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THE IRON AGE
What has survived from Iron Age Britain provides the essential evidence that archaeologists use to
reconstruct all aspects of life during the period. The small amount of historical (ie written) evidence for
the period was from a foreign viewpoint and only refers to some aspects of life in the last 150 years of the
Thus Iron Age Britain can only be directly understood from the archaeological evidence: the material
remains of buildings and settlements, and the things Iron Age people ate, made and used. But why has
anything survived from the Iron Age at all?
Around 3000 BC, iron was a scarce and precious metal in the Near East.[clarification needed] The earliest known
iron artifacts are nine small beads, dated to 3200 BC, from burials in Gerzeh, northern Egypt, that were
made from meteoritic iron, and shaped by careful hammering. Iron's qualities, in contrast to those of
bronze, were not understood. Between 1200 BC and 1000 BC, diffusion in the understanding of iron
metallurgy and utilization of iron objects was fast and far-flung. In the history of ferrous metallurgy,
iron smelting — the extraction of usable metal from oxidized iron ores — is more difficult than tin and
copper smelting. These other metals and their alloys can be cold-worked, or melted in simple pottery kilns
and cast in molds; but smelted iron requires hot-working and can be melted only in specially designed
furnaces. It is therefore not surprising that humans only mastered iron smelting after several millennia of
In 2005, metallurgical analysis by Hideo Akanuma of iron fragments found at Kaman-Kalehöyük in 1994
and dating to c. 1800 BCE revealed that some of these fragments were in fact composed of carbon steel;
these currently form the world's earliest known evidence for steel manufacture.
Modern archaeological evidence identifies the start of iron production as taking place in Anatolia around
1200 BC, though some contemporary archaeological evidence points to earlier dates.
Lack of archaeological evidence of iron production made it seem unlikely that it had begun earlier
elsewhere, and the Iron Age was seen as a case of simple diffusion of a new and superior technology from
an invention point in the Near East to other regions. It is now known that meteoric iron, or iron-nickel
alloy, was used by various ancient peoples thousands of years before the Iron Age. Such iron, being in its
native metallic state, required no smelting of ores. By the Middle Bronze Age, increasing numbers of
smelted iron objects (distinguishable from meteoric iron by the lack of nickel in the product) appeared in
the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia.
Iron in its natural form is barely harder than bronze, and is not useful for tools unless combined with
carbon to make steel. The percentage of carbon determines important characteristics of the final product:
the more carbon, the harder the steel. The systematic production and use of iron implements in Anatolia
began around 2000 BC. Recent archaeological research in the GangesValley, India showed early iron
working by 1800 BC. However, this metal was expensive, perhaps because of the complications of
steel-making. It is attested in both documents and archaeology as a material for precious items such as
Anthony Snodgrass suggests that a shortage of tin, as a part of the Bronze Age Collapse and trade
disruptions in the Mediterranean around 1300 BC, forced metalworkers to seek an alternative to bronze.
As evidence, many bronze implements were recycled into weapons during this time. More widespread use
of iron led to improved steel-making technology at lower cost. Thus, even when tin became available
again, iron was cheaper, stronger, and lighter, and forged iron implements superseded cast bronze tools
Recent archaeological work has modified not only the above chronology, but also the causes of the
transition from bronze to iron. New dates from India suggest that iron was being worked there as early as
1800 BC, and African sites are turning up dates as early as 1200 BC, confounding the idea that there was
a simple discovery and diffusion model. Increasingly, the Iron Age in Europe is being seen as a part of
the Bronze Age collapse in the ancient Near East, in ancient India (with the post-Rigvedic Vedic
civilization), ancient Iran, and ancient Greece (with the Greek Dark Ages). In other regions of Europe, the
Iron Age began in the 8th century BC in Central Europe and the 6th century BC in Northern Europe. The
Near Eastern Iron Age is divided into two subsections, Iron I and Iron II. Iron I (1200–1000 BC)
illustrates both continuity and discontinuity with the previous Late Bronze Age. There is no definitive
cultural break between the 13th and 12th century BC throughout the entire region, although certain new
features in the hill country, Transjordan, and coastal region may suggest the appearance of
the Aramaean and Sea People groups. There is evidence, however, that shows strong continuity with
Bronze Age culture, although as one moves later into Iron I the culture begins to diverge more
significantly from that of the late 2nd millennium.
Ancient Blacksmiths, The Iron Age, Damascus Steels, And Modern Metallurgy
The history of iron and Damascus steels is described through the eyes of ancient blacksmiths. For
example, evidence is presented that questions why the Iron Age could not have begun at about the same
time as the early Bronze Age (i.e. approximately 7000 B.C.). It is also clear that ancient blacksmiths had
enough information from their forging work, together with their observation of color changes during
heating and their estimate of hardness by scratch tests, to have determined some key parts of the presentday iron-carbon phase diagrrun. The blacksmiths’ greatest artistic accomplishments were the Damascus
and Japanese steel swords. The Damascus sword was famous not only for its exceptional cutting edge and
toughness, but also for its beautiful surface markings. Damascus steels are ultrahigh carbon steels
(UHCSs) that contain from 1.0 to 2.1% carbon. The modem metallurgical understanding of UHCSs has
revealed that remarkable properties can be obtained in these hypereutectoid steels. The results achieved in
UHCSs are attributed to the ability to place the carbon, in excess of the eutectoid composition, to do
useful work that enhances the high temperature processing of carbon steels and that improves the low and
intermediate temperature mechanical properties.
The health of Iron Age Britons
It is likely that many people in Iron Age Britain would have died from diseases as babies or children.
Many of those people who survived to be adults rarely lived beyond the ages of 35-45. Only about a third
of all adults lived longer. Studies of the bones of Iron Age people suggest that at least a quarter suffered
from arthritis in their backs from an early age. This was probably due to the hard work needed on Iron
Age farms. Some women also suffered arthritis in the leg joints caused by squatting for long periods.
People's teeth were often bad, and in general women's teeth were less healthy than men's. This was,
perhaps, the result of calcium deficiency due to the effects of pregnancy. In some parts of Britain the diet
was poor, leading to anaemia in up to half of all children and a quarter of all adults.
The people of Iron Age Britain
The people of Iron Age Britain were physically very similar to many modern Europeans and there is no
reason to suppose that all Iron Age Britons had the same hair colour, eye colour or skin complexion. Iron
Age Britons spoke one or more Celtic language, which probably spread to Britain through trade and
contacts between people rather than by the invasion of large numbers of Celtic peoples into Britain.
Currently, there is no evidence for such an invasion at any time in the Iron Age.
The Romans called the people of Iron Age Britain 'Britons' and the island of Britain 'Britannia', that is,
'land of the Britons'. The Britons had many ways of life in common with other peoples living in western
Europe, who the Romans called Celts or Gauls. There was trade between peoples in Britain and western
Europe, and also probably marriages. Nevertheless, the peoples who spoke Celtic languages in different
parts of Europe at this time were diverse.
From studies of the skeletons of Iron Age Britons we know that the average woman was 1.5 metres (5
foot 2 inches) in height, the smallest known was 1.4 metres (4 foot 9 inches) tall, and the tallest 1.7
metres (5 foot 7 inches). The average man was 1.69 metres (5 foot 6 inches) in height, the smallest known
was 1.6 metres (5 foot 2 inches) tall and the tallest was 1.8 metres (5 foot 11 inches). There are few
human skeletons from Iron Age Britain, but there is evidence for differences in height and health between
people living in different parts of the country. People in East Yorkshire living about 400-100 BC were
taller than people from Hampshire.
There are few surviving spectacular ruins or buildings from Iron Age Britain. Unlike Mesoamerica, India,
Classical Greece or ancient Egypt, in Iron Age Britain there was no construction of major cities, palaces,
temples or pyramids. Rather, it was an essentially rural world of farms and villages, one that had no
economic, political or religious need to build palaces, cities, major tombs or ceremonial sites such as
stone circles. Most houses and other buildings were made out of timber and thatch.
Technologically, Iron Age Britons could certainly construct large stone buildings with many rooms, built
to last several generations - as is shown by the brochs of northern Scotland. And where there was a reason
to construct such buildings for defensive purposes, their ruins still stand many metres high to this day.
However, in most parts of Britain the houses were round, single-roomed buildings of varying sizes, with a
timber or stone wall.
What has survived of a typical Iron Age settlement? Usually little or nothing is left above ground, as
timber and thatch rots and decays in a British climate. The only common surviving trace of Iron Age
settlements are the large ditches and ramparts that surrounded the massive hill-forts that were built in
different parts of the country.
Though half or two-thirds of these ditches have now become naturally filled, they can still be impressive
sights. The walls or earthen ramparts inside the ditches have often been naturally eroded, but can still
survive as large mounds and banks. The banks and ditches around smaller settlements and forts can also
survive if they have not been ploughed, removed or built over in later centuries.
So too can the outlines of roundhouses themselves. On the insides of some southern British hill-forts that
have never been ploughed you can see the round 'hut platforms' on which round timber houses were built.
In upland parts of Britain that have been mostly grazed for sheep and cattle over the last 2,000 years, far
more can survive. Hut circles, the stone foundations of Bronze and Iron Age roundhouses and hut
platforms, still survive, as do the lower courses of the stone walls that surrounded many farms and forts.
Elsewhere in Britain, the only evidence of most farms, villages and the insides of hill-forts are the holes
dug by Iron Age people into the rock, clay, sands or gravels on which their settlement stood. Many of
these were the foundations for holding the wooden posts and beams used to make buildings, fences and
palisades. Others include pits of different shapes and sizes dug for crop storage, ditches and gullies dug
for defence, to mark a boundary or act as drainage.
These archaeological features provide a negative image or plan of an Iron Age settlement which can,
under the right conditions, be seen from the air. When archaeologists excavate a typical Iron Age
settlement, it is these features that are revealed when the overlying soil is removed. And in this soil and
other deposits are contained most of the objects, bones and seeds found when excavating an Iron Age site.
Iron Age refuse disposal
The vast majority of the things that Iron Age people made, wore, ate and used have not survived at all. In
contrast to their Roman British counterparts, people were relatively poor in material terms. The RomanoBritish descendants of Iron Age Britons would have lived in a world full of artefacts. They would have
possessed far more pots, household objects and tools, for example, compared to an Iron Age household.
In the Iron Age the recycling and reusing of broken or worn-out items was probably of great importance.
Iron and bronze objects would rarely have been thrown away. Instead the metal would have been recycled
if possible. Wooden objects and building material would have been burnt as fuel - and even broken pots
have their uses.
If things were thrown away, evidence shows they would have been thrown on to middens - rubbish heaps
- along with manure, food waste and, possibly, human excrement. Wood, cloth, metal and most food
remains would rust, decay and rot. Animal bones might be chewed and gnawed by dogs. Rain, frost and
the trampling of farm animals would destroy even potsherds. Rubbish middens were also an important
resource, providing fertiliser to spread on the fields.
Rarely then, in the normal processes of discarding rubbish, would objects have been deliberately buried in
the ground to dispose of them.
Why then do archaeologists find broken pots, tools, animal bones, carbonized seeds etc when they
excavate Iron Age settlements? In rare and exceptional circumstances we do find well preserved sites
where the floors of houses, the farmyard and middens have survived, but this is unusual.
On typical Iron Age sites only the sub-soil features survive, and the finds recovered all come from the
soils and deposits that fill the foundation holes, gullies and ditches excavated. Many have probably ended
up in these features by accident. Plant remains, important evidence for crops and food, have survived
when seeds and the hard parts of plants were accidentally scorched and carbonized in fires.
These tiny fragments then entered the earthen floors and mud of the yard which then filled the empty
foundation holes or eroded into ditches. Other finds entered the archaeological record in similar ways.
Broken potsherds and animal bones would have been plentiful in the mud of the yard and in the middens.
Yard mud and rubbish dumps might have naturally eroded, or been used to deliberately fill in open holes,
pits and ditches, or recycled as building materials. Large broken potsherds could be reused to make a new
hearth, or used as packing to hold a new timber post upright in its foundations.
These mundane, forgotten processes can explain why much evidence of the Iron Age has survived on
settlements to be found by archaeologists over 2,000 years later, but it does not account for all the Iron
Age objects we know today.