Uncovering the Past with Iron Age Pottery

The Iron Age is a period of prehistory and early history characterized by the widespread use of iron tools and weapons.

It is a significant stage in human technological development that followed the Bronze Age and preceded the historical period. One of the best ways to find a window into the past is by looking at the artefacts left behind.

Remnants of tools, dwellings and pottery offer key insights into how everyday people lived their lives, what they valued, and who they were throughout the pages of history. For the avid archeologist, it is possible to find some fascinating pieces of the past across the UK, including pottery pieces. 


The rich history of Britain means that there is the possibility of finding pottery pieces from the early days of history right up until the modern era. Understanding the subtle differences between pottery from different periods of time can help to identify when a piece was created and the potential link to history that it holds.

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Knowing the clues in pottery material, vessel shape, colour and markings can all help to identify a piece of pottery as having origins from the Iron Age. Iron Age pottery has distinctive characteristics that were influenced by the values and events of the time.

It reflected the rituals and everyday practices of people in Iron Age Britain and developed distinct variations throughout the Iron Age period. 

Who Were the People of Iron Age Britain?

Ranging roughly from 800BC to the first century AD, Iron Age Britain was home to diverse tribes. The demographics of the island was influenced by migration and invasions and by the first century BC there are population estimates of up to 1.5 million people.

Iron Age Round House
Iron Age Round House Cranborne Dorset. Situated at the Ancient Technology Centre near Cranborne Middle School. A coracle is by the porch and grain storage pit surrounded by a wattle fence, right of picture. Image Credit: Clive Perrin

Southern Britain provided largely better croplands and as a result was more densely settled than northern regions. Life was hard for the Iron Age dweller, with a life expectancy averaging just twenty-five to thirty years, the mortality rate during childbirth was high, as was the infant mortality rate.

Many Iron Age settlements in Britain were farming communities, roundhouses were common dwellings of the day, while the architecture of the countryside would also have contained distinctive hillforts.

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War between tribes and other invaders was common, and the first Roman invasion of Britain occurred during the Iron Age. The tribes of Iron Age Britain were mainly pagan, worshipping a range of deities and spirits.

The practice of sacrificing was a noted part of religious activities in Iron Age Britain, as was the burial of hoards and placing objects into bogs. Many of the accounts of British Iron Age practices come from the Roman invasion. Roman texts describe British priests as the Druids, and these religious leaders were considered to have a strong influence and high social standing.

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Iron Age Britain had trade links with continental Europe. This contact with the continent further influenced the beliefs, practices and way of life of the people of Iron Age Britain. Pottery was used for a wide range of purposes during the Iron Age in Britain.

What Was Pottery Used for in Iron Age Britain?

Pottery was generally clay based and mixed with a substance such as sand or crushed pottery to help minimise cracking and shrinkage as the vessels dried. The finished pottery was fired using bonfires or shallow pits and were often created with coil or slab-shaping techniques.

bronze age pottery kiln
Potter’s fire pit at Grange Farm, Benwick

Pottery was decorated with various shapes and paints, and colour was controlled through controlling oxidisation during the firing process. Pottery was made by hand in the Iron Age period with the introduction of the pottery wheel not appearing until the end of the epoch.

One of the most common things that Iron Age pottery was used for was cooking. Cooking vessels were likely to be relatively plain in decoration, with a focus on practicality over aesthetics.

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Polished and Decorated

As cooking pots weren’t always particularly well washed, archeologists have even found remnants of burnt food on cooking vessels, giving clues into the lives and diets of Iron Age people. Serving bowls, on the other hand, were more likely to be polished and decorated.

Iron age pottery
Middle Iron Age pottery. Image Credit: Mike Seager Thomas

Many of the tribes of Britain had distinct ways of decorating pottery, meaning that in some cases the decorations on a piece of Iron Age pottery can point to it belonging to a distinct area or group of people. As pottery provided such a valuable tool for Iron Age people, it was a common part of everyday life.

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As such, the range of pottery found from Iron Age Britain includes cooking vessels, bowls, cups, jars, beakers, and amulets. In some cases, pottery was also used in funeral practices, with vessels being implemented in cremation burials. 

Practical Instead of Aesthetic 

Pottery from the Iron Age is distinct in its promotion of practical ideals over aesthetic elements. Pottery from this period is often plain and relatively undecorated. Rough marks on pottery pieces that have been found point to scoring (a process of roughening and wetting a surface to join pieces of clay together), rather than decorative elements. 

This move away from highly decorated wares marked a transition between the pottery practices of the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

bronze age burial urn
By the mid-Iron Age, slack shouldered jars became one of the predominant forms of pottery.

Bronze Age pottery was often ornately decorated and had smaller, finer elements than its Iron Age counterparts. Iron Age pottery was often thick and large in size and lacked intricate patterning. 

However, Iron Age pottery did still have colour variations. These variations were created through both the materials used to make the pottery and the amount of oxygen the pottery was exposed to during the firing period.

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Colour variations were often shades of red, orange, browns and grey. Pottery in grey and black hues was popular up to the early 70s AD, while more red and orange tones were popular until 50 AD.

Identifying Early, Middle, and Late Iron Age Pottery

As the Iron Age spanned a significant period of time and was a period of large changes in Britain, it makes sense that pottery styles and practices also varied from the early, middle and late periods of the era.

Pottery found from the earliest periods of the Iron Age is the most prolifically decorated for the era. Decoration is often focused around the rim, neck and shoulders of a vessel, and was created with techniques such as finger pinching and finger impressions.

bronze age burial urn
Bronze Age cremation urns. Roughly 3300 BC to 1200 BC or 5000-3500 years old.

In some rarer cases, tools were also used during this early period to create decorated vessels. As the Iron Age progressed, decoration on pottery quickly became less frequent, this was particularly the case with coarsewares that had a strong need for practicality over representing status or wealth.

However, while decorations may have become less ornate and less frequent, they did become more location specific as the era saw a marked rise in regional styles.

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Vessels also generally became thicker and sturdier and new bases to vessels such as foot-ring bases and pedestal bases began to emerge. By the mid-Iron Age, slack shouldered jars became one of the predominant forms of pottery.

These vessels were generally short, thick, and simple in their design and were relatively free from excessive embellishments and decorations. Any decoration was generally restricted to the top of the rim of the vessel and was created with finger marking. Many of these vessels ranged from 2mm-5mm in wall thickness, but in some cases have even been found to exceed 8mm.

Late Iron Age 

Pottery from the late Iron Age, ranging roughly from 100BC to 60AD, also has distinctive features that set it apart from its earlier counterparts. The first century BC saw a significant rise in grog-tempered pottery. This was pottery tempered with ‘grog’, a substance consisting of finely crushed fired pottery.

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This substance is then mixed with unfired and untempered clay to help improve strength and reduce cracking during the firing process. Some of the earliest Iron Age vessels that used grog-tempered clay are thought to have been used for cremation and funeral practices. 

bronze age burial urn
Grog is used in pottery and sculpture to add a gritty, rustic texture called “tooth”; it reduces shrinkage and aids even drying.

During the late Iron-Age period, jars and bowls were more likely  to have out-turned necks and rounded shoulders. Pots used for practical elements of cooking and storage were still often plainer in decoration and design than finewares or tableware that was more likely to be on display.

However, some jars and other vessels have been noted to have burnished linear bands on the body of the vessel. Jars more elaborate in construction and design were also used in funeral practices. The late Iron Age period also saw the emergence of wheel-thrown pottery.

Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age pot
Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age

The emergence of the potters wheel gave Iron Age potters a greater ability to incorporate and experiment with more varied pottery techniques.

Due, in part, to the ability to create more varied styles, pottery from this period began to develop a distinct visual difference depending on purpose, denoting key difference between courseware and fineware/tableware. 

A Window into History 

Pottery gives valuable insights into the lives of people throughout history. It indicates the influence of trade and the mixing of cultures and what different groups valued in historic Britain. The Iron Age saw a period of turbulent changes in Britain, and the impact of these changes is reflected in pottery from the era.

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With a focus on practical elements, Iron Age pottery was often simple in design with a strong focus on functionality. The end of the Iron Age saw innovations in pottery techniques, including the emergence of the potters wheel, that revolutionised the art of pottery making. 

From serving pots to vessels used in cremation and burial practices, the use of pottery formed an everyday part of the life of the Iron Age people. Uncovering these ancient artefacts is one piece of putting together the puzzle of what life looked like in Iron Age Britain.