Foreground and background
There have been two approaches to the archaeology of the Iron Age, and as a result the term means different things to different people. One treats it as a self-contained entity, giving way to the Roman occupation of Britain. It can even emphasise a certain continuity between those phases. A good example is Cunliffe’s Iron Age Communities in Britain, now in its fourth edition (Reference Cunliffe2005). The other approach envisages a much longer sequence of change and interprets the distinctive features of the Iron Age as the outcome of processes which started late in the second millennium bc. It is illustrated by Kristiansen’s account of Europe before History (Reference Kristiansen1998). Following his lead, this chapter begins with the closing years of what is still called the ‘Bronze Age’. It ends as these islands came into contact with the peoples of the Classical world, since Millett (Reference Millett1992) and Creighton (Reference Creighton2000 and Reference Creighton2006) have shown that in England the Late Iron Age is better studied in relation to the Roman period.
The earliest use of iron was not a sudden event. In fact it was probably precipitated by a shortage of metals of any kind. Indeed, it may be that the period around 800 bc is characterised by a reduced supply of bronze rather than the adoption of an unfamiliar technology (Needham Reference Needham, Haselgrove and Pope2007). Such developments are not well understood. Some of the Alpine copper mines ceased operation, and new ones took their place, but the situation did not change significantly (O’Brien Reference O’Brien2015: ch. 10). In southern Europe iron was easier to obtain, and this may have reduced the demand for bronze, but in North-west Europe these developments had more serious consequences. The metal supply came under pressure, and attempts were made to recycle the material that remained in circulation. Those difficulties began about 1100 bc and became especially severe during the ninth century.
Such developments did not take place in isolation, for the late eighth century bc saw the establishment of a Phoenician trading network extending as far west as the Iberian Peninsula, where it exploited established contacts along the coast in order to obtain raw material (Campos Carrasco and Alvar Ezquerra Reference Campos Carrasco and Alvar Ezquerra2013). This axis assumed a greater importance as the circulation of metals became more difficult. The last metalwork of the Bronze Age was obtained by a different route from most of the objects of that period and placed a greater emphasis on the Atlantic (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2001a: 275–89). This change of geographical alignment proved to be short-lived, for soon the process was curtailed, and the deposition of artefacts in hoards and rivers declined. The clearest indication that established practices had been abandoned is provided by the working of iron.
These developments affected both Britain and Ireland and can be illustrated in several different ways. There is evidence that bronze was being distributed in standard forms so that some of the latest axeheads were probably treated as ingots. They contained so much lead that they could hardly have been used as tools, and in north-west France, where many of them had been made, it seems as if they conformed to standard weights (Briard Reference Briard1965). Discarded artefacts were increasingly recycled. This is most obvious from metal analysis, but it may also be reflected by the large number of ‘scrap hoards’ that were deposited in Britain during the ninth century bc. They include fragments of many different kinds of objects, including tools, ornaments, and weapons, and some contained traces of slag. Burgess (Reference Burgess, Burgess and Coombs1979) suggested that people were dumping surplus artefacts; by withdrawing so much material from circulation they might have forced its value to rise. The reasoning behind this hypothesis is anachronistic for it suggests a degree of coordination which would be possible only in the modern economy – in many ways the best comparison is with the operation of the stock exchange. It is equally unsatisfactory to suppose that supplies of bronze were concealed during a political crisis, for the main evidence of such a crisis is provided by the hoards themselves. Perhaps they were really offerings associated with the transformation of the raw material. That is certainly consistent with accounts of metalworking in traditional societies (Budd and Taylor Reference Budd and Taylor1995; Helms Reference Helms2012).
One clue is provided by changes in the circulation of bronze artefacts which emphasised the importance of the Atlantic seaways, and a growing number of metal items were exchanged or copied along the western rim of Europe, from Scotland and Ireland in the north, to Spain and Portugal in the south. Some of these connections even extended into the Mediterranean (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2001a: ch. 7). Such links had always been important, especially in prehistoric Ireland, but now they seem to have assumed a greater prominence than before, and ultimately this network reached across southern and eastern England into Northern Europe. The latest bronze hoards reflected the new alignment. Such evidence suggests that the inhabitants of these islands were drawing on different sources of supply, but any relief was short-lived. Towards the end of the Bronze Age there are indications that people started to experiment with iron production, using ores that could probably be discovered locally; only the techniques of working them were foreign. It is not clear quite when this process began, or how far iron was intended to take the place of bronze. Writing in 2000, Lawson catalogued at least thirty sites in Britain where iron slag had been found in contexts dating from the ninth century bc (Lawson Reference Lawson2000). At the same time, the new technology could be used to make composite tools in combination with bronze or could even be employed to produce traditional forms of artefact in a different material. This was certainly the case with socketed axes (W. Manning and Saunders Reference Manning and Saunders1972).
The deposition of metalwork became an important issue as bronze was supplemented, and to some extent replaced, by iron. The latest bronze hoards date from the Llyn Fawr industrial phase which ran from approximately 800 to 600 bc, and the quantity of river metalwork decreased sharply at that time (O’Connor Reference O’Connor, Haselgrove and Pope2007). It happened throughout Britain and Ireland, but it can hardly suggest a shortage of both kinds of metal since exactly the same pattern is found in Continental Europe, where iron weapons were commonly deposited in graves. In terms of the Three Age Model, the last axe hoards in southern England and the west of France are Iron Age rather than Bronze Age; it seems to have been important that votive deposits should contain foreign material. That might apply to the styles of the objects themselves, but it also reflects the metal from which they were made. It may have happened as a response to diminishing supplies, but, if so, it was a ritual that failed (Koutrafouri and Sanders Reference Koutrafouri and Sanders2013). Copper and tin did not occur in many of the areas with these artefacts, and this may have provided one source of their power. In that case locally produced iron would not have been an acceptable substitute. Although prehistorians treat bronze and iron as if they were equivalent to one another, people in the past may have categorised them in a different way. One of the strangest discoveries of recent years illustrates this point. It is a collection of 373 bronze socketed axes from Langton Maltravers in southern England. They were brittle and poorly finished, yet they seem to have been made individually, and some were deliberately coloured to imitate the appearance of iron (B. Roberts et al. Reference Roberts, Boughton, Dinwiddy, Doski, Fitzpatrick, Hook, Meeks, Mongiatti, Woodward and Woodward2015).
From possession to dispossession
Access to foreign metal had been of fundamental importance in later Bronze Age society, so that these changes would have had drastic consequences. The crucial point was made by Gordon Childe more than seventy years ago (Reference Childe1942: 82–3). The production of bronze artefacts involved a combination of copper, tin, and sometimes lead, all of which had restricted distributions. One problem lay in bringing these materials together, and another concerned the circulation of the finished products (Earle et al. Reference Earle, Ling, Uhnér, Stos-Gales and Melheim2015). Some of the densest concentrations of Late Bronze Age metalwork were in areas that lacked any sources of their own. They included southern and eastern England. There are other regions where metalwork could have been produced locally but seems to have been imported. Among them are Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Because high-quality artefacts were being introduced from distant areas, it would have been possible to control their circulation, and the same applies to the raw material from which they were made. Access to such objects could have been restricted in two ways. It involved a process of long-distance travel by sea which might have been in the hands of specialist traders, or of a restricted group who controlled their activities (Earle et al. Reference Earle, Ling, Uhnér, Stos-Gales and Melheim2015). The skills needed to make the finest objects were not generally available, and again the work of smiths may have come under political control. Some of it was so demanding that they must have depended on a patron for support; that need not apply to the production of simpler objects (Kuijpers Reference Kuijpers2018). At the same time, it would be necessary to accumulate suitable commodities with which to participate in exchange. It could have featured the movement of textiles, hides, and agricultural produce. For Childe, the long-distance movement of bronze involved the creation of alliances and was a source of power.
Iron, on the other hand, was widely available and could have been worked in many parts of these islands. Unless the process took place on a large scale – and that is not evidenced before the production of ‘currency bars’ in the third century bc (Hingley Reference Hingley, Haselgrove and Wigg-Wolf2005) – it would be difficult to control. Thus the virtual collapse of the long-distance circulation of bronze might have undermined the influence of an elite, but the first adoption of ironworking would not have offered an equivalent power base. For Childe, Iron Age society became more ‘democratic’. It is possible to quarrel with the idea that the adoption of iron improved the quality of life, but there is certainly some evidence of social change.
It takes two forms. There are the new developments that happened during the period of transition, and there are signs that older practices were abandoned. Both occurred simultaneously between about 800 and 600 bc, but it will make the argument clearer if they are treated separately.
This account starts with the new developments. One of the most dramatic discoveries of recent years is the identification of a series of large middens in southern Britain whose chronology appears to span the later Bronze Age and the period of transition. Ironically, the first of them to be investigated, All Cannings Cross in Wessex, was once treated as the type site for the Early Iron Age (Cunnington Reference Cunnington1923). That was not because of the structural evidence from the excavation, which was meagre, but because of an extraordinary abundance of artefacts. The same applies to the sites recognised more recently, whose distribution extends from East Anglia to South Wales (Needham and Spence Reference Needham and Spence1997; Sharples Reference Sharples2010, 52–3 and 87–8). They attract attention for several reasons. It is unusual to find such enormous accumulations of cultural material, for in normal circumstances these deposits would have been removed from settlements and spread on cultivated land. Instead the material was allowed to build up into considerable mounds. It happened at Potterne on the chalk of southern England (Lawson Reference Lawson2000) and on another site, East Chisenbury, which was identified as a standing earthwork (McOmish Reference McOmish1996) (Fig. 6.3). Similar deposits have been recognised at some of the Bronze Age sites discussed in Chapter 4, including the occupied islands at Wallingford (Cromarty et al. Reference Cromarty, Barclay, Lambrick and Robinson2005) and Runnymede Bridge (Needham and Spence Reference Needham and Spence1997), the coastal site at Mountbatten (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe1988), and the extraordinary group of hoards, monuments, and burials on the coast of Thanet (McKinley et al. Reference McKinley, Leivers, Schuster, Marshall, Barclay and Stoodley2014: 18–52).
The middens have an unusual composition. The sediments at Potterne include a considerable quantity of cattle dung, but there are also significant amounts of bronze metalwork. The upper levels contain a little iron slag (Lawson Reference Lawson2000). There is an abundance of fine pottery and animal bones, and some unburnt human bone. There is similar information from East Chisenbury where the dominant animals were sheep (McOmish Reference McOmish1996; Valdez-Tullett Reference Valdez-Tullett2017). The sheer abundance of bones suggests that feasts were taking place, and this is particularly likely at Runnymede Bridge where the midden was located on an island. It has produced another large assemblage, but here there is evidence that some of the faunal remains were carefully organised within the filling of the midden (Needham Reference Needham, Mordant and Richard1992). At Llanmaes in South Wales, where the metalwork included fragments of bronze cauldrons, large quantities of pork were consumed. Pigs accounted for over 70 per cent of the animals; most bones came from their right forequarter (Madgwick and Mulville Reference Madgwick and Mulville2015). Isotopic analysis shows that some of them had been brought from distant areas, and it is obvious that their consumption was carefully controlled. There are indications of craft production from most of the midden sites, including bronze working, the working of antler, spinning, and the production of textiles. Detailed study of the ceramics from Potterne suggests that the people who used that site had a wide range of contacts with other places (Lawson Reference Lawson2000: 166). The same is true of the metalwork from Runnymede (Needham Reference Needham1991). A striking feature of the middens at Whitchurch and Woodeaton is the presence of miniature copies of familiar kinds of bronze artefact (K. Waddington and Sharples Reference Waddington and Sharples2011; D. Harding Reference Harding1987). They are best interpreted as votives, like their counterparts in the Mediterranean.
Not all these sites show much evidence of structures contemporary with the accumulation of middens. There is considerable uncertainty, for pits and postholes are difficult to recognise within the dark soil of these deposits; the same problem affects research in the late levels of Roman towns in England (Courty, Goldberg, and Macphail Reference Courty, Goldberg and Macphail1989: ch. 15). It is true that a range of timber buildings was identified at Runnymede Bridge and Whitchurch and that the middens at Potterne and Llanmaes overlay occupation sites. Even so, the only structural evidence found within some of these accumulations consists of small patches of cobbling, hearths, and the remains of ovens. It may be that in their final form some of these places were not settlements at all. They could have been the sites of assemblies or even fairs like those of the first millennium ad (Pantos and Semple Reference Pantos and Semple2003). Given the unusual character of the excavated evidence, the same ideas provide a plausible explanation of the prehistoric middens. It would certainly apply to their distribution in the Vale of Pewsey which follows the natural division between two parts of the Wessex chalk: the Marlborough Downs to the north and Salisbury Plain to the south. Perhaps these places were located in a liminal area (Tubb Reference Tubb2011). Alternatively they were the bases from which the higher ground was grazed on a seasonal basis (Valdez-Tullett Reference Valdez-Tullett2017).
Occasionally the middens can be associated with other features. The example at East Chisenbury overlay one side of an earthwork enclosure (McOmish, D. Field, and G. Brown Reference McOmish, Field and Brown2002). A similar deposit at Wittenham Clumps in the Upper Thames was just outside a hillfort notable for its deposits of human remains (T. Allen et al. Reference Allen, Cramp, Lamdin-Whymark and Webley2010), and one has been identified 500 m outside another early hillfort on Bathampton Down (R. Thomas, Oswin, and L. Brown Reference Thomas, Oswin and Brown2012). At Balksbury on the chalk of Wessex the midden, which included large amounts of cattle dung, was within a defended enclosure (C. Ellis and Rawlings Reference Ellis and Rawlings2001). Again there was possible evidence of feasting.
Balksbury is one of a group of earthwork enclosures which were built in southern England during this period. They are closely related to the Late Bronze Age hillforts discussed in Chapter 4, but some of them may be later in date and are usually assigned to an Earliest Iron Age that extends from about 800 to 600 bc. They shared certain features in common. They were of considerable extent and occupied prominent hills. They were enclosed by surprisingly slight earthworks, and excavations inside them suggest that they were not intensively occupied. They provide evidence for a limited number of dwellings, but the main structures were small square buildings usually interpreted as raised granaries or storehouses. They do not produce many artefacts. In the absence of more detailed information, it has been suggested that these places were used intermittently and perhaps on a seasonal basis. In that respect they share features in common with the midden sites.
In each case the evidence suggests that certain locations served as focal points for a wider population. Indeed, they could have played a part in public events at which feasting was particularly important. In the early first millennium bc there was probably an added element, for they seem to have been where people congregated for the purpose of production and exchange. The great accumulations of manure might not mean that large numbers of livestock were collected for slaughter; surely there were also gatherings at which animals changed hands. Similarly, there is evidence that artefacts were being made, including metalwork. In the past it had taken place at more secluded locations, including Irish crannogs, Welsh hillforts, and some of the English ringworks, where it might have been easier to exercise control over its circulation. The new sites may have been where people transacted public business, but if so, it was a novel development. Perhaps the community was assuming greater authority than before.
If these were unfamiliar elements, other features of the landscape seem to have gone out of use. One characteristic of the Late Bronze Age landscape was the presence of fortified ringworks. In most cases activity ended during the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition, and the same applies to the building of Irish crannogs. That may be significant as they have similar contents and both may have possessed a special status. Just as the deposition of fine metalwork in water seems to have diminished, these locations lost their significance, and the same is true of most of the platforms and islands discussed in Chapter 4. It is a trend that applies to other sites in the English landscape, for the coaxial field systems which were such a feature of the later Bronze Age were largely abandoned during this phase, if not before (Bradley and D. Yates Reference Bradley, Yates, Haselgrove and Pope2007). The significance of the change will be considered in due course; what matters is that some of the associated settlements were deserted or moved to new positions.
There are other signs of dislocation in the settlement pattern. Two features are particularly important.
The first is a gradual shift in the distribution of prehistoric activity. During the Late Bronze Age there was an extraordinary density of occupation sites along rivers discharging into the North Sea. That is where many of the field systems were created and it accounts for the siting of most of the ringworks. Perhaps more important, it is in this area that the principal deposits of fine metalwork occur: there are weapons and ornaments in the Fenland, and more artefacts are found in the Thames. The previous chapter suggested that these features were directly related to one another: communities associated with the ringworks and perhaps other settlements controlled the flow of metalwork and engaged in long-distance exchange. They were able to do so because of the surplus provided by stock and crop cultivation, and it even seems possible that these people were commemorated in death by the objects deposited in water.
During the Early Iron Age the distribution of weapon deposits contracted until it was practically confined to the Middle Thames (Jope Reference Jope1961), and in some regions settlement sites can be difficult to find. There is less evidence of occupation in the areas that had played a prominent role before, and instead there are more signs of activity in other regions. In the south, they include the Midlands, the upper reaches of the Thames, and the south-western peninsula. In the north, there was a similar increase in settlement sites, especially in the uplands on either side of the modern border between Scotland and England. It may also have happened in Wales, although the evidence is more limited, but in Ireland, Iron Age domestic sites of any kind proved difficult to find before the expansion of development-led excavation (Corlett and Potterton Reference Corlett and Potterton2012).
On one level the new settlements took distinctly regional forms, just as the ceramics of this period can be divided into a series of mutually exclusive style zones (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2005: ch. 5). To some extent these contrasts may also be deceptive as Chapter 4 showed that Late Bronze Age settlements are not easy to identify without large-scale excavation. It is because many were open sites. That is especially true outside the distribution of field systems. Iron Age settlements, on the other hand, were sometimes enclosed by a palisade or more often by a bank and ditch. That was certainly the case in England, Scotland, and Wales.
Roger Thomas (Reference Thomas1997) has offered an interesting discussion of this phenomenon. The process of enclosure began at about the same time as the decline in the supply of bronze entering these islands from the Continent. The new sites were usually associated with agricultural production, and there is every reason to suppose that Iron Age activity had a greater impact on the landscape than that of the previous period. Excavations at these enclosures support this interpretation. They provide evidence for stock raising and cereal growing on a substantial scale and include a whole range of agricultural facilities within their area, in particular raised granaries or storehouses, and silos for keeping grain over the winter. Such sites can produce large collections of carbonised cereals, and faunal remains almost entirely of domesticates. Thomas suggests that with the decline in the circulation of prestigious metalwork people were placing more emphasis on food production. His discussion is paralleled by Valdez-Tullet (Reference Valdez-Tullett2017) who emphasises the social importance of stock raising.
The landscape was divided according to simple conventions, but in this case it was occupied by a number of communities who seem to have emphasised the differences between them by monumentalising the limits of their settlements (Sharples Reference Sharples2010: ch. 3). To an increasing extent they also imbued those boundaries with a special significance by the deposition of human bones and other items (Hill Reference Hill1995). This is a special feature of the enclosure ditch and the area around the entrance. Few of the enclosures could be defended against attack. Thomas (Reference Thomas1997) suggests that the inhabitants of these places were increasingly self-sufficient. Once founded, many settlements were occupied and rebuilt over a considerable period of time.
The forms of the enclosures have attracted less attention than their chronology, and yet they support a similar interpretation. The dominant feature of the Late Bronze Age ringworks had been large roundhouses like those at Mucking, Springfield Lyons, and Thwing (Sharples Reference Sharples2010: 212–15). They were generally located within a circular enclosure whose defences could be built on an extravagant scale. Such buildings were generally aligned on the gateway, but could be separated from it by a screen. Like the henge monuments of the Neolithic period, the entire structure gives the impression of one enormous house, and this is even more obvious at a transitional site like West Harling in East Anglia, where the earthwork perimeter abutted the outer edge of an unusually large circular building (Fig. 6.4; J. G. D. Clark and Fell Reference Clark and Fell1953).
Houses of similar size occur quite widely between 600 and 400 bc, but after that time they are comparatively rare (Sharples Reference Sharples2010). Two examples are particularly interesting. One was at Bancroft in the east Midlands. It was associated with a perforated clay slab of a kind associated with large-scale food preparation (Champion Reference Champion2014), and a quern was buried in the centre of its floor. When the surrounding area was occupied by domestic buildings, its position was respected. There may have been some awareness of its special significance for the site was eventually used as a Roman mausoleum and a shrine (R. Williams and Zeepfat Reference Williams and Zeepfat1994). The other site is Longbridge Deverill Cow Down in Wessex where a group of enormous roundhouses has been excavated (S. Hawkes and C. Hawkes Reference Hawkes and Hawkes2012). Each of them contained a remarkable assemblage of fine pottery which seems to have been deposited there before the buildings were set alight. The excavators suggested that this might have happened on the death of one of the occupants; all these structures were raised and destroyed in sequence.
Such buildings were by no means the standard form of dwelling. Like the Late Bronze Age buildings they resemble in many respects, these were the largest examples in a wide range of timber structures. Their associations changed, too. Ringworks with their timbered ramparts were no longer built during the Early Iron Age, but large circular buildings could still be the dominant feature inside the new earthwork enclosures and even occurred on open sites. Others were inside some of the early hillforts.
What is less often considered is the importance of the circular or sub-circular ground plan. This was not confined to the major houses but extended to the earthwork perimeter as well (Bradley Reference Bradley2012). Again it was a format that applied to several different classes of monument: to enclosures and even to the organisation of hillforts. It was by no means ubiquitous, but at its simplest it had two elements. The perimeter was curvilinear and was frequently breached by an entrance to the east or south (Hill Reference Hill, Champion and Collis1996). In both respects it resembled the plan of a roundhouse. There could be some elaborations of this format. A second entrance might be provided on the opposite side of the circuit, but even this feature is shared with a number of timber buildings in northern Britain. It is often argued that such buildings have their doorways towards the south or east to allow the morning light to illuminate the interior (Pope Reference Pope, Haselgrove and Pope2007), but the relationship between these houses and the position of the sun may have a cosmological significance as well, for such a practical argument can hardly explain why the same principle should extend to the gateway leading into the settlement (Bradley Reference Bradley2012).
Not all the enclosures adopted this layout, nor was every settlement defined by a ditch or palisade, but circular enclosures are far too common to have developed fortuitously. Others were roughly square or rectangular, but these variations usually follow regional lines. Thus circular enclosures are common in the archaeology of Wessex, south-west England, and the Scottish borders; rectilinear compounds are more often found in the east Midlands, the coastal plain of north-east England, and the Welsh Marches. These distinctions may have been influenced by the pattern of settlement. Like roundhouses, circular enclosures were usually set apart from one another, but rectilinear enclosures could easily be joined together. It often happened on the river gravels of midland England. Although many of them maintained their isolation, sometimes they occurred in groups together with linear land boundaries.
If there were practical advantages to a rectangular ground plan, why did so many communities in Britain choose to build circular enclosures? Was it to evoke connections with domestic architecture? One reason why the house may have been such an important symbol during the Early Iron Age was that it stood for the integrity and independence of different groups of people (R. Thomas Reference Thomas1997). Perhaps that was less important in those regions where other kinds of enclosure were built. There is also some evidence that in the east Midlands rectilinear enclosures were preferred in intensively farmed lowland areas, while curvilinear plans were favoured on higher land in the same region (J. Thomas Reference Thomas2010). There were important changes over time, and it is clear that square or rectangular circuits became more popular during the Late Iron Age, although roundhouses themselves remained in use until well into the Roman period (A. Smith et al. Reference Smith, Allen, Brindle and Fulford2016).
It is difficult to discuss the Irish evidence as it has only recently come to light (Corlett and Potterton Reference Corlett and Potterton2012), but in most parts of Britain it is clear that large domestic buildings were gradually replaced by smaller circular structures (Sharples Reference Sharples2010: ch. 4). They are a particular feature of the Middle Iron Age, which ran from about 400 to 150 bc. For the most part they followed the same conventions as the earlier houses, but it seems as if there were few significant differences of size between individual dwellings. Indeed, they present such a uniform appearance that it seems as if any overt distinctions between them were suppressed. Like the buildings of the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, they were normally replaced in exactly the same positions. Where it did not happen, successive structures overlapped, implying a set of conventions that were respected over the generations. Important thresholds could be marked by offerings of artefacts, animal bones, or even human remains. This is clearly indicated at Crick where deposits of this kind were associated with the entrances and backs of the dwellings; occasionally their contents varied between the left- and right-hand sides of the buildings (Hughes et al. Reference Hughes, Woodward, Barnett, Bashford and Bredon2015). Within such settlements there seems to have been an emphasis on the continuity of the domestic group. At the same time, certain of the enclosures were reconstructed on an increasing scale. It is possible that the social distinctions signified by domestic buildings now applied to the settlement as a whole. Perhaps the main differences of status were between the inhabitants of different sites and were expressed by the size and elaboration of the earthworks that enclosed them.
The organisation of the land
Settlements and Boundaries
Iron Age farming has always provided a major topic for research. Food remains are well preserved and many settlements have seen large-scale excavation. Surviving earthworks in England, Scotland, and Wales have all been the subject of field survey. The resulting interpretations were tested by a series of experiments. They were concerned not only with the practicalities of constructing Iron Age buildings but with raising livestock and cultivating crops. The Butser Ancient Farm on the chalk of southern England was claimed as a working model of the prehistoric landscape (P. Reynolds Reference Reynolds1979).
For this reason it might seem easy to characterise Iron Age agriculture, and exactly this assumption lay behind a series of important excavations at Fyfield and Overton Downs on the Wessex chalk. The findings of that work show how far knowledge of the subject has changed. When the project was devised in the 1960s, it seemed important to investigate a series of Iron Age settlements, land boundaries and ‘Celtic’ fields which were located not far from a major hillfort. When the report on this project was published, those elements proved to be less closely related than originally supposed (P. J. Fowler Reference Fowler2000). The fields which seemed to unite the different features actually dated from the Bronze Age and, like many others, they went out of use in the Early Iron Age. One of the settlements was integrated into these boundaries, but by the time it was established few of the plots were being used. Instead domestic buildings were fitted into the surviving earthworks. Although it was accompanied by a patch of arable land, the area may have been used as pasture. The project did not investigate the hillfort, Barbury Castle, but comparison with similar sites in the same region suggests that it would have included the remains of houses, granaries, and storage pits; this is indicated by its earthworks and by geophysical survey (Bowden Reference Bowden, Brown, Field and McOmish2005). Such monuments were linked with the process of crop production, but may not have been linked with the use of regular field systems. How, then, was Iron Age agriculture organised?
Yates (Reference Bradley, Yates, Haselgrove and Pope2007) has shown that coaxial fields were established in lowland England by 1500 bc. Chapter 4 argued that they were first created towards the end of the Early Bronze Age and that the same form of land organisation was adopted widely on the chalk and river gravels of lowland England during the later part of that period. Not all the systems initiated during the Early and Middle Bronze Ages remained in use for long, but new ones were probably established in the Late Bronze Age. Except in the Upper Thames, these systems went out of use during, or soon after, the transition to the Early Iron Age (Bradley and D. Yates Reference Bradley, Yates, Haselgrove and Pope2007). Many of the associated settlements were abandoned and others spread across their boundaries. Long-established hedges might have survived as features in the landscape, but a second group of coaxial field systems was not created until the Middle to Late Iron Age when it covered a larger area of Britain (Bradley and Fulford Reference Bradley, Fulford and Rainbird2008). That process continued into the Roman period and is not considered here. Not only were a number of relict field systems reused at that time, many new ones were created. There is no sign of a similar development in Ireland.
Those changes should not have seemed so troubling, for some of the best recorded prehistoric landscapes are without surviving fields of any kind, even though there is evidence that animals were raised and crops were grown. Perhaps the most obvious example is provided by the Yorkshire Wolds. The problem needs to be approached in another way. Environmental evidence shows that, unlike the situation in Ireland where pollen analysis identifies a period of reduced activity (Plunkett Reference Plunkett, Murphy and Whitehouse2007), the British landscape in the south and east was largely open and was being exploited on a large scale. There are signs of soil erosion caused by cultivation and over-grazing, and carbonised cereals are virtually ubiquitous on excavated sites (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2005: ch. 16). So are the remains of domesticated livestock. Many settlements in southern England contain grain storage pits which can preserve traces of their original contents. Where they do not occur there may be the foundations of timber granaries. The problem is not whether Iron Age people engaged in intensive mixed farming, it is how that activity was carried out on the ground. If Celtic fields went out of use, what does this imply for the nature of Iron Age society? If older land divisions were no longer important, how was farming organised? That discussion must take in other elements: settlements, boundary ditches, and hillforts.
Chapter 5 discussed the origin of the linear earthworks which divided up large tracts of the later prehistoric landscape. Many were poorly dated, but, with a few exceptions, they seem to have originated during the early first millennium bc, and in central southern England they cut across groups of coaxial fields in a way that must have put them out of use (McOmish, D. Field, and G. Brown Reference McOmish, Field and Brown2002). Unlike the coaxial fields, these boundaries remained important during the Iron Age. Indeed, more of them were constructed at that time, and they occur across a greater area, including the Midlands, north-east England, and the Welsh borderland. The simple banks and ditches that seem to characterise the earliest examples were increasingly supplemented by other kinds of feature, including multiple dykes and pit alignments.
Such changes happened in many areas, but they have been studied in particular detail on Salisbury Plain. During the Late Bronze Age a series of long linear earthworks cut obliquely across the existing plots, meaning that some of them would have been abandoned. Like those field boundaries, the ditches could be orientated on ancient mounds. The new land divisions extended from the river valleys onto the high chalk plateaus and defined a series of elongated blocks of land, not unlike the parishes of the early medieval period (Bradley, Entwistle, and Raymond Reference Bradley, Entwistle and Raymond1994; McOmish, D. Field, and G. Brown Reference McOmish, Field and Brown2002). Each territory contained at least one open settlement, and beyond the limits of this system there were burnt mounds, sources of workable flint, and the findspot of an important metal hoard. During the Early and Middle Iron Ages some of the earthworks were rebuilt, often on several occasions, and deposits of human bone and animal skulls were placed within them; similar material was associated with the boundaries of settlements. Certain earthworks were extended while others were levelled. Curvilinear and rectilinear enclosures were built within these land blocks, and some of the points at which separate territories converged became the sites of hillforts. It was not until such monuments had gone out of use in the Late Iron Age that field systems were re-established on Salisbury Plain.
A comparable process happened on the Yorkshire Wolds, where some of the boundaries were defined by lines of pits rather than ditches (Stoertz Reference Stoertz1997; Fenton-Thomas Reference Fenton-Thomas2003). Excavation at West Heslerton has shown that the land divisions long recognised on the chalk hills extended down into the Vale of Pickering to their north (Fig. 6.5). At least two of these territories were dominated by palisaded enclosures situated on prominent summits, whilst a large open settlement with roundhouses and raised granaries was identified on the lower ground (Powelsland Reference Powelsland and Manby1988). Another unenclosed settlement has been investigated in the valley known as Garton / Wetwang Slack (Brewster Reference Brewster1984; Dent Reference Dent1982). It contained a similar range of structures distributed on one side of a prominent earthwork boundary which was maintained throughout the Iron Age. It is doubly important because a major cemetery developed there.
In Yorkshire and to some extent in Wessex, these linear earthworks coexisted with pit alignments, and there are even cases in which a discontinuous boundary was replaced by a more substantial feature. In Lincolnshire and Yorkshire there was also a predilection for constructing several earthworks side by side. Such features are difficult to date as linear ditches might be recut many times. Pit alignments, on the other hand, could have had a more restricted currency and are easy to identify on air photographs (Boutwood Reference Boutwood and Bewley1998; Roberts Reference Roberts2005). Their distribution extends across large areas of the English river gravels, into the Welsh borderland to the west and northwards into Scotland. It is unfortunate that so few of these boundaries produce any artefacts, but what little dating evidence is available suggests that the earliest were built around the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition, and the latest were probably constructed in the Middle Iron Age (Fig. 6.6). Still more massive dyke systems developed towards the end of this period and are poorly understood. All these features are occasionally associated with human and animal burials and with deposits of querns and other artefacts.
These land divisions seem to have been employed in the same ways across a considerable area of Britain. Like recently investigated earthworks in eastern England (Ladd and Mortimer Reference Ladd and Mortimer2017), they defined large blocks of land. Often the boundaries ran parallel to one another and at right angles to a river. Although their layout may have changed over time, the effect was to include a mixture of different resources extending from the floodplain to the higher ground (Bradley, Entwistle, and Raymond Reference Bradley, Entwistle and Raymond1994). A number of these units show evidence of subdivision, but normally they are of similar extent to the land of an average modern farm. There are few signs of field systems within these enclosures, and what excavated evidence exists suggests that they either predate these boundaries or were created after those features had gone out of use. It does not seem likely that these elements were contemporary with one another.
At the same time the large areas of land defined by these divisions might include the positions of one or more settlements, which varied in their layouts and histories (J. Thomas Reference Thomas2010). Some were established beside the boundaries and could have been contemporary with them; others were some distance away, but were situated within one of the land blocks they defined. It was unusual for any settlement to extend across such boundaries, and, when this happened, it was often because that feature had already gone out of use. The settlements themselves might be open or enclosed, and in some cases they oscillated between these forms more than once in the course of their histories. Several settlements could be established within a single land unit or were located along its limits. Sometimes their use was short-lived, so that one occupation site replaced another, but just as often they coexisted. It is clear that the boundaries usually show a greater stability than the rather fluid pattern of occupation inside them, and it is unlikely that these ditched territories had a single role. Rather, they seem to be associated with a mixed farming regime in which cultivation and the raising of livestock were both important. Nearly all the excavated settlements include large collections of faunal remains and are associated with carbonised cereals, raised granaries, and storage pits.
The main difference between the later Bronze Age and Iron Age systems is that now there seem to have been fewer fixed boundaries within the separate land units; Celtic fields had virtually disappeared, although the sharp edges to the distribution of storage pits on sites in the Thames Valley suggest that more ephemeral boundaries did exist (Lambrick and T. Allen Reference Lambrick and Allen2004; Lambrick and Robinson Reference Lambrick and Robinson2009). They could have been established on a temporary basis, but have left no trace behind. It is sometimes suggested that the landscape was broken up by hedges, but even these would have been bedded in a low earthwork if they were to flourish. At the same time, arable land needed to be protected from predators and the movement of livestock had to be controlled. Maybe this was achieved using a series of temporary divisions that could be changed on a regular basis.
A possible model is provided by Caesar’s account of the early Germans (De Bello Gallico iv, 1; vi, 22). Decisions were made at a communal level and leaders were elected to serve on a temporary basis. Access to land was allocated every year, so that differences of wealth and power were reduced to a minimum. The distribution of agricultural produce may have been administered in the same way. This method had certain advantages, for it would be difficult to accumulate and control a surplus in the way that seems to have happened at other times. This is simply an analogy, but it is similar to the excavators’ reconstruction of the Iron Age landscape around Gravelly Guy in the Thames Valley (Lambrick and T. Allen Reference Lambrick and Allen2004). It would account for the surprising rarity of Early and Middle Iron Age field systems and it may provide a reason why the houses within the settlements developed such a uniform character. If the later Bronze Age had seen the development of social distinctions, this phase illustrates their decline.
It may also provide the background to the development of early hillforts in Britain (it is unlikely such monuments were used during the same period in Ireland). They are widely distributed across the south and west. Cunliffe dates them to the period between about 600 and 400 bc (Reference Cunliffe2005: ch. 15), and in some respects they follow a similar trend to the enclosures considered in the previous section (Fig. 6.7). Some of the oldest examples, such as Crickley Hill, Balksbury, or Winklebury, contained unusually large roundhouses rather like those associated with Late Bronze Age ringworks, but the later buildings were smaller and of roughly uniform size (Sharples Reference Sharples2010: 215–20). If the first of these structures could be used to express social distinctions, those differences had either disappeared or were no longer emphasised. A second link concerns the ‘defences’ of these sites. They were built on a variety of different scales, and the more impressive examples often included ramparts that were reinforced with timber in the manner of an older site like Springfield Lyons, Rams Hill, or Thwing (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2005: 349–53). The less monumental examples were perhaps no different from other ditched enclosures. They have been identified as hillforts by their positions in the landscape, but, like the roundhouses of the Early Iron Age, such earthworks really form a continuum. That is not to deny that some of these places could have been attacked. A recently excavated site is the aptly named War Ditches in East Anglia. It was abandoned in the fifth or early fourth century bc before construction was complete, and human bodies and disarticulated bones were found in its ditch (Pickstone and Mortimer Reference Pickstone and Mortimer2012). The same happened at Fin Cop in the Peak District where the remains of women and children were also associated with the defences. This episode occurred between 355 and 300 bc (C. Waddington Reference Waddington2012). Hillforts in western and northern Britain were sometimes destroyed by fire. They include Crickley Hill on the Cotswolds where the defences are associated with slingstones, a feature which is usually associated with a later phase of the Iron Age (Dixon Reference Dixon1994: 105 and 115–16).
Although Cunliffe distinguishes between ‘early’ and ‘developed’ hillforts, this is not based on major differences in their forms and associations but on their chronology and distribution. The earlier hillforts were widely distributed; developed hillforts will be considered in due course. The first examples provide only limited evidence for the activities taking place inside them. Their ramparts often had a vertical outer face, supported by a stone wall or a setting of timbers, and these sites often had two opposing entrances. Inside the enclosures there were houses and storage structures.
How were these places related to exploitation of the wider landscape? Their construction and maintenance must have drawn on corporate labour (Sharples Reference Sharples2010), and it has always been tempting to think of them as the power bases of local leaders, but it is difficult to find much evidence for that idea. In southern England a few of the sites, like Sidbury and Quarley Hill, were established at the meeting points of territories defined by linear ditches (Bradley, Entwistle, and Raymond Reference Bradley, Entwistle and Raymond1994), and in eastern England the land associated with them was indicated by linear earthworks (Ladd and Mortimer Reference Ladd and Mortimer2017). For the most part the artefacts from these places have a similar character to those at other settlements (Hill Reference Hill, Champion and Collis1996). Perhaps these hillforts represented a more public expression of the same concerns as those sites. The main difference between these two categories is that in the hillforts certain activities were performed in a more ostentatious manner. Thus the defences might be constructed on an altogether larger scale than the domestic enclosures and were maintained more often (Sharples Reference Sharples2010), yet there seems to have been as much emphasis on their appearance as there was on military architecture. It is not easy to see how they would have provided much defence against attack, although this question has been reopened through studies of the effectiveness of sling warfare (R. Robertson Reference Robertson2016). Hillforts in both the categories recognised by Cunliffe include an exceptional number of raised storehouses, which were probably used to hold grain. These buildings were often the most conspicuous features of these sites, and in several areas, including the Wessex chalk and the Welsh Marches, they could be laid out in rows or organised on a grid. It may have been as important to display the harvested crop as it was to protect it.
A number contain specialised structures which have been interpreted as shrines, but their chronology varies from site to site, and they are not confined to the defended sites, as was once supposed. At Danebury they were used throughout the occupation (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe1995: 24–5 and 28), yet at Cadbury Castle a similar building was not constructed until the use of the hilltop was largely over (Barrett, A. Woodward, and Freeman Reference Barrett, Woodward and Freeman2000: 172–3). Before then, the same area had been used for the production and deposition of bronze metalwork and for a series of animal burials. Even these specialised buildings have parallels on other kinds of site.
The animal burials at Cadbury recall the wide range of offerings associated with Iron Age settlements, although much of the evidence comes from a small number of regions: Kent, central southern England, the south Midlands, East Anglia, north-east England, the Hebrides, and Orkney; they are largely absent from Ireland. Their main association seems to be with food production and the agricultural cycle, although they extend from the burial of selected artefacts to the treatment of dead people (M. Williams Reference Williams2003). Such deposits are found in different contexts, but are especially common in hillforts, where such monuments were built. Some were associated with the perimeters of these sites, and others with earthwork enclosures, land boundaries, and the limits of open settlements. They were directly linked with the storage of food, so they are found in grain silos in southern Britain and in the underground cellars known as souterrains in Orkney. The human remains reveal some striking patterns. In certain cases there were important differences between these groups, so that in the hillfort at Danebury the remains of adults were kept separate from those of the very young who were associated with the houses (Cunliffe and Poole Reference Cunliffe and Poole1991: ch. 8). In the open settlement at Glastonbury adult skulls were distributed along the edge of the settled area, and the remains of children were found in the platforms on which people lived (J. Coles and Minnitt Reference Coles and Minnitt1995: 17–24). It seems possible that skulls and other body parts had been removed from older burials (Sharples Reference Sharples2010: 268–72).
What distinguishes the sites known as hillforts from the other earthwork enclosures of the same period? Apart from their size and the labour devoted to their construction, there seem to be three important features (Hill Reference Hill, Champion and Collis1996). These monuments include a greater density of storage facilities than most (but not all) the other sites. That applies not only to the raised granaries mentioned earlier but also to the evidence of pits, which may have become more frequent over time. Given the comparatively limited number of houses inside many excavated hillforts, it seems unlikely that so much food was produced by the occupants. At the same time, there is more evidence for ritual practices in hillforts than there is in most settlements of the same period. They focused on the process of crop production, and the main focus was the storage pit, which may have been selected because of its links with the cycle of death and regeneration associated with the harvesting and keeping of grain (M. Williams Reference Williams2003).
Lastly, not all these sites need have been continuously occupied. The idea is suggested by the insects preserved by a pond within the Breiddin on the Welsh border, for despite the presence of houses and granaries within the defences, the use of the site had little impact on the local environment (Buckland et al. Reference Buckland, Parker Pearson, Wigley and Girling2001). A similar argument applies to the ‘marsh fort’ at Sutton Common in north-east England which contained no fewer than 150 structures interpreted as raised granaries. Excavation did not identify any dwellings and the artefact assemblage from the project was unusually small. Pollen analysis could not show that the site was inhabited (Van de Noort, Chapman, and Collis Reference Van de Noort, Chapman and Collis2007). The same interpretation is suggested by storage pits inside the Wessex hillfort of Winklebury that seem to have been left open over the winter, trapping a number of wild animals which must have been living there (K. Smith Reference Smith1977). Another possibility that needs to be considered in future work is that occupation extended outside the defences. That seems to be indicated in a few cases (French Reference French2004; T. Allen et al. Reference Allen, Cramp, Lamdin-Whymark and Webley2010).
The relationship between hillforts and ordinary settlements remains quite problematical. The defended sites can contain less substantial domestic buildings, and yet they may have a higher density of storehouses and pits. A few of them included shrines, whilst the proportion of special deposits exceeds that at other sites. Large numbers of people obviously made use of these places, but it is not clear that they settled there on a permanent basis. In many ways they were public monuments which reflected the concerns of people during this period and emphasised them on an impressive scale. Indeed, the very form of some of these hillforts still seems to echo the basic principle of the roundhouse. They could adopt a roughly circular ground plan with an entrance that faced the rising sun. Such places may have been conceived as the ‘houses’ of an entire community who could have used them in much the same way as early medieval assembly sites in Ireland which were spaced at similar intervals to the larger British hillforts (Gleeson Reference Gleeson2015). Perhaps they were where communal business was transacted and important decisions were made. Again Caesar’s description of the early Germans could be relevant to the argument. Such an arrangement would not have been unprecedented for it is also the interpretation suggested for the middens which are such a striking feature of the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition. It may have been through periodic meetings in such places that land and its products were distributed among the population. That did not require a stable social hierarchy.
The very term ‘hillfort’ is probably a misnomer. At times they may have served as fortifications, as places where resources were protected from attack – there is evidence of occasional massacres which were once attributed to the Romans – but even then the use of these places may have been ritualised. Moore has observed that the deposits of human remains and weapons found in the entrance of a hillfort at Bredon Hill were organised as a kind of display: the bodies had been dismembered and the heads were deposited separately from the limbs (T. Moore Reference Moore2006; 118–20). Something similar happened at South Cadbury (S. Jones and Randal Reference Jones, Randal, Sterry, Tullett and Roy2010) and at a rectilinear enclosure within the enormous monument at Ham Hill in south-west England (Brittain, Sharples, and C. Evans Reference Brittain, Sharples and Evans2014). Its ditch was associated with partially articulated bodies which had possibly been exposed before they were buried. They were accompanied by animal bones. Human skulls, three of them with evidence of wounds, were placed in the defences themselves. But such hillforts were not just fortifications; they were also production sites and even a kind of theatre at which public events took place and the concerns of a farming people were played out in ritual and ceremonial. That may not have changed until the end of their period of use.
One of the most important practices was feasting. It was associated with the middens considered earlier in this chapter, but its character may have changed during later phases. By the fifth or fourth centuries bc it was documented by other kinds of evidence: by massive accumulations of animal remains deposited on the ground surface or in disused storage pits, and by the renewed importance of cauldrons for cooking great quantities of food. This could have happened in the course of assemblies and communal business. Sharples has argued that feasting also supported the workforces building and maintaining monuments (Reference Sharples2010: 116–24). That is entirely plausible as hillforts and other enclosures were modified surprisingly often. To quote one well-documented example, the entrance to the Welsh hillfort of Castell Henllys went through five phases of construction and reconstruction in only forty years (Mytum Reference Mytum2013: ch. 3).
Sharples’s case is supported by the evidence from two sites in southern England. At High Post in Wessex the remains of a ‘communal feast’ were preserved beneath the bank of a newly built enclosure. They included twenty-five cattle, six sheep, a pig, and a horse and must have been deposited when the earthwork was constructed, otherwise they would not have survived (A. Powell Reference Powell2011). The same might apply to a deposit found at the hillfort at Aylesbury which was composed of a mass of animal bones associated with the disarticulated remains of a woman and four children (Farley and G. Jones Reference Farley and Jones2012). This deposit contained at least twenty-one sheep, and again it may have been deposited when the structure was being built. Both assemblages formed at about the same time and in similar circumstances. Other deposits come from the interior of hillforts, enclosures, and open settlements. Again large quantities of meat bones were buried together, although some of the carcasses were intact and cannot have been consumed. It is more difficult to interpret the collections of carbonised grain found in similar contexts, because it is seldom clear how they had been burnt and why they entered the ground.
Deposits like these were not restricted to defended sites. A recent development is the discovery of two large hoards of iron cauldrons, one from Glenfield in the Midlands (J. Thomas Reference Thomas2018), and the other from an unenclosed settlement at Chiseldon in Wessex (Baldwin and Joy Reference Baldwin and Joy2017). The Chiseldon hoard contained seventeen cauldrons and two cattle skulls and dated to the fourth or third century bc. The authors of the definitive account of this discovery conclude that the intact cauldrons in this collection could have supplied enough food for a gathering of 600 people.
Similar events may have taken place at other settlements. In spite of their marginal locations, the wetland settlements of Glastonbury and Meare in south-west England are associated with an extraordinary abundance of artefacts (J. Coles Reference Coles1987; J. Coles and Minnitt Reference Coles and Minnitt1995). The authors of the most recent account of these two sites suggest that they acted like medieval fairs, as seasonal meeting places where goods were made and exchanged and where social transactions took place. That seems even more likely in the light of new evidence that these ‘lake villages’ were readily accessible at the head of a channel leading to the sea (Aalbersberg and T. Brown Reference Aalbersberg and Brown2011). The same interpretation might apply to other areas that were occupied on a discontinuous basis or where large numbers of people gathered for only part of the year, for example the high-quality grazing land at Crick in the east Midlands (Hughes et al. Reference Hughes, Woodward, Barnett, Bashford and Bredon2015), or some of the Iron Age settlements of the Fenland (C. Evans and Hodder Reference Evans and Hodder2006). A further possibility is that older monuments were brought back into use by the wider community. One candidate is the henge monument of the Devil’s Quoits in the Upper Thames Valley (Fig. 6.8). Lambrick and Allen have suggested that it was surrounded by a large area of pasture shared by the occupants of different settlements (Reference Lambrick and Allen2004). Another example might be the Ferrybridge henge in north-east England. In this case the area outside the Neolithic monument was enclosed by a series of pit alignments associated with human burials, and a scabbard was deposited inside the ancient enclosure. In the surrounding area there was probably a small shrine (Roberts Reference Roberts2005). The activities that took place at the most famous hillforts may have happened in other places, too.
Variations on an original theme
The West and North
If these features represent the main currents in the archaeology of the Iron Age, in some parts of Britain and Ireland they were expressed in very different ways. Until recently little was known about Irish settlements of the late first millennium bc, and hillforts had apparently gone out of use there. The best chance way of finding the ‘missing’ sites is by dating the ore roasting pits and grain drying kilns identified in fieldwork. A few do date from this period; the ‘royal sites’ which assumed a growing importance during the first century bc are considered separately. Otherwise it is clear that post-built roundhouses similar to those of the Bronze Age remained important in the pre-Roman Iron Age, but they are so rare that other settlements may have contained more ephemeral structures which have left no trace behind. Recently published excavations suggest that there were few buildings on any one site, and there is little to show that these places were enclosed (Corlett and Potterton Reference Corlett and Potterton2012). There was possibly a reduction in the cultivated area or in the intensity with which the land was exploited. That is certainly suggested by pollen analysis (Plunkett Reference Plunkett, Murphy and Whitehouse2007).
The field evidence from western Britain is very different. It possesses a distinctive character which is not a unique feature of insular prehistory, for there are similar sites in a number of regions along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe, including Finistère, Galicia, and northern Portugal (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2001a: 336–52). In each case the settlement pattern was dominated by a dense distribution of small fortified enclosures. These were often circular constructions, but along the coast they could be supplemented by a distribution of promontory forts. Those in Brittany are compared with examples in south-west England.
There were other links between the regions along the western limit of the Continent. In the Iberian Peninsula the circular enclosures or castros were normally associated with roundhouses – it was only during the Roman period that they were replaced by rectangular buildings – and, where more impressive defences were built, they could be supplemented by a chevaux de frise: a setting of upright stones so called because it was thought to impede attackers on horseback. Their distribution is revealing for, like that of circular dwellings, it focuses on Britain, Ireland, and Iberia. Examples are found on sites in north and west Wales, in eastern and south-west Scotland, and along the west coast of Ireland (Harbison Reference Harbison1972). Their overall chronology is uncertain, and individual examples could be earlier or later than the period considered here, but the chevaux de frise at Castell Henllys in south-west Wales is dated to 400–370 bc (Mytum Reference Mytum2013: ch. 5).
Several distinctive features characterise the earthwork enclosures of western Britain, including those on the Isle of Man. Most are fairly small, but individual examples can be massively defended (Fig. 6.9). In south-west Wales the entrance is sometimes emphasised by monumental outworks. They contain a relatively small number of circular houses as well as raised storage structures, but their relationship to one another is not consistent from site to site. At Walesland Rath the putative granaries lined the inner edge of the rampart, and the houses were located in the middle of the enclosure (Wainwrght Reference Wainwright1971); at Woodside they were to the right of the gateway, and the dwellings were towards the rear of the enclosure; whilst at Dan Y Coed the positions of both groups of buildings overlapped (G. Williams and Mytum Reference Williams and Mytum1998). Another way of providing secure storage was by constructing a kind of cellar. In Cornwall, it took the form of a stone-lined trench, roofed by a series of lintels, and in this case it could be associated with an individual house (Christie Reference Christie1978; Herring et al. Reference Herring, Johnson, Nowakowsi, Sharpe and Young2016: ch. 7). These features are called souterrains and also occur in Brittany (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2001a: 248–9). There is no obvious difference between the structures found on these sites and those inside the larger enclosures described as hillforts. Although there are some signs of open settlements during the Early and Middle Iron Ages, enclosures are densely distributed across the landscape and may have been largely self-sufficient.
Apart from differences of size – most of the enclosures are quite small – the main distinctions between them concern the scale of the surrounding earthworks. In west Wales and south-west England many conformed to a precisely circular ground plan, as if to echo the same principle as the roundhouse. It was a tradition that was to last into the post-Roman period, when it had its counterpart among early ring forts in Ireland. The latter normally contain circular buildings. The early medieval Irish laws show that it was the scale of the perimeter earthwork that was the main way of displaying status. It was carefully controlled, so that the number of concentric earthworks enclosing a settlement site might have been related to the social position of its occupants (N. Edwards Reference Edwards1990: 33). Perhaps a similar model would explain the evidence from western Britain in the pre-Roman period.
There were other regions with a dense distribution of small circular enclosures. They include the uplands of northern England and southern Scotland, where the field evidence can be exceptionally well preserved (Fig. 6.10). The pattern extends further up the North Sea coast (Sherlock Reference Sherlock2012). It is clear that it goes back to the beginning of the Iron Age and that on either side of the English/Scottish border individual sites might be rebuilt on an increasingly impressive scale, so that an enclosure could be defined first by a palisade, and then by a low earthwork; certain sites were eventually defended by a rampart and ditch or by a substantial wall (D. Harding Reference Harding2017: ch. 3). The main feature inside these enclosures was the roundhouse. These structures occurred in varying numbers, from a single example to a dense distribution of buildings, but some of them were as large as any dwellings occupied during this period. Individual settlements can be associated with plots of cultivated land which seem to have been worked by hand (Topping Reference Topping1989), but in this case there is no sign of specialised storage structures. The upland enclosures have counterparts on lowland soils, for instance the excavated hillfort at Broxmouth (Armit and McKenzie Reference Armit and McKenzie2013), but they are difficult to interpret as few artefacts or food remains survive. The results of development-led excavation show that open sites also existed there. In central and north-east Scotland houses within these settlements were often associated with souterrains (Dunwell and Ralston Reference Dunwell and Ralston2008; D. Harding Reference Harding2017). There is also evidence of iron working, especially on the Moray Firth (Hatherley and R. Murray in press). Both elements are largely absent from the hillforts of the same period, suggesting that these places were used in a different way.
It is hard to say whether the upland enclosures which have dominated the discussion were inhabited all year. Many were in exposed positions and might have been inhospitable or inaccessible in winter. Moreover, the houses rarely show much sign of maintenance or repair, suggesting that they had not been occupied for long (Halliday Reference Halliday1999). The same problems affect the largest hillforts in highland Britain. They are strongly defended, they were built in dominant positions, and they enclose the sites of many circular buildings, but it is difficult to see how they could have been inhabited continuously. They might have been used during the summer months when conditions were more favourable, but in any case the sheer density of internal buildings is not consistent with the character of the local environment which would not have been capable of supporting a large population. Again it is tempting to suggest that these were aggregation sites, used on an occasional basis and possibly in the course of transhumance. A number of these monuments adopted a curvilinear ground plan.
The tendency to build self-contained enclosures reached its apogee in northern Scotland, the Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland where some of the strongest patterning has been obscured by disagreements about terminology and chronology (D. Harding Reference Harding2017: ch. 5). Again the circular archetype was very important and extended from individual dwellings to monumental walled enclosures (Fig. 6.11). All these features were conceived on an impressive scale. They vary from crannogs built in open water to small walled compounds, and from relatively insubstantial dwellings to massive domestic buildings, the most impressive of which – the brochs or ‘Atlantic round houses’ of the Scottish mainland, the Western and Northern Isles – resemble towers (Romankiewicz Reference Romankiewicz2011). Some of these structures are isolated but densely distributed and were surely designed to impress, whilst others can be found inside defended enclosures which contain a variety of other buildings. Many were along the coast where there were also promontory forts.
Here is another case in which large roundhouses may have been an important settlement form from an early stage of the Iron Age. Armit (Reference Armit2003b) argued that structures ancestral to brochs were built as early as 600 bc and that during the Iron Age stone buildings in Atlantic Scotland became increasingly complex. Excavations at Old Scatness in the Shetland Islands provide evidence that the first brochs were in the north, rather than the west as was once supposed. Here an ambitious dating programme showed that a well-preserved example was constructed between 390 and 200 bc and was enclosed by a circular ditch (Dockrill et al. Reference Dockrill, Bond, Turner, Brown, Bashford, Cussans and Nicholson2015). These structures are characterised by such features as internal staircases and guard cells. They had more than one storey, and it is obvious that they were roofed (Romankiewicz Reference Romankiewicz2011). They have been interpreted as defended high-status dwellings, but Atlantic roundhouses occur so widely that this could be misleading (Fig. 6.12).
Some of the structural principles that characterise brochs extend to other forms of defensive architecture: to the circular walled enclosures known as duns and even to the monumental gateways of a number of promontory forts in Shetland (D. Harding Reference Harding2017: 188–92). Another key element is the way in which domestic structures were organised. In some brochs there seems to have been a communal space with a hearth in the centre of the building. It was ringed by a range of compartments which were divided from one another by partitions projecting from the interior wall (Romankiewicz Reference Romankiewicz2011). In Shetland and the Hebrides, this principle was expressed on a smaller scale by the buildings known as ‘wheelhouses’. Sometimes they were built after the broch themselves, but at Old Scatness they formed part of a larger settlement that extended between the central structure and the earthwork perimeter (Dockrill et al. Reference Dockrill, Bond, Turner, Brown, Bashford, Cussans and Nicholson2015). Here they were built while the broch remained in use. Another example at Cnip in the Hebrides was of the same age – the second or first century bc – although similar buildings were occupied beyond the period considered in this chapter (Armit Reference Armit2006). There are important contrasts between these different kinds of structures. Wheelhouses were sometimes recessed into the ground, whereas brochs were conspicuous monuments, and on certain sites the domestic accommodation was probably at first-floor level. Wheelhouses were occasionally associated with souterrains, but the connection between storage structures and individual dwellings was entirely different from the more centralised system illustrated by hillforts in southern England. Both kinds of structure were associated with deposits of artefacts and animal bones similar to those in other parts of Iron Age Britain, and Kate Waddington (Reference Waddington2014) has shown how their distribution within the Orcadian structure at Howe was similar to that inside timber roundhouses in the south.
The Midlands and the East Coast
In many ways the Scottish sites combine two of the elements discussed so far, the enclosure and the roundhouse, and sometimes they fused them together in a single structure. A very different tradition remains to be defined. If the Atlantic roundhouses are conspicuous features of the northern landscape, the settlements of eastern and midland England have left little trace behind, and most are known from air photography or from development-led excavations. Others have been identified from scatters of surface finds identified by metal detectors.
In his study of Iron Age Britain Cunliffe suggests that the region between the Thames and the Humber was dominated by ‘villages and open settlements’ (Fig. 6.13; Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2005: fig. 4.3). That pattern extended further to the north and westward as far as the zone of hillforts that follows the modern border between England and Wales, but the division is not clear-cut, for earthwork enclosures are common in both the Midlands and the Thames Estuary, and some hillforts occur in both areas. Moreover, open settlements are among the largest occupation sites in the Yorkshire Wolds and neighbouring areas (Fenton-Thomas Reference Fenton-Thomas2009 and Reference Fenton-Thomas2011; F. Brown et al. Reference Brown, Howard-Davies, Brennand, Boyle, Evans, O’Connor, Spence, Heawood and Lupton2007). Such regional divisions only describe broad tendencies in the evidence, but there are similar distinctions in the settlement pattern of the Roman period (A. Smith et al. Reference Smith, Allen, Brindle and Fulford2016).
There is considerable variation. At the heart of this zone are eastern England, the Midlands, and parts of north-east England. Enclosed sites are not particularly common here. Although some standing earthworks have been identified as hillforts, it is uncertain whether all of them were used intensively (J. Davies et al. Reference Davies, Gregory, Lawson, Pickett and Rogerson1991). Instead, occupation sites extend over considerable areas, sometimes changing their centre of gravity over time (C. Evans, Appleby, and Lucy Reference Evans, Appleby and Lucy2015: ch. 4; Lewis et al. Reference Lewis, Leivers, Brown, Smith, Cramp, Mepham and Phillpotts2010: 223–75; Roberts Reference Roberts2005: 53–125). They had few fixed boundaries, although individual houses or small groups of houses might have been located in compounds within a more extensive living area (Fig. 6.14; Hill Reference Hill, Davies and Williamson1999; J. Thomas Reference Thomas2010; K. Powell, Smith, and Laws Reference Powell, Smith and Laws2010; Lambrick and Robinson Reference Lambrick and Robinson2009). These houses were interspersed with granaries and storage pits, but they could also occupy distinct zones within the occupied area, much as they did within hillforts. In some cases rectilinear compounds were built onto one another as the settled area increased in size, a process that would have been difficult to achieve in a landscape of circular enclosures. These settlements contain larger and more varied artefact assemblages than their predecessors.
It is not clear how many of the structures were contemporary with one another, making it difficult to decide whether these sites should be described as villages. Hill (Reference Hill, Davies and Williamson1999) suggests an interesting comparison between these places and the ‘wandering settlements’ of the same date in Northern Europe, where houses and other structures were abandoned and replaced after a limited period of use. Their positions shifted, but over a restricted area so that the dwellings occupied during successive phases had mutually exclusive distributions. In eastern and midland England that process could easily have generated the large areas of buildings, pits, and ditches that now survive. Another possibility is that certain of the settlements resulted from the amalgamation of smaller units as larger numbers of people elected to live together in one place and to give up such independence as they had once possessed. The relationships between their separate elements may be expressed by the ways in which compounds and individual dwellings were joined on to one another over time. If the occupation sites served large communities in this way, it could explain why there was less need to coordinate activities through the use of hillforts. That is why some of the large open settlements in midland England have been characterised as ‘hillforts without the hills’ (J. Thomas Reference Thomas2010: 22). One reason for making this comparison is that both of them include small square structures that are usually interpreted as shrines. Such buildings have long been recognised as an important characteristic of hillforts, but new excavation has shown that they occur even more often in the open settlements of the Thames Valley, the Midlands, and eastern England (Lyons Reference Lyons2011).
The most extensively investigated of these settlements was at Crick where the number of houses increased sharply from about 450 bc and continued to grow until the middle of the second century bc (Hughes et al. Reference Hughes, Woodward, Barnett, Bashford and Bredon2015). This ‘aggregated settlement’ was composed of a series of separate clusters of roundhouses and enclosures that developed around a low-lying area which was probably used as summer pasture (Fig. 6.15). Its outer limit was defined by a linear earthwork. Small enclosures or other compounds were constructed increasingly often, but there is little sign of an orderly layout. The excavators favour the view that some of the structures were used seasonally. There was little evidence of craft production, and the only specialised structure at Crick was a small shrine. Even so, it can hardly be a coincidence that the settlement increased in size and complexity in parallel with the developed hillforts in other parts of Britain. Indeed the number of buildings in some of the defended sites was similar to that at Crick (and other settlements which have been investigated on a smaller scale). It is even more striking that when the intensity of activity at Crick diminished during the second century bc some of the largest defended sites also went out of use. Apart from the obvious point that these open settlements were never fortified, the main contrast is between the orderly layout observed at some – but not all – of the hillforts, and the more fluid organisation of space in these ‘villages’ (J. Thomas Reference Thomas2010). Even that statement would not apply to a few open settlements in south-east England and the upper Thames which include rows or grids of raised storehouses like those at the defended sites (Booth et al. Reference Booth, Champion, Foreman, Garwood, Glass, Munby and Reynolds2011; Hayden et al. Reference Hayden, Early, Biddulph and Anderson-Whymark2017: ch. 5).
In some respects this account has followed a conventional sequence, starting with the larger enclosures and hillforts, and then turning to smaller sites in the north and west before finally considering the open settlements of eastern and midland England. That reflects the extent of current knowledge, where certain regions have been intensively excavated at the expense of others, but it may not reflect the actual situation in prehistory. For all the labour invested in their construction, hillforts could have been a rather peripheral phenomenon, on the margin of a more prosperous and perhaps more expansive system with its emphasis on the English Midlands and the North Sea coast. Perhaps it would be better to think in even broader geographical terms, so that the large open settlements of those areas could be the local equivalents of sites in Northern Europe, whilst the enclosed sites in the south might be compared with their counterparts in the north of France (Bradley Reference Bradley, Dowd and Hensey2016: 265–85). The tradition of building small but monumental compounds along the west coast of Britain may be part of a still wider phenomenon extending southwards into Atlantic Europe (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2001a: fig. 8.16). That mental adjustment provides a corrective to accounts of this period which are conceived on too small a scale.
The pattern of change
The character of the largest hillforts seems to have changed in parallel with the growth of open settlements, but for the most part these sites are found in different areas: villages in the Midlands and eastern England, and the largest defended sites in a zone extending from the south coast through the Welsh Marches (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2005: fig. 4.3). With notable exceptions, there were fewer of these monuments to the east, and those in the west of Britain were usually smaller and assumed local forms. Only after the largest hillforts went of use were large open settlements distributed across a wider area. In Dorset, for instance, the large open settlement known as Duropolis was established after the local hillforts had been abandoned (Russell and Cheetham Reference Russell and Cheetham2016).
Just as the villages showed a gradual evolution between about 450 and 150 bc, the character of some of the best-known defensive sites changed, but again this does not appear to have been a sudden event. Cunliffe’s distinction between ‘early’ and ‘developed’ hillforts identifies some contrasts in their morphology but is also influenced by changes in the way in which individual examples were used (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2005: ch. 15).
The most obvious feature is that their number decreased at the same time as particular sites were rebuilt on a larger scale (Fig. 6.16). This applies to a number of separate elements. In some cases, for instance Maiden Castle or the Iron Age phase of Hambledon Hill, the enclosed area increased, and the defences took in a larger area of ground. As a result the circular layout of the original enclosure was lost. At the same time the number of entrances might be reduced, restricting access to the interior (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2005: 378–96). The defensive circuit could also be rebuilt on a more impressive scale. The banks might be higher and the ditches wider and deeper, and less use was made of timber revetments that would have required constant maintenance. Most of the earlier hillforts had been defined by a single defensive circuit. Now their earthworks could be replicated so that they had wider perimeters. Thus Maiden Castle was defined by three concentric ramparts and the neighbouring sites of Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill by two. Their number could be augmented by the construction of outworks to protect the entrance which became more elaborate over time. It is a moot point how far these changes resulted from increased fears of attack, but a few of these sites include large collections of slingstones (R. Robertson Reference Robertson2016).
Significant changes happened inside these monuments. In several cases there is evidence that many more people lived there, and it seems possible that some of the settlements in the vicinity went out of use. This seems particularly likely in the case of Danebury and Maiden Castle, but the excavated evidence from these hillforts is complemented by earthwork and geophysical surveys at other sites which have identified the positions of a large number of houses (D. Stewart and Russell Reference Stewart and Russell2017). It seems as if some of Cunliffe’s developed hillforts assumed new roles towards the end of their history (O. Davis Reference Davis2013). Sharples (Reference Sharples, Fernández-Götz, Wendling and Winger2014) argues that in their later phases these places were effectively ‘hill towns’. That development ran in parallel with the growth of open settlements in other parts of England, and in each case the largest examples contained a similar number of buildings. A defended site like that at Hod Hill where numerous structures are documented had more in common with an unenclosed settlement than is often supposed. At the same time storage pits assumed a greater importance than raised granaries. Now it was more important to conceal the harvested grain than it was to put it on display.
A number of developed hillforts contain a distinctive artefact assemblage. Sheet bronze artefacts were being made at Danebury and Maiden Castle during their later phases, and the same happened at Cadbury Castle (Northover Reference Northover, Cunliffe and Miles1984). This is only one of a series of new associations. Swords are also found at these places (Stead Reference Stead2006). From the third century bc, so are iron currency bars (Hingley Reference Hingley, Haselgrove and Wigg-Wolf2005). Another clue to the changing role of the last hillforts has been suggested by Creighton, who draws attention to the increasing importance of the horse, both as a symbol of power displayed on the first pre-Conquest coins and for its use in warfare (Reference Creighton2000). Horse bones were particularly common at the Hampshire hillfort of Bury Hill which included the remains of a burnt chariot (Garrow and Gosden Reference Garrow and Gosden2012: 280–7). They also occur in a number of specialised deposits on open sites in eastern England. Perhaps the roles of important places were changing.
Early hillforts were widely distributed, but their successors were fewer and more strongly fortified. They were also more evenly distributed, and in regions like the South Downs, the Wessex chalk, the Cotswolds, and the Welsh Marches they do appear to have dominated specific areas of land. Places that originated as ritual centres and assembly sites developed into defended settlements. It is hard to resist the argument that the status of their occupants changed and that social distinctions were forming where they had been under-emphasised or suppressed before. Iron Age society was becoming more violent and more competitive.
Royal Centres in Ireland
If the history of British hillforts was influenced by two important factors – control over agriculture and its products, and the growing importance of armed conflict – events in Ireland took a different course, and here a mythical past was more important. Hillforts had gone out of use by the end of the Bronze Age, and direct evidence of cereal and livestock farming is very limited indeed (Corlett and Potterton Reference Corlett and Potterton2012). Burials still took place at small monuments of a kind that had been built since the Early Bronze Age, but the artefacts deposited with the dead do not suggest any significant differences of status or wealth; the commonest grave goods were glass beads. By the end of the first century bc, however, a series of remarkable monuments, described as royal capitals in the literature of the Middle Ages, had been established, and the landscapes around them were transformed. What accounts for this development?
One point is generally agreed. The royal centres of Iron Age Ireland owed little or nothing to developments in Continental Europe. They were an almost defiantly local phenomenon with no close counterparts even in the neighbouring island. The Irish sites include massive timber buildings which were greatly enlarged versions of insular prototypes (Bradley Reference Bradley, O’ Sullivan, Scarre and Doyle2013b). At the same time they incorporated the remains of more ancient monuments, and their outward forms even emulated those constructions. In some cases older enclosures of some importance were reused. That was the case at Navan Fort (Waterman Reference Waterman1997). On other sites early mounds or stone settings took on a new significance. That was certainly the case at Tara where a Neolithic passage grave provided the focus for a new series of monuments (C. Newman Reference Newman1997a). That seems doubly significant as it had already been reused as one of the largest Early Bronze Age cemeteries in Ireland (M. O’Sullivan Reference O’Sullivan2005). At Knockaulin a structure associated with Carrowkeel Ware was situated in the centre of the Iron Age complex (S. Johnston and Wailes Reference Johnston and Wailes2007). In the second or first century bc decorated bone plaques were deposited inside two of the Neolithic monuments at Loughcrew (Vejby Reference Vejby2016), and another megalithic monument at Kiltierney was ringed by low mounds and brought back into commission as a cemetery (Raftery Reference Raftery1994: 192–3). It even seems possible that small stone chambers were constructed at that time and decorated with a peculiarly local version of La Tène art (Shee Twohig Reference Shee Twohig1981: 235–7; Vejby Reference Vejby2016).
This was not a sudden development, although the largest monuments – those at Navan Fort and on the Hill of Tara – were constructed during the first century bc. There were precedents for the creation of specialised monuments at an earlier stage. The clearest example is a circular enclosure at Lismullin on the edge of the Tara landscape (Fig. 6.17; A. O’Connell Reference O’Connell2013). It conforms to the same organisation of space as the earthworks constructed on the hilltop, but it was conceived on a modest scale and used in the fourth and third centuries bc. The same is true of the earlier enclosures and buildings at Navan (Waterman Reference Waterman1997). They were created in what were already special places, some of which evoked links with the distant past. Navan Fort overlooks a lake containing a remarkable collection of metalwork (Raftery Reference Raftery1994: 184), but the earthwork was within sight of a Bronze Age hillfort which had been associated with another pool with votive deposits (Lynn Reference Lynn1977). Similarly, a decorated stone introduced to the site at Lismullin seems to have been taken from a Neolithic tomb (A. O’Connell Reference O’Connell2013: 36–9), and the same may have happened at Haughey’s Fort (Mallory Reference Mallory, Waddell and Twohig1995: 81). Later Iron Age burials clustered around the principal passage grave at Knowth (G. Eogan and Roche Reference Eogan and Roche1997), and in the Roman period votive deposits were placed in front of the entrance of Newgrange which may have been modified at this time (Ó Néil Reference Ó Néil, O’ Sullivan, Scarre and Doyle2013). If the growth of Irish royal centres owed little to outside influence, it seems to have been impelled by a concern with the insular past. These places provide evidence of feasting, craft production, and the deposition of human and animal remains. They may have been the sites of assemblies not unlike those associated with Neolithic monuments, and the bones found at Navan Fort show that animals were taken there from many parts of Ireland (Madgwick et al. Reference Madgwick, Grimes, Lamb and McCormick2017). Again relations with the past and the supernatural may have been as important as more direct expressions of political authority.
Only one of these sites is documented in any detail (Fig. 6.18). Navan Fort in northern Ireland is best known as the legendary capital of the kingdom of Ulster and the home of the gods of the underworld, but the archaeological sequence has much to add to what is known about its legendary associations. It was originally one of the Late Bronze Age ringworks discussed in Chapter 5, but, unlike the other examples, it remained in use throughout the pre-Roman Iron Age. During that period the monument consisted of a circular earthwork enclosure with a sequence of wooden buildings in the centre. It was not until the beginning of the first century bc that the scale of the monument increased significantly, and it may be no accident that during the later pre-Roman Iron Age there is unusual evidence for long-distance contacts along the Atlantic coastline (Waterman Reference Waterman1997). Excavation of the monument between 1961 and 1971 brought to light the skull of a Barbary ape, which must have been introduced to the site from its natural habitat in Gibraltar or North Africa. Its authenticity is confirmed by radiocarbon dating. At the same time the landscape to the south of Navan Fort was subdivided by linear earthworks, part of a system that seems to be contemporary with the royal centres in the north of the island. A timber road was built at Corlea during this phase (Raftery Reference Raftery1996), and the entire hill at Navan was enclosed by an earthwork which resembled a Neolithic henge. Its Iron Age date was established by excavation (Mallory Reference Mallory2000).
At the centre of this enclosure there was what may have been the largest roundhouse ever constructed, a massive building 37 m in diameter with a gigantic post at its centre. According to dendrochronology the timber was felled in 95 or 94 bc. Unlike a domestic structure, it was entered from the west, the position of the setting sun (Waterman Reference Waterman1997). It is possible that it was roofed, but there was no sign of a hearth, nor were any domestic artefacts found there. No sooner had it been constructed than the interior was packed with rubble and the outer wall was set on fire. Then, once it had collapsed, it was buried beneath an enormous mound. Warner (Reference Warner2000) is surely right when he suggests that the site was regarded as an entrance to the underworld and that this building was the dwelling place of supernatural beings. The purely archaeological evidence is extraordinary, and this monument surely took the symbol of the circular building to its limits. This development traces a very different trajectory from the history of hillforts on the neighbouring island.
An end of isolation
The Early and Middle Iron Ages are sometimes characterised as periods of comparative isolation, and it is true that they provide less evidence than the later Bronze Age for the movement of valuable artefacts between these islands and the Continent. This may be deceptive. In 1964 Roy Hodson wrote an influential article emphasising the individual character of the lowland English Iron Age. It was typified by a distinctive type of personal ornament and by two widely distributed features which seemed to be peculiar to this region: bone or antler weaving combs and the occupation of roundhouses. More recent work, much of it necessitated by commercial development between The Netherlands and Brittany, has weakened this assertion. Objects that once appeared to be exclusively British types have been identified on both sides of the water, and new fieldwork in northern France has identified some circular buildings (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe, Hunter and Ralston2015; Webley Reference Webley, Anderson-Whymark, Garrow and Sturt2015).
Hodson also commented on the absence of formal cemeteries in Britain until the middle of this period. He described it as a ‘negative type fossil’ (Hodson Reference Hodson1964: 105) and placed it the heart of an insular ‘Woodbury Culture’, named after Little Woodbury, one of the first Iron Age settlements to be excavated on a large scale. The choice of name was unfortunate as a small inhumation cemetery has since been discovered only 200 m from that site (A. Powell Reference Powell2015). Others have been identified in the same region and can also be found in northern Britain. It is true that Early Iron Age cemeteries are still very rare, but it is becoming clear that even on the Continent they were only one way of treating the dead. The distinctive deposits found in grain storage pits are not peculiar to Britain and are common from the north of Germany to the west of France (Bradley et al. Reference Bradley, Haselgrove, Vander Linden and Webley2016a: fig. 6.20). Similarly, the distribution of the bog bodies which are so famous in Scandinavia and the Low Countries extends to Britain and Ireland (E. Kelly Reference Kelly2006). They may be related to the deposits of human remains, mainly skulls, in rivers like the Thames. That practice was considered in Chapter 5 but extended continuously from the Middle Bronze Age to the end of the pre-Roman Iron Age (Schulting and Bradley Reference Schulting and Bradley2014). Something similar has been identified by excavation at Over in the Fenland where disarticulated human bones were associated with a platform on the edge of a river and were found together with the remains of birds, animals, and a collection of brooches (C. Evans Reference Evans2013).
More obvious links were formed between these regions from the fourth century bc and possibly before. The principal sources of information are these: the development of specialised sites on the coast; increasing evidence of craft production in the hinterland; the appearance of more formal cemeteries; the adoption of ‘Celtic art’; and the first use of coins.
There were specialised sites on the coast during several periods of prehistory. They provided sheltered harbours where commodities could change hands. These places were associated with the making of special artefacts, and unusual numbers of non-local objects have been found there. During the early fourth century bc one was the offshore island of Ictis. Pytheas records that it was where tin was obtained by traders from overseas, but ‘Ictis’ may have been a generic name for this kind of location (Griffith and Wilkes Reference Griffith and Wilkes2006). Similar places are widely distributed (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2001a: 402–7). One was Mountbatten in Plymouth Harbour, and others included Merthyr Mawr in South Wales, Meols in north-west England, and North Ferriby on the Humber Estuary. The same could apply to Harlyn Bay in Cornwall and Lambay Island off the east coast of Ireland where Iron Age cemeteries have been identified (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2001a: 345 and 417). Most of these places had played a similar role during earlier periods.
The best known of these sites was Hengistbury Head: a defended promontory protecting a sheltered harbour and an important river leading into Wessex (Figs. 6.19 and 6.20; Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe1987). It was one of a series of coastal settlements engaged in overseas trade at the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition. During this phase the excavated part of the site was dominated by an unusually large roundhouse, comparable to those further inland. Hengistbury Head became even more important during the period in which southern Britain again engaged in regular contact with the mainland, and at this stage it seems to have acted as both a seaport and a production site. From 100 bc, if not before, it enjoyed a wide range of contacts extending from northern and western France to south-west England, and it was through this site that metals were exported to the Continent and a variety of exotic commodities, including wine, were introduced. Only a small part of the site has been investigated, but it seems to have been most important during the earlier first century bc. Not far away at Green Island in Poole Harbour massive piers or jetties were built during the second century bc (Markey, Wilkes, and Darvill Reference Markey, Wilkes and Darvill2002; Wilkes Reference Wilkes, Cummings and Johnston2007).
Not surprisingly, the resurgence of long-distance trade depended on craft production in the hinterland, and it was about this time that ironworking assumed a new significance. That applied to important places by the sea – Hengistbury Head was an important source of ore, and a series of settlements in Scotland also engaged in metalworking (Hunter Reference Hunter, Hunter and Ralston2015). It is possible that the new development ran in parallel with increased salt production which is evidenced along the shoreline from north-east England to Cornwall; there were other production sites at brine springs in the Midlands (Kinory Reference Kinory2012). Decorated pottery was distributed from a series of specialised workshops (Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2005: ch. 5), and the same applies to the querns needed to process grain (Peacock Reference Peacock2013: 135–41). None of these processes should be described as an ‘industry’ in the terms that are familiar today. Some of the ceramic vessels carried similar motifs to fine metalwork, and intact or broken querns were often deposited in hoards or built into the fabric of houses (Watts Reference Watts2014). From the third century bc iron was formed into standard units some of which were modelled on the forms of swords; they were often deposited at the boundaries of settlements and hillforts (Hingley Reference Hingley, Haselgrove and Wigg-Wolf2005).
The production of iron may have involved similar protocols to Bronze Age metalworking. There are several clues. At Garton Slack in north-east England the tools used for working iron were buried together in a deposit of burnt grain (Giles Reference Giles2007), and in Orkney the unusual ceremonial site of Mine Howe was associated with evidence of smithing as well as feasting and the treatment of the dead (Card et al. Reference Card, Downes, Gibson, Murray, Sharman and Whalley2005). Here a natural mound was enclosed by a ditch, with a deep shaft at its centre. In the Irish midlands iron was smelted in a series of secluded locations, but finished artefacts were made in public on prominent hilltops (Dolan Reference Dolan2016). Similarly, the impressive promontory fort on Trevelgue Head in south-west England was not only associated with ironworking, it included an enormous roundhouse. Something of its significance is indicated by its use during the Roman period when the site became an ‘open ceremonial centre’ (Nowakowsi and Quinnell Reference Nowakowski and Quinnell2011). By that time it included an unusual ceramic assemblage best suited to large-scale food consumption, and a large collection of coins whose composition recalls the offerings at rural shrines. Yet another indication of the special role of craft production is the use of caves for working iron. They might have been kept apart from settlements to avoid the risk of accident, but a recent commentator has pointed out that those in the Mendips were hidden and difficult to reach (Bryant Reference Bryant and Lewis2011). The transformation of the raw material might have taken place in secret.
In his discussion of this period Hodson (Reference Hodson1964) commented on the striking similarity between the Iron Age burials of the Yorkshire Wolds and those in Champagne, the Ardennes, and the Middle Rhine. They stood out from the insular character of the British Iron Age and probably originated during the fourth century bc, but they may have gone out of use during the first century when settlements expanded over some of the graves.
These burials have been attributed to a unitary ‘Arras Culture’, but in some respects they are surprisingly diverse. The best known are a small series of vehicle burials, which have occasional counterparts elsewhere in eastern and southern Britain (Stead Reference Stead1991; Giles Reference Giles2012). They were deposited over a comparatively short period around 200 bc. They resemble their Continental counterparts in many ways, but the details of the funeral rite are subtly different and so are the associated artefacts. The vehicles were usually dismantled, and the bodies were laid out in the crouched position that characterises the British Iron Age. Even the associated artefacts are insular versions of European prototypes.
The same applies to barrow cemeteries in north-east England (Dent Reference Dent1982; Stead Reference Stead1991). They include concentrations of square mounds, defined by shallow ditches which allow these distinctive monuments to be recognised as crop marks. They developed over a long period of time but probably increased in number during the late third and second centuries bc. Occasional examples are associated with wooden shrines or mortuary houses similar to those in other parts of England. Many of the burials were laid out according to the specifically British tradition of flexed inhumation and accompanied by a selection of personal ornaments which were insular versions of Continental forms. It is possible that their distribution has been underestimated, as similar structures have been identified by air photography extending in smaller numbers down the North Sea into East Anglia (Whimster Reference Whimster1981). Similar monuments also follow the east coast of Scotland, but are normally dated to the later first millennium ad. In most cases this must be correct, but one example at Inverkeilor included an inhumation with a Roman Iron Age pin (D. Murray and Ralston Reference Murray and Ralston1997). A square cairn with a similar association at Loch Borralie was associated with a burial dated between 40 bc and ad 210 (MacGregor Reference MacGregor2004). By contrast, an exceptionally early chariot burial has been excavated at Newbridge on the outskirts of Edinburgh and dates from the fifth century bc (Carter, Hunter, and A. Smith Reference Carter, Hunter and Smith2010).
There is a subgroup of Arras Culture graves which differs from the norm. They contained extended inhumation burials accompanied by weapons and are a particular feature of the Makeshift cemetery at Rudston (Stead Reference Stead1991). They seem to be a late development within this local tradition and are probably related to a series of isolated ‘warrior burials’ found in other parts of these islands (Collis Reference Collis1973). There are not many, but their distribution extends across lowland England with a distinct concentration in Wessex. Outlying examples of burials with swords are recorded from central Scotland, North Wales, and the east coast of Ireland. Weapons were also found in the entrance of a ditched enclosure at Meole Brace in the Welsh Marches where a scabbard was deposited in one ditch terminal and a sword or dagger in the other one (Bain and J. Evans Reference Bain and Evans2011). These discoveries are important because they suggest that the symbolism of conflict and warfare was becoming increasingly significant (Fig. 6.21; Hunter Reference Hunter, Haselgrove and Wigg-Wolf2005). On the Yorkshire Wolds the same ethos is illustrated by a series of small chalk sculptures which depict warriors carrying swords (Giles Reference Giles2017). Like the changing character of southern and western British hillforts, this evidence suggests that the ‘egalitarian’ ethos of the earlier Iron Age had broken down.
The most extensively excavated barrow cemeteries are at Pocklington in Yorkshire (Ware Reference Ware2017), and at Garton Slack where the burials were placed by a linear earthwork on a site with earlier prehistoric round barrows (Brewster Reference Brewster1981; Dent Reference Dent1982). Here the cemetery developed alongside a large open settlement which contained the usual mixture of roundhouses, raised granaries, and storage pits. What is especially interesting is that there are few signs of social distinctions within the living area, even though the cemetery contained some exceptionally rich burials. There are certain anomalies – a few of the houses departed from the usual easterly alignment; some of the buildings contained deposits of animal bone like those in southern England – but it would be impossible to postulate major differences of status from the structures in the settlement (Parker Pearson Reference Parker Pearson1999). Moreover, it is surely significant that the one region of Britain to possess a tradition of weapon graves does not seem to have included any hillforts of the same date. Even though the skeletal evidence from the cemeteries shows that certain individuals had engaged in combat (Dent Reference Dent1993), there is nothing that might be interpreted as military architecture. Perhaps the power of local communities depended on the large-scale production of iron in the Humber Estuary to the south of the Wolds (Halkon Reference Halkon2011). They could have controlled access to this valuable material and may have managed its export to other regions.
The evidence from the Yorkshire Wolds is quite anomalous, and nowhere more so than in the combination of square barrows of Continental inspiration with roundhouses of an insular kind. It is hard to understand their relationship. To add to the confusion, there are cases in which square mounds were built over the positions of circular dwellings and others where these two types respected one another, suggesting that circular houses of the living were replaced by rectilinear monuments to the dead (Figs. 6.22 and 6.23; Brewster Reference Brewster1981). Both halves of the same complex seem to have maintained their distinctive character over time. Perhaps this is most obvious from the concentration of infant burials associated with houses at Garton Slack. Similar deposits are widespread in Iron Age Britain, and yet the burials of adults were carried out with greater formality in the cemetery beside the living area (Parker Pearson Reference Parker Pearson1999).
Although the burials of the Arras Culture are different from their Continental counterparts, there was obviously a close relationship between them: so much so that it is perfectly possible that the Yorkshire Wolds were settled from overseas. This cannot be proved. Like Champagne, they are an area of chalk, meaning that so far isotopic analyses of human bone have not been able to distinguish between immigrants and people who were brought up locally (Jay et al. Reference Jay, Montgomery, Nehlick, Towers and Evans2013).
The distinctive artefacts associated with some of the graves pose a more general problem, for they clearly form part of a wider network that extended across large parts of Europe. It took its name from the famous Swiss site of La Tène (Jope Reference Jope2000). The forms of the British artefacts were clearly inspired by those on the mainland, but there is little to suggest that they were imports. Rather, they were made according to specifically local techniques and often show regional distinctions of their own.
The quality of these objects is exceptional as they include small personal items such as brooches and pins as well as swords with decorated hilts and scabbards, spearheads, cauldrons, and horse harnesses. They must have been produced by specialists and surely provide evidence for the importance of new patrons whose concerns included riding, feasting, and warfare. Much of this material may have been used to communicate the special status of particular people or ceremonies, but in the end it was placed in graves and votive deposits.
Fine metalwork was produced in Britain and Ireland with increasing frequency from the fourth century bc and some of the most distinctive items including torcs and horse gear were among the first to be made (Garrow and Gosden Reference Garrow and Gosden2012). The artefacts associated with weapon burials generally date between the fourth and second centuries bc, but some types were longer lived than others. For many years such objects were dated according to stylistic criteria, but the new research has been based on radiocarbon dating (Garrow et al. Reference Garrow, Gosden, Hill and Bronk Ramsey2009). It has had the welcome result that insular La Tène art is known to be contemporary with its Continental counterparts, even though it lasted longer in these islands.
Until comparatively recently fine metalwork had not played a major role in studies of the British Iron Age. Instead it was investigated by methods that combined archaeology with the history of art. Apart from those in graves, these objects lack an obvious context for they can be found in rivers rather than dry land. This evidence occurs in most parts of Britain and Ireland, but perhaps the best-documented group comes from Fiskerton in the Witham Valley in eastern England, where a timber causeway was associated with a large number of tools and weapons dating from this period (N. Field and Parker Pearson Reference Field and Parker Pearson2003). Fine metalwork also comes from a series of hoards. At Snettisham in eastern England gold and silver ornaments were deposited at a dry land sanctuary (Stead Reference Stead, Gosden, Crawford and Ulmschneider2014) – one of a series with views towards the Wash (Hutcheson Reference Hutcheson2004) – while in Scotland there are smaller sites that have been interpreted in the same terms. One was the findspot of the Deskford carnyx – a kind of trumpet (Hunter Reference Hunter2001). Another was a circular structure associated with four gold torcs which was built within a wet area at Blair Drummond (Hunter Reference Hunter2010). An earthwork reminiscent of a henge – perhaps a reused Neolithic monument – was established in a similar environment at Pict’s Knowe in the south-west, but in this case it contained wooden figurines (J. S. Thomas Reference Thomas2007b; Crone Reference Crone and Green2007). The ditch of another enclosure at Over Rig in the same region contained a wooden sword, a wooden platter or skillet, and a model boat. These distinctive sites are discussed by Mercer (Reference Mercer2018: ch. 16).
The La Tène style of ‘Celtic art’ extended into other spheres and is represented by decorated pottery in several areas of Britain, including parts of East Anglia and the east Midlands, but it is not found in the same area as the Arras Culture burials where the ceramics were plain. It is unclear whether decorated vessels played a specialised role, but they were particularly common in an enclosure at Weekley which seems to have been attached to a larger settlement with a different pottery assemblage. This enclosure was associated with a roundhouse, with finds of three iron spears and with evidence of metalworking. Again it could have been a sanctuary (D. Jackson and Dix Reference Jackson and Dix1987). A small selection of other artefacts, often personal ornaments, have been identified in excavation, but many more are known as chance finds. Their distribution is very striking indeed. The most elaborate metalwork, which is often described as parade armour, is mainly associated with the rivers discharging into the North Sea. The principal concentrations of surface finds echo this pattern and seem to be in the zone of large open sites in eastern England. Although there are numerous exceptions, the best provenanced artefacts often come from sites of that kind, although few examples have been investigated. From about 300 bc they include objects made of gold, whose use had lapsed since the Bronze Age. It seems increasingly likely that the largest settlements in this area provided the power base of new leaders.
If these observations apply to the British finds, they are even more relevant to Ireland. Because pottery went out of use around 800 bc, settlements have been difficult to identify. Instead attention has focused on other kinds of artefact. This approach poses problems. Again most of the metalwork comes from votive deposits in rivers, bogs, and lakes, and a smaller amount is found in hoards (Raftery Reference Raftery1984). It is associated with burials, but only a few graves contain brooches or other ornaments in the La Tène style. Querns, on the other hand, are domestic artefacts, but even these could take on a special character. Again some were placed in bogs, whilst others were decorated with the same designs as the finest artefacts, a style that extends to a series of decorated standing stones (Raftery Reference Raftery1994: 123). A particularly striking discovery came from a waterlogged site at Ballynaclogh in the west of the country (Maginess, O’Dowd, and Tierney Reference Maginess, O’Dowd, Tierney, McKean and O’Sullivan2014). It was by a spring that had been used intermittently since the Neolithic period. Here excavation recorded a series of deposits including part of a rotary quern, but there were also the bones of wild and domesticated animals which had been slaughtered on the site, a white quartz pebble, a decorated wooden bowl, and the head of a dog with a carved stick in its mouth. They were placed there at different times, but this collection provides some indication of the kinds of evidence that rarely survives.
The Irish evidence presents two special problems. There are very few finds of metalwork between the end of the Irish Bronze Age and the adoption of new styles inspired by developments on the Continent. Either fine artefacts were no longer being made, or the tradition of depositing them had lapsed. The latter seems more likely for it is a trend that can be recognised across much of North-west Europe. A second difficulty is that when the circulation of fine metalwork resumed – or rather its use as offerings – these finds were confined to only part of Ireland and almost entirely absent from the south (Raftery Reference Raftery1984). The same applies to the distribution of rotary querns which should date from the same period; in fact they are absent over an even larger area. How can such anomalies be explained? Perhaps the best solution is to focus on these supposedly mundane artefacts. They were obviously used for processing grain and seem to have replaced less efficient saddle querns, but the reasons for this change are seldom considered. Did it happen because they were more effective, or was it because the new technology allowed the preparation of greater amounts of food? In that case they could have played a social role. Maybe they were used in contexts that required large-scale consumption, and that may be why a few of them were decorated. Indeed their distribution may overlap with that of La Tène metalwork because both were associated with the activities of a restricted social group. In the south, life may have continued as before. Here there could have been less incentive for acts of conspicuous consumption, and a simpler way of treating cereals continued unchanged. Just as the use of decorated metalwork in Britain overlapped with developments in the pattern of settlement, in Ireland it was used in the period when the royal centres were established.
The Earliest Coins
The redating of La Tène art in Britain not only shows that it originated at the same time there and on the Continent, it also suggests that the supply of lavishly embellished artefacts was reduced at an earlier date than was originally supposed. This is important since the new chronology means that fine metalwork was less often made (or deposited) when coins entered the country. They can be considered as another kind of Iron Age ‘art’ but are usually studied separately (Haselgrove Reference Haselgrove1987; Nick Reference Nick, Burström and Ingvardson2018).
The first coins date to the mid-second century bc when their distribution centred on the Thames Estuary, although it extended into Kent and East Anglia. By 70 bc their numbers had increased, and in the middle of the first century bc they are also found along the south coast of England. The first coins were of gold, and because of their high value it is likely that they were employed in social transactions along with other valuables (Haselgrove Reference Haselgrove1987). That may be why their distribution complements that of torcs. It is likely that their roles included the formation and maintenance of alliances, diplomatic gifts, and offerings at temples and sanctuaries. The early issues have been described as ‘Gallo-Belgic’, but the term is confusing. The origins of these issues were indeed in Gaul, but the adjective ‘Belgic’ refers to a group of settlers from Continental Europe – the Belgae – whose presence was documented by Caesar. They are difficult to recognise from purely archaeological evidence.
A few coins from Brittany may have entered southern England through Hengistbury Head, and some potin coins (made from an alloy of bronze) appeared about 90 bc. The number of coins in circulation increased sharply at the time of Caesar’s invasion of Gaul, and it seems likely that by this time high-value coins were used to pay mercenaries who had taken part in the conflict (Wigg-Wolf Reference Wigg-Wolf, Burström and Ingvardson2018). Like the complex metalwork of this period, some were deposited in hoards and never recovered. Although the earliest Iron Age coins have restricted distributions, they provide yet another indication of the closeness of links between southern England and mainland Europe.
It is difficult to sum up such a wide range of evidence, particularly when it comes from so many sources: the use of hillforts in some areas; the evidence of burials in others; the discovery of open settlements with a distinctive range of surface finds; the growth of Irish royal sites; and the fine metalwork found in rivers and hoards. Even so, they all lead to a similar conclusion.
This discussion began by considering the impact of a diminishing supply of bronze from overseas. Access to this material had been one source of power, and food production may well have been reorganised so that local leaders could participate in exchange. As those connections fell away, their authority was threatened and, with it, their ability to form long-distance alliances. There followed a period in which social differences were less apparent, and the community itself may have played an important role. The house became a dominant symbol, and its characteristic layout may have influenced the organisation of enclosures and fortifications. Control over agricultural land and its products seems to have been of central importance. That is why grain storage pits were suitable places for burials.
That egalitarian ethos was not to last, and from about the fourth century bc in parts of Britain there was a greater emphasis on certain individuals, expressed through the development of new burial rites and particularly the importance of warfare. They were closely related to practice in Continental Europe, and that link was emphasised even more strongly by the adoption of a new suite of fine metalwork of foreign inspiration. Although these special artefacts had different associations, a similar process affected much of Britain as well as the northern half of Ireland. The circulation of these objects suggests some new concerns: the display of personal wealth and adornment, feasting, horse riding and the use of wheeled vehicles, and, above all, the importance of armed conflict. The latter is surely expressed by the later burials of the Arras Culture and perhaps by the changing character of major hillforts, and yet it was around the open settlements of the North Sea coastline and the royal centres of Ireland that much of the new wealth was concentrated. Eastern England enjoyed ready access to the sea and easy communications with Continental Europe. In that respect the new system had something in common with the political geography of the Late Bronze Age.
Between the fourth and second centuries bc both Britain and Ireland became more closely integrated with the European mainland than had been the case for many years, and it is no accident that it was in this period that Pytheas made the famous voyage described in Chapter 1. It seems clear that by then these islands already played a part in long-distance trade. It is sometimes claimed that it was the northward expansion of Roman power that provided the catalyst for changes in the insular sequence, but the chronological developments considered here suggest that it merely accelerated processes that were already under way. British society was very different when Julius Caesar first invaded lowland England in 55 bc, and between his second expedition and the Claudian conquest nearly a century later a more profound economic and political transformation occurred. These processes tend to overshadow the more subtle developments that have been considered here, but it is to see events through the eyes of Classical writers to believe that the influence of Rome was the only important factor. As Chapter 1 has demonstrated, these authors knew little about the societies they were describing, and could not understand the geography of the countries where those people lived.
That is not to underestimate the importance of contacts with the outside world, but it deserves a book in itself, and so do the intricate political relationships that developed between different areas before and after the Conquest of ad 43. Fortunately, such work is already available and rightly advances the view that the archaeology of the Late Iron Age is best studied in relation to a much longer process of interaction with the Mediterranean which did not end with the withdrawal of the Roman army from Britain. There was considerable variation during this period, and it took too many guises for it to be considered here. Over four thousand years the archaeological sequence had assumed very different forms, but now for the first time people living in lowland Britain experienced the full impact of complex societies on the Continent. Caesar’s expeditions illustrate the point. He justified his invasion by claiming that British warriors had fought against him in Gaul – there could be no clearer statement that cross-Channel relations were important. The offshore islands whose existence bewildered so many writers were no longer inconceivable places on the outermost edge of the world. As they became better known, they were losing their mystery.