Early Britain: Iron Age

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13297

Iron Age Britain was ruled by the Celts. They made iron swords, wheeled carts, coins, fancy jewelry, and beautiful works of art. They were also skilled warriors. Discover life in Britain's Iron Age!

categories

World, World Cultures

subject
History
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:
  • Do you know what a torc is?
  • How about a broch?
  • And who were the Celts?

The Iron Age in Britain lasted from the end of the Bronze Age until the Roman invasion (700 BC to 43 AD). It was the time of the Celts.

The Celts were an ancient people who spread throughout north and central Europe during the Iron Age. The name Celt (pronounced "Kelt") comes from the Greek work keltoi, meaning barbarian. The Romans called them Gauls.

This map shows how far the Celtic people spread in Europe:

Celtic expansion in Europe

Image by QuartierLatin1968,The Ogre,Dbachmann; derivative work Rob984, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

For a long time, historians believed that the Celts from eastern Europe invaded Britain during the Iron Age.

However, many now believe that Bronze Age Celts did not come as invaders but as sailors and traders from the Iberian Peninsula (now Spain and Portugal). They came to Britain for trade and decided to stay, spreading Celtic culture to the east.

Either way, the many different Celtic tribes had control of Britain for a long time.

The map below shows the Celtic tribes of southern Britain (but does not include the northern area that is now Scotland):

peoples of Southern Britain

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Discovery of Iron and Other Technologies

While the Romans are famous for the roads that stretched across their empire, they may have actually learned the skill of road building from the Celts. The Celts made long, straight roads through France, Britain, and Ireland, tracing the path of their sun god.

The Celts were also among the first to use iron weapons!

The Iron Age is, of course, named for that metal which came to be used more widely during this period. Iron is stronger and more durable than bronze, so the Celts used it to make many things, including:

  • tools, such as plows for farming
  • household items, such as cooking pots
  • weapons, such as swords and spearheads

Look at several examples of Celtic Swords and Helmets, courtesy of Time Trips UK.

The British Celts were expert metal-workers with bronze and iron as well as gold and silver.

They were also able to construct large stone buildings known as brochs (pronounced "brocks"), meaning forts. Many of these Iron Age brochs can still be found all over Scotland:

Warfare

Besides building the brochs for protection, the Celts also built hill forts, or settlements on top of hills, which were protected by banks and ditches.

Watch Danebury Hill Fort, from Hampshire County Council, to see examples of Celtic hill forts, clothing, and weaponry:

Homes and Daily Life

When it came to homes, the Iron Age Britons preferred to build roundhouses with thatched roofs. (If you completed our lesson about Bronze Age Britain, you know how these were built. If not, check out the Related Lessons in the right-hand sidebar.)

What was it like living in those houses? Watch David Freeman on Running a Round House (YouTube), and take notes on the following questions:

  • Which way did their houses face?
  • Why did they have a fire burning all day?
  • Why did they not need a hole in the roof for the smoke?
  • Which area got morning light and which did not? Why?

Most of daily life during the Iron Age would have been spent tending the crops (wheat, barley, rye, and oats) and caring for the livestock (cattle, sheep, and pigs). There were also horses to pull wheeled carts, and dogs to help herd the livestock. The dogs were also used for hunting. Hunting dogs bred in Britain were used all over the Roman empire.

When there was time for leisure, the Celts played board games and practiced the slingshot.

Food

Watch the video below to learn how people in the Iron Age cooked their food and what they ate. Take notes on these questions:

  • How did they bake bread?
  • What went into the stew?
  • What were the bean cakes used for?
  • How was butter made?
  • How was their diet different from ours?

A Taste of History - Local Food and Farming from stories4change:

Art

Visit Google Arts & Culture's Celtic life in Iron Age Britain to scroll through a British Museum exhibition of Iron Age objects.

  • Which piece is your favorite?
  • What do you find interesting about it?

Religion

It seems that the Celts had a yearly pattern of religious festivals based on the seasons of the year. Two major festivals happened at the beginning of spring (May 1) and the beginning of fall (August 1). In November, they celebrated the beginning of a new year.

Their religious leaders were called Druids, and there is evidence that they sacrificed both humans and animals in some of their rituals.

Appearance

The Celts appear to have cared a lot about their appearance. They wore bright colors with stripes or checks and added decorative items like brooches and pins. The women grew their hair long and braided it, while the men wore long beards and mustaches.

clothing of the Celts

Image by Silar, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

One decorative item that was very popular with the Celts was the torc. The torc was a neck-ring made of gold, silver, bronze, or iron. Many have been found all over Britain.

The name torc comes from the Latin word for twisted. Many were made of twisted wire and decorated with patterns. Look at several examples of Torcs, courtesy of Time Trips UK.

Now that you know what brochs and torcs are, move on to the Got It? section to test your knowledge of the Celts and design a virtual museum display!

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