Druids, Roundhuts and Smithies | The Iron Age
The Iron Age 800 BCE – CE 300
The Iron Age began around 800 BCE. This marked the slow start of a gradual revival. The Celts were a culture, not a people: British Celts were made up of the clans of the Bronze Age plus inwardly migrating tribes and influences arriving over time. It takes a virtuous cycle of growth for a new culture to develop, and this arose between 800 and 500 BCE.
The Celts were a variegated pan-European culture and language bloc, an early EU with precursor versions of the same kind of community rivalries, alliances, deadlocks, compromises, collaborations, tragedies and triumphs that we see today. For several centuries they were Europe’s dominant culture, stretching from Romania to Iberia and Anatolia to Britain.
In West Cornwall, the Iron Age lasted from about 800 BCE to around CE 300-400. If we thought in terms of a Big Iron Age, then we could say that there was an evolving cultural continuity in Cornwall from 1200 BCE to CE 300ish – 1,500 years. Elsewhere in Britain the Iron Age ended sooner, around CE 60-100, with the Roman occupation. Iron Age Britons were not unlike their Bronze Age ancestors, though things had shifted and progressed greatly too.
Migrations into Britain of the later Iron Age included the Brigantes who moved into northern England and the Germanic tribes of the Belgae in the southeast, both of whom had relatives on the continent. But peoples came earlier too, changing the social and tribal landscape. Incoming tribes tended to settle in the south and east, while western and northern tribes, including the Dumnonii in the southwest, the Silures and Ordovices in Wales, and others in Cumbria, the Isle of Man and Scotland, had more ancient British origins. Over time Gaels trickled over from Ireland (Britons went to Ireland too), such as the warlike Gangani and the Deceangli of Lleyn, Wales. Gaelic elements also arrived amongst the Cornish.
But there’s a problem. Surprisingly little is known about Iron Age Britain, though knowledge is growing as new remains are discovered. Our imagery of that time is influenced by mostly-Roman observations at the end of the period, and seen from their viewpoint, and also by various later biases, such as a romanticisation of the Celts in recent centuries, as well as a longstanding bias amongst English classicist historians, who have implicitly regarded the Romans as civilisers of woad-painted barbarian Britons, and this optic survives today. Authoritative Oxbridge historians still periodically clash with what they call ‘revisionist’ historians from the Celtic Fringe over interpretation of Iron Age and Celtic cultures.
Winds of Keltia
During the late Bronze Age, proto-Celtic took shape as an intertribal language across Europe. By 900 BCE it had taken more shape, diverging into a range of languages including Goidelic (Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic) and Brythonic (Cornish, Welsh, Cumbrian and Breton) – both known as Insular Celtic – together with continental forms such as Gaulish and Celto-Iberian, most of which later became extinct.
While Brythonic became a lingua franca for much of Britain, in a land that, during the late Bronze Age, had become increasingly regionalised, it is likely that, in Penwith, Brythonic, Goidelic, Breton and other tongues were known, at least by some, or there was a hybrid local pidgin. We do not know the difference between the language of the high Bronze Age and Iron Age Brythonic, though elements of the former would have passed into the latter. Over the coming centuries a new society took shape, very much a patchwork of tribes variously interacting with each other. Hilltop camps, rounds, stone-built settlements and cleared farmland became the norm. In Cornwall, fogous, cliff sanctuaries and holy wells became the centres of social and spiritual life.
The Iron Age saw a cultural upswing across Europe, peaking around 500-300 BCE and incorporating a wide variety of tribes and peoples. The Celts weren’t the only people around, but they were the dominant culture. Growing aristocratic wealth and exchange sponsored an artistic florescence that the Celts are well known for. For a few centuries, the Celts were centred in two main areas: the Atlantic west between Iberia and Britain, and middle Europe from eastern France to Bohemia – the headwaters of the Rhine, the Rhône and the Danube.
Originally it was believed that the Celts had diffused from central Europe (the La Tȇne and Hallstadt cultures, 800-350 BCE), but it seems more likely Celticness originated much earlier with the Tagus valley people of Iberia, who migrated north to Brittany, Ireland and Britain, and eastwards into France (Gaul) and central Europe. Mingling and merging with people of other cultures, in the Hungarian plain they met up with the descendants of the steppe Yamnaya from Ukraine, forming a hybrid warrior society. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Celts, not such avid warriors and by degrees less hierarchical, influenced Cornwall and western Britain through existing maritime links. The west and north of Britain were Atlantic influenced while the east and south were continentally shaped.
These Atlantic-zone connections had dwindled during the late Bronze Age in parallel with the climatic, social and economic downturn of the time. This isolated segments of the Celtic world, tending to regionalise them: the Celts of Ireland formed a Gaelic group, whilst a Brythonic group formed in much of Britain. Atlantic coast connections improved as the Iron Age proceeded, and much later, around CE 400-500, British and Breton ties were strong, following a significant migration of Britons to Brittany – hence Breton and Cornish are linguistically close. Within Britain, several zones developed: the west from Cornwall to Strathclyde, the Marches from Dorset to Lancashire (notable for grand hill camps), the east from Kent to Yorkshire, and Scotland and the Highlands, each with their own cultures, traditions and characteristics.
 For a list of Britain’s Celtic tribes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Age_tribes_in_Britain – these tribes were recorded around the time of the Roman occupation in the late iron age.