Iron Age Overview

The Iron Age covers the period from about 800-750 BC to 43 AD, between the Bronze Age and the Roman Invasion.

Iron was possibly introduced by Celtic speakers from the Continent probably into southern Britain initially and on a small-scale. However, as new uses were found for this new material and new working methods were adopted, its use became more widespread and extended from being used for making ritual objects to provide everyday tools, swords and weapons, farming implements and domestic items with coinage being introduced later in the Iron Age, from about 100BC.

The increasing use of iron for farming tools, such as the plough which could cultivate heavy clay soil, lead to increasing productivity within settlements meaning more food, larger families, longer life-expectancy and gradual economic and population growth.

Iron Age man lived in villages on hillforts – fortified settlements built on high ground. Many date from around 500-600 BC following a period of peace which suggests there was increasing conflict during the period.

From their elevated positions with extensive views over the surrounding area, they were surrounded by ramparts and ditches to provide defences against raiders from neighbouring tribes. Some might have had a Cheveaux-de-Frise (photographed right) – an arrangement of wooden posts or standing stones near their entrance which served the purpose of stalling attackers on horseback and allowing the hillfort guards to attack with slingshots.

Hillforts may have been home to large extended families or small communities while others formed small towns or administrative centres.

Several Iron Age hillforts remain in and around the Forest of Dean at Welshbury (photographed left), Lydney, Symonds Yat Rock (photographed right) and in neighbouring Herefordshire at Ross-on-Wye, Chase Hill, Penyard Park and the surrounding villages.

During the Iron Age, much of the small population of Britain was involved in agriculture with their lives ruled by the farming year, the weather and the need for survival.

Daily life consisted of growing crops, including wheat and barley, for the family or local community and, due to the gradual introduction of new farming tools, increased productivity meant there could be surplus crops available for trading for goods not available within their own community groups. Crops of emmer wheat, spelt wheat, barley, oats and rye would have been stored in granaries which were raised from the ground and provided a small sheltered area beneath.

Iron Age farmers also kept livestock, including cattle, sheep and pigs were kept to provide food, milk and hides although the breeds then were smaller than those of today. However, times were changing, new crops were introduced during the era and new animals, including chickens, arrived in Britain. Horses and cattle provided muscle-power for heavy farming activities and there is evidence of dogs – which would have helped both with herding sheep and cattle and hunting.

Larger communities would have had guards on the lookout from their hillfort vantage points for any indications of approaching raiders and launching attack using slingshots.

Within the enclosed hillforts, a typical Iron Age settlement would include a series of roundhouses providing accommodation and living quarters with adjacent workshops including a smithy.

There are some regional differences in style but around the country they all appear to have followed a similar design using ‘wattle and daub’ walls made by weaving coppiced oak and hazel between stakes and daubing them with mixtures of mud, clay, straw and dung to produce a solid, weatherproof wall. Interior walls and entrances might have been decorated with local Celtic designs. Large upright posts and a ring beam supported a conical roof densely covered with turf or thatch. Doorways faced away from prevailing winds and there might have been an entrance door or simply a blanket to drop at night or in poor weather.

Inside would have been an open hearth fire providing warmth, light and a cooking facility. Probably the fire would have burned continuously throughout the day and night with a bronze cauldron suspended above. Bread made from wheat and barley, ground using a quern stone, was a staple part of the Iron Age diet and would have been baked in a simple domed oven within the roundhouse. Other cooking would have been in pots, hand-made using local clay and possibly etched with a decorative pattern.

There was no chimney to allow smoke to escape but some will have permeated through the thatched roof – but almost inevitably, roundhouses would be dark and smoky. However, this environment was perfect for smoking fish and meat to help preserve it, possibly along with salted meat, for the leaner winter months.

It is not known for certain whether the interior of roundhouses were divided into rooms but it is very likely there were lightweight partitions or screens to designate sleeping and activity areas.

Beds might have been raised from the ground on a wooden base or simple hay or straw mattresses might have been used, strewn with animal skins or blankets. Spindle whorl stones and loom weights made from stone or clay have been found on many hillforts suggesting weaving was a routine activity to make clothing and blankets using wool spun from the community’s sheep.

Other daily activities would have included woodworking, basket-making using willows growing beside local streams, making pots and pans, bronze objects, iron smelting, and making their own jewellery and crafts including torcs (neck bands) similar to those worn here at Cinderbury. Some would have also maintained their own smithy. Children would have probably been involved in all activities.

Life would have been tough by today’s standards but there is evidence of some more leisurely pursuits – gaming pieces have been found in some later Iron Age burial sites suggesting that early ‘board games’ might have existed to provide some light entertainment and escapism from a lifestyle dictated by the need for survival.