What can the burial evidence tell us about Iron Age society in Britain?
Tracing back the historical evolution of society is a central pillar to understanding society today and the thematic human tenets. Archaeology provides evidence-based explanation to the prehistoric existence of society and the thematic cultural and societal practices. Archeological evidence has thus been organized along different periodical lines to explain the primary societal activities of the earlier times. One such period is the British Iron Age. The Iron Age was preceded by the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age and contributed to the Roman, early Saxon, Middle Saxon, late Saxon, medieval and post-medieval periods (Haselgrove, 2008). As an evolutionary society, the Iron Age is linked to the utility of iron for tools. The age is cited to be between the Bronze Age and the Romanization of the island. It is also noteworthy that a distinction has been drawn by Irish Archaeology on British Iron Age, and that termed as Irish Iron Age. Archaeologists have identified that the iron age period lasted between 800 BC and 50BC, with the earliest iron age being traced to 800 to 400 BC, the middle iron age is identified in literature as 400 to 100 BC and the latest iron age being traced to be between 100 and 50 BC (Cunliffe, 2004). The late Iron Age ushered in the Roman age, an archaeology stage that has received significant interrogation. It is further remarkable that there have been over 100 large-scale excavations of Iron Age sites that have taken place.
Furthermore, historical reconstruction of the period in literature has been done using archeological evidence. The reason for this reconstruction is due to little-written material from the age exists. In fact, the few written historical artifacts only provide an explanation for the last150 years of the period. In light of this fact, only archeological evidence illuminates the understanding of the Iron Age in Britain. In order to effectively comprehend the age using archeological evidence, it is essential to highlight related tenets of the late Bronze Age that precedes the Iron Age (Harding, 2004).
The late bronze age
Archeological evidence provides indicators that during the later Bronze Age new ideas had started to crop up especially on land use and settlement. Geographical evidence reveals extensive utility of the field systems referred to as the Celtic fields. The realization of the productivity that land possessed compelled the people to build settlements that are more permanent and field systems that enabled the better utilize the land (Haselgrove, & Pope, 2007). It is important to point out that the urge to organize centrally had been identified as early as the Neolithic period (Harding, 2014). However, in the later stages of the bronze ushered in central organization that was geared towards economic and social goals. Pertinent example includes the taming of landscape rather than maintaining large ceremonial structures and the digging of long ditches as a sign of marking territory (Harding, 2009).
Archaeology has also heavily relied on the burial formula for the different ages. It is thus predominantly suggested that the Bronze Age practiced cremation of the bodies. The cremation was done and the ashes put in pottery urns that have been excavated in various historical sites over the years. The pottery urns are also identified to be unique to Britain, as they have not been excavated in the other parts of Europe (Barber, 2003). However, in the later stages of the period, the ashes are believed to have been buried using perishable urns and with the onset of the Iron Age, cremation is believed to have ended in the excavation of inhumations with metalwork and metal hoards that contain human bones. It is also believed that towards the end of the Bronze Age kinship begun to crop up as some of the archeological evidence suggests the burial people of stature in the society.
The thematic deduction from archeological evidence excavated and dated back to the transition from the bronze to the Iron Age reveals a significant shift in the social and economic activities using the metals. A significant change in the type of structures that people in the age used to create is also realized from this evidence as people realize the productivity that brings about hence the territorial demarcation of land. Indeed, significant similarities have been drawn between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age in Britain as the metals are linked to significantly higher human activities (Bradley, 2007). However, the Iron Age has distinct archeological indicators that are identified with the period with archaeologists referring to these indicators as higher than the preceding periods. Delinking archeological evidence into a few basic human needs and activities best explains the society paradigms of the age (Webley, 2007).
Buildings have been used as archeological site evidence on the basic human activities that the different periods have practiced. The infamous ancient Egypt pyramids and the classical Greece buildings are prime examples of how buildings provide empirical societal evidence of particular periods in the history of a society (Ottaway, 1996). In is important to note that although the Iron Age in Britain did not have spectacular buildings like the ones that other societies in the period had certain structures that exist until today have been linked to the period. However, it is quite clear that the period did not give birth to big cities palaces and temples. Rather the Iron Age in Britain was characterized by rural villages that predominantly hosted farms. The Iron Age in Britain was thus characterized by timber, thatch or stone buildings (Darvill, 2010). One particular historical site is the brochs of northern Scotland. Other defensive structures were also created whose ruins are significantly identifiable until today. However, archeological evidence reveals that the predominant buildings were single rooms created around villages that were made of either stone or timber.
The buildings illuminate on pertinent social and economic activities that were characterized in the period. The technological capability of creating large stone defensive structures speaks to the availability of economic gains that the society needed to protect. As earlier identified the utility of the iron metal further enabled the society realize productivity from land hence the eminent need to demarcate territory and derive further economic gains from land. Further, it speaks to the onset of societal organization (James, 2007). This means that people in the period begun to identify them with certain villages and certain demarcations and defensive areas. Although, the non-existence of large social structures like temples and palaces speaks to the non existence of religious, political and social structures some form of societal centralization can be derived from the availability of villages which form fertile grounds for political and social association (Brück, 2006).
As earlier identified, the structures put up in the period were made of thatches and timber. Thus, most of them have since decayed after being predisposed to the weather patterns that Britain experiences (Moreland, 2001). However, other activities that have been linked to the period have been identified. One particular archeological evidence is the large ditches and fortifications that are surrounded hill forts built in the age around the country. One particular cite is near Cambridge at Haddenham that was created in the age as a drainage gully for a house, other sites have been identified across the country with similar design maintained to serve the same purpose. It is thus identified that during the Iron Age one particular human activity was digging deep gullies to either protect the thatched houses or while in search of stones to build.
Particular gullies believed to host stones have been identified to have been manmade and traced to the period based on the method of excavation. The extraction model is only traced to the period based on the utility of iron in excavation. These cites further speak to pertinent evolution practices that the period is attached to. The cites reveal a growth in technology of building houses for sustenance rather than ceremonial purposes. The gullies created around the rounded houses near the hilltops were to protect the thatched or timber shelters from destruction by water during adverse climatic changes (Jay, & Richards, 2006). Further, the excavation of stone ushered in the technology of building houses using stone as the iron ores allowed easier excavation. Indeed, the archeological evidence provides evidence of societal progression both socially and economically. The creation of permanent shelters that were well protected from nature allowed people to settle down and thus concentrate on social and economic activities on land.
It is important to identify that few disposal sites for the period exist. The main explanation behind this is the predominant use of biodegradable products. As earlier identified, most of the shelters were made of thatches and timber thus higher degrading rates. The lack of these sites also speaks to the utility of recycle techniques. It is believed that during this age bronze and iron were in little availability or at least their excavation processes were demanding. This thus translated to recycling of iron and bronze products hence little archeological evidence available. However, few disposal sites have been identified that host bones and broken pottery (Creighton, 2000).
Rare occurrence excavations in cities that have been considered as favorably preserved have provided feasibly good insight on the homestead activities that used to be undertaken during the period. On good excavation cites, cooking pots and carbonized seeds have been recovered. Archeologists cite these discoveries as accidental as they are truly a rare occurrence (Faust, 2004). However, those that have been excavated the carbonized seeds provided rich information on the consumption trends that the age engaged in. the pots also excavated also provide a rich ground on the fact that the iron age society synthesized or rather consumed cooked food. Further, it provides evidence that the society engaged in crop production for sustenance. Although little archeological evidence exists on trade of consumables the excavation of such artifacts, provide an evolutionary platform that ushered in the roman age (Ralston, and Hunter, 2009). Further, the excavation of pots reveals the utility of fire in the domestic setting this means that the settlements were organized into certain settings that set out particular roles on gender.
Archeologists through literature have branded the discovery of certain artifacts as accidental. As earlier highlighted, most of the domestic utilities that the population in the age used were biodegradable. Hence, few iron and bronze artifacts have been excavated. However, those that have been discovered are cited to have been discovered in areas of the country that has been linked to burying their dead. One such artifact is the waterloo helmet. The waterloo helmet has been showcased on British museums and is said to have been discovered by accident when preparing land for other economic activities (Armit, 2015). The two edged helmet designed to fit the human head has raised significant interrogation on its purpose and utility during the period. Contrary to most features attached to the period, the waterloo is unique. Some argue that its use was both defensive and protective.
The theory is supported by the discovery of the Kirkburn sword that has also been linked to the period. Zeroing down on these two particular artifacts it is quite clear that significant social and political association characterized the age. Although the sword is linked to hunting and excavation, the most feasible theory is that of protection and defense from human to human attack. Thus, it is the deduction of most literature that the demarcation of territory and the creation of defensive wall at this age signified village association and central organization and equally forming the social ground for the creation of kinship (Sharples, 2010).
The existence of these unique artifacts also speaks to the rituals that some of the groups in the age are believed to have upheld. It is deduced that since most of these artifacts have been discovered near waterbeds that most of the groups engaged in spiritual rituals while still linking the discovery with burying the dead. In particular is the battersea shield that was discovered in the Thames River (MOORE, 2007). Its discovery has raised significant speculation on the spiritual and political activities of the era. Although some archeological literature suggests that, the artifacts may have been lost in battle. Other literature suggests that the artifacts may have been deliberately buried with people among the groups that believed in burying their dead.
In particular, historical Iron Age sites human and animal bones have been discovered. Although the logical explanation behind the discovery of complete animal bone is because they are feast, leftovers some archeologists elude to the existence of spiritual attachment to the discovery. The discovery of complete animal bones has over the years raised the debate on existence of sacrifices that were initiated by the people in the settlement to appeal to their gods. Further, in sites where Iron Age settlements have been discovered in significantly good conditions the bones and other artifacts have been discovered at particular points on the settlement design alluding to the existence of superstitious ritual activities practiced in the age. Indeed, this form of theorization holds water as most archeological excavations linked to the age provide similar patterns (Whitley, 2002). This thus means that the age was characterized by spiritual practices by each settlement and was also unique to each settlement. Further, the existence of human bones in some parts of the country that were linked to the age also speaks to the fact that the age was characterized by a varied cultural background. This means that different settlements had different cultural practices to the other.
It is important to acknowledge that the cultural and spiritual explanation given to the discovery of certain artifacts best salvages the thematic tenets of the age. This is because most of the practices linked to the age by archeologists are due to the discovery of these artifacts and geographical features. That notwithstanding the discovery of such artifacts and remains provides a clear evolutionary picture of the Iron Age and its contribution to British history.
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