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Iron Age 800 BC to AD 43

Farmers and Fighters

Iron gradually replaced bronze for the weapons of fighting and tools for farming during the 7th century BC. It is possible that iron deposits found in Cornwall were exploited at this early date (Trevelgue). In Cornwall more significant cultural and social changes may have occurred both before and after the adoption of iron, which is not now thought to have been introduced by invaders; pottery styles changed completely in the Later Bronze Age, and hillforts and defended farmsteads were not widely constructed until the fourth century BC.

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It is these defended sites which characterise the period, though unenclosed settlements of round houses and fields may always have been equally common; these however have been obliterated by 2000 years of continuing agricultural activity.

The hillforts were defended by substantial earth, rubble or stone ramparts topped by wooden palisades or stone walls and had deep, sometimes rock cut, ditches. Fortified gateways through the formidable defences gave access to well organised permanent settlements of round houses; evidence of metalworking is sometimes found. (Castle an Dinas, Castle Dore, Warbstow Bury, St Dennis, Helsbury). Similar sites known as cliff castles were sited on coastal promontories or headlands; these are often in very exposed locations and some may have been only temporary refuges. (Mayon, Treryn Dinas, Gurnard's Head, Rame Head, Trevelgue, The Rumps). Another variation of the hillfort is the 'multiple enclosure', with either an annexe or a series of widely spaced ramparts, thought to be for the corralling of cattle.

The strongly defended hillforts, cliff castles and multiple enclosures were economic and social centres (places for display, for trade and politics as well as defence and power) strongholds of the aristocracy or tribal chiefs who wielded considerable power over the surrounding countryside, their wealth perhaps expressed in cattle, their position bolstered by tribute from the surrounding farmers. Classical authors portray the Britons as dominated by a warrior aristocracy fond of fighting, feasting and boasting and incapable of concerted action. The sheer number of hillforts in Cornwall (over 80) seems to tell the same story.

Contrasting with these strongly defended sites are the 'rounds', farmsteads and hamlets defended by a single rampart and found not on hilltops but on hillslopes and spurs in generally favoured farmland. Many hundreds are known throughout Cornwall. Found at a few settlements in West Cornwall are the mysterious stone-built tunnels known as 'fogous' (Cornish for 'cave'; eg Carn Euny, Halliggye). Examples found in rounds (eg. Halliggye) may have an exit running out beneath the rampart. This lends credence to the theory that they were used as temporary refuges during brief onslaughts by raiding parties, but a case can also be made for use as cold stores (eg. for dairy products) or as structures used for religious purposes.

Burial was in cemeteries of pit-graves, sometimes lined with stone, with the dead placed on their side in a crouched position, and normally aligned north-south. Little is found with them, usually just the brooch that fastened their clothes.

Read about Iron Age monuments