Fancy Living Along Iron Age Lines?


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.


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).


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.




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.


Iron Age cookery lesson.



The Granary



Artist’s impression: Castell Henllys in around 300 BCE


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.


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


Line Squares #18

The Great Earthly Curves Mystery: what, when and why?


I could also throw in a ‘who ’ and ‘where’? So what’s your best guess on the identity of this marvellously curvaceous earthwork? No forward peeking. Here’s another shot.


While you’re pondering, I should say that in a former life, in a long ago era that my knees think could well be the Lower Paleolithic, I studied Prehistory and Archaeology. That’s a clue.

Okay. Here’s the whole thing.


1935 and 1937 aerial photographs taken by Major George Allen and  in the possession of the Ashmolean Museum.

Both images are in the public domain.


These, then, are the ramparts of Maiden Castle, one of  Britain’s most famous Late Bronze Age – Iron Age hill forts.  After two thousand years of wear and tear, the whole structure seems to have simply grown from the natural contours of  the Dorset uplands. Of course when they were first excavated, with simple picks, incalculable people-hours, and much project management, the banks would have been higher still, and the ditches more sharply ankle-breaking; in their pristine state of freshly exposed chalk, they would have glistened white across the land and been visible for miles. 

And so in the past this place would have looked utterly magnificent, and other-worldly too, perhaps the equivalent of seeing a shimmering giant spaceship looming over the countryside; and perhaps that was the point. Or at least one of the reasons for its existence. This place was not only defensive, a signifier of tribal authority, but probably also the place of seasonal sacred gatherings, a place of pilgrimage in some sense.

In fact a metaphysical aspect for this location is indicated across four millennia. The first human activity dates from around 4,000 BC when people of the Neolithic or New Stone Age built a prominently sited enclosure. The banks were low and hardly banks at all. Nor were they continuous, so it seems unlikely that it was made for defence. It appears to have been a place where people gathered for social and sacred reasons rather than in times of enemy attack. The burials of two children that were found there date from this time.

Then around 3000 BC, after the enclosure was no longer used, a large ditched barrow was built. It apparently contained no burial, but may still have been a meeting place and important ritual landmark. Again, both the enclosure and the later barrow would have been bright white when newly made.  Over three thousand years later, in late Roman times when Roman beliefs had fused somewhat with local beliefs, a small Romano-British temple was built there.

In between, the site was used by Bronze Age farmers who left behind traces of their fields, then around 600 BC the first hill fort was constructed. At first it was much like the many other hill forts that were being built at this time across Britain. It was not especially impressive, and enclosed around 6.4 hectares (16 acres). But around 450 BC it underwent a massive expansion, involving the enclosure of two hill tops. The defended area increased to 19 hectares (47 acres) which, the English Heritage guide tells visitors, is equivalent to 50 football pitches. Also at this time the defences became very complex, and the banks were raised to a height of 8.4 metres (28 feet). In other words, it was an extraordinary feat of engineering and manual labour. It was a statement of power, capacity and authority. It was a place that people looked up to in every sense.

Maiden Castle is also unusual is that, unlike many other hill forts, there is evidence that people lived there. These people were the Celtic Durotriges. Excavations have revealed that they  lived in thatched round houses, grew wheat and barley which they stored in granaries and kept sheep, pigs and cattle. Doubtless they would have had horses for transport and oxen for ploughing. Iron was worked on the site. Then there were the piles of round stones, strategically placed around the fort. These were probably used for slingshot, and suggest that  an attack was expected.

File:Celtic-roundhouse-1994.jpgReconstruction of an Iron Age round house. Photo: Creative Commons,


It appears, too, that  the expected siege did take place. During the 1930s excavations of Maiden Castle, Sir Mortimer Wheeler uncovered part of a cemetery. Of the 52 bodies excavated, a number showed signs of a violent death. This, Sir Mortimer concluded, was evidence of an attack by Vespasian’s legionaries during the Roman invasion of AD 43. In 2009, a burial site with 50 decapitated bodies was discovered not far from Maiden Castle during road building, and according to Roman historical accounts, Vespasian conquered some 20 hill forts across the Durotriges’ territory.

By the time the Romans arrived, Britain had long been a prosperous country inhabited by a number of different Celtic tribal groups. It was not a backwater as we might imagine. The Romans, after all, were coming for a reason, not out of idle curiosity. For two hundred years before the invasion, Celtic traders had well-established markets in Europe.

File:Scuto Battersea BritMu252a.jpg

Iron Age Shield found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London. Photo: Creative Commons, Wikipedia.

Their inlaid gold-, silver- and ironwork was exquisite (and endlessly curvy)  – torcs, brooches, shields, swords. They made fantastic weather-proof felted capes. They exported surplus grain from the numerous farmsteads whose traces still remain across Britain’s landscape. They sold slaves, and hunting dogs. In return, they imported amphorae of olive oil and wine, amber and ivory jewellery. It was a moneyed economy.


Gold torc from the Snettisham Hoard, Norfolk. Photo; Creative Commons, (Wikipedia).

Below is an example of a Durotriges gold stater. Coin experts point out that it shows an abstracted Celtic version of the head of Apollo (left) and a dismembered horse (right).  The finds of such coins have been used to plot the extent of Durotriges territory – that is, from East Devon, across Dorset, and including southern Wiltshire. By AD 70 they had become Romanized, and were part of the Roman Province of Britannia. The process of urbanizing the Durotriges occurred, then, not at Maiden Castle, but down on the banks of the River Frome at what is now Dorchester. During this time the hill fort was apparently abandoned, and not apparently used again  until the building of the 4th century temple.


Photo: Creative Commons:  Numisantica (

But to come back to the curvy earthworks and their purpose. Many archaeologists have argued that hill forts of Maiden Castle’s scale and impressiveness belong to the category of defensive tribal strongholds known as oppida. These are found across Europe – from Spain to the Hungarian plain.  In other words, they could be described as proto-towns.

Yet this notion of incipient urban development does not fit the the hundreds of British hill forts that show absolutely no sign of permanent occupation, nor of warfare for that matter. Because there is one BIG disadvantage to occupying a hill fort for any length of time, and that is access to fresh water. The need to bring it in makes the occupants highly vulnerable in all sorts of ways.

All that can be said with certainty is that these structures were of huge importance to the people who built them. The effort that went into their construction, the periods of rebuilding over several centuries tells us this. We can also surmise that the cultures who produced them were prosperous and highly organised. Building these hill top structures required people-power, and from a population who mostly lived elsewhere in defended farmsteads. The building of them could only happen when there was no demanding farm work, probably between planting and harvest time, when digging conditions were favourable. But then if the Celts were known to trade in slaves, then presumably they also had their own.  Perhaps these impressive monuments were built by slaves?

Another thing that we often make mistakes over, is that non-industrialised people do not, and probably never did, divide up their reality into strict divisions of sacred and profane as we do. All reality is sacred in some sense. From our position of self-appointed technologised loftiness we often refer to such belief systems as ‘superstition’, while engaging with our own spirits of consumption in shopping malls and coffee shops. But if people did not occupy these hill forts permanently, then for practical purposes, whether as defensive retreats or the meeting place for the seasonal ceremonies of scattered Celtic clans – the need for a striking location that everyone could find would be paramount. A place where beacons could be lit and seen for miles, where raw rock ramparts would float in the sky like a mirage.

Perhaps there was indeed a need to feel secure from enemies and wildlife while serious rituals were being conducted. But then high banks may also be used to contain sound as an amphitheatre does – the chanting of storytellers, the pronouncements of seers and leaders. Also a hilltop is closer to the spirit world, to God, the Creator, to Heaven; it is a place half way between the mundane and the sublime. And just because a sacred thanksgiving is going on, it does not exclude the possibility for horse trading and dowry negotiation, or for storytelling contests and trials of warrior strength, or displays of obedience from hunting dogs.

So: the great earthwork mystery remains largely unsolved. Perhaps it does not matter. When we visit such places we know they are special; if we allow ourselves to respond, that is enough. With that thought in mind, it is fitting to end with a literary connection. Maiden Castle of course loomed large on the creative landscape of Thomas Hardy, famous son of Dorchester. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, the hill fort provides a dramatic setting where would-be lovers seemingly meet by chance.

“Elizabeth, as has been said, often took her walks on the Budmouth Road, and Farfrae as often made it convenient to create an accidental meeting with her there. Two miles out, a quarter of a mile from the highway, was the prehistoric fort called Mai Dun, of huge dimensions and many ramparts, within or upon whose enclosures a human being as seen from the road, was but an insignificant speck. Hitherward Henchard often resorted, glass in hand, and scanned the hedgeless Via — for it was the original track laid out by the legions of the Empire — to a distance of two or three miles, his object being to read the progress of affairs between Farfrae and his charmer.”


Bury Ditches, Shropshire