Ancient Britain History: Trading and Regionalism

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Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials…The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into the region.—Joseph Campbell 


To understand the historical context that led to Rome’s decision to invade and conquer Britain in 43 AD, one needs to look back as far as 600 BC to understand the development of Ancient Britain and its connections to Continental Europe. Similar to the Modern World, the Ancient World had a global economy that allowed various regions to share their technology, philosophies, and religion. Major events in Continental Europe also impacted Britain.

Stonehenge, also known as Apollo's Temple since classical antiquity.

Stonehenge, also known as Apollo’s Temple since classical antiquity.

Ancient British history must be pieced together with accounts from classical writers (Greek and Roman) and archaeological finds. Unfortunately, many classical accounts did not survive in their entirety and the significance of archaeological finds are sometimes subjective.

The next series of posts on APOLLO’S RAVEN will provide a backdrop on how the events in Continental Europe impacted Ancient Britain.


Ancient Britain History

Descent into Regionalism (600 – 400 BC)

In the two centuries between 600- 400 BC, regional cultures that formed across the face of Britain framed the next thousand years of development. Britain could be divided into three broad settlement zones: 1) eastern zone characterized by open villages and enclosed homesteads, 2) western zone of strongly-defended homesteads, and 3) central hill-fort dominated zone.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

The eastern zone stretching from the Thames to southern Scotland has an array of landscapes. Each area had its own settlement patterns and economic systems. In the southern midland river valleys, often unenclosed farmsteads and villages prevailed. The North had a more broken landscape of upland, small enclosed farmlands.

Cliffside Dover Cliffs Britain

Coastal White CliffsBritain

The landscape in the western zone extending from Cornwall to the Northern Isles was more varied. The settlements were more characteristic of homesteads for single or extended family, often enclosed with earthworks or walls offering some defense. In the latter part of the Iron Age, these smaller homesteads gave rise to a multiple of defended homesteads to establish more strength.

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior), Wales

The hill-fort dominated zone stretched from the south coast to North Wales. It is here where hill-forts proliferated in landscapes. These hill-forts were characterized by a rampart and ditches of defensive proportions and were accessed usually through two gates on opposing sides. There were evidence of large settlements on these hill-forts with streets, houses, storage facilities, and domestic activities suggestive of permanent occupation. These hill-forts reflected a larger community, comprising a group of lineages that brought together a society with a common pursuit.

Maiden Castle Hill-Fort, England.

Maiden Castle Hill-fort, Dorset, England.

Various body decoration and hairstyles were important identities for all of the above societies.

Trading Connection Massilia

The founding of the Greek Colony of Massilia (modern day Marseilles) on the Mediterranean coast in about 600 BC was a significant moment in Western Europe. Even before this Greek city was established, Greek and Etruscan traders had been visiting Britain for several decades, building friendly relations with the natives of the coastal zone and the more inland regions. The sixth century saw the development of formal trading that stretched from eastern France to Southern Germany, where the local Hallstatt chieftains were able to acquire Mediterranean luxury goods to display and to consume in feasts and in elaborate burial rites.

Calanques Limestone Cove

Calanques Limestone Cove Near Marseilles (Ancient Massilia)

In the 5th Century BC, the Islands began receiving notice by the Mediterranean world based on claims from Herodotus that he heard rumors of tin-rich islands in the Atlantic. Herodotus wrote that in “the extreme tracts of Europe towards the west there were islands called Cassiterides (Tin Islands) where the metal was resourced.” Most likely, his information came from traders at Massalia who were secretive about where the tin was mined. Most likely, the Tin Islands referred to Cornwall which had significant ore deposits.

Linnea Tanner at Château d'If Marseille

Château d’If Prison Overlooking Bay into Marseille

Tin and Pytheas

The importance of tin in the ancient world cannot be over-stressed. As an essential component in bronze, it was constantly in demand. Its rarity within Europe meant that knowledge of where to obtain this commodity was highly valued and protected.

Pytheas, entrepreneur and scientist, set out from Massalia about 320 BC to explore the northwestern extremities of Europe. He was probably the first to observe tin trade between Cornwall and the ports of Atlantic Gaul. Only fragments of the accounts of his remarkable travels survive. However, he probably travelled through Gaul (modern day France) and crossed to the western end of the Channel to Belerion, an ancient name given to Cornwall or Kernow, which has been translated as “Shining Land” or “Seat of Storms.”

Dover Cliffs United Kingdom

Dover Cliffs England

He observed first-hand the processes of tin extraction and exchange. His description may have been used by 1st Century writer, Diodorus Siculus, who describes the inhabitants as follows:

The inhabitants of Britain living on the promontory called Belerion are especially friends to strangers and have adopted a civilized way of life because of their interactions with traders and other peoples. It is they who work the tin, treating the layers. This layer, being like rock, contains earthy seams and in them the workers quarry the ore, which they melt down to clean of its impurities. Then they work the tin into pieces the size of knuckle-bones and convey it to an island which lies off Britain, call Ictis.

Cornwall Coastal Region

Cornwall Coast Porthcurno Beach

After Cornwall, Pytheas sailed northwards through the Irish Sea, stopping at the Isle of Man. He may have also made an open-sea voyage to Iceland and returned along the east coast of Britain. The description of the tin trade implies a regular and well-ordered process was used in the trading with established rules. A place of assembly was designated as a free zone where all were given a guarantee of safe conduct. The traders would have timed their visits based on sailing conditions. On offshore islands, natives would be ready to trade ingots for Mediterranean goods.

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover

Localized Warfare

From the third century BC, archaeological findings indicate localized warfare became more aggressive, particularly in the hill-fort zone of central southern Britain. This could have been due to tensions caused by a growing population and the desire of chieftains to acquire and hold onto productive land at a time when fertility may have begun to fail in some regions. Disputes could flare into hostile and bloody confrontations.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

During this time, fortresses were strengthened for defense. Ditches were re-dug and ramparts rebuilt, now with a continuous slope from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the rampart. Several of these hill-forts were rebuilt as a result of a devastating fire.

Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

Ramparts and Ditches Maiden Castle Hill-Fort

At Danebury, in Hampshire, a fire seemed to have damaged large areas of the interior in the last 4th Century. The hill-fort was then as strongly re-defended in the third century, but another fire in the 1st Century destroyed the gate, after which the site was abandoned. Though the fires may have not been result of enemy action, the large number of sling-stones found at this site suggests inhabitants were ready to defend their position. Further evidence of warfare is based on archaeological finds of human skeletons scarred with marks of violence.

Celtic Greaves

Celtic Greaves

Beginning in the first century, there was an increase of horse bones found at some of these hill-forts suggesting the build-up of war chariots and the training of horses to power them. After the destruction of the hill-fort at Danebury, the hill-fort at Bury Hill was brought back into use with a new set of defenses comprising a ditch with an inner and outer rampart. The most significant find from this site was horses accounted for more than a quarter of the animal bones. There were exceptional quantities of horse gear and chariot fittings. It seems that the building of war chariots and training of teams of horses to power them reflect a more excitable and aggressive stance among the elite.

Footpath Around Bury Hill-Fort

Footpath Circling Bury Hill-Fort; Photograph by Chris Talbot

By the time Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 – 54 BC, the localized political rivalries were very much in evidence and the war strategy of using chariots that at first confounded his Roman army. He took advantage of the localized political rivalries by pitting British tribal rulers against each other so they would not unite as a formidable force against the Roman legions (previously discussed in the last two posts.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC

To be Continued

The next post will detail how the changing political climate in Continental Europe impacted Britain.


Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins; Oxford University Press, 2013.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain, Reprinted 1999 by Routledge (Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group), NY.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces; New world Library, Novato, CA; 2008.

8 Responses to "Ancient Britain History: Trading and Regionalism"
  1. I think one of the things I like best about your posts Linnea is how I always learn more than I expect to learn!! I read about tin extraction and who was Pytheas. I hadn’t realized there were tin islands too. Thanks for sharing your research with us and for all that I learn from you here! I wish you a beautiful weekend ahead, Linnea.
    ~ Love Christy

  2. Luciana says:

    Hi Linnea,

    Wow, what a fascinating post! Each time I read one of your articles, I learn something new. The richness and depth of your knowledge is exemplary.
    We, (us modern timers) often think the ancient world was restrictive in their travels, but that is not the case! Evidence as you’ve mentioned with regards to historical writers like Pytheas and Herodotus, provide important information as to the depth and knowledge of that time.
    What a fascinating history we have. 😀

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Hi Luciana,

      Thank you for your insightful comments. The more research I do, the more I realize what a rich tradition ancient civilizations offered. There seemed to be waves of great technological advances where there was widespread trading and sharing of culture and ideas, but then civilizations would step backwards into dark ages where societies became more isolated. I agree with you that we in modern times probably underestimate the impact of global trading and sharing of knowledge and culture in ancient civilizations. These is a lot we could learn from our ancestors.

      Congratulations on the launch of your new historical fantasy, Search for the Golden Serpent. This novel really brought ancient civilizations and their deities to life which modern readers can identify.

      Thanks again for your continued support and sharing your love of ancient civilizations and mythology with me.

      Best regards,

  3. rita roberts says:

    Hello, Just discovered your blog through one of my blogger friends. Reading this post is very familiar to me as I come from Great Britain and am an Archaeologist who knows all the sites you speak of. Have worked on many of the ancient Roman pottery vessels. Will follow you for more interesting posts.

    • Dear Rita,

      It is a pleasure to meet you and to learn of your background as an Archaeologist from Great Britain. I am absolutely fascinated with new archaeological findings from Britain that help piece together their history. It is interesting to note that you have worked on ancient Roman pottery vessels found in the region. I am writing a historical fantasy set in Ancient Britain and Rome prior to Claudius’ invasion in 43 AD. My assumption in the novel was there were strong political and trading ties between Rome and British Celtic tribes prior to the Roman invasion, based, in part, on these archaeological discoveries.

      Please feel free to comment on any posts as I value your expertise in this area. I will also follow your blog for any updates on new archaeological finds:

      Again, I appreciate your comment. Best wishes for a good week!

      Best regards,

  4. rita roberts says:

    Hello again Linnea, I am so pleased you are following back. Thank you.
    You certainly have all your facts right and I loved reading your version of the Romans landing in Britain and the battles with those Celts. If you are interested there is plenty of info about Roman pottery and its transportation on my blog, just look under ” Archaeology Pottery ” on my sidebar. I now live in Crete and working on Minoan pottery I am also studying the Ancient Minoan script writings called Linear B.
    I am really looking forward to reading more of your future posts once I catch up with the rest.
    Best wishes

    • Hi Rita,

      Thank you for telling me where I can find out more information about Roman pottery on your blog. I will certainly read these posts and be a frequent visitor to your blog. How exciting that you are now living in Crete and working on Minoan pottery. This was such a fascinating ancient civilization and hopefully you’ll gain new insight through your evaluation of pottery.

      Thank you again for your invaluable information.

      Best regards,

  5. rita roberts says:

    Hi Linnea, Thanks for the Re-blog re- Akrotiri. I went to the actual archaeological site with a friend who came to stay with us. Such a coincidence she came from Colorado, we had a fantastic time together. The site is absolutely massive and so very interesting, and it needs a complete day to take it all in. Nice to meet you and am slowly catching up with your interesting blog with all your historical knowledge.
    Best wishes

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