The British Iron Age is a conventional name to describe the independent Iron Age cultures that inhabited the mainland and smaller islands of present-day Britain.
The Iron Age lasted from the earliest example of significant use of iron from 800–600 BC, till the Romanisation and establishment of the Roman province of Britannia in the southern half of the island during the “Latest Iron Age” between 50 BC – AD 100.
The Roman historian Tacitus proposed that the Ancient Britons were the descendants of immigrants that arrived from the continent – suggesting that the tribes of Caledonia had Germanic origins, that the Silures from Southern Wales were Iberian settlers, and that the southern tribes of Britannia descended from the tribes of Gaul.
The names associated with the Iron Age tribes were recorded by Roman and Greek historians during the second century AD (after Roman Britain had already supplanted the British Iron Age), leading to historians and archaeologists to speculate as to where the tribal centres were situated, or where territorial boundaries extended.
These are also not necessarily the names by which the tribes knew themselves; for instance, “Durotriges” may mean “hillfort-dwellers”, but it is unlikely that the Durotriges themselves considered this their defining name.
Archaeologists have been able to gain some insight into the population extents and tribal boundaries, by studying the spacial distribution of coins of the various groups, and the pottery assemblages associated with each distinct culture.
Tribes of Iron Age Britain Map (Suggested placement based on classical text and historic tribal centres)
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Tribes in Britannia
The Atrebates were an offshoot of a Belgic tribe from northern Gaul, who settled in southern Britain around the 1st century BC. A contemporary account by Sextus Julius Frontinus in the Strategemata, stated that the Belgic tribes King, Commius, fled to Britain where he declared himself the ruler of the off-shoot branch in 30 BC. Their territory covered parts of modern Hampshire, West Sussex and Berkshire, centred on the Roman site of Calleva Atrebatum (modern Silchester).
The Belgae were a large tribal confederation from northern Gaul, who settled in southern Britain around the 1st century BC. Their territory covered parts of modern Hampshire, centred on the Roman site of Venta Belgarum (modern Winchester).
The Cantiaci were a Belgic tribe that settled in southern Britain probably during the 2nd century BC. Their territory was separated into smaller kingdoms, which formed a confederation during times of conflict. Caesar mentions four Kings, Segovax, Carvilius, Cingetorix, and Taximagulus, who held power in Cantium at the time of his second expedition in 54 BC. Their territory covered parts of modern Kent and East Sussex, centred on the Roman site of Durovernum Cantiacorum (modern Canturbury).
The Catuvellauni likely descend from a Belgic tribe who migrated during the 2nd century BC. They are mentioned by Cassius Dio, who implies that they led the resistance against the Roman conquest in AD 43. Their territory covered parts of modern Bedfordshire, Bucking, Hertfordshire, Essex and Greater London, centred on their capital, named Verulamium by the Romans (modern St Albans).
The Dobunni were a pastoral culture that lived in small farming communities in southwest Britain. In the late Iron Age, the Dobunni started to construct fortified camps and oppida, but according to contemporary accounts they capitulated to the Romans, rather than mount any form of resistance to the Roman advances. Their territory covered parts of modern Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire, Somerset, Bristol, Herefordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Worcester, and Breconshire, centred on the Roman site of Corinium Dobunnorum (modern Cirencester).
The Dumnonii were an Iron Age tribe, who inhabited a region called Dumnonia, in what is now the more westerly parts of South West England. Their territory covered Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset, centred on the Roman site of Isca Dumnoniorum (modern Exeter).
The Durotriges were a tribal confederation of farmsteads and hillforts, that inhabited parts of South West England. Their territory covered parts of Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset, and Devon, centred on Durnovaria (modern Dorchester). Ptolemy’s Geography lists Dunium, speculated to be Hengistbury Head, also as an important tribal centre.
The Regni, also called the Regnenses are a proposed tribe that existed in the same territories overlapped by the Atrebates, possibly as part of a confederation of tribes in Southern England. Their territory may have covered parts of Sussex and Hampshire.
The Trinovantes were an Iron Age tribe, possibly of Belgic origin that inhabited parts of Essex and Suffolk in England. Their historic centre was probably at Braughing in Hertfordshire, but after 20–15 BC, their ruler Addedomarus moved the tribe’s capital to Camulodunum (modern Colchester). The Trinovantes participated in Boudica’s revolt against the Roman Empire in 60 AD and destroyed their former capital.
The Iceni were an Iron Age tribe that inhabited Norfolk in Eastern England. Increasing Roman influence on their affairs led to revolt in AD 47, though they remained nominally independent under King Prasutagus until his death around AD 60. Roman encroachment after Prasutagus’ death led his wife Boudica to launch a major revolt from 60–61. Boudica’s uprising endangered Roman rule in Britain and resulted in the burning of Londinium, Camulodunum, and Verulamium. The Romans crushed the rebellion, and the Iceni territories that covered parts of Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, and Cambridgeshire were increasingly incorporated into the expanding Roman province.
The Carvetii are only known from three Roman (third and fourth century AD) inscriptions, and may have been part of the neighbouring Brigantes confederation. The Carvetii are not mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography, nor in any other classical text, but historians propose that they may have been centred on the Roman site of Luguvalium (modern Carlisle).
The Cornovii were an Iron Age tribe who inhabited the Northern region of England bordering Wales, whose territory covered parts of Shropshire, North Staffordshire, and Cheshire. Their capital in pre-Roman times was probably a hillfort on the Wrekin. Ptolemy’s 2nd-century Geography names two of their towns: Deva Victrix (modern Chester) and Viroconium Cornoviorum (modern Wroxeter), which became their capital under Roman rule.
The Corieltauvi appear to have been a federation of smaller, self-governing tribal groups that settled the region during the 1st-2nd century BC. They mainly inhabited the East Midlands in England, centred on the Roman site of Ratae Corieltauvorum (modern Leicester).
The only historical record of the Parisi is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he placed them near Opportunum Sinus, somewhere within the present-day East Riding of Yorkshire, in England.
The Brigantes were an Iron Age tribe, whose territory (often referred to as Brigantia) covered Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumberland, and parts of Durham. The tribes constructed several large towns, with the tribal centre based at the Roman site of Isurium Brigantum (Aldborough).
The Deceangli were an Iron Age tribe that inhabited Northern Wales, covering parts of Flintshire, and part of Cheshire. The Deceangli lived in a series of hillforts, centred on the Roman site of Canovium (modern Caerhun). The tribe was subdued by the Romans in the mid-1st century AD, when Publius Ostorius Scapula moved against the Deceangli, who surrendered with little resistance.
The Demetae were an Iron Age tribe that inhabited South West Wales, covering parts of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. The tribe was referenced by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he mentions two of their towns, Moridunum (modern Carmarthen) and Luentinum.
The Demetae appear to be the only tribal confederation who survived the conquest period and Roman occupation, with their homeland and tribal name remaining intact through to the Middle Ages.
The Gangani were a conjectural tribe that inhabited the Llŷn Peninsula, in North West Wales. The only historical reference of the tribe was by Ptolemy in his Geographica who called the peninsula the “promontory of the Gangani”.
The Ordovices were an Iron Age tribe that inhabited territories in North West Wales and England. Unlike the latter tribes that appear to have acquiesced to Roman rule with little resistance, the Ordovices fiercely resisted the Romans.
At the Battle of Caer Caradoc in AD 50, the Ordovice were crushed by the Legio IX Hispana, and the Legio XX Valeria Victrix, resulting in their leader, Caratacus being presented as a trophy in Emperor Claudius’s Roman triumph. Ordovice strongholds would continue to remain defiant, until finally being subdued by the Roman governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola in the campaign of AD 77–78.
The Silures were most likely a large tribal confederation that inhabited lands across South East Wales. The most obvious physical remains of the Silures are hillforts such as those at Llanmelin and Sudbrook, and the proposed tribal centre of Llanmelin, which would later become the Roman town of Venta Silurum (modern Caerwent).
Successive governors made several attempts to bring the Silures into submission. Some Roman sources state they were eventually defeated by Sextus Julius Frontinus in a series of campaigns ending around AD 78, however, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote : non atrocitate, non clementia mutabatur – meaning the tribe “was changed neither by cruelty nor by clemency”, suggesting the Silures most likely came to terms.
Tribes in Caledonia
The only historical record of the Caereni is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he placed them along the western coast of modern Sutherland in Scotland.
The only historical record of the Carnonacae is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he placed them along the western coast of modern Ross-shire in Scotland.
The only historical record of the Creones is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he placed them along the western coast of Scotland, south of the Isle of Skye and north of the Isle of Mull.
The Damnonii are mentioned briefly in Ptolemy’s Geography, where he uses the terms “Damnonii” and “Damnii”, to describe them living in the towns of Vanduara, Colania, Coria, Alauna, Lindum, and Victori in the lowlands of Scotland (although Ptolemy was most likely referring to Roman military camps as there is no evidence of major tribal centres in the region).
The only historical record of the Decantae is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he placed them along the western coast of the Moray Firth, in the area of the Cromarty Firth, Scotland.
The Epidi are referenced by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he placed them living in a region called Epidion, which scholars have identified as being the island of Islay in modern Argyll.
The Lopocares were a conjectural tribe that inhabited the area around Corbridge in Northumberland, Northeast England. They may have been a sub-tribe or sept of the Brigantes.
The only historical record of the Lugi is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he placed them along the western coast of the Moray Firth in Scotland.
The only historical record of the Novantae is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he placed them living in what is now Galloway and Carrick, in Scotland. Excavations of enclosed settlements, brochs, crannogs, and hillforts in the area, suggest that the region Ptolemy described was inhabited by a tribal people from the 1st century BC through to the Roman Era.
The only historical record of the Selgovae is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he placed the Selgovae towns of Carbantorigum, Uxellum, Corda, and Trimontium, in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, and Dumfriesshire, on the southern coast of Scotland (although Ptolemy was most likely referring to Roman military camps as there is no evidence of major tribal centres in the region).
The only historical record of the Smertae is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he placed them in Sutherland, Scotland.
The Setantii were a conjectural tribe that inhabited the western and southern littoral of Lancashire in England. The only historical record of the Setantii is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he gives mention to Portus Setantiorum (Port of the Setantii).
The only historical record of the Taexali is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, where he placed them along the North East coast of Scotland, centred on a town he called ‘Devana’.
The Textoverdi were a conjectural tribe that inhabited the western and southern littoral of Lancashire in England, centred on Beltingham near the Roman site of Vindolanda, or at Corbridge.
The only historical record of the Venicones is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica who describes the tribe centred on ‘Orrea’, which scholars have identified as the Roman fort of Horrea Classis, located in Monifieth, Scotland.
The only historical record of the Vacomagi is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, who describes their towns or tribal centres of ‘Bannatia’, ‘Tamia’, Pinnata Castra, and ‘Tuesis’ in the North East of Scotland.
The Otadini, also called the Votadini were an Iron Age tribe recorded in classical sources, whose territory covered parts of South-East Scotland, and North-East England. The historical centre was the Traprain Law hill fort in East Lothian, which was later moved to Din Eidyn (modern Edinburgh).
Between 138–162 they came under direct Roman military rule as occupants of the region between Hadrian’s and the Antonine Walls. Then when the Romans drew back to Hadrian’s Wall the Votadini became a friendly buffer state, getting the rewards of alliance with Rome without being under its rule.
The only historical record of the Carnovii is from a reference by Ptolemy in his Geographica, who places the tribe at the northern tip of Scotland, in Caithness.