Tag Archives: Iron Age

Uncovered after 2,000 years: gold torcs fit for an Iron Age queen

Ben Edwards, Manchester Metropolitan University

Found by two metal detectorists in a Staffordshire field, the Leekfrith torcs are a spectacular example of late Iron Age jewellery and show just how skilled the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain were in metalwork. But the torcs are not just beautiful and valuable objects, they also help archaeologists understand how Iron Age society worked. The Conversation

Torcs were prehistoric bling, worn around the neck. As rigid pieces of jewellery they would have had to have been bent out of shape to put on and then adjusted once worn. Those found at Leekfrith are a rare and fantastic example of artistic skills that must have taken time and effort to produce – both indicators of their value and high status.

Hordes of torcs have often been found in Britain, with striking recent examples from Stirling in Scotland and Cambridgeshire. These would have been worn by powerful and wealthy men and and women as a symbol of their status. The very existence of torcs tells us a great deal about Iron Age society and how it was organised. For example, that gold torcs are found all over Britain and northern Europe indicates that there was trade between the elites of different regions, as gold sources are quite restricted.

The intricate decoration of torcs often shares certain artistic motifs, usually described as the celtic style and related to the La Tene culture of late Iron Age Europe. As well as objects and art styles moving around Europe, evidence from burials shows that people may have moved from modern France to Britain during the Iron Age – so pre-Roman Europe was a rather connected society.

Highly skilled trade

The skill required to make an intricate piece of jewellery such as a torc is learned over a lifetime of apprenticeship and practice – so it’s unlikely to have been a part-time job. This means that craftspeople would not have had time to farm their own food – the basic way of making a living in the Iron Age – and so they would have had to have been supported by others.

High ranking members of society would probably have ensured that collected food was distributed to the specialists they supported. And these elites may have also been the patrons of the metalworkers that did their goldwork for them. Seen like this, a golden torc on a Staffordshire hillside can reveal a lot about how societies worked and were structured in the past.

Experts often find it difficult to provide an accurate date when singular pieces of metalwork are found – hence the wide date range for the torcs estimated by the British Museum: 400-250 BC. However, we do know that throughout the late Iron Age, people were beginning to live in larger groups at hillfort sites like Danebury and Maiden Castle. Burial sites of very high status individuals have been found who were buried with impressive wealth. There is evidence – for example, at Hengistbury Head, Dorset – of trade between Britain and Mediterranean societies well before the Roman civilisation arrived at these so-called “barbarian” lands.

What this all points to is a society that was run by wealthy and powerful elites who displayed their status through the objects they wore. But the Staffordshire archaeologists have claimed that the Leekfrith torcs were buried on a hillside, with no associated burial or settlement remains – why is this so?

Statue of Queen Boudica who would have worn torcs.

Status symbols

It could be that the torcs were buried for safekeeping in the middle of a tribal war, or there may have been a ritual or religious tradition in the Iron Age to bury valuable items. It’s possible that they were left as gifts for gods or natural deities but these deposits were usually made in watery places – the Battersea Shield and the Waterloo Helmet did not find their way into the River Thames by accident.

There would also have been a social as well as religious reason for this sort of activity – if people see you depositing your valuable jewellery, it is a way of showing your elite status and making others recognise it. The Leekfrith torcs represent a late Iron Age society that saw the rise of wealthy and powerful men and women.

These traditions would eventually give us the great warrior queens of the late Iron Age such as Boudica of the Iceni in Suffolk, who burned Roman Colchester, London and St Albans to the ground, and Cartimandua of the Brigantes in what is now northern England – both at one time feared and respected by the Roman Empire.

Ultimately, activity such as this sent the message that you are so wealthy that you can easily afford to part with four gold torcs – there’s plenty more where they came from.

Ben Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology & Heritage, Department of History, Politics and Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Bones of Iron Age warriors may reveal link between Yorkshire’s ‘spear-people’ and the ancient Gauls

Peter Halkon, University of Hull

Around 150 skeletons buried in 75 graves have been discovered in an Iron Age cemetery near the town of Pocklington in East Riding, Yorkshire, in what is undoubtedly one of the most significant recent finds in Britain. They are the latest discoveries from archaeological sites in the area that reveal a culture whose burial traditions suggest links to the ancient Gaulish people of northern France.

At Pocklington, the most striking of the recent finds is the grave of a young man, probably a warrior, buried with an iron sword between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago. What is remarkable is the presence of five spearheads, whose position shows unequivocally that they had been thrown at the corpse itself. Most of the burials were without grave goods, though one female was buried with a fine brooch similar to examples found on the continent.

There are around 23 so-called “speared corpse” burials in eastern Yorkshire, with between one and 14 spear points found in the grave. Was this the equivalent of a rifle volley fired over a military burial as in modern times? Were the swords thrown into the grave as a mark of respect by fellow warriors? Or might it even represent a Dracula-style impaling after death to prevent the dead from rising?

This tradition of speared corpses, burial in square barrows – a small, square, ditched enclosure surrounding a central grave covered by a low mound – and chariot burials are traditions clustered in eastern Yorkshire with only a few outliers. The closest parallels to the square barrows found in East Yorkshire are in north-eastern France and Belgium. Although there are subtle differences in the form of burial and grave goods, some form of continental link seems undeniable.

The Pocklington speared corpse burial under excavation.
Peter Halkon

These traditions are associated with the ancient people known as the Arras culture, named after Arras Farm near Market Weighton in Yorkshire? where the first archaeological discoveries were made between 1815–17. These 19th-century digs unearthed remarkable finds including chariot burials complete with iron tyres and other metal fittings, and in one case the remains of the two horses used to pull the chariot. They were identified by the diggers as “Ancient British”, thought of as the chariot-fighting Britons described by Julius Caesar.

More chariot burials were found during the 19th century, including one excavated at Beverley nearby by the early archaeologist William Greenwell, and during the 20th century more were found among hundreds of Iron Age burials unearthed around the villages of Garton and Wetwang. These included burials complete with swords in decorated sheaths, and another of a woman buried with a decorated copper alloy canister, an iron mirror, and one of only two pieces of gold found in the region – used to embellish an iron brooch also decorated with coral, probably from the Mediterranean. Perhaps the best example of a chariot burial was excavated in Wetwang village in 2001, which revealed another high-status woman and featured in the BBC’s Meet the Ancestors TV series.

Radiocarbon dating has shown the burials around Wetwang to be clustered around the mid-3rd century BC, with an analysis of various isotopes present in the bones demonstrating that most had been brought up in the region.

The cemetery site at Polkington, showing characteristic square barrows.
MAP Archaeology/PA

Who were the Arras people?

The term Arras culture was coined in the 1940s by Vere Gordon Childe, Abercromby professor of archaeology at Edinburgh University and director of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. Based on the similarities in burial traditions, Childe believed the Arras people had invaded from the Marne area of northern France. Other scholars such as CFC Hawkes saw the Arras culture as one of the waves of invaders who crossed over from continental Europe in later prehistory.

Ian Stead, whose PhD was on these people, undertook many excavations in the 1980s, and his 1991 book Iron Age Cemeteries of East Yorkshire remains the major work on this topic. The similarities in these burials to those on the near continent prompted Stead to conduct excavations in the Champagne and Ardennes regions of France.

The distribution of square barrows, chariot and speared corpse burials suggests some form of regional identity within eastern Yorkshire, and it was this region that 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy wrote of as being inhabited by people known as the Parisi. According to some linguistic scholars, the Old Welsh word for spear is “par”, and so the name of the tribe can be read as “the spear people”. Delgovicia – a settlement mentioned in the Roman Antonine Itinerary as being somewhere east of York – is thought to derive from “delgo”, meaning a thorn or spear, and so could be interpreted as “town of the spear fighters”.

Archaeologists tend to be sceptical about the use of place names in such circumstances, but perhaps this idea should be considered – particularly in light of the spectacular hoard of 33 iron spearheads and five swords in decorated sheaths found at South Cave, 15 miles to the south-east of Pocklington in 2002.

Referred to by Caesar, the Parisii people of what is now northern France who gave their name to the French capital are well known, but links to the Parisi of East Yorkshire are more difficult to prove. Certainly the circumstantial evidence shows continental connections – and perhaps scientific analysis of the remarkably well-preserved Pocklington skeletons may shed light on these ancient connections.

The Conversation

Peter Halkon, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, University of Hull

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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