A brief guide to the British Iron Age

During the period between c800 BC and the Roman invasion of AD 43, Europeans brought knowledge of iron-working technology to the British Isles. BBC History Revealed brings you a quick guide to the British Iron Age

Aerial view reconstruction drawing of Maiden Castle

When was the British Iron Age?

The Iron Age of the British Isles is usually dated to the period between c800 BC and the Roman invasion of AD 43, during which time knowledge of iron-working technology was brought to Britain by Europeans, later referred to as Celts. By 500–400 BC, use of iron artefacts had been adopted across the British Isles, gradually replacing the use of bronze.

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How did people live?

Perhaps surprisingly, Iron Age people were closer to the men and women of today than we might think. Settlements consisting of individual stone houses with garden plots sited along a street have been found in Cornwall, while in Wessex, remains of large thatched roundhouses have been unearthed, which would have been a hub for domestic life.

An open-hearth fire in the centre of the house would have provided warmth, light, and a means of cooking food. The Iron Age diet itself was not unlike ours, consisting of bread, grains, a type of porridge, and meat, as well as honey and dairy products – and even beer!

Iron Age Britain was primarily agricultural, with crops and livestock providing the means of survival, as well as commodities that could be exchanged with neighbouring farms. There was even time for leisure. Glass gaming pieces discovered in Iron Age burials indicate the presence of rudimentary board games, while the use of large, upright weaving looms meant that fashion, too, played a part in daily life. Textiles were dyed bright colours, and decorative accessories, such as brooches and pins, have also been discovered.

What do we know of their beliefs?

With farming at the heart of Iron Age society, religious festivals probably followed the agricultural year. Two celebrations we know of are Beltane, on 1 May, which welcomed the warm season and the moving of cattle to open fields, and Lughnasadh, on 1 August, which marked the ripening of crops. One festival still marked today is that of Samhain, on 1 November, a time when spirits were thought to pass between the two worlds, and the end of the Iron Age year.

There may have been as many as 400 gods and goddesses worshipped in Iron Age Britain, and weapons, animal sacrifices and other precious objects believed to have been sacrificed to the gods have been found in rivers, lakes and bogs across the British Isles.

Who were the Druids?

Little is known about the Druids, other than that they were Celtic priests who led religious ceremonies. Most of our information about them comes from later Roman descriptions, some of which refer to the druidic practice of human sacrifice.

What is some of the evidence of Iron Age Britain?

The most common and visible remains of the Iron Age are the 3,000 or so hill forts that can be found across Britain – one of the largest is Maiden Castle in Dorset, which is the size of 50 football pitches. These sites were probably only used for seasonal gatherings and trade, rather than as permanent settlements.

In 1984, the incredible discovery of a 2,000-year-old, perfectly preserved male body was made in a peat bog on Lindow Moss in Cheshire. The Iron Age find revealed much about the environment in which the ancient man had lived and died.

Thought to be about 25 years old, Lindow Man’s beard and moustache had been cut with shears, while his last meal had been burnt, unleavened bread. He had also died a very violent death – struck on the head twice with a heavy object and possibly strangled in what may have been an elaborate religious sacrifice.

What ended the Iron Age?

The Iron Age did not end overnight with the invasion of the Romans in AD 43, and many Iron Age beliefs and practices continued, particularly in parts of the British Isles where Roman rule was weak or non-existent. Contact with the Roman world had been established well before the invasion, with luxury goods such as wine traded for grains, slaves and minerals. Rome also seems to have established diplomatic relations with Iron Age tribes, which helped spread its influence in the aftermath of the invasion of AD 43.

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This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed