Ancient Britain History: Trading and Regionalism

Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials…The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into the region.—Joseph Campbell 

Introduction

To understand the historical context that led to Rome’s decision to invade and conquer Britain in 43 AD, one needs to look back as far as 600 BC to understand the development of Ancient Britain and its connections to Continental Europe. Similar to the Modern World, the Ancient World had a global economy that allowed various regions to share their technology, philosophies, and religion. Major events in Continental Europe also impacted Britain.

Stonehenge, also known as Apollo's Temple since classical antiquity.

Stonehenge, also known as Apollo’s Temple since classical antiquity.

Ancient British history must be pieced together with accounts from classical writers (Greek and Roman) and archaeological finds. Unfortunately, many classical accounts did not survive in their entirety and the significance of archaeological finds are sometimes subjective.

The next series of posts on APOLLO’S RAVEN will provide a backdrop on how the events in Continental Europe impacted Ancient Britain.

 

Ancient Britain History

Descent into Regionalism (600 – 400 BC)

In the two centuries between 600- 400 BC, regional cultures that formed across the face of Britain framed the next thousand years of development. Britain could be divided into three broad settlement zones: 1) eastern zone characterized by open villages and enclosed homesteads, 2) western zone of strongly-defended homesteads, and 3) central hill-fort dominated zone.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

The eastern zone stretching from the Thames to southern Scotland has an array of landscapes. Each area had its own settlement patterns and economic systems. In the southern midland river valleys, often unenclosed farmsteads and villages prevailed. The North had a more broken landscape of upland, small enclosed farmlands.

Cliffside Dover Cliffs Britain

Coastal White CliffsBritain

The landscape in the western zone extending from Cornwall to the Northern Isles was more varied. The settlements were more characteristic of homesteads for single or extended family, often enclosed with earthworks or walls offering some defense. In the latter part of the Iron Age, these smaller homesteads gave rise to a multiple of defended homesteads to establish more strength.

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior), Wales

The hill-fort dominated zone stretched from the south coast to North Wales. It is here where hill-forts proliferated in landscapes. These hill-forts were characterized by a rampart and ditches of defensive proportions and were accessed usually through two gates on opposing sides. There were evidence of large settlements on these hill-forts with streets, houses, storage facilities, and domestic activities suggestive of permanent occupation. These hill-forts reflected a larger community, comprising a group of lineages that brought together a society with a common pursuit.

Maiden Castle Hill-Fort, England.

Maiden Castle Hill-fort, Dorset, England.

Various body decoration and hairstyles were important identities for all of the above societies.

Trading Connection Massilia

The founding of the Greek Colony of Massilia (modern day Marseilles) on the Mediterranean coast in about 600 BC was a significant moment in Western Europe. Even before this Greek city was established, Greek and Etruscan traders had been visiting Britain for several decades, building friendly relations with the natives of the coastal zone and the more inland regions. The sixth century saw the development of formal trading that stretched from eastern France to Southern Germany, where the local Hallstatt chieftains were able to acquire Mediterranean luxury goods to display and to consume in feasts and in elaborate burial rites.

Calanques Limestone Cove

Calanques Limestone Cove Near Marseilles (Ancient Massilia)

In the 5th Century BC, the Islands began receiving notice by the Mediterranean world based on claims from Herodotus that he heard rumors of tin-rich islands in the Atlantic. Herodotus wrote that in “the extreme tracts of Europe towards the west there were islands called Cassiterides (Tin Islands) where the metal was resourced.” Most likely, his information came from traders at Massalia who were secretive about where the tin was mined. Most likely, the Tin Islands referred to Cornwall which had significant ore deposits.

Linnea Tanner at Château d'If Marseille

Château d’If Prison Overlooking Bay into Marseille


Tin and Pytheas

The importance of tin in the ancient world cannot be over-stressed. As an essential component in bronze, it was constantly in demand. Its rarity within Europe meant that knowledge of where to obtain this commodity was highly valued and protected.

Pytheas, entrepreneur and scientist, set out from Massalia about 320 BC to explore the northwestern extremities of Europe. He was probably the first to observe tin trade between Cornwall and the ports of Atlantic Gaul. Only fragments of the accounts of his remarkable travels survive. However, he probably travelled through Gaul (modern day France) and crossed to the western end of the Channel to Belerion, an ancient name given to Cornwall or Kernow, which has been translated as “Shining Land” or “Seat of Storms.”

Dover Cliffs United Kingdom

Dover Cliffs England

He observed first-hand the processes of tin extraction and exchange. His description may have been used by 1st Century writer, Diodorus Siculus, who describes the inhabitants as follows:

The inhabitants of Britain living on the promontory called Belerion are especially friends to strangers and have adopted a civilized way of life because of their interactions with traders and other peoples. It is they who work the tin, treating the layers. This layer, being like rock, contains earthy seams and in them the workers quarry the ore, which they melt down to clean of its impurities. Then they work the tin into pieces the size of knuckle-bones and convey it to an island which lies off Britain, call Ictis.

Cornwall Coastal Region

Cornwall Coast Porthcurno Beach

After Cornwall, Pytheas sailed northwards through the Irish Sea, stopping at the Isle of Man. He may have also made an open-sea voyage to Iceland and returned along the east coast of Britain. The description of the tin trade implies a regular and well-ordered process was used in the trading with established rules. A place of assembly was designated as a free zone where all were given a guarantee of safe conduct. The traders would have timed their visits based on sailing conditions. On offshore islands, natives would be ready to trade ingots for Mediterranean goods.

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover

Localized Warfare

From the third century BC, archaeological findings indicate localized warfare became more aggressive, particularly in the hill-fort zone of central southern Britain. This could have been due to tensions caused by a growing population and the desire of chieftains to acquire and hold onto productive land at a time when fertility may have begun to fail in some regions. Disputes could flare into hostile and bloody confrontations.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

During this time, fortresses were strengthened for defense. Ditches were re-dug and ramparts rebuilt, now with a continuous slope from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the rampart. Several of these hill-forts were rebuilt as a result of a devastating fire.

Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

Ramparts and Ditches Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

At Danebury, in Hampshire, a fire seemed to have damaged large areas of the interior in the last 4th Century. The hill-fort was then as strongly re-defended in the third century, but another fire in the 1st Century destroyed the gate, after which the site was abandoned. Though the fires may have not been result of enemy action, the large number of sling-stones found at this site suggests inhabitants were ready to defend their position. Further evidence of warfare is based on archaeological finds of human skeletons scarred with marks of violence.

Celtic Greaves

Celtic Greaves

Beginning in the first century, there was an increase of horse bones found at some of these hill-forts suggesting the build-up of war chariots and the training of horses to power them. After the destruction of the hill-fort at Danebury, the hill-fort at Bury Hill was brought back into use with a new set of defenses comprising a ditch with an inner and outer rampart. The most significant find from this site was horses accounted for more than a quarter of the animal bones. There were exceptional quantities of horse gear and chariot fittings. It seems that the building of war chariots and training of teams of horses to power them reflect a more excitable and aggressive stance among the elite.

Footpath Around Bury Hill-Fort

Footpath Circling Bury Hill-Fort; Photograph by Chris Talbot

By the time Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 – 54 BC, the localized political rivalries were very much in evidence and the war strategy of using chariots that at first confounded his Roman army. He took advantage of the localized political rivalries by pitting British tribal rulers against each other so they would not unite as a formidable force against the Roman legions (previously discussed in the last two posts.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC


To be Continued

The next post will detail how the changing political climate in Continental Europe impacted Britain.

References

Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins; Oxford University Press, 2013.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge (Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group), NY.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces; New world Library, Novato, CA; 2008.

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