cattle and growing grain crops, were defended by, or exploited by depending on your viewpoint, a warrior elite, headed by kings or chieftains. As the struggle for resources continued so would the building and refining of hill forts, though some suggest they were more symbolic than practical, the equivalent of Loire Chateaux for their age. The same argument is made for Brochs, the circular stone structures found in Northern Scotland (for example the Mousa Broch in Shetland , and Dun Carloway on Lewis).
The development of such an elite would have been a major factor in the development of trade and artistic endeavours. And as the elite developed, so did the drive for more luxurious items: Cymbeline’s Colchester imported wine and oil, for example. As well as minerals Iron Age Britons traded another commodity: people. At the Bigbury Camp hill fort in Kent a slave-gang chain was found, probably used to facilitate transporting captives to sell to the Romans over the channel.
Trade was not just with those nearby either. It is thought that the Phoenicians from the Eastern Mediterranean traded for tin and other minerals with the inhabitants of Cornwall in this period (one legend has it that Cornish Saffron Cake reflects that aromatic being traded by them). Trade may have expanded as the era progressed, but it was something already established in Bronze Age times and earlier. The 12m x 3m oak ferry found at Brig near Hull, probably from around 750BC, was of a size to move wagons or large groups of travellers over the Humber .
That major hordes of coins have been found (for example at Silsden in West Yorkshire ) shows that the economy had moved from barter to exchange by the latter part of the age, and that there were centres of control, power and wealth to institute such a system.
The warrior elite demanded weaponry, and archaeological finds show that swords and daggers were a major import at one phase of the period, later largely supplanted by locally made copies and developments. The standard of craftsmanship can be extraordinary: the Battersea Shield, now displayed at the British Museum (which has a fantastic collection of Iron Age artefacts) is a thing of beauty, as well as practical in combat – its three roundels with glass ‘eyes’ at their centres. The glass markers found at Welwyn Garden City , from some sort of board game, again show the importance of decoration, but in this case as part of a leisure activity – there were those who had leisure therefore; it was a complex society, not merely a hand-to-mouth existence, at least for some.
We are all familiar with Celtic designs, still beloved of craft shoppes throughout the land. But modern over-use should not blind us to the workmanship involved in these swirling geometric patterns. This was a civilisation with great skills to hand. The same sophistication can be seen in some of the great hill forts still possible to visit and explore today: Castle Ring near Rugeley in Staffordshire has five banks and four ditches in its defensive layout; Maiden Castle in Dorset has a complex series of entrances to slow attackers and give defenders time to rally, and the space to rain down stones and arrows on their enemies.
The horse was of great importance to the Celtic elite. It pulled the war chariots such as that found at Danes Grave near Great Driffield on Humberside; and at Stanwick Camp near Piercebridge in North Yorkshire chariot fittings and harnesses again emphasise the significance of such artefacts. The horse was even of significance in the religion of the times, or one aspect of it – the Great Horse at Uffington near Wantage the most visible sign of this carved into the landscape. And the horse even features on Celtic coins, another demonstration of how it was viewed – religiously, martially, socially and economically of great import to the Iron Age elite.
But if the sword and the chariot were elite weapons, what of the common soldier? In defending hill forts we know the sling was very important: at Oldbury Hill near Ightham in Kent, and Maiden Castle in Dorset piles of stones have been found ready by entrances to be used against attackers.
The pressure on land and resources that perhaps led to increasingly frequent conflicts surely had an influence on the change in the hill fort from refuge to settlement: by the first century BC it seems that far more than 1,000 people lived within Herefordshire Beacon’s hill fort in the Malverns ; Clay Hill near Warminster in Wiltshire , a true stronghold at 800 feet, also included huts; and Danebury Ring hill fort near Stockbridge in Hampshire shows that this pre-Iron Age fort eventually housed a full village within its earthworks.
So much for the physical world. What of the spiritual? As could be expected from people of numerous tribes, and cultures developing independently, there is not a uniform religion: in some parts of Britain burning bodies was usual; in others burial (at least for those higher up in society). We know from archaeology that animal sacrifice was not uncommon, but we also find that human sacrifice did take place sometimes: Lindow Man, found in Cheshire but now kept at the British Museum, probably attests to that; and the Danes Grave chariot had two bodies with it, probably a chief and his charioteer killed to drive him to the afterlife.
We are indebted to the aspect of Iron Age religion that seems to have made offerings to the gods by throwing goods into water – rivers (the Battersea Shield), and bogs too – as this has bequeathed us many objects of historical and artistic value.
There were temples and other religious structures built in the Iron Age, though as they used wood we have little to go on ( Hayling Island was the source of one such find). And they were overseen by Druids , the priests of the Celtic cults. Our view of the druids is coloured by Victorian fantasies and plenty of modern ones too, as outdoor worshippers with flowing beards and long white robes. Who knows? We do know, however, from their last stand on Anglesey, that they enjoyed great loyalty from their own people, and were unwilling to bend to the changing times – they believed.
How, lastly, do we picture these Iron Age people? It is thought from various finds that the men wore trousers and cloaks. And they enjoyed trinkets worn at arm and throat, if they had the status to own such things. Intriguingly some believe that tartan designs were part of the look, at least for some, and tattoos.
For recreations or re-imaginings if you will of Iron Age life, Castell Henllys Iron Age Fort in Pembrokeshire (seen on a BBC TV programme reconstructing Iron Age Life) can be visited; so too Butser Ancient Farm near Petersfield in Hampshire, among several others.
Many peoples have come to Britain since the Iron Age – Romans, Saxons , Angles, Danes, Normans , to name but the more ancient incomers. But the Iron Age remains a significant part of our heritage and make-up; our DNA containing Celtic and Belgic genes; our roadways trodden before us by these ancient tribes; our trade links established by them thousands of years ago. They mattered in making who we are today; but just as importantly their eye for beauty and craftsmanship have a place in our culture too. Take some time when you are out and about in the countryside to view one of those Iron Age forts marked on your OS map, and look out at the world as they would have, at least for a short while.
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