Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Looking For Clues
Historians and archaeologists are sometimes compared to police detectives. Just like a detective searching for clues at the scene of a crime, historians scour archaeological sites and books to try to learn more about our early history.
But what do you do when clues are hard to come by? Just like a detective whose evidence trail runs cold, historians have a difficult time with the dearth of information we have about the Iron Age in Ireland.
In this lesson, we will discover what we do know about the Iron Age in Ireland and some of the difficulties in drawing firm conclusions on the period.
What exactly is the 'Iron Age'? Historians and archaeologists use this term to refer to any time period in a particular region when tools and weaponry made of iron replaced other materials, in most cases bronze. This took place in different places at different times, as iron's use was transmitted to other cultures via trade or migration.
Exactly when the Iron Age began in Ireland is a source of some controversy. Some historians and archaeologists place it around 500 BCE, while others place it as far back as 700 BCE. From this beginning, it lasted roughly a millennium, with historians often placing the end date somewhere between 400 and 550 CE.
The disagreements on such basics as when the age began or ended are exemplary of problems in studying the Irish Iron Age. There are few archaeological sites in Ireland which have been properly dated to the Iron Age. There are far more sites from the following medieval period, and we even have more artifacts and sites which date to the preceding Bronze Age.
This reality makes drawing significant conclusions about Iron Age life and history difficult. Nonetheless, historians and archaeologists have pieced together some things about the period on the island.
What We Know
The Iron Age saw the arrival of the people and culture that most today consider synonymous with Ireland: the Celts. The Celts arrived around 500 BCE from mainland Europe, and it's possible the Celts brought iron tools and weapons to Ireland, as it had previously been in use in Europe. The Celts' arrival in Ireland was not an invasion; instead, it was more of a gradual migration that took place over several centuries. They integrated into the traditional communities already on the island, and the Irish were likely more than happy to adopt the more technologically advanced practices of the Celts.
Because of the dearth of sources for Iron Age Ireland, competing visions for daily life in the period exist. The traditional narrative depicts a stratified society with potentially hundreds of 'kingdoms' or clans.
According to this vision of Iron Age Ireland, societies included upper classes that ruled the surrounding area from fortified positions like hill forts or crannogs, depending on the region. Hill forts were Iron Age-structures built, unsurprisingly, on or next to the top of a hill. Crannogs were similarly fortified structures, except these were built in a marsh or a lake, using water as protection when a hill could not be found. Several of both of these types of structures have been dated to the period.
The regional rulers of these structures likely held sway over the local area, with the ability to assemble fighting forces with the help of client nobleman and the population at large when necessary. Life for those not involved in ruling likely functioned around agriculture and farming.
Recently, historians and archaeologists have begun to challenge that traditional narrative of Iron Age life. They point to the lack of definitive sources - and the prior mis-dating of some archaeological sites - so it's important to be hesitant about the life depicted above. Furthermore, they claim previous historians have merely grafted narratives of medieval Ireland onto the Iron Age without definitive proof.
According to historians that espouse this new narrative, Iron Age life may have been very difficult for the Irish and Celts. They point to environmental evidence, such as measurements of ancient tree pollen, to claim that agriculture decreased during the Iron Age, possibly pointing to a lower population and a general depression on the island.
These historians also claim that the island's contact with the Roman Empire also had a profound impact on Iron Age Ireland. This contact has been confirmed through various Mediterranean artifacts found in archaeological sites that date to the Iron Age. They claim that reading and writing, among other things, which began in Ireland in the late Iron Age, may have been spurred by contact with Roman civilization.
With the lack of sources available, it's difficult to draw significant conclusions about the life and history of Iron Age Ireland. We do know, however, that Iron Age Ireland was marked by the use of iron tools and weaponry, possibly brought by the Celts who first migrated to Ireland in the early Iron Age, around 500 BCE. Iron Age society was stratified, with ruling families and classes likely ruling the surrounding area from hill forts, crannogs, or other fortified positions.
Some historians have attacked the traditional narrative of Ireland's Iron Age, claiming past historians did not have definitive proof of a life that involved cattle raids and client nobles. These historians claim the period was economically depressed, and land used in agriculture decreased, while significant contact with the Roman world may have transformed Irish society and culture during this period.
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