Iron Age Social Organization

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The Iron Age in temperate Europe, inland from the Mediterranean basin, lasted for some eight hundred years. Its start is marked by the local adoption of iron to manufacture edge tools, such as axes and swords; there may have been contemporary social changes related to the near collapse of exchange patterns provoked by the declining importance of tin and copper. It ended over much of the Continent with the expansion of the late Roman Republic and, subsequently, the early Roman Empire during the last two centuries b.c. and the first century a.d. In more northerly areas, for instance, Ireland, the influence of Rome was very muted, if never entirely absent. There, many characteristics of the Iron Age either continued into or reasserted themselves during the first millennium a.d. In a real sense, in such areas the Iron Age effectively lasted for several more centuries. Elsewhere, as in southern Germany, the last century b.c. is marked by the arrival of another new population, the Germans, whose appearance broadly coincided with marked changes in the Iron Age archaeological record.

For the period between c. 800 b.c. and the beginning of a.d. 1, the evidence provided by archaeology is complemented by information drawn from other sources. Of very great importance are surviving texts from the classical world. The earliest of them contain scant, almost tantalizing information about conditions in the middle of the first millennium b.c.; written sources thereafter became more numerous, especially from the first century b.c. These texts outline some of the customs and conduct of the peoples with whom the Greek and Latin authors, or their sources, came into contact. Given that they represent more or less contemporary accounts of the Iron Age communities, these accounts have great value, but they cannot be considered dispassionate, unbiased perspectives. On the one hand, they are outsiders' views—descriptions of what anthropologists sometimes term "the Other"—on occasion composed by authors with a vested interest in political affairs within the societies they are describing. The accounts thus display a tendency to focus on characteristics their original readership would have found puzzling, if not unacceptable, thus justifying Roman intervention.

Julius Caesar's description of his conquest of Gaul (corresponding in extent more or less to present-day francophone Europe) is one of the fullest such accounts. Some historians have considered his De bello Gallico the unembellished narrative of a straightforward military man, recounting his actual experiences; others argue that it is a consciously literary work that in some respects is simply propaganda. The dominant view sits between these two extremes but would not envisage Caesar's text as "value free." Furthermore, these texts were composed according to the intellectual conventions of their day. Unacknowledged copying of earlier authors was an acceptable practice, allowing for the possibility that descriptions of native societies may have been out of date by the time they were repeated. Far from being attempts at objective ethnography or history, texts were framed within contemporary philosophical perspectives.

A noteworthy example is Agricola, the history of Agricola, the governor of Britain, written by his son-in-law, the Roman historian Tacitus. Tacitus recounts the lead-in to his father-in-law's crushing defeat of the Caledonii in Scotland, using simply the auxiliary forces at his command, in the late first century a.d. The speech Tacitus puts into the mouth of the native war leader is not a dispatch from the battlefield but rather an Italian intellectual author's view of what the native leader Calgacus ought to have said: in effect the perspective of an imagined "noble savage." By contrast, the Roman historian Livy's account in The History of Rome of the arrival of the Celts in Italy is prefaced by the story of a king in central France, Ambigatus, who instructs his nephew to lead the people southward. Is this an indication of fosterage—the often forcible taking in of the children of people of dependent status—among the elite, a practice later recorded in early historic Ireland? Or is it the pattern of succession? One cannot be sure, for nothing more is known of Ambigatus's family circumstances. As the key individuals in this story are a king and his two nephews (the other being told to lead a portion of the tribe into central Europe) rather than members of a nuclear family, speculations on the relationship between the two generations are possible.

Although literacy made a late appearance in the Iron Age of temperate Europe (which is known, for example, from the evidence of graffiti scratched on ceramics and legends on coins), no contemporary documents from the late pre-Roman barbarian societies of temperate Europe north of the Alps or Pyrenees survive. The archaeological record thus is protohistoric in the sense that it is "text aided" uniquely through external, classical accounts. Because the Roman takeover of temperate Europe was not complete, it has been suggested that more modern literature, eventually written down in early Christian Ireland in the late first millennium a.d., includes elements transmitted orally from much earlier times, in effect providing a window on the Iron Age. Later commentators note, however, that detailed study indicates that this view gives rise to problems, as conscious changes typically are introduced during the transmission process. For this reason, scholars are increasingly cautious about using the Irish evidence to illuminate circumstances—including social conditions—within pre-Roman Iron Age continental Europe and Britain.

Another strand of evidence consists of language, as contained essentially in place, tribal, personal, and similar names as well as in brief inscriptions. This evidence is recorded in Greek or Latin scripts or in local variants of these scripts, as, for example, in the Iberian area of Mediterranean Spain. Many of these western and central European sources indicate languages conventionally ascribed to the Celtic family, beginning with Lepontic in northern Italy and stretching west to Celtiberian in Spain. In the later centuries b.c., such records, once very rare, became more common.


It has been conventional practice to label the best-fit evidence of material culture with the same name as the language group and, where it is known, the classical term for the people in that area. In this way, the material culture of the Iron Age in west-central Europe attributable to the end of the first Iron Age (or Hallstatt period) and its second Iron Age successor (La Tène culture, from the middle of the fifth century b.c.) have been termed "Celtic." The art of that period, much of it produced for elite patrons and some of it magico-religious in character, is labeled "early Celtic art."

Another, more questionable practice has been to use the classical, or the later Irish, historical sources or the two in combination to provide descriptions of Celtic society as a complement to the evidence furnished by field archaeology. Such social generalizations are idealized: they disregard the real differences through time and from region to region visible in the archaeological record during the several centuries of the Iron Age, and thus they carry inherent dangers. The correlation of a set of material culture with an assumed linguistic affiliation—and beyond that automatically to an ethnic label—often is insecure. To say this is not, however, to deny that there were groups within temperate Europe that their neighbors called Celts or Gauls as well as Iberians, Scythians, and Germans. It is equally unreliable to assume that groups so named also automatically subscribed to a particular ethnically defined form of society, unchanging through the several centuries of the Iron Age.


By the end of the Iron Age (La Tène D, from the later second century b.c.), the various sources combine to indicate the presence of socially and politically elaborate societies, witnessed, in particular, by the appearance of settlement sites of a scale and complexity not previously encountered. Termed oppida, these sites have a strong claim to having been the first indigenous temperate European towns. It would be incorrect, however, to envisage the Iron Age as a straightforward evolutionary sequence from simpler toward increasingly complex societies, numbers of which had crossed or were close to the threshold for definition as a state by the time of the Roman conquest. Most later models of Iron Age evolution suggest that periods and regions marked by increasing complexity were offset by local or regional collapses or reversions. In other areas—parts of northern Britain are a case in point—there is distinctly less evidence for social hierarchies in the available evidence for the later first millennium b.c. than can be gleaned for other areas, such as central France or southwestern Germany. Generally, the rhythm and periodicity of apparent changes and their general scale are matters of debate, as are the mechanisms—internal to temperate European societies or external to them—that lay behind these oscillations.

In most explanations, the nature and scale of contacts between the heartland of the Continent and the civilizations colonizing the Mediterranean (and Black Sea) littorals offer a key driving force underpinning assumed social, political, and economic changes during the Iron Age. Archaeological finds suggest economic contacts, which then can be used to account for social and political developments perceived in that record or in contemporary historical sources. Seaborne colonization by the Greeks, contemporary with the establishment of their leading western colony at Massalia (on the site of present-day Marseilles in southern France) in 600 b.c., is a case in point. Their equivalent establishment of settlements along the northern fringe of the Black Sea and in the Crimea is another example. Also important is Phoenician and subsequent Carthaginian activity, especially in Iberia, which resulted not only in contact with native societies in that area but also in the blocking of Greek access to Iberian metal ores from Galicia and elsewhere. In due course, Roman conflict with the Carthaginians drew them into military activity in Iberia in late Republican times and set in train their northward expansion from the Mediterranean basin. Another important current was Etruscan colonization of the Po Valley of northern Italy and the head of the Adriatic Sea, which brought them to the ends of the Alpine passes leading from the Continental heartland.

Commodities manufactured in the Mediterranean civilizations appear in autochthonous contexts, including richly accompanied burials that are redolent of high status, for example, in southwestern Germany. It seems excessive, however, to attribute exclusively to these southern contacts the motor for social change in the Continental heartland. Such a perspective implicitly assumes that the constitution of a society necessarily realigns itself on that of an expansive neighbor perceived to be culturally more developed—thus that Hellenization (emulation of Greek traits), like Romanization in subsequent centuries, effectively would be irresistible. The anthropological literature contains many cases that show that in such circumstances the adoption of traits and influences can be highly selective, if they are not entirely rejected.

A refinement of this perspective envisages later prehistoric temperate Europe as a periphery strongly influenced by, if not dependent on, a core area in the Mediterranean civilizations. This application of world systems theory effectively transfers back into the ancient world characteristic patterns that have been recognized in modern times since the great period of European expansion across the world. Given the very different socioeconomic conditions of ancient times, let alone the much more rudimentary nature of transport networks, it is a moot point whether or not such a perspective is realistic for the middle of the first millennium b.c. In any case, a problem of the world systems approach is that it reduces elite decision makers on the assumed periphery to the status of bit actors, puppets on strings pulled from the south, and thus too readily eliminates them as knowing agents in establishing their own destinies.

If this type of approach has any validity, it is most likely to be for the last two centuries b.c., when the archaeological evidence, in particular, indicates that for some regions the scale and frequency of southern contacts were much greater than they were previously. In sum, the change is from exchange dominated by the infrequent arrival of individual high-status items manufactured in the cities of Etruria or in the Greek colonies (a pattern characteristic of the centuries in the middle of the first millennium b.c.) to the arrival of mass-produced goods of distinctly less-elevated status during the century or so before Caesar's campaigns in the 50s b.c.


This change is best seen in the accoutrements of alcohol consumption, in particular, the drinking of wine. For much of the temperate European Iron Age (things began to change from about the second century b.c.), wine was essentially an Italian product and the strongest—and probably the most readily storable—drink available. In Late Hallstatt and Early La Tène contexts, in both high-status burials and settlements, fine vessels associated with the consumption of wine occur in small numbers. Direct evidence of the wine itself, in the form of transport amphorae, is rare in areas away from the immediate hinterland of the Mediterranean. By contrast, from the second century b.c. (in La Tène C and D periods), the dominant finds in the archaeological record from some sites and areas of temperate Europe are Italic (made in Italy but not by Italians) wine amphorae. The quantities of discarded examples (each would have held some 25 liters of wine) suggest a level of commercial interaction not previously seen, as well as the much wider role of this exotic commodity in lubricating social and political relationships in inland Europe.

In some cases, the numbers of amphorae, the manner of their discarding, or their association with prolific quantities of animal bones strongly suggest large-scale feasting, a significant activity in cementing social and political obligations in the Iron Age world. There clearly was a major change in the quantities of wine that were accessible and in the social ways this commodity was employed. As ever, the nuances of such differences need to be recognized: both archaeological finds and historical accounts make it plain that southern merchants bringing wine freely traded in certain regions (e.g., marginal to present-day Belgium) while other regions received modest to plentiful quantities.

Other factors profoundly influenced the nature of Iron Age social organization on a wider scale. Since the Neolithic, the products of agricultural systems had underpinned all communities. In the Iron Age, there is evidence from numerous regions of considerable agricultural diversification as well as the storage of agricultural surpluses, using several different technologies and to an extent not previously encountered in temperate Europe. Such evidence underscores the likelihood of rising populations and of larger aggregations of people resident on some settlement sites than had previously been the case, again with implications concerning the form and operation of society.

In the case of livestock, particular attention needs to be paid to the horse. Westward of the European steppes, evidence for horses is much more widespread in the Iron Age record than in earlier times. One piece of evidence is horse equipment, notably a wide range of horse bits, suggesting subtle control over the ridden horse. There are also bones of the animals themselves and iconographic representations of horses, for example, on high-status decorated metalwork, including appliqué panels and small axes, from certain graves in the cemetery at Hallstatt (in the Salzkammergut, Austria). Both four- and two-wheeled vehicles also are present, as inclusions in elite graves and in more prosaic settings. The ridden horse, horse-drawn chariots and carts, and subsequently, the development of cavalry provided opportunities for a rapidity of overland movement not previously available, and they facilitated the ready exercise of direct political and social control over more extensive territories. Folk migration was an accessible method for social and political change and one to which the classical sources testify, even if some archaeologists believe it was rarely undertaken. Equally, evidence from some areas indicates the emergence of hunting from horseback as an elite sport, unconnected with satisfying subsistence needs.


There are plentiful indications that European Iron Age societies were hierarchical, although the depth of elaboration of that hierarchy seems to have varied across time and space. For much of the period, the social and political elite groups conformed to what would be anticipated in complex chiefdoms, with succession to important office being determined by real or imagined kinship links. Archaeological evidence suggests that such societies used several methods, including redistribution and gift exchange, to formulate and maintain wider linkages. By the La Tène D period (from the later second century b.c.), in some areas substantial changes had occurred. For certain of the Continental tribal areas (usually known by their Latin descriptor as civitates), political command, and by extension, social leadership had shifted from the king and his retinue to an elected magistracy. (The chief of this magistracy was termed a vergobretus, a Celtic loanword that appears in Caesar's text.) The magistracy was selected annually from among the oligarchical group that constituted the elite. Place of residence was beginning to oust kinship links, assumed or real, in defining group membership. Caesar's text strongly suggests that both these systems continued during this period, for his account includes plenty of individuals accorded the Latin title rex, perhaps a fair reflection of the fluidity of Iron Age political and social relations at this time in the face of powerful external military aggression.

Magistrates appear to have been solely male, whereas women could emerge as the leaders in more conventionally organized societies, as was certainly the case in southern Britain during the first century a.d. That females could hold high rank also is suggested in numerous contexts by the funerary record, where variations in the quality and number of grave goods equally points to subtle gradings within sociopolitical ranks, perhaps akin to what literary texts indicate more particularly for Ireland in the first millennium a.d.

Elite female graves are recognizable from Hallstatt C onward (the eighth century b.c.); they generally are marked by ranges of grave goods in which jewelry (and sometimes mirrors) form a significant component, with weaponry rare or absent. Normally, wealthy female graves are attributed to the sociopolitical elite, as in the rich female grave from Reinheim in Germany. In other instances, it is possible that the wealth in the grave is indicative of a spiritual rather than a political leader. Christopher Knüsel has suggested, for example, that the grave at Vix in Burgundy, dating to the fifth century b.c. (Hallstatt D), held the slightly deformed body of a middle-aged woman whose local importance may have been religious. She is accompanied by a dismantled wagon, a high-quality gold necklet or torc (a rigid penannular collar or neck ring), and a spectacular imported bronze wine krater, or large vase—the biggest surviving vase from the Greek world. In other instances, grave goods suggest that brides may have been exchanged over considerable distances in continental Europe. Female graves from northeastern France (dating to the third century b.c.) with paired anklets may well contain girls originally from the heartland of central Europe, where this particular fashion was widespread.

The presence of grave goods in some of the relatively rare children's graves suggests that status in the societies to which they belonged was ascribed rather than attained. In some instances, children are accompanied by smaller examples of adult grave goods (e.g., bracelets), and in others their positions within cemeteries or under barrows intimate their significance within their community. As in many ancient societies, infants and young children are underrepresented in the funerary record, but this may be a reflection either of their status or of the use of burial practices less susceptible to archaeological detection. More generally, both inhumation and cremation are encountered, sometimes in the same cemetery (as at Hallstatt), and the change from one to the other need not have any straightforward social significance.

The literary sources provide details of the significance of religious and educational specialists within society, notably the druids. They make it clear, too, that the activities of such elites could extend beyond the polities in which they were based. From numerous areas, archaeological evidence makes plain the fact that many activities had a ritual dimension (including such prosaic acts as the discarding of rubbish in disused underground storage pits within settlements). On some sites—notably, the so-called Picardy sanctuaries of northeastern France—ritualized acts seem to have been key, to judge from the clear patterns in the archaeological finds recovered from them. Deliberately damaged equipment and weaponry, animal bones, and human remains showing a range of postmortem manipulations bear witness to practices involving such religious practitioners that can be gleaned only indirectly. The most famous such locale is a small enclosure within a settlement at Gournay-sur-Aronde, in the valley of a tributary of the River Oise, to the north of Paris.


Among other groups prominent within society that can be recognized from the written sources and from the archaeological record are specialists of varying degrees of skill. These people include musicians and poets, craftspeople, and warriors. The accompaniments in male graves indicate that warriors constituted a significant proportion of male adults in some areas. The grave goods that typically identify them are swords (of iron, sometimes encased in elaborate decorated bronze sheaths) and spearheads. Defensive equipment, which is rarer, is dominated by metal shield fittings (usually for shields made of organic materials that have rotted away) and helmets, the latter including ornate examples displaying the status of the wearer rather than simple protective military gear.

It is noteworthy that some of the most elaborate examples of such equipment (for men and sometimes their horses) come from the apparent margins of the Celtic domain, if not beyond. Such places include southern Italy, western France, Romania, and northern Britain, perhaps suggesting that the insignia were of special importance in these peripheral settings. Military protection appears to have been a significant element in the glue that held Celtic societies together, if indications from both earlier Continental written sources and later insular ones are considered. There are hints in the texts of the importance of clientship—the formalization of patron-client relations through the development of mutual obligations. The provision of military protection seems to have been a key component of such arrangements.

There also are signs of profound changes in the nature of the social and political relationships that lay behind the establishment of military forces during the last half-millennium b.c. For the Early Iron Age, it is easy to envisage military service as arising through real or assumed kinship links, clientship obligations, indebtedness, and similar causes and as being both temporary and intermittent in character. By the end of this period, however, there were significant changes. In some instances, armies still had to be called together at moments of crisis by holding a hosting (assembling an irregular army from diverse groups with the express purpose of battle), as Caesar recounts. In other cases, standing armies were associated with particular civitates (or perhaps their constituent parts, the pagi), which could be paid in coin, a practice initially learned in mercenary service to the Hellenistic kings around the Aegean. Unsurprisingly, military leadership seems to have been a high-status responsibility and was maintained in Gaul, for example, after its defeat by Rome. Cavalry units, in particular, kept their native commanders and simply transferred their allegiance to their new masters as auxiliary troops.

Specialists also seem to have had considerable, but perhaps variable, status in society. Some are recognizable in death from the equipment placed in their graves, as, for example, the medical doctor of the La Tène C period identified from his instruments at Obermenzing near Munich in Bavaria, Germany. In other cases, tools have been found in workshops or elsewhere on settlement sites. The Late Iron Age toolkit found at Celles in central France is appropriate to marquetry or similar decorative work on furniture, and some of the finest items of early Celtic art, such as the helmet from Agris in western France and a few of the vehicles, imply collaborations among several artisans skilled in different materials or in different trades.

Localized distributions of certain artifacts, such as certain varieties of Late Hallstatt brooches, suggest that they may have been made directly for elite patrons on particular sites. Other types of objects (most particularly in La Tène D) are much more standardized over wide areas of the Continent and may betoken the work of independent craft workers. At some sites, artisans engaged in the same craft are clustered in limited sectors, as in the case of enamel workers found inside the main gate at the La Tène D oppidum of Mont Beuvray in Le Morvan, France. Such groupings may be considered socially significant. Overall, however, skilled specialists as well as the general run of artisans must have constituted the dependent classes of later Iron Age societies, as described by Caesar: they probably would have been substantially outnumbered by agricultural laborers, peasants, and small farmers.


Was slavery a component of Iron Age societies in temperate Europe? For most areas and periods, the evidence is either ambiguous or nonexistent, but there are exceptions. Toward the end of the Iron Age, in western continental Europe and southern Britain, chains and similar accoutrements of slavery become more common in the record and probably are indicative of long-distance movements of slave labor. It often is suggested that captives taken in war were traded down the line across the Continent to the slave-based societies of the Mediterranean even in earlier times. Such captives were exchanged for the luxury products recovered from, for example, rich Hallstatt graves, although the earlier classical sources suggest that servile labor was obtained nearer to hand.

Less certain is the extent to which later Iron Age societies in temperate Europe were themselves slave owning as opposed to exporters of prisoners. Analogy with later Ireland might indicate that slaveholding already was established, and it also is possible that the development of large-scale extractive industries might have relied to some extent on slave labor. Shoe sizes have been pointed to as evidence that children were put to work extracting rock salt at Dürrnberg in Austria, and the open-air gold mines of Limousin in France might have been worked by slave laborers. Overall, we can conclude that in the Iron Age, as in later times, social structures and rates of social change in barbarian Europe probably varied and did not conform closely to a pan-Continental norm.

See alsoCelts (vol. 2, part 6); Hallstatt (vol. 2, part 6); La Tène (vol. 2, part 6); Germans (vol. 2, part 6); Oppida (vol. 2, part 6); Iron Age Feasting (vol. 2, part 6); La Tène Art (vol. 2, part 6); Greek Colonies in the West (vol. 2, part 6); Etruscan Italy (vol. 2, part 6).


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Ian Ralston