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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Know Your Prehistory (8) --
Iron Age progression.
by Joy Saynor.

The Iron Age, with which this 8th article in the series is concerned, was the shortest, yet the most vigorous of the four divisions of pre-history which had been demarcated first in 1865 by Sir John Lubbock. The discovery of efficient and economic methods of iron working in Asia Minor or the Caucasus around 1800 to 1200 BC, cheapened a metal which already in its unrefined state was infinitely less rare than copper and tin, the constituents of bronze. Until circa 1000 BC, its diffusion had been artificially prevented by Hittite imperialism; the violent end of the cultures of the Hittites and the Babylonians in the Near East, of the Mycenacan civilisation in Greece and the subjection of Egypt to Assyria, encouraged the spread east, west and north of iron-working techniques. The new technology spread so rapidly that "in the first five centuries of the Iron Age, the continuous area of civilisation . . . expanded more than it had in the previous fifteen centuries of the Bronze Age." (Gordon Childe).

The expansion took place also in depth within existing societies, creating improvement in the quality of life for the lower rural classes, instead of, as in previous technological advances, only increasing the wealth of the aristocracy and upper classes. Iron tools, such as sickles, plough-shares and hoes, were cheap and strong enough to, enable the small farmer to produce more food by beginning to reclaim hitherto unworkable land. His iron tools could cut down untractable undergrowth and dig drainage channels.

With cheap iron tools for the masses came two further innovations of far reaching consequence in the progression towards more advanced societies. Coined money, of a fixed shape and standard weight, quickened the exchange of goods. The wholesaler no longer needed to carry with him the whole paraphernalia of scales, weights and bars of metal to undertake his entrepreneurial functions. At the same time, the evolution of a true alphabet of 22 signs (as opposed to ideograms and syllabic signs), the legacy of an unknown Phoenician city, circa 1100 BC, was to prove the starting point of European, Arabic, Indic and Hebrew scripts.

The great civilisations of the south in antiquity, of the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Etruscans, or even of the Cathaginians, can hardly be said to be paralleled in Northern Europe. North of the Alps, the first division of the Iron Age in Europe, dating from circa 750 BC, takes the name of its culture from a cemetery excavated in Upper Austria at Hallstadt. Like all previous cultural patterns, it reached England only in 500 BC, Scotland 250 BC, and Ireland later still. The rise in population in the Hallstadt region as a result of the greater efficiency of iron tools is indicated by cemeteries containing over 1,000 graves. War-like activity must be assumed from the early long swords of iron or bronze, the bronze body armour, the later short swords and above all by hill-fort construction.

The second Iron Age division, the La Tène (located at the eastern end of Lake Neuchâtel in western Switzerland), is assigned to the period after 450 BC Celtic warriors, of the race which expanded their settlements from northern Spain to Czechoslovakia, attacked Rome and northern Greece and created a kingdom, Galatia, in Asia Minor. The derivative nature of La Tène culture can be amply illustrated. Classical Greek abstract design mingled with zoomorphic motifs assimilated from the nomadic Scyth culture of the eastern steppes on the shields and helmets of gold and bronze of the Celtic warrior class. Chariots were assimilated from the Etruscan culture, a silver coinage from Greece, a gold from Macedoniathe ubiquitous stater of Philip of Macedon.

Meanwhile in Southern England, the legacy of this rich barbarian culture, this near civilisation, is evidenced in the banks and ditches of the great hill-forts constructed by a dominant warrior aristocracy to further strengthen natural defensive positions. In Kent, the chain of late Iron Age hill-forts stretches across the county, demarcating the spheres of influence of individual sub-rulers. Squerryes, which dominated the later Saxon settlement of Westerham, much as Maiden Castle did the Roman Dorchester, covered some 18 acres and was fortified with a rampart "probably greater than 6-10 feet and it seems likely that it had a stone revetment. The ditch fronting the rampart was 10 feet deep and nearly 30 feet wide and there were clear traces of a counter-scarp bank. (KAR 22).

The seeds of the destruction of Iron Age culture in Britain had been sown as early as 509 BC, when the Romans, having expelled the Tarquins, proclaimed themselves a republic and in the following centuries prepared to conquer the known world. Roman annals gave the Latin form of the name of the Celtic tribe from northern France and Flanders who imposed its suzerainty over Kent and its neighbours in the first half century BC, naming it the Belgae. It was these same recently settled Belgae who successfully led the Cantii against Caesar in 55 and 54 BC, but who nearly a hundred years later were unable to prevent the conquest of their culture by Claudius in AD 43.


  • Grahame Clark -- World Prehistory, a New outline (1969).
  • Gordon Childe -- What Happened in History (1942).
  • T G E Powell -- The Celts, Ancient Peoples and Places (1958).
  • J G D Clark -- Prehistoric Europethe Economic Basis (1952). KAR 22.
Other articles in this series.
Issue (year) KAR number Article number Title
Winter 1971 #26 8 Iron Age Progressions
Summer 1971 #24 7 Bronze Age Beginnings
Winter 1970 #22 6 Bronze Age Beginnings
Autumn 1970 #21 5 The Neolithic Period
Spring 1970 #19 4 The Neolithic Revolution
Winter 1970 #18 3 Mesolithic Progress
Autumn 1969 #17 2 The Emergence of Homo Sapiens
Summer 1969 #16 1 The Dawn of Man
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