The Archaeology of Britain: An Introduction from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Industrial Revolution

By John Hunter; Ian Ralston | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven

The Iron Age

Colin Haselgrove


INTRODUCTION

The Iron Age is usually taken as spanning the period from the later eighth century BC until the first century AD. No single archaeological horizon clearly marks the transition from the Late Bronze Age, however, while the Roman conquest took three generations to complete and affected only part of the island. Many attributes once used to define the Iron Age—including the construction of hillforts and the development of a new repertoire of domestic pottery—can now be traced back into the Late Bronze Age. The adoption of iron technology was itself a lengthy process, difficult to follow in its earlier stages due to a lack of relevant evidence. Although the new metal was certainly worked from early in the first millennium BC, it initially seems to have had only limited impact, and it was not until the Later Iron Age that major social and economic changes occurred.

The period is characterized above all by its plentiful and diverse settlement evidence. Over 3,000 dwelling sites survive as upstanding monuments, while almost as many again are recorded as cropmarks. They range from individual farmsteads occupied by a single household to hillforts holding communities of several hundred. The imposing drystone towers (brochs) of Atlantic Scotland are architecturally amongst the most sophisticated structures in Iron Age Europe, while the linear earthwork complexes (‘territorial oppida’) of south-east England are among the largest. Significant spatial and temporal variations exist: open settlements of village size are characteristic of eastern England, while large hillforts occur primarily in Wessex, the Welsh Marches and eastern Scotland. Many settlement types in western coastal regions are extremely long-lived and so cannot be considered characteristic solely of the Iron Age; these include small defended enclosures called raths and duns and the artificial lake dwellings known as crannogs.

Iron Age landscapes also included field systems, trackways and linear boundaries. Unless directly associated with settlements, these are difficult to distinguish from their Bronze Age and Roman counterparts. An important recent advance has been the recognition in the English-Scottish borders of extensive traces of upland cultivation, termed cord rig. Non-habitation sites are rare, but include Later Iron Age religious sites, as well as production sites for salt, shale and quernstones. Throughout the Iron Age, most of the dead were disposed of in ways that leave no archaeological traces; visible burial rites are restricted to a few regions.

The lack of burials, coupled with the sudden decline in hoarding from the eighth century BC, has significantly affected the nature of surviving Iron Age material culture, most of which comes from settlements, where diagnostic metalwork is relatively rare. Most such objects are isolated

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