Iron Age

Myrtleberry North Camp; © ENPA 2014

(Myrtleberry North Camp; © ENPA 2014)

Despite the traditional start date of the Iron Age around 700BC, the beginning of the Iron Age in Britain is not marked by a sudden event, but by gradual change in the archaeological record. Most obviously iron, the metal from which the period takes its name, gradually becomes more prevalent (e.g. Iron Smithing at Timberscombe Enclosure), but by no means becomes ubiquitous. Another thread of change is environmental; the beginning of the 1st millennium BC saw a deterioration in the climate as it became cooler and wetter. In the uplands of the South West this, combined with increasing deforestation led to soil degradation, the growth of peat and the emergence of moorland landscapes similar to those we see today.

Elsewhere, this led to the human abandonment of the uplands as places for permanent settlement, but on Exmoor the situation is rather different. Here, people continued to live, their settlements marking another form of change, with its roots in the preceding Bronze Age, which saw the emergence of settlements enclosed by earthen ramparts and ditches. These proliferated during the Iron Age throughout the South West and Exmoor is no exception, the remains of the places in which the Iron Age population lived offering us a valuable chance to perceive something of their lives and society. The enclosed nature of their settlements perhaps suggests a need for security, possibly indicating a politically divided and violent society. This is particularly the case with hillforts, those enclosures which are situated on defensible hill tops, enclosing large areas with massive defenses (e.g. Wind Hill or Bat’s Castle). However, most enclosures are smaller, with slighter earthworks (e.g. Black Ball Camp), and in locations that are not particularly defensive suggesting that the act of enclosure was not motivated entirely by military concerns. Instead, the effort expended in their construction suggest a high degree of organisation and command of resources. This makes these monuments a statement inscribed on the landscape by those who built them. In this sense they are statements of power, social control and maybe status, but also of unity, community, identity and perhaps kinship. On Exmoor, we do not know if people also lived in unenclosed settlements, but the enclosures they left behind, many of which are still obvious today, still proclaim their messages, describing a probably divided and occasionally violent society, but one within which there were cohesive, strongly bonded communities.

These communities most likely lived by subsistence agriculture, but the relative lack of excavation on Exmoor means evidence is sparse, consisting of the slight remains of field systems (e.g. at Withycombe Hill), a few spindle whorls (e.g. at West Ansteu) and quernstones (e.g. at Capton), suggesting a mixed agricultural regime. Evidence for other aspects of the lives of the Iron Age population is even less common, the fine bronze bowl recovered from a spring just outside the National Park at Rose Ash offering us a glimpse of their spiritual lives and practices but not allowing us to understand them fully. In many ways, the bowl is symbolic of the Iron Age archaeology of Exmoor; its significance currently dimly perceived and understood, but its potential and value for the future self-evident.

Lee Bray