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[The True Origins of Irish Society Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan
Hard copy of book available from and]

Chapter Six

                 The Iron Age

Summary. Describes the Iron Age in the first millennium BC, it origin in the Middle East, its spread to the Mediterranean lands and into North West Europe. Discusses the spread of the Indo-European language, in particular the Celtic language.


Character of the Iron Age

Cultural Developments in the Iron Age.

Religion and Worship in the Iron Age

 Iron Age in Europe (750 BC to 400AD)

The Celts and the Celtic Language

British Society in the Iron Age

Agriculture and Economy

Iron Age in Ireland


The Pre-Roman Iron Age

Character of the Iron Age

The Iron Age was so called by archaeologists from the remains of iron objects found. This includes most places from about 1000 BC to the present day. But for practical purposes the term is restricted in Europe to the period between the first appearance of iron until the period of the occupation of the region by the Romans which is then called the Roman period. There were many great developments in literature, art, religion, government and conquests in this period of roughly one thousand years that make it one of the greatest epochs in the development of human society. In this period too in Europe we begin to get written descriptions of events. Almost all the events described in the Old Testament took place in this period. It was the period of the prophets, the psalmists, and the Wise Men among the Hebrews. It was the period of the development of democracy and philosophy. Further east it was the period of Buddha and of the earliest Chinese writers like Confucius and the Taoist writers. In Persia and in China the imperial form of government by appointed officials commenced. By the time of Alexander the Great c 333 BC society had taken on the form which it was largely to retain until the great European expansion in the nineteenth century when the use of steam derived from the burning of coal totally transformed human society.

Iron Age in Middle East and Aegean

         The beginning of the Iron Age in the Near East is signalled by the fact  that the Philistines had the knowledge of iron-smithing while the Israelites had not.

         ‘There was not a single smith in the whole land of Israel because the Philistines had reasoned: We must prevent the Hebrews from forging swords or spears. Hence all the Israelites were in the habit of going down to the Philistines to sharpen every ploughshare, axe, mattock, or goad. The price was two thirds of a shekel  for ploughshares and axes, and one third for sharpening mattocks and straightening goads. So it was on the day of the battle of Michmash no one in the whole army with Saul and Jonathan had either sword or spear in his hand except however Saul and his son Jonathan’ (1 Samuel 13. 19-22).

Iron when first discovered was regarded as a precious metal. In Deuteronomy it is  recorded  that Og the king of Bashan had a bed of iron. Obviously the metal was considered precious enough to make a royal bed (Deut. 3.11). But its chief use was soon to be for making weapons and edged tools. The Canaanites too had chariots of iron, and doubtless other iron weapons as  well. The emphasis placed on  iron  shows  how  new  and how valuable it  was. The stories in the Bible illustrate other aspects of the Iron Age as well. It is not clear what advantage it had over bronze in chariot construction. The chariot would probably been made largely of light wood and wicker-work, but with iron pieces to strengthen it.

           There was a great emphasis on warfare, for warfare was endemic. The picture of the divinity too changed from a god of fertility and crops to a God of battles: ‘Yahweh is a warrior; Yahweh is his name. The chariots and the army of Pharaoh he has hurled into the sea’

(Exodus 15.3-4). The third feature was the growing aristocratic nature of society. In the Bible we see a confederation of tribes turning into a small local monarchy with royal officers. Elsewhere the small local monarchies were growing into mighty empires that aimed with greater or lesser success to control the whole Middle East. But the periods when any single power, even the Romans could dominate the whole Middle East were very short.

         The Israelites established a monarchy first under Saul and then under King David around 1000 BC. David’s son Solomon built a great temple in Jerusalem. The kingdom of Israel was able to expand, as often happens, largely because there were no powerful neighbours. Under Solomon’s son Rehoboam the kingdom split in two, the northern part called Israel based on Samaria and the southern part Judah centred on Jerusalem. The biblical literature we possess came mostly from the court and temple of Jerusalem. The hostility between the Jews and Samaritans survives to this day. From the point of view of religion and literature they had tremendous influence in the world, but militarily both kingdoms were negligible.

         The rise and fall of the great empires in the Middle East are recorded in the Bible, first Assyria, then Babylonia, the Medes and Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. Other kingdoms that tried unsuccessfully to become empires were those of Egypt and the Hittites though their power was passed by the beginning of the Iron Age. The  first of the great empires to emerge in the Iron Age was Assyria, and the Arameans of Damascus. Empire is rather a misleading name, for the object of the imperial ruler was to collect tribute. The local rulers were left in place, or a more docile member of the ruling family substituted for a more rebellious one. The military ruler led his army into another state, devastated it and demanded annual tribute. The defeated king had then in addition to join his forces to that of the conqueror. Revolts were regular, as we read in the history of the two Jewish kingdoms. There was a general revolt at the death of each king, and the new king had to re-conquer the empire afresh. This pattern of empire was not confined to the Middle East; we find it in Ireland all through the period of Celtic rule.

‘Ben-hadad, king of Aram (Damascus) mustered his whole army- thirty two kings were with him, and horses and chariots - and went up to lay siege to Samaria and storm it…The king of Israel said summoned all the elders of the land and said ‘You can see clearly how this man intends to ruin us’. All the elders and all the people said ‘Take no notice. Do not consent’ (1 Kings 20.) Anyone in Ireland would have recognised the situation, and the king’s reaction in calling a council of the elders of the people.

Next came the Assyrians. The Assyrian local kingdom was founded in the Bronze Age and its empire commenced about  745 BC. This was the first of the great empires that ruled the Middle East until the fall of the Turkish Empire in AD 1918. By 841 BC they arrived in Palestine and Jehu king of Israel was forced to pay them tribute. Assyrian power declined thereafter and the little kingdoms in Palestine refused to pay tribute. The power of Assyria revived in the following century. After many revolts Sargon the Assyrian emperor brutally suppressed the Kingdom of Israel in 721 BC and dispersed all of the ruling class and the priests of the temple of Samaria to other parts of his empire and gave their lands to loyal subjects from elsewhere. The common people, the tillers of the soil were not removed and from the mixture of various races the people of Samaria was derived. Attacks were continued on the smaller Hebrew kingdom of Judah centred on Jerusalem.

         The Babylonians  were the heirs of the Sumerians  whose traditions  they preserved though they were usually under the  domination of  their northern neighbours the Akkadians  and Assyrians. A short-lived Chaldean empire centred on the city of Babylon on the Euphrates overthrew the Assyrians in  609 BC and lasted until 539 BC when it was  conquered by the Persians, an Indo-European-speaking people. The Babylonians suppressed the kingdom of Judah in 586 BC and transported the ruling classes to the waters of Babylon. 'He carried off all Jerusalem into exile, all the nobles and all the notables; ten thousand of these were exiled with all the blacksmiths and metal workers; only the poorest people of the country were left behind (2 Kings 24.14). In other words he took the local chiefs and all the warriors, craftsmen and smiths. From Ezra 2 we can glean that the leading families and warriors from every village in Judah were taken, and from Jerusalem all the priests, Levites and temple singers, temple servants, and palace servants. All the common people were left. (Though the Bible does not record what the Babylonians did with the lands of the deportees in Nehemiah 5 we find that various families of the Ammonites and Arabs and Philistines were the chiefs of the land, their lands presumably being gifts of the Babylonians for loyalty.)

         The Persians were descendants of the Indo-European conquerors of Persia and their rule lasted from 539 BC until 331 BC. They introduced a new system of government. Native rulers were replaced by provincial governors or satraps, a system of government copied in all succeeding empires. In the Roman Empire satraps were called pro-consuls. The Jews in Babylon were allowed to return to Judah in 538 BC. The Persians were overthrown by the Greek-speaking Alexander the Great in 331 BC. The Greeks were originally invaders from the steppes.

         After the death of Alexander in 323 BC his empire was divided among his generals. The Ptolemids, descendants of Ptolemy ruled in Egypt until the Roman conquest in 30 BC when Cleopatra was conquered and Egypt became a Roman province. Syria and most of the Middle East came under the Seleucids, the descendants of Seleucus, until 63 BC when they were conquered by the Romans. Various kings of the Seleucid dynasty were called Antiochus.  Their capital was called Antioch. The Romans too spoke an Indo-European language, and like the Greeks they too had come from the steppes. The Middle East was thus under the rule of peoples speaking Indo-European languages from 539 BC until the rise of the Arabs  after 632 AD. Greek culture and the Greek language spread all over the Middle East and it was in that language that the New Testament was written. The Old Testament was also translated from the original Hebrew into Greek about 200 BC. When the Romans had conquered the Carthaginians, the Seleucids, and the Ptolemids, the four great  cities of the Empire  were Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Carthage. The ruling classes in the eastern half of the Empire spoke Greek and in the western half Latin. This represented the greatest spread of Indo-European languages and influence until the beginnings of modern times when the kingdoms on the Atlantic coast spread over the entire world. In the Christian period Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch became the seats of ecclesiastical patriarchs, but Carthage did not. Carthage was for a time the centre of the most important group of Latin-speaking churches in the world, but it still looked to Rome for spiritual guidance. The Christian Church in the Latin world was thus unified from the start, while there were different centres of authority in the east. The structure of the Christian Church was derived from the conquests of Alexander the Great on one side and the Roman Republic on the other. 

         The little kingdom of Judah lasted until 586 BC.  Judah was about the size of an Irish province but was more like the traditional city state of the Middle East, an important town with a palace and temple complex in Jerusalem which controlled a district around it. Early Rome and Athens were similar, as were the Italian cities of the Middle Ages. Thereafter Palestine was ruled by various  foreign empires, Babylonians, Persians, Ptolemids and Seleucids, until 163 BC. The Persian king Cyrus permitted those Jews who wished to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple to do so in 537 BC. The leaders of this return and this work was Ezra the Scribe and Nehemiah, the king's cupbearer, himself a Jew. The Jews in Jerusalem were first under the Persians, then the Ptolemids and then later the Seleucids. They achieved a short-lived independence around 164 BC under the Maccabees, but soon came under the Romans.

In 163 BC Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers sought an alliance with the distant Romans and established the independence of the Jewish state under the high priests of the temple. But it was always more or less dependent on the goodwill of the Romans. The views of the Jews at the time of the Maccabees are interesting for they reflect what outsiders thought of the Romans at the time of the Republic.

But where their friends and those who relied on them were concerned they had always stood by their friendship. They had subdued kings far and near, and all who heard their name went in terror of them. One man, if they determined to help him and advance him to a throne would certainly occupy it, while another if they so determined would find himself deposed; their influence was paramount. In spite of all this not one of them had assumed a crown or put on the purple for his own aggrandisement. They had set up a senate where three hundred and twenty councillors deliberated daily, constantly debating how best to regulate public affairs. They entrusted their government to one man for a year at a time with absolute power over their whole empire, and this man was obeyed by all without any envy or jealousy  (1 Maccabees 8.12-18)

There were actually two consuls, and the picture seen by the outsiders was rose-tinted, but it was to prove an enduring ideal.

The Romans  conquered Syria and Palestine in 63 BC and the later kings governed only under the protectorate of the Romans. When the Jews were in exile their language, Hebrew, was replaced by a local language Aramaic as the spoken language of Palestine. Hebrew was used only for worship and religious studies. The common people, for the most part, spoke  their local tongues, Aramaic or Syriac in Syria, and Coptic in Egypt. Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the  spoken language of the Jews. The inscription of the cross of Jesus was written in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. Aramaic was the language Jesus spoke normally, but it is likely that he spoke Greek as well, and that Pilate, the Roman governor, spoke to him in that language. Many Jews spread out over the Middle East and were known as the Jews of the Diaspora. There were many points in the Law of Moses that they could not practice in exile, like the pilgrimages, so allowance had to be made for this. 

         Apart from the great empires there were three rather small groups of cities or tribes in the Eastern Mediterranean who were to play a very important part in the history of the world. The first, the Jews, whose collection of writings are easily accessible, have already been mentioned. The others were the Phoenicians and Greeks.

The Phoenicians were Canaanites who lived in towns on the coast, and who were famous for their ships and their trade. Their most famous towns were Tyre and Sidon, both still in existence. King Solomon asked the assistance of King Hiram of Tyre to get cedar trees from the forests of Lebanon for the building of the temple. The Phoenicians established trading colonies all along the Mediterranean, and on the African and Spanish Atlantic coasts (Cunliffe, Facing the Ocean). The greatest of these was Carthage in Tunisia, which for a time rivalled the Roman republic. They may have come to Britain looking for tin which was found in few places. But it was not essential for them actually to travel to Britain to get tin, for local merchants would have traded it extensively. Tin was absolutely necessary for making bronze.

In the Aegean the iron-using, Greek-speaking Dorians conquered most of the country. Many Greeks fled to the coasts of Asia Minor beginning the great spread of Greek  colonies abroad. From the petty Greek chiefdoms two major states emerged, Athens and Sparta and after 600 BC were dominant in Greece. Greek art and architecture in what was called the Classical period developed and produced some of the greatest works of art in world history. Similarly the speculations of the Greek philosophers of this period laid the ground for all subsequent Western philosophy and patterns of thought. Theatre too was developed and remains a form of artistic expression to this day.

The Greeks as well developed trading colonies along the north coast of the Mediterranean and in the Black Sea. Their most important one was at Syracuse in Sicily. It was founded by people from Corinth, and it fought off attempts by the Carthaginians to capture. A disastrous attempt by the Athenians to conquer it led to military decline of Athens. It was finally conquered by the Romans. In the Western Mediterranean, the most important colony was Marseille situated close to the mouth of the Rhone, which provided a route not only into Northern Europe but also to the Atlantic coast. Greek merchants and geographers were able to collect much information about places, their products, and the best routes to them.

         The period of Greek culture  after the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC) is called Hellenistic. It was not confined to Greece and the western shores of Asia Minor, but spread over most of the Middle East. Greek language, Greek philosophy, Greek art and architecture were to be found everywhere. Though the Romans conquered these, the Greek language and culture remained dominant until the region was conquered by the Mohammedan Arabs in the  eighth century AD.

          All the Jews of the higher  classes would have  spoken Greek but would have been able to read Hebrew. It is not recorded if the text of the Bible that Jesus read was in Hebrew or Greek. It was not translated into Latin until about the fourth century AD. The translation of St Jerome, known as the Vulgate, became the official text of the Latin Church. It became the official Bible for the whole Latin Church, and was the Bible introduced to Ireland by St. Patrick. Traditionally a boy being taught to read and write in a monastery or cathedral school commenced with the first words of the first psalm Beatus vir. The twelve apostles probably all spoke Greek, and Christianity spread  among the  Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora, and  among the Greek colonies throughout the Roman Empire. There was a Greek-speaking community in Rome itself, as well as  in Marseilles.

         When finally Greco-Roman culture reached the British Isles the strands of  development which had parted  company with each other at the beginning of the Bronze Age were re-united. The one strand had spread up through southern Russia and over Central and Northern Europe. The other developed in the Near East and spread along the Mediterranean and up through France.

 The point of this brief tour of the Middle East is that when Christianity was introduced numerous other elements were introduced along with it that had been developed in the Middle East. There was writing, in the Latin language and in a Roman script. There was a body of religious writings concerning the dealing of God with the Hebrew people. There was a history of the Middle East, and the moralising wisdom of that region. Greece contributed philosophy, and Roman contributed law, while the administration of an empire came from the Romans, Greeks, and Persians. When people embraced Christianity they embraced much of the culture of the Middle East and the Mediterranean It should be remembered too that when the Christian Church spread and literacy was spread the almost exclusive reading matter were the books of the Bible and the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church on them. [Top]

Cultural Developments in the Iron Age.

         Writing had become  fairly commonplace in the Near East by 1000 BC so that we have true history for many parts of that region from that date onwards. The Bible, even as a human book, or collection of books, provides an accessible collection of  writings from the period, and the entire history of Palestine, with very few gaps, is recorded for the  entire first millennium BC. For  some reason unknown, those under the Indo-European warlords north of the Alps did not record anything in  writing, and we are  ignorant of  what they knew  and  what  they did.

         There were several major developments in the region  where  writing was common, political organisation  among the Persians, religion among the Hebrews, philosophy among the Greeks,  money among the Lydians, the calendar and law-making  among the Romans. In addition the Greeks brought literature, especially the theatre, and the arts to a peak  which has never been surpassed. Likewise the achievements of the Romans in engineering have only been surpassed in recent  times. 

         As mentioned above, the Persian Empire had  developed  the  system of satrapies or provincial governorships. The  imperial  ruler divided his conquered territories into logical sections  and appointed  governors to each. These were to govern in accordance  with a fixed  and written  code of  laws, to  collect the taxes, and  to maintain order. The  system was eventually taken over by the Romans. As the latter systematically conquered much of Europe, North Africa,  and the Near East, they divided the empire into provinces, (and at a later date dioceses). Roman order, Roman law, and Roman administration had a profound influence on the development of Europe,  and also on the development of the Christian Church. One very important idea was of a unified inhabited  civilised earth, ( the oikumene or inhabited world from whence ecumenical) of  which all men were, or  could become citizens. There were no national boundaries. A Roman  would speak of a 'distant province' not a 'distant country'. The Romans gradually granted the privileges of citizenship in their state to other peoples, first in Italy and then outside Italy. St Paul, a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, was born a Roman citizen, and so had the right to appeal to the emperor from any provincial tribunal. It was also possible to buy citizenship.  Men from Britain to Mesopotamia could share a common citizenship and common interest, speak a common language, be ruled by the same laws, be served by the one army, and worship the same gods, whatever their origin. This was totally different from the rulers of the north who belonged to intermarried families. This idea of a common citizenship of a common empire was to persist until quite modern times. Nobody found it  strange to have an Italian archbishop of Armagh in the Middle Ages, though the local  clergy might not have liked it  much. Nor  did the Pope think it out of the way to appoint Henry of Anjou ruler of Ireland. The same idea of many peoples gathered in  a single Church underlay Christianity as well.        

         Religion developed in Israel. David established  the political monarchy, and his  son Solomon built a great temple as an annex to the palace as was the custom in the Near East. Religious  worship at the  time of Solomon differed  little in most respects from that of  their  neighbours. The  temple could have been built in any town in Palestine, and was probably a fairly close  copy of such a one. The religion of the original amphictyony of the Twelve Tribes had certain characteristics that were to form the  foundation of  future developments. The  first was that it  recognised only one god for  worship. The first of the Ten Commandments was not an expression of monotheism, but the exclusion of the  worship of any other god. The second was its ethical component. The prohibitions were few, simple, but basic, not  to commit adultery, not to steal a man's person or  possessions, not to kill, and not to give false testimony  in  court on a capital charge. Thus the life, liberty, possessions, and  wife of a man were protected. It was believed that God gave these commandments to Moses on the way out of Egypt. In time, all the prescriptions in the five books of the law were assigned to Moses and were known as the Mosaic Law. The  third element was the historic. It was connected, no longer  with the rhythm of the seasons but with specific historical events, the promises  to Abraham, and the rescue  from Egypt. With David a further promise and expectation was added, a future great king who would put everything in the  world to rights. This placed the  emphasis on the  future, an  emphasis  that was  continued in Christianity.

In the  temple religious songs were  composed  and the hundred and fifty songs, traditionally called psalms (songs accompanied on a plucked string instrument like a lyre) form one of the greatest bodies of religious poetry and  songs ever composed. The idea of  God, and the idea of religion  as having primarily a moral  dimension, were  elaborated resulting in an ethical monotheistic religion. The one god was seen as all powerful and omni-present, rewarding the good  and punishing the  wicked, the  sole creator of all things. The prophets,  from Amos onwards, stressed the need for justice and  kindness especially to the poor and afflicted. The  temple  worship was not of  course  an early version of Protestantism. The  rituals of sacrifices of  animals continued. But  when the Jewish leaders were exile to Babylon the worship of God had  to be carried on without a temple  and its rites. The family meal on the eve of the Sabbath and worship in buildings called synagogues formed the basis of  religious  life. This was later to form the basis of Christian and Mohammedan worship.

         It should be noted in passing that the architectural remains of the ancient world show how public life was conducted in the open air. Worship was outside the great temples not inside them. Theatre was in the open air. For shelter buildings with rows of columns but open on one side were built. This kind of building was called a stoa. The Jews adopted the stoa when the temple was re-built, and open colonnades surrounded the great courtyards of the temple. The apostles preached in the stoa of Solomon, which formed part of the temple (Acts 5.12). When Jesus taught in the temple it was not of course within the temple building where only priests could enter, but in the temple courtyards, most likely in one of the stoas which gave shelter from the sun and the rain. Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato in Athens taught in public gardens, doubtless in similar colonnaded shelters. The schools of philosophy continued until the time of Justinian, 529 AD. 

         Diaspora is a word also applied to the expansion of the Greeks outside Greece. The earliest Diaspora was on to the mainland of Asia Minor that came to be called Ionia. Here in the city of Miletus western philosophy began. Thales of Miletus c 580 BC is regarded as the  first to speculate on  what universal principles underlay all things in the universe. Thales  and his disciples, called the Ionian philosophers, are important not for  their  answers but  for the questions  they asked. The great development of philosophy took place in Athens in the heyday of the  city with Socrates, Plato,  and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle were  to have a profound influence on Christian thought.

         Money or  coinage was invented in the rich trading kingdom of Lydia about 600 BC and the idea was  quickly copied by other trading nations. The use of regular  weights of  silver can be seen early in the Bronze Age  when Abraham paid four hundred  shekels of silver to the Hittites of Kiriath Arba for the cave of Machpelah  near Hebron in  which to bury his  wife Sarah (Gen. 23.15). In Israel, the shekel, a unit of  weight of  silver, about half an ounce, became the principal  coin. At the beginning of the Iron Age, as mentioned above, divisions of the shekel and the pim were used for  smaller amounts. With  coinage came also hired labour where the labourer could be  paid with a small coin at the  end of each day (Deut..  24.14-15). The Iron Age saw the gradual spread of the  use of money.

         Ancient law was a blend of  custom, morality, religion and  magic and attempts by magistrates to interpret the  will of the gods. Collections of these rules and  customs were made at an early date. In Babylon, the laws were  codified by Hammurabi in the 18th cent BC. The Mosaic Law in its present  form is a very late collection, but it enshrines earlier  collection such as Exodus chapters 21 to 23 that are earlier and may even be pre-Mosaic.  One characteristic form of the laws was 'If  a man does such-and-such then the penalty is.'

         Roman law was codified about 450 BC and written  down on twelve tablets. This was an attempt to codify and set  down in writing exactly what laws the plebeians were bound by. But it also included  an attempt at rationality and fairness. This was developed by later Roman law-makers  and culminated in the Code of Justinian 483-565 BC. The Code of Justinian had a profound influence on canon law and civil law in most European  countries, and on maritime  and international law. In common law  countries it is taught as civil law for it has  still some applications.

         The original Roman calendar drawn up about the 7th  century BC was a lunar calendar with all the  problems  that involved. There were no clocks, or any devices for measuring time, so the phases of the moon were  convenient.   The gods were often associated  with the planets or wandering stars. They were so-called because   they did not  keep  their  fixed place in the cycle of the heavens. From the point of  view of the ancient astronomers the earth was at the  centre of the universe. What are now geographical expressions, poles, tropics, and equator, were  then astronomical expressions. The poles were  to points round  which the sky, not the earth revolved. But some  stars wandered about all over the place, but in a predictable  fashion, and they were called  planetoi 'wanderers' Among the Romans we  find the sun, the moon,  Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn, among the gods, and  they were further assigned  to the days of the week. The days of the week still mostly retain the same  names in modern European languages. Several of the names of the months are derived from festivals in the Roman calendar.

         The calendar was corrected first by Julius Caesar the Pontifex Maximus, or principal priest of Rome, who made it a solar calendar, and later by Pope Gregory XII in the  sixteenth century. It was  a religious  calendar,  and remains so to this  day. To it was added the date of  Easter. This latter which still controls almost every event in the  world is derived from an attempt in Palestine to tie in a spring festival with a spring full moon. The Babylonian calendar was thus  superimposed on the Roman one, the Roman giving the fixed parts of the  year, and the Babylonian the moveable parts. Finally, when England adopted the Gregorian calendar in  1752 11 days had  to be dropped in England, Ireland,  and Scotland. The Julian calendar allowed the dates of future feast days or holy days when certain rites had to be performed to be computed with great accuracy. The solar year is the time the earth takes to go round the sun. A day is the time the earth takes to spin once on its axis. It takes the earth 365 days 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45.5 seconds to go round the sun. If one takes the hours and minutes as being approximately 6 hours or a quarter of a day, the hour being one twenty fourth of a day,  then a reasonably accurate calendar can be maintained by adding one day every fourth year to take account of the six hours difference. This is what Julius Caesar did, following the advice of the astronomers. It was however adding  12 minutes too much each year that comes to roughly  20 hours in a century. Between the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and 1582 10 days too many  had been added to the calendar and these were dropped by the order of Pope Gregory XIII. To avoid a similar build up three leap day are dropped every four centuries, which will keep the solar and lunar calendars, and the Church festivals in harmony until far into the future. [Top]

Religion and Worship in the Iron Age

         As in dealing with the Bronze Age we are forced largely to conjecture regarding areas where the art of writing had not been developed, and to base our conclusions on written sources in the Middle East and increasingly in southern Europe. The coming of iron brought no great cultural change and trends in the Late Bronze Age were continued. The great megalithic shrines were deserted but other local sites were developed.  Raftery notes that there were four major cult centres in the Iron Age, at Tara in Meath, at Cruachain (Rathcrogan) in Connaught, at Dun Ailinne (Dun Aulin) in Leinster, and at Eamhain Macha (Avan Macha) in Ulster. (There is no similar site in Munster.) As cult sites these may have originated in the Late Bronze period, but most of the buildings whose remains survive are from late in the Iron Age. It is reasonable to assume that the trends in religious worship observed elsewhere in the Iron Age were also found in Ireland and that no great Osiris-type of myth and ritual survived at these shrines. It may be at this time that the idea of a chief over each province, the ri ruirech originated. If such existed his functions would have been purely religious.

         Religion was not connected with morals. Religious beliefs prescribed many things to be done or omitted, but observing a moral code was not among them. Genuine religious feeling existed of the kind mentioned earlier with Jacob at Bethel. But most religion was more practical. As the Romans put it  'Do ut des', ' I give that you may give'. Worship was made that disasters might be averted, or favours like good crops, children or success in battle obtained. Sin was not connected with morality but with offending the gods. A god could be offended by a dog getting in and eating the bread or meat set before the idol.

          In general it may be said that religious beliefs fragmented, and the system that we call polytheism or polydaemonism developed. A different god was ascribed to places where some force or divinity was noticed. Then gods were ascribed to a whole range of natural phenomena such as rivers, wells, or thunder

         There seems to have been a tendency to develop local cults. Gods related to the heavenly bodies seem also to have grown in importance. In Egypt an attempt had been made to replace the old gods with the sole worship of the sun god, but the attempt failed. In Palestine and Syria numerous temples were built, and each contained the image of the god who was worshipped locally. This spread to the Aegean. In Athens, the Parthenon, the most beautiful temple in the world, that of Pallas Athena, the guardian of Athens, known as Parthenos, the Virgin, was built. All these temples had an inner room, or holy place, in which was kept the image of the god or goddess. In the temple in Jerusalem there was no image in the inner cell. The form of Roman temples was derived from Greece. The altar was outside the temple in the courtyard. The worshippers stood outside. Hence the remark of Jesus about Zechariah 'whom you murdered between the temple and the altar'.  Among the Romans we find the sun, the moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn, among the gods, and they were further assigned to the days of the week. The Greeks, Norse, and Hindus, had similar pantheons. Myths became stories told about the gods. In Greece especially the story-telling about the gods seems to have become divorced from all practical religion. In Rome, most of the traditional religious rites seem to have been kept on just as traditional rites. The office of chief priest, the pontifex maximus was politically important, and both Julius and Augustus Caesar secured it for themselves.

         Religious worship, especially in the temples in Canaan, had a high sexual component, though without the corresponding mythology it is hard to say what the rites were for. It is generally considered that they were connected with promoting fertility in man, in animals, and in crops. The religious leaders recorded in the Old Testament constantly rebuked the people of Israel for resorting to these temples. Syncretism or mixing elements of religious worship from various sources was common. Outside the confines of the Near East there seems to have been no connection between sexual acts and religion.

         The Celtic world had no sacred writings. The Romans however found considerable connections with their own beliefs. It would have been strange if they had not for Celts and Romans split from the same stock about a thousand years earlier. Much of the information we have about Celtic religion comes from Julius Caesar's account about Gaul and Britain. In Gaul and Britain at least they had an order of priests called druids, recruited from the aristocracy. Aspirants to the order spent twenty years memorising the religious lore in the form of verses. They regulated all public and private sacrifices, and gave rulings on all religious questions. The religion seems to have been little more than superstition, but without any clear system. Omens were seen everywhere. A bird could scarcely fly past or settle without it being regarded as an omen. The druids do not seem to have had temples, but to have worshipped (or worshipped at) graven images of oak or possibly also carved stones. (It may very well be that the idea of temples never took root among the pastoral nomads of the steppes, and that they always had shamans instead of temple priests.) Caesar noted human sacrifices usually of criminals, but if the numbers were short, innocent people as well. Among known deities in Britain were Sulis the goddess of the hot springs at Bath, Nodens (Nuada of the Silver Hand) in the Forest of Dean, and Brigit or Brigantia in the north among the Brigantes. Celtic religion was one of local gods. A god called Lug or Lugh was widely worshipped, and his name survives in various placenames in Europe. In Ireland he was called Lug Lamfota, Lu of the long hand.

         But religion was an all-pervasive force. The greatest crime was one that would anger the gods. Blasphemy was punished by instant death. The persecutions of the Christians rose from the fact that they refused to worship other gods, and nobody was prepared to risk the consequences. Homer attributed all the disasters of the Trojan War to the anger of an insulted goddess. Rulers of course averted popular anger from themselves by finding a group which had failed in its religious duties. [Top]

Iron Age in Europe (750 BC to 400AD)

         Iron appeared in Italy about 1000 BC shortly after its appearance in the Levant. The first Iron Age culture known in Italy is called the Villanovan. It was closely related to the Hallstatt culture. The Villanovans are believed to have entered northern Italy from Central Europe, but there is no indication that they were Italic speakers. Burials were in urns. Metalwork was of a high order, geometric in style, and showing Greek influences. It existed in Northern Italy between 1000 BC and 750 BC. Various groups of Italic-speakers were found in Italy. Italic is so-called because it was spoken in Italia in Roman times. The spread of the Italic speakers in Italy is as mysterious as the spread of the Celtic speakers in Western Europe. Italy was a relatively poor region though in places, especially in the North, there were some rich soils. It had been undistinguished during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.

         Rome was traditionally founded in 753 BC by Romulus and Remus. It was a small town situated on a hill called later the Capitoline after the capitol or arx, a defensive point on the top of the hill and near a crossing of the river Tiber.The were several other low hills in the vicinity and the ground between them was marshy and unhealthy. The site had no particular advantages and the inhabitants were drawn from the neighbourhood. But at a very early stage the Roman character seems to have been formed with an emphasis on foresight, patience, courage, and a refusal to accept defeat. At first they had ‘kings’ like all other little city states, but after a conquest by the Etruscans and the imposition of Etruscan kings, they threw out the kings and thereafter elected two consuls annually. The Republic was constantly at war, and bit by bit it conquered all the peoples and nations around it. The empire finally extended from Britain to Mesopotamia, and from the Danube to the Sahara.         

         Hallstatt was a Bronze Age site in Central Europe where the people produced salt. But it is chiefly famous as being the place where iron goods in a distinctive style were manufactured about 750 BC.  The Hallstatt style or period extended from 750 to 450 BC. Hallstatt art continued the geometrical patterns of the preceding age. As noted above, at this date Indo-European warriors were probably in control of the region. Hallstatt and La Tene refer to artistic styles and characteristic artefacts. These were made by metal-workers who presumably had no direct connection with warrior tribes. While we have no idea what language the metal-workers spoke, it may have been Celtic, and furthermore these traders could have been responsible for the spread of the Celtic language.

         The Hallstatt phase was followed by the La Tene style or period 450 to 58 BC when the region was conquered by Caesar and Roman influences were introduced. A new and very distinctive curvilinear style based on Mediterranean influences was introduced. It was often called Celtic art based on an misapprehension that the Celtic overlords were responsible for it. La Tene was an archaeological site in Switzerland on the shore of Lake Neuchatel discovered in 1857. Motifs include stylised animal, bird, and human forms, but the most characteristic were the thick-lobed spiral and the trumpet curve. It was developed north of the Alps around 450 BC. The artists adopted and stylised Classical Greek motifs.

         Though characteristic of the Iron Age the art was not confined to metal objects. It is found on bronze and other metal objects, carved on stones, and later, drawn on parchment. Artistic beauty apart, it is chiefly important as a marker of the extent of the spread of certain later Iron Age trends. 

         The La Tene style is also found in the Marne valley in Northern France at an early date. Its presence in western Europe does not of itself indicate the presence of Celtic-speakers. La Tene art developed in specific places ruled by Celtic-speakers, but La Tene art was not typical of the whole area where the Celtic language was spoken. If Celtic names and La Tene art are found together there may be reason to suppose a direct migration or direct conquest. But we can equally well assume that they were borrowed independently and that there is no connection between the inhabitants of Ireland for example and the La Tene Celts of the Marne.  It is better to restrict Celtic to the language, and keep La Tene for the art. Neither makes any assumptions regarding the population. The question too must always be kept in mind whether a generic name like Keltoi (Celti, Galli) or local names like Treveri or Boii refer to all the people or only to the ruling classes.

The name Celtic for the language was derived from the Greek name Keltoi for the dominant peoples in Western Europe. The only conclusion is that the dominant people were speaking that language at that time. Hilaire Belloc remarked that language spreads over a surface like oil and there is no need to assume any movement of population. The spread of the language, in the absence of writings, is more easily traced than the movement of populations. For example, we know that the Celtic language in the form of proto-Indo-European originated on the steppes not later than 3000 BC. Languages have characteristic forms, so philologists can determine for example that the name Bohemia is derived from the Celtic tribe name Boii, though the Slav-speaking Czechs occupied the area by the 6th century AD. [Top]

The Celts and the Celtic Language

          The question of the Celts is a particular case of the wider question of the spread of the Indo-European languages. The same question must be asked, Did the Celts exist as a distinct population, or were they only a part of the existing Bronze Age and Early Iron Age population distinguished only by the language they spoke? If the latter, did the adoption of the language come from conquest in warfare, or was it spread by peaceful means. If there was some movement of the population, such as by bands of warriors, did these amount to more than a tiny minority of the whole population? The fact is that we have no idea. For this reason I have preferred to refer to Iron Age society, agriculture, art, religion etc., and to refer to Celts only when the written historical sources actually mention them, and to Celtic only when referring to the language.

It would be much less confusing if there was a different name for the language as there is for the art. The use of Celtic to refer to a distinct language dates only from 1739 (Mirriam Webster) but we are stuck with the terminology. There is a circularity in the argument. Celtic is the language of the Celts; the Celts are those who speak Celtic. This is as helpful as describing a board as thin plank, and a plank as a thick board. It does not tell us anything. The question of the definition of Celt is discussed at length by Cunliffe. For my part I prefer to keep population and its social composition, ironworkers and art, and the spoken language absolutely distinct, and not to imply any necessary connection between any of them. Obviously this rules out the old idea of an invasion by Celtic warriors wiping out the earlier population.

         We can look for a parallel in the Norman invasion of Ireland. Very few were Normans from Normandy speaking Norman French. Most of them were from England and Wales, but spoke Norman French. Some were Flemings who spoke or understood Norman French.  There were but a handful of them, mostly younger son of the nobility, looking for lands for themselves, but were accompanied by men-at-arms who probably just understood Norman French. They would doubtless later have brought in individuals with special skills like stone cutters to train a local workforce. The common language of communication at first would have been Latin spoken by the clergy of all Western Europe. Within a few centuries in some parts of Ireland, the native Gaelic would have been displaced among all classes, first by Norman French and then by English, all contact with Normandy having long since ceased. A particular town like Dublin could have passed in a few centuries speaking successively, Norse, Gaelic, French, and English. The Normans freely intermarried with the Irish, so that within a few generations, all the major ruling families in Ireland would have been of mixed race. But in some families, French and then English was adopted as the common tongue for speech within the family, while in other families Gaelic would have been the usual language. If the new language was seen as useful for getting on in the world it would have been adopted. Otherwise it would not. In the nineteenth century, Gaelic-speakers were anxious to learn and used English simply because it was more useful for getting employment. If older people could not learn they were anxious that their children would become fluent in the new language.

           We know from Greek written sources that in parts of central and western Europe in contact with Greek merchants various groups whom the Greeks called Keltoi had by 400 BC established themselves as the dominant powers. The Romans in Italy called them Galli.  It is now recognised that the genetic make-up of the population of Europe, though not completely uniform, has not changed significantly since the Glacial period. The speakers of ‘Celtic’ were not different from the Neolithic farmers who themselves were not different from the Palaeolithic hunters. It has long been recognised that they could never have been more than an aristocracy in the lands they conquered (Hubert 30).  They first appeared as a distinct group in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) which is supposed to be named after a ruling clan called the Boii. The use of the war chariot still continued but there is no evidence that this use was confined to Celtic-speakers. The battle of Telamon in 225 BC is the last one on the continent of Europe in which the use of the chariot is recorded.  The British were still using chariots in Britain at the time of Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC. The Celts were by that stage using cavalry. Their chief battle-winning tactic, the massed charge of infantry, was to prove effective in Scotland as late as 1745. But it was also used effectively by peoples like the Zulus well into the nineteenth century. It was a simple strategy relying almost exclusively on intimidation and brute force to break the enemies front. But if the enemies front did not break, and Roman and later British lines did not, the undisciplined mass was likely to turn tail when repulsed.

The great warlike expansion of the Keltoi commenced around 400 BC. The Celtic-speaking warriors conquered northern Italy and in 390 BC sacked Rome. They went down through the Balkans about 360 BC, attacked the Greeks, and fought in Asia Minor The descriptions of them given by the Greek writers could have been applied to any group from central or northern Europe and merely reflected the differences in height, complexion, and bodily hair between the Mediterranean peoples and those of northern and central Europe. These differences dated back to the Ice Age or earlier.

The Celts had no empire. What was done was done by inter-related families speaking a common language and acting in concert. It has been surmised that this spread of the Celts actually occurred after they were driven from their homeland in Central Europe, presumably by Teutonic-speakers. This pressure continued all through the Iron Age and through Roman times. The most famous of these Teutonic invaders were called Franks. The region where the Celtic-speaking warriors became strongest was modern France, then known as Gaul (Latin Gallia or the country of the Gauls; it was later called Franchia or the country of the Franks). It may very well be that as the Celtic-speaking ruling families were dispossessed of their lands in Central Europe they sought to conquer other lands from weaker neighbours to the west and south But it is possible that the westward spread of the Celtic language was peaceful, involved little warfare, and a minimum migration of people. There is evidence too that the migrations of the Celts were as complicated as those of the Teutonic-speakers a thousand years later and that some of the Celtic-speakers who arrived in France were descendants of those who set out eastwards (Cunliffe 86ff). Nor do there seem to be any significant differences between Celtic-speakers and Germanic-speakers.

         What languages were spoken in Europe before the arrival of the Indo-European-speakers we do not know. Nor do we know if those languages were the same as those of the Palaeolithic or Neolithic inhabitants. As Europe was re-peopled from the south the likelihood is that, like Egyptian, they were developed from a Proto-Semitic.

Sources of Information

         There are no written records made in the British Isles before the coming of the Romans. There were no records written in Ireland before the fifth century AD. There are however two sources of written information to amplify and explain archaeological evidence. The first is contemporary and consists of accounts given by Mediterranean writers about their northern neighbours. This includes the accounts by Julius Caesar who spent a considerable time in Gaul and Britain. The other source is accounts written in Ireland and Wales but at a much later date. The latest of these were written in English in the sixteenth century by Englishmen in Ireland.  All modern descriptions of the ‘Celts’ or ‘Celtic Society’ rely on these.

There are two points to be noted about these sources of evidence. The first is that there is a considerable overlap. It would seem that society changed very little over large parts of Europe between 1000BC and 1600 AD (If one counts Russia one could probably extend that to the end of the nineteenth century.)  Descriptions of ‘Celts’ could easily be applied to contemporary Franks or Saxons. The other point is that there are few grounds for believing that a specific account of the ‘Celts’ in one region can be applied everywhere. Specifically we can ask ourselves if the accounts that Caesar gave of northern Gaul and Eastern Britain can be applied to the whole of Scotland and Ireland? On the whole I believe they can for it does not seem that society in northern and western Europe changed very much from the end of the Neolithic period when increasing wealth brought about a more complex social structure. [Top]

The British Isles in the Iron Age (600 BC to 100 AD)

British Society in the Iron Age

         There is no doubt that Celtic tribes or clans in Gaul were to be found also in Britain. (Tribe or clan is taken as referring to the ruling families only, not to the whole population of a region who were always ignored, and who were expected to continue with their everyday non-military work.)  Caesar found that members of the Belgae, as he calls the tribes north of the Seine and Marne, had established a powerful kingdom in the east of England. But these were quite late arrivals. It is assumed but cannot, in the absence of records be proved, that other Gallic tribes had established themselves in England at an earlier date.

Apart from the probable increase in warfare and cattle-raiding, the imposition of their adoption of their language, and the organisation of the higher ranks of society, the Celts possibly affected the cultural development of Britain very little.

          It is not known if Celtic-speakers arrived before or after the introduction of iron, or if they introduced it. If the recorded invasions into Italy are any indication it is probable that there were invasions.   But as we have noted, some people maintain that the spread of the Celtic language was not marked either by migrations or invasions (Cunliffe 270). Neither Celts nor iron were common before the La Tene period i.e. before 450 BC. It is likely therefore that the main expansion of the Celtic language into Britain coincided with its expansion south of the Alps after 400 BC.  Horses and chariots and a broad-bladed slashing sword made originally of bronze, but later of iron were used. The war-like character of the early Iron Age and presumably of the earliest Celtic arrivals should not be exaggerated. The forts and other defences of the early period were quite slight (Collingwood and Myers 22 ff). Most of them date from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC and appear to be a response to wars among the Celtic chiefs themselves. Archaeologists recognise Iron Age cultures in southern England during the Hallstatt period. In the La Tene period a tribe called the Parisii, doubtless the same as that from which Paris derives its name, settled in Yorkshire. Their warriors were buried with their weapons and war chariots as in the La Tene burials on the Marne. The Celtic settlers in Yorkshire were pastoralists and probably cattle-raiders and it is reasonable to assume that here at least we find migratory warriors. The poetic legends of the Celts, later written down in Ireland, may have been originally composed in Yorkshire. Their language spread over the north of England, and into Scotland and Ireland.  Yet the further the Iron Age culture spread the more diluted it became, and at the time of the Roman invasion the north was still virtually in the Bronze Age.

         The Belgae had provided the toughest resistance to Julius Caesar in France, and he crossed to Britain to subdue their relatives there as well, and to show they were not outside the reach of Roman arms. They were in touch with the latest developments on the Continent, and had the wheeled plough, towns, pottery made on a wheel, and coinage. As usual, it is impossible to say if they brought them, or they arrived independently. They were however characteristic of the regions occupied by the Belgae.

         The name of the Celtic tribes in the British Isles as a whole was Pretani (later in Gaelic Cruithin). The form Britanni was given by Caesar and has been followed ever since (Collingwood and Myers 31). 

         The social organisation was much more complex than in the Bronze Age not only in the more developed states of the Near East, but also in the tribal societies north of the Alps. Society was definitely aristocratic with overlords ruling a race of farmers and craftsmen. This is sometimes referred to as Celtic society, but the social arrangements differed little whether the overlords spoke Celtic or Teutonic. Roman society too in the days of the Republic had much in common with societies north of the Alps.

         According to Caesar, the Celts originally had kings, but in Gaul in his time these had largely been supplanted by magistrates who ruled with the aristocracy. This was not universal, and many tribes had chiefs. Those who elected magistrates were clearly copying the Romans (Cunliffe 232). Magistrates were largely non-sacred figures elected for periods of time. Under them came the nobles among whom were included the priests. The priests or druids were concerned with the worship of the gods and also decided nearly all private and public disputes (ibid); the nobles did nothing but fight and this they did every year (Ross 44 ff). Strabo distinguishes between druids, bards, and vates. The bards were the singers and poets, and the vates were the interpreters of sacrifices and the keepers of natural knowledge, while the druids studied the science of nature and moral philosophy (ibid). The moral philosophy was unlikely to be an Aristotelian study of ethics, but moralising after the nature of the Book of Proverbs and similar Egyptian works. According to Caesar the druidism of his time was first developed in Britain, and had there its chiefs centres, and from there spread to Gaul (Raftery).   Beneath them were the free landowners, and the same status was assigned to the smiths and other craftsmen. These three grades were the only ones that really counted. The Romans brought their own religion, and also some cults from the Middle East.

The religion brought with them by the invading Celts or adapted by them from that of the older inhabitants persisted throughout the Roman occupation. Among the gods were Nodens, found also in Ireland as Nuada of the Silver Hand, and Brigant who seems to be the same as Brigid. But in general there was no group of great gods, but numerous local cults of local gods. The Celtic-speakers were inclined not to name their gods but to refer to them indirectly as 'the shining one' or 'the kindly one' in the same way as the Jews referred to 'the Lord'.

Below the three grades referred to were those without any property of their own, who had no legal rights, and were not allowed to bear arms. These corresponded to the plebs in the early days of the Roman state. Its members comprised those who had lost their property, conquered peoples, and strangers. They were often in debt to the nobles or rich landowners often brought down by heavy taxes or other injustices. Beneath them were slaves. Caesar remarked that the common people were little above the level of slaves. As Cunliffe notes, Gaulish society was probably more complex than Caesar’s brief description would indicate (Cunliffe 107). But Caesar’s observation that there were only three classes who counted is probably as true of Gaul and Britain as it was of Rome.

         We can assume that each chief had menial workers attached to his household who had a right to shelter, clothing, and meals as long as they worked or until their death, who were never paid otherwise. But technically they would have been free servants not slaves. There had to be cooks, butchers, bakers, brewers, seamstresses, spinners, weavers, and so on. Alternatively these could have been of the cottier class, bound to services, but given land on which to support themselves.  These were the people who actually worked, who produced the things that sustained life, yet they were treated with contempt. At the time of Caesar they probably comprised the bulk of the population. By the end of the Middle Ages in Ireland they had probably fallen considerably as a proportion of the population as all the land was seized by the relatives of the chiefs. But they still had to do most of the work and pay most of the taxes. As the first of the prophets Amos said,

         Listen to this, you who trample on the needy,

 and try to suppress the poor people of the country’

you who say ‘When will the New Moon be over

so that we can sell our corn

and sabbath so that we can market our wheat?

Then by lowering the bushel, raising the shekel

By swindling and tampering with the scales

We can buy up the poor for money

And the needy for a pair of sandals

And get a price even for the sweepings of the wheat

 (Amos 8.4-6)

         As among the Romans clientship was very important. The lesser man had no real defence except through the protection of a greater man. Nor could he effectively put his case in higher courts unless the greater man undertook it. For his part he had to give unconditional support to his patron.  The patron gained in prestige from the number of clients he had. Greater chiefs took lesser chiefs as clients. This was a personal bond between the greater chief and the client chief, and would have had to be renewed as each chief, greater or lesser took office. It was not a permanent subordination of one tribe to another, and the lesser chiefs could when useful seek the protection of another powerful chief (Cunliffe I, 108)

         Warfare was the chief occupation of the members of the noble classes and they fought among themselves every year. Basic to life of these warrior elites was the raid, or cattle-raid, in Ireland called the tain (toyne). The raid was the means by which an aspiring warrior chief could attract followers and reward those followers. The rewards would have been prestige goods like gold ornaments but also women, slaves and an abundance of alcoholic drink. The Celtic chiefs especially liked wine. A successful raid could also conquer a weak neighbouring tribe and provide land and serfs to work it. (Cunliffe, I, 74, 88 ff). These raids would return to their home base at the end of the summer. There seems also to have been organised bodies of what were later called mercenaries who enrolled themselves under a chief and could set out for distant parts, for example, from the Marne into Italy (ibid.) Thirdly there were the cases when the entire population of a region decided to move elsewhere to conquer and occupy larger territories or more fertile lands. The classical example of this was the migration of the Helvetii blocked by Julius Caesar. 

         In Britain, though never in Ireland, the latest invading Celts, the Belgae, followed the current practice on the Continent, and formed villages and large towns, and adopted the use of money.

         During the period of the Roman occupation the history, the manufactures, the customs of the rulers, the townspeople, and the upper classes were those of the Romans. The Romans brutally suppressed the tribal system with its constant warfare and imposed it own rules and systems of administration and of laws derived from the city-states and empires of the Middle East. Yet most of the people were little affected by Roman ways. Unlike in France, the Latin language never struck a firm root, and as the Romans withdrew it re-asserted itself. Southern England was most like France and this became the most Romanised part of the country. Wales was the great mining area and was heavily militarised, two legions being stationed there permanently. Mining was not confined to Wales. Lead was the chief metal dug up, but though the Romans made extensive use of lead, the associated silver was more prized. Roman influence was thin over much of the midlands and the north.

          The Romans made one attempt to conquer Scotland and none to conquer Ireland probably because there was nothing in either place worth stealing. Neither had any resources of minerals worth mining, or fertile lands worth cultivating. The cultivation would have had to be sufficiently profitable to allow of the heavy taxation necessary to support the army and the civil administration. Both these areas were really still in the Bronze Age though there was some use of iron. Though there had been a highly developed agriculture in the Bronze Age, it does not follow that the high standards were maintained in the Iron Age. Southern and eastern Scotland was not worth the cost of maintaining garrisons for the sake of barley alone. This could always be bought at Hadrian’s Wall. But the quantities carried by pack ponies would not have been large.

Though the Roman frontiers along Hadrian's Wall, and by sea along the length of the Irish Sea were well guarded against raiding parties, they were not closed. Merchants crossed them continually. So too probably did those visiting relatives even if their weapons had to be put aside when in the area of Roman administration. Numbers doubtless from Ireland and Scotland would have joined the Roman army, and either settled within the Empire after their service was finished or returned home. The building of Hadrian’s Wall 122 t0 128 AD can be considered as marking the ending of the conquest and the beginning of the Romanisation of British society. [Top]        

Agriculture and Economy

          In this period the whole of the British Isles can be treated as a unit. Unlike in previous periods where we were entirely dependent of material remains found by archaeologists, for this period we have various literary sources. Once again the name of the period is derived from a typical artefact found in excavations with no implication that it was in common use. Hallstatt ironwork has been found dating from 600 BC but such finds are rare. Similarly the period from 400 BC is often called the Celtic period because it was then that the Celtic-speaking warlords spread over most of western Europe and established their over-lordships.

         The economy of the Iron Age was a simple continuation of that of the Bronze Age. The climate was that of the Sub-Atlantic Period which is given as being from c 750 BC to 200 AD. In this period the climate though getting wetter due to the influx of Atlantic winds was also getting warmer reaching an optimum in Roman times. Agriculture, including tillage and stock-rearing, was far and away the most important economic activity. Vines could be grown outdoors in Britain from the Roman period until the end of the Middle Ages though over-all temperatures were slowly falling (King 18 ff). (This improvement in temperatures in northern Europe led to growing densities of population in the Teutonic-speaking regions, which were to have major repercussions on Britain and Ireland.) Farmers could now have their ploughshares, mattocks, axes, sickles, and goads made from the superior metal. An interesting experiment was carried out in England to reconstruct an Iron Age farm and live in it for a period and try various experiments (Reynolds). For cows they used the Dexter (derived from the Kerry), small, very hardy and able to survive outdoor on poor pasture, but handy as a draught animal and giving a useful amount of milk. The actual Iron Age cows were like the Kerry and the Highland. They got a pig by crossing a Tamworth with a wild boar and got a small rangy beast, fleet, and almost impossible to contain. The actual pig in the Iron Age was somewhat smaller. They were hairy and lean; fatness was a trait introduced much later from China. For the sheep they used the Soay. This gave a kilo of wool a year, but were almost impossible to control. Goats proved more amenable, gave abundant milk, and ate the weeds left by other animals. The Exmoor pony they regarded as being nearest the typical horse. The native horse may have been hunted to extinction in the preceding ages, and the new breeds imported from the Continent. (Henson pp 4 ff)

         The ard plough needed to be tipped with stone or metal, and proved very effective. It consisted basically of three pieces of wood joined together with pegs. The first piece lay flat on the ground, was pointed at the front, and the point or share tipped with metal. Two curved beams were attached. One curved forward and to this the yoke of the oxen was attached. The second curved backwards forming a handle the ploughman could hold. (There were all kinds of variations of this simple model, a prime consideration being the need for the ploughman to be able to raise or lower the depth of ploughing.)  It was effective on light soils, and could turn and mix the soil to some depth. Just before the arrival of the Romans, an improved plough with a coulter, seem to have been brought into southern England, and to have been commonly used in Roman times. The coulter was a vertical blade of metal in front of the ploughshare. This could cut through the sod. The share or the beam of which it was part could be given small wings to made a wider cut. There was no mould board to turn the sod, so a man had to follow the plough with a mattock to break up the sod. The coulter plough required a larger team of oxen, but could be used on heavier soils. The Romans probably introduced a primitive form of harrow. The hand-held spades, hoes, sickles, and mattocks from the Neolithic Period continued in everyday use.

The crops sown were barley, wheat, and oats. The grain was threshed on the barn floor. The chaff and weed seeds were burned. The wheat varieties used were emmer and spelt. These are bearded wheats whose protein content is twice as high as in modern wheats. They were difficult to thresh. In reaping it was often easier to break off the heads than to use a sickle for the stalks were very uneven in length. Other Iron Age crops were beans, vetch, and flax both for linen cloth and for oil. Storage was in pits lined with clay. In these grain with a moisture content of 16% could be safely stored, and would germinate easily afterwards.

The houses were circular, constructed of posts set in the ground, which were interlaced with wattle of split hazel plastered with mud. The conical roof was constructed in a similar manner, and thatched with straw or reeds (Reynolds passim)  

         The farms at the time would have belonged to a four-generation extended family, and so would have been quite large. Names like Ballymac (the homestead of the sons of) indicated the plurality of ownership. Indeed, in Ireland the farm and the townland were probably the same thing. Ownership of the tilled soil would have been allodial, i.e. the absolute possession of those who lived on it and tilled it. There would have been no question of holding from another. But as probably less than a quarter of the land was tilled the great forests and moors would have been open range for each farming family.  As the chief was able to give cattle to those who did not have them it is clear that the number of cattle each family was allowed to browse and graze in the wild was strictly controlled. Especially in the west and north the economy would have been largely pastoral.

         Cattle-raiding and crop-burning were endemic, and the peasantry had no means of defending themselves, so a strict look-out would have to be kept at the appropriate times of the year for any signs of the advancing foe, or any signs of burning houses or crops. Cows were the easiest for the raiders to drive away. They were also the easiest to conceal in the woods as the raiding party, unless very numerous, would not split itself up very much to search for the cattle. Most grain would have been kept in dispersed and concealed stores. The feelings and the losses of the lower orders were never considered.

         Coinage was introduced to Britain by the last of the Celtic invaders, the Belgae, about 100 BC.

          The Romans brought improved livestock, the most influential being the long-woolled large sheep. Crosses with the Soay could have resulted in breeds like the Cheviot while the Lincoln long-wool, and the Leicester would have been more direct descendants. The British cloth industry developed from these improved breeds. They also brought in improved breeds of goats that were kept for milk (Henson 7 ff). The production of grain was greatly increased as it was the staple food of the Roman army. Half the crop could have been taken as a tax. The villa estates were vast commercial enterprises. The Romans also introduced cats and hens. [Top] 

Iron Age in Ireland (600 BC to 100 AD)

Material Remains: the Evidence of Archaeology

         There is a great problem connected with writing about this phase of Irish history and this is the dearth of sources. Earlier historians drew largely on myths and legends. Later historians extrapolated from writings about the British and Continental Iron Ages, or from Irish writings of a later period. But Barry Raftery sub-titled his book on the period in Ireland, ‘The Enigma of the Irish Iron Age’. He points out that while there are considerable archaeological remains, their interpretation is in conflict with conclusions from philology, early Irish history, tradition, and folklore. As Raftery says, just at the onset of the Iron Age in Ireland the country slipped into a Dark Age. He notes that it is almost heretical to insist that a Celtic invasion of Ireland never happened (Raftery, p228). Yet if the Celts never came what value is there in quoting from writings about other Celts? The answer perhaps is, as I have suggested before, that there was a common culture among all the peoples of North Western Europe, so in general it would not matter if descriptions were made of Celts, Germans, or Vikings. The variation would only be in the details, the shape of houses or swords, the names of the gods, and such like.

The first appearances of the use of iron in Ireland was in the was in the Hallstatt period but very few remains survive from then. Even later there was very little of it. Bronze continued to be the common metal. The name Iron Age in Ireland is something of a misnomer, for very little iron was used or survived. Nor is there evidence that the working of iron was known in this period. We know almost nothing about life in the early Iron Age in Ireland, or about the arrival of the Celts or if they ever came. Nothing was written down until several centuries later. We try to draw conclusions from these later writings, and from the writings of Julius Caesar who wrote about Gaul and Britain in his time. It is impossible to say if the use of iron pre-dated the coming of the Celtic language.

         Some places like Eamhain Macha continued in use from the late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age. Crannogs too continued to be inhabited, and because timber submerged in water is more likely to survive, they provide much of the evidence for the period. Bronze swords but with Hallstatt designs have been discovered as isolated finds.

          There was no connection between the hoard of the Dowris period which may have lasted until 400 BC and the undoubted La Tene objects which can be dated provisionally between 100 BC and 100 AD (Raftery 36) The assumption is that the art of the Dowris period had stopped before the arrival of La Tene patterns. But there is little evidence regarding what happened. A climatic change with lower temperatures and heavier rain could cause a heavy leaching of the soil, loss of fertility and de-population. (This supposes that the rainfall in the Sub-Atlantic period increased before average temperatures rose, which is not unreasonable to suppose.). The rapid regeneration of forests would indicate a rapidly falling population.

         Raftery noted that the hill forts must be dated to the Late Bronze Age. On the other hand the four sacred sites or royal sites he identifies as Tara in Meath, Cruachain, in Connaught, Dun Ailinne in central Leinster, and Eamhain Macha in Ulster, all four in the northern half of the country and outside the region of the hill forts, show traces of use from the Bronze through the Iron Age. Tara and Cruachain are more clearly burial sites. The other two, like Tara, have a boundary wall with an internal ditch. They are consequently not defensive positions, and more probably sacred sites. At Eamhain Macha in the Iron Age, in the final phase of occupation, there was what seems to have been a large circular hut or temple that can be dated accurately to 95/94BC. It was not used but was immediately covered by a cairn. Even if all four sites are sacred ones, there is no need to concludes they were not royal ones as well for powerful chiefs would associate themselves with famous shrines. We know the O’Neills, in the early Middle Ages, made great efforts to control Armagh, though the site itself was always outside their territories and in the lands of the Orghialla (Oriel) tribes.

         Raftery sees their purpose as sacred sites connected especially with royal inaugurations and royal rites to ensure fertility. Such rites did not necessarily include sexual acts but may have done (Raftery 80). As in Greece, the sacred sites were associated with games or oenachs. The royal fort or palace would have been built on the mensal lands of the chief, not beside the shrine. How Eamhain Macha became transformed into a royal residence and connected with the 'Warriors of the Red Branch' in the very much later stories is a mystery.

         The linear earthworks which run across south Ulster date from the Iron Age, and one of them, the Dorsey, in Co. Armagh, can be dated to 95 BC.  Other earthworks are dated some centuries earlier. There is no indications that the line was ever continuous, or that the various parts were contemporaneous. A strange peculiarity is that when situated on a slope, the ditch is on the up-hill side of the wall. However the main purpose may have been to prevent the driving away of cattle. But there are stretches of dry land where the ditches are absent.

         Though finds of Iron Age horse bits are numerous there have been no finds of chariots. Though this is no proof that there were none in Ireland it is no argument either that there were. If the climate was sufficiently cold and wet, as we have supposed above, the soil most of the time would have been too wet to use chariots effectively. If a chariot got bogged down it would provoke more mirth than terror. Undersoil drainage scarcely existed before 1850. All movements of troops virtually came to an end in winter. The infrequent winter campaigns in the historical period occurred in times of hard and prolonged frost. 

         Tillage seems to have declined, while the growth of bogs and forests increased (Bellamy 124f). As noted earlier the low point in temperature reached in the Late Bronze period was reversed. The Sub-Atlantic Period in general was both wetter and warmer than in the Late Bronze Age. It was ideal for growing bogs. Settlements, at least from Roman times (after 44 AD) could be placed higher up hillsides than would be comfortable nowadays. What is now a heather-covered mountain glen could well have been a grassy valley. The ard plough was still in use, but the rotary quern had replaced the saddle quern. These latter however are found only in the northern half of the country. There are no certain traces of field systems. Cattle-raising had become, and was long to remain, the dominant agricultural pursuit. As in Britain cattle and horses were small. Raftery comments on the small size of horses bits, which indicate that the ponies or horses were scarcely larger than modern Shetland ponies.

         There were wheeled vehicles drawn by oxen. Only light carts would have been drawn by horses because a harness that did not throttle the horse was not invented in the West until much later. There are few remains of boats from this period. Similarly traces of houses, farms, and graves are few. Few grave goods were found in those graves that were excavated. What have survived are objects belonging to the rich warrior class. Some metal cauldrons survive but far fewer than from the Bronze Age. Pottery is almost non-existent, so most vessels must have been made of wood.

         Many of the artistic metal objects found, as in the Broighter hoard, are of foreign manufacture, but some high quality native work has been found, mostly in bronze that survives better. Iron smithing was added to the other skills in metalwork. Elaborately carved stones, including human figures, from this period survive. The ornamentation in the La Tene style displays great beauty and high technical competence. All the finds in the La Tene style are from the northern half of the island. The full repertoire of La Tene motifs is not found in Ireland indicating that the Irish had no direct knowledge of the Continental originals.

           Trade, almost by definition, was trade in luxuries, and that included salt. Ireland was not like the Roman Empire where there was a vast trade in cereals and other bulk cargoes. Only the rich could afford wines. Fine textiles were also probably imported.  Tin also for making bronze. Like most northern regions the exports would have consisted of  'forest products' of which furs and pelts would have been the most important. Hides for making leather was always a great staple of trade from underdeveloped areas, it being the chief part of the animal that could be transported. But Irish hunting dogs were valued, and St Patrick escaped when he fell in with a merchant shipping these. They may have resembled the traditional Irish wolf-hound. Gold could no longer been important or the Romans would have invaded.

         The Irish Sea narrows at four points, the Mull of Kintyre, the Mull of Galloway, Anglesey-Lleyn peninsula, and St David's Head. The shortest are the two northern crossings, and to this day the local accents on either side of the crossing are closely linked. But the main crossing point in Roman times for traders from Britain and the continent was between St David's Head and the river mouths of Waterford and Wexford. Command of the headlands and their nearest ports of shelter allowed the exaction of tribute. The tribute would be exacted in the first instance by the local ruler or petty chief, who would have to pass on the bulk of it to his overlord. In the Middle Ages the great lords from the interior always sought a direct access to the coast for themselves, and it has often been remarked that all the diocese in Ireland touch at some point on the sea-coast or the bank of a navigable river leading to the sea. The import of wine was essential for the Church, but the wine trade long ante-dates the coming of Christianity

         Similarly in the period of slave-raiding, the great overlords would have taken the lead, but those on the coasts would have been obliged to supply the shipping. They would also have been obliged to re-capture runaway slaves or captives. Wherever St Patrick was held captive his best plan of escape would have been to flee inland and cross to the opposite coast, and after several years of captivity would have been prepared for this. But he still would have had to bribe his way past the borders of every small kingdom unless he by-passed them by keeping to the woods. The robbers in the woods and the slave traders, as in the Deep South in America, would have had an equal interest in betraying him. On the other hand there was likely to be groups of travellers, smiths, merchants, and entertainers moving from place to place, so he may have been sheltered by such a group.

         As far as possible, outside the Roman Empire, people travelled by boat inland. Roads existed and were maintained, but by a 'road' was meant a cutting through the forests. In medieval England there was a law compelling people of the parish to cut back woods and undergrowth in a wide band on each side of the major roads as a protection against robbers. Roads, where they existed, would have been always closely watched and guarded. The territory of each tribal chief, the tuath, would have been protected as far as possible by a belt of forest. The original tuaths were  tiny with up to perhaps  twenty for each modern  county. Even  if there was a reversion  to  slash-and-burn agriculture care  would  have been taken to protect the  forest barriers. These were  also necessary for the grazing of  cattle, and for the granting of licences to graze so many cattle. It was therefore in the interest of the war-lords to keep the forests as  extensive as possible, and  to prevent random clearances. Nevertheless, as the population began to grow the chiefs probably could not,  as elsewhere in Europe, entirely prevent assarting, the clearances of small patches of the forest for tillage. What started as a tiny and almost invisible patch of clearance could become after some years quite a large patch which nobody would admit owning. The war chiefs  would only allow one set of  robbers in their territory,  themselves. So a merchant or other traveller would have to bestow a 'gift' on each petty chief. St Patrick remarked on the amount of  gifts he had  to pay out, but the gifts in his case would  probably have  covered rights of  settlement and freedom to preach. No gift, no licence.

         The four great cultic sites dated by Raftery to the Late Bronze Age seem to have continued in use. Trees used in building the great wooden temple at Navan Fort have been dated to 95/94 BC. (There may at one time have been  the rath of a chief at Navan Fort or even an oppidum like those of the Belgae, but this is speculative. (Connection with the Red Branch knights and Cuchullan is mythical.) Many of the earthworks at Tara may belong to the Iron Age., but if  there was any truth at all in the legends of the meeting of St. Patrick and the high king at Tara it could only be because the latter was there for religious purposes. (Raftery passim).

         Various linear earthworks have been dated to the pre-Christian Iron Age. Their purpose seems to have been to control traffic and cattle-raiding along particular routes. They are also found in England. Charcoal dating puts them between 490 BC and 30 BC. (ibid.)

         The Iron Age in Ireland is, as we have noted, the Dark Age. Apart  from the  fact that some very skilled craftsmen were  there we know very little about the period. Tillage was in decline; the art of pottery-making disappeared. It may be  that the population fell sharply Most utensils were made of wood or  leather. Houses were insubstantial; no elaborate  graves  were made. In some parts of the north much effort was put into building elaborate defences, and there were a few other works of  construction which required great labour  and  skill. As these were  few in number, it is assumed  that  they had some  connection  with worship. The forests and bogs regenerated. 

         After the year 300 AD. there seem to have been various changes, the most notable of  these being the  revival of  agriculture. The long  period of  decline came  to an end and  signs of  tillage re-appear. Why this was  so is unclear. There was no noticeable  change in  climate  for the  rate of bog increase was unchanged. Nor  is there any signs of a decrease in warfare.  It is  thought that  the difference was made by the introduction of the plough with  the  coulter drawn by ox-teams, This  would have allowed the  farmers to plough deeper and draw up minerals  from a lower level, as much as nine inches. The sour acid  soil that favoured the  growth of heathers  and birches would have been ploughed  again. Even in the  fallow periods trees other  than  birch could thrive. Some soils in Ireland are  permanently fertile, but there are many soils which need long  fallows and indeed become  so  exhausted that they return to wasteland and are  reclaimed periodically. Such are the  heavy clay soils in south Louth which were reclaimed by the Cistercians in the Middle Ages, and reclaimed again in the  18th  century by Baron Foster who spread vast quantities of lime to counteract the acidity. By this  time iron was quite  common, displacing the bronze tools. 

Iron Age History in Ireland

         Archaeology is the science of the interpretation of material remains; history the interpretation of written records. The written records regarding Ireland in this period were those of foreigners often writing at second or third hand. Native Irish writings were derived from oral traditions that were not committed to writing until after several hundred years and often contain more information about the time they were written than the time  supposedly written about. The trouble about depending on later writings and traditions is that they too may have been imported. Travelling minstrels and poets could have brought their tales with them. There is no reason at all to assume that the tales of Cuchullan and the chariot warfare it describes originated in Ireland. Indeed we know from later studies of written Lives of the Saints, for example, that incidents could migrate from story to story all over Western Europe. There is little likelihood that there ever was chariot warfare in Ireland itself.

         Almost nothing is known of the history of this period, however much archaeology can tell us of the material culture. The major question is with regard to conjectures when and how the people of Ireland came to be speaking a Celtic language. There is no consensus regarding the time the Celtic language arrived. Cunliffe considers that a form of Celtic was being spoken in Ireland by at least 500 BC. It is unlikely that Celtic was spoken in Ireland before the expansion of the Celts after 400 BC. Raftery seems to prefer a date in the La Tene period , three or four hundred years later. As noted earlier Roman writers do no refer to a distinct language from British spoken in Ireland in their time. This  obscure period of the Irish Iron Age (600 BC to 500 AD) is   the most likely time to date the arrival of Celtic language. There is nothing in the archaeological record at this  time or  any other  time to indicate the  time of  their arrival. It was once assumed  that the presence of La Tene material indicated the presence of Celtic-speakers. But in Ireland most of the La Tene objects were manufactured in Ireland and  clearly not imported, or  brought in by invaders. The only certain fact is that when writing was introduced to Ireland in the fifth and sixth centuries, a Celtic language similar to that in Britain was spoken. There is no need to assume that this language was spoken before the Roman period in Britain, and indeed British warriors fleeing the Romans could have introduced it. Or even by British traders and merchants in the Roman period.. The place names recorded by Ptolemy (around AD 140) are in the form of P-Celtic. So it is reasonable to assume that some people at least in the places where the merchants traded spoke Celtic. We can assume that Celtic was spoken in at least eastern parts from 100 AD.

 The  consensus now is  that, if warriors did come,  they were few in numbers, possibly not more  than  some boat-loads, who  conquered  the island. If they did come they would have come from the Welsh and Scottish coasts opposite. The chances are that there had been inter-marriage between both sides of the Irish Sea, for centuries if not millennia, and that British would have thus been spoken all along the east coast of Ireland. Contrary to what used  to be held, they spoke the same P-Celtic language that  was  spoken in Britain  and on the Continent. The  change to the Q form occurred in Ireland. There is  the rather peculiar  fact  that La Tene objects are not  found in Munster. In the historical period Munster was as much Celtic-speaking as  any other part of Ireland. It is clear that the connection of Ireland with ‘Celtic’ warriors or ‘Celtic’ culture is tenuous in the extreme.

With regard  to the language  spoken before the arrival of the Celts, the rather remarkable connection between Gaelic  and North African languages like Coptic (Egyptian) would seem to indicate that a Semitic or Hamitic  language had  survived in Ireland to that  date. As  there were no major invasions since the  first entry of the Neolithic farmers this would not be  surprising (de Paor, Peoples of Ireland 37f).



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.