Before the arrival of the Celts in Britain, iron-working had begun in the Hittite Empire, of Asia Minor. Those who practiced the trade kept it a closely guarded secret, but shortly after 1200 BC, the Hittites were overthrown and knowledge of the miracle metal began to leak out. In Central Europe, a culture known as "Urnfield" developed and prospered. It quickly adapted the iron-working culture known as "Hallstatt," after a site in Austria.
One of the most significant elements in the new culture was the system of burial. Important people were buried along with their most precious possessions in timber built chambers under earthen barrows. The Hallstatt people were highly-skilled craftsmen, who used iron, bronze and gold, and produced fine burnished pottery. At some time they reached the British Isles and their culture began to infiltrate those foggy, wet, but mineral-rich islands off the Continent.
From their contact with Mediterraneans, the Hallstatt people had advanced their technology and culture developing into what is called "La Tene" after a site in Switzerland. The La Tene style, with its production of beautiful, handsomely-made and decorated articles, came into existence around the middle of the fifth century BC. It was produced by the Celts, the first people in the islands of Britain whose culture and language survive in many forms today.
Of the Celtic peoples, Hermann Noelle wrote:
The Celtic culture as a whole, developing very early
on about 1000 BC, and reaching its finest expression
around 500 BC, is a fundamental part of Europe's past.
This is not to underrate the subsequent influence of the
Latin and Germanic peoples on this part of Europe. But
the Celtic foundation was already present.
Thus, European culture is inconceivable without the
Celtic contribution. Even when the presence of the Celts
in their original territory is no longer obvious, we must
acknowledge the fact: they are at the root of the Western
European peoples who have made history.
(Die Kelten und Ihre Stadt Manching, cited in Cunliffe, 214)
The arrival of people into the British Isles from the Continent probably took place in small successive waves. The Greeks called these people Keltoi, the Romans Celtai. In present-day Yorkshire, "the Arras Culture" with its La Tene chariot burials attests to the presence of a wealthy and flourishing Celtic society in Northeast Britain. In the southwest, cross-Channel influence is seen. Here, a culture developed that was probably highly involved in the mining and trading of tin; it is characterized by a certain type of hill fort that is also found in Britanny.
Hill Forts from the Iron-Age, the age of the Celts, are found everywhere in the British Isles. Spectacular relics from prehistoric times, hill forts had as many purposes as sites. They varied from shelters for people and livestock in times of danger, purely local settlements of important leaders and their families, to small townships and administrative centers. Long practiced in the art of warfare, the people of these isolated settlements were responsible for some of the finest known artistic achievements. In addition to their beautifully wrought and highly decorated shields, daggers, spears, helmets and sword, they also produced superb mirrors, toilet articles, drinking vessels and personal jewelry of exquisite form and decoration.
The Celts in Britain used a language derived from a branch of Celtic known as either Brythonic, which gave rise to Welsh, Cornish and Breton; or Goidelic, giving rise to Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx. Along with their languages, the Celts brought their religion to Britain, particularly that of the Druids, the guardians of traditions and learning. The Druids glorified the pursuits of war, feasting and horsemanship. They controlled the calender and the planting of crops and presided over the religious festivals and rituals that honored local deities.
Many of Britain's Celts came from Gaul, driven from their homelands by the Roman armies and Germanic tribes. These were the Belgae, who arrived in great numbers and settled in the southeast around 75 BC. They brought with them a sophisticated plough that revolutionized agriculture in the rich, heavy soils of their new lands. Their society was well-organized in urban settlements, the capitals of the tribal chiefs. Their crafts were highly developed; bronze urns, bowls and torques illustrate their metalworking skills. They also introduced coinage to Britain and conducted a lively export trade with Rome and Gaul, including corn, livestock, metals and slaves.
Of the Celtic lands on the mainland of Britain, Wales and Scotland have received extensive coverage in the pages of Britannia. The largest non-Celtic area, at least linguistically, is now known as England, and it is here that the Roman influence is most strongly felt. It was here that the armies of Rome came to stay, to farm, to mine, to build roads, small cities, and to prosper, but mostly to govern.
Part 2: The Roman Period