Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Any old iron age?

Celtic iron sword with bronze
scabbard and furniture.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
photo: PHGCOM
We are all familiar with the archaeological "ages": stone, bronze and iron, but while the term Celtic was confusing and some archaeologists started to insist, often in an authoritarian manner, that Iron Age should be used instead. Shortly afterwards, I started to run a discussion list with an archaeologist (that never really went anywhere) about Celtic coinage. As everyone was rather twitchy about using the term Celtic, the archaeologist said that we should call the discussion group "Iron Age coinage". This meant that while we could not include Roman coins, we could certainly include the Greek. Greece was Iron Age and even the obol (a sixth of a drachm) started out its life as an iron roasting spit. But the Romans often used iron swords even though it was not their own industry. A Greek historian did not have much good to say about the Celts early use of iron swords: he reports that a warrior would often have to stop to bend his sword blade back to straight again. In contrast to that, Sir Cyril Fox, reporting on the metal finds from Llyn Cerrig Bach noted that the edge weapons were of iron exhibiting some of the properties of steel, while other non-cutting objects were of simple wrought iron. This was no accidental effect: "Analysis of the swords from Llyn Cerrig Bach shows that some were given hardened steel-like surfaces, through a smithing process called carburisation."
The first two ages seem to function very well, the latter, Iron Age, has given us some problems. At the time that everyone was first rushing out to buy the new Pc 's or Apple computers, Celtoskeptocism was in full swing. A few archaeologists thought that the term Celtic did not represent any sort of unified culture and that Iron Age was more appropriate. As far as I can see, this was because the archaeologists' ideas of what constituted a unified culture was not being met by the Celts, especially (apparently) in Britain.

However, Celtic iconography, overwhelmingly, reveals a unified set of icons that are used in the same way across ancient Celtic lands although regional styles exist as much as with virtually any other culture. More importantly, however, the term Iron Age can be contradictory for a site containing iron artifacts. In La Tène in Ireland: Problems of Origin and Chronology, Barry Raftery (p.7f) says:
"The material representing the Late Bronze Age is Ireland is a clearly recognisable entity. The material that is taken to represent the Iron Age, however, is not as easily brought together. Whereas the Late Bronze Age remains form, in broad terms, an essentially homogeneous cultural unit, that material which may be described as representing the "Iron Age" spans a considerable length of time and appears to consist of several strands of cultural development not necessarily unified either in chronological or regional terms."
Raftery was not the sort of person who would allow an archaeological fad of terminology to deny what his eyes told him.

I think that when we look at, say, the Stone Age, we are looking more at the "creature characteristics" of people: what they ate and wore, the tools they used, and how they disposed of their dead. Archaeology is about material remains. With history, though, we look at individuals and the societal forces which influenced them. The La Tène Celtic period is partially what we call "protohistory". While the Celts did not record their own history in writing and had taboos about what could be written down, the Greeks and Romans did write about the Celts in their histories. I think that our task is to use what material remains does exist that can give us any insights to the ancient Celts as culturally bound individuals. "Iron Age" just does not deliver the goods.


  1. The subject seems to be a bit of a double-edged sword, as it were, John. Very interesting and I do, in fact, see your reasoning. Good stuff!

  2. Thanks, James. Before championing collecting and metal-detecting, I was defending Celtic culture from the "Celto-skeptics"