Foundations and a drainage gully, from a house at Haddenham, near Cambridge
What has survived of a typical Iron Age settlement? Usually little or nothing is left above ground, as timber and thatch rots and decays in a British climate. The only common surviving trace of Iron Age settlements are the large ditches and ramparts that surrounded the massive hill-forts that were built in different parts of the country.
Though half or two-thirds of these ditches have now become naturally filled, they can still be impressive sights. The walls or earthen ramparts inside the ditches have often been naturally eroded, but can still survive as large mounds and banks. The banks and ditches around smaller settlements and forts can also survive if they have not been ploughed, removed or built over in later centuries.
So too can the outlines of roundhouses themselves. On the insides of some southern British hill-forts that have never been ploughed you can see the round 'hut platforms' on which round timber houses were built. In upland parts of Britain that have been mostly grazed for sheep and cattle over the last 2,000 years, far more can survive. Hut circles, the stone foundations of Bronze and Iron Age roundhouses and hut platforms, still survive, as do the lower courses of the stone walls that surrounded many farms and forts.
Elsewhere in Britain, the only evidence of most farms, villages and the insides of hill-forts are the holes dug by Iron Age people into the rock, clay, sands or gravels on which their settlement stood. Many of these were the foundations for holding the wooden posts and beams used to make buildings, fences and palisades. Others include pits of different shapes and sizes dug for crop storage, ditches and gullies dug for defence, to mark a boundary or act as drainage.
These archaeological features provide a negative image or plan of an Iron Age settlement which can, under the right conditions, be seen from the air. When archaeologists excavate a typical Iron Age settlement, it is these features that are revealed when the overlying soil is removed. And in this soil and other deposits are contained most of the objects, bones and seeds found when excavating an Iron Age site.
Iron Age refuse disposal
Bones and broken pottery in a roundhouse drainage gully
The vast majority of the things that Iron Age people made, wore, ate and used have not survived at all. In contrast to their Roman British counterparts, people were relatively poor in material terms. The Romano-British descendants of Iron Age Britons would have lived in a world full of artefacts. They would have possessed far more pots, household objects and tools, for example, compared to an Iron Age household.
In the Iron Age the recycling and reusing of broken or worn-out items was probably of great importance. Iron and bronze objects would rarely have been thrown away. Instead the metal would have been recycled if possible. Wooden objects and building material would have been burnt as fuel - and even broken pots have their uses.
If things were thrown away, evidence shows they would have been thrown on to middens - rubbish heaps - along with manure, food waste and, possibly, human excrement. Wood, cloth, metal and most food remains would rust, decay and rot. Animal bones might be chewed and gnawed by dogs. Rain, frost and the trampling of farm animals would destroy even potsherds. Rubbish middens were also an important resource, providing fertiliser to spread on the fields.
Rarely then, in the normal processes of discarding rubbish, would objects have been deliberately buried in the ground to dispose of them.
Cooking pots with remains of burnt food around the rims.
Why then do archaeologists find broken pots, tools, animal bones, carbonized seeds etc when they excavate Iron Age settlements? In rare and exceptional circumstances we do find well preserved sites where the floors of houses, the farmyard and middens have survived, but this is unusual.
On typical Iron Age sites only the sub-soil features survive, and the finds recovered all come from the soils and deposits that fill the foundation holes, gullies and ditches excavated. Many have probably ended up in these features by accident. Plant remains, important evidence for crops and food, have survived when seeds and the hard parts of plants were accidentally scorched and carbonized in fires.
These tiny fragments then entered the earthen floors and mud of the yard which then filled the empty foundation holes or eroded into ditches. Other finds entered the archaeological record in similar ways. Broken potsherds and animal bones would have been plentiful in the mud of the yard and in the middens.
Yard mud and rubbish dumps might have naturally eroded, or been used to deliberately fill in open holes, pits and ditches, or recycled as building materials. Large broken potsherds could be reused to make a new hearth, or used as packing to hold a new timber post upright in its foundations.
These mundane, forgotten processes can explain why much evidence of the Iron Age has survived on settlements to be found by archaeologists over 2,000 years later, but it does not account for all the Iron Age objects we know today.
Accidental finds - deliberate burials
The Waterloo Helmet, discovered by accident
Most of the spectacular Iron Age objects on display in museums and illustrated in books and on television did not come from Iron Age farms, villages or forts. Objects, such as the Deskford Carnyx (the head of an Iron Age wind instrument in the National Museum of Scotland), the gold Broighter torc in the National Museum of Ireland, the Llyn Cerig Bach hoard of iron objects in the National Museum of Wales, or the Waterloo Helmet in the British Museum, were accidental finds made when people were draining bogs, dredging rivers or ploughing fields.
How did these objects get there, to be found in modern times? Had they been accidentally lost or were they deliberately hidden or thrown away?
The deliberate burial of objects did happen in the Iron Age. In those parts of Britain that buried their dead in graves, objects were sometimes placed with the dead person in the ground. Objects such as the Kirkburn Sword, almost every decorated mirror that has been found, 'buckets' (hardly an appropriate description for such complex and expensive wooden containers), pots and jewellery have all been excavated from graves in south-east England, East Yorkshire, Dorset and Cornwall.
However, the burial of the dead was not usual for most Iron Age communities in Britain or Ireland; in most areas graves are either extremely rare or completely absent. It is only because of the religious beliefs and rituals of particular Iron Age groups - which caused some dead people to be buried in graves, and demanded that these dead should be clothed and furnished with other objects - that some rare Iron Age artefacts have survived at all.
The elaborately crafted bronze Battersea Shield, found in the River Thames
The deliberate burial or discarding of objects was a practice that is increasingly being seen as a product of Iron Age beliefs, customs and rituals. Rivers, lakes and bogs (in essence, wet places) were often the site of the deposit of weapons and cauldrons.
While in the past it was sometimes thought that these objects had been accidentally dropped or lost in battle, the consistent patterns across Europe of particular types of objects almost always only being found in wet places strongly suggests that this was part of religious activity.
Watery places appear, then, to have been seen as an appropriate place to make offerings to gods, spirits or the dead. These offerings could include animals and even humans, such as the man known as the Lindow Man, found at Lindow Moss, Cheshire, who is now in the British Museum.
Other possible offerings or sacrifices are the fine metal objects that have been found in dry places. Torcs (neck rings), the metal pieces of chariots and cart harnesses - almost never found in wet places - and Iron Age coins are generally found in the landscape, away from settlements.
Why were these objects buried or left in the countryside away from farms and villages? It is possible that they were buried for safekeeping, but if this is the case, Iron Age people were extremely forgetful! Many of these coins and objects were, again, probably religious offerings or sacrifices of important and valued possessions.