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European Iron Age

Metal Working in Ancient Europe

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Heuneburg Hillfort - Reconstructed Living Iron Age Village

Heuneburg Hillfort - Reconstructed Living Iron Age Village

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The European Iron Age (~800-51 BC) (see also the African Iron Age) is what archaeologists have called that period of time in Europe when the development of complex urban societies was spurred by intensive manufacturing of bronze and iron, and extensive trading in and out of the Mediterranean basin. At the time, Greece was flourishing, and the Greeks saw an explicit division between the cultured peoples of the Mediterranean, as compared to the barbaric northerners of central, western and northern Europe.

Some scholars have argued that it was Mediterranean demand for exotic goods--salt, furs, amber, gold, slaves, foodstuffs, eventually iron weaponry--that drove the interaction, and led to the growth of an elite class in the hillforts of central Europe. Hillforts--fortified settlements located on the tops of hills above Europe's major rivers--became numerous during the early Iron Age, and many of them do show the presence of Mediterranean goods.

European Iron Age dates are traditionally set between the approximate period when iron became the principal tool-making material and the Roman conquests of the last century BC. Iron production was first established during the Late Bronze Age, but did not become widespread in central Europe until 800 BC, and in northern Europe by 600 BC.

Chronology of the Iron Age

800-450 BC (Early Iron Age--Hallstatt in central Europe, Jastorf in north central Europe)

The early part of the Iron Age is called the Hallstatt culture, and it was during this time in central Europe that elite chiefs rose in power, perhaps as a direct result of their connections to the Mediterranean Iron Age of classical Greece and the Etruscans. Hallstatt chiefs built or rebuilt a handful of hillforts in eastern France and southern Germany, and maintained an elite lifestyle.

Hallstatt sites: Heuneburg, Hohen Asberg, Wurzburg, Breisach, Vix, Hochdorf, Camp de Chassey, Mont Lassois, Magdalenska Gora, and Vace

450-50 BC (Late Iron Age, La Tène)

Between 450-400 BC, the Hallstatt elite system collapsed, and power shifted to a new set of people, under what was at first more egalitarian society. The La Tène culture grew in power and wealth because of their location on important trade routes used by the Mediterranean Greeks and Romans to acquire status goods. References to Celts, conflated with Gauls and meaning "central European barbarians", came from the Romans and Greeks; and the La Tène material culture is broadly agreed to represent those groups.

Eventually, population pressure within the populous La Tène zones forced younger La Tène warriors out, beginning the massive "Celtic migrations". La Tène populations moved southward into Greek and Roman areas, conducting extensive and successful raids, even into Rome itself, and eventually including most of the European continent. A new settlement system including central defended settlements called oppida were located in Bavaria and Bohemia. These were not princely residences, but instead residential, commercial, industrial and administrative centers that focused on trade and production for the Romans.

La Tene sites: Manching, Grauberg, Kelhim, Singindunum, Stradonice, Závist, Bibracte, Toulouse, Roquepertuse

Lifestyles of the Iron Age

By ca 800 BC, most of the people in northern and western Europe were in farming communities, including the essential grain crops of wheat, barley, rye, oats, lentils, peas and beans. Domesticated cattle, sheep, goats and pigs were used by Iron Age people; different parts of Europe relied on different suites of animals and crops, and many places supplemented their diets with wild game and fish and nuts, berries and fruit.

Villages were small, usually under a hundred people in residence, and the homes were built of wood with sunken floors and wattle and daub walls. It wasn't until near the end of the Iron Age that larger, town-like settlements began to appear.

Most communities manufactured their own goods for trade or use, including pottery, beer, iron tools, weapons and ornaments. Bronze was most popular for personal ornaments; wood, bone, antler, stone, textiles and leather were also used. Trade goods between communities included bronze, Baltic amber and glass objects, and grinding stones in places far from their sources.

Social Change in the Iron Age

By the late 6th century BC, construction had begun on fortresses on the tops of hills. Building within the Hallstatt hillforts was quite dense, with rectangular timber-framed buildings built close together. Below the hill top (and outside the fortifications) lay extensive suburbs. Cemeteries had monumental mounds with exceptionally rich graves indicating social stratification.

The collapse of the Hallstatt elites saw the rise of La Tène egalitarians. Features associated with La Tene include inhumation burials and the disappearance of elite tumulus-style burials. Also indicated is a rise in the consumption of millet (Panicum miliaceum).

The fourth century BC began the out-migration of small groups of warriors from the La Tène heartland towards the Mediterranean Sea. These groups waged terrific raids against the inhabitants. One result was a discernible drop in the population at early La Tene sites.

Beginning in the middle of the second century BC, connections with the Mediterranean Roman world steadily increased and appeared to stabilize. New settlements such as Feddersen Wierde became established as production centers for Roman military bases. Marking the traditional end of what archaeologists consider the Iron Age, Caesar conquered Gaul in 51 BC and within a century, Roman culture became established in central Europe.

  • See the collection of Hillforts for more information

Iron Age Sites

Sources

Beck CW, Greenlie J, Diamond MP, Macchiarulo AM, Hannenberg AA, and Hauck MS. 1978. The chemical identification of baltic amber at the Celtic oppidum Staré Hradisko in Moravia. Journal of Archaeological Science 5(4):343-354.

Bujnal J. 1991. Approach to the study of the Late Hallstatt and Early La Tène periods in eastern parts of Central Europe: results from comparative classification of 'Knickwandschale'. Antiquity 65:368-375.

Cunliffe B. 2008. The Three Hundred Years that Changed the World: 800-500 BC. Chapter 9 in Europe Between the Oceans. Themes and Variations: 9000 BC-AD 1000. New Haven: Yale University Press. p, 270-316

Hummler M. 2007. Bridging the gap at La Tène. Antiquity 81:1067-1070.

Le Huray JD, and Schutkowski H. 2005. Diet and social status during the La Tène period in Bohemia: Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis of bone collagen from Kutná Hora-Karlov and Radovesice. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24(2):135-147.

Loughton ME. 2009. Getting smashed: the deposition of amphorae and the drinking of wine in Gaul during the late Iron Age. Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 28(1):77-110.

Marciniak A. 2008. Europe, Central and Eastern. In: Pearsall DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. p 1199-1210.

Wells PS. 2008. Europe, Northern and Western: Iron Age. In: Pearsall DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. London: Elsevier Inc. p 1230-1240.

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