The health of Iron Age Britons

It is likely that many people in Iron Age Britain would have died from diseases as babies or children. Only about a third of all adults lived longer. Studies of the bones of Iron Age people suggest that at least a quarter suffered from arthritis in their backs from an early age. This was probably due to the hard work needed on Iron Age farms. Some women also suffered arthritis in the leg joints caused by squatting for long periods.

People's teeth were often bad, and in general women's teeth were less healthy than men's. This was, perhaps, the result of calcium deficiency due to the effects of pregnancy. In some parts of Britain the diet was poor, leading to anaemia in up to half of all children and a quarter of all adults.

Hares and Chickens Were Revered as Gods—Not Food—in Ancient Britain

On Easter, bunnies and eggs tend to take center stage. But new archaeological research suggests that brown hares and chickens attained an even more exalted status in ancient Britain, where they were raised not for food, but for worship.

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A team of researchers has discovered carefully buried Iron Age chicken and hare bones that show no signs of butchery, reports Rory Sullivan for CNN.

The skeletons corroborate other evidence indicating the animals were revered as deities by Iron Age Britons. As Julius Caesar wrote in Commentarii de Bello Gallico, “The Britons consider it contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken or the goose. They raise these, however, for their own amusement or pleasure.”

Chickens and hares—neither of which are native to the British Isles—weren’t on the menu until the Roman period began during the first century A.D.

“Easter is an important British festival, yet none of its iconic elements are native to Britain,” says Naomi Sykes, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter, in a statement. “The idea that chickens and hares initially had religious associations is not surprising as cross-cultural studies have shown that exotic things and animals are often given supernatural status.”

Sykes leads an interdisciplinary team seeking to investigate the origins of Easter traditions, as well as the animal symbols that have become associated with them, per a blog post published by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. After discovering the apparently ritualized burials of the hares and chickens, the team probed their age using radiocarbon dating.

The analysis of the bones, excavated from sites in Hampshire and Hertfordshire, suggests that brown hares and chickens were introduced to Britain simultaneously between the fifth and third centuries B.C. By contrast, the same team previously reported that the Romans brought rabbits to Britain during the first or second century A.D.

“When new animals arrive into a culture, they are often linked with deities,” Sykes tells CNN.

Chickens were associated with an Iron Age god similar to Mercury, the Roman god of “shopkeepers and merchants, travelers and transporters of goods, and thieves and tricksters,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Hares, meanwhile, were tied to an unknown hare goddess. These religious connotations lasted throughout the Roman occupation of Britain.

“[A]rchaeological evidence shows that as [the animals’] populations increased, they were increasingly eaten, and hares were even farmed as livestock,” says Sykes in the statement. “Rather than being buried as individuals, hare and chicken remains were then disposed of as food waste.”

When the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410 A.D., the region’s chicken and brown hare populations crashed, with rabbits even becoming locally extinct. But during the 11th century, the Normans brought rabbits back to Britain as a delicacy for the upper classes, reports Esther Addley for the Guardian. By the 19th century, rabbits had become commonplace—a fact that may have contributed to the Victorians’ replacement of the Easter hare with the bunny still popular today.

The researchers are now trying to retrace the path of how chickens, which are native to Southeast Asia, made their way to ancient Britain, Sykes tells CNN. The source of the brown hare’s introduction, however, remains unknown.

High-Status Roman Burials Found in Britain

Archaeologists excavating a site in southwest England ahead of construction of a new school have unearthed an unusual set of 50 Roman era burials.

Per a statement from archaeology firm South West Heritage Trust, the ancient cemetery dates to the Roman occupation of Britain, which took place between 43 and 410 A.D. The graves show the Britons’ progressive adoption of Roman burial practices. Earlier tombs feature bodies laid flat in a small space, while later graves include offerings like coins and a ceramic pot, reports Steven Morris for the Guardian.

The burials’ construction is also notable. Most were lined with stone walls and closed with the same type of flat rock slabs used to make roofs at the time. But one grave has slabs of rock leaned against each other to create a tent-like structure. A similar burial style was previously found 25 miles northwest, according to the Guardian, and both resemble Roman graves seen in Spain and Italy.

“Most graves in Roman Britain are pretty much a rectangular cut with someone laid on their back,” South West Heritage Trust archaeologist Steve Membery tells Morris. “They’ve actually built these graves. There’s been a lot more care taken over these. The individuals were evidently of some status.”

The archaeologists discovered evidence that one older woman was originally buried with her head resting on a pillow. Another grave contained a pot buried with a chicken wing still inside. Additional finds include a carved bone likely used as a knife handle and a coin dating to the reign of Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69 to 79 A.D. Nails found at the foot of the graves suggest the adults and children entombed at the site were buried wearing hobnail boots.

The burials included offerings like this pot, which show how residents adopted Roman customs. (Courtesy of Wessex Archaeology)

Membery says the burials were likely linked with a Roman villa believed to have been nearby. Although the villa has yet to be found, archaeologists have unearthed signs of outhouses and a barn that may be associated with it. According to a separate statement from Wessex Archaeology, the site also yielded traces of Iron Age roundhouses, a Bronze Age barrow and a Roman building.

“Due to the size and lack of disturbance on the site, we have been able to examine generations of a community whose existence spanned over 500 years,” says Damian De Rosa, another archaeologist who worked on the excavations, in the statement. “… What has been particularly fascinating is the cultural transition that we see here—from the native Iron Age traditions to the adoption of more Roman customs.”

The Roman Period began a century after Julius Caesar’s first attempt to conquer the British Isles. As the BBC explains, the Roman invasion was a “war of prestige” designed to secure political power after Caligula’s assassination brought an obscure relative, Claudius, to the throne. The invading army landed in southeast England, pushing north and westward from there. In the southwest, the Romans faced a challenging war of sieges against tribes based out of Iron Age hill forts but soon emerged victorious. In northern regions such as Scotland, however, intermittent rebellion continued throughout the Roman occupation.

Per the BBC, southern Britain was the only place where the landscape “began to look distinctly Mediterranean.”

The BBC concludes, “Towns were built by local gentry, who, in the space of a generation or two, converted themselves from Celtic warriors and druids into Romanised gentlemen.”

The practice of sacrifice in Iron Age Britain

The practice of sacrifice in Britain has a long history, but was particularly prolific during the Iron Age. Nevertheless, it has long been a contested topic: how often were sacrifices made, for what reasons, and what—or more interestingly, who—were sacrificed? These are the three primary questions that have puzzled archaeologists and historians alike for many decades. It is only in recent years that we have begun to paint a picture of what might have occurred during sacrificial events, and who might have been the chosen few that were ceremonially killed.

The idea of sacrifice stems from a desire to appease the gods: this could include asking for divine forgiveness or foresight, or to apologize for an event or task that might have angered them. The Britons—and various other cultures such as the Greeks, Romans, and Mesopotamians—believed that the gods must receive sacrifices for various reasons, such as to request victory in battle, or to show thanks for said victory. Evidence suggests a belief in sacrifice to stem off plague or famine, or even promote a good harvest. The ritual appears to come from a need to appease supernatural deities in various facets, as ancient cultures were prone to believe that without the will of the gods, most actions were punishable and would result in ruin.

So what and who were sacrificed? Most of modern archaeology points to animals. The archaeological record has revealed a wide variety of animals killed ritualistically, but the Britons appear to have greatly favored horses and dogs. This is undoubtedly due to each animal's religious significance within the culture. Horses were honored because of their power and strength in war, and it was a great advantage to have the ability to ride into battle, elevated above the playing field. The Britons revered horses as gifts from the gods so much so that it is rumored that Vercingetorix, a chieftain of the Arverni tribe, who brought together a confederation of Gallic tribes in a revolt against Roman forces under Julius Caesar, was said to have sent his horses away for their protection despite realizing that this may cost his own life. At many sites, horse heads or bridles have been found, offerings to the divine realm.

Horse remains dating back to the Iron Age, which were discovered during the construction of a new a school in Carshalton, south-west London. Image source .

Similarly, dogs have been commonly found in grave sites, important because of their companionship and guardianship of humans they could dwell in the home, warn against nighttime intruders, and sniff out preys or enemies. They were the protectors. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that dogs were offered as a highly valued sacrifice to the gods.

However, the most controversial subject surrounding sacrifice in Iron Age Britain, is human sacrifice. While some archaeologists are adamant that there is strong evidence for sacrificial practices involving humans, others doubt whether it ever occurred at all, instead arguing that so-called sacrificial victims were simply victims of murder. While human sacrifice may not have been as common as many may believe, certain archaeological finds, coupled with ancient texts, have led to the belief that at least on some occasions, human sacrifice did occur. One of the most convincing examples is Lindow Man.

Lindow Man is the name given to the remains of an Iron Age man recovered from a bog in north-west England. A detailed analysis of his remains enabled researchers to piece together his final moments. He had been given a drink containing mistletoe, which was sacred to the Druids, and was then given two blows to the head. His throat was cut and he was allowed to bleed for a time before being placed face down in a pond in the bog.

The features of Lindow Man’s remains suggest he was a victim of sacrifice. Image source: British Museum

Most researchers believe that the humans that were chosen for sacrifice in Iron Age Britain were criminals or prisoners of war. As far as scholars can tell thus far, non-criminal sacrifices appear to have been used only when there were no criminals available. This may explain why some victims appear to have been treated with respect, while others show signs of torture or violent injury.

It was common for sacrificial victims to be submerged in water rather than buried, though both did happen. The ancient Britons believed that water was a doorway to another world or realm closer to the gods. Due to this, victims such as the Lindow Man, Lindow Woman, and the Lindow Man II have been found in bogs, though rivers and lakes have also turned up supposedly sacrificial victims. The submerging of victims has meant that a detailed record has been left for archaeologists to study, as the watery conditions can protect and preserve the body for future examination.

There is also evidence of what is called pair-burial or multiple-burial, in which two or more people are found buried together in a grave, raising the possibility that one was killed to accompany the other in death. In this case, the dead was probably a high ranking member of society who wanted a servant or animal companion sent with him or her to the afterlife. This pairing concept has been discovered in both high-status graves and in the low-status mounds surrounding a high-status grave, suggesting both levels of society desired such company.

One final theory regarding the purpose for ritualized killing stems from the discovery of bodies found under structures and hill forts. At Danebury and South Cadbury, bodies have been found in the foundations, supposedly sacrificed before the construction. It was commonly believed that without sacrificing first, ground was unconsecrated and thus the structure built was offensive to the gods. Both human and animal sacrifices have been found in such locations, interchangeably and together, signifying the close relationship between certain animals and humans, as well as certain animals' abilities to be substituted for humans as previously referenced.

Cadbury Castle, where evidence of human sacrifice has been found. Image source .

Much of what is known about sacrifice is gleaned from fragments of the literature of Roman historians. Though classical literature cannot be wholly counted upon for evidence, theirs is the first source of modern information about human sacrifice in the Iron Age. (It should be noted, however, that their extreme dislike of the Britons encourages bias in their accounts.) Julius Caesar, Lucan, and Tacitus all reference the burning, hanging, stabbing, throat-cutting, and a variety of other methods for the sacrificial murder of humans. However, archaeologists and Classical scholars have come a long way in piecing together the textual information of the ancients with the remains found at various sites. Though human sacrifice cannot altogether be proven or disproven yet, the practice of making offerings to the gods is known to have taken place in Iron Age Britain, and played a significant role in their daily lives.

Featured image: An artist’s depiction of sacrifice in Iron Age Britain

Aldhouse Green Miranda. Dying for the gods: Human sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe (Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2001.)

Aldhouse Green, Miranda. "Human Sacrifice in Iron Age Europe." British Archaeology. 1998. Accessed September 20, 2014.

Castleden, Rodney. The Element Encyclopedia of the Celts (United Kingdom: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), 249-51, 419-20, 436-37.

Green Miranda. Animals in Celtic life and myth (London: Routledge, 1992.)

Tacitus. Agricola, translated by Mattingly, H. (revised edition). (Harmondsworth: Penguin Book, 1979.)


In about 330 BC, Pytheas, a Greek explorer began a voyage in which he discovered the British Isles. Ώ] In 326 BC he landed and gave the island the name Prettanike or Brettainiai. ΐ] The name became Britain.

When the Romans conquered Britain in 43 AD, they called the people living there Brittanni (also spelled Britanni). Α] They were also aware of their tribal identities. In their histories the Romans said of them "they are a people harassed by hosts, [a] who receive political exiles, who rebel, and who are among the remote peoples of the world." Α] Monks writing in the 4th and 5th centuries also called them Britanni. Some used the term Britto. Α]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains an account of the land and the people of Britain. ""The island of Britain is eight hundred miles long and two hundred miles broad: and here are in the island five peoples: English, Brito-Welsh, [b] Scottish, Pictish, and Book-Latin." Β]

The Welsh scholar John Rhys first used the terms Brythons and Brythonic. He wanted a more specific terms for the people of Wales and the Welsh of Cumbria and Cornwall than just the word Britons. Γ]

Unearthed figurine suggests ancient Britons favoured mullets

A tiny figurine found by archaeologists on the proposed site of a car park may provide a unique insight into the popular hairstyles among the native men of Roman-era Britain, with moustaches and mullets – with a neat back and sides – being the cut of the day.

The 5cm-high copper alloy figure was found in 2018 during excavation work on the National Trust’s Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire, and experts say the discovery either gives us a rare glimpse into ordinary Britons’ appearance or their imagined gods.

Shannon Hogan, the National Trust archaeologist for the east of England, told the Guardian the figure was originally thought to be a Celtic deity but now experts believe it could “very well reflect the face of your average man”.

The Celtic figure, rear view. Photograph: National Trust/Oxford Archaeology East/James Fairbairn/PA

She said: “We have so few visual or written depictions from the Romans of what the native people looked like, so it’s tempting to say he was designed based on what people looked like or what the current styles or current trends were then.”

Hogan added that his neat haircut, with what appears to be a mullet, might have been influenced by the limitations of the manufacturing process, but experts believe the decision to include or exclude certain elements – such as a beard – was deliberate.

“They could have put a beard in there – that could have been quite easily done – but they haven’t, so it could very well be reflecting sort of the face of your average man,” she said.

The figure was one of 300 objects found during the dig, which took place on the site of a new planned car park, and it would have originally been connected to a spatula used for mixing medicines or wiping the wax tablets that were used for writing.

Archaeologists are still not sure if the figure, which dates back to the first century AD, is Roman or Celtic, but theories include that he could be a Celtic deity that has no recorded likeness.

“He hasn’t been likened to any particular Celtic deities, that we know of but then there are some that don’t have visual depictions,” Hogan said. “So he could be a deity, or he could be just an anthropomorphic piece of the tool which he was a part of.”

The Wimpole site revealed the changing use of land over hundreds of years as it shifted from livestock management to large enclosures and eventually a later Roman settlement that focused on arable production.

Were the Britons Celts? Examining the Invasion Model Vs. Diffusion Model

A recreation of a Celtic settlement from the La Tène period in Slovakia. The Celtic British tribes lived in similar settlements in Britain as well. (Image: Marek Novotnak/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The earliest proper names we have from Britain are definitely in a Celtic language. By the time of the first Roman invasion in the first century B.C., they were producing objects in the La Tène style of art. If they were speaking Celtic, and producing Celtic art, they were Celts. Right? Let’s examine further.

Let’s assume for the purpose of our examination that Britons were indeed Celts (we’ll come back to the question of whether they were or were not Celts a bit later). The obvious question that comes up is – how do we get Celts in Britain? The old model for the Celts would have said that Britain became Celtic through invasion. Celtic warriors from central Europe brought the total Celtic package with them: language, art, culture, the cult of the severed head, the whole thing.

No Evidence to Support the Celtic Invasion Model

There’s a clear lack of evidence in support of a Celtic invasion. The first and most obvious problem is that no ancient author calls the inhabitants of Britain ‘Celts’. They did call people on the continent Celts, but not the people of Britain.

Another problem comes with the linguistic evidence. Today, Celtic languages have two major groups: Brythonic and Goidelic, corresponding roughly to the languages spoken in Britain and the languages spoken in Ireland.

The Celtic people expanded across Europe over a long period of time. The area marked in yellow was the core Hallstatt territory from 500 B.C., the light green area represents the extent of Celtic expansion in 270 B.C., and the dark green area marks the present-day Celtic-speaking areas. (Image: Rob984/CC BY-SA 4.0)

This division within the Celtic language family poses a problem for the invasion model. Modern linguists mostly believe that the Goidelic branch of Celtic developed earlier than the Brythonic branch. If that’s the case, how do we work out the timing of a Celtic invasion of the British Isles and Ireland?

Scholars came up with an ingenious way to explain the fact that we have these fairly distinct language subfamilies showing up in a relatively small geographical area: Ireland and Britain. The idea was that instead of one Celtic invasion of Britain and Ireland, we really need to think of two Celtic invasions.

First, you have an original group of Goidelic speaking invaders who come to Britain and then proceed all the way to Ireland, followed by a new wave of Brythonic speakers. They followed and conquered Britain, but didn’t make it all the way to Ireland.

So, according to this model, the Celtic language comes into Britain, with an influx of new people. But the two-invasion model seems a little too complicated to be plausible.

No Archaeological Evidence of a Celtic Invasion

We don’t have archeological evidence for large-scale movements of people. Usually, when we have a big population movement, we see a lot of basic aspects of life shifting accordingly, things like the style of house that is being built, or the kinds of animals being raised, or the kinds of crops that are being grown. We don’t see that in Britain. Instead, we see a lot of continuity through the Iron Age and right through to the Roman invasions into the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D.

So we have three objections so far to the invasion hypothesis. The first is based on the lack of written evidence for the Britons being called Celts, the second is based on linguistic evidence, and the third is based on archeological evidence.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

There’s No DNA Evidence of a Celtic Invasion Either

The fourth objection to the idea of a Celtic invasion comes from a modern technique: the study of DNA. If the invasion hypothesis is true, then we ought to be able to see a connection in the DNA of modern British people with the DNA of central Europeans around the areas of Hallstatt and La Tène.

However, recent studies have shown that the inhabitants of Britain are not closely related to the inhabitants of central Europe. So if the Celts were from the Hallstatt and La Tène region, they were not the ones who invaded Britain.

How did the La Tène Style Art Arrive in Britain?

Even though we don’t see evidence of people coming from central Europe to Britain, we do see the arrival in Britain of the La Tène style art.

A Celtic bronze mirror found in Desborough, Northamptonshire, England. It bears distinctive Celtic La Tène style, with its spiral and trumpet decorative theme. (Image: Photographed in the British Museum/Public domain)

For example, we have a wonderful object called the Wandsworth Shield, dating from the 2nd century B.C., which was found in the River Thames in the 19th century. It may have been one of the votive offerings of weapons that were extremely common in this period. It is very strongly marked by the spiral designs that are so characteristic of the La Tène style. And we could multiply the examples. So how did this happen?

In recent years, scholars have replaced the invasion hypothesis with a different model altogether. They now believe in a process of ‘Celticization’ by diffusion rather than invasion.

This art style became a very popular ‘fad’ in Britain. There were apparently many aspects of Celtic culture that appealed to the people of Britain, and they slowly adopted them, including the language.

Diaspora Model Vs. Meme Model

A scholar named Lisa Bond has come up with a very evocative way to distinguish between the earlier invasion hypothesis and the later diffusion hypothesis. She calls the invasion model the ‘diaspora’ model, while she calls the diffusion model the ‘meme’ model.

What do these two terms mean? The diaspora model is fairly obvious. This is the idea that art styles spread with people as the people spread out from an original homeland. We might think of diasporas that we are familiar with, such as the Jewish diaspora or the African diaspora, where certain aspects of a people’s culture travel with them.

The diaspora model just might allow us to get away with the fact that we have no evidence for a kind of destructive influx of people. Maybe it was a peaceful settlement, but still, it was a genuine movement of a substantial number of people.

The meme model is completely different. Instead of the people bringing the art style with them, the art style spread without people moving from one place to another. It’s similar to how a meme today spreads over the internet, without anyone involved migrating at all.

Since there was no internet in the late Iron Age, how did an Iron Age ‘meme’ spread? People had to be involved somehow. One possible mechanism for how this might have happened is through trade.

Did Trade Bring Celtic Culture to Britain?

Britain was a major center of metals, particularly tin, copper, and iron, especially from Cornwall and Wales. We know that the Phoenicians in the early first millennium B.C. bought tin from Britain (tin is a crucial component in bronze), and it was well known throughout the Mediterranean that Britain is where you went for tin.

Archeologists have uncovered the remains of Iron Age tin mining, which was sort of like panning for gold, except you artificially create a stream that separates the heavier tin from the lighter sandy soil that has settled above it. It’s called tin streaming.

This trade-in metals probably created a kind of merchant elite all along the Atlantic Coast of Europe. These areas were Celtic-speaking, as we know. It’s possible that Celtic speech and certain aspects of Celtic culture made their way to Britain by this route. The art may have taken a different route, directly from central Europe (remember, the art barely made it to Spain).

So, you get a fusion in Britain of Celtic speech with La Tène art, both of which were probably associated with high status, and then the language spread.

The two models we examined here are distinctly different from each other. The invasion model or diaspora model is simpler to think about and explain, but there’s a lack of evidence. The diffusion model or meme model is a lot more complicated but does provide a possible explanation for how the La Tène style art arrived in Britain.

So, are we entitled to call the inhabitants of Britain ‘Celts’? We are, as long as we know what we mean by the term. We are calling them Celts because they spoke a Celtic language, and while there are a lot of scholars who expend a lot of energy trying to stop people from calling the Britons Celts, it’s such an ingrained habit by now that it isn’t worth getting too worried about.

Common Questions about Celtic Britain

Yes, the people of England and most of Britain are Celts. We are entitled to call them Celts because they speak the Celtic language. While there’s a lot of debate around how the Celtic language arrived in Britain, it did, and so we can say that the English are Celtic .

The Celtic tribes didn’t arrive all at once in Britain. The tribes arrived separately and over a long period of time. Historians believe that one of the reasons for their arrival could have been trade. In the late Iron Age , Britain was a major center of metals, particularly tin, copper, and iron. The increase of trade between the Celtic-speaking merchants and Britain could have been one of the routes of Celtic speech and certain aspects of Celtic culture making their way to Britain.

The theory of Celtic-speaking tribes invading Britain has been around for a long time. However, over the years, very little evidence has been found to support this theory. Firstly, there’s no ancient literary evidence that names the inhabitants of Britain Celts. Secondly, linguistic evidence that the Goidelic branch of Celtic language developed earlier than the Brythonic branch also knocks back the invasion model. Thirdly, there’s no archaeological evidence for large-scale movements of people, which raises an objection to the invasion hypothesis as well. Finally, DNA evidence shows that the inhabitants of Britain are not closely related to the inhabitants of central Europe, where Celts are believed to be from.

The La Tène style art or the La Tène culture is a late Iron Age culture that succeeded in the Hallstatt culture prevalent in the early Iron Age. Celtic art is part of the La Tène style, and the discovery of La Tène style artifacts in Britain was one of the reasons why the theory of the Celtic invasion of Britain became popular. Currently, scholars believe the La Tène style became a very popular ‘fad’ in Britain, along with many other aspects of Celtic culture, and the people of Britain slowly adopted them.

Ancient British Weapons and Armour

Welcome to Part One of our Arms and Armour series. Starting with the Ancient Britons, this section covers armour and weapons through the Iron Age, Roman era, Dark Ages, Saxons and Vikings, up to the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Battle re-enactment between the Romans and Boudicca’s Iceni.
(EH Festival of History)

Note how the Roman shields have became curved and longer, in order to hug the body and better protect the soldier.

Here you can see in more detail the later Roman armour and weaponry. Note the helmet or cassis. As well as cheek protectors, the helmet has a guard to protect the back of the neck and a ridge running along the front of the helmet to protect the head from sword blows. As well as the sword the soldiers are also carrying a spear (pilum) and a dagger (pugio). Roman boots were made from leather and studded with hobnails. Body armour was made from overlapping metal strips held together by leather strips on the inside, and hinged to allow the soldier to move more easily. Under the armour the soldier would wear a linen undershirt and a wool tunic.

The Saxon warrior’s main weapon was his lance (angon), an oval shield (targan) and his sword. The conical helmet was made of leather over a framework of iron, with a nasal or nose-guard.

Shield bosses are commonly found in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries but helmets and items of body armour are exceptionally rare. The Sutton Hoo ship burial (7th century) is an exception and includes not only the famous helmet, sword and shield, but also a mail-coat which was so rusted it could not be restored.

Armour was very precious so it was probably passed down through the family rather like an heirloom would be today. Indeed by its design, the Sutton Hoo helmet may well have dated from the 4th century Roman era rather then the 7th century.

The warrior (left) is wearing a tunic with a cuirass of leather over it, a conical cap and a long cloak fastened with a brooch on the shoulder. He carries a shield, probably made of linden wood, bound and riveted with iron, and a sword. The handle of the iron sword is decorated with gold or silver, and the blade of the sword is about 1 metre in length.

Ancient genomes reveal that the English are one-third Anglo-Saxon

For the first time, researchers have been able to directly estimate the Anglo-Saxon ancestry of the British population from ancient skeletons, showing how Anglo-Saxon immigrants mixed with the native population.

Human remains excavated from burial sites near Cambridge provided the material for the first whole-genome sequences of ancient British DNA. Using a new analysis method to compare these ancient genomes with modern-day sequences, researchers have estimated that approximately a third of British ancestors were Anglo-Saxon immigrants.

What was the scale of the Anglo-Saxons migrations, how did they mix with the native population and how did they contribute to British ancestry? This has been a long-standing topic of debate amongst historians and archaeologists. Recently excavated skeletons dating to the late Iron Age and from the Anglo-Saxon period gave researchers the opportunity to solve this question with genomics.

"By sequencing the DNA from ten skeletons from the late Iron Age and the Anglo-Saxon period, we obtained the first complete ancient genomes from Great Britain," said Dr Stephan Schiffels, first author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridgeshire and the Max Plank Institute in Germany. "Comparing these ancient genomes with sequences of hundreds of modern European genomes, we estimate that 38% of the ancestors of the English were Anglo-Saxons. This is the first direct estimate of the impact of immigration into Britain from the 5th to 7th Centuries AD and the traces left in modern England."

Previous DNA studies have relied entirely on modern DNA and suggested anything between 10% and 95% contribution to the population. One such study suggested that Anglo Saxons didn't mix with the native population, staying segregated. However, this newly published study uses ancient genetic information and disproves the earlier idea, showing just how integrated the people of Britain were. The ancient skeletons from Cambridgeshire were carbon dated, proving they were from the late Iron Age (approximately 50BC) and from the Anglo-Saxon era (around 500-700 AD). Complete genome sequences were then obtained for selected DNA samples to determine the genetic make-up of these Iron Age Britons and Anglo-Saxons.

"Combining archaeological findings with DNA data gives us much more information about the early Anglo-Saxon lives. Genome sequences from four individuals from a cemetery in Oakington indicated that, genetically, two were migrant Anglo-Saxons, one was a native, and one was a mixture of both. The archaeological evidence shows that these individuals were treated the same way in death, and proves they were all well integrated into the Oakington Anglo-Saxon Community despite their different biological heritage." said Dr Duncan Sayer, archaeologist and author on the paper from University of Central Lancashire.

Modern British and continental European genomes from the UK10K project and the 1000 Genomes Project were compared with the genomes from the ancient skeletons. Researchers discovered that the Anglo-Saxon immigrants were genetically very similar to modern Dutch and Danish, and that they contributed 38% of the DNA of modern people from East England, and 30% for modern Welsh and Scottish. The Anglo-Saxons first settled in the South East of England so this pattern is consistent with their migration pattern.

The genomes of northern European populations are similar and it is difficult to accurately distinguish between them. To help solve this problem, the study developed a sensitive new method, called rarecoal, which could identify subtle genetic traces in individuals, using rare genetic variants identified in hundreds of present-day people. Earlier methods of mapping ancient DNA looked at common genetic variants from the very distant past, which are present in most people. The new rarecoal method did exactly the opposite, allowing researchers to map more recent events and unravel very closely related populations.

"We wanted to determine where ancient DNA samples would fit with respect to a modern population model and to map individuals into that model. This study, using whole-genome sequencing, allowed us to assign DNA ancestry at extremely high resolution and accurately estimate the Anglo-Saxon mixture fraction for each individual," said Richard Durbin, senior author at the Sanger Institute. "More full genome sequences and further improvements in methodology will allow us to resolve migrations in even more detail in the future."


In their study, Dr Doherty and colleagues first applied their new aging technique to leg bones from modern domestic and red jungle fowl of known ages and sexes — which confirmed that the bony spur only develops in older birds.

Specifically, of the 71 cockerels studied that had reached less than a year old, only 20 per cent had developed a spur — whereas all the birds aged six years and older had developed a spur.

Once the tarsometatarsal spur has emerged, however, its length and size grows in relation to the length of the cockerel's leg — and thus its measurement be used to estimate the age of the bird in question.

The researchers did caution, however, that the delayed development of the spur means that there is the potential for archaeologists to misidentify young cockerels without the bony protrusions as hens.

In their study, Dr Doherty and colleagues first applied their new aging technique to leg bones from modern domestic and red jungle fowl of known ages and sexes — which confirmed that the bony spur only develops in older birds. Pictured: a jungle fowl seen in Sri Lanka

Having confirmed the validity of their technique, the team next applied it to 1,366 domestic fowl leg bones collected from sites in Britain that dated back from the Iron Age all the way to the early modern period. Pictured: an Iron Age (4th–3rd century BC) cockerel from Houghton Down, Hampshire. Analysis of its spurs suggests that it reached at least two years of age

During the Iron Age and Roman period, the team found that there were significantly more cockerels than hens (pictured) — a trend which Dr Doherty and colleagues have attributed to the popularity of cockfighting at that time

Having confirmed the validity of their technique, the researchers next applied it to 1,366 domestic fowl leg bones collected from sites in Britain that dated back from the Iron Age all the way to the early modern period.

For each leg bone, the team determined the bird's sex and — where possible — age at the time of death.

The researchers reported that, of the 123 Iron Age, Roman and Saxon bones that they analysed, more than half were from chickens that had reached at least two years of age and around a quarter had made it to three years.

Of the 123 Iron Age, Roman and Saxon bones aged, over 50 per cent were of chickens more than two years old, and around 25 per cent over three years.

This, the team wrote in their paper, matches Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar's 'enigmatic observation that Britons kept fowl not for food but "animi voluptatis", a statement widely translated as for spiritual and secular pleasures.'

Furthermore, during the Iron Age and Roman period, the team found that there were significantly more cockerels than hens — a trend which Dr Doherty and colleagues have attributed to the popularity of cockfighting at that time.

The full findings of the study were published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

Pictured: an ancient Roman mosaic depicting a cockfight. The birds are facing off in front of a table, on which lies a caduceus staff, the winner's purse and a palm of victory

'Domestic fowl were introduced in the Iron Age and likely held a special status, where they were viewed as sacred rather than as food,' said paper author and archaeologist Sean Doherty of the University of Exeter


The Iron Age in Britain started as the Bronze Age finished.

It started around 800BC and finished in 43AD when the Romans invaded.

As suggested by the name, this period saw large scale changes thanks to the introduction of iron working technology.

During this period the population of Britain probably exceeded one million.

This was made possible by new forms of farming, such as the introduction of new varieties of barley and wheat.

The invention of the iron-tipped plough made cultivating crops in heavy clay soils possible for the first time.

Some of the major advances during included the introduction of the potter's wheel, the lathe (used for woodworking) and rotary quern for grinding grain.

There are nearly 3,000 Iron Age hill forts in the UK. Some were used as permanent settlements, others were used as sites for gatherings, trade and religious activities.

At the time most people were living in small farmsteads with extended families.

The standard house was a roundhouse, made of timber or stone with a thatch or turf roof.

Burial practices were varied but it seems most people were disposed of by 'excarnation' - meaning they were left deliberately exposed.

There are also some bog bodies preserved from this period, which show evidence of violent deaths in the form of ritual and sacrificial killing.

Towards the end of this period there was increasing Roman influence from the western Mediterranean and southern France.

It seems that before the Roman conquest of England in 43AD they had already established connections with lots of tribes and could have exerted a degree of political influence.

After 43AD all of Wales and England below Hadrian's Wall became part of the Roman empire, while Iron Age life in Scotland and Ireland continued for longer.