9 : Bronze and Iron



The last post saw the rise and fall of the last of the neolithic populations of England. In the same way as they had replaced the earlier population, they in turn were replaced by lighter-skinned settlers originating from the Caucasian Steppe; people who used bronze tools and kept horses and cattle. The changes on the ground were gradual but eventually profound, and the region might have got its first blond, as well as one of the earliest flavours of the Indo-European group of languages which predominates today. 

One of their villages has been unearthed in Norfolk and tells us a lot about them. See (Link) 
Must Farm  I am not inclined to do a cycle tour thereabouts because while today's landscape is just too dull, but if you are interested in pre-history you could also check out (Link) Flag Fen
where there is an exhibition of what has been found. 

These people added the Sarsens to the already ancient monuments at Stonehenge, the King's Men to the Rollright Stones and, later, some of the 'hill forts' to local hills together with a lot more Barrows and Tumuli. They probably also dug out the surprisingly stylised White Horse in the chalk scarp at Uffington. At a more humdrum level, there is plenty of evidence of their  surprisingly complex and regular field systems in the more fertile areas, with crops like spelt wheat and barley being grown and sheep, pigs, goats and horses being reared as well as cattle.

The Rollright Stones are on my Nobs & Yobs cycle route. Link : Nobs & Yobs
Uffington is on my Wessex Downs West Cycle Route : Link  Wessex Downs (West)


Uffington White Horse. 

The photo below is a reconstruction of a bronze age man, based on remains found in the South Downs. If you are interested in what the people looked like, I can recommend the small gallery devoted to this stuff at Brighton Museum. 

Bronze Age Man /  Brighton Museum 

This constant muddying of the ancestral waters continued through the bronze age and into the iron age that followed when another significant migration from Europe brought people who might well have been speaking Brythonic, a branch of the language family that some now (inaccurately) call Gaelic or, even worse, Celtic. The Romans referred to them as Brittani or Britons. Cue more hillforts, ancient dykes, and ditches which perhaps served as boundaries. Many of these are visible and identified in OS Maps. Many more can only be seen in aerial photos. Keep in mind that, while there are sometimes clues, it can be difficult to determine when these things were built especially when they have been altered and maintained over centuries. 

You do get the impression that these folk 'did' hillforts like, nowadays, the tweed-adjacent brigade do gardening. They are not always on hills, are not always (or even often) forts, and their origins and purpose remain mysterious.  have written a short blog post specifically on them. Link: A Hillfort Near You

Whoever they were, we know they were keen on horses and chariots, which in some cases accompanied them into the grave and the afterlife. Imagine being buried with your Ford Fiesta! 

I was taught at school that these Britons were the original inhabitants of Britain. You now know better. They were just the next immigrant horde in the queue. My apologies to those who valued the idea of a collective, deep ancestry based on a long continuity of occupation and settlement. In fact, there has been a slow but constant churn of people; we are all mongrels and most of what I was taught has turned out to be wrong. As usual. 

At this stage of the later Iron Age, thanks mainly to literate Romans, the picture comes into marginally sharper focus. We can start to identify the various tribes who were here when they turned up. Around North and West London, the two major players hereabouts were supposedly 'Belgic', They had arrived from....you guessed it....maybe a hundred years before the Romans turned up, probably chattering away in a Germanic language. (Maybe when the Romans used the label 'Briton' they were referring to the current inhabitants of our island rather than where they originated).  

The major players north of the Thames were the Catuvallauni who were centred on St Albans (Verulanium). They also eventually controlled the land of the Trinovantes, later centred on Colchester (Camolodunum). To the South were the Atrebates, focused on Silchester (Calleva), near Reading. (You can visit it on my 'Calleva' bike route. Link: Calleva).  Both later became Roman 'Civitas', with a degree of local self-government. Both have visible Roman remains and some rather indistinct pre-Roman ones as well. I believe that the 'border' between the two was the Thames which perhaps explains the fortifications at Dyke Hills by the river at Dorchester on Thames.

It would be wrong to assume that these were all primitive savages compared to the Romans. Evidence from Calleva suggests that they shared the relatively sophisticated lifestyles of their Romanised cousins across the water in Gaul. Some at least ate well, with a variety of meats and fishes flavoured with spices and herbs, served on plates and accompanied  with wine drunk from a glass. They had well-crafted tools and ornaments, some sourced by trade across Europe. Their 'oppida' were planned, their houses were substantial and their streets surfaced, even if not as well built as the Roman efforts. More limited evidence from Braughing in Herts paints a similar picture. 

I am not going to go on about the Romans here. I am sure you know the story. As Jules' said, they came, they saw, they conquered. Three cheers for Jules. Except that he didn't really, his effort was more of a recce than a takeover and probably aimed at winning him some political brownie points in Rome. To this end, he wrote his own promotional material. No doubt it was self-serving, but I choose to believe the story that he biffed the Catuvallauni and their King Caratacus at their stronghold near Wheathampstead. This 'oppida', now marked by a large ditch & embankment, is on my 'Giro de Lilley Valley cycle route. (Link) Lilley Valley Route The real 'hard yards' in the Roman imperial conquest of Britain were covered a century later by Emperor Claudius. 

Incidentally, Caratacus' son was the model for Shakespeare's Cymbeline. And thanks to the Bard and Hollywood we know exactly what he and his Queen looked like. 

The Romans certainly left us a few mementoes of their visit. Even apart from St Albans and Silchester, some of the Romans lived quite well and the traces of a few of their 'villas' can still be seen, but the pillaging of useful stone perhaps explains the lack of much apart from the outlines and some flooring. That, allied to the English habit of tidying the rubble and mowing the grass, disinfects the experience. But if you are interested (and I am not) take a look at these three examples from our area.

Gadebridge Villa

Littlecote Villa

North Leigh Roman Villa.

I am more impressed by the immense network of allegedly Roman Roads which are often marked on the OS Maps. These go way beyond the well known trunk roads like Watling and Ermine Street and include many created to facilitate the development of places that they were interested in exploiting. 

Don't assume that every straight road is Roman or that every Roman Road is straight! Often, in flatter arable countryside, the straight roads you find were built when farmland was enclosed in the 16th-19th centuries. Elsewhere the Romans were not so daft as to ignore existing routes and used the best fords or valley routes to avoid wet feet or a climb if they could. 

The year 409 is generally seen as being the end of Roman rule in Britain but by that time the place was in a sorry state. Their influence and impact rapidly decayed into oblivion in the century that followed. Governance became fragmented and localised. There was a switch away from an economy based on trade and all the things that underpinned it, like crafts and coins, and towards a more hand-to-mouth existence. Their stone buildings were already  falling into disrepair, the villas shrinking into farms, the towns squatted rather than lived in and marginal farmland reverting to scrub or woodland. 

Roman walls at Silchester

Once again, the population was changing. There were never that many Romans, as in 'from Rome', or even from Italy. Rather, there were people from all over their empire and beyond its 'Limes', or limits, employed as mercenary soldiers, traders or migrants, many of whom had settled. There were more arriving. The land had for some time been suffering from the raids and depredations of the neighbours, the Irish, Scots and the Germanic and Frankish tribes from across the North Sea. All of them were quick to take advantage of the departure of the Roman legions.  

Sometime after 400 A.D. looking down from a hill at the Roman legions leaving with their families, hangers-on and wretched grammar with them, the landscape might have looked emptier than when they arrived. And in the distance, you can see more dinghies full of Germanic speaking immigrants sneaking in through the back door. They were coming to stay and would have the most profound and long-lasting effect on the countryside we see today. 

The Next Post in the Series : Link Britons & Saxons


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