The Iron Age in Britain stretches generally from about 750 BC to the Roman invasion in the First Century BC
It was a natual progression from the use of Bronze tools and weapons in the Bronze Age to the use of Iron, a more plentiful metal that is easier to work with.
As we have seen with the end of the Stone Age and the Start of the Bronze Age, it probably took 200 to 300 years before Iron completely replaced the earlier tools.
Also in the Iron Age, we see the success of farming and a growing population. This seems to have made people gather into tribes with recognised centres of trade and territory. Some tribes even begin to show differences in their styles of pottery and jewellary.
Up until 30 years ago, Archaeologists tended to understand the Iron Age as a series of invasions of Britain from European Tribes. But we now know that that didn't happen. The change was a social economic one evolving around business, trading farm surpluses for other items over large distances.
By the middle of the Iron Age, we see the population of Britain starting to number approx 1.5-2 Million people.
During the Iron Age, especially towards the end, up to the Roman Invasion, we can see that the Britons flourished with their own Artistic Style and a number of technological innovations, for example the potter's wheel, the lathe (used for woodworking) and the transition from labour intensive Saddle Quern to the rotary quern for grinding grain.
Farming techniques also improved and we know that the Britons developed their ploughs by adding an iron-tipped ploughshare made the cultivation of heavy clay soils possible.
Perhaps the best known and most visible remains of the Iron Age are hill forts. There are literally thousands of them and we know they had different functions across the British Isles. Some were relatively small enclosures of less than 3 acres. Others are massive, multi-ditched sites like Burrough Hill Fort near Melton Mowbrey and Castell Henllys Hillform/Farmstead in Pembroke Nation Part, West Wales.
When I first began to study the Iron Age, I always thought that the hillforst would have been full of thousands of warriors all painted blue, waiting to do battle. But in actual fact, as the excavations at Burrough Hill show us, its better to think of these "Hill Forts" as grain stores or depots, where the food was farmed and brought for safe keeping. Surplus was traded and wealth grew.
Danebury Hillfort in Hampshire has revealed a wealth of detail about how it developed and shows a very long lifespan from the beginning of the Iron Age to the first Century BC when it was abandoned.
Today, if you go to visit the National Iron Age Museum in Andover, Hampshire, you can see the artefacts that have been recovered. They suggest a settled skill based society of Iron Age Smiths, Potters and other tradesmen.
What did the Iron Age People Look Like?
Firstly, let’s talk about our traditional understanding of how the Celts looked in Physicality. The Classical writers both Roman and Greek describe the Gauls as tall, fair skinned with well developed muscles. Their stories and saga’s describe both the ideal warrior and woman. Warriors strove to keep themselves in good physical condition and preferred to have blonde hair, even dyeing their hair it wasn’t already
so. Women are described as being of equal stature to their men and the most beautiful had swan white skin and long elaborate hair with teeth as white as pearls.
But Archaeology gives us another picture. After studying skeletons from many Iron Age sites across Britain and Europe, archaeologists can get a better, more accurate picture of what the general population of Gauls and Britons were really like.
There is a general belief that people in the olden days were shorter than us, however that’s not true. New research suggests that since before the early Bronze Age, the average height for men has been about 5ft 7 inches (170cms) and for women, 5ft 3inches (160cms) they were no doubt a lot fitter and physically robust than us because of our ever more sedentary lifestyles in the 21st Century.
The evidence from Bog Bodies, with their neatly trimmed finger nails and well kept beards and hair proves that the Iron Age people liked to look after their appearance just like their Bronze Age ancestors.
I think the two factors which differ the most between us in the 21st Century and the Iron Age people of 2000 years ago are firstly physical anomalies, growth defects due to disease and injury. These were probably more evident amongst the smaller populations and probably more accepted. Secondly, average life expectancy was generally shorter for both men and women but for different reasons.
Besides illness, famine and disease, women generally had a greater chance of death between the ages of 14-20 during childbirth. Men it seems had a significant chance of dying in Warfare.
However, it’s wrong to assume that all the people amongst the different tribes looked the same and had the same traditions. I think Professor Raymond Karl of University of Wales, Bangor makes an important point when he explains that different pieces of fruit look very different from one another, but collectively we recognise them as fruit. I agree. How would you know that someone you met in the forest or saw across a
river was from a different tribe? Well, in my opinion, it would be easy because they would look very different from the people in your tribe. Perhaps if we accept the description of the Silures tribe as “tinted” they might literally have been stained woad blue. Perhaps the people of the Dobunni tribe wore their hair in a particular fashion. Perhaps the people of the Cantaci wore the same woven coloured plaid on some part of their clothing.