Fancy Living Along Iron Age Lines?

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And surely a query worth contemplating. For instance, how would we get on without all our high-techery and labour-saving homes? Or fare without the daily multiple-choice comestibles. Or the mass entertainment streams. Or the means to travel where and when we want and in great comfort. Or the shopping opportunities by land, air and internet.  Would we think it a life worth living without plumbing and waste management systems? Would we feel ourselves utterly impoverished? Could we even survive as our ancestors survived over tens of thousands of years?

Of course by the time we in Britain reached the era of technological development that archaeologists call the Iron Age (c. 800 BCE to 43 CE and the Roman invasion), the manner of existence is at least broadly recognisable to us. People lived in farmsteads and fortified villages and belonged to regional tribal groups ruled by individual chiefs (men or women). These people were horse-riding, chariot-driving warriors as well as farmers. They also had specialist metal workers, potters, and weavers. They built hillforts on a monumental scale (e.g. Maiden Castle, Danebury, Old Oswestry). Some were inhabited. Some were not. Some were elaborations of earlier earthworks begun in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Their exact purpose is often unclear – tribal prestige, defence, seasonal market and ritual gathering places. All of these.

Some things we do know about Britain’s Iron Age people – they were prosperous farming folk employing improved methods of agriculture (iron-tipped ploughs and new strains of barley and wheat; they cultivated peas, flax, beans; they raised pigs, sheep and cattle). The great numbers of Iron Age sites suggest that the population was on the rise. Nor in Britain were they isolated islanders. They traded with continental Europe, exporting (in particular) grain, hunting dogs and rain-repellent woollen capes, possibly also slaves, and importing wine in return. At least three to four hundred years before the Romans arrived, Greek, Phoenician and Carthaginian traders were coming to Britain for Cornish tin.

The southern British tribes had their own coinage. Iron Age smiths worked in gold as well as iron and created torques, brooches and bracelets of unsurpassed beauty as well as magnificently wrought swords and shields. Many that have survived appear to have been votive offerings, placed in lakes and rivers. Roman historians write of druidic cults and of human sacrifice and other deemed dark Celtic practices.

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The photos here were taken at Castell Henllys, a promontory fort in the uplands between Newport and Cardigan. Excavations have been continuing on this small hillfort site since the 1980s, and for the last twenty years it has served as a training ground for York University archaeology students. The reconstructions are based on the excavations and occupy parts of the site where there is no archaeology. The outlines of the original excavated homes of these Iron Age Celts are marked with posts. When we were there some primary school children were using them to weave willow panels – the basis of Iron Age wattle and daub house wall construction. (Seen in the distance in the next photo; also the reconstructed fort gateway).

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The main frame of the houses (20-30 feet in diameter) comprises some pretty heavy duty posts, the roof thatched with grasses laid on cross laths. There is no chimney, but the smoke from the central cooking hearth would have risen through the rafters and helped to seal the thatch. It would have been pretty fumy, but also draughty too with a wide gated entrance.

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As you can see, the houses were spacious inside, probably catering for one family unit while the settlement as a whole would be made up of extended family members. The primary school children were having a fine time learning domestic skills.

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Iron Age cookery lesson.

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The Granary

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Artist’s impression: Castell Henllys in around 300 BCE

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The fortifications around the houses certainly suggest their inhabitants were well prepared for marauding invaders. Archaeologists uncovered an unusual feature in the outermost line of defence – a ‘cheveaux-de-frise’ – a formation of embedded rocks placed to stop chariots in their tracks, and within sling-shot range. And to go with it, a large hoard of slingshots was also discovered, placed in readiness behind the rampart. Both finds are more commonly known from European and Irish sites.

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And what happened here after the Romans invaded? It seems the people adapted. Just north of the hillfort there are remains of a Romano-British farmstead. Life goes on then, but not always as we expect it to.

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

Related: https://tishfarrell.com/2013/06/18/the-great-earthly-curves-mystery-what-when-and-why/

Line Squares #18

56 thoughts on “Fancy Living Along Iron Age Lines?

  1. Great photos Tish. I wonder how many of us would survive the first winter if we were suddenly placed into this life – possibly not me, I’m ashamed to say. Can’t imagine being as cold as they must have been! Lovely post

  2. On sunny days a tempting way of life to escape our modern world . . . . but then I think of winter days with cold winds, tremendous downpours and think maybe not!

  3. If we were dumped back in time few of us would survive (maybe the Ray Mears of the world) we are just too soft. I consider myself pretty basic but doubt I would last a year!
    Nice history lesson again Tish.

    1. I think we might surprise ourselves if we had no other choice though. One of the first examples of UK reality TV back in the ’70s had families living in just these conditions on an experimental archaeology site called Butser Hill (still going), reporting back on how they were coping. I thought there might be surviving YouTube footage, but there seems to be no sign of it. Ground-breaking stuff at the time too.

      1. I guess you are right. In Sweden they made an experiment with two groups of people (about 6-7 in each), who were placed in two different houses and had to manage with what they had after a total shutdown of electricity due to a sunstorm. A possible reality. One group lived in a very modern house and the other group at an old farmstead. It was very interesting to follow the program, because it was controlled by scientists and health control people. Everything was made very real, because the participants had no idea what was happening, all stores were closed and there was no communication the ordinary way. The group in the farm found an old battery radio and could get information from there. Information overall was that the whole of Sweden was shut down from electricity for a time – no limited end. Very, very interesting series where we followed their thoughts and measures. When the food was gone, it really got tough. Of course the people at the old farm got along better. Fishing in the lake, fruit in the garden…but psychologically this was a very interesting experiment. Everybody should see this – an eye opener.

      2. Yes, but it made all the viewers more aware of how vulnerable we are…Having some canned food at home and more batteries for torch lights and radio for example.

  4. Ah – I THOUGHT this looked familiar from the the introductory photos. It’s a smashing place – and your shots are MUCH better than mine, Tish. I’d miss this century – but if I was born back then (and, who knows, I may well have been), I wouldn’t know any better…

    1. It is a fantastic place, isn’t it, Mike. We also really enjoyed the walk through the woods up to the site. And thank you for the kind words re photos. It’s not the easiest of places to take them.

  5. You are so knowledgeable about all this, Tish! Perhaps I could make something edible in those conditions but I suspect you’d have to be desperate to eat it. Rock buns, anyone? 🙂 🙂

    1. I think Castell Henllys is the only authentic site in the UK where such reconstructions have been attempted on site. But it does make you think and also opens up a pathway to the past. The kids were having a fine time having stories told to them, learning to spin and weave and cook etc. I bet they will long remember that particular school visit.

  6. It’s funny that you ask that question because you and I DID grow up without al the widgets and devices that are in everyone’s hands today. We went out to play. We had company in our homes and in the summer, outside by the campfire. It wasn’t a million years ago, either. Most of the “current” stuff didn’t show up until the 80s and most of us did find without it.

    I love my computer because I don’t have to retype everything if I make a mistake, but i wrote before computers. It was more time-consuming. but it got done. It got done when people had to write it all out by hand.

    We took pictures and before we had cameras, we painted pictures.

    I’m not at all sure that the quality of our lives is improved by technology. It makes everything whizz by faster, but is that iinherently better? We have safer food to eat because we have refrigeration and better (?) packaging, but is it healthier? I suppose something is going right because we live longer … just … do we live BETTER?

    1. You are absolutely right. We did both grow up without stuff. And yes the hi-tech does whizz everything by. It also means people don’t really learn how to deal with, or make hay out of their boredom. Many of us seem to be enslaved by our personal technology. While it endlessly feeds us ‘information’, truthful, distorted, faked, it can somehow also stop us from engaging with reality on a ‘human to world’ basis. And yes, too, we have been living longer (though that’s now going into reverse in the US and UK), but ‘better’? there’s the rub.

      1. Wow. Such wisdom in this response and in Marilyn’s comment which prompted it. What would the ancient Celts have thought of us? Articles on these topics, pleeeese.

        This resonated: “At least three to four hundred years before the Romans arrived, Greek, Phoenician and Carthaginian traders were coming to Britain for Cornish tin.”

        I’m part of the Cornish Diaspora: an Australian living in New York. My ancestors were extracting that tin right up to 1830. Now, we’ve all scattered.

        I know we are talking Celts here, but I wrote about the Anglo Saxons 700 years later. You might like Mr Bean, Hleahtor-Smiþ on 6th November 2019 and Anglo Saxon Words on 15th September 2019 at https://thethinkingwasp.wordpress.com/.

        Thank you for your blog. Magnificent.

  7. I think reconstructed villages like this one are fascinating. It makes me wonder about how much of their knowledge we may have lost about survival with what nature gave them. We think we know, but I suspect there are still surprises to be discovered.

    1. I’m sure you’re absolutely right, Joanne. There’s still a lot to learn about our forebears. And also about ourselves. I think we may have a lot of under-used capacities.

  8. Fact of the matter is: our ancestors did survive. 🙂
    Yet, infant mortality was enormous, major illnesses had no cure, in fact, life could be quite a misery until the late 19th century mid 20th, with dentistry and antibiotics. In my grandmother’s family alone 3 died of TB in between the tow wars…
    Thanks for the post Tish. Have a great week.
    Kwaheri sassa

      1. Yes. Africa. Daughter #1 the Doctor, did a six-months mission at MSF on Lake Victoria to treat HIV patients with Resistent TB. TB is now growingly resistent to antibiotics. There are cases here in Mexico. In France, too, Marseilles. I understand that 2 million people die in India every year of TB. Sigh.

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