The Iron Age World - Shining Land

Shining Land
The ancient sites of West Penwith, Cornwall
Palden Jenkins
Shining Land
Site nearly complete - organically growing
and what they tell us about megalithic civilisation
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The Iron Age World

Prehistory > Iron Age Penwith
Druids, Roundhuts and Smithies | The Iron Age  800 BCE CE 300

The Iron Age World


The late Bronze Age had seen a few centuries of relative cultural doldrums following the breaking of an enchantment, the disillusioning deflation of the Bronze Age mindset and a profound retraction of trust and shared interests. This will have undermined Britons’ collective spirits, but life went on, and a new society and economy gradually took shape, out of which emerged a different Britain, more farmed and deforested, with a changed worldview.

This transitional period was the British variant of the Axial Age, a Eurasia-wide time of growing competition, turbulence and territoriality, following the collapse of Bronze Age civilisations and all that went with them. Old certainties were obsolete and new ideas, as yet unformed, were to emerge after 500 BCE.

During this period, a profound metaphysical shift occurred. It moved from a sense of 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 outsiders. It morphed from encouraging favourable circumstances toward guarding against unfavourable ones. Perhaps this arose partially from a sense of cultural failure and disillusionment and partially from a loss of personal divinity. The Celtic sphere, though still a magical culture, had become very different from that of a millennium or more before.

Writing was known, having been passed to the Iberian Celts by the Phoenicians, and to central European Celts by Greek and Italic influences, 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 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 of the ancient traditions passed down from former days, they also answered contemporary needs, upholding a certain spiritual, moral and judicial order in unstable times, counterbalancing the excesses and power of chiefs and warriors. A growing conflict between magical-spiritual and earthly power and priorities was symbolised in the later Arthurian traditions, 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, in some cases themselves serving as 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 West 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. Spoken traditions relied on verbatim memorisation of histories and knowledge, often remaining more accurate than the written word. Many questions surround this period since Britons of the time did not immortalise their thoughts and beliefs in script. They did leave Ogham stones in Cornwall, Wales and elsewhere, but these have not thrown great light on their worldview.

Iron Age Society

Iron age people were tribal and their clan lands were often extensive. Penwith will have been occupied by various extended families, probably all members of one overarching clan bonded by intermarriage, evolving relationships and centuries of heritage. In turn, they were part of the Dumnonian nation-people. Across Britain there were pan-tribal laws and traditions offering degrees of harmonisation between tribes, with a judiciary of judges and advisers (ovates); poets, musicians and keepers of histories (bards); and the priest-shamans (druids) who upheld these customs by holding supervisory, advisory, political and jurisprudential roles in society.

Britain was thus welded into a trans-tribal patchwork of domains with no national constitution but with shared rules, laws and customs – an implicit federation of clans maintaining a common system of laws, customs and beliefs that gave rights and justice to all. Kings, queens and chiefs were chosen or elected from eligible candidates by the chiefs and elders of the tribe, accountable through duty, custom, law and personal relationship to those below them. Chiefs and local monarchs held resources on behalf of the clan and were accountable at least to its prominent members. It seems to have been a relatively responsive social system that was proto-democratic in principle, though its practice would have varied too.

Celts had a sounder sense of social justice, conduct and social strength than we see in later times. The moral and legal rulings of the ovates were rooted in druidic spiritual code, endowing everyone with rights and duties within society. Hill camps were strongholds for people at the top, also providing organisational and judicial services, governance, resources, artisans, expertise and some sacred functions.

It was not a perfect system and there were undoubtedly rivalries, squabbles and problems, yet the British social and judicial system was noted and remarked upon by outsiders from abroad. The common law system of today has its roots in principles established then. There was a class system, and this included slaves – debtors or captives – but even slaves had certain rights. There was an ongoing struggle between honour and ambition, and this weakness brought the eventual downfall of the British at the hands of the Romans, who divided them against each other to gain a foothold in Britain.

There was both cooperation and rivalry between clans, tribes and regions. There are signs of warfare, and in a heroic-warrior society status and strength mattered. Yet there are also signs that, whether achieved by good sense or by détente, tribes rubbed along, acting together too. Like the fractious Greeks of the same period, they argued and tiffed, proudly defending their independence, yet they were essentially one culture.

Trade was important and each region had its skills and assets for barter, such as horses, specialist crafts, textiles or gold. Intertribal trade will have involved exchange of surplus items and crops, plus gifts to forge or maintain goodwill or to curry favour between families, tribes and regions – these could include crafts, tools, stud horses, medicines, valuables or fineries. This was a largely localised, self-sufficient economy of community skill-sharing and resource-pooling to which trade added bonuses and filled gaps.

Late in the Iron Age a money economy, small towns and roads developed in southeast Britain, under the auspices of increasingly strong aristocraticies. This spilled over into Dumnonia to a degree, though the Dumnonii remained self-determining, retaining their own ways. Relations with regions around the Irish Sea were more important than those upcountry. The Dumnonii were Atlantean Celts, and the Celts upcountry were continental La Tȇne Celts.

The Iron Age World

Along came iron technologies, the potter’s wheel, the rotary quern for milling, and new farming, crafting and building methods, together with growing intertribal exchange. Innovation came about indigenously and through influxes of ideas and people. There was no lack of travel and there was regular mingling with Gauls, Bretons, Germanic and Nordic peoples.

Iron is a technological enabler but not a fundamental cultural transformer. Adopted gradually in the late Bronze Age, its use spread slowly. Iron was more easily sourced than copper or tin but it required higher smelting temperatures and more complex smithing skills and tools. Iron was good for tools, blades, weapons, ploughs, nails and everyday items, though it didn’t have the shine, look and feel of bronze, which continued to be used in crafts, adornments and anything made to look nice. Iron rusted easily but it was practical, tough, and its use improved living conditions. Steel, made in India and China around this time, didn’t arrive in Europe for a further two millennia.

The Iron Age zenith in Britain, from around 300 BCE to the Roman occupation, was socially and economically more complex and developed than that of the late Bronze Age. Population was higher and more land had been colonised. Britons were hardworking builders, craftspeople and traders, reputed as potters, smiths, weavers, dog trainers, breeders, mariners, fishers and farmers.

The decline of megalithic culture had significantly affected western Britain, moving the centre of activity eastwards. During the Iron Age the Atlantic heartland exerted less of an influence than before. Even so, when the Romans
invaded Britain, Anglesey was the last bastion of druidical power that the Romans felt they had to vanquish, in CE 60/61. Subduing the Britons took a few decades and parts of Britannia were never fully controlled.

Romans visited Cornwall but they didn’t penetrate it in numbers, except for travellers, traders and Romanised Britons. A few Roman incursions happened and a few forts were built, but these were more like defended trading stations than forts for a military occupation. As a relatively marginal region, the Iron Age survived later in Cornwall, tapering into early Medieval times around CE 400 as the Romans left. Cornwall had gone through a quiet period during Roman times, though from around CE 250 something new started taking shape – early Medieval Celtic Christian culture. Since Cornwall was never forcefully invaded, remnants of druidry quietly survived here well into Christian times, melding with Christianity to form a hybrid, phase-two, medieval Celtic culture.
Shining Land
A book by Palden Jenkins about the ancient sites of West Penwith in Cornwall
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