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Iron Age in Britain: Communities & Hillforts

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Iron Age in Britain. Specifically, we discover the makeup of Iron Age communities and the function of hillforts in those communities.

Iron Age

Humans like order, and historians are no different. Historians like to break history up into periods, epochs, and ages, all so that we can perhaps understand human development and human history better.

But there are so many different ways historians have ordered our past that it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of which period refers to which time. In this lesson, we will hopefully put that confusion to rest for at least one period in one specific place: the Iron Age in Britain. This lesson will detail the basic characteristics of the Iron Age in Britain, but focus mainly on the importance of communities and functions of hillforts in that period.

Background

Unsurprisingly, the Iron Age refers to the period of time when people began using iron and other metal tools instead of wood, stone, or whatever they were using previously. Using this designation necessarily means that the Iron Age encapsulates different time periods in different locations; after all, the entire world didn't get up one day and say ''today is the day we all use iron shovels!'' Instead, it happened gradually and spread from one area to another. In Britain, historians date the beginning of the Iron Age to roughly 800 B.C.E., and iron likely came to Britain via contact with the larger European continent.

The Iron Age was a period of gradual development and growth in Britain. Iron created stronger, more durable tools that helped improve agricultural output during the period. This, in turn, supported a larger population, and near the end of the period, some historians estimate Britain supported a population of more than one million Britons.

Iron Age life continued unabated until the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 C.E. The event signaled a significant upheaval of life in Britain, with the island being virtually cut in half by the invading Romans. Additionally, the Romans brought their own practices and customs with them, which would influence those communities in Britain under their control.

Communities

During the roughly 850 years of Iron Age life in Britain, the communities people lived in were generally rather small. Life focused on agriculture, and most days were spent working toward ensuring families had enough to eat that day and enough food stored away for the winter to come. Settlements were generally a smattering of round houses surrounded by man-made ditches or embankments, which separated the homes from the fields the families worked.

Historians generally believe that each settlement was home to a single extended-family unit. The round houses had walls made of wood or stone and had thatched roofs of brush or whatever material was readily available. One of the more unique types of houses from the period is called a crannog. These were homes built on man-made islands, usually at the edge of a marsh or bog. It's possible they were created for the increased security the setting offered.

Hillforts

Though settlements were small and unimpressive in Iron Age Britain, an important clue to the cultural vibrancy of the period is its hillforts. Roughly 3,000 of these structures that date to the period still dot the British and Irish landscape.

A hillfort in rural Britain
Hillfort

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