British Iron Age
In Britain and
Irelandthe Iron Agelasted 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
accessdate=2007-03-13] , as opposed to
Roman Britainor 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 Agethere are indications of new ideas influencing land useand 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 Neolithicperiod but it was now being targeted at economicand socialgoals 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 Britainbeing 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 mineralsaround this time, bringing with them goods from the Mediterranean. At the same time, northern Europeanartefact types reached eastern Great Britain in large quantities from across the North Sea.
Within this context, the climate became considerably wetter forcing the
Bronze Agefarmsteads which had grown on upland areas relocate to lowland sites.
The people of Iron Age Great Britain
The Roman historian
Tacitusdescribed the Britons as being descended from people who had arrived from the continent (which at that time was dominated by the Celts), comparing the Caledoniansin modern-day Scotlandto their Germanic neighbours, the Siluresof southern Walesto 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 languagesin northern and western Great Britain appeared to back this idea up and the changes in material culture which archaeologists observed during later prehistorywere 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 Europewestwards 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 Kentof the Belgaein 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 Crossmay 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.
Defensive structures dating from this time are often impressive, for example the
brochs of northern Scotlandand the hill forts that dotted the rest of the islands. Examples of hill forts include Maiden Castle, Dorsetand Daneburyin Hampshire. Hill forts first appeared in Wessexbetween 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 Woodburyand 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
Claudius Ptolemydescribed Iron Age Britain at the beginning of Roman rule, but incorporating material from earlier sources. ["Geography", Book II, Chapter II, on "Albion".]Tribes & cities
* NovantarumBays & estuaries
Iron Age beliefs in Great Britain
The Romans recorded a variety of deities worshipped by the people of north western Europe.
Barry Cunliffeperceives 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 Sulisworshipped at Bath. Julius Cæsarwrote 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 Bachon Angleseyand 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
Daneburymay 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 Paulinusgives some indication of its nature. No archaeological evidence survives of Druidry although a number of burials made with ritual trappings and found in Kentmay 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 Islandin Hampshireand that found during construction work at Heathrow airportare 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-Britishtemple in the first century AD to the same plan. The Heathrow temple was a small cellasurrounded by a ring of postholes thought to have formed an ambulatorywhich 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 cultureof 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. Excarnationhas 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
Hallstatslashing 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 cultureitems (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
bronzetrade 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 Headin Dorsethad 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 tribalkings 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 Hoardin West Yorkshirefound in 1998. Of examples that were entirely minted locally a large hoard from the Corieltauvitribe was found in Leicestershirein 2002.
The end of Iron Age in Great Britain
Historically speaking, the
Iron Agein 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 Latinways had not entirely removed the pre-Roman culture.
Iron Age tribes in Britain
* [http://resourcesforhistory.com A site with a focus on Iron Age Britain] from resourcesforhistory.com
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