The Iron Age World - Shining Land

Shining Land
The ancient sites of West Penwith, Cornwall
Palden Jenkins
Shining Land
and what they tell us about megalithic civilisation
Go to content

The Iron Age World

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

Iron Age Society

Goldherring iron age settlement - probably the home of a smith
Goldherring iron age settlementIron age people were tribal and their clan lands could be extensive. Penwith will have been occupied by various extended families, probably all members of a bigger clan bonded by intermarriage, longterm 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 mentoring, 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 they were accountable at least to its prominent members, who themselves had their own accountability. It seems to have been a relatively responsive social system that was proto-democratic in principle, though its practice would have varied between clans.

Celts had a sounder sense of social justice, conduct and integrity than we see in later societies. 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, as do the earliest roots of democracy. There was a class system, and this included slaves – debtors or captives – but even slaves had certain rights. There was an ongoing moral 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 in consort 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 – these could include crafts, tools, stud animals, medicines, valuables or fineries. It 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 aristocracies. This spilled over into Dumnonia to a degree, though the Dumnonii retained their own ways. For the Dumnonii, relations with regions around the Irish Sea were more important than those with people upcountry. They were Atlantic Celts, and the Celts upcountry were continental La Tȇne Celts.

The Iron Age World
Iron age roundhut near Sancreed
Iron age roundhut near SancreedAlong came iron technologies, the potter’s wheel, the rotary quern for milling, and new farming, crafting and building methods, together with growing intertribal exchange. Innovations came about indigenously and through influxes of ideas and people – there was regular mingling with Gauls, Bretons, Germans and Nordics.

Iron is a technological enabler but not a fundamental cultural trans-former. Adopted gradually in the late Bronze Age, its use spread slowly – possibly because the necessary skills and equipment were hard to acquire. Iron was more easily sourced than copper or tin but it required higher smelting temperatures and more complex smithing skills and tools. It was good for making 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 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 affected western Britain significantly, 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 incursions happened and a few Roman forts were built in East and Mid-Cornwall, but these were more like secure trading and logistical stations than forts used for military occupation. Since it was a relatively marginal region, the Iron Age survived later in Cornwall than upcountry, tapering into Early Medieval times around CE 400 as Roman influence in Britain dwindled. Cornwall had gone through a quiet period during Roman times, though from around CE 250 something new had started taking shape – early Medieval Celtic Christian culture. Since Cornwall was never force-fully invaded, remnants of druidry quietly survived here 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
Back to content