Celtic life in Iron Age Britain

A British Museum exhibition of Iron Age objects from collections across the UK

Burrough Hill (University of Leicester)British Museum

The Iron Age in Britain

The period of human history when the use of iron became widespread is called the Iron Age. In Britain it begins around 800 BC and ends in AD 43 with the Roman invasion. There is a longer Iron Age in Scotland, which was not conquered by the Romans. The ancient Greeks and Romans called the Iron Age people of western Europe ‘Celts’. Many of these Celtic peoples spoke related languages and created similar abstract art styles, suggesting that intermarriage, trade and other links brought communities from the Atlantic to the Black Sea into regular contact. Although Britain and Ireland were never explicitly referred to as Celtic by the Greeks and Romans, they were part of this world of shared art and languages. Iron Age peoples did not write down their own histories. This means that archaeologists must use the objects that these peoples left behind to reconstruct their lives. This exhibition contains a diverse collection of objects from across Britain. Each community used different objects and held different beliefs. Why not visit your local museum to learn more about how Iron Age people lived in your area?

The Snettisham Great Torc (-150/-50)British Museum

Ritual, magic and hoarding 

Religious beliefs and rituals in Iron Age Britain
were complex and are likely to have been woven into everyday activities such as farming, cooking and metalworking. Archaeologists rarely find remains of Iron
Age temple buildings or places of worship. Offerings were deposited in homes,
fields, hilltops and rivers and could come in the form of single objects,
sacrificed animals or ‘hoards’. These buried
groups of objects ranged from everyday tools to gold and silver jewellery.
While some may have been buried for safekeeping, most were probably offerings
to the gods. Burying or cremating the dead was unusual in Iron Age Britain, but
the rare graves we do find provide valuable insights into the lives of individuals
and communities.

Weighing just over one 1kg (about the same as a bag of sugar), this neck-ring or ‘torc’ is made from 64 twisted wires, with hollow terminals cast onto the ends. Known as the ‘Great Torc’, it is one of the most elaborate golden objects made in the ancient world and rivals pieces by contemporary Roman, Greek and Chinese goldsmiths. It is very similar to the Netherurd torc, which was found in Scotland, demonstrating links between craftspeople across Britain.

Netherurd Torc terminal, National Museums Scotland, -100/-1, From the collection of: British Museum
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The Penbryn Spoons, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, -50/100, From the collection of: British Museum
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The decorated handles of these spoons suggest that they were important objects. People may have dripped a liquid through the hole in one spoon into the other, perhaps using the pattern made by the droplets to make predictions about the future. Spoons like these are a British phenomenon. Only one pair has been found on the Continent.

Bronze boars from the Hounslow Hoard, -50/-25, From the collection of: British Museum
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These small boar figurines would originally have been attached to helmets or buckets. They were buried in a hoard with other model creatures and a model wheel. Depictions of animals are rare in Iron Age Britain and it’s unusual to find a group of animal figurines buried together. Much older objects were found in the same field, suggesting that this was an important site over a long period.

Burrough Hill hoard, University of Leicester. Following full post-excavation research by University of Leicester Archaeological Services, the finds from Burrough Hill will be deposited with Leicestershire County Council Museums., -300/-200, From the collection of: British Museum
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In 2014 archaeologists excavating at Burrough Hill, an Iron Age hill fort in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, discovered a hoard of rare decorated bronze fittings from a chariot. Found at the bottom of a large pit, the Burrough Hill hoard consists of twenty-two items including linch pins, terret rings and iron tools. The pieces had been gathered together in a box, before being placed in the pit and burned, possibly during a religious ceremony.

Cow bone hoard, Lynn Museum, -60/-1, From the collection of: British Museum
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Twenty gold coins minted in northern France were packed into this cow bone and buried as an offering to the gods or for safekeeping. Normally found in pots, hoards like this are occasionally also found in hollow stones. Coins were not only used for exchange in the Iron Age; they were often used as offerings at sacred sites or on boundaries, and some were buried without being used.

The Battersea Shield (-350/-50)British Museum

Warfare and status 

the people of Iron Age Britain are often depicted as warlike, the decoration on
their weapons shows that flamboyant display in itself played an important role in
warfare. Many weapons are preserved today because they were chosen as
offerings to be cast into rivers or placed in graves with the dead.  

The pristine appearance of this bronze shield facing suggests that it was never used for defence. Its elaborate patterns and red glass inlays suggest that its function in battle may have been to dazzle onlookers, rather than to protect its owner. This shield was found in the River Thames at Battersea, London. Other finds of bronze weaponry and elaborate defensive gear in the Thames, and other rivers, have led to suggestions that these objects were deliberately deposited in the water.

The Kirkburn mail shirt, -250/-160, From the collection of: British Museum
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This reconstruction is based on corroded fragments of iron mail armour, found in the grave of a man in Kirkburn, East Yorkshire. It uses a different form of linkage from the chainmail armour worn in the medieval period, but it may have provided a similar form of protection. Iron mail armour is rarely found. Not only does iron corrode faster than other metals but making mail armour also required great skill and knowledge.

Mortonhall Scabbard, National Museums Scotland, 1/200, From the collection of: British Museum
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Owning finely made weaponry was an important way for Iron Age warriors to show off their status. This scabbard is made from two different copper alloys, creating a pattern in two contrasting colours. It appears dull today, but when it was new the polished surface would have caught the light and drawn attention to the patterns at either end. The central loop suggests that the sword was hung down the centre of the back, rather than from a belt.

Chalk figurine, Hull and East Riding Museum, -300/-200, From the collection of: British Museum
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Although depictions of people were very rare in Iron Age Britain, several small, chalk human figurines have been found in East Yorkshire. This figurine’s gleaming white appearance would have been very striking when it was first carved. His left hand appears to be extended in a gesture of greeting, while his right hand reaches behind his back, ready to draw his sword.

Swanton Morely bridle bit, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, -100/100, From the collection of: British Museum
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A bridle bit sits between a horse’s teeth. The reins that riders or charioteers used to guide the animal are attached to either side. This example, which has survived over 2000 years in the ground, is very similar to those in use today. It is decorated with red glass, which would have contrasted with the golden appearance of the bronze. It took time and skill to train horses, and they were expensive to keep. They would have been a sign of wealth and status and were often depicted on coins.

Newbridge chariot reconstruction, National Museums Scotland, -500/-400, From the collection of: British Museum
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Dubbed the ‘Ferrari of the Iron Age’ by its excavator, this is a reconstruction of a chariot found in a grave at Newbridge. It indicates that an important person was buried here. Later sources, such as Julius Caesar, describe the fearsome use of chariots in warfare. Chariots were also used for travelling between communities and funerary procession.

The wheel and body construction show that it was made in Britain, but it is very similar to chariots found in graves in Belgium and France. Whole chariots are rare finds in Iron Age Britain. This is the only Scottish example; the others all come from later graves in Yorkshire.

Balmaclellan Mirror (75/200) by National Museums ScotlandBritish Museum

Personal identity

inhabitants of Iron Age Britain did not leave any written records, so it can be
challenging for archaeologists to gather information about individuals. As
today, people expressed their identities through their clothes, jewellery and
belongings. By examining items found in graves and settlements we can start to
build up a picture of how people saw and presented themselves, and what was
important to them.

Mirrors were probably valuable and prestigious objects, used for grooming but also a way for people to display status. At a time when most people saw their reflections only in water, they may have thought that mirrors held magical properties, giving them the power to look into another world. They are often found in burials, showing that they may have been important personal objects. This mirror, however, was found in a hoard of other bronze objects, carefully wrapped in woollen textile. Decorated bronze and iron mirrors are most common in Southern Britain, but this bronze example is from Balmaclellan in south-western Scotland.

This mirror and the British Museum's Holcombe Mirror will be touring across the UK as a partnership touring exhibition between the British Museum and National Museums Scotland from October 2015 to November 2016.

Tour Schedule:
- 24 October 2015 to 4 January 2016 at the National Civil War Centre, Newark
- 6 January to 9 March 2016 at Littlehampton Museum
- 14 March to 22 May at Old Gala House, Galasheils
- 23 May to 31 August at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery
- September to November 2016 at the McManus Galleries, Dundee

For more information, please visit BritishMuseum.org/Celts

Pitalpin Armlet, National Museums Scotland, 100/200, From the collection of: British Museum
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This bronze bangle was found at Pitalpin in Angus, in north-eastern Scotland. The distinctive decoration at the ends evokes an animal with stylised snout, eyes and ears. The type is found only in this region, and an Iron Age woman probably wore it to express her local identity. Similar styles in larger sizes were worn by men. Chunky jewellery like this developed in Scotland after southern Britain came under Roman rule.

Applied hook brooch, Portable Antiquities Scheme, 25/100, From the collection of: British Museum
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Brooches such as this were used to pin clothes together, allowing their owners to show off with a flash of a colour. The decorative brass attachment was once an eye-catching shade of gold.

Iron Age brooches come in many different shapes and styles, sometimes with regional variations. This type, found mainly in Dorset and Somerset, dates to the very end of the Iron Age when the Romans were beginning to arrive in Britain.

Glass bead, Wiltshire Museum, -500/100, From the collection of: British Museum
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Excavated from an Iron Age settlement at Swallowcliffe Down in Wiltshire, this bead is decorated with a distinctive ‘eye’ pattern. Beads in Iron Age Britain were usually glass, but could also be made from other colourful materials such as amber, sandstone and jet. They may have been worn strung on necklaces and are occasionally found in graves, showing that they were important personal objects.

Surgical instruments from The Doctor's Grave, Colchester Castle Museum, 40/60, From the collection of: British Museum
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This set of surgical instruments, excavated from a grave in Stanway, Essex, gives a rare glimpse into Iron Age medicine. Among the 13 instruments in the medical kit were scalpels, forceps, needles and a surgical saw. The grave dates to the decades around the Roman conquest in AD 43 and the objects of the medical kit are similar to Roman types. The man or woman buried here may have been versed in Roman medical practices as well as local healing traditions.

Saucepan pot (-250/-100) by Hampshire Cultural TrustBritish Museum

Daily life

Everyday items, such as pottery and tools, are the
most frequent finds from Iron Age sites in Britain. Life centred around farming
crops and animals, and other essentials were grown or made locally. Many
settlements have evidence of craft activities such as weaving, pot-making, wood
and metal-working. Evidence for the trading of pots, and stones used for
grinding grain, show that neighbouring communities were in touch through trade
and possibly marriage.

Pottery was an integral part of Iron Age life. Ceramic vessels were used for cooking and storing food and it is rare to find them whole. This pot was found at Danebury Hillfort in Hampshire and is the type used for everyday food preparation. Dark marks on the outside show it was heated over an open fire. If you look carefully, you can see subtle decoration around the rim.

Ceramic butt beaker, Yorkshire Museum, -100/100, From the collection of: British Museum
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This type of large, ceramic cup dates to the very end of the Iron Age and reflects changing dining habits. It was probably used for drinking beer, mead or wine. Some cups were imported from the Continent, while others were made in Britain. This one was decorated by rolling a cylindrical stamp across the surface, a technique called ‘rouletting’.

Spindle whorls, National Museums Scotland, -200/800, From the collection of: British Museum
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The textiles used to make clothing and other useful objects were woven on looms. Spinning and weaving would have been time-consuming household tasks. Whorls like these were used to weight the end of sticks called spindles, which hand-spinners used to twist wool into yarn for weaving. These whorls are all made from sandstone, although spindle whorls can also be made from other types of stone, bone or clay.

Weaving combs, Museum of Somerset, -250/-50, From the collection of: British Museum
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Excavations of an Iron Age site at Meare in Somerset have produced evidence for weaving woollen cloth, along with an exceptional range of other craft and industrial activities. A large number of bone and antler weaving combs were found, some incised with elaborate designs. Weaving combs are found across Iron Age Britain and were probably used to make woollen straps and decorative clothing accessories.

Reconstructed gaming board, Colchester Castle Museum, 40/60, From the collection of: British Museum
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Living in Iron Age Britain was not all hard work; people liked to have fun too! This reconstruction is based on a game found in a grave in Stanway, Essex, and consists of 26 blue and white glass counters and a chequered board. The absence of dice means that it was probably a game of strategy.

Quernstone, National Museum of Scotland, -200/400, From the collection of: British Museum
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Different types of quernstones were used to grind wheat or barley into flour to make bread, an important staple food. This is the top half of a rotary quern, which once sat on top of another stone. Grain was poured into the hole in the centre and the upper stone was then turned using a pair of wooden handles placed in the holes. The weight of the turning upper stone crushed the grain into flour.

Fiskerton log boat, The Collection, Lincoln, -500/-300, From the collection of: British Museum
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Blow by blow, this boat was worked from a single oak tree trunk. We can still see the axe marks on the sides. Few wooden boats survive from the Iron Age and the two found at Fiskerton were deliberately sunk, perhaps as offerings. This type of boat most likely would have been used to travel along rivers, perhaps transporting objects such as those shown in this exhibition.

Welwyn Garden City burial reconstruction (-100/-1)British Museum

Wider contacts

Iron Age people in Britain traded not only with their neighbours, but also with communities in Continental Europe. Some of the first gold coins were imported across the Channel from northern France. Increasingly, after 100 BC, Britain began to have contact with the expanding Roman empire. The classical writer Strabo wrote that gold, slaves and hunting dogs arrived in the Roman world from Britain. In exchange, wine and other new products made their way to south-eastern England, where they were sometimes buried with the dead.

Gallo Belgic type E stater (-60/-50) by Portable Antiquities SchemeBritish Museum

One side of this solid gold coin was deliberately left blank, while the other shows a stylised running horse. This design is typical of Iron Age coins from France and Belgium, where this coin was probably made. Large quantities were minted between 60 and 50 BC, when Julius Caesar was leading the Roman army against the Iron Age tribes of Gaul (modern France). Many are found in Britain, suggesting that British warriors may have fought as mercenaries in Gaul, taking coins like this one home as payment. The style was quickly adopted on later coins in Britain where it became a more abstract pattern of lines and dots.

Gang chain, Manchester Museum, -100/43, From the collection of: British Museum
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Each ring on this gang chain fastened around a person’s neck. The rings were not locked, but each collar in the chain could only be released when the previous one had been undone. The chain comes from Bigbury Camp, a hillfort in Kent, and it seems likely that slave trading was common across south-eastern England during the late Iron Age (100 BC – AD 43). The apparent increase in demand for slaves may have been connected to the expansion of Roman power. Classical sources suggest that slaves were a key export from Britain around this time.

Welwyn Garden City burial reconstruction, -100/-1, From the collection of: British Museum
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From around 100 BC, people in south-eastern England began to practise new funerary rites, similar to those of north-western France. The goods in this cremation grave include pottery vessels, wine vessels (amphorae) imported from the Mediterranean, glass gaming pieces and the fitting from a shield. The exotic imports and high-quality tableware suggest that the individual buried here may have been part of an important ruling family. The mixture of local and imported grave goods reflects increasingly close ties to the Roman world.

Coin of Prasutagus, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, 50/60, From the collection of: British Museum
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This coin was issued by Eusprasto, a ruler in East Anglia. He was probably the person referred to by Roman writers as ‘Prasutagus’ – Boudica’s husband and leader of the Iceni tribe. The Iceni initially had good relations with Rome. The classical style portrait and the use of Latin letters for the ruler’s name show the influence of the Roman world. After Prasutagus’ death, the alliance was shaken when the Romans took control of the Iceni’s lands. His widow Boudica rebelled, leading an uprising against Roman rule in AD 60 or 61. Although the revolt did not succeed, her forces did considerable damage before they were defeated.

Dragonesque brooches (100/200) by British MuseumBritish Museum

The Iron Age is traditionally thought to end with the Roman conquest, led by the Emperor Claudius in AD 43. In fact, the reality is more complex. Native culture in the British Isles continued to flourish and incorporated Roman traditions. Dragonesque brooches, worn Roman-style as a pair, one on each shoulder, are a good example of this. The idea of an animal-headed brooch is Roman, but the sinuous, s-shaped curves of the dragon-like creatures developed from local art styles. These hybrid designs would continue to influence art made in the British Isles for many centuries to come.

Credits: Story

This exhibition was developed as part of the British Museum's National Programmes. It was created in conjunction with the British Museum exhibition Celts: art and identity at the British Museum until 31 January 2016.

Organised with National Museums Scotland

Supported by
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

We developed this exhibition in partnership with the following museums and collections across the UK:

National Museums Scotland
The University of Leicester
The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Lynn Museum
Hull and East Riding Museum
Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery
Portable Antiquities Scheme
Wiltshire Museum
Colchester Castle Museum
Hampshire Cultural Trust
Yorkshire Museum
Museum of Somerset
The Collection, Lincoln
Manchester Museum

More information about the exhibition can be found on the British Museum website.

Curators: Helen Chittock, Rachel Wilkinson and Julia Farley
Production: Joanne McAleer, Natalie Tacq and Emmanouil Ramos

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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