Iron Age Norfolk

Around 800 BC to AD 61 

The term Iron Age is used to describe the period in prehistory when people were using weapons and tools made out of iron.

Iron had many advantages over bronze and the technology of iron working spread rapidly throughout the period. The processes of the production of iron leave little trace and few iron smelting furnaces have been found. Examples are known at East Winch (NHER 12559) and Silfield (NHER 25887). The earliest iron working site in the country is at Aldeby (NHER 34099). Other signs of iron working, such as slag (waste) can be found more widely but were often moved from where the process actually took place. Bronze continued to be used during the period, especially for ceremonial or decorative objects but iron became the predominant material. The raw materials for making iron - iron ore and charcoal could be found widely across Britain and were available in Norfolk from gravel and greensand deposits in the west of the county.

Little is known about settlements in the Iron Age. Excavations have revealed small farmsteads, similar to those from the Bronze Age, and these are often indicated only by ditches, pits and postholes. One of the earliest excavated Iron Age settlements is at West Harling (NHER 6019). This small farmstead was built before 600 BC on a small knoll overlooking the River Thet. A circular bank and shallow ditch with two causeways allowing access enclose a series of pits and post holes. Several buildings have been recorded inside the enclosure. Most of these were circular, although one example is rectangular. All the buildings were made out of wood. The people who lived at West Harling herded cows and sheep, grew wheat and hunted wild pigs, red deer, crane and the beaver. They made their own pottery and produced their own cloth on looms. Iron Age Britain was a land of farms and small villages just like that at West Harling; however a big change took place in the Late Iron Age when the first towns developed. These settlements, called oppida, were areas where people lived, worked, worshipped and made things. Often these different functions were carried out in different parts of the site. Defensive earthworks and ditches have been identified around some of these sites. Possible Iron Age oppida sites have been identified in Norfolk at Caistor St Edmund, Thetford, and Saham Toney (NHER 4697). In other parts of the Norfolk landscape settlement was spread across the countryside with no defences. Few large monuments or forts were built. Some large enclosures have been identified in the northwest of the county (for example at Warham Camp (NHER 1828), North Creake and Massingham) but there is very little evidence for domestic activity within them. They may have just been seasonal meeting places or cattle or horse corrals. This lack of defended settlements is unusual compared to other parts of the country where large hill forts with roundhouses inside them are relatively common. It may suggest people in Iron Age Norfolk lived relatively peaceful lives.

The people of Iron Age Britain probably lived in family groups and would have been part of wider local groups, similar to modern villages or parishes. These local groups may have been part of a larger network of people with similar cultures, religions and beliefs called tribes. When the Romans invaded Britain they recorded the names of some of these tribes. The Iceni tribe lived in Norfolk, north Suffolk and northeast Cambridgeshire. One of the most famous Iron Age people - Boudica (or Boudicca or Boudicea) was a member of the Iceni tribe. Within the local groups and the wider tribe some people had more power than others. This stratified society meant that some people could afford rich objects whilst others used more basic equipment. Many of the more ornate Iron Age objects found in East Anglia, such as the torcs from Snettisham (NHER 1487), would have belonged to the most powerful people in society. It is likely that these powerful people also controlled the distribution of the coins made at the end of the Iron Age. There was no money until the 1st century BC when the first gold, silver and copper alloy coins were made in Britain. The inscriptions on the coins are the first evidence we have for writing in Britain. Coins from Norfolk were made in gold and silver. Some of them include an possible inscription of the tribal name.

Very little is known of the burial customs of the Iron Age. Very few Iron Age skeletons have been excavated. It is possible that most bodies were burned and their ashes scattered or left to rot in the open air (excarnation). The few burials that have survived, for example several chariot burials in Mildenhall, a possible Bronze Age to Iron Age cremation cemetery at Bridgham (NHER 6013) seem to suggest that burial rites were quite localised - people were buried or disposed of in different ways depending on their local customs.

Much of the archaeological evidence for Iron Age Norfolk comes from hoards of metalwork and coins. Most of these date to the end of the Iron Age. Objects and metal working debris were gathered together and placed in the ground. Many of these hoards were probably gifts to the gods. Others may have been hidden to keep them safe. Many of the coin hoards found in Norfolk, for example at Snettisham (NHER 23504) are thought to date to the end of the Iron Age, a period of great social and political instability. To prevent the Romans getting hold of their riches people in East Anglia buried them for safe keeping. They either forgot where they were or were prevented from coming back to get them.

The end of the Iron Age occurs in Britain when the Romans invade in AD 42 but in Norfolk true Roman control wasn't achieved until AD 61. Even after this date the way of life of many people would have been unchanged. We are fortunate to have Roman records of what occurred between AD 42 and 61 in Norfolk. We even know the name of the Iceni tribe's king - Prasutagus. By examining the Roman writers' accounts we can reconstruct the bloody end of the Iron Age in Norfolk. For a short period of time the Iceni tribe were allowed to continue to rule themselves as a client kingdom of Rome. Not everyone was happy with this arrangement and there were at least two rebellions against the Romans. Iceni warriors fought against Roman troops but were ultimately defeated, perhaps at Stonea camp. After the rebellions the Romans allowed Prasutagus to continue to rule the Iceni peacefully but may have stopped him producing his own coins. When Prasutagus died the Romans tried to take over the kingdom. Boudica, Prasutagus' wife, rebelled against this aggressive act and joined by tribes from other parts of Britain she burnt down the Roman towns of Colchester, London and St Albans. Ultimately she was defeated, perhaps at Mancetter, and took her own life. With the death of Boudica the Iron Age in Norfolk also died and the county became truly Roman.

M. Dennis (NLA), 19 October 2006.

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