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The Iron Age   800BC-43AD
Museum Guide

Gallery Guide
Curators Introduction
List of Displays

Curator's Introduction

The Iron Age in south-eastern Britain is conventionally dated from 800 B.C. to the Roman invasion of 43 A.D.

Debate over the extent to which Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age society overlap (Cunliffe 1991:27), as well as the extent of Romanisation of Iron Age communities in the Late Iron Age (Cunliffe 1991:434-442) continues.

This span of eight hundred and fifty years can be seen to cover the period when Britain and southern Britain in particular underwent a series of developments that ultimately led to the incorporation of Britain into the Roman Empire.

The only written evidence for the period comes from observers from the classical world, geographers from Greek communities and from Roman writers such as Julius Caeser who provided early texts describing the geography and populations of Britain in the later Iron Age.

The traditional scheme for dating Iron Age sites places a heavy reliance on regional pottery styles and attempts to define areas of use for different styles (Cunliffe 1991:60), although for later periods the increasing appearance of dateable small finds such as coins and brooches allow for a greater refinement of the periods and phases.

A number of regional cultures have been proposed for each phase of the Iron Age based on pottery style, with a number of type-sites for each culture providing the dated assemblages.

During the Earliest Iron Age (800-600 B.C.) pottery of the West Harling-Staple Howe Group is found on sites in Kent, in the Early Iron Age (600-400/300 B.C.) the pottery is of the Park Brow-Caesar's Camp Group while the Middle Iron Age (400/300-100 B.C.) 'Wealden Culture' is now seen as an extension of the broader Muckling-Crayford Style (Cunliffe 1991:60-93).

Finally the Late Iron Age (100B.C. - 43 A.D.) sees the emergence of a number of clearly identifiable Iron Age tribal kingdoms in the southeast, in Kent the Cantii have their own developed material culture tradition although the area may have been divided amongst four kings (Cunliffe 1991:147).

The final phase of the Late Iron Age across Kent, Essex and the Upper Thames Valley sees the emergence of a new culture named after two type-sites as the Aylesford-Swarling culture characterised by new styles of fast-wheel made pottery (Cunliffe 1991:130).

This British culture has many similarities with the Belgic areas of Northern Gaul that led many archaeologists to view the culture as the result of invasions of people from Europe, possibly fleeing the Roman expansion in continental Europe, and refer to it as 'Belgic'.

Other continental goods such as wine Amphorae and fine pottery were also imported during this period. This view was challenged by developments in theoretical models which argued that these changes could be the result of an increase in trade and exchange (of goods, ideas and technology) rather than the invasion of large numbers of people (Cunliffe 1991:549-552).

Whichever interpretation is put forward it is clear that there is a change towards the end of the Late Iron Age as a result of increased contact with parts of Northern Gaul and that appearance of 'Belgic' pottery marks a change in Late Iron Age society.
The introduction of coinage is another important Late Iron Age development (Holman 2000) with the first coins in Kent dating to the second century B.C. Speculation about the role that Late Iron Age coinage played has led to the development of two conflicting interpretations.

The first sees coins fulfilling specialised roles such as religious offerings (Cunliffe 1991:512). The increasing number of coins recovered and catalogued in recent years, often as the result of co-operation between archaeologists and metal detectorists, has led to a reassessment of the role played by some types of Late Iron Age coinage.

David Holman has suggested that certain types of coins such as the potins, which are the commonest type found on the Isle of Thanet, were used for trade and  exchange (2000:230).

The construction of hill forts and, later, large enclosed settlements known as oppida across much of Britain is another feature of the Iron Age; these sites are viewed as the centres for local chiefdoms or kings and the control and influence that these sites would have exerted over the surrounding area is seen as part of the increasing levels of social complexity seen through the Iron Age.

Although there are fewer hill forts in the southeast (Dyer 1981:5-6) a number of Iron Age sites on the Isle of Thanet have been proposed as the possible locations of hill forts, including the North Foreland area (Hogwood 1995, Perkins 1993), South Dumpton Down (Perkins 1994) and Fort Hill/Trinity Square Margate (Perkins 1999, Morley forthcoming).


Cunliffe B. 1991. Iron Age Communities in Britain. Routledge.

Hogwood P. 1995. Investigations at North Foreland Hill. Archaeologia Cantiana CXV p475

Perkins DRJ 1993. ‘North Foreland Avenue, Broadstairs’. Archaeologia Cantiana CXII p411

List of Displays

Iron Age Coins from the Isle of Thanet

Oliver Gardner

Version 1 - Posted  14.07.05


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