Iron Age Materials

Although Iron is the most abundant metal on the earth's surface, the extraction of usable metal from oxidized iron ores is far more difficult than copper and tin smelting (used for the manufacture of Bronze). Copper and tin can be melted in relatively simple "cool" furnaces (such as kilns used for pottery) and then cast into molds, whereas smelted iron requires hot-working and can only be melted in specially designed furnaces. Iron then had to be forged on an anvil while being struck and flattened into shapes with a hammer. Differing grades and quality of iron meant some tools could be very weak in comparison to other iron tools made with higher grade iron, such as bog iron which is generally a very low quality iron.

It is not known exactly where iron smelting first began, but this process is generally attributed to the Hittities of Anatolia during the late Bronze Age from about 1,500BC. It was introduced into Europe through Greece in the late 11th century BC, which ultimately lead to the rise of the  La Tène culture around 500BC. It was discovered that iron can be significantly improved if reheated in a furnace with charcoal (containing carbon), as around 2% of the carbon is transferred to the iron and then the hot metal rapidly cooled. This effectively turned the soft iron into steel.

Bog Iron

Impure iron deposits in the form of bog iron ore was collected from bogs and swamplands by the Iron Age people. In general, bog ores consist primarily of iron oxyhydroxides, commonly limonite or goethite (FeO(OH)). Bog iron is renewable (useful deposits can regrow within 20 years) and could be harvested from different parts of the bog.

Iron Age Tools

Farming tools

Iron-tipped ploughs (called an Ard or Scratch plough) pulled by oxen making cultivation of heavy clay soils possible. The Ard was made primarily from wood with an iron tip to penetrate the ground, but it did not have mould boards or large blades used on more recent European ploughs to turn the soil over. It made a simple furrow or narrow trench to sow the seed in; to obtain a good tilth, it is likely that fields were ploughed in one direction and then cross-ploughed in the other.

Iron Sickles were also used to harvest crops, as well as cutting and shaping branches for hurdles. Managing trees or hedges was necessary for Iron Age farmers as the wood was used in the construction of hurdles, buildings, tools and vehicles and also for firewood and charcoal.

Armour & Weapons

Battersea Helmet

Dredged from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge in the early 1868, the Horned or Battersea helmet is the only Iron Age helmet to have ever been found in southern England.

It is made from two sheets of bronze that are held together with bronze rivets and decorated front and back with the style of La Tène art seen in Britain between 250 and 50 BC. Two conical bronze horns with terminal knobs are riveted to the top of the helmet and a crescent-shaped bronze piece is riveted to the bottom.

Originally, the bronze helmet would have been a shining polished bronze colour and designed to hold red glass enamel studs. It is very unlikely this helmet was made to be used in war, as the thin metal would be too fragile for use in battle.

<< On display at British Museum

A heavy hemispherical iron helmet without cheek flaps, the bowl much deformed, the decorated avantail attached by rivets, the two bosses that cover the outsides of the flap hinges with filed and struck decorations

Iron Age Innovations

Technology innovations increased significantly during the Iron Age, especially towards the end of the period:

Potters Wheel

A new technology introduced during the Iron Age was wheel thrown pottery (mainly in south eastern England). Before the middle Iron Age pottery was made by hand from pinch pots, coils or paddle and anvil. This meant the pot wall could vary in thickness by some way. Wheel thrown pots were generally far more even and symmetrical and could have a smooth surface easily.

Iron Age pottery

Coinage

The earliest coins found in Britain from the 2nd BC, were originally thought to be imported by the Belgica, a Celtic tribe from Northern France. They were made by using a punch or ‘die’ (made of iron and/or bronze) to strike an image into the coin; one of the earliest die found in Britain was from Bredgar in Kent. A Starter (an ancient Greek coin of Philip II of Macedon) was used as a prototype for Celtic coinage and were made from a mix of metals, mainly gold (with silver and copper) and weigh on average between five to seven grams. Common images struck onto the coins included horses, triple spirals, chariot wheels, sun/moon and wheat/barley sheafs, with the names of the tribal chieftains written mostly in Latin script, or occsionally in Greek.

Gold starter coin of the Corieltavi tribe from the Hallaton shrine (Leicestershire)

Coins were also cast by pouring molten metal into a set of moulds that were joined by runners. These moulds were broken apart when the metal had cooled. When the first Celtic coins were cast in Britain around 80 BC, they were Potins made of bronze and copied from Massilia (Marseilles) coins which had a head of Apollo on one side and a bull on the reverse.

Hoards of Iron Age coins, along with  jewellery, precious and scrap metal objects have been found throughout Europe and Britain and this has generally been explained in terms of safekeeping or for ritual deposits.

Rotary Quern

This new domestic tool helped to change the lives of the Iron Age people and arrived in Britain in the middle of the Iron Age (about 400-300 BC). The rotary quern comprises two rounded quern stones, with one placed on top of the other. The top stone would turn around an axle that came up through a hole in its centre, while the lower stone did not move. This was used to speed the processing of wheat, barley or rye into flour to make bread and other foods.

The bottom, stationary stone is called a quern and the top rotating stone is called a handstone. The best type of stone for the manufacture quern-stones are igneous rocks like basalt, as these have rough surfaces that do not wear away, so the grain being ground does not become gritty.

Wood Lathe

The lathe was used to turn wood, ivory, bone, bituminous shale, amber and precious metals into a variety of objects; although the type of lathe used during the Iron Age is not clear and evidence from the Dartmoor Princess cist (four lathe turned ear studs) suggests that wood turning was performed during the Bronze Age or earlier. The earliest known illustration of a lathe is from an Egyptian wall relief carved in stone in the tomb of Petosiris dated some 300 BC.

The first lathe development was probably the Strap Lathe - operated at ground level, the wood is held between two iron spikes supported by a simple wooden framework and the leather strap is pulled backwards and forwards by the turner's assistant to provide a motion. The Bow Lathe is similar to the Strap Lathe but the motion is supplied by a bow, with string wrapped around the work piece and a reciprocating motion (rotating in one direction and then the other) is created by moving the bow rapidly backwards and forwards. This only requires one person to both operate the lathe and bow to provide the motion. The well know Pole Lathe came later (possibly after the Iron Age) and represented a great advance as the framework was raised off the ground, with the addition of a pole and a treadle.  

The Iron Age inhabitants of the Glastonbury Lake villages were competent woodturners creating such items as spokes and hubs for wheels. Mallets, bowls, buckets, bracelets and tool handles. Evidence of the craftsmen from Oakbank Crannog using a type of lathe came with the discovery of a small piece of wood known as a 'waster' or off-cut from turned wood and  Kimmerbridge shale was turned into 'Dorset Coal Money' possibly using flint edged cutting tools.

A variation of the wood lathe, was the bow drill (image below from the Scottish Crannog Centre). Perforated, roughly circular or angular thin stones have been discovered on many Scottish crannogs and these are used as net or fishing weights, weights for drop-spinning wool, or other purposes including jewellery.

Iron Age drill

 


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