Until the 1960s, the Iron Age was seen as a time when Britain was subject to a succession of invasions from mainland Europe. Since then, however, these invasionist theories, and the notion that Britain was part of a pan-European ‘Celtic civilisation’, have been found wanting:
“Archaeologists widely agree on two things about the British Iron Age: its many regional cultures grew out of the preceding local Bronze Age, and did not derive from waves of continental ‘Celtic’ invaders. And secondly, calling the British Iron Age ‘Celtic’ is so misleading that it is best abandoned.”
Dr. Simon James (‘Peoples of Britain’, BBC History, 1998)
“There was no cross-European Celtic people. There was no broad-based Celtic art, society or religion. And there were never any Celts in Britain.”
Professor John Collis (‘British Archaeological News’, March 1994)
“No one is denying that people in Iron Age Britain spoke Celtic languages, or shared certain common cultural traditions with their contemporaries in mainland Europe, such as the use of La Tène ‘art’. What has been shown to be untrue, however, is that there existed a single Celtic race whose members all had the same religion, psychological traits, and type of society, and who recognised themselves as ‘Celts’... While there were contacts, and shared cultural elements across Europe, it is the differences in all aspects of life between neighbouring areas that seem to have been more important than the similarities.”
“Celtic: A rather misused term which really ought to be reserved for references to languages. In fact, it is used for art styles and racial or ethnic types and even as a geographical and chronological term. Best avoided if you can think of a more specific or accurate word!”
Iron making know-how was probably brought to Britain, not by invading Celts, but through normal trade links with the Continent. Although iron ores were far more common (hence cheaper) than those of copper and, particularly, tin, wrought iron wasn't necessarily better than bronze, and turning ore into useable object was a considerably more laborious procedure. There is evidence to suggest that ironworking was taking place (at Hartshill Quarry, West Berkshire) as early as the 10th century BC. The first extant iron objects, however, are from some two or three centuries later – such as those from the, so called, Llyn Fawr Hoard. The transition from bronze to iron is not easy to trace. The demise of bronze hoarding, in the 8th century BC, might be thought to imply that, by then, iron was being used for everyday objects, but this is not reflected in the archaeological record. It is not until the Later Iron Age (from c.400BC) that Iron artifacts become relatively commonplace and widespread. Iron did not completely displace bronze of course. Bronze production continued, though on a much smaller scale, being used for vessels, horse-harness fittings and decorative items.
During the Earlier Bronze Age the climate had been warmer and drier than today, but in the Later Bronze Age (c.1200BC–c.700BC) the climate deteriorated, turning cooler and wetter. The effects of the worsening climate may well have been a factor in the development of, the most visible of Iron Age features, hillforts. During the Later Iron Age (c.400BC–AD43) the climate began to improve, seemingly becoming similar to today's by the end of the period.
Iron implements, dated about 200BC–AD43, in the British Museum. The curved one is a sickle or pruning hook, which would have been fitted to a wooden handle. The other is the iron cladding for the wooden tip of an ard. These two items, plus another sickle and an iron axe-head, had been buried together at Stantonbury Hill hillfort, Somerset.
The improving climate of the Later Iron Age, combined with sound agricultural practice (for instance, manuring and crop rotation were used to maintain soil fertility) and technical innovation (such as reinforcing the tip of an ard with iron to enable heavier soils to be cultivated, and use of the rotary quern to grind grain), allowed food production to rise. A substantial increase in the number of settlements is indicative of considerable population growth – it is thought to have exceeded one million.
La Tène is an Iron Age site at the north-eastern end, of Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland. It has given its name to a decorative style – characterised by flowing, curved, patterns and stylised figures – which began around the middle of the 5th century BC.
Perhaps the finest British example of an object decorated in La Tène style is the Battersea Shield (350–50BC). It is not actually a complete shield, but is a decorative, bronze-sheet, facing (held together with bronze rivets, and embellished with red glass studs), which would have been mounted on a wooden backing. Since such a shield would have been easily destroyed in combat, it is thought to be a display item. It may well have been purposely committed to the River Thames (from where it was dredged, at Battersea, in 1857) as a ritual offering.
In 1911, work on the construction of Llyn Fawr reservoir, in south-east Wales, began. To accomplish this, the site's natural lake was drained. In the peat lake-bed, a hoard of metalwork was uncovered. The objects – almost certainly, they had been thrown into the lake as votive offerings – were mainly bronze, but there was also part of an iron sword, an iron sickle and an iron spearhead. Such early iron pieces are not made to new designs, but are established forms, usually cast in bronze, reproduced in wrought iron. The phrase ‘Llyn Fawr phase’ is now sometimes used to describe the period, 800–600BC, of the Bronze Age to Iron Age transition.
The ard, or ‘scratch plough’, doesn't cut and turn the soil, but simply gouges the surface. To obtain a good tilth, a field was ploughed in one direction and then cross-ploughed in the other.
The ‘saddle quern’ had been used for millennia. This is simply a large stone with a concave top surface. Grain is put on, and ground with a, smaller, ‘rubbing stone’. During the Later Iron Age use of the, far more efficient, ‘rotary quern’ became widespread. In the rotary quern, two circular grinding stones are mounted, one above the other, on a wooden shaft. The bottom stone is fixed; the top stone is rotated with a wooden handle. Grain is poured into a hole at the centre of the top stone. It travels between the two stones, from the centre to the circumference, and exits as coarse flour.
Once harvested, the ears of cereal crops were probably subjected to a drying process. After drying, the grain (which was used not only for bread-making, but also to make porridge and to brew beer) might be stored before it had been threshed, i.e. on the ear, or after threshing, i.e. as loose grain. Archaeological evidence indicates that two methods of storage were used: rectangular granaries, raised above the ground on posts (as shown in the artist's impression); and pits dug into the ground.