Chapter 3

Woad Rage and Chariots: The Iron Age in Britain

In This Chapter

● Finding out when the Iron Age began and how it differed from earlier ages

● Debating whether the early Britons were actually Celts

● Glimpsing life in the Iron Age

● Seeing is believing: The Belgians invade Britain

● Finding out about the Druids and the religion of the period

Towards the end of the Bronze Age a new technology began to make its way into Britain from the continent - iron. And a new people - the Ancient Britons. We have tended to get our picture of the Britons from Roman accounts, and the Romans didn’t like them. But now we have a much better idea of what the Britons were really like. They mastered iron, that most powerful but difficult of metals, and changed Britain into a land of tribes and nations, of traders, and of huge hill-top cities. They had craftsmen who created artifacts of stunning beauty which still take your breath away, and Druids who took more away than just your breath.

The Iron Age: What It Was and How We Know What We Know

The Iron Age in Britain goes from about 750 BC up to the Roman invasion in AD 43 (though obviously the Iron Age people were still around after that). Iron smelting originally came from the Middle East, and it came into Britain through contacts with continental Europe.

Any old iron?

Making bronze is easy. You dig up some copper ore, heat it, and then pour out the copper. While you're doing that, put some tin on a low heat and pour when molten. Mix together and leave to simmer. Heat up some zinc and add into the mixture. Stir well, and when brought to the boil, pour into moulds. The liquid hardens as it cools and produces a shiny, dark reddish-gold bronze colour. That's bronze.

Iron is different. You don't have to mix it with anything, but iron is very difficult to extract from

its ore. Doing so requires really high temperatures, and when you do get the iron out, you have to go at it like fury with a hammer while it's still red hot. It comes in such small quantities that initially the early iron workers could only make little things like brooches and buckles. Smelting iron ore took so much wood that, when these folks started making iron on the island of Elba, they used up all the trees and had to move to the mainland. (And you thought deforestation was a modern problem.)

We’ve got a lot more evidence about the Iron Age in Britain than we have about the Bronze Age. There are the usual sites and artefacts: burial chambers, traces of buildings, and bits and pieces of cooking pots or farming tools. The Druids, discussed in the section “More blood, vicar?” later in this chapter, had a thing about water and were always throwing things into rivers as a sacrifice to the gods, which is good news for us because that way a lot of objects got preserved in the mud.

The first people to work out how to equip an army with proper iron weapons were the Assyrians, but the Greeks weren’t far behind, and thanks to them it spread. Those early ironmasters really knew what they were doing: Some of their swords are still springy when you bend them back today.

Written accounts from others

During this period, people started visiting Britain and Ireland to see what they looked like. Britain had been cut off from the continent since the ice melted at the start of the Bronze Age (Ireland got cut off even earlier) and ever since an air of mystery had surrounded the islands. How big were they? What sort of people lived there? Were they of any use to anyone? These travellers and others wrote of their impressions of the people and things on the British Isles.

Greek accounts

The Greek historian Herodotus mentioned that British tin was worth having; Strabo (another Greek) wrote a geography book that included Britain and Ireland, or “Albion” and “Ierne” as the people who lived there were beginning to call them; and Pytheas of Massilia (yet another Greek) actually sailed all round Britain and showed that it definitely was an island. But the most detailed accounts we have of Iron Age Britain come from a rather more suspect source: The Romans.

What the Romans wrote

Although the next chapter, Chapter 4, is devoted to the Romans we can’t entirely ignore them in this chapter because so much of our evidence for the Iron Age comes from them. That wouldn’t matter too much if they were detached and objective, but they weren’t.

From Julius Caesar

Caesar wrote about how he beat the Britons in battle. His account was designed to show how great he was and how brave he was to face up to the Big Bad British Barbarians. Take this excerpt from Book V of Caesar’s Gallic Wars:

Most of the inland inhabitants do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad with skins. All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with woad, which occasions a bluish colour, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip.

Biased? Just a tad. First, early Britons did sow corn. They had been farming since the Neolithic period. Second, they weren’t clad in skins. The Bronze Age introduced sewing implements that made it possible to tailor clothing. Third, not every Briton was dripping with woad. Some people covered themselves in it; some didn’t, but the use of woad was more complicated than Caesar’s account makes it seem. (See the section “Hit the woad, Jack” later in this chapter for details). And, okay, so early Britons went in for moustaches. But so did everyone else in Western Europe at the time - including the men.

From Tacitus

Roman senator and historian Tacitus wrote a book all about his father-in-law Agricola, who served as Governor of Britain. Agricola got recalled in disgrace by the Emperor Domitian, so Tacitus sticks up for him by pointing out how Agricola rescued the Britons from savagery and made them into model Roman citizens.

From Suetonius

Roman historian Suetonius wrote a strange book called The Twelve Caesars, which is half-serious, half scandal-sheet history about the first batch of emperors. The one who actually conquered Britain was Claudius, but Suetonius didn’t think much of him, so he said “Claudius’s sole campaign (that’s Britain, folks) was of no great importance.” Gee, thanks, Suetonius.

Look what I found down the bog: Bodies

Believe it or not, the best evidence for Iron Age life didn’t come from archaeologists; it came from peat cutters, of all people. You get peat in marshes and bogs, and peat cutters keep finding dead bodies buried in it. These bodies started turning up in Denmark, one at Tollund and another at Grauballe. At first, people suspected foul play and called in the police. And very foul play it looked too, because these poor dead people hadn’t fallen in; they’d been tied up, strangled, and pushed.

The amazing thing about the bodies was how well preserved they were: These bog bodies aren’t skeletons, they are whole human beings, complete with faces, hands, and clothes - a bit distorted by two and a half thousand years of being stuck down a Danish peat bog, but then who wouldn’t be?

Archaeologists had a look in the stomach of one bog body (Lindow Man’s; head to the section “Sacrificing humans” later in this chapter for info on him) and found that he had eaten toast and mistletoe. Mistletoe was sacred, so it really does look as if these bog bodies were human sacrifices. Creepy.

Figuring Out Who These People Were

One thing we can be pretty sure of: There was no great “wave” of Iron Age invaders. The people living in Britain were still descended from the old Neolithics and Beaker folk, but new people were always coming and going, and some of them clearly knew how to smelt iron. There was plenty of iron ore in Britain, so anyone who knew the secret could settle and make a fortune. But where did these newcomers come from?

Looking for patterns

Since the early iron workers in Britain tended not to leave forwarding addresses archaeologists have had to trace where they came from by looking at the things they left behind. If you look carefully at the decoration on Iron Age shields and brooches and so on, there are two main styles:

Hallstatt style: Named after a village in Austria where a lot of it has been found, including very long and powerful swords. There’s some evidence of Hallstatt culture in Britain, but not much.

● La Tene style: Named after a village in Switzerland where archaeologists have found pottery and ironwork decorated with circles and swirling patterns. Lots of La Tene culture has turned up in Britain.

Some historians say you can trace the movement of people by tracing patterns and styles, in which case, there seems to be a link between La Tene and Britain. But other historians say that people of different ethnic groups often adopt the same styles independently of each other. In which case, the link between Britain and the people at La Tene isn’t proven.

You may think this sounds a bit finicky, but it matters, because one thing we do know about the people of La Tene and others who used their patterns and designs is that they were Celts. If these folks really were the people who brought iron to Britain, then they also made Britain a Celtic land.

Celts in Britain? Maybe, maybe not

The Celts first appear on the European scene in about 500 BC. We don’t know exactly where they came from except that it was probably a long way to the east, possibly well into modern Russia, but they scared the life out of the Classical world. The Romans didn’t know what had hit them when the Gauls - Celts who had settled (in so far as the Celts ever settled anywhere) in modern-day France - invaded Italy and sacked Rome in 390 BC, killing everyone they could find. The Romans treated them very warily after that.

What We used to think: The Invasion Hypothesis

People used to assume that any new group of settlers must have attacked and forced the indigenous people out. This is what’s known as the Invasion Hypothesis. If this is what happened when the Celts arrived in Britain, it would have made the west coast of Britain a sort of massive refugee camp.

According to this theory, two sorts of Celts possibly arrived in two different phases between 200 and 100 BC. One lot, called the Gaels, headed for Ireland and the northern parts of Scotland, where they are the ancestors of today’s inhabitants, and their language survives as Scots and Irish Gaelic. The others, who settled in modern-day England, Wales, and the lowlands of Scotland, were known as Brythoni (Brythoni = Britons, geddit?), and their language survives in modern Welsh and Breton, though Cornish would have counted, too, if it had survived.


Poor old Celts. They've had a raw deal from history. Julius Caesar thought they were a bunch of savages and for a long time historians tended to follow his lead: They used to talk dismissively of the "Celtic fringe". It's only recently that people have learned to respect the Celts for their craftsmanship or for their technology. Apart from a few heroic figures like Boudica and Caratacus (and even they lost in the end) they're everyone's favourite losers: invaded by the Romans, overrun by the Angles and Saxons, conquered by the Normans and then hammered by Edward I and the English. They're on the losing side in every civil war and just about every football match. They can't even go out in the sun thanks to all that red hair.

There are two main types of Celt: Q-Celts, who are the modern Irish, Scots and Manx (people from the Isle of Man), and P-Celts, the modern Welsh, Cornish and Bretons of northern France. Yes, folks, the Celts had to mind their Ps and Qs! However, what they certainly did was to develop bronze and then iron, and they could create some stunning craftsmanship. There's a big Celtic revival nowadays thanks to the New Age movement, and you can relax to CDs called things like Celtic Sounds or Celtic Moods, unless there's been a football match, in which case you're more likely to hear the sound of moody Celts.

All these people had wild red hair and long moustaches, spent all their time fighting each other, and had to build massive great hilltop strongholds for protection. They were brave and very handy with a chariot, but they didn’t have the discipline to stand up to the Romans when it came to the crunch. Head to Chapter 4 for details about that.

Now we don’t know what to think

Other historians say it wasn’t like that at all. France and Belgium - Gaul - were Celtic, and Celtic language and culture certainly crossed into Britain, but, they say, that doesn’t mean the Britons (to use the term the Romans gave them) were Celtic. Think of it this way: You can find American culture all over the world, but that doesn’t mean everyone who wears jeans and watches The Simpsons is American.

The Romans called these people Britons, not Celts; in fact, the Romans only grouped these folks together under one name at all because they all happened to inhabit the same island. No-one called them Celts until the eighteenth century when people got very interested in the whole idea of building up a composite “British” identity (to find out more about this, see Chapter 12).

Confused? No wonder. Some historians say it’s silly to pretend the Britons weren’t Celts; others say that calling them Celts is positively misleading. No-one’s ever going to prove it one way or the other. What we do know is that, whoever they were and wherever they came from, the Iron Age tribes of Britain and Ireland kept up close links with the Iron Age tribes of the continent, which, in the end, was to bring down on them the full wrath of Rome. And for the Romans, invasion was never just a hypothesis.

Life in Iron Age Britain

As we have seen, the Romans took a dim view of the Iron Age people of Britain. But what were the Britons really like?

Warring tribes

In the Iron Age, the people of Britain seem to have developed a very strong tribal structure. It’s probably okay to talk about “tribes” in a loose way for the Beaker folk and the Neolithics before them (see Chapter 2 for info on these people), but there was nothing loose about Iron Age tribes. In fact, tribe is a bit misleading: Iron Age tribes were something closer to nations, rather like the Iroquois or the Sioux in North America. Following are some tribes of note (take a look at Figure 3-1 for a fuller picture of who lived where):

● The Ulaid: In Ulster, this tribe built an impressive fortified capital at Emain Macha, still one of the most important Iron Age sites in Ireland.

● The Durotriges: In Dorset, this tribe had the biggest capital in the isles, at Mai Dun (the “Great Fort”) now known as Maiden Castle. (The Durotriges managed this feat, and they weren’t even in the premier league, with big nations like the Brigantes, the Catuvellauni, the Iceni, the Trinovantes and others.)

● The Brigantes: Named from the Celtic briga, meaning a hill, these people dominated the North Country.

The Pictii: Living in what would later be Scotland were the mysterious Pictii, also known as the Painted People, who could be very violent.

Trading places

The people along the coast, like the Dumnonii or the Cantiaci, traded regularly with the continent, not just with the Gauls, but through them with the Romans and Greeks. Some trade was carried on directly: Phoenicians, for example, regularly stopped off in Cornwall to buy tin.

Figure 3-1: The Iron Age tribes of Britain.

Archaeologists can trace this sort of contact by seeing what remains turn up. Hundreds of Roman wine jars, dating from before the Roman conquest, for example, have turned up in the land of the Trinovantes, in East Anglia. Interestingly, no such jars have been found in Iceni territory, which is just next-door. Based on this evidence, it looks as if the Trinovantes were very open to a Roman tipple, but the Iceni - for whatever reason - didn’t want anything to do with it. The Iceni may have been teetotalers, or they may have distrusted the Romans (maybe the Romans selling liquor was a bit like the Victorians plying the Chinese with opium or the Americans selling “fire water” on the Frontier).

In addition, pottery and jewellery from all over the continent have been found at sites in Britain, and we know something about how the Britons paid for these items because we’ve found a lot of their coins. Sometimes coins turn up with lots of other artefacts; other times, a lucky archaeologist digs up a real treasure trove: a hoard of coins buried for safe-keeping. Either the original owner got killed, or the skies of Iron Age Britain were filled with angry wives shouting “What do you mean you can’t remember where you hid it? Think!”

All these bits of pottery and jewellery show that the tribes in the South East kept in close touch with their cross-Channel neighbours, especially after those cross-Channel neighbours fell to the Romans. In fact, the Romans seem to have regarded some of the Britons, like the Cantiaci of Kent, as virtually Romanised even before they landed. Which isn’t surprising, because, although the Britons couldn’t match the Romans for buildings or roads, their social structure wasn’t all that different.

A touch of class

An Iron Age tribe wasn’t just a bunch of people in a village with a chief, oh no. These people had class - four classes, to be precise.

The nobles: This group included the King (or Queen - a number of British tribes were led by women) and other highly respected people like warriors, Druids, poets, and historians, and quite right too.

Among the Gaels of Ireland a tribal chief was called a toisech, which is where we get the word taoiseach for the Irish prime minister.

The middle class: This group was made up of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. These people paid rent to the nobles.

The working class: These people did all the chores. Iron Age tribes may not have had a permanent working class: they may have used children for things like shepherding or washing up and older people for heavier jobs like harvesting or mining (though it sounds a bit dicey to rely for your supply of iron on the most clapped-out people of the tribe).

The slave class: Slaves, who were usually criminals or prisoners of war, were known as mug, which sounds about right.

Bring me my chariot, and Fire!

The Britons knew how to fight. Even Julius Caesar allowed them that. He also said they spent a lot of time fighting each other, which is why the Romans were able to defeat them. With all those hill forts and weapons around, this probably looks about right, though archaeologists now think a lot of those weapons were more for show and not all of the hill forts were built for fighting. (Just when you thought everything looked clear, trust an archaeologist to come along and spoil it!)

The Celts had a special group of elite fighters who guarded the tribal king.

In Ireland they were called the Fianna or Fenians - much later on the Irish would use the name again when they were fighting against the British. The most famous of the Fenians was the legendary Finn MacCool, who stars in all the Celtic literature that got handed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation. Much later, someone started writing these stories down, and they may be the basis for the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

But the Britons’ real secret weapon - and it seems to have been something peculiar to Britain - was the swift, light chariot, pulled by a couple of sturdy British ponies. Each chariot carried two men, one to drive and the other to throw spears. The spear thrower could either throw the spear from the chariot or he could leap down and fight on foot, and then call up a chariot when he needed to get out in a hurry. Caesar was impressed. He wrote this in Book IV of Gallic Wars:

By daily practice and exercise they reach such expertness that, even on a steep slope, they can check their horses at full speed, rein them in and turn them in an instant, and run along the pole and stand on the yoke, and then with the utmost speed get back in the chariot again.

Hit the woad, Jack

Everyone knows about woad, the blue dye made from the woad plant. Julius Caesar says the Britons were covered in great buckets of the stuff when he landed with his men, and the sight of these woad-covered men quite unnerved them. A bit later, Roman historian Pliny says that British women wore woad and nothing else when they went to be sacrificed - which, had the women been on the beach, would have unnerved Caesar’s men even more. This business about did they or didn’t they wear woad and, if they did, how much, is the sort of thing that we just have to rely on Roman eye-witnesses for. Unless, of course, an archaeologist unearths an ancient British woad-compact.

Hilltop Des Res

You have to visit these Iron Age hill forts to get a real idea of just how vast they were. You can read about the early Britons building ramparts, but until you stand at the bottom of, say, Maiden Castle and look up at the sheer slope that towers above you, you can't truly understand just what these people achieved. And that's just the view from the bottom level: two more levels are above that.

It's hard to know exactly how many of these hill forts were in Britain, because some of them almost certainly had Norman castles built on top of them later, but if Ireland is any guide, there must have been a lot. Over 30,000 Celtic ring forts and sites exist in Ireland: That's a lot of ramparts.

Archaeologists say that, because some of these forts were so vast, they'd have been difficult to defend, they must have built for something else; but no-one knows what alternative purpose these huge ramparts could have served.

But it is true that these hill forts weren't really "forts" any more than a walled town in the Middle Ages was a castle. Hill forts were towns, cities even, with hundreds of families living inside them and large warehouses for trade. But the archaeologists do have a point: When it came to the crunch, these mighty hill forts fell to the Romans fairly easily.

It’s not unusual to find tribes using war paint, but the use of woad may not just have been for ritual purposes. Woad is a type of mustard plant that is supposed to help stop bleeding and heal wounds: very useful in battle. Also, if the Britons did wear woad, they probably didn’t just splash it all over like some sort of blue emulsion: much more likely is that they put it on in those rather nice swirling patterns they may or may not have got from La Tene (see the section “Looking for patterns” earlier for info on the Le Tene connection).

This Is NOT a Hoax: The Belgians Are Coming!

Some time between 200 and 100 BC Britain really did get some invaders: but they weren’t Romans, they were Gauls. Some of the Parisii tribe had already left the banks of the Seine to settle in Humberside (not a very common exchange nowadays!) but these latest Gauls who started landing along the south coast were from the Belgae and the Atrebates, two of the most powerful nations of northern Gau. Yes, folks, these were Belgians - and they weren’t sightseeing. They were after slaves which they used to buy wine from the Romans (maybe the Iceni were right to steer clear of it; see the section “Trading places” earlier in this chapter for details).

After a few pillaging raids both invading tribes set up in the south, more or less in modern Hampshire. They stayed in close touch with their “parent” tribes back in Gaul, so they knew all about Caesar launching his invasion of Gaul, and they seem to have sent some of their men over to help in the fight against him. That the Belgae and the Atrebates in Britain were sending reinforcements back home was one of the main reasons Caesar thought about crossing over to Britain and teaching the inhabitants a lesson. But after Caesar had conquered Gaul, these British Belgae and Atrebates became a sort of Roman fifth column within Britain. Caesar even put his own man, Commius, in charge of the Atrebates before he crossed over himself, and very useful to the Romans Commius proved to be. Head to Chapter 4 to see how this alliance turned out.

More Blood, Vicar? Religion in the Iron Age

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the Druids. Real Druids, not those characters who dress in sheets and blow rams’ horns at Stonehenge every summer solstice. The religion of the Britons was based on reverence for nature and their surroundings, and the Druids were its priesthood. These Druids were surprisingly learned: They probably knew how to read and write, and they certainly had a good grasp of mathematics. They knew something of medicine and law, and they could trace the stars and the planets. They even had a sort of holy headquarters on the Isle of Anglesey.

They also had immense power. They could tell everyone what to do, even Kings and chiefs. They shut themselves away in sacred groves and offered up sacred mistletoe and led all the sacred rituals the tribe needed to get through another year. They could read the future in the flight of birds, and they could weave dark and terrible magic. Above all, they knew when to offer the gods blood and (Druid opens envelope, whole tribe holds its breath) whose blood it should be.

Ye gods!

There were rather a lot of gods in Iron Age Britain: over 400 in fact. Most of them were local. Only about a hundred would have meant anything to the Celts on the other side of the Channel. Some of these gods went on to become Christian figures - the Irish goddess Birgit, for example, became St Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland. Then there’s the chief British god, Lud, not to be confused with Lug, a god of harvests and fertility. Lud almost certainly gave his name to Ludgate Circus in London and possibly to London itself - Lug did not give his name to earholes. Then there was Taranis, who was the supreme god of the Celts, though quite how he sized up to Lud isn’t entirely clear; and Teutatis who was the spirit god of each tribe.

As if all those gods (and many others) weren’t enough, the Britons also treated various animals as gods, including horses, bulls, deer, wild boars, and bears. Rivers and lakes were sacred, too, which is why the Druids kept making sacrifices to them.

You get little echoes of that belief in the sacredness of rivers and lakes later on: all those statues of Father Thames, for example, and the legend of King Arthur getting Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.

Yes, all in all, Iron Age religion was enough to make anyone’s head swim, but if you have a headache, don’t, whatever you do, go and tell your local Druid. Druids are very, very interested in heads.

Head cases

The Druids believed in an afterlife and that, when a person died, the soul went from one world to another. They also believed that capturing someone’s soul gave you really powerful magic and that the soul was stored in the head. So Druids collected people’s heads, some of which they kept to use in rituals, and others that they offered up to the gods.

The prize head in any collection was an enemy’s head and horrified Romans came across Druid caves with heads strung up like French onions. They found huge collections of heads at Bredon in Shropshire and in Wookey Hole in Somerset. You even got British warriors riding around with severed heads tied to their saddles, hoping to get the benefit of the victim’s spirit: I suppose they thought it would give them a head start.

Sacrificing humans

One thing about the Britons that the Romans found really revolting was all that human sacrifice. The Druids triple-killed their human sacrifices, not just to make sure the sacrifice was dead but as three different ways into the afterlife. Archaeologists know this because of the bog bodies, all of which had been thrice killed (head to the section “Look what I found down the bog: Bodies” earlier in this chapter for more information on the bodies found in bogs). If you had any sense, you chose someone you could make do without: A lot of those bog bodies had little distortions of one sort or another. (Woad-covered virgins were very acceptable too, if you could find one.)

Take Lindow Man, for example, who turned up in 1984 in a peat marsh at Lindow in Cheshire. The archaeologists worked out how he died - head smashed in, strangled (he still had the leather garrotte tied tightly round his neck), and finally drowned. This all tallies with what Caesar says used to go on at ritual killings.

The notion of sacrifice was done on the basis of exchange. If you wanted something from the gods, you offered them a sacrifice to appease and please them and maybe they would give you what you wanted. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t. Neither Lud nor Lug nor Teutatis nor St Brigid herself was able to predict, let alone prevent, the storm that was fast heading Britain’s way from Roman Gaul.

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