Thursday, 27 February 2014

Invasion, migration or... part three

Badbury Rings hillfort, Dorset, England
photo: Pasicles (public domain)
It is not often that a single thought remains very clear in one's mind after fifty five years. Such a thought came to me at Badbury Rings -- I wondered what might lie below the surface. I was on a school holiday in Dorset and it was my very first contact with anything of the Iron Age. Forty years after having that thought, I was standing at the site with a British coin and antiquity dealer who was giving me much more information about the area than was told to me by my teachers. In fact, he told me more than is officially known to this very day.

Hillforts, some of which originated as early as the Neolithic, really proliferated in the Iron Age and especially in south and west England and up to Wales. The reasons for defenses in this large are are not hard to imagine -- the land is fertile and in and beyond the area are deposits of tin, copper, lead and a bit of gold.. Lead and certain deposits of copper also contain silver that can be extracted. We can see that these hillforts had varied histories -- some were left vacant for long periods; some had been attacked; some were of dubious value as defences; some were clearly large settlements, others simple homesteads. Maiden Castle in Dorset is absurdly large. So large that it is actually difficult to see when you are nearby -- to see it all, you have to be so far away that what you actually see does not differ that much from the natural terrain. When you get close enough to see the bank and ditch defences and the complex entrance earthworks, you can only see a small part of the fort. It's best views are all from the air.

One of the tricky things about studying the Celtic Iron Age is that you have to completely revise your ideas about time. In this day of mass communication, we see mostly just a single chronology -- someone invents the car, and within a few decades they are everywhere. Back in the Iron Age, information travelled by foot, horse, and boat. It stands to reason (if you should indulge in such) that the more people travelling through an area, the more information becomes available for use in that area. To this very day, "backwoods" areas can still have features that have vanished in more populated areas. This means that if you had a time machine and went back to the Rhineland or the Champagne district to see what objects people were using in the early La Tène -- let's say a brooch, and then you went to south west England at the same time -- you would have to wait longer than your lifetime for brooches, even only vaguely similar, to start showing up. Let's imagine another situation -- you have discovered how to work iron, and all of your neighbours are eagerly trading things for  the objects you make. Are you going to share your techniques with them? -- Of course not! So how did any valuable information travel at all? New ideas often come about through putting together a couple of old ideas. If one person knows one thing, and another person knows another, and the combination of those two ideas can lead to great success in something new, then there is a motive for both to strike some sort of deal. The chances of such events taking place is dependent on the numbers of people with very different ideas. In a rural area heavily covered by small farms you might have enough people for this process, but everyone has just about the same sort of life -- there is little variety and it is combinations of very different lives that leads to innovation.

Hillforts show this process of development. In the Roman occupied south east England, hillforts fell out of use very quickly, but in Scotland they proliferated in the 3rd century AD. The situation in Scotland at that time was nothing like the situation in the south after Claudius arrival, but as Mark Twain said "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme"

There is another ingredient in our formula for understanding the arrival of the La Tène culture in Britain and that is certain behavior is human and transcends most cultural divisions. This is not absolute -- certain reactions to events are cultural and differences between locals and new arrivals can often lead to disaster as a result. Nevertheless, we can often get a good idea about what might well transpire as a reaction to an event in the lives of others if we imagine what we might do in similar circumstances, and by finding enough examples of the same in very different cultures to identify certain types of behavior as human. We will, of course, give somewhat less credence to things that have too much religious or political content. It all works best with mundane, everyday, existence -- getting our work done and interacting with our neighbors in informal matters.

So we have all the ingredients that we need to put this all together and tomorrow I will reveal the third component of the invasion/migration/... trilogy.

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