Early Iron Age Huntingdonshire

Early Iron Age occupation in the County of Huntingdonshire in England


The history of the first millennium B.C. in this country presents many difficult problems, of which the most important is the date of introduction of the knowledge and use of Iron, and its mode of entry- by commerce or conquest. The metal was known and used in Central Europe from 1000 B.C. onwards, and the early part of the Age (1000-500 B.C.) is known as the Hallstatt period, from the type station in Upper Austria, where the transition from Bronze to Iron has been closely studied in a series of burial deposits. Certain exotic metal objects characteristic of this culture (bronze razors, buckets, scabbard chapes, etc.) occur in Britain in association with late Bronze period bronzes, but not with iron,1 and it is reasonable to suppose that these were brought in by way of trade and do not indicate that iron was in use here. Other metal objects of Hallstatt type, such as brooches, have from time to time been found in Britain, but in no case in such association as would enable us to say that they were owned here by iron-using folk. On the other hand, Hallstatt pottery forms occur in certain sites in Britain associated with iron objects; the main question that arises here is that of date. Huntingdonshire yields important evidence bearing on these problems.

A Hallstatt brooch found in a tumulus at ‘Ford Green,’ probably in Water Newton parish, where the Ermine Street afterwards crossed the river Nene,2 is recorded by Artis.3 It is of Italian type, horned and spring less, and its associated objects-bronze bangles with overlapping and knobbed terminals-are not inconsistent with the seventh century B.C. date which must be assigned to the brooch. The tantalising inadequacy of the record does not enable us to draw any definite conclusions from the discovery. Barrow burial by inhumation, with grave-goods was characteristic of the Hallstatt period in France; sporadic raids may have long preceded the settlement of iron users in Britain, and the Ford Green barrow may be a memorial of such a raid.

Pottery of Hallstatt type has been recorded at several sites in South England; at Grantchester and Hauxton in Cambridgeshire; and at Fengate, Peterborough. The type-station of the culture of which this pottery is the essential element is all Cannings Cross Farm, Wiltshire.4 Now, the brooch-forms found on this site belonged to the early phase of the La Tene culture which developed out of the Hallstatt culture, and it does not therefore appear likely that a date earlier than 500-400 B. C. can be assigned to the invasion and settlement of the folk who lived here. This evidence must at present be held to fix the date of the Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire settlements. We may be sure that the makers of this pottery were invaders, for among primitive folk pot making is a home industry, intensely conservative, and sudden changes in type indicate a cultural break and the presence of new-comers.

The Fengate site is outside our area; but Abbott has found at Woodstone, on the Huntingdonshire side of the Nene valley, a contemporary settlement of the same folk, and we may therefore provisionally date the entry of iron-using peoples into our county at about 500 B. C. They came, there is little doubt, from the Rhine lands, entering by the same route that previous invaders came and later invaders were to come; shepherded into the Wash by the trend of the coast line, they pushed up the Fen rivers and landed on the first patches of upland which they reached; these being, for such of the seafarers as chose the Nene, Fengate and Stanground. Some doubtless took the Ouse channel where it joined the Nene at or near Benwick; for these the Somersham spur offered a convenient landing place. The early bowl, handmade, with angular shoulder and ‘fingertip’ ornament, in the Cambridge Museum (Plate I., 6) is evidence for this occupation, as may also be the iron dagger or short sword, 13-14 in. long, from Earith, in the Wisbech Museum5 and a bronze chape from Warboys in the British Museum.

Fig 6

Hallstatt type Bowl (Half scale)

Hallstatt type Bowl (Half scale)


Samples of the Woodstone pottery, which is fragmentary, are figured diagrammatically. The restoration of the concave base (omphalos) of fig. 6 is certain, many examples having been found at Fengate. This form, based on metal originals, is characteristic of the first phase of the Early Iron Age in this country. The raised cable mouldings of the large cooking pot, fig. 7 (which is figured on half the scales of the others), is met with on a vessel of the former class from Fengate, and its contemporaneity may be accepted. This post shows, in addition, rough scratched decoration, characteristic of the Early Iron Age in East Anglia. Another characteristic ornament on the ruder pots is a series of incised lines intersecting and forming a diamond-shaped pattern; while other fragments from the site are combed from top to bottom.

Fig 7

Iron Age Cooking Pot (Quarter scale)

Iron Age Cooking Pot (Quarter scale)


These Woodstone finds came from a series of pits in the gravel (Hicks’ and Baker’s quarries) from 3 ft. to 5 ft. deep and from 5 ft. to 10 ft. diameter.6 The early pottery was always at the bottom, mixed with burnt (crazed) flints and other pot-boilers, and animal bones unburnt and split to extract the marrow. The burnt stones in one place appeared to form a hearth. Three or four skeletons (extended burial) were found in the occupied area by the gravel diggers, but no associated remains indicated their age. Inhumation seems, however, to have been re-introduced into this country by the iron-using folk, and the burials may well be contemporary. It may here be noted that among the few metal objects found in the Woodstone pits was a socketed iron gouge similar to that figured by Cunnington from All Cannings Cross (Plate XX, 1).

Little is known of the sequence of pottery forms during the Early Iron Age. In the neighbouring county of Cambridge the so-called ‘Belgic’ cremation culture (the type-station of which is at Aylesford, Kent) was introduced together with the use of the potter’s wheel, about 50 B.C. Very few examples of the wares (pedestalled and cordoned vases) associated with this culture have been found in Huntingdonshire, and these are not wholly characteristic; it is hardly safe to date them earlier that the Christian era. Dr. J. R. Garrood has fragments of wheel-made cordoned bowls and pots which are certainly influenced by this culture, recently found together with other Early Iron Age wares, in gravel pits near Weybridge Farm, Alconbury. These pits are situated in a lateral valley of the Ouse west of Huntingdon. One or two fragmentary vessels, later in type and dating probably in the middle of the first century A. D., come from the Nene valley. An example from the Woodstone pits is figured (fig 8). It is of well-baked gritted ware, brownish-red in colour, the surface polished with a spatula in the native manner.

Fig 8

Iron Age Cordoned Bowl (Half scale)

Iron Age Cordoned Bowl (Half scale)


The early (Hallstatt) and late (‘Belgic’) pottery apart, there is a wide range of hand-made wares found in East Anglia, the forms and paste of which we are learning to consider characteristically Early Iron Age; these we must place within the long period from about 300 B.C. to the early first century A.D. Such native wares, indeed, survived for some time the Roman conquest, and influenced the ceramic of the Roman period, but with this development we are not here concerned.

Fig 9

Iron Age Cup (Half scale)

Iron Age Cup (Half scale)


Three examples of these wares from Woodstone are here figured. Fig. 9 shows a cup, a common form in the district; it is probably derived from the ‘omphalos’ bowl already referred to, for the base is usually slightly ‘dished,’ and our specimen is thus restored. Fig. 10, a cooking pot of coarse black ware containing fragments of flint and shell, is also a form frequently met with; it shows scratched ornament, like fig. 7. The character and surface technique of Early Iron Age wares are well shown by an example on Plate I., 7, also from Woodstone. Similar pots or sherds have been met with at Weybridge Farm and Water Newton. From a gravel pit in the latter parish is derived a wheel-made pot of reddish ware full of pounded flint, now in the Bodger Collection, Peterborough Museum. It was possibly associated with a cremation burial, for it is recorded that ‘charcoal’ was found with it.7

Fig 10

Iron Age Cooking Pot (Half scale)

Iron Age Cooking Pot (Half scale)


A very interesting settlement of the Early Iron Age was found in 1905 by Major A. N. Leeds in the London Brick Company’s Yard No 1 at Fletton.8 A deep and broad belt of gravel (referred to on p. 196) was found to strike across the brick-earth (Oxford Clay); and in the centre of this ancient river channel 1 ft. below the present surface was a layer of black, muddy, peaty soil about 4 ft. to 5 ft. in thickness. This peat or mud contained quantities of animal and some human bones. The animal bones were, interalia, pig (two kinds), deer, bos, dog, horse; and it was noticed that in practically every case the larger bones had been split to extract the marrow. Numbers of red deer’s horns were found, and many had been converted into picks. The mud also contained quantities of brushwood and some heavy pieces of wood. A few pottery fragments definitely of the Early Iron Age (such as the hand-made un-decorated bowl of black gritted ware here figured, fig. 11) were found mixed with the bones. Five circular pits in a line were noticed, each about 5 ft. deep and 6 ft. in diameter, filled with peat and mud and below the level of the peat layer.

Fig 11

Iron Age Bowl (Half scale)

Iron Age Bowl (Half scale)


During 1908, when the men were working north-east of the above site a similar layer of mud was found by Abbott, which was in many respects the same as that described above and was probably part of the same deposit. In this mud quantities of split bones and some worked bones were found. Human remains were also found with the animal bones; the skulls were always fragmentary and the pieces frequently gnawed by dogs or (?) wolves.

A quantity of brushwood, at times 2 ft, thick, was found just inside the place where the greater quantity of the bones were found. This brushwood layer contained no bones, but a few split bones were found below it. In several places cut and shaped piles had been driven into pits dug or sunk below the level of the black layer. The piles found were usually about 4 in. to 6 in. in diameter and were of oak or ash; the bases were cut to a V. The piles had notches cut at intervals up to the top of the mud layer where they had been broken off. They appeared to be at the edge of the brushwood, but this is not certain. Steam navvies were used to remove the material, and this made archaeological examination difficult. Abbott surmises that this site consisted of a series of pile dwellings that had been constructed in the swamp which evidently existed in this place; this swamp was caused partly by the brook to the east flooding, and partly by the presence of a buried river.

A hafted iron knife, a ferrule of horn for a spear shaft, and an axe of horn are here figured (Plate II., 14, 15, 16). Close parallels occurred at Glastonbury, and there is no doubt of the Early Iron Age date of the Fletton settlement.9 The mode of hafting of the knife is identical with that in use to-day for cheap kitchen knives. A deep saw cut is made in a piece of horn, into which the broad tang of the blade is inserted; tow iron rivets fix it securely in position. The horn socket, which has a rivet hole, probably formed the butt of a spear-shaft or some such purpose. It is made of the tine of an antler of red deer. A similar object was found at All Cannings Cross (op. cit., pl. xiii., 12) The axe is made of the burr and part of the shaft of a large antler of red deer, pierced with a circular hole for the haft, and pointed; the point is injured by use. The type has a long history, and as a late example this axe is of special interest.

Though no pile dwellings have as yet been recorded from the Fens, it is probable that they existed; and the Fletton site invites comparison with the Terremare of Italy. A small group of Lake-dwellers, we may suppose, for some reason left the Fens for the uplands and chose a site where they could most easily reproduce the environment, and practise the arts to which they were accustomed.10

Fig 12

Iron Age tribal groups in and around Huntingdonshire

Iron Age tribal groups in and around Huntingdonshire


No mention has yet been made of the British coins found in Huntingdonshire. Though scanty, they are of interest as indicative of the political orientation of the district in the century preceding the Claudian Conquest in A.D. 43. A coin of Tasciovanus, King of the Catuvellauni, has been found at St Ives, and uninscribed coins of a type widespread, but mainly found in South England, come from Huntingdon and Great Gransden.11 A coin of Cunobelinus, moreover, is recorded from the Nene valley just outside Huntingdonshire border. These coins, then, suggest that the western borders of the Fens were in Catuvellaunian territory (see sketch map, fig. 12), as were Southern Cambridge, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. Icenian influence, which on the evidence of coin finds was dominant in the Southern Fens,12 evidently did not penetrate their western borders.

The evidence, then, though scanty, is sufficient to demonstrate that our county was occupied throughout the Early Iron Age from about 500 B. C. onwards, and that the areas of settlement coincided in the main with those occupied in the preceding age. In not wholly Catuvellaunian, Huntingdonshire was probably within the sphere of influence of Tasciovanus, whose capital was Verulamium, and his successors.

Culturally in the present Age Huntingdonshire appears to have been influenced from the east rather than the west. Such ornamental details as occur on Early Iron Age pottery are definitely East Anglian. In south-west Britain typical La Tene curvilinear ornament is met with on pottery; this fashion spread north-eastwards and is met with on the ceramic of the hill fort of Hunsbury in the Nene valley, Northamptonshire. No such flowing curves occur on any shreds seen from Huntingdonshire, and only one fragment, from Woodstone, gives any hint that the natives were acquainted with this mode of decoration.13


  1. Except in the Llyn Fawr (Glamorganshire) hoard, which may be as late as the second half of the first millennium B.C. (see Dr. R.E.M. Wheeler, Arch. lxxi, 133).

  2. Information supplied by Mr. G. Wyman Abbott.

  3. Durobrivae, plate xxxi.

  4. Cunnington, M. E., The Early Iron Age inhabited site at All Cannings Cross Farm, Wilts. Simpson, Devizes, 1923.

  5. It has an iron guard with knob terminals, suggestive of an ‘anthropoid’ hilt of the La Tene period. The pommel is, however, lost it is thus difficult to be sure that the dagger is prehistoric.

  6. Some of these shallow pits were undoubtedly hut sites. The occurrence of such on the Fenland borders recalls a visit the writer made twenty-five years ago with Dr. L. Cobbett of Cambridge, to a fenman’s hut used for temporary shelter for tools, in the fens, near Cambridge, which closely resembled, it may be, the permanent dwellings of Iron Age and earlier folk in our district. That this hut was, at all events, a direct survival of primitive Fenland habitation need not be doubted.

Fig 13

Iron Age Hut

Iron Age Hut


The diagram (fig 13) shows the mode of construction; the floor was first excavated to a sufficient depth to allow of a seat being formed all round the central open space, open save for the post supporting the roof, near which lay the ashes of a hearth. Part of the excavated material was built up into a low wall on which the rafters rested. No trace of this wall was visible from outside, for the reed thatching extended to the ground level. Entrance was gained by means of a gap in the thatch and the encircling wall; the visitor stooping, descended several steps into the cavernous darkness, for the low entrance provided the only means by which the interior was lighted. Knives and other tools were, it was noted, commonly stuck in the thatch above the sitting place of the individual occupant. The hut was warm, dry, draughtless and comfortable; and the primitive practise of excavating for a habitation instead of building on ground level, so strange to our notions, was here seen to conduce to comfort. The sketch-from memory- is not to scale; for, unfortunately, no measurements were taken by us.


  1. No late Early Iron Age cremation cemeteries or isolated burials by cremation are known to exist in Huntingdonshire. It is thus at present very doubtful whether the ‘Aylesford’ culture of south-east England, already referred to, can be said to have reached the county.

  2. Fields no. 137 and 160 Ordnance Survey, 25 in. to the mile, 1887 Edition. (G. W. A.)

  3. G. W. A. has also a circular loom weight of baked clay, polished rib bones, and fragments of bronze and iron from the site.

  4. On either flank of this settlement Romano-British remains have been found in some quantities, but always on a higher level, and on dry ground. This interesting fact suggests that the marsh folk deserted their ancient dwellings, and lived a more civilised life on dry land, when the Pax Romana was established.

  5. Great Gransden probably lies on a traffic route from the Ouse valley to the Cam valley (Fox, op. cit., p. 154).

  6. Fox, op. cit., pp. 88-90

  7. Fox. op. cit., p. 94


Section Navigation

Back to the Bronze Age

Forward to Prehistoric Enthology