The European Iron Age C. 800 B.C.–A.D. 400: Introduction

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As citizens living in industrialized societies, it is hard for us to imagine a world without iron. Iron is a part of our everyday lives, from plumbing fixtures to automobiles. The village blacksmith is an almost mythical figure in American folklore, and the iron plow opened the American West to agriculture. Railroad engines were often nicknamed "iron horses." Modern readers may be surprised to learn that iron technology was completely unknown to the builders of the pyramids in ancient Egypt, to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, and to the Harappans of the Indus Valley. The metals used by these ancient civilizations were entirely based on copper and copper alloys such as bronze.

The beginnings of ironworking represented a fundamental technological revolution for ancient Europe. While sources of copper and tin (which form bronze when alloyed together) were rare in prehistoric Europe, iron ores were ubiquitous. The development of technologies for the smelting and forging of iron led to the greater use of metals for everyday tools such as agricultural implements by Late Iron Age times. In addition, the development of iron technology laid the foundations for the modern industrial world.


When the Danish scholar Christian Jürgensen (C. J.) Thomsen developed the initial chronological framework for European prehistory, he defined the Iron Age as a period in which iron replaced bronze for tools and weapons. This definition continues to be used by archaeologists and historians. While the Iron Age in central Europe conventionally is dated between 800 and 1 b.c., the beginning and the end of the Iron Age varied from region to region. Archaeological research has shown that iron was in widespread use in the eastern Mediterranean by 1200 b.c. and that iron technology was established in Greece by 1000 b.c. Ironworking became widespread in central Europe around 800 b.c., but the Iron Age does not begin in Scandinavia until about 500 b.c.

Dating the end of the European Iron Age is equally problematic. Since the Iron Age initially was defined as a chronological period in prehistoric Europe, the term Iron Age usually is not applied to the ancient literate civilizations of Greece and Rome. In the European Mediterranean world, the Iron Age ends with the beginning of Greek literature in the Archaic period (eighth century b.c.) and the beginning of Latin literature in the third century b.c. The term "Iron Age" sometimes is applied to the Etruscans, who were literate but whose writings cannot be deciphered by modern scholars. For most of central and western Europe, the Iron Age ends with the Roman conquest during the last two centuries b.c. and the first century a.d. For example, Gaul, including modern France and Belgium, was conquered by Julius Caesar in the middle of the first century b.c., while southern Britain was incorporated into the Roman Empire in the first century a.d. However, many parts of northern and eastern Europe never came under Roman political domination. In Ireland, the Iron Age ends with the introduction of Christianity and literacy by Saint Patrick in the fifth century a.d. In northeastern Europe, the Iron Age continues through the first half of the first millennium a.d. Although these regions were never part of the Roman Empire, they were not immune from Roman influence. In regions such as Germany, Poland, and southern Scandinavia, Roman trade goods appear in archaeological assemblages dating from the first to the fifth centuries a.d. In addition, many non-Roman barbarians served in the Roman army and were exposed to Roman material culture and the Roman way of life. In northeastern Europe, the period from about a.d. 1–400 is termed the Roman Iron Age.

Since the late nineteenth century, the central European Iron Age has been divided into two sequential periods named after important archaeological sites. The earlier period (c. 800–480 b.c.) is known as the Hallstatt period. The later period (c. 480–1 b.c.) is known as the La Tène period and is characterized by a very distinctive style of decoration on metalwork. During the La Tène period, both archaeological and historical information can be used to reconstruct the Late Iron Age ways of life. Archaeological data provide valuable evidence for settlement patterns, subsistence practices, and technological innovations. Late Iron Age peoples also appear in Greek and Roman texts such as historical and geographical works. While the classical authors must be read with caution, these ancient texts do provide some information on social and political organization. The availability of both historical and archaeological information has allowed archaeologists to develop a very rich and detailed picture of Late Iron Age life in Europe.


While the traditional definition of the European Iron Age focuses on the adoption of iron technology, the Iron Age was also a period of significant social, economic, and political changes throughout the European continent. During the Iron Age, the Mediterranean region and the temperate European region embarked on different, although interrelated, paths. During the first millennium b.c., urban, literate civilizations developed first in Greece and somewhat later in Italy. With the development of cities, writing, and complex political institutions, the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome cannot be considered part of the barbarian world. Thus, they are not explicitly covered in this encyclopedia.

Archaeological and historical sources indicate that the barbarian societies of temperate Europe also experienced significant social, political, and economic changes during the first millennium b.c., and many of these developments are chronicled in this section of the encyclopedia. Moreover, such sources also document a long and complex relationship between the civilizations of the Mediterranean and the barbarian societies of temperate Europe. For example, Greek trading colonies were established in the western Mediterranean by 600 b.c. During the latter part of the Hallstatt period (c. 600–480 b.c.), a wide range of Mediterranean luxury items appear in rich burials in west-central Europe. These include Greek tableware, amphorae (designed to hold and transport wine), and Etruscan bronze vessels. Another example of technology moving between the Mediterranean and temperate Europe can be seen in the fortification walls of the Late Hallstatt town of the Heuneburg, in Germany. They were rebuilt in mud brick with stone foundations. This technique was otherwise unknown in temperate Europe during the middle of the first millenium b.c. but was widespread in the Mediterranean regions. At a later date, Roman pottery and glassware were traded widely outside the empire. However, the nature of Roman and Greek contact with the barbarian world differed in one fundamental way: while the Greek colonies that were established in the western Mediterranean and along the Black Sea were primarily trading colonies, the Romans were more interested in territorial conquest. It is the Roman conquest that marks the end of the Iron Age in much of central and western Europe.

While the historical and archaeological records document extensive contact between the classical and the barbarian worlds, the degree of urbanism is one of the characteristics that distinguishes the Greeks and Romans from the barbarian Iron Age societies of temperate Europe. Urbanism was a central feature of the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean world. Greek political organization was based on the city-state. At ancient Rome's height, it may have been home to a half-million people or more. In contrast, the European Iron Age was overwhelmingly rural. The only exceptions were a small number of commercial towns that developed in west-central Europe in the Late Hallstatt period and the oppida—large, fortified settlements of the Late La Tène period. Many archaeologists have argued that the oppida represent temperate Europe's first cities. Nonetheless, the vast majority of people in temperate Europe during the Iron Age lived in villages or single farmsteads.

The archaeological record indicates that social and economic inequality was widespread throughout Europe by the Bronze Age. Continuing this trend, the Iron Age societies of temperate Europe and the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean world were non-egalitarian societies characterized by marked differences in social status, political power, and material wealth. In addition, these societies were internally differentiated. While many people may have been engaged in subsistence activities such as farming and raising livestock, craft activities such as metalworking were carried out by full- or part-time specialists. Archaeologists often use the term "complex societies" to describe these stratified and differentiated societies.

Although both the classical and the barbarian worlds can be seen as socially complex, their political organization was quite different. The Romans are a classic example of a state-level society. States have permanent institutions of government that outlast any individual rulers, and they are able to exert military control over a large, well-defined territory. Most anthropologists describe the barbarian societies of temperate Europe as chiefdoms. Chiefdoms are generally smaller than states and have fewer governmental institutions. Their leaders rely more on personal qualities than on an institutionalized bureaucracy. Some archaeologists, however, have suggested that certain Iron Age polities in Gaul may have begun to develop state-level political institutions on the eve of the Roman conquest. Entries in this section and the following one will explore the nature of social and political organization in Europe during the first millennium b.c. and the first millennium a.d.

Pam J. Crabtree

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The European Iron Age C. 800 B.C.–A.D. 400: Introduction

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