750 BC-AD43 - The Iron Age

  • A trader has arrived with his ponies and his dog to sell pots, baskets and beads. The woman looking at his goods is carrying her baby on her back. You can also see the local blacksmith’s shelter made of woven hazel, and  his iron tools and wooden buckets.

About the Iron Age

There were many advances in the Iron Age. The metal-workers became ever more skilful. They invented new techniques to make even more elaborate bronze objects.  Then they learned how to extract iron from iron ore.  Now they could make stronger, cheaper tools and weapons.

But the Iron Age had challenges as well.

As time went by, the population increased, so more food was needed.  But, after so many years of use, the soil was becoming less fertile and gave poorer harvests.  To make matters worse, the weather started to get colder and wetter so crops did not grow as well as they used to.  This must have been worrying for the Iron Age communities.  They had to clear and plough more land. They had to learn how to be better farmers.

Life began to change. People began to build banks and ditches round their settlements and to make more weapons.  We can’t ever be sure why.  Maybe people started to quarrel with each other over the best land.  Maybe they started to steal each others’ cattle or corn. They gradually organized themselves into big groups or tribes and made hillforts with strong defences.  Was it because they were expecting trouble?  Or was it just for show?

  • An Iron Age bank and ditch, at Trendle Hill, near Bicknoller. This is part of a hillfort that was begun but never finished.

What do we know about the Iron Age Quantocks?

By now, the Quantocks was a mixture of woodland, fields, small farming settlements on the lower slopes, and large areas of pasture on the hills where cattle could graze. People still hunted wild animals such as deer. It was a good place to live: as well as all this, there were deposits of iron and copper which were valuable resources. And what they couldn’t make themselves, like fancy pots and beads, they could buy from craftsmen and traders.

So, during the Iron Age, these communities flourished and grew.

  • Two women inspect a pot. They wear bronze bracelets. One has a  brooch (for her cloak) and two weaving combs, carved from antler, hang from her belt. Behind them are two bee-hives.  What else can you see?

The Iron Age cattle ranchers needed places where they could herd all their animals together in one place. Near Bicknoller, you can still see one of their hillslope enclosures.

  • The Trendle Ring, above Bicknoller, is about 100m across. The circular bank and ditch can be seen for miles around.

For most of the time, people lived on their farms. This picture shows what one of these farmsteads would have looked like. It is based on the ancient hillslope enclosure at Higher Castles. The cattle are smaller than most modern-day breeds, but the ponies are similar to those you see on the Quantocks today.

  • Daily life at an Iron Age farmstead.  Most of the houses are in the inner enclosure,and the outer enclosure is for animals and other tasks, like blacksmithing.

Not far from the Quantocks are the Somerset Levels. Here, archaeologists found the well-preserved remains of an Iron Age village. Because of this, we know a lot about how the people lived.

  • The floor and post-holes of an Iron Age roundhouse. (Glastonbury Tor is in the background). The waterlogged peat soil stopped the wood from rotting away.

This is what the inside of an Iron Age roundhouse might have looked like. Look out for evidence of weaving, pot-making, cooking, storing food, ironworking, woodwork, willow-weaving, dying wool and a liking for patterns.

  • You can see this reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse at the Peat Moors Centre.  It is all based on evidence that archaeologists have found.

They also had much bigger places, which we call hillforts, where the whole community could gather together to meet, hold religious ceremonies or protect themselves and their animals. There are two big hillforts on the Quantocks: Dowsborough Camp and Ruborough Camp.

  • Dowsborough started with a Bronze Age burial mound which you can see at the left . Centuries later they enclosed the whole of the hilltop, including the burial mound, by digging huge bank and ditch defences.

The Quantock Hills were almost at the edge of Dumnonii territory.   In times of peace people from neighbouring tribes could meet and exchange goods and news.  In times of conflict the area needed to be defended. Maybe this is why you can see big land boundaries, enclosed farms and hillforts.