Some of the amazing elements of
Iron Age SOCIETY, culture, art,
landscape & myths,
If you have seen my other hillforts.co.uk pages, the world of hillforts did not just have hillforts. This Tolkienesque world was a time of many other great aspects. Some the ordinary aspects of life and society that have strong equivalents to now, and some that would make it seem almost like another dimension. There were different religions, different landscapes, different wildlife, and so much more difference.
There were partly aligned with the druidic religion, fantastic myths, some of which survive in folklore and textbooks, to today. Such as those akin to the Irish myths, written down at the end of the first millennium AD, that seem to have come from what was effectively still a Iron Age culture. Plus the stories of the Mabinogion, which surely had windows on previous Dark Ages and Iron Age myths of Wales. In addition practices written down by Rome's Classical sources have stories and aspects that mentioned what was occurring in the Celtic North West European Iron Age.
Other great sources include, interpreting of images, in the form, of statues, and shapes, and figurines found by archaeologists. Indeed there is famous Celtic statue from Germany, where a similar form of fashion has been uncovered by experts archaeologically, so intriguing there.
Plus inferring from what has been found out about neighbouring cultures helps. Also in cases, interpretations from lasting anthropological evidence today. Indeed there are tantalising cases of evidence where 18th and 19th century writers recorded practices, that were of a Pre-Christian nature in some of the Celtic parts of Britain. So many have attempted to weave aspects of those pieces into the story of Iron Age, and Dark Ages Britain. There is a modern view that the period between Norman and Roman Britain should be called Early Medieval, but I use Dark Ages, as it sounds more individual. With all the Roman, Celtic and other sources I think it is fair to write a attempt of what life was like in a dramatic, every day and glorifying way, which is what I have done in my story "The land of hillforts". In the story, I thus try to envisage a lost pre- Roman century, estimating a political and cultural existence, that I believe is a good attempt at pre-historical fiction. It is from the view of a number of people or adventurers, travelling the great Celtic nations of Britain, Ireland, and Gaul, with mentions of other lands of Europe in that time as well. It brings in everyday life, hopes, tribulations, and experiences, the vast majority of life, for most people then. Though it also factors in that terrifying reality of hillfort related warfare, which is a exciting part of the time, if terrible for the people involved. Though it needs to be stated, but not overstated, though the other aspects of hillfort, and non-hillfort Iron Age life are envisioned as well, so not just those exciting battles and escapes.
Again below are pictures of this era, for what is of course the background for my hillfort story. They detail some of the fascinating aspects of what was talked of and believed in, and such. I infer from these sources a background and a setup of the life and world of the land of the hillforts, which you can buy if you go to the link on pages such as this site's homepage. Here we dip into that amazing world. I believe the pictures of the artistic aspects tell more than I could in the paragraphs here. So the wonderful art of the era, is presented by me in that way, with descriptions below. From the art of the weapons, to art of a more status and beauty orientation.
It is important to stress that life for most of the people, like nearly all societies of the world before the industrial revolution, after the Mesolithic hunter gatherer era, was devoted to farming, and some gathering. That is why I have a picture of someone farming, and some livestock, as a tiny taste of the visual aspect that. Also I have some pics I have manipulated, so nobody can use them without my permission, of roundhouses, which in many cases would be the homes of many a hillfort dweller.
Actually most people at the time did not live in the hillforts themselves, most lived in various other settlements, but they were likely places for all to flee to in times of trouble. For instance most lived in, homesteads, and more open hamlets and villages below the forts and afar, but often among roundhouses like these. Some of those would have been on the valley floor. In cases some of the settlements would be protected by a river boundary, or a enclosure, but the hillfort, the war bands, and ability of Celtic farmers, to fight, flee, or seek protection, was another defensive aspect.
Another beautiful aspect of life, was how Britain for example was so much more a land of nature than the concrete jungles of today. The population was something like 20 times less than in 2020, so, the average person would have been far closer to nature. Even the largest hillfort in most areas would barely be the size of many villages today, and people would have lived their lives closer to nature, and thus the trees, the birds, the wildlife, and their own livestock, and crops would be far more their lives, than the shops and such of today. In a sense this would have been true for people in those Celtic lands, and the world all the way to each land's Industrial and agricultural Revolutions. Lets face it, even those in farming communities today, with their tractors, and the like have pulled away with some of that link with nature, though them less so. What you can envision though, is a Britain for instance of no cities, no towns, less roads, and just more fields, far more forest, and more countryside. There were even some animals, we do not have now, it seems the auroch had disappeared centuries before, but there were likely lynx in Scotland, possibly bears, and pelicans and storks aplenty in southern Britain, and even at times Ireland, which is not the case now. Though I did see there have been sightings of rare examples of these birds cropping up every so often.
It is this farming element to life, that it is easy to imagine was the major focal point. It is even possible to say, that compared with the urbanised life of 20th Century Britain, that life from Bronze and Iron Age farming, and metal using Britain had in some ways more in common for most people in 2000BC and 1700AD, than 2020AD, or even 1930AD. Yes there were big changes in farming across the era, to do with new types of equipment, tenure practices, mass movements of peoples and the like. Plus of course major events and such, and more that changed over time, surely even affecting livestock types and such, but there would have been a common general pattern and patter to life, and of lifestyle that is not here as of so much more technological and social change, that has occurred for us now.
Possibly herding livestock, planting seeds, and harvesting, fears over the weather, plus how that would affect the food sources and all these things, would dominate life far more than for most of us for most of the time than now. Which could explain how certain elements of the rituals, even in mythology could have survived so long to the 19th Century literary recordings. Indeed some Bronze Age and Iron Age tools, look very similar to recent types, like for even everyday roles, such as plyers, or hoes, or such like.
A major aspect should be mentioned, the Celtic festivals, their greatest claim to fame of course, being how many claim they may even have inspired such things as Halloween. The Gaulish and Gaelic Celts had something like a few festivals a year, which were based in terms of timing of course on how changes in the seasons affect the farming aspect of society, and entwined with ritual, the Gods, and at times the Druidic religions.
There was the Gaelic New year festival of Samhain, which with it's bonfires would mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter. Some feeling it was a time of a closer link with the underworld, where the Gods were more in existence. The Cornish, Welsh and Bretons, had a similar one, the Calan Gaeaf in Wales, and in these the Gods were honoured, and the passing of time memorised. There were undoubtedly pre-Christian acts that showed up until the 19th Century, like in the Isle of Man, rents were often started at this time. In the Outer Hebrides in the 19th century, a man would wade into the sea, on behalf of the community and pour out a cup of ale for the sake of Shoney, a Godlike figure.
It seems elements of the Celtic faiths lasted will into the second millennium BC, even within Christianity if some writers are to be believed, and I feel they have a point. In all, I think it is fair to say some aspects of Celtic culture survived well into the 19th Century in many Celtic lands, just as even older beliefs did for other cultures in Europe, such as parts of Eastern Europe, or even certain communities in the Andes today.
There were many other aspects of what must have been Celtic religious practices recorded from Perthshire, to upland parts of Northern England, to Wales, and more. Though many of these fell away for many reasons, such as urbanisation, and standardised modern education, and so many factors that for much good or some ill changed society.
Certainly there were others festivals as well, such as in Ireland. Like the Lughnasadh, which honoured the Gods and harvest time. Or Beltane the equivalent to modern May Day, and Imbolc which honoured Gods during this very livestock orientated society's lambing season, and what was for many the wonderful ending of Winter. Irish myths and other evidence indicate that bonfires, and rituals were a major part of all these festivals.
Beltane or May Day seems to have been something that occurred in many cultures across Europe, but the specific of the types of Gods, and such were particular to certain cultures.
The Druids in Gaul actually created a famous calendar, the Coligny Calendar closer to the right number of days in a year than many other cultures of the time, and this marked festivals, that honoured what the Celts did. It was similar to what many druids would have. Though it must be said the Druids of Gaul had adopted writing, which British druids were still resisting up to the Romans, though some inscriptions on British made coins indicate some Britons may have started to acquire a knowledge of Latin very close to their invasion, though they were a tiny minority even of the elite.
In Ireland and Scotland Beltane had specific markings. In Perthshire in the 19th Century again it was recorded that a caudle or small cauldron had a meal of eggs, butter, milk and oatmeal, poured on the ground to some deity. In another part of Scotland it was recorded a number of folk would eat a piece of oatmeal cake, whoever by luck picked the smallest piece would have to make a play sacrificial jump through a fire.
There were many other unusual things recorded such as driving cattle through certain direction round bonfires, and such, or a shrine to that Goddess I mention on this page in Perthshire, that has to be rebuilt every year.
Most amazingly some Neolithic tombs in Ireland have times when the sunlight shines through certain passages during times when these festivals occurred each year, indicating a link with a long ago past in these faiths, possibly.
All in all it is fair to say there is a continuous strain of Celtic history, likely going all the way back to the eras before the Iron Age. Very little is similar to what it was like from then, and what remains from the most recent Pre-Christian era is highly diluted by other influences and such, but there are some genuine unbroken lines of cultural continuance, which is something I think is lovely. So aspects of stories from the Mabinogion to the Irish Myths, have heirs today. Indeed many of the oldest Christian traditions of Celtic lands have survived a long time as well. So this all part of just what happens, in fact of course certain Christian rituals, have passed into modern more secular even modern agnostic and atheist society, indicating that continuance carries on, adopting and changing.
The clothes they wore, changed over time, but it does seem there were similarities in Celtic fashions to those of Highland Clans, in the 18th Century. One feature I love is how they have found that the warmer parts of the Bronze Age, had lighter amounts of clothing found, than the colder parts of the Iron Age. As some centuries were markedly cooler, than others.
The food they had mattered of course, with oats, barley and wheat good staples, no potatoes, rice, or maize, but they could cope. Livestock including cows and pigs were kept, and the dairy foods supplied as well as meat were vital to many communities, in what were often very livestock orientated societies. If famine struck, it seems there was a tradition in Ireland of digging up buried caskets of food, kept in bogs called Bog Butter, that were at times, meat, or dairy, kept edible by their burial. I mean there is more to the Iron Age than this, but these details do indicate some fantastic everyday elements to life, as a background.
As I say elsewhere the various Gods they worshipped were likely an attempt to bring order and understanding to such a seemingly bigger and less able to be understood world. Seeing they lived much closer to nature and unknown risks than urban societies today. Gods of thunder, or storms, or the Scottish Goddess Caillech who was believed to be the Queen of Winter, and it's troubles. With some stories of Gods that fought warrior heroes mentioned in the Irish myths, in a pantheon as rich as the stories of the Greeks, or even the Romans. The druids would have drawn on these stories, but likely there were folk beliefs that occur in offshoots of modern religions, to do with things such as folk medicines, and medicine men and women, who would have likely have used not just remedies they found from herbs, but tried to use the power of these "Gods" as well. That would have been a major part of the background of the story, the religions, and the myths, associated to them, and local historical mythical kings and warriors and other such figures. Likely believed in by, Druid, king, the mass of the people, and even the minority of slave alike.
So this was certainly a land rich with life and culture, and so much. So a world of the magnificent hillforts I mention on this website, hillforts.co.uk, and a even richer background.
One other major feature of the Iron Age I should mention is the political aspect.
It seems each community was to a greater or lesser extent within a very loose confederation of other hillfort, village and hamlet environs. For instance in South East England there were a number of tribes about the same size as modern English counties, and these had likely changing borders and names depending on changing political rivalries if what the Romans indicate is anything to go by. The fact is their sources indicate different names for tribal confederations in the area, for when Caesar arrived, to what they saw a century later when Claudius sent his forces in. Surely this fluid situation, is what was occurring across Britain. The Romans recorded the names of tribes they came up against across Britain from the Silures of South Wales, to various groups in Scotland, which they could often give a unified term as the Caledonians or the Picts, who did have similarities, but this was their term for groups which were uniting in reaction to their moves.
On top of this then the Romans recorded regional groupings across Britain, which each hillfort or group of hillforts would have been part of. So like in North Wales there were the Decangli, and possibly sub units like Gangani. So this situation had occurrences across the Iron Age world, of numerous tribal groups, often changing overtime. Some in France though seems to have had much larger groups, as of it having such a wider area, but still fitted together within them by smaller confederations.
On a local level, the druids, the warrior aristocracy and possibly land owners, would have shared power, with their trusty warbands, and likely bards, helping them. Just as Medieval societies saw a similar situation, of nobles, knights and religious leaders and the odd scribe or cultural figure above the mass of the population. The mass of the population were farming crosses between serfs or peasants, who would have had obligations, but also would have demanded obligations back from their rulers in the fairer areas. Indeed it is noted by Roman writers, how rival chiefs would win their warbands and the people's support with offerings of wine, or mead, though to what extent the rulers were partly oppressors and partly ruling for the benefit of their people, and needing to take their hopes and aims into account is unknown.
The political aspect is important as it is how people interact with each other. The way people interact shows up in hillforts, in the fact groups felt they needed to have them. Plus in how large groups of people could form or be formed to make a unified effort and could have the manpower to build these structures. Plus in how they must have had political rivalries which needed these structures for protection, and for giving a image of power, and prestige.
Whether the average Celt would felt more tied to his local hillfort, a tribal confederation or the undefinable pan-Celtic society as a whole, is open to question. I say this as there were strands in religion and culture that tied the different Celtic confederations of tribes, but really my hunch would be it was their family, local community, or who was leading them in this quite proto feudal society, who they felt tied to and they just worked it out from there.
As I say though, the lives of the people then, were as rich and fulfilled at times for many, yes there was misery, but also joy, and pleasure.
A last thing to say, the people were likely mostly descended from the Beaker people who came to Britain in the Bronze Age. They seemed to displace most of the Neolithic population and absorb them. There were more migrations from Europe in the Iron Age, but likely in dribs and drabs, which over time made changes, but not as much as the changes brought about by the separation of these new groups by geographical boundary and such. As of this it is felt by many the Gaelic and Brythonic languages stem mostly from Bronze Age times, but changed slowly and thus in the end massively overtime, as of natural mutations, and new words brought in by other communities.
And as likely occurred across history new people have been coming into these groups all the time since the Bronze Age. So likely the British and Irish Celts were mostly Beaker people, a little but Neolithic, and Hunter Gatherer, and also some amounts of people, from other migrations from places such as Gaul and Belgae, and such overtime. With the Romans, Normans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, French and later other new migrations from around the world, also adding to the mix over time.
The Articles on hillforts
Here is the list of pictures on this page. Left to rightm Top to Bottom.
So first of all.
The Witham Shield, a Public domain picture I found on Wikimedia Commons, It is Shield, of Iron Age, La Tène culture, 400BC - 300BC. A great example of a more decorative Celtic Shield. Many of the more decorated ones, may have been for the rich warrior, or display, or even have been offered to Celtic Gods as depositations, often at riverside, as waterways were seen as a connection between our real world and the Celtic God's underworld.
Then the "File:British Museum Wandsworth Shield.jpg", another I found on Wikimedia Commons Public domain. A Iron age shield know as this. Many weapons have been found like this across Europe, indicating the skill and talent and eye for art of Celtic craftsmen. Weapons and normal pieces indicate great art was something they were capable of all those years ago, just like now.
A picture of the Uffington White Horse, public domain as it was from NASA, on Wikimedia public domain. This depiction is a rare chalk carving that has been dated to this long ago, indeed the Mid Iron Age, the jewel in the crown of Celtic British art. Possibly it is even older, though we will have to see if other dates come forward too. Most such have been dated far later, so hopefully it was stay as being dated to then. Anyhow, it could be there were more in the past, but the fact that festivals are recorded from here, and it was kept going may indicate a continuance of populations there. It is a short walk from Uffington Castle a great hillfort by here, and many wonder if it was some kind of ritual symbol, or a way of impressing locals and outsiders.
Then some spindle whorls from a archaeological journal from early 20th Century Bristol, also public domain from Wikimedia Commons. These were tied to wool, and they straightened the material for knitters to make the Celts their clothes.
Then a arm ring from Arm ring, Trochtelfingen, Kreis Reutlingen, c. 200 BC, yellow glass - Landesmuseum Württemberg - Stuttgart, Germany. This public domain on Wikimedia Commons, It indicates the wonderful things likely the elite had to wear.
Then a self explanatory drawing of a famous stone in Ireland. Though spirals crop up in many lands, these particular ones have a Celtic style, indeed triskelions were something of various type that occurred in Iron Age Celts and Dark Ages Celts artistic styles. Some are on weapons some are in things like these, I like spirals and these are good stuff.
Then a public domain picture from the Book of Kells, a horseman illustration from the Book of Kells, a Dark Ages, 9th Century or just before that illustration from Irish Christian Celts in Scotland or Ireland. Kept in Dublin. This mighty book, indicates the wonder of their art.
Then a public domain picture of the Uffington Horse from the 19th Century, and then a public domain pic of a bonfire, then a bear, to indicate the nature of the time. Then my depictions of roundhouses which you can not use, without my permission. Plus 3 farming pics to indicate the fact they were farming societies, they were public domain photos.
Below here are more public domain pics I found on Wikimedia Commons, including a hoard of Iron Age coins, from the British Museum, the Alton Hoard. It is from the 1st Century Ad and includes Celtic and Roman coins. Currency was becoming more common in South East Britain before the Roman invasion, but even more so after their conquest.
So there are some coins from before the Romans, in fact I have one myself I am happy to say. Next to it and below are tools from the Iron Age. It has been said, many tools we have today, would be similar to what were used then, so not only farming would have links between the Iron Age and the 19th Century, but the tools. These tools are from Slovakia's museum in Bratislava, but they are public domain on wiki commons. Below there are surgical tools used by the posthumously nicknamed Colchester Druid, again showing how society kept similar looking styles for tools for a long time. It is a public domain pic from Wikimedia Commons. To the right is a Victorian depiction of a druid rising the Ancient Britons to fight against Rome. To be honest their depiction is about as likely to be correct as any depiction we make now, as they are using sources which are among our main ones for today in terms of that time. The only problem there is our view of druids is clouded by Roman views, that they were of a dangerous unRoman religion and such. To be honest the druids may have been involved in some pretty nasty things, but they were among the elite of the time, and I do not think it is fair on the society to just focus on the druids. I think there is much more of the life of then to talk of as well. But there are pictures on the druids, and they deserve a look at as well, as they were powers in the lands, and a major aspect of the time. Just as bishops and such were powerful in Medieval Europe. Or in a very similar way, how Merlin was so important in the stories of the power politics of King Arthur. Then below there are more tools from that Slovakian museum, and a outline of a weapon that could be a Iron Age sword, that I have pasted above it, as swords from then did have that shape. To the right of there and below is a Victorian depiction of Boadicea, or Boudicca, Britain's semi historical Queen of the Iceni who rose up against the Roman Empire. She famously wore a torc, round her neck according to Roman sources, and here is a public domain pic from Wikimedia Commons of a gold torc, also from the British Museum. Gold torc, 75 BC, found in the Needwood Forest, in the UK. On loan to the British Museum by Queen Elizabeth II of England, Scotland Wales, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth.
Then to the right of there, is a absolutely not public domain picture, it is one I created myself, a kind of thematic map of Ireland, to do with the era of Hillforts. I also did ones a bit like this for parts of Wales, England, Scotland, and Europe as a whole. They were the best fun things to do. So I am showing this as a example of what is in my ebook. You can not use it without my permission. Then below there, some trace drawings by me of some Iron Age items, and a self explanatory picture. My fave piece of art from Iron Age times is the late Iron Age gold piece where one way up the item is a young woman, the other way the exact opposite in terms of a humanity a old man. Amazing piece of art there, it is from Bad Durkheim in Germany. Then below there, a piece of a winged helmet. Amusingly there was a helmet where the warrior wearing it would march on his horse, with the wings of the finely crafted piece bouncing about. It just shows how clever and ingenious some of these folk were. Amazing again, the things I should have done, include a cauldron, as they are cool, and a crater. Some of the craters were almost as tall as a man, with amazing sometimes flowery images over them. Also Roman amphorae were often cropping up a lot, as of the imports of wine, to much of the Celtic lands, and they were associated to conspicuous consumption, by elites to impress or just to enjoy. Then again there is a Gundrestrup Cauldron. It is either Celtic or of a similar culture to the Celts, it is unknown for sure, though any cultures were really in a way quite similar in Europe and to some extent across the world, but these specially, as it does have certain Celtic cultural aspects for the time. This item has all sorts of images of Pagan gods, and warriors / soldiers and all sorts over it. The best thing is 2 things I love. First of all some of the soldiers have boar figurines on their helmets, to symbolise, the aspects of a boar they want to extol. Some of these figurines, have been found across Iron Age Europe, including at a hillfort in Mid Wales, at Gaer Fawr, which I have a page on here at Hillforts.co.uk. Then also some of those marching with the warriors, are holding what are called a carynx. These were like trumpets, except likely they just made a bellowing deep noise, but you hold them and they are a long tube that goes as much as a foot high above your mouth, with on the top the head of a animal, in metal form, out which the noise comes out. Surely a scary sight to behold. Many a force across Europe, used these intimidation and morale boosting devices, as their armies marched into battle. Indeed as as Napoleon says, morale is one of the major aspects of war. These items were used by a number of societies at the time, but the best example I know of is the Deskford Carynx, which was a Iron Age Celtic one found in North East Scotland.
So anyway there are many other fascinating aspects to Iron Age warfare, and society, the best of which often crop up in the Irish Myths. I have not mentioned how Celtic society seems to have had much cattle raiding, which was gloried in in terms of successes, of fighting, by remembered and imagined tales and such, especially if it were a court hero avenging a enemy who had done ill. Plus probably to some extent bards, as they existed Dark Ages times, so were almost certainly were around as well, telling exciting stories of histories, and heroes.
I should also add, it seems society had 4 elements. The druids, the land owning and warrior horse riding aristocracy, and the peasants, plus likely if other societies are indicative, the very poor, including most slaves. So as ever there the vast majority put in 1 group, a minority split into 3, in terms of classifications, which does seem a vague generalisation in some ways but it does sum up power politics of the time.
Likely there were forms of bondage for all elements of society, tying society together, but in ways which were likely exploited more by the strong and powerful. Though we would hope the peasants, though it must be said they were partly serfs, and also even the slaves had some levers on power, other than just riots or supporting rival claimants for power. Anyway my book and other sources go into all this stuff in more details. But anyhow hillforts are like castles the way into this subsect’s matters as they are so visual. I should say this work has no link with Tolkien, but it is a little Tolkien, or Tolkienesque ( Not Tolkein or Tolkeinesque ) in it’s ways. My work is not, I am nowhere near the writer he is, but the era is, which is what I like about it, and use.