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London Before London: The Iron Age of London

Jane Roberts

The October lecture by Dr J D Hill of the British Museum offered an alternative view of what existed in the London area prior to Londinium. There are many finds of Iron Age objects from the London region (c800 BC to AD 43), the 800 years before Roman London was founded.  These important finds have given the impression in the past that London must have been an important centre before the Roman city was built. But recent discoveries and research are recognising that although there are important finds of Iron Age metalwork from the London area, other types of evidence are surprisingly rare.

Dr Hill told us that the London area has produced as much as half of best Iron Age art and fine metalwork discovered in Britain. Almost all of this metalwork was found in the Thames. Two of the best known British Iron Age objects come from London. These are the very ornate shield known as the Battersea Shield and the Waterloo Helmet which is the only one of its kind that has been found in Britain. The Thames has also provide almost half of all the known swords and daggers from Iron Age Britain. Many of these objects come from the Thames in the City or nearby, such as Battersea and Chelsea. Further up the river there are similar finds of metalwork such as the Wandsworth shield bosses, finds from Shepperton, Kew and Chertsey etc. These swords, shields and shield parts have in the past been interpreted as being objects that were lost by people fighting battles on and next to the Thames. However, it is now generally accepted that these Iron Age objects are likely to have been deliberately placed or thrown into the river, probably as religious offerings. This great concentration of prestigious metal objects from the Thames in Greater London gives the impression that it must have been an important centre of population.

This certainly was the case at the end of the Bronze Age (cl200-800 BC. From this period there are a similar large number of swords and other bronze objects that have been found in the Thames, and many hoards of bronze objects on dry land in the Greater London area. There is also from this period considerable evidence that large numbers of people were living in the area. Evidence for small circular forts and other important settlements have been found throughout the lower and middle Thames Valley. These important sites played a key role in trade across the Channel to other parts of Europe.  Around these important sites there is much evidence for patterns of small fields and other farming settlements.

However, from the Early Iron Age this situation radically changed. Although prestigious metal objects continued to be offered in the river, it would appear that most of the population abandoned the Greater London area. There is very little evidence of Early or Middle Iron Age settlements or field systems. Rather, Greater London appears to have had only a very small permanent population. But at the same time there is evidence for large populations and dense settlement patterns in the South Downs, Eastern England, upper Thames Valley in Oxfordshire, etc.

This is a different story to the Late Bronze Age when large numbers of people lived in the London area which clearly played a political role in Europe at that time and was a centre of economic wealth and activity. In the Iron Age these people seemed to have moved away from London and Kent for some reason. If London had been settled in a similar way then their field systems should have been visible along with the structure of their settlements and finds of Iron Age pottery which is fairly robust so some of it should have survived. Rather, the Greater London area was potentially an area like the Fens in Eastern England where people travelled to graze animals, collect reeds, make salt and to make offerings of metal objects in what was then a potentially wild place.

This pattern continues even in the Late Iron Age when parts of Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex became important centres with trading contacts with other parts of Europe, close contacts with the Roman Empire, etc. Although there may have been more permanent settlement in the Greater London area in the Late Iron Age than in preceding centuries, still the impression is of a relatively small permanent population.

Unlike Roman Colchester, Canterbury and St. Albans, all of which were built on the locations of important Late Iron Age settlements, Roman London clearly had no precedent.  Might the lack of Iron Age occupation in the London area have contributed to why London was chosen as a major site by the Romans?  The fact that it was potentially a neutral are between existing tribal groups and a place of religious importance.

The lecture left us with an image of London as a place that not many people lived in but was visited for ritual purposes and sacrificing.  The Thames seems to have a ritual significance for the depositing of objects which would explain the high concentration of finds.  The Romans were culturally and politically aware and would have known of the religious significance of London and the Thames.

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