The Iron Age

What was the Iron Age?

This is the name given to the time period where iron became the preferred choice of metal for making tools. In Britain the end of the Iron Age is linked to the spread of Roman culture following the Roman invasion of 43 AD.

Top 10 facts

  1. The Roman name for the inhabitants of the British Isles was Britons. The Britons were part of the Celtic people who lived throughout Northern Europe at this time.
  2. Iron was tougher than bronze and could be shaped into finer and sharper objects. It required smithing (heating and hammering) to make into tools and implements.
  3. The manufacture, casting and trading of bronze had required special skills and made those people who possessed these skills wealthy and powerful. Iron was more readily available than bronze and was easier to work.
  4. Iron ploughs called ards were more efficient than earlier bronze or wooden ploughs. This meant they could till heavier soils so more land could be used for farming.
  5. As farming became more productive the population began to rise.
  6. One of the most important and time-saving inventions of the Iron Age was the rotatory quern which was used for grinding grain to make flour. The grain was placed between two circular stones and the top stone was turned or rotated using a handle.
  7. The diets people ate, the houses they lived in and the customs they followed varied depending on which part of the country they inhabited.
  8. Most Iron Age people worked and lived on small farms and their lives were governed by the changing of the seasons.
  9. Grain was stored in granaries or in underground vaults. Meat or fish could be preserved by salting or smoking.
  10. As people began to produce and store more grain than they could use, they were able to trade the surplus. Land ownership and grain production became the way to gain wealth and power.

Timeline

  • 1200 BC
    Iron Age begins in the Eastern Mediterranean

  • 800 BC
    Use of iron spreads to Central Europe; first Iron Age hill forts built in Britain

  • 700 BC
    Iron widely used in Britain

  • 500 BC
    Celtic people arrive in Britain from Central Europe

  • 400-300 BC
    Rotatory quern arrives in Britain

  • 100 BC
    First coins minted in Britain

  • 54 BC
    Julius Caesar lands in Britain

  • 43 AD
    The Roman invasion of Britain

Did you know?

  • Iron Age Britain was famous for its hunting dogs.
  • Coinage was first minted in Britain around 100 BC. Coins were made of gold, silver and bronze.
  • Iron Age Britons ate porridge made of barley and rye.
  • Only about a quarter of children born during the Iron Age reached adulthood.
  • The average life expectancy at birth was 25 years.
  • Iron Age Britons played board games with glass pieces.

Look through the gallery and see if you can spot the following:

  • The remains of an Iron Age hill fort
  • An Iron Age Farm
  • A Rotatory Quern
  • A Manx Loaghtan, an Iron Age sheep breed
  • Iron Age cooking pots
  • Iron Age tools
  • An Iron Age war chariot

Gallery

About

The move from bronze to iron as the preferred toolmaking metal brought with it a range of social changes. Wealth and power were no longer related to the production and trade in metal but were now associated with food surpluses and land ownership. Improvements in agriculture and diet were reflected in a rising population. It is estimated that between one million and one and a half million people were living in Britain at the time of the Roman invasion.

Iron Age Britain was populated by Celtic tribes who had close links to continental Europe. These links were reinforced by trade between the South of Britain and the continent. British exports included grain, metal, dogs and slaves and imports included wine, oil and pottery.

Regional differences became more evident in culture, diet and housing. In Scotland Iron Age people lived in brochs (circular stone towers), crannogs, (wooden dwellings built on islets) and wheelhouses (stone roundhouses). Most people in the South lived in wattle-and-daub roundhouses forming small farmsteads.

Burial practices also varied. In Cornwall Iron Age people were buried in stone-lined graves. In the late Iron Age people in the South East cremated their dead.

One of the most dominant features of the Iron Age countryside was the hill fort. These were often surrounded by banks, ditches and wooden fortifications. In times of peace they were sometimes inhabited by farmers and they could provide shelter for local populations during war. Unfortunately for the local Celts they proved no match for superior Roman military technology.

By the end of the Iron Age some larger settlements known as oppida were emerging. These could be found as far north as Yorkshire and reflected tribal power in the areas in which they are found. As many as 20 oppida have been identified in Britain, the best known being Colchester and St Albans.

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