The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, Natives and Invaders


Author: D.W. Harding Publisher: Routledge Copyright: 2004 Pages: 352

Synopsis: The Iron Age in Northern Britain examines the impact of the Roman expansion northwards, and the native response to the Roman occupation on both sides of the frontiers. It traces the emergence of historically-recorded communities in the post-Roman period and looks at the clash of cultures between Celts and Romans, Picts and Scots.

Northern Britain has too often been seen as peripheral to a ‘core’ located in south-eastern England.

Unlike the Iron Age in southern Britain, the story of which can be conveniently terminated with the Roman conquest, the Iron Age in northern Britain has no such horizon to mark its end. The Roman presence in southern and eastern Scotland was militarily intermittent and left untouched large tracts of Atlantic Scotland for which there is a rich legacy of Iron Age settlement, continuing from the mid-first millennium BC to the period of Norse settlement in the late first millennium AD.

Here D.W. Harding shows that northern Britain was not peripheral in the Iron Age: it simply belonged to an Atlantic European mainstream different from southern England and its immediate continental neighbours.

Review: The book is made up of five parts and eleven chapters. Some parts have only one chapter while others have two or three chapters.

Part One: This part has only one chapter but wow, what an informative one. The author talks about the aim of the book, which is to look at Northern Britain and survey what we know about it during the Iron Age. He discusses the archeological framework that we are going to be dealing with during the rest of the book. He also discusses something very important that happens to be the Celticity of Northern Britain and the question that seems to be a favorite of the British archeologist and that is; are the Celts a modern myth? The author has a reasonable logical answer to that question AND I think that in light of what this book has to say I think that Barry Cunliffe’s theory of having the Celtic beginnings away from the Hallstatt-La Tene cultures makes a little more sense too.

Part Two: Four chapters are included in this part and it is about the earlier Iron Age. Each chapter talks about the archeological record of a part of Northern Britain, and Scotland.

Part Three: This part has two chapters, and they talk about the Roman Iron Age and its impact on northern Britain.

Part Four: Three chapters that deal with the later Iron Age starting with the borders and southern Scotland and going all the way to Atlantic Scotland.

Part Five: Only one chapter that reviews all the past chapters and makes a few conclusions that sum everything else nicely.

This book is an archeological survey of Northern Britain. It has a lot of materials and also a lot of good questions which it answers in one form or another for the most part (some questions don’t have definitive answers). I found the book very interesting if a little dry. If you aren’t interested in archeological discussions supplemented lightly with classical writing then this book is not for you. In my opinion though, it does help to support Professor Barry Cunliffe’s idea of Celtic from the west in a round about way.


Facing The Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples by Barry Cunliffe


Basic Book Information

Title: Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500

Binding: Hardcover

Publishing Date: June 28th 2001

Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA

Page Numbers: 608 pages

ISBN Number: 0199240191 (ISBN13: 9780199240197)

Synopsis: In this highly illustrated book Barry Cunliffe focuses on the western rim of Europe–the Atlantic facade–an area stretching from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Isles of Shetland.We are shown how original and inventive the communities were, and how they maintained their own distinctive identities often over long spans of time. Covering the period from the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, c. 8000 BC, to the voyages of discovery c. AD 1500, he uses this last half millennium more as a well-studied test case to help the reader better understand what went before. The beautiful illustrations show how this picturesque part of Europe has many striking physical similarities. Old hard rocks confront the ocean creating promontories and capes familiar to sailors throughout the millennia. Land’s End, Finistere, Finisterra–until the end of the fifteenth century this was where the world ended in a turmoil of ocean beyond which there was nothing. To the people who lived in these remote places the sea was their means of communication and those occupying similar locations were their neighbors. The communities frequently developed distinctive characteristics intensifying aspects of their culture the more clearly to distinguish themselves from their in-land neighbors. But there is an added level of interest here in that the sea provided a vital link with neighboring remote-place communities encouraging a commonality of interest and allegiances. Even today the Bretons see themselves as distinct from the French but refer to the Irish, Welsh, and Galicians as their brothers and cousins. Archaeological evidence from the prehistoric period amply demonstrates the bonds which developed and intensified between these isolated communities and helped to maintain a shared but distinctive Atlantic identity.

My Review:

I’m going to start by describing the chapters in the book, then I will tell you what I thought of the book as a whole. The book has thirteen chapters, and a guide to further reading on the subjects covered in the book.

The first three chapters discuss the land, the ocean, and ships and sailors. They were a survey of how the land and ocean look geographically interspersed with myths from different peoples in the area and what the ancient (and not so ancient) geographers thought of both. The third chapter is about sailing vessels of the different peoples and the ancient (and again not so ancient) sailors of the Atlantic Ocean.

Chapter four talk about the Mesolithic period from 7000 – 4000 BCE. It talks about mainland Europe and the Atlantic zone and all the social and economical changes that could have shaped the identity of the Atlantic Peoples. It is an amazing survey of archeology and thought provoking statements that are so simple and yet so important for example on page 134 Prof. Cunliffe says: “The extent to which a community defines its identity, to distinguish itself from others, depends on the need which it perceives to do so.” At that time the need would have been more people coming into their territory for example, but this could also be true today, where most people are looking to define themselves in one way or another.

A discussion of the religious belief systems of mainland Europe and the Atlantic Zone follows in chapter four. It was really fascinating to read how the two affected each other. The time frame this chapter talks about is between 4000 -2700 BCE.

Chapter six studies the period between 2700 – 1200 BCE. It talks about the different networks and how the availability of this network help culture spread among the indigenous people of Europe and the Atlantic zone.

The next two chapters discuss the period between 1200 – 200 BCE, each one from a different perspective. Chapter seven talks about the sailors of the two seas (the Atlantic and the Mediterranean) and how they affected each other as well as a discussion on the manufacture of metals and a brief discussion on the Celtic languages. Chapter eight is all about the identity of the Atlantic peoples.

Chapter nine is a discussion of the Roman impact on Europe. It discusses the Roman conquests of Iberia, Gaul and Britain and the goods it was able to get out of it.

The Middle Ages, the period between 200 – 800 CE was the subject of chapter ten. Cunliffe talked about the decline of Roman authority and the movements of the Germanic tribes. He also talked about the changing face of Europe, Christianity and its effect and trading.

Of course no discussion of the Atlantic is complete without the Vikings and that was what chapter eleven was all about.

Chapter twelve is about the period between 1000 – 1500 CE and all the changes Europe and the Atlantic went through during that time period.

The final chapter is a summation of all that came in the previous chapters and how they tied into each other.

Now let me talk about my impressions.

At first I was not sure what to think of the first three chapters, then I remembered how Prof. Cunliffe did the same thing in his book (which came after this one) Europe Between the Oceans. He was setting the stage for the historical stuff and giving you an idea of how the land ocean look like and later he will show you how the physical features shaped the people that live on that land and sailed that ocean.

I think what I liked most about this book was that the author was not afraid to include his conclusions (clearly stated as such) on the whys of things, like why the Vikings came raiding to give an example. I also liked the fact that while this book was obviously geared towards the layman or at least the college student the author still didn’t treat his readers as simpletons by over simplifying things. Of course I also love the way the book was full of photos, illustrations and maps. I also appreciate the further reading section at the end of the book which tells you where to look for further reading on each chapter.

IMG_0016   IMG_0017 IMG_0018

Now let us address the elephant in the room and that is the latest theory about the Celtic Origins which this book is supposed to have presented. And really, you have to look pretty hard to see it. I’m going to make it easy on you and tell you that it can be found in chapter seven. Cunliffe gives you the short version of it when he is summing up his book in the last chapter and I’m quoting here:

“It was, no doubt, during this first cycle of maritime contact that a lingua franca developed allowing travelers by sea to communicate one with another. If, as we might reasonably suppose, the ships were the prerogative of the elite, then the language which evolved over the millennia would have become the language of the elite. In such a situation the disparate languages which might have been spoken before contact intensified would soon have converged to become a similar tongue, understandable throughout the lands of the Atlantic facade. By the first millennium BCE the common language spoken across most of the region was a branch of Indo-European known, since the seventeenth century, as ‘Celtic’ – the language which still survives, though in modified form, in parts of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Brittany.”

Basically he is saying look more closely to the Atlantic maritime networks for the development of the Celtic languages as opposed to Central Europe. Koch says it best in his 2009 book:

“Barry Cunliffe, 2001, 261-310, has proposed the origins of the Celtic languages should be sought in the maritime networks of the Atlantic Zone, which reached their peak of intensity in the Late Bronze Age and then fell off sharply at the Bronze-Iron Transition (IXth-VIIth centuries BC).”

Should we jump on this theories band wagon? Well, let’s see. Some linguists are happy with it but most are not. Most geneticists though are VERY happy with it. I would suggest keeping it in mind when reading books in the future, it is a plausible theory but without more information and more evidence this theory is just that. A theory. John Koch’s 2009 book on a language called Tartessian, which was spoken in Southern Spain, identifies it as Celtic, and this seems to support the Cunliffe theory but there has been no real challenge or agreement with this from other quarters (at least not that I have heard off, if you have something please let me know). So basically the jury is still out…

In the end here is what I want to say. If you are looking for a more rounded book on the history of Europe then I would suggest Europe Between the Oceans, which is an amazing tomb that came after this book. It doesn’t out right talk about this theory but is very obviously colored by it. If however you are more specific and want to read about the history of the Atlantic peoples alone then this book is very much for you, just don’t expect a lot of talk about the Celts alone, they are one group but not the only group in that part of the world.

Ancient Europe: Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World


This detailed encyclopedia is the first to explore the many peoples of early European civilization. Viewed as “barbarian” through the lens of ancient Greece and Rome, these civilizations were responsible for such accomplishments as the rise of farming in the Neolithic era and the building of Stonehenge. Coverage extends from prehistoric origins through the early Middle Ages (8000 B.C. to A.D. 1000) when tribal movements helped define the end of ancient culture and the rise of the modern European world. Arrange topically and chronologically Ancient Europe, 8000 B.C. to A.D. 1000 features include 200 illustrations (including the black & white images, color images, and line drawings); 70 maps; a chronology; index; two eight-page color inserts; cartographic end papers; glossary of key archaeological terms and more.


Ancient Europe: Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World talks about European societies between 8000 BCE and 1000 CE. These dates are not arbitrary; 8000 BCE is the time when Europe was freed from glacial ice and modern climate conditions were established and 1000 CE is the time when Christianity spread across northern and eastern Europe and many of the current European states were established. The encyclopedia is written by a knowledgeable team of archaeologists and historians, each writing about their field of expertise.

Ancient Europe is a two volume encyclopedia edited by Peter Bogucki and Pam J. Crabtree. In the introduction they tell us why it is important to study the barbarian societies of Europe. They give us five reasons that are connected to each other. The first is that the barbarian societies provided the technological, economic, social, and cultural foundations for the late medieval and modern European societies that we know from the historical records. By studying this record we can see the precursors to many modern customs and practices, and we get to know how the ancients lived. It also gives us a counterbalance to the view that if it was not written down then it didn’t happen. The introduction also gives us a view of what the authors feel about HOW the archaeological records are used by people. I quote “In studying archeology, it is important to separate the factual evidence and sensible interpretations from the fantasies of those who see archeology as a mirror for their spiritual and political beliefs. Stonehenge is of interest not only to serious archaeologists for what it can tell them about Bronze Age society but also to impressionable and gullible people who believe that it has mystical power.” I found that a bit insulting since Stonehenge is shown to have been a burial place and a place where people may have come for healing in and after the Bronze Age (as the latest excavation into Stonehenge seem to imply). So isn’t the obvious interpretation that the ancients THOUGHT of it as a place of power? How does that make people who believe that today into gullible and impressionable? I guess now we know what the editors’ bias is. I do understand what the editors are talking about though, since most people mistakenly attribute the building of Stonehenge to the Druids or even assume that they may have used it as a place of worship but I believe that they could have made their point with a little more finesse.

Volume one of Ancient Europe covers the period between 8000 – 2000 BCE, the Mesolithic to Copper Age. This volume is further divided into smaller time periods and each one is given its own section.

Part One: Part one is all about how archeology, its development, how it works and what things help the archaeologist give us a complete picture of the pre-historic era. I loved this part because of the explanations given on how archeology developed and what methods archaeologists employ to give us their interpretations of the things they find. The authors of the essays talk about the kinds of things found on digs and how important they are and what can be inferred from them. How things can be dated by looking at how deep they were buried in the ground and how from the climate changes affected how people behaved. In some cases the authors provide case studies that illustrate their point.

Part Two: Post-glacial Foragers from 8000 – 4000 BCE, is the topic of part two. This is where the actual history begins and the authors go all over Europe. I loved the cases that the editors had after some of the articles, especially the one on Mount Sandel. I learned a few things about archeology that I didn’t know before but mostly I learned a lot about the Mesolithic period.

Part Three: Part three is about the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society. It took place between 7000 – 4000 BCE. This part lays down the foundation for the Neolithic package, again the case studies and essays presented give so much information that will be of interest to anyone studying the history of Europe during that time period.

Part Four: This part talks about the time period between 5000 – 2000 BCE. This is the period where farming is solidified and the societies fully adopt the Neolithic Package. I learned a lot in part four when it comes to the kinds of animals and crops grown in the Neolithic period and the cultures prevalent during that time. I also learned all about the consequences of the Neolithic package.

At the end of Volume one there are pictures of some of the places mentioned in the volume.

Volume two of Ancient Europe covers the period between 3000 BCE – 1000 CE, the Bronze Age to Early Middle Ages. This volume is further divided into smaller time periods and each one is given its own section.

Part Five: Masters of Metal 3000 – 1000 BCE. This part is about the emergence of the Bronze Age and the societies that worked with Bronze. The major changes in the Bronze Age come in the form of metallurgy, burials, and power and status among society. This part is amazing in that it explains EVERYTHING. I like the way that they assume the reading is coming to them as a clean slate. I especially loved the essays on Bronze Age Britain and Ireland.

Part Six: The European Iron Age 800 BCE – 400 CE. As with every other phase the beginning and end of the Iron Age really depend on where you are in Europe. The case studies provided really give great examples of what the articles talk about. The part also talks about the different people separately, like the Celts and the Germans.

Part Seven: Early Middle Ages and the Migration period. This part covers the period between 500 CE to 1000 CE. There are three essays in this part that I really enjoyed reading (all the essays are great but these were extra special), the first is on history and archeology and the second is on state formation and the third is on gender. There are also impressive essays on the migrations which includes featured essays on Jutes, Saxons, Angles and so on; as well as Christianity in Ireland at that time period.

At the end of Volume Two, just like Volume One there are pictures of the places mentioned in the volume. At the very end also there is a glossary of terms and an index that is pretty comprehensive.

A MUST HAVE TWO VOLUMES!  These two books are a treasure trove of articles that are simple to read and informative.  Each article is written by someone famous in that field and the editors have tried successfully to give background to pre-history, and archeology in order for the reader to understand what the articles are presenting.