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Contrasting two regions of Britain, discuss how settlement forms can inform us about the varied nature of Iron Age societies

In an analysis of settlements and houses which seeks the principles behind the organisation of activity we are confronting historical processes. The selection of a settlement site, the mobilisation of the resources of labour and skills for construction, the granting of land-rights through inheritance, all such factors are dynamic and socially derived” Barrett (1981) p214

The expansion of population and material culture during the British Iron Age includes a huge expansion in the settlement record to include a wide variety of settlement forms (Haselgrove 2009; Todd 2014), a phenomenon which is taken to indicate the diversification of societal structures. The extent to which areas of Britain diversified socially is hard to establish and something which has created considerable discussion. Henderson (2007b) argues that areas as far apart as the South West peninsular and Orkney can be seen to have shared in one, largely homogenous, Atlantic culture, a claim Sharples (2010a) believes “remains to be proven”. Whilst in no way equipped to fully answer the broad question of societal change this essay will attempt to illustrate the possible interpretations of settlement evidence to highlight some of the structures which may have existed in Iron Age Britain. In particular the essay will focus on the importance of warfare/peace and hierarchy/heterarchy as two of the key factors which make up a society, and which may been most clearly evidenced in settlement forms. The regions focussed upon by this essay will be the South West of England and the Atlantic coast of Scotland.

Settlement design

The forms taken by settlement during the British Iron Age vary widely across both time and region. One of the most heavily discussed forms of settlement is hillforts. But the definition for “hillfort” varies considerably across the country which can be misleading (Cunliffe 2005). Other forms of settlement include farmsteads, either enclosed or open; promontory forts; oppida; banjo enclosures; Cornish “rounds” and brochs and duns in Scotland. Most areas have a predominance of timber-built structures, though, in some areas, particularly in Scotland, settlements can be stone-built (Haselgrove 2009). Enclosing features also vary in materials, as well as in form and size. It is not just the external form, or the materials, that differentiates settlements. The internal use of settlements also varies. Wheelhouses show a spoke-like arrangement of rooms, similar to that of a courtyard house (Cripps 2007) and there is evidence to show that the spatial use of apparently undivided roundhouses also had distinct special patterns of use (Foster 1989).

Identifying regions

Defining and identifying a “region” of Britain is difficult: approaches vary from Fox’s (1932, cited in Cunliffe 2005) division of Britain into Highland and Lowland areas to discussion of their culture and societal organisation. Rarely do regions from Prehistoric periods line up with our current geographical divisions. Traditional divisions based on the tribal distinctions between regions as described by Roman literature do not necessarily match the regional variations in culture and material evidence (Cunliffe 2005). Even using cultural variations as an analytical basis, it can be hard to distinguish regions, either due to lack of evidence, or from confusions of definitions.

For example, Eastern England shows fairly ephemeral evidence for inhabitation, arguably due to predominance of unenclosed settlement, though recent work has begun to expand the archaeological record. Tremlett et al (2011) for example, note that much of the settlement evidence in Norfolk is from aerial surveys as part of the National Mapping Programme (NMP) and remains unexcavated, leading to minimal interpretation. Furthermore, in 2011 just 28% of the county had been covered by the NMP. Archaeologists currently have most information about the area known as Wessex, which covers central and southern regions in England (Haselgrove 2009). “Wessex” covers Wiltshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire (Payne et al 2006), but can also include Severn-Cotswolds (cf Moore 2007a; 2007b) and the Welsh Marches.

The Atlantic West has been argued to have distinct patterns, and as a result has been treated sharing settlement influences; though the extent of these influences has been brought into question by the differences also visible (Sharples 2010a). Cunliffe (1994, p13) separated Britain into 4 main zones: Atlantic West, North Sea Zone, Channel Zone and “the rest”. However, throughout his book he uses: Central South; North East; North West; South West England, South West Wales and Ireland; Kent, the Thames Estuary and East Anglia, and Yorkshire to divide up the country further. Other authors have subdivided Britain into: Scotland, South East England, Wessex, Eastern England, Wales/South West England, Kent and the Upper Thames Valley (Hunter and Ralston 2009) or the Midlands, Upper Thames Valley, South West England, English-Scottish Border, Wales, Ireland, Wessex and Scotland (2007). Specific regions have also been picked out for discussion by a variety of authors. These include the Severn Estuary and Cotswolds; Kent; Atlantic West; Hertfordshire; Cornwall and Devon; Eastern Scotland showing how many alternatives there can be for dividing the country into regions.

Settlement and Society



As demonstrated above there are many possible regions and settlement types for the Iron Age in Britain, and several regions have been the focus of a greater body of work than the South West (Henderson 2007b); however, the choice of the Atlantic regions of Scotland, and the South West peninsular allows for the discussion of two regions geographically separated and as far distant as possible within Britain, but with evidence to suggest a certain level of shared cultural identity. This is not to argue that the regions were culturally identical, but that the similarities are such that they can be and have been discussed together within the same over-arching identification factor of belonging to the northern Atlantic seaboard of Europe (Scott 1947; Henderson 2007a, 2007b).

Like most of the rest of Britain, the Iron Age in the South West and Atlantic Scotland was dominated by round houses, both enclosed and open. Settlements and houses vary in size and design. In Scotland houses are often stone-built, and the most well-known forms are the brochs and wheelhouses, some of which remain visible and upstanding today (see figure 1). In Cornwall and Devon roundhouses can be either stone-built or timbered, with many houses on Dartmoor being built in stone, as well as the courtyard houses at Chysauster. Promontory forts are also known in both Scotland and the South West (Henderson 2007a). Hillforts, though often smaller than Wessex style hillforts, can be found in both Devon and Cornwall (Cripps 2007). Other settlement forms include courtyard houses, generally in village groups (Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly), though the dates for these remain disputed, with some authors placing them in the Iron Age (Cripps 2007) and others in the Roman period (Quinnell 1986); duns, both galleried and simple in Scotland; and souterrains (Cornwall and Scotland) (Blackwood 2003; Henderson 2007a). Souterrains are also known as fogous in Cornwall, but they are remarkably similar to the underground houses of both Scotland and Amorica (Wainwright 1963 cited in Williamson 2013).

Recent approaches to social organisation in the Iron Age have tended towards the views of Crumley (1995, cited in Cripps 2007) who argued that society was increasingly heterarchical; with settlement evidence which suggests that the main component units of social structure were small and largely decentralised (Ralston and Ashmore 2007; Cripps 2007). This heterarchical view can be supported by the evidence from the South West peninsular, especially Cornwall, where round, hillslope enclosures and unenclosed settlements make up almost the entirety of the evidence (Cripps 2007) suggesting that settlement was in fact fairly homogeneous, without differentiated elite sites. Quinnell (2004) however has developed a theory for the later Iron Age which revolves around the concept of different settlement types for different status families in Cornwall, arguing that there were tiers of society, with those living in the rounds occupying a higher social strata those in hillslope enclosures, with hillforts and promontory castles as communal or ritual locations, used less for settlement. However, the material record from both round and hillslope enclosures, has very little differentiation meaning that many authors choose to consider the two catagories equivalent (Cripps 2007).

The importance of the diameter of a roundhouse may also have potential importance. At Bodrifty it was found that larger roundhouses were more recent than the smaller examples (Dudley 1956; Cripps 2007; Todd 2014). Conversely excavations from Kestor gave rather different results, with similar dates for both the Round Pound- a large roundhouse in its own oval enclosure- and the smaller roundhouse also excavated (Fox 1955). The reasons for the differences in these two locations is unclear, but the evidence from Kestor could be taken to support a more hierarchical view of society, in which the size of domestic structures reflects the power and status of the individuals who reside there (Henderson 2007b; Needham 2007). It is this approach to societal structuring which dominates the understanding of many authors discussing the evidence from Atlantic Scotland. Parker Pearson et al (1996: 60) suggest that the forms taken by the brochs of the Western Isles and Orkney are “overstated” and that they represent “social distancing [of the inhabitants] through domestic isolation” with “absurdly thick” walls. In this view, the domestic architecture is the main signifier of status, possibly supported by the act of enclosure (Ralston and Ashmore 2007). Henderson (2007b) observes that the social hierarchy system may have been different in Scotland and the South West, and that the markers for higher status might also have differed. He argues that the act of enclosure may have been more important in Cornwall and Devon, where there are no structures as obviously dominant as brochs, if indeed hierarchy was denominated by settlement forms at all. Campbell (1991), looking at a wheelhouse in North Uist notes that the size of dwellings may simply relate to the size of family living there, rather than to social status. Furthermore, whilst the communal construction efforts required in building such monumental buildings as wheelhouses and brochs have been linked to the control of a community by a leader, Campbell observes that this sort of effort is possible in both hierarchical and unranked societies.

It remains important to note that, on the whole the current understanding of both regions in the Iron Age is that they are more heterarchical than in previous centuries. Whilst Parker Pearson et al (1996) claim that the brochs appear to show higher social status, they do not argue that the inhabitants were chieftains, or that they had control of the surrounding settlements. Indeed they, like Scott (1947), consciously avoid the “castles” theory of Childe (1935). Instead Scott argued that the brochs were ultimately farmhouses, placed near cultivated land (Fojut 1982; Armit 1992) and defensible against raiders.

However, the question of defence and warfare has become more complex since Scott was writing. Where before the notions of hillforts and a warrior elite were key elements of any Iron Age discussion, more recently there has been a move towards “diverse and heterogeneous small-scale societies” (James 2007: 160) whose focus was on farming. This view has been argued to be largely going against the evidence available (James 2007). Haselgrove et al (2001) cautioned against the loss of any understanding of the possible conflict and violence of the Iron Age, it is none the less still an idea which maintains some integrity. One of the key reasons for the “pacified past” (Keeley 1996) seen in current writing on the Iron Age is the re-evaluation of evidence derived from the study of hillforts. The views of Wheeler (1943) and Cunliffe (1995) have been replaced by those of Hill (1995) and Sharples (2010b), whose ideas are largely supported by the evidence from Cornwall and Devon. Hillforts in the South West are generally argued to have had minimal occupation, however with only very small scale excavations a long time ago, it is hard to draw conclusions (Cripps 2007). Several hillforts which have been excavated do show settlement evidence, in the form of round and rectilinear structures eg Blackbury Castle, Woodbury Castle, Castle Dore. Whilst settlement may be less obvious or dense than at other settlement sites it doesn’t mean that these locations were not important to their communities. Whether the role of promontory castles in Cornwall and Devon was the same as hillforts as suggested by Quinnell (2004) or not, is also hard to establish, but there is evidence of Bronze Age use from some promontory forts, suggesting that their role may have been in religion and ritual, as well as possibly providing a meeting place for the community (Cripps 2007). Where excavated promontory castles often seem to have evidence of long term use, with settlement evidence from The Rumps in Wadebridge giving suggested dates from the 4th century BC to the mid-1st century AD (Quinnell 1985). Other evidence for regular use, if not necessarily occupation, is also common; for example, Trevelgue where pottery and iron working were in clear evidence (Nowakowski 2000). Cripps suggests that the roles of both hillforts and promontory castles were varied, and may have differed from site to site, including ritual use, seasonal gatherings or as a symbol of group identity (see Giles 2007 and Lock 2011). There is little discussion however of the use of hillforts as defensive locations in times of strife.

This may also be connected to the concept of the control of power within the Later Iron Age being maintained by the re-appropriation of the past (Cripps 2007). This leads to the argument that acts of enclosure around settlements, and the building of new settlements was a means of taking control of the landscape. A similar occurrence is noted by Cunliffe (2006) where he notes that many of the broch sites in Caithness and Orkney were built over earlier occupation sequences, for example at Dun Lagaith and Crosskirk. The concept of increased territorialisation of the land is connected to the idea that societies in the Iron Age may have used symbolism as a form of social dominance, though this does not rule out regular occurrences of interpersonal violence, as opposed to warfare (James 2007). However, whether or not symbolism can fully explain the ramparts and walls of the brochs, duns, promontory castles and other defended settlements in Scotland, and to some extent the South West, remains to be established.

This essay has demonstrated the complicated nature of settlement in two regions of Britain and has explored some of the interpretations which can be applied to the evidence provided. It is important to note however that the settlement evidence alone cannot answer all the questions. This is shown through a brief discussion of settlement typologies.

Where Quinnell (1986) has identified hillslope enclosures as belonging to an intermediary social level, between hillfort elites and those occupying rounds, the differences between hillslope enclosures and rounds has been considerably exaggerated (Cripps 2007). Although Cunliffe (2005) differentiates them by means of sizing, other scholars have done so by location, with rounds being exclusive to Cornwall and hillslope enclosures to Devon (Silvester 1979). Regardless of how they are defined, Cripps (1986) notes that the material assemblages from the two differ very little, suggesting that in fact much of the variation noted by archaeologists between settlement forms is less meaningful than they might believe. Armit (1991) took a similar approach to the settlement evidence of Scotland, arguing that the term Atlantic roundhouse, applied to a broad range of “thick-walled, roofed monumental buildings” was a more accurate and less divisive means of identifying settlement types. It also ensures that differences identified stem from the record of the assemblage, rather than the appearance of the building. However, this can create confusion, after all a broch as defined as “a round, drystone, tower-like building” with a “high hollow wall” (MacKie 1965: 100 quoted in Parker Pearson et al 1996) is a very specific description. Similarly Barrett (1981) acknowledged a very wide range of variability within the broch category saying that there could be no “neatness in the classification”.

The variety of terms and means of identification of settlement forms highlights one of the most problematic aspects of using settlement to discuss social structure. Whilst settlements will undoubtedly reflect society, the extent to which they do so can be very difficult to establish; and the intentionality of this reflection is equally unclear, meaning that any conclusions drawn from settlement forms alone will always fall under harsh scrutiny. Therefore whilst the discussion of settlement forms is unquestionably useful in examining potential ideas for the social structure of the Iron Age, or any other period of history, it is important to remember that the archaeological record as a whole is necessary for truly getting to grips with past societies.

As Barrett (1981- above) indicated, identifying the rules of a constantly changing and evolving society from the settlement remains left behind thousands of years later will always miss some of the depth of the reality. This said, it is possible to establish that there was a huge variety of form, size and distribution of settlements in the Iron Age. These settlement forms help us to see the complexities of Iron Age society, where “inequalities operated horizontally” beneath a largely heterarchical structure (Cripps 2007: 153) leading to small localised communities and building traditions, and where competition was expressed in a variety of different forms.

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