Iron Age social structures and identities

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.

Research questions

  • How did individuals and communities identify and define themselves in South Yorkshire region during the Iron Age period? Was ‘tribal’ identity important, and can archaeologists distinguish ‘tribal’ groups at all in the region? We might expect boundary zones to exhibit marked differences in settlement, burials and material culture, but this not in evidence;
  • What does the apparent discrepancy between the lack of Iron Age material culture and centralised or high-status places and settlements, and the scale of organisation evident in the landscape tell us about the structure of communities? Is this a real discrepancy?
  • Were lineage and community levels of identity more important? Can any possible social groupings be identified within South Yorkshire? Is there any evidence for such groupings persisting into the Romano-British period?
  • Can we identify any status differences between Iron Age and Romano-British individuals and settlements? How were such variations manifested?

Priorities and implementation

  • Detailed finds and landscape analyses are required using PAS data and taking contextual and biographical approaches to artefacts, to understand where artefacts potentially associated with identity were deposited. This would be an ideal topic for a funded PhD research project;
  • Intra-site and inter-site artefact comparisons should be encouraged, and perhaps funding for this could be obtained from a set percentage of the fees charged to clients by curators and commercial field units;
  • If further human remains are recovered, isotope and aDNA analyses should be employed wherever preservation permits, and this should also be tried for the two unpublished inhumation burials from Bilham Farm, Brodsworth.