A Brief History of Birmingham

The Iron Age

600 BC -


For 500 years until Roman times, Celtic tribes originally from the region around Slovakia came to Britain from mainland Europe. Celtic smiths had learned to use charcoal to make fire hot enough to smelt iron, a metal much tougher than bronze. Iron axes, iron sickles, iron-tipped ploughs made farming easier. And an iron sword is far harder than a bronze weapon.


It was Celtic people who gave this island the name, Britain. They had called their predecessors, the indigenous people, 'the painted people', in Celtic pretanni, deriving later as 'Britons.' However, it was the Celts who were later referred to as Britons by the Romans.


Limited historical information exists about the Iron Age. Roman written sources describe the Celts as tribally organised, mutually hostile and based on local centres of power. These local centres were often hillforts which could house up to 1000 inhabitants and which were surrounded by farming estates. They would have been the power base of a local tribal chieftain. There are hillforts which are known to have been occupied for over 500 years. Classic examples are Maiden Castle and Hambledon Hill in Dorset. The majority of the population farmed in the countryside, living in tiny villages and isolated farmsteads and this must have been the case in the Birmingham area. Their wooden-framed buildings were generally round with a central post and thatched roof almost to the ground; some houses and villages were enclosed by hedges or moats.


There are over twenty Iron Age hillforts within a 30-mile radius of Birmingham, although few have been excavated. The nearest is Berry Mound at Solihull Lodge; there are others at Wychbury Hill near Hagley, Castle Old Fort near Wall and Castle Ring on Cannock Chase. Barr Beacon, the highest point in West Midlands County may well have been a hillfort. Unlike the very old hillforts of Wessex and the Welsh Marches, these hillforts seem to have been built relatively quickly by local clan chieftains to fight the Romans and were probably not occupied for long. However, the number of hillforts constructed seems to indicate that the Celtic population was strong enough to offer organised resistance to the Roman advance, even though this may have been short-lived and unsuccessful.


Berry Mound stands at Solihull Lodge between Peterbrook Road and Truemans Heath Lane. This hillfort was built about 500 BC in an oval shape oval. Covering an area of some 41/2 hectares, it was surrounded by a ditch and bank which would have had a palisade on top. Although badly damaged by farming activity in the 19th century, both the ditch and bank remain a clear landmark. No excavations have been made in the centre of the fort, but this was surely the centre of a local chiefdom with a tribe some hundreds strong contributing to its construction. It may well have been used defensively against the Roman invasion c48 AD, but resistance would have been short and futile. Small and insignificant compared with hillforts in central southern England, locally this is nonetheless an important example.


As for other Iron Age evidence in Birmingham, there is very little: a fragment of Iron Age pottery found in 1995 near St Marys Hospice on Raddlebarn Road, Selly Oak and at Castle Bromwich a yellow and white glass bead found on parkland near the Hall Gardens in 1960. More recently archaeological excavations in advance of the M6 Toll motorway discovered evidence of an Iron Age village near Langley Mill Farm off Lindridge Road. A number of circular timber houses within a moat enclosure were dated to between 400 and 100 BC. Close by, near Langley Brook, evidence of a single Iron Age moated site was found.


After 100 BC there was a major influx of a Celtic tribe known as the Belgae from across the English Channel. They spread across south-east England and up as far as the Midlands, though probably not as far north as the Forest of Arden. Their heavier wheeled ploughs enabled them to cultivate soils previously too difficult to work. The population of the whole of Britain by the time of the Roman conquest was probably less than half a million people.


The Iron Age Celts lived in tribal areas. The people of each area spoke the same language or dialect, followed the same customs and obeyed the same laws under common rule. The limits of these areas were later altered to some extent under Roman occupation. The exact boundaries of the tribal areas are unknown: indeed they may never have been precisely defined.


The Birmingham area lay on the borderlands of three tribal areas. East of Birmingham the Corieltauvi had their capital at Leicester; west of Birmingham were the Cornovii who had their capital on the Wrekin; south of Birmingham were the Dobunii with their capital at Cirencester. Roman towns were later built to replace the Celtic capitals; Leicester and Cirencester stand roughly on the original Celtic sites; Wroxeter, later a major Roman centre, replaced the Wrekin.


It is possible that the River Cole marked the boundary between the Corieltauvi and the Cornovii. This is supported by the existence of a small Romano-British temple which has been excavated at Grimstock Hill. Such temples were often built in the no-man's land between tribal boundaries. The Saxon Kingdom of the Hwicce, which covered Worcestershire and beyond, is believed to have replaced the tribal area of the Dobunii. The northernmost part of the Hwiccan Kingdom is represented in Birmingham by the ancient Worcestershire parishes of Kings Norton, Northfield and Yardley. Much of the boundary could have therefore been the River Rea, the Spark Brook and River Cole.