People of Iron Age Britain
Object image bank
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Image banks provide a set of images on a specific topic for teachers to use in any way they need. They are high resolution enough for use as a whiteboard resource, and can be freely downloaded and copied for educational use.
This image bank
This image bank consists of 14 slides. The objects included provide evidence about the people who lived in Iron Age Britain. Using objects which have survived since the Iron Age period, this images bank offers an opportunity to consider who lived in Iron Britain, how they portrayed themselves, what they wore, how this clothing was produced and how people adorned themselves.
Find out more
The notes below each slide contain links to follow for more information on the specific object(s). To find the object on the Museum’s online database, go to http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx and
open the ‘Advanced search options’ pane. The final section gives the option to ‘Search by Museum number or reference’. Enter the Museum number exactly as it appears underneath the slide. Tick the ‘images only’ box if you only wish to view entries with images.
The database features over 2 million objects in total. Enter ‘Iron Age Britain’ to see all the objects from that period.
The Iron Age in Britain
Around 800 BC iron working techniques reached Britain from mainland Europe. While bronze was still used, iron was used for tools, weapons and other items such as horse fittings. This was because iron was more readily available than the tin and copper needed to make bronze. In Britain, the Iron Age lasted until AD 43 when Britain became part of the Roman Empire, after which historians talk about Roman Britain. The British Iron Age saw both continuity and change. Many aspects of life continued from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age alongside changes such as the widespread use of iron. Towards the end of the Iron Age, aspects of Roman culture were introduced to southern Britain, especially in the period after the attempts by Julius Caesar to invade Britain in 55 and 54 BC. Many aspects of Iron Age life continued into Roman times especially in the western and northern areas of Britain which were further away from the heartlands of the province in the south and the east.
The people of Iron Age Britain
The people living in Iron Age Britain left no written record of their history or their identity. Archaeologists have to use burial remains and excavated objects to build up an understanding of this time. There is little evidence for what people looked like. Iron Age Britons almost never carved or made images of people. The human images which do occur are highly stylized images.
During the late Iron Age, information about the people living in Iron Age Britain is recorded in the observations of classical writers from the Mediterranean world who had heard about, or possibly visited, Britain. The Romans called the Iron Age people Britones or Britanni (Britons). The Britons spoke Celtic languages, which probably originally spread to Britain through trade and other contacts.
Several million people probably lived in Britain by the end of the Iron Age. The regeneration of forest areas suggests that there may have been a decline in population during this period. Most people lived in extended family units. Life expectancy was around 35-40 years. There was continuing contact between Britain and mainland Europe with some people moving between the two areas for settlement or trade purposes. There is no evidence of any mass migrations of 'the Celts' into Britain.
There appears to be a development of regional identity during the Iron Age and by the end of the period groups of people appear to identify themselves with distinctive regional groups (often referred to as tribes) each led by a single ruler.
During the Iron Age people were almost never shown as statues or carved as part of the decoration on objects. Information about personal appearance is therefore based on analysis of human remains, very rare pieces of surviving fragments of textile, the tools used to make clothing and pieces of jewellery.
Little clothing has survived from the Iron Age because it rots easily. Materials such as wool, linen, skins and fur are only preserved in very dry conditions, or in particular anaerobic (oxygen-free) waterlogged conditions such as peat bogs. Such conditions are rare in Britain and, even though archaeologists sometimes find waterlogged conditions when they excavate Iron Age settlements built near rivers, marshes or lakes, clothes are rarely found. Perhaps old clothes were burnt, repaired or used as rags.
Most cloth was probably made from sheep's wool. Flax was also grown to make linen, animal skins were tanned to make leather, and furs and feathers were used to make or decorate clothes. Dyes for clothes would have been limited to browns, reds, and yellows along with white and black. Basic clothing was probably a woollen or linen shirt and trousers for men/boys and a dress or blouse and skirt for women/girls. Everybody wore cloaks or shawls. Jewellery shows that personal appearance changed over time and that people from one part of Britain might have looked very different from those from another part.
Most settlements made and repaired clothing. Tools for making clothes are often found when an Iron Age village is excavated. Small round spindle whorls were used to weight a spindle, a tool used to spin wool into thread. The threads were woven into cloth on a loom. Although wooden looms are not usually preserved the large weights that were used to keep the threads tight survive. The weights were hung along the bottom of the loom. Long handled weaving combs made from animal bone or deer antler were used when weaving woollen cloth on a loom. Some combs have a hole through the end of the handle, possibly for a leather thong or piece of rope, so that the comb could be tied to or hung on a person's belt. Other bone tools were used to make holes in cloth or to sew pieces of cloth together to make clothes.
Brooches were the commonest type of jewellery worn. They were often very simple and acted as pins for holding clothes together. Some people owned brooches with decoration that might include red or white coral, or red glass. Glass beads were only made in a few places in Iron Age Britain and most were imported. Many people would have only worn one or two glass beads, if any at all, often as earrings or in the hair. Bangles were usually worn around the wrists, but in some parts of northern Europe they were also worn as anklets. Bracelets could be made out of bronze, but could also be carved out of soft stone such as shale or jet. Rings were very uncommon, and might have been worn on a finger or a toe.
Iron Age Britain: the period of British history from around 800BC to AD 43.
Celts: the name often used for people who lived in Iron Age Britain and parts of
Europe. It is also used to describe aspects of life at this time such as Celtic
languages, Celtic art, Celtic religion.
Archaeology: the recovery and study of material remains of human activity in the past. Often involves digging down into the soil to find things which have been buried over time. In archaeology the deeper you dig, the older the objects you might find. Archaeology can including looking at objects above ground such as a building or structure which has survived over time e.g. Stonehenge, a Roman fort.
Regional: an area of a bigger country e.g. northern England, East Anglia, the West Country. Regional can refer to something which is special to a particular group of people or area such as the way in which pottery is decorated, the style of jewellery worn or types of settlements.
Personal appearance: what people look like both in terms of physical features and the types of clothing and jewellery people choose to wear.
Personal adornment: a term often used by archaeologists to cover all the things that humans use to decorate themselves. This includes jewellery and clothing. It could also include markings added to the skin such as tattoos or hair styles. The ways in which a person chooses to adorn themselves will be linked to social messages around self-identity, regional identity, gender, wealth and social position.
Roundhouses: the typical type of domestic dwelling built by people in the Iron Age. Round houses were constructed from locally sources natural materials such as timber and straw. The name reflects the usually shape of these houses. Roundhouses continued to be constructed in Britain after the arrival of the Romans in AD 43. The outline of these roundhouses is often found by archaeologists digging on an Iron Age or Roman site and there are many modern reconstructions showing what they most probably looked like.