Based on Roman literary sources such as Tacitus in his Agricola of c. AD 98, and Ptolemy’s Geographia written in c. AD 120–160 (Jones and Mattingly 1990: 17); traditional culture-history approaches to the Yorkshire region hold that the native peoples belonging to the South Yorkshire area were part of the Brigantes, a large tribal federation thought to hold sway from the River Don up to Northumberland and County Durham (Hanson and Campbell 1986; Hartley 1980; Hartley and Fitts 1988).
There are many problems with this assumption, not the least being that the ‘Brigantes’ may never have existed as a single identifiable social or political entity and may be more a product of Roman simplifications or misunderstandings (q.v. Collis 2003; James 1999; Jones 1997; Moore 2011). Many small-scale societies do not draw such clear-cut ethnic distinctions, or only do so in times of social stress. The very presence of the Romans following their incursions in 54 and 52 BC and the invasion of AD 43 may have had a galvanising effect on previously loosely connected communities, causing them to assert or even invent a common identity. Indeed, the many variations in settlement form and artefact production and consumption between South Yorkshire and West and North Yorkshire suggest significant social differences between the communities living across these areas. This diversity is also apparent across many regions of Iron Age and Roman Britain (Moore 2011; Smith et al. 2018).
Enclosed earlier Iron Age sites such as Sutton Common and Wincobank do not exhibit characteristics of elite centres such as later Iron Age Stanwick, although they might have been communal foci; and Sutton Common may have been used for the communal storage of agricultural surplus. There was nothing similar in the late Iron Age. An apparent lack of ‘high status’ sites and material culture may not necessarily equate to a less hierarchical society, but it is possible that during much of the Iron Age most rural communities in South Yorkshire were relatively unstratified or markedly hierarchical societies, without a pyramid of power stretching up from a base of farmers to some small social elite (contra Cunliffe 1974: 112, 305; James 1993: 53). Indeed, earlier simplistic models of hierarchical organisation in Iron Age societies have been critiqued (e.g. Hill 1992, 1995a, 1996a). Differences in social status may have been minor, or else not expressed through material expressions of wealth such as larger and more imposing settlements, or finer and more varied metal objects. The numbers and quality of livestock might have instead been used as measures of identity, status and wealth (q.v. Giles 2007b: 244) – perhaps prized beasts were cherished and displayed. There was apparently no distinctive local pottery or burial tradition. Perhaps perishable items such as woven cloth or body tattoos distinguished people from different lineages or clans.
Ties of kinship and clan may have mattered more than modern notions of Brigantian ‘tribal’ identity (q.v. Moore 2011). No coins were apparently manufactured locally, though coinage from the Corieltauvi and other groups made its way into South Yorkshire, and coin moulds were found recently at Scotch Corner in North Yorkshire (Fell 2017). There is still much we do not know about everyday Iron Age societies – if communities were patrilineal or matrilineal, if adult men and women were polygynous or polyandrous, and if marriage partners were patrilocal or matrilocal.
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