How Celtic is Iron Age Britain?

Category: Age, Iron
Last Updated: 06 Jul 2020
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The construct of sorting a period of prehistoric culture as the Iron Age was foremost introduced in the nineteenth century, and subsequently validated by the massively important finds at Hallstatt and La Tene. Subsequently, the epoch was broken down into chronological periods, against which the British Iron Age is now defined. For easiness of definition, The British Iron Age tends to be broken into three periods, Early, Middle and Late, crossing approximately 1000 old ages, from 800 BC to the second century AD, and is so named owing to the find and development of Fe taking prevalence over the usage of bronze.

The term Celtic, holding passed into the slang, is now nil more than a obscure generic term. The traditional position was that Iron Age Britons were portion of a huge Celtic Commonwealth which so stretched across Europe, a universe of peoples who spoke related linguistic communications, and who shared a typical set of values, societal establishments, spiritualty, art and other facets of life and civilization. ( James 1997, 2 ) . This is now acknowledged to be a monolithic simplism, a romanticised impression Born of theories put frontward by eighteenth century bookmans, based on classical Latin and Greek beginnings. Edward Lhuyd proposed that Welsh, Scottish and Irish languages all root from the ancient Gaulish. The label Celtic was so transposed from the linguistic communications to the people themselves, landscapes, and their sensed civilization and art.

Historically and archaeologically talking, this word is unhelpful and uninformative. Indeed, Simon James has suggested that naming the Iron Age Celtic is so deceptive that it is best abandoned. ( James S. 01.06.98 ) As the term Celtic is virtually nonmeaningful, for the intent of this piece we shall look into to what extent the autochthonal population of Britain were influenced by their Continental opposite numbers.

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It was thought that the Iron Age Britons ( consisting of diverse and frequently warring folks and were in no manner unified ) were capable to a figure of Belgic invasions during the Iron Age. Some of the grounds for this theoretical account comes from Caesar, who states that anterior to his ain expeditions of 55 and 54 B.C. , the population of the coastal parts of south-eastern Britain had themselves migrated from Belgic Gaul, foremost in hunt of loot, and later in order to settle for good. He besides reported that in his ain life-time, Diviciacus had been non merely the most powerful swayer in all Gaul, but had besides exercised sovereignty in Britain. ( D.W. Harding 1974, 201 )

There is archeological grounds which has been used to back up this theoretical account. The find of the Battersea shield in 1857, an elaborately decorated piece, is similar to a bronze shield found in the river Witham in Lincolnshire. Both are similar in design to artefacts found at La Tene. These discoveries, combined with graveyard sites in Aylesford, Welwyn and East Yorkshire, which bore close relation to Gaulish burial rites, were taken as verifying the theory of invasion as the principal, even exclusive, cause of alteration in prehistoric Britain. ( James 1997, 12 )

With the coming of Fe came a figure of bastioned defense mechanisms or hillforts. There are about 3,300 such defense mechanisms on mainland Britain. It was originally thought that these were a response to an invasion in the third century B.C. allowing loose sets of Gaelic warriors over big parts of the south state. ( Harding 1974, 54 ) However, subsequent probe has found that techniques such as lumber lacing, which was prevalent on the Continent, was besides adopted in Britain. This presents us with the fact that there were so links with the Continent, which were non needfully hostile, as their engineering is shared and assimilated.

Some folks depended wholly on agribusiness where the land and dirt permitted ; others in coastal parts where the land was non so hospitable, subsisted wholly from the sea. Settlement types varied consequently, from the normally used roundhouse, to the Lake Village close Glastonbury in the Somerset degrees, to the rock built brochs of Northern Scotland. Such diverseness does non look to hold been echoed on the Continent, although there were similarities in some countries. Mentioning to a colony in Kent, Caesar wrote that the edifices were situated in close propinquity to each other, and really similar to the colonies of the Gauls. However, there remains small grounds to day of the month to propose a strong relationship between the homes on the continent, and those in Britain.

The economic system chiefly relied on agribusiness and the industry of certain goods. Barry Cunliffe describes it therefore: a loosely parallel development between Britain and the Continent, the two countries retaining a close contact, which encouraged a free flow of thoughts and an exchange of goods, while autochthonal traditions remain dominant. ( Cunliffe 1991, 442 ) The usage of mintage came into pattern around 100 B.C. and straight emulated the Gallic system. There were comparings with the economic system of the Continent, but the British remained insular to some extent until the ulterior Roman invasion.

We have some archeological grounds of the funerary patterns of antediluvian Britain, but merely classical mentions inform us as to the Gods, Druids and priesthoods intrinsic to these beliefs. Harmonizing to Caesar, the Gauls and the British shared several patterns, including the preparation of Druids. In the early Iron Age, the disposal of organic structures left no archeological hint. The in-between Fe age sees graveyards and burials with goods, whilst the late Iron Age sees the debut of cremations form Gaul. In add-on, many organic structures from this epoch have been retrieved from peat bogs throughout northern Europe, frequently with marks of multiple causes of decease, possibly bespeaking ritual forfeit. Evidence suggests that similar beliefs are held throughout Europe at this clip, and would look to denote a belief in some signifier of hereafter. Much is made of the Celtic caput cult, but this mostly depends on reading of the grounds. ‘There is no uncertainty that the caput was considered the most of import portion of the human organic structure the accent on head-hunting demonstrates this and the emphasis on the caput in Celtic art is incontestible. Yet I believe it is a error to believe in footings of a specific head-cult’ ( Green 1986, 216 ) .

In decision, how Belgae Gallic was Iron Age Britain? Surely, many facets of Iron Age life were influenced by the Belgic Gauls, to changing grades throughout the period. But to name the British Iron Age Celtic is a simplified generalization ; some countries were touched by Continental patterns, others, more geographically remote from the south seashore will hold felt their influences far less. However, it seems far less likely that Britain was invaded per Se. Simon James states that Britain in the Iron Age grew with critical, if non fickle, parts and influences from Continental Europe in the signifier of trade, kinship links, and reasonably surely some localized in-migration, particularly in the late Iron Age South. ( James 1997, 84 ) The revisionist theory seems at this minute far more plausible than the construct of sweeping invasion.


Cunliffe, Barry, Iron Age Communities in Britain, Routledge 1991
Green, Miranda, The Gods of the Celts, Gloucester 1986.
Harding, D.W. , The Iron Age in Lowland Britain, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974
James, S. & A ; Rigby, V. , Britain and the Celtic Iron Age, British Museum Press 1997
James, S. , 1998 Peoples of Britain ( online ) UK ; Available: hypertext transfer protocol: // Accessed 29th April 2005

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