How Celtic was Iron Age Britain?


23 Mar 2015 04 Dec 2017

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The concept of classifying a period of prehistory as the Iron Age was first introduced in the 19th century, and later validated by the massively significant discoveries at Hallstatt and La Tène. Subsequently, the era was broken down into chronological periods, against which the British Iron Age is now defined. For ease of definition, The British Iron Age tends to be broken into three periods, Early, Middle and Late, spanning roughly 1000 years, from 800 BC to the 2nd century AD, and is so named owing to the discovery and development of iron taking prevalence over the use of bronze.

The term Celtic, having passed into the vernacular, is now nothing more than a vague generic term. The traditional view was that Iron Age Britons were part of a vast Celtic Commonwealth which then stretched across Europe, a world of peoples who spoke related languages, and who shared a distinctive set of values, social institutions, spirituality, art and other aspects of life and culture. (James 1997, 2). This is now acknowledged to be a massive oversimplification, a romanticised notion born of theories put forward by 18th century scholars, based on classical Latin and Greek sources. Edward Lhuyd proposed that Welsh, Scottish and Irish languages all stem from the ancient Gaulish. The label Celtic was then transposed from the languages to the people themselves, landscapes, and their perceived culture and art.

Historically and archaeologically speaking, this word is unhelpful and uninformative. Indeed, Simon James has suggested that calling the Iron Age Celtic is so misleading that it is best abandoned. (James S. 01.06.98) As the term Celtic is virtually meaningless, for the purpose of this piece we shall investigate to what extent the indigenous population of Britain were influenced by their continental counterparts.

It was thought that the Iron Age Britons (comprising of diverse and often warring tribes and were in no way unified) were subject to a number of Belgic invasions during the Iron Age. Some of the evidence for this model comes from Caesar, who states that prior to his own expeditions of 55 and 54 B.C., the population of the coastal regions of south-eastern Britain had themselves migrated from Belgic Gaul, first in search of plunder, and subsequently in order to settle permanently. He also reported that in his own lifetime, Diviciacus had been not only the most powerful ruler in all Gaul, but had also exercised sovereignty in Britain. (D.W. Harding 1974, 201)

There is archaeological evidence which has been used to support this model. The discovery of the Battersea shield in 1857, an intricately 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 Tène. These finds, combined with cemetery 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 sole, cause of change in prehistoric Britain. (James 1997, 12)

With the coming of iron came a number of fortified defences or hillforts. There are approximately 3,300 such defences on mainland Britain. It was originally thought that these were a response to an invasion in the 3rd century B.C. letting loose bands of Celtic warriors over large parts of the south country. (Harding 1974, 54) However, subsequent investigation has found that techniques such as timber lacing, which was prevalent on the Continent, was also adopted in Britain. This presents us with the fact that there were indeed links with the Continent, which were not necessarily hostile, as their technology is shared and assimilated.

Some tribes depended entirely on agriculture where the land and soil permitted; others in coastal regions where the land was not so hospitable, subsisted entirely from the sea. Settlement types varied accordingly, from the commonly used roundhouse, to the Lake Village near Glastonbury in the Somerset levels, to the stone built brochs of Northern Scotland. Such diversity does not seem to have been echoed on the Continent, although there were similarities in some areas. Referring to a settlement in Kent, Caesar wrote that the buildings were situated in close proximity to each other, and very similar to the settlements of the Gauls. However, there remains little evidence to date to suggest a strong relationship between the dwellings on the continent, and those in Britain.

The economy mainly relied on agriculture and the manufacture of certain goods. Barry Cunliffe describes it thus: a broadly parallel development between Britain and the Continent, the two areas retaining a close contact, which encouraged a free flow of ideas and an exchange of goods, while indigenous traditions remain dominant. (Cunliffe 1991, 442) The use of coinage came into practice around 100 B.C. and directly emulated the Gallic system. There were comparisons with the economy of the Continent, but the British remained insular to some extent until the later Roman invasion.

We have some archaeological evidence of the funerary practices of ancient Britain, but only classical references inform us as to the gods, druids and priesthoods intrinsic to these beliefs. According to Caesar, the Gauls and the British shared several practices, including the training of Druids. In the early Iron Age, the disposal of bodies left no archaeological trace. The middle iron age sees cemeteries and inhumations with goods, whilst the late Iron Age sees the introduction of cremations form Gaul. In addition, many bodies from this era have been retrieved from peat bogs throughout northern Europe, often with signs of multiple causes of death, perhaps indicating ritual sacrifice. Evidence suggests that similar beliefs are held throughout Europe at this time, and would seem to denote a belief in some form of afterlife. Much is made of the Celtic head cult, but this largely depends on interpretation of the evidence. ‘There is no doubt that the head was considered the most important part of the human body the emphasis on head-hunting demonstrates this and the stress on the head in Celtic art is incontestable. Yet I believe it is a mistake to think in terms of a specific head-cult’ (Green 1986, 216).

In conclusion, how Belgae Gallic was Iron Age Britain? Certainly, many aspects of Iron Age life were influenced by the Belgic Gauls, to varying degrees throughout the period. But to call the British Iron Age Celtic is a simplified generalisation; some areas were touched by Continental practices, others, more geographically remote from the south coast will have 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 vital, if not erratic, contributions and influences from continental Europe in the form of trade, kinship links, and pretty certainly some localised immigration, especially in the late Iron Age South. (James 1997, 84)The revisionist theory seems at this moment far more plausible than the concept of wholesale 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. & Rigby, V., Britain and the Celtic Iron Age, British Museum Press 1997
James, S., 1998 Peoples of Britain (online) UK; Available: Accessed 29th April 2005


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