Iron Age Britain

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Iron Age Britain is conventionally defined as the period from the first use of iron, c. 750 b.c., to the Roman conquest, which began in southeastern England in a.d. 43. It is known almost entirely through archaeological evidence. Though the existence of Britain was known to the Classical world, it was on the very margin of its knowledge, and most of the classical authors provide little detailed evidence. They regarded the inhabitants of Britain as a separate people from those of Gaul, though they recognized cultural similarities. Julius Caesar was an eyewitness during his invasions of 55 and 54 b.c., and his account is valuable for the parts of southeastern England he visited. The archaeological record is dominated by evidence of domestic settlements, of which several thousand are known, but there is little evidence for burials or ceremonial monuments.

The Iron Age is divided into Early (c. 750 to 300 b.c.), Middle (c. 300 to 100 b.c.), and Late (c. 100 b.c. to the Roman conquest) phases. This scheme is best suited to southeastern England, and elsewhere a simpler division into Earlier (to 300 b.c.) and Later (after 300 b.c.) is more appropriate.


Most people in Iron Age Britain were engaged in agriculture, and agriculture was the main source of food. Some coastal sites exploited fish and other marine resources, but wild animals were elsewhere a minimal part of the diet, though some wild plant resources may have been more widely exploited. The landscape of Iron Age Britain, however, had been subjected to more than three thousand years of farming and human over-exploitation had begun to take its toll. Added to this was a long-term climatic deterioration: the warmer and drier conditions of the Bronze Age gave way to a cooler and wetter climate. The combination of human activity and climatic change made some marginal environments, especially upland and moorland areas, increasingly hostile to agriculture. Thus, more emphasis was placed on the lower and more sustainable regions.

Iron Age agriculture involved an increasingly complex strategy for the management of plant and animal resources. The annual cycle of the seasons dominated the rhythms of everyday life, and the critical episodes of sowing and harvesting posed a demand for the maximum labor force. Important changes in the agricultural economy had begun in the Bronze Age and continued throughout the Iron Age. The landscape was increasingly organized and divided, with field systems and other boundaries becoming more common; this organization may have had a functional role in managing crops and animals, but it also may have marked the beginning of more strictly defined rights to the use of land. New crops were introduced; emmer wheat was replaced by spelt, and naked barley by hulled barley. By the end of the Iron Age, bread wheat was also common, probably associated with an expansion of farming into areas of heavier soils. As well as wheat and barley, other crops included peas, beans, and flax.

There were fewer changes in animal-rearing strategies, and most sites have produced evidence for the three main domesticates: cattle, sheep, and pigs. Dogs, horses, and domestic fowl were also kept. Pigs were kept for meat and were killed when they had achieved maximum body weight. Sheep provided meat and milk, but many were kept for longer periods as a source of wool and manure. In the case of cattle, the costs of keeping and feeding them beyond the point where they produced the best meat had to be balanced against their value as a source of milk, leather, and motive power for traction. Actual strategies varied regionally: in southern England, sheep were valued for their manure to support cereal production, while in other regions pigs were more suited to the local environment.

Most agricultural production was for local consumption. Storage of food, as well as seed for the next year, was important, and many sites show evidence of storage in pits or aboveground structures. Salt production became increasingly important, from both seawater and inland mineral sources. It played a major part in the preservation and storage of food, which may have permitted trade in foodstuffs.

Much less is known about how such agricultural produce was transformed into food for consumption. Cereal crops were carefully processed, and the grain ground with querns (grinding stones); a significant technological advance was marked by the introduction of rotary querns in the middle of the Iron Age. Initially, the only method of cooking was over an open hearth, but the development of the closed clay oven in the Middle Iron Age offered a wider range of possibilities. There is little evidence for a change of diet throughout the Iron Age, but by the end of the period some sites showed a dominance of pig similar to the pattern found in continental Europe. At the same time, Mediterranean commodities, including wine and olive oil, were being imported.


Evidence for settlements is plentiful, but quite varied regionally. One common theme is the presence of roundhouses, up to 15 meters in diameter, though not all such structures may have been used as domestic residences (fig. 1). The houses had a single entrance, orientated toward the east or southeast, for ideological or cosmological reasons rather than for functional purposes. They were mostly built of timber, with wattle-and-daub walls and thatched roofs, though where good building stone was available, this was used for the walls. Regional variations occurred, especially in the later Iron Age: in Cornwall, courtyard houses were grouped around a central open space, and in northern and western Scotland the basic roundhouse plan was elaborated into a stone tower, or broch.

The typical settlement may have contained ancillary structures such as pits and barns in addition to the roundhouses. The sites were sometimes open but often enclosed with a wall or bank and ditch. Isolated settlements of a single household were common, but they could be clustered into larger groups. In eastern England in the Middle and Late Iron Age, larger nucleated clusters of houses were common. In parts of northern Scotland, brochs were surrounded by smaller houses to make villages. The reasons for these complex variations in settlement type remain unexplained. Though settlements were mostly stable and permanently occupied, other sites may have been seasonally occupied for fairs, the extraction and processing of raw materials, or for seasonal grazing.

The most prominent of Iron Age settlements were the hillforts, often very large and elaborately defended enclosures. They were built in different parts of Britain at different periods, and in some regions they are rare or even nonexistent. The earliest were built in the Late Bronze Age, while in southeastern England they all belong to the Late Iron Age. Hillforts certainly had many different functions: some were densely occupied, while others show little evidence of permanent or large-scale occupation and may have been for other purposes such as ceremonial gatherings or temporary refuges.

Much attention has been paid to the hillforts of southern central England, especially Danebury in Hampshire and Maiden Castle in Dorset. Many hillforts were built in this region in the sixth and fifth

centuries b.c. and show evidence of dense and organized occupation. From the fourth century, however, many were abandoned, while others continued, often enlarged or provided with more elaborate and impressive defenses. These developed hillforts are interpreted as a sign of increasing centralization of political and economic control, but the sequence in this region is not typical of Britain as a whole.

In the Late Iron Age, a new type of site appeared in southeastern England. These are called oppida (oppidum—the singular form—is the Latin term for town, used by Caesar to refer to similar sites in France). They are large sites, often enclosed with complex earthworks; many were in river-valley locations, and some, such as Verulamium (later St. Albans) and Camulodunum (Colchester), were succeeded by Roman towns. The Iron Age sites contained areas for settlement, craft production, ritual activity, and burial. In some cases, especially at Colchester, the evidence suggests the residence and burial site of a royal elite.

technology and production

The production and distribution of manufactured goods became more complex and more specialized during the Iron Age, though with considerable regional variation. There is little evidence of workshops or other places of manufacture, and most of the evidence comes from the finished items themselves or the tools used to make them. New technologies were developed: as well as iron, the manufacture and working of glass for beads, bracelets, and enamel inlays was perfected by the end of the period. New uses were also found for existing technologies: rotary motion was adapted for use in wood lathes, pottery wheels, and rotary querns for grinding grain. Pyrotechnology was also improved: furnaces for smelting iron and ovens for cooking are well documented, and it is possible that pottery kilns were also used by the end of the Iron Age.

Though flint was still used expediently for small tools, and bronze for sheet-metal items and cast ornaments, iron largely replaced them as the basic material for tools and weapons. Iron ores suitable for smelting with the available technology were widespread throughout Britain, which was a major factor in its adoption. Until the Late Middle Ages in Europe, furnaces were unable to produce a temperature high enough to melt iron for casting, so all iron objects were wrought by hammering. There is little evidence for knowledge of techniques such as quenching or tempering, but different ores were recognized as having different properties and selected for different purposes. Tool types suited to iron-working were developed, and by the end of the Iron Age, tools such as axes, hammers, knives, chisels, and reaping hooks were produced in a form that changed little for the next two thousand years. Iron was rare in the early period, though complex objects such as swords and wheel tires were produced, but from the third century b.c. onward it became more common. At the same time, production was increasingly concentrated in the areas with better ores, and their products were distributed over long distances as ingots in standard shapes and sizes. The final manufacture and repair of iron objects was much less specialized, and most sites have produced some evidence of ironworking.

Bronze continued to be used for sheet-metal vessels such as cauldrons and bowls, as well as for a variety of cast objects, including brooches. The copper, tin, and lead used in its production came mainly from western Britain, but in the Late Iron Age brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) was imported from the Roman world. There is no evidence of gold until the introduction of gold coinage in the second century b.c. It is possible, however, that gold may have been more common, but it was recycled rather than deposited. In the Late Iron Age gold and silver coins were produced in much of southern and eastern England, and gold was also used to manufacture torcs (neck rings of twisted metal, see fig. 2).

Stone was quarried to make querns and whetstones. In the Early Iron Age many local sources were exploited, but later production was centered on a restricted number of locations whose products were traded over sometimes very long distances. Salt, whether from marine or terrestrial sources, was also derived from a limited number of locations and exchanged over similar distances.

One of the most common finds on archaeological sites, especially in southern and eastern England and western Scotland, is pottery; elsewhere, however, it is rare or even nonexistent, and its place was presumably taken by containers of organic materials such as wood or leather. Pottery was hand thrown for most of the Iron Age, but in the last century before the Roman conquest wheel-turned vessels were produced. The range of pottery forms varied greatly from region to region and changed through time but included versions of jars and bowls. From about 20 b.c. Roman fine wares were imported and copied, and these included new forms of plates, beakers and cups.

Technologies using organic materials have left little trace apart from their specialist tools. Textile production is indicated by spindle whorls and loom weights, while little survives of leather and basketry. Some of the most complex artifacts would have been made of wood, such as houses, vehicles, and boats, but little evidence survives. Most production would have been for domestic or local use, but there are increasing signs of specialized production and distribution through the Iron Age. The increasingly localized production of iron, stone, and salt has been noted already, and other technologies such as gold, bronze, and glass were probably also dominated by specialists. The growing standardization of pottery forms suggests similar specialist production, while petrological analysis shows that, especially in western Britain, production was largely restricted to a limited number of locations whose wares were widely exchanged.

Some of the finest products of the Iron Age were made for people of high status by highly skilled craft workers. Decorated metalwork such as mirrors, shields, helmets, and sword scabbards, as well as personal ornaments such as torcs and brooches, show an extraordinarily high level of skill; other items such as chariots and coins were also the work of skilled specialists.

ritual, religion, and the dead

For most of the Iron Age throughout Britain there is no evidence of formal burial as a means of disposing of the dead. This does not imply that the dead were not treated with respect, merely that, whatever the rites adopted, they have left no regularly recoverable evidence. Many sites have produced small fragments of human bone, and it is possible that the normal rite in most regions was exposure and excarnation—the body would have been left to decompose

and fragment naturally. There is, however, growing evidence for regional traditions of formal burial.

The best documented is that of East Yorkshire, where from the fourth to the first century b.c. inhumation burials were placed under small square-ditched barrows. Many of the dead were simply accompanied by a pot or personal ornaments, but a few graves were much richer. In these the dead were buried with a chariot and other rich items. This style of burial is similar to that practiced in western Europe, and it was once thought that this indicated an actual migration from the Continent. The burial rite is not identical, however, and other features of the East Yorkshire people, such as houses and pottery, are entirely indigenous. It is now thought that a local group adopted Continental practices. Similar burials are known in smaller numbers elsewhere in eastern Britain, and such imitation of Continental culture may have been more widespread.

Other regional groups of inhumations are known. One in Cornwall is marked by the use of stone cists. Elsewhere, radiocarbon dating is beginning to identify groups of unaccompanied inhumations as belonging to the Iron Age. A small group of burials of males with weapons is also known; such warrior burials are not regional but widely scattered.

From about 100 b.c., cremation burial was adopted in southern and southeastern England. Many of the burials were poorly furnished but a small number contained much richer grave goods, including imported pottery, bronze and silver vessels, and amphorae (wine containers). This burial tradition is very similar to that of western Europe; again, as with the East Yorkshire burials, these were once attributed to immigrants but are now seen as part of a much more complex pattern of social change in the final centuries of the Iron Age.

For most of the Iron Age there are no formal sites of ritual activity separate from the domestic sphere, but domestic life was highly ritualized. Many of the finds from pits, ditches, and houses on settlement sites are not casually discarded rubbish, but carefully selected and deposited items. Human remains are found in storage pits, but so too are placed deposits of animal skeletons, pottery, and querns. Some are the remains of feasting, others may be deliberate deposits as part of ritual practices designed to ensure the continuity of everyday life.

Other deposits away from settlement sites, especially of metalwork, are also best interpreted as deliberate offerings. Many were in rivers or other watery places. At Flag Fen, Peterborough, a long tradition of depositing metal objects, begun in the Bronze Age, continued through most of the Iron Age. Many of the Iron Age swords and much of the finest metalwork, such as shields and helmets, have come from rivers in eastern England such as the Thames. A Late Iron Age cluster of deposits at Snettisham, Norfolk, was also a votive deposit, though here on dry land. Many gold torcs have been found there.

It is not until the first century b.c. that formal shrines and temples appear, though only in southern England. Some, as at Danebury, are buildings of an unusual rectangular shape within settlements and are thought to have a non-domestic function. Others, such as Hayling Island, Hampshire, are more clearly copied from the Continental style of Roman-Celtic temple. Some of these temples are accompanied by many deposits of coins, metalwork, and other items.

social organization

Despite the plentiful evidence regarding everyday domestic, agricultural, and craft activities, it is difficult to define the nature of Iron Age society and social organization. This is partly due to the almost total absence of burials, which elsewhere are an important source of evidence for individual and group identities. As it is, very little is known about how concepts of age, gender, and the family were constructed in the Iron Age. The fact that one of the rich chariot burials in East Yorkshire was that of a female suggests that positions of high status were not exclusively male.

Although not all round structures were necessarily used as domestic residences, the ubiquitous presence of the roundhouse implies a standard residential group, probably a single family. The limited human skeletal evidence shows that survival beyond the age of thirty-five was rare, and so families would seldom have comprised three living generations, though larger groups could have been constructed genealogically.

Two critical questions concern the degree of social differentiation in terms of individuals' status, and the nature and degree of political centralization and regional groups. Where there is burial evidence, as in East Yorkshire or southeastern England in the Late Iron Age, the presence of occasionally much richer graves suggests the existence of some form of social differentiation. Where this evidence is not available, the picture is more difficult to interpret. The rich metalwork deposited in the rivers of eastern England suggests the presence of an elite, but that is not matched by the settlement record. There is very little differentiation in the size or contents of individual roundhouses, and for most of the Iron Age the archaeological record shows no sign of deposited wealth. Although by the end of the Iron Age it is clear that, at least in the southeast, there were political groupings ruled by kings, it would be wrong to project that type of organization back into the earlier periods. Discerning the extent and nature of any elite remains problematic for much of the period.

Social groupings and social organization above the level of the family are very difficult to determine, and the dominant picture is one of regional variability. Settlements vary from isolated houses to large nucleated villages. Most nucleated sites show little difference between houses, but the broch villages found in parts of northwestern Scotland may have been socially differentiated. A wide variety of community relations may have existed at the local level.

The ability of some Iron Age groups to construct elaborate hillforts, and the presence of the hillforts themselves, have been interpreted as a sign of a hierarchical and politically centralized society. It is not known, however, how the labor for such projects was organized, and the hillforts show little, apart from the defenses, to distinguish them from ordinary sites in terms of architecture or material culture. Even if they are taken as a symbol of political organization, the hillforts were a very regional phenomenon, and societies without hillforts may have been very differently organized.

The archaeological record is characterized by a pattern of regional variation in such themes as settlement type, architecture, burial rites, and pottery styles, but the meaning of such variation is unclear. This variability occurs at different scales: in some cases it may be a response to the availability of environmental resources, or the product of specialist rather than domestic production. Whether any of these patterns of cultural variation should be seen as the material expression of a regional social identity remains to be clarified.

Whatever type of social group existed in the Iron Age, relations between them were not always peaceful. The presence of sling stones, sometimes stockpiled, on many sites indicates warfare, and the available skeletal remains show much evidence of violence.

late iron age changes

From c. 150 b.c. many important changes are visible in the archaeological record for Iron Age Britain. The underlying social and cultural changes primarily affected southern and eastern England, but their impact may have been felt much farther afield. The changes affected settlement patterns, material culture, technology, burial, and ritual and political organization. Many of the key elements of these changes have already been noted.

Coinage of gold and cast bronze began to circulate in southeastern England c. 150 b.c. The earliest coins were imported from France, but they were soon imitated locally. By the end of the Iron Age, gold and silver coins were in use over most of southern and eastern England, and in the extreme southeast, bronze coinage was in circulation, too. The gold, silver, and early bronze coins were all of high value and were used for political purposes rather than for commercial transactions; the smaller bronze coins are found mainly on the Late Iron Age nucleated sites and may represent a move toward a money-based exchange system.

Roman amphorae containing wine were imported from c. 100 b.c., first in southern England and then in the southeast. During the first century b.c. other Continental practices were adopted in Britain: cremation burial, wheel-turned pottery, and temples. In other fields, such as the design of swords and brooches, Britain continued to follow prevailing Continental fashions. Roman bronze vessels for serving wine and for washing were imported, and from c. 20 b.c. fine tableware was imported and imitated. Other innovations included the introduction of sets of bronze implements for toilet and cosmetic purposes, suggesting a new concern for the body and cleanliness.

In settlement terms, the most obvious change is the emergence of the nucleated sites, or oppida, in the southeast. These represented a strikingly new element in the landscape and a new focus for political and ritual activity.

The explanation of these changes in the archaeology of southern and eastern England has been a major point of debate. Older interpretations tried to account for them as the result of immigration from the Continent, either before or after Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the 50s b.c., but neither the nature nor the chronology of these changes fits well with such an idea. More recent explanations have referred to the political and economic impact of the expanding Roman Empire on regions beyond the military frontier. Critics of these ideas have in turn questioned the quantity of Roman imports and their significance, as well as the rather passive role assigned to Britain in such accounts. They have instead emphasized the developments in indigenous social organization that allowed these emerging contacts with the Roman world to be exploited so successfully.

The problem is undoubtedly complex, involving both indigenous development and interaction with the rapidly changing political structure of western Europe as Rome expanded its empire in the late second and first centuries b.c. It is important to recognize that these changes took place over a long period. Indigenous Iron Age society had been changing through the Middle Iron Age, not least by increased specialization of production, agricultural expansion, and changes in settlement pattern; the sheer quantity of manufactured artifacts increased enormously at that time. The importation and imitation of Roman goods was also a long process, not a single event. It is equally important not to project the post-conquest conditions back to an earlier period: the fact that the site of Iron Age Verulamium (St. Albans) became the site of a Roman town does not imply that it functioned as a town in the pre-conquest period. There is also a question whether the changes in the archaeological record reflect real changes in Iron Age social and economic organization, or in their cultural practices. Politically, the rich burials, the coins, and evidence of the classical authors suggest the emergence of a hierarchical and tribal society ruled by kings. It is possible, however, that changes in practices for the disposal of the dead and the deposition of wealth simply make this pattern of social organization more visible than it had been previously. Perhaps more far-reaching may have been cultural changes such as the adoption of Roman eating habits, including wine, foodstuffs, and tablewares, as well as a concern for bodily hygiene and cosmetics.

When Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 and 54 b.c., it had already been undergoing major political and economic changes for a century, at least partly due to contact with the Continent. Caesar's invasions drew Britain, or at least southeastern England, still further into contact with the Roman Empire, with significant effects on indigenous culture. When the final Roman conquest began in a.d. 43, southeastern England fell very rapidly, but resistance was much stronger in the north and west. It took several decades to subdue England and Wales; the northern frontier fluctuated through time, but although much of Scotland was at one time under Roman rule, the whole of Iron Age Britain was never conquered.

See alsoMaiden Castle (vol. 1, part 1); Flag Fen (vol. 2, part 5); Oppida (vol. 2, part 6); Hillforts (vol. 2, part 6); Ironworking (vol. 2, part 6); Coinage of Iron Age Europe (vol. 2, part 6); Iron Age Social Organization (vol. 2, part 6); Danebury (vol. 2, part 6); Agriculture (vol. 2, part 7).


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Timothy Champion