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Iron Age 800 BC to 43 AD

Iron Age Village. Reconstruction. Butser Ancient Farm

Iron Age Village. Reconstruction. Butser Ancient Farm

The Iron Age was a time of further agricultural intensification with the landscape filling up with farmsteads maintained and rebuilt over generations. Many of the newly created farms were now focused on very large, substantially built, circular houses up to 15 metres in diameter. There structures had imposing porches and were divided internally by the main roof-supporting timbers into a central open area and narrow peripheral space under the eaves. These were not mere huts but grand residences, the Iron Age equivalent of medieval halls, in which family affairs were worked through, the resident family lived and feasts could be comfortably be accommodated.

The Iron Age staple crops remained barley and wheat; protein came largely from milk, cheese and pork, augmented by beef, horsemeat and mutton which became available when beasts were slaughtered for culling or feasts. Domestic chickens were also kept, probably for their eggs.

Agricultural technology was comparatively simple: the ground was broken with an ox-drawn ard which could now be iron-tipped, crops were sown by hand and they were reaped by hand using an iron sickle. The ard was quite effective on light chalk soils but since it does not turn the soil like a modern plough the fields may have been ploughed in two directions at right angles which would explain the square plan of many early fields.

The Ard

The Ard

The other main feature of the early Iron Age was the hill top enclosure, usually a large area of 15 hectares or more, enclosed by a bank or ditch. We know comparatively little of what these sites were used for though they were probably used over long periods of time for the corralling of animals. This would have facilitated the castration, culling, redistribution and other tasks necessary for the efficient husbandry of animals. So the agricultural regimes would seem to have been concentrated around farmsteads providing the centre for arable operations and hill top enclosures used for livestock management which required intercommunity coordination. Certainly, an annual round-up would have been an occasion for the population to gather together to celebrate, feast and thank the gods.

The other main feature of the early Iron Age was the hill top enclosure, usually a large area of 15 hectares or more, enclosed by a bank or ditch. We know comparatively little of what these sites were used for though they were probably used over long periods of time for the corralling of animals. This would have facilitated the castration, culling, redistribution and other tasks necessary for the efficient husbandry of animals. So the agricultural regimes would seem to have been concentrated around farmsteads providing the centre for arable operations and hill top enclosures used for livestock management which required intercommunity coordination. Certainly, an annual round-up would have been an occasion for the population to gather together to celebrate, feast and thank the gods.

In the 5th and 6th centuries BC many of these hill top enclosures were further developed into hill forts which are characterised by a rampart and ditch of defensive proportions and are accessed through two gates on opposing sides. We have an outstanding local example of such a hill fort in the Old Winchester Hill Fort.

Old Winchester Hill Iron Age Fort

Old Winchester Hill Iron Age Fort

Evidence for the use of hill forts varies considerably. Some contained streets with houses together with storage facilities and evidence of domestic occupation. Others show little trace of internal structures or sustained use. Unfortunately, Old Winchester Hill Fort has never been properly excavated though some traces of storage pits can be seen. However its overall design and the outer ramparts that lie further down the hill show that would have been an excellent place to coral livestock in times of trouble. It certainly dominated the whole area above the Meon Valley.

Hill forts were largely abandoned in about 100 BC for reasons that are not entirely clear. However, it was a time of rapid social, economic and political change brought about by the resurgence of overseas trade generated in advance of the Roman annexation of Gaul and of course later Britain.