Weapons and warriors in Iron Age Britain

The Iron Age in Britain has often been considered as a particularly warlike and violent time. The large number of Iron Age hillforts in some areas and the many weapons that have been found seem to support this idea. However, the Iron Age was no more warlike and violent than other periods of the past. Iron Age people certainly did fight each other and wage war; being a warrior was probably important in the Iron Age. Some weapons were carefully decorated and made to the highest quality; others may even have been made for show, rather than for battle. The way people fought changed over the course of the Iron Age and was also probably different from one part of Britain to another.

Principal weapons used by Iron Age warriors in Britain were spears, shields and swords. The sling was also important. But there is no evidence that the bow and arrow were used for war in Britain at this time, nor for hunting. Different types and sizes of spears were used: some were javelins to be thrown; others were carried in the hand. Shields were usually made of wood, leather or hide and the only parts that are usually preserved are those of metal such as the boss or fittings. Different shapes of shield were in fashion at different times in the Iron Age. Swords changed with fashion as well, but they may also have been influenced by changes in tactics. Many swords were carried in decorated scabbards. At hillforts, large numbers of sling stones have been found showing that the sling was probably an important weapon. Few Iron Age warriors in Britain appear to have worn armour or any kind: helmets were rare, so too was chain mail.

Because it is unusual for people to throw weapons away, most of the swords, shields and spears that have survived are those placed in graves or in rivers, lakes and bogs.

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