The Iron Age in North Hertfordshire

The archaeology of North Hertfordshire


Iron Age people were dependent on farming for their livelihood, just as their Bronze Age ancestors had been. They grew crops in their fields and kept animals on their pasture. Cattle, pigs, sheep and horses were all reared. These produced wool, meat, manure and the power to pull ploughs across the fields.

The crops grown included barley, emmer wheat and club wheat. During the Iron Age new crops were introduced such as a new type of barley and bread wheat. These new crops had the advantage that they could be sown in both summer and winter. This development, along with the efficient iron-shod ploughs, meant that food surpluses could be produced. Surplus corn was stored in large storage pits dug into the ground or in granaries.

The production of a surplus is very important because it meant that some people could stop farming and do something else. It enabled labour to be available for the construction of hillforts and artisans to concentrate on improving their skills.

Iron Age society was divided up into tribes, each controlled by a warrior chief. In the Early Iron Age, these tribes were small and it is possible that each of the hillforts in North Hertfordshire was the base of an individual chieftain. These small tribal areas were often marked by ditches and aerial photographs have shown many of these in North Hertfordshire. Several of them cross the Icknield Way. In other places rivers made natural boundaries.

The earliest hillforts had been built in the Later Bronze Age, but they became much more important and widespread in the earlier Iron Age. They were usually built on hilltops and surrounded by one or more defensive banks, called ramparts, and defensive ditches. They may have been used as places of refuge during times of war, as places for collecting produce from nearby farms and as the religious centre of the tribe. Many contained large numbers of houses and must have been fortified villages. No two hillforts are alike and we cannot assume that because one was a village, they must all have been villages.

After about 400 BC, Britain was in less close contact with Europe than it had been for centuries. Instead of importing goods and learning newly fashionable styles, people began to develop their own, regional styles. It is at this time that archaeologists believe that big tribal groups began to grow by taking over their neighbours. By the end of the Middle Iron Age, some of the tribal leaders may have been powerful enough for us to call them kings.

During the first century BC, the tribes in south-east England developed into kingdoms with rulers called kings (the native word was rigos). By the time of the Roman Conquest, North Hertfordshire was in the kingdom of the Catuvellauni, the most powerful kingdom in Britain. The kingdom was divided up into smaller units, just as a modern county is divided into districts; each unit probably represented a group of people whose leaders had close family ties.

By 56 BC, Rome had conquered much of Europe including France (which they called Gaul). In 55 BC and 54 BC Julius Caesar attempted to invade and conquer Britain. Although he was unsuccessful in his conquests, it did lead to much stronger trading contacts between Britain and the Roman Empire.

The explosion of trade during the late Iron Age led to the development of a complex urban society. A new form of settlement site appeared called oppida by archaeologists. These were large market centres more like a town than a group of farms. The houses in oppida were now usually rectangular instead of round.

We know from the Roman writer Strabo that Britain exported a large number of things to Rome, including grain, cattle, gold, silver, iron, hides and hunting dogs. In return, the Britons received fine Roman pottery and jewellery along with objects connected with wine drinking such as amphorae (wine jars), wine strainers and wine dishes. It was only the wealthy Britons who could afford these luxury imported items and the fine examples of Celtic metalwork, which are usually found in late Iron Age towns. They were often buried with these status symbols to show their importance in the life after death, such as the two chieftains’ burials at Baldock. A large iron cauldron found at Blackhorse Road shows that this was also an important late Iron Age site.

As trading with the continent became more intense coinage began to appear, to make selling easier. The first coins used in this country were gold coins minted in Gaul. As these coins were in short supply British tribes soon began to copy them. A monetary economy quickly developed and smaller denomination coins made of silver and bronze appeared and are fairly common finds on late Iron Age oppida. Several have been found in North Hertfordshire, especially at Baldock.

During the Early and Middle Iron Age, people did not usually bury their dead in the ground. Instead, they seem to have removed the flesh from the bones, either with knives or by leaving the body out in the open so that it would be eaten by scavengers such as crows. The bones would then be taken away; sometimes they were placed in pits or rivers, but most of the time, we do not know where they were taken. Although this sounds strange to us, many people in Tibet still dispose of the dead in this way; it is known as ‘air burial’ as the flesh is eaten by eagles.

During the Late Iron Age, burial of the dead became much more common. There were two ways of burying: by placing the body in a hole in the ground (inhumation) or by burning the body and placing the ashes in the ground (cremation). Both types of burial are found in North Hertfordshire, although cremation seems to have been more common.

After 100 BC, new trading patterns brought the people of south-eastern Britain into contact with the peoples of Belgic Gaul – modern north-east France and Belgium. They developed new styles of pottery, which are found on both sides of the English Channel, made using a fast potter’s wheel. This was something that had never been seen in Britain before. These new styles proved popular and were made in huge quantities – pottery production was no longer just a task done at home, but was being taken over by specialists who must have worked full time on making these wares.

The Celts

Greek and Roman writers mention a people they called the Celts from about 500 BC onwards. They seem to have lived in what is now modern France. They and their neighbours spoke a language that we now call Celtic; Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Gaelic and Breton are its modern descendants. We do not know how or when Celtic came to be spoken in Britain. It used to be thought that invading Celtic tribes brought iron working and Celtic languages to Britain, but we now know that this is not right. Archaeologists believe that it is more probable that the language was spread by Bronze Age merchants and smiths.

Greek and Roman writers who came into contact with the European Celts tell us a lot about them. They were war-like people who liked wine and feasting. They wore brightly coloured woollen clothes – men wore a pair of trousers, a tunic and often a light cloak fastened with a brooch, while women wore robes and cloaks. They were proud of their hair, and chiefs would grow their hair and moustaches very long. Lower ranks were clean shaven. The men often painted their bodies with a blue dye called woad, and wore neck-rings or torcs when they went into battle naked. Musicians or bards would play and recite at feasts.

The Britons

Greek and Latin writers do not tell us much about Iron Age Britain. We know that the people of Iron Age Britain were called Prettanoi by their Celtic neighbours in Gaul (modern France) and we know that they had a very similar language. Prettanoi was a native word meaning ‘painted people’, and the Prettanoi called the island where they lived Albion, ‘the white land’. Later Greek and Roman writers began to call the island Britannia, meaning ‘land of the Britons (Prettanoi)’. In many ways, their culture was very similar to that of the Celts, which is why many people call the people of Iron Age Britain ‘Celts’, but we know that they did not think of themselves as Celts. It was probably more important to know which tribe a person belonged to.

It was in Britannia that the Romans believed that the holy men called druids (‘people of the oak’) originated. When Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC, he was surprised to find the inhabitants using chariots in battle, as the Celts did not use them.

The Celtic language of the ancient Britons was never written down like that of the Romans and Greeks, although some of their names are found on coins. Forms of their language still survive as Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish in Britain and as Breton in north-west France. Some English placenames and most Welsh, Scottish and Irish placenames are of Celtic origin. In Hertfordshire, the River Lea has the name of the ancient Celtic god of light, Lugos, and Hitchin seems to be a Celtic word meaning ‘dry’ (*sicca), probably the original name of the River Hiz.

Celtic art

During the Iron Age, an important new style of art was developed. Art historians call it La Tène art, after the name of a site in Switzerland where it was first identified. La Tène styles use sweeping, curving lines and often group things in threes. The style is abstract – it does not depict people, animals or objects, but creates beautiful, elaborate patterns. The skilled craftspeople of the Iron Age used these patterns on bronze, iron and pottery, often producing superb geometric patterns.

These decorations are especially found on the expensive items that would have been used by the warriors. Similar styles are found across northern and western Europe and the level of skill in making the designs shows that the people making the metalwork were as much artists as bronze smiths.

The designs found on metalwork influenced the style of pottery. Although Early Iron Age pottery was very plain, more decorative types developed in the Middle Iron Age. Many of the styles are found only in limited areas, which often match the areas occupied by later tribes. Wheel-turned pottery was first produced in Britain in the first century BC, making mass production possible for the first time.

Local evidence

The hillforts in North Hertfordshire are sited along the chalk ridge between Luton and Royston at Ravensburgh Castle (Hexton), Wilbury Hill (Letchworth) and Arbury Banks (Ashwell). A prehistoric trackway, the Icknield Way, also runs along this ridge and passes near or through the hillforts.

Ravensburgh Castle is the largest hillfort in this area. Traces of cultivation found beneath its ramparts demonstrate that the area was occupied before the hillfort was built, which excavations during the 1960s and 1970s showed was before 400 BC. Unusually, it was occupied until the Roman conquest, although possibly deserted for some time during this period: the ramparts fell into disrepair and were later rebuilt. Not enough of the fort has been excavated to show what sort of buildings there were inside the defences. It has been estimated that the original rampart at Ravensburgh would have needed over 19,000 lengths of timber and have taken at least 175,000 man hours to build.

Wilbury Hill lies on the edge of Letchworth Garden City. The line of its ramparts has been traced from air photographs, excavation and survey, but there is little trace of it on the ground today. Excavations in the 1930s showed that the earth ramparts were originally reinforced with timber. The fort’s well defended southern entrance was destroyed at some point and a new entrance made. Inside the fort, there was found a series of storage pits and traces of possible houses. Household objects including pottery, spindle whorls and quern-stones were found in the filling of the pits. Eventually, the defences were levelled and the settlement spread over the infilled ditches. It seems to have continued as a village into the Roman period.

Arbury Banks was probably similar to Ravensburgh and Wilbury. Aerial photographs show traces of pits and roundhouses inside the ramparts. No excavations have been carried out here since the nineteenth century, however, so little is known about this hillfort. Some important Middle Iron Age pottery, dating from about 400-200 BC, was found during the excavations.

At Whiteley Hill, Barley, a study of the animal bones found on a site that dates from about 750 BC has shown that sheep were kept for their meat, rather than wool. The site was probably the home of a warrior chieftain. Sheep must have been reared for wool elsewhere, perhaps at sites like Jack’s Hill, near Graveley, where the settlement was laid out along a trackway that is still in use as the A602.

Excavations at Blackhorse Road in Letchworth Garden City revealed traces of enclosures and possible buildings of the eighth to first centuries BC and in 1988, a pit cluster was found. Pottery, querns, animal bones and human burials were found in some of the features.

Baldock is an example of a late Iron Age town or oppidum. A number of rectangular wattle and daub (wood and clay) houses have been found and a few roundhouses; these may have been shrines. Many burials have been excavated most of which were cremations with ashes being placed in urns. Inhumations (skeletons) have also been discovered. A large amount of bronze coinage, jewellery and pottery have been found.