Druids, Roundhuts and Smithies | The Iron Age
The Iron Age 800 BCE – CE 300
The Iron Age began around 800 BCE, with a slow start to a gradual revival, not with a bang. The Celts were a culture, not a people: British Celts were made up of Bronze Age clans plus inwardly migrating tribes and trickles arriving over time. It takes a virtuous cycle of growth for a new culture to develop, and it gained momentum 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.
Between the surrounding banks of Caer Brân
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 Corn-wall from 1200 BCE to CE 400ish – 1,600 years – though going through several stages. Elsewhere in Britain the Iron Age ended sooner, around CE 60-100 with the Roman occupation.
Iron Age Britons were largely descended from Bronze Age ancestors and new incomers. Early migrations are unknown. Migrations into Britain in the later Iron Age included the Brigantes, moving into northern England, and the Germanic tribes of the Belgae in the SE, 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. Western and northern tribes, including the Dumnonii in Cornwall-Devon, 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, such as the warlike Gangani and the Deceangli of Lleyn, in north Wales , and Britons went to Ireland too. Gaelic elements 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 Roman observations at the end of the period. Seen from the Roman viewpoint, and also through the lens of later biases such as the romanticisation of the Celts in recent centuries, an inaccurate optic survives today. Added to this, English classicist historians have implicitly regarded the Romans as urbane civilisers of woad-painted barbarian Britons, and 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
Chûn Castle as seen from Carn Eanes, with Chûn Quoit below
During the late Bronze Age, proto-Celtic took shape as an intertribal language across Europe. By 900 BCE it had diverged into a range of languages including Goidelic (Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic) and Brythonic (Cornish, Welsh, Cumbrian and in Strathclyde) – both known as Insular Celtic – together with continental forms such as Gaulish and Celto-Iberian, 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 centuries a new society took shape, 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, hill camps 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, incorporating a wide variety of tribes and peoples. 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 they were centred in two main areas: the Atlantic west between Iberia and Britain, and middle Europe from eastern France to Bohemia – the Rhine, Rhône and Danube headwaters.
Originally it was believed that the Celts had diffused from central Europe (the La Tȇne and Hallstadt cultures, 800-350 BCE), but it is now more likely that Celticness originated 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, 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, while the east and south of Britain were middle-European influenced.
These Atlantic-zone connections 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 Britain. Atlantic coast connections improved as the Iron Age proceeded and, later, around CE 400-500, British and Breton ties were strong, following a British migration to Brittany – hence Breton and Cornish are linguistically close. In Britain several zones developed: the Irish Sea coast from Cornwall to Strathclyde, the Marches from Dorset to Lancashire (notable for grand hill camps), the east from Kent to Yorkshire, and Highland Scotland, each with their own cultures, traditions and characters.
Inside Chûn Castle
The late Bronze Age saw a few centuries of relative cultural doldrums following the deflation of the megalithic mindset and a profound retraction of social trust and cohesion. This will have undermined Britons’ collective spirits but life went on, and a new society and economy took shape, out of which emerged a changed worldview. This transitional period was the British variant of the Axial Age, a Eurasia-wide time of growing competition, turbulence and territoriality. Old certainties were obsolete and new, big ideas, as yet unformed, were to emerge after 500 BCE.
During this period, a profound metaphysical shift occurred. It moved from a sense of inherent spirituality – attention to the indwelling spirit within all things – toward a more structured sense of religion – of gods and their powers standing around and above, beneath and beyond, determining the fates of humans. We became more like outsiders in the spiritual world. Inner life morphed from the encouragement of favourable circumstances toward guarding against unfavourable ones. Perhaps this arose partially from a sense of cultural failure and jaded disillusionment and partially from a loss of personal divinity. The Celtic sphere, though still a magical culture, differed from that of a millennium or more before.
Writing was known, having been passed to the Iberian Celts by the Phoenicians, and to mid-European Celts by Greeks and Italians, but its use was limited to records, memorials, messages and practical uses. The Celts were a word-of-mouth people who wrote down none of their philosophy, poesy or knowledge. Druidic secrets were shared through an oral tradition, passed down through whispered lineages. They acquired knowledge by rote, maintaining strict verbal accuracy in the tradition of their Bronze Age forebears. They had no bible or rulebook.
While the druids retained many ancient traditions passed down from former days, they also served contemporary needs, upholding a certain spiritual, moral and judicial order in unstable times, counter-balancing the excesses and power of chiefs and warriors. A growing conflict between magical-spiritual and earthly priorities, the power of druids and chiefs, was symbolised in the later Arthurian trad-itions, in the dialogues between Merlin and Arthur concerning magical and worldly power – a dilemma which probably had its origins in the Iron Age.
The druids upheld social and cultural standards during periodically strident and unsettled times, becoming central players in society. As priests, healers, justices and astrologers, they advised chiefs, sometimes becoming chiefs, and they were sponsored and protected by the elite. Choosing trees and natural sites as their holy places, they had no wish to build grand monuments or to immortalise their traditions in writing, so we know tantalisingly little about them.
Today, there is a certain romance to the Celts but, to them, the same was true with their forebears, the people of the Bronze Age and further back. In Penwith the remains that Iron Age people left took the form of homesteads and settlements, hill camps, holy wells, inscribed stones, fogous and upcycled cliff sanctuaries.
They had less of an urge than their predecessors to build sacred sites and enduring structures – perhaps the legacy of the long-gone Bronze Age was reason enough to avoid grandiose projects. But they did reoccupy the hills and cliff sanctuaries. Much of Iron Age people’s building was functional, in the form of dwellings, enclosures, bridges and field hedges. They liked high places, but they also loved nooks and crannies, springs, fords, streams, valleys, glades and groves, rocks and trees.
Their deities resided in nature, the underworld, the otherworld and the heavens. There was an inherent naturalism and magic to their faith. Many questions surround this period since Britons of the time did not immortalise their thoughts and beliefs in script. They left Ogham stones in Cornwall, Wales and elsewhere, but these have not thrown great light on their worldview.
 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.