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New perspectives on British territorial oppida: the examination of Iron Age landscapes in time and space



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New perspecves on Brish territorial oppida: the examinaon of
Iron Age landscapes in me and space
Nicky Garland
This article examines the Late Iron Age settlements of south-east Britain described as oppida, which
were initially examined almost fty years ago and have recently been the subject of renewed research
(e.g. Moore 2012; Pitts 2010; Rogers 2008). The term oppida has a long history, rst referenced
in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (Handford 1951) and translated from Latin to mean ‘town’. This
article examines the history of archaeological research into oppida in Britain, providing an analysis
of the pitfalls of past interpretation and, specically through the study of territorial oppida, the most
successful avenues of exploration. In light of these new methods and theories, a new perspective on
how we examine territorial oppida is forwarded, illustrated through a supporting case study. This
article forms an initial statement of the author’s doctoral research into territorial oppida in south-east
In archaeological research the examination of oppida initially attempted to equate defended sites
within France, including those in Burgundy, Bibracte (Bulliot 1899; Déchelette 1904) and Alesia
(Napoléon III 1861), to historic events and oppida mentioned in Caesar’s text (Collis 1984: 6).
However, based upon a broad denition of evidence for defences and permanent Iron Age occupation
(Collis 1984: 6), the term oppida expanded to include many Late La Tène defended Gallic settlements.
Later, settlements outside Gaul were also dened as oppida including, in Germany, the settlement of
Manching and, in the Czech Republic, Staré Hradisko and Zavist (Collis 1984: 6) (Figure 1). This
attempt to classify oppida under a single broad denition was problematic. As argued for the study
of Iron Age hill-forts (Champion 1994; Gwilt and Haselgrove 1997: 1), this was due partially to the
regional and interregional dierentiation between these sites visible in the enclosing defences, the
physical internal structure of these settlements and their geographic location.
In Britain the term oppida was equally vague. In the 1960s/70s these sites were considered, due
to their size and later prehistoric date, to be the top of a settlement hierarchy (Cunlie 1976a;
Haselgrove et al. 2001: 15). However, the dierences between British oppida and European examples
led Cunlie (1976b) to create sub-divisions to provide greater clarication of these sites, including
‘enclosed oppida’, ‘undefended oppida’, and ‘territorial oppida’ (Cunlie 1976a: 354–5; 1976b:
135–6). Despite this sub-division, scholars examining British oppida in the 1970s/80s, continued to
make comparisons to those on the continent, leading to their denition along continental lines. This
is evident in the assumed urban character of British oppida, illustrated by titles of contemporary texts
such as ‘Oppida: the Beginnings of Urbanisation in Barbarian Europe’ (Cunlie and Rowley 1976)
and ‘Oppida: earliest towns north of the Alps’ (Collis 1984). Rogers (2012: 645) has argued that
these initial interpretations of oppida have had the eect of ‘simplifying our understanding of these
sites’ in terms of their location, the activity uncovered within them and the way in which they were
In Britain, a growing dissatisfaction with processual approaches to the Iron Age (e.g. Hodson 1964;
Cunlie 1975) led to a series of critiques in the 80s/90s of the assumptions placed on the period
New perspectives on British territorial oppida
(Hill 1989) e.g. the existence of a single ‘Celtic’ identity (Fitzpatrick 1996; James 1999; Megaw and
Megaw 1998; Collis 2003). This included a critique of previous interpretations of oppida, leading
Woolf (1993: 223) to question whether the regional and interregional dierences between these
sites meant that the term ‘oppida’ as a single denition was useful in an archaeological context.
Woolf (1993: 231) also challenged the presumption that these sites demonstrate traditional urban
characteristics (e.g. Childe 1950), suggesting if they were ‘urban’ in character they represented an
individual form of urbanism distinct to Iron Age Europe. Haselgrove (1995: 86) also argued that the
emphasis placed on oppida, due to the presence of large earthwork systems, evidence for contact with
the continent (e.g. imported goods) and the early adoption of coinage, was to the detriment of other
Late Iron age complexes who were equally associated with ‘high-ranking members of society’ but
lacked surrounding earthworks. Furthermore, the wider post-processual debate began to reject the role
of a denitive Iron Age settlement hierarchy dominated by oppida (Haselgrove 1989: 11). Originating
from the rejection of hillforts as purely defensive (Bowden and McOmish 1987), further critiques
challenged whether these sites could be interpreted only as centres of production/exchange or elite
residences (Hill 1995a), while detailed research failed to identify a single chronology (Hill 1995c:
68) or presence of hillforts in all Iron Age societies (Hill 1995a). This dierentiation suggested that
hillforts were a regionally inuenced phenomenon (Hill 1995a) that did not directly encourage the
appearance of oppida, nor indicate that oppida represented the nal development in settlement form
prior to AD 43.
IARSS 17, Edinburgh
Territorial Oppida
In Britain, renewed research into oppida in the 21st century focused predominantly on territorial oppida.
This is due to a long history of archaeological research, but also the continued denition of some territorial
oppida as centres of ‘major social and political importance’ because of historical and numismatic evidence
(Haselgrove 2000: 105). Territorial oppida have been characterised as large-scale settlements, covering
vast areas of landscape (Figure 2), dened by discontinuous linear earthworks stretching up to 20 to 30 km
in length (Cunlie 1976b; Haselgrove 2000). Territorial oppida have also been described as ‘polyfocal’
settlements; dened by scattered elite and lower status residential compounds separated by agricultural
areas (elds systems) and interspersed by discrete designated zones of varying function (agriculture, ritual
activity, burial, metal working, coin production) (Haselgrove 1989: 11; 1995: 86; 2000: 105; Haselgrove
and Millett 1997: 286). The denition of these sites as ‘polyfocal’ has been inuenced by the sheer size of
territorial oppida and the lack of knowledge of the site interior (Haselgrove 2000: 106).
Recent research has illustrated the diversity of these sites, both in function and geographic location (e.g.
Bryant 2007), which is illustrated at Silchester where, in contrast to the general denition (see above),
the oppidum was smaller in size and highly structured around a rectilinear street grid. This site has been
interpreted as a “planted settlement” of migrants from Gaul (Fulford et al. 2000: 563), suggested by
limited evidence for pre-oppidum occupation and material/biological evidence suggesting strong links to
the continent (Lodwick 2013).
The research into territorial oppida has highlighted the benets of analysing these sites in the landscape
context in which they were constituted. More sophisticated interpretations have been developed as to
why territorial oppida were founded in specic locations, why these locations were important and how
oppida functioned, both practically and socially. For example, Millett (1990: 25–6) has suggested that
some territorial oppida may have been founded in unoccupied areas that provided neutral locations for the
periodic meetings of social groups. This interpretation has been argued for the St Albans oppidum, due
to its position within a marshy river valley, at the convergence of distinct landscape zones (Haselgrove
and Millett 1997: 284–5; Haselgrove 2000: 106). Later, due to the ritual/communal signicance of this
Name Size
date (Aer
Pis 2010)
Interpretaon Acvity in
Roman period? References
  
foci set within a highly
ritual landscape
Legionary fortress
and later town
Willis 2007)
700 Pre c. AD 20.
place for tribal groups –
evidence for high status
Roman town
& Thompson 2005)
 32.5 
ment – planned migrant
Roman town (civitas
(Fulford et al�
Lodwick 2013)
Gloucesteshire 200 c.AD 1–20
Elite complex spread over a
Thames Valley
of the site’
Moore 2014)
West Sussex   Oppidum with nucleated
core at Selsey
Roman town (civitas
port 2003)
 300 
(Haselgrove et al�
New perspectives on British territorial oppida
location, elite residences were founded that provided the origins for the oppidum (Haselgrove and Millett
1997: 285). A similar topographic position, on the interface between two distinct landscapes, is also
present on a number of other territorial oppida including Bagendon and Stanwick (Haselgrove 2000: 106;
Moore 2012: 405).
Research at Colchester has also suggested that the oppidum may have been founded in relation to ‘watery
contexts’, which gave this location a religious meaning during the Iron Age (Willis 2007; Rogers 2008). In
particular, it has been interpreted that ritual activities were undertaken at the metal-working site at Sheepen
as it was located at a culturally meaningful boundary, represented by the interface between fresh and salt
water (Willis 2007: 121). Rogers (2008: 45) argued that the Colchester oppidum was therefore situated
within a ‘meaning-laden and multi-focal landscape’. The position of a number of other territorial oppida
within river valleys/marshy areas, including at St Albans and Stanwick, may reect the wider importance
of ‘watery contexts’ and ritual centres in the development of these sites (Haselgrove 2000: 105–6).
The importance of ritual signicance and landscape context has assisted in understanding territorial
oppida in dierent aspects, in particular the comparison of these sites to those outside of Britain, which
have expanded our understanding of how they formed and for what function they served. For example,
J.D. Hill (1995c: 72) and others have drawn parallels between territorial oppida and the so-called ‘Royal’
sites of the Irish Midlands, including Navan, Co. Armagh, Dun Ailinne, Co. Kildare and Tara, Co. Meath,
which have been interpreted as ceremonial meeting places, enclosed by large earthwork boundaries and
containing evidence for metal deposition and ritual feasting. For example, Moore (2012: 413) claimed the
‘Royal’ Irish sites share characteristics to the Bagendon oppidum, in the way the surrounding earthworks
funnelled the movement of people in particular directions and to ritual focal points, creating ‘theatrical
and ritualized landscapes of movement’.
A number of sites on the continent have also been directly compared to British territorial oppida, including
Manching and Kelheim, Germany, both located in low lying areas, close to river systems and dened by
large scale earthworks systems. Similar landscape contexts have also been argued for sites in France,
including Villenuve St Germain, Picardy and Bibracte, Burgundy (Rogers 2012: 648). Haselgrove (2007:
511) suggested that sites such as Conde-sur-Suippe, Picardy, which have previously been examined as a
single element, normally a fortied settlement on a high topographic position, are actually ‘conceived as
several elements dispersed over a larger territory, of which, a permanent and/or fortied settlement was
only one’. Fieldwork on the continent has uncovered similar sites including Entremont, Provence, where
geophysical survey has revealed a large area of previously unrecorded settlement (Armit et al. 2012) and
at Heunenburg, Germany, although of an earlier date, where an area of settlement 100 hectares in size was
found surrounding the hilltop fortication (Krausse and Fernández-Götz 2012: 31). While these sites may
not be directly comparable to British territorial oppida they do illustrate that our understanding of these
settlements should expand beyond single hilltop sites into the wider landscape and that the landscape as a
concept was of particular importance to the people of the Iron Age when conceiving of these settlements.
New Perspecves
The recent analyses of a number of territorial oppida in Britain (i.e. Silchester, Bagendon) have beneted
by further archaeological investigation, including geophysical survey and keyhole excavation. Intensive
research-based eldwork is not plausible for all oppida sites, due to the location of modern towns at the
core of these settlements (e.g. Colchester, Chichester), however, it has been illustrated on the continent
that development-led archaeological eldwork can greatly aid our understanding of oppida and how they
developed over time (e.g. Manching, Germany - Wendling and Winger 2014). This research examines
British territorial oppida by utilising the spatial and contextual data present on local Historic Environment
Records (HERs), incorporating the results of published and unpublished development-led investigations
IARSS 17, Edinburgh
as well as well-known archaeological sites. This enables us, from a landscape perspective, to ‘ll in
the gaps’ for oppida, examining in detail the often overlooked areas in-between well-known Late Iron
Age sites. Were territorial oppida ‘poly-focal’ settlements or intensively occupied areas of occupation, as
illustrated by sites on the continent (e.g. Entremont, Provence)?
This information bolsters the data-set for territorial oppida, however, we must continue to examine these
settlements in new ways. Despite criticism of oppida in the 1990s (see above), there is still some way
to go in order to fully understand and appreciate how these settlements were structured, particularly in
a social sense. For example, territorial oppida are usually assumed to represent centres for trade and
production controlled by elite patrons organised around a hierarchical social structure. This forms part of
a wider debate into how society was organised in the Iron Age (e.g. hierarchies vs heterarchies) with recent
analysis exploring alternatives to hierarchical structures (e.g. Armit 2007; Cripps 2007; Giles 2007; Hill
2006; Moore 2007; Sharples 2007; Wigley 2007). While territorial oppida may have been organised under
a ‘client king’ (e.g. Creighton 2000; 2006), this interpretation must be substantiated through a detailed
examination of the social structure from the ‘bottom-up’. By this I mean attempting to understand how
people articulated themselves as social entities, how the inter-relationships between people formed social
groups and how these groups contributed to the overall social structure of the oppida.
This research explores a multi-scalar analysis of territorial oppida, by investigating society in territorial
oppida on multiple levels (people, groups, regions), through the examination of evidence present on
multiple scales (nds, sites, landscapes). This is established through the interweaving of two post-
processual theoretical frameworks; Identity and Landscape. The concept of identity has been dened as
representing both the “similarity and dierence in the examination of the relationship between people
and things” (Jenkins 2004: 3–4). This denition is useful for examining patterns within archaeological
evidence; however, it must be framed within a structuralist approach (Giddens 1984) that considers
both agency (the actions of people) and structure (representing the wider physical and social world)
as a single entity. While structure has often been overlooked in favour of the understanding of agency
(Gardner 2011: 72–5), the identication and consideration of both allows for the exploration of people in
relation to larger social groups, or institutions (Jenkins 2004: 24–5), and permits us to explore dierent
social scales and how they interacted. The concept of ‘landscapes’, an idea that is constituted within the
periods that they were inhabited, is important to frame this understanding of personal and group social
dynamics. The ‘landscape-scale’ of territorial oppida has in the past made the examination of landscapes
an obvious theoretical approach (e.g. Moore 2012; Rogers 2008), however, it can also allow us to frame
our understanding of what people ‘did’ in oppida and explore its implications at a wider social scale. The
consideration of landscapes as ‘lived space’, transformed by the actions of humans (Thomas 1993: 172;
Thomas 1996: 83), has moved our understanding of landscapes away from approaches that examined
‘sites’ within a ‘passive backdrop’, and instead examines archaeological remains across a region within
a wider framework of past human activity (Ashmore and Knapp 1999: 2; Ingold 1993: 158). This allows
for a person-centred approach, i.e. one that explores experiential interpretations of landscapes, to best
understand how people in the Iron Age perceived the landscape where territorial oppida were founded and
Case Study
With the above ideas in mind, an examination of part of the territorial oppidum at Camulodunum
(Colchester) illustrates how this multi-scale analysis operates and how, through the investigation of ritual
action, identity is articulated on multiple social scales. Central to this part of the Late Iron Age landscape
is the ritual and funerary site at Stanway (Crummy et al. 2007). Preceded by a Middle Iron Age farmstead
(Enclosure 2), two enclosures (1 and 3), utilised for ritual and funerary purposes were constructed at
Stanway between the mid-1st century BC and AD 43 (Figure 3).
New perspectives on British territorial oppida
The evidence for burial at Stanway indicates that cremation was a predominant burial rite and suggests
that belief systems were shared by Iron Age people in the territorial oppidum. However, the variability
of burial types (Figure 4) suggests specic attitudes to how burials were undertaken and indicates that
some burial rites, most likely the internment of remains, were the responsibility of close familial groups.
Feasting and drinking were a major component of the rituals undertaken at Stanway, evidenced by broken
pottery sherds in both the burials themselves and the surrounding enclosure ditches (Crummy et al. 2007:
72). This was likely related to the changing habits of consumption present in the Late Iron Age (i.e. Hill
2002) and was associated with particular rituals associated with the internment of the burials themselves.
The inclusion of a diverse range of grave goods within these burials also illustrates the personal identity of
individuals in death, possibly to reect wealth and status of either the deceased or, more likely, those who
were responsible for the burial (Parker-Pearson 2003: 78–9). We should also appreciate the complexities
of the meaning behind these goods, which reect specic motives and individual approaches to burial rites
and may reect varying rules of inheritance and gift exchange (Parker-Pearson 2003: 94). For example the
inclusion of imported material as grave goods has previously been interpreted as “Romanization before
conquest” (Haselgrove 1984), i.e. the adoption of Roman styles prior to AD 43; however, Willis (1994:
145) argued that these products may not have been considered ‘foreign’ at all, due to long established links
between Britain and Gaul, or that, as a separation from cultural norms, its inclusion could reect a highly
subversive attitude to established social relations (Willis 1994: 144). The inclusion of a range of grave
goods reects the diverse personal identities involved in these burials, revealing both the dead themselves
and those who buried them.
IARSS 17, Edinburgh
Returning to the shared pattern of rites evident within these burials (i.e. act of cremation; internment
in burial; placement of goods), these trends imply agreed social conventions of burial on a community
level (Parker-Pearson 2003: 194), formalised through the construction and maintenance of specic places
of internment; the funerary enclosures. The act of constructing this space would have also required co-
operation on a community scale, necessitating for Enclosure 1 (based on labour estimation – see Figure
6) the eorts of approximately 20 people working ten hour days for 28 days. As suggested by Wigley
(2007: 185) the sharing of labour in the construction of enclosures at the junction of important events (i.e.
feasting, marriages, rites of passage) may have aided in the armation or rearmation of community ties
during this period.
As suggested above, feasting and drinking were major components in rituals associated with internment at
Stanway, however, the presence of the broken pottery in the surrounding enclosure ditches also suggests
that rituals associated with feasting were articulated on a community level. These communal events
were likely associated with repeated commemorative events , potentially viewed as a central area of
congregation or ceremonial space (i.e. Newman 2007), as well as burial. This is reinforced by the features
within these enclosures that did not contain burials, but were comparable in the materials and manner in
which goods were deposited, suggesting ritual deposition (i.e. Hill 1995b). The deposition of goods in
these features may represent further evidence for repeated or commemorative ritual action illustrating the
importance of the site.
Burial name Form Grave goods Comments Date Reference
Enclosure 1
Burial chamber measuring 3.3m x
planks containing unurned cre-
mated human remains
Mid 1st
Enclosure 1
containing Verdigus
Mid 1st
Pit -
Enclosure 1
Pit containing broken funerary
metal earrings
Mid 1st
Enclosure 3
Burial chamber measuring 5.5m
and of a ‘specialised
35-43 AD 
Pit -
Enclosure 3
 Barrel Possible pyre debris 35-43 AD 
Site name Date Size Shape Area (square
Person hours (see
table 4)
Enclosure 1 Late Iron Age 98m x 92m Rectangular 7985 5677
Enclosure 2 Middle Iron Age 40m 35m Sub-square 1440 1840
Enclosure 3 Late Iron Age (later
than enclosure 1) 74m x 70m Sqaure 2999 3934
New perspectives on British territorial oppida
The conspicuous location of these enclosures (Figure 2) in relation to the likely visible abandoned Middle
Iron Age farmstead (Crummy et al. 2007: 69), illustrates the importance of agricultural cycle to the social
structure of the territorial oppidum (Williams 2003) and perhaps suggest the motives behind collective
intent to commemorate this location through ritual and burial activities.
On a regional scale the Late Iron Age enclosures were positioned to respect the farmstead and trackway
established in the Middle Iron Age (Crummy et al. 2007: 69) as a droveway for moving animals (Figure
3) and perhaps retained in the Late Iron Age and transformed to a route for ceremonial or ritual procession
(e.g. Newman 2007). The orientation of the north-south trackway in relation to other farmsteads in the
Middle Iron Age (e.g. Abbostone, Fiveways Fruit Farm – Figure 7) illustrates the inuence of pre-existing
routines/rites in the Late Iron Age and the special regard given to the agricultural system (Bradley 2005:
The notion of movement across the territorial oppidum is understood by the position of the site at Stanway in
relation to the Late Iron Age linear earthwork systems (Hawkes and Crummy 1995). While the construction
IARSS 17, Edinburgh
of Kidman’s Dyke purposefully excluded the site at Stanway from the activities within the linear earthwork
system, a single entrance did allow movement between Stanway and the site at Gosbecks, another key ritual
enclosure in the Late Iron Age (Haselgrove 2000: 106). The implicit opening in the earthwork reinforces this
important route between the two sites (Figure 3) and has the eect of directing people towards focal points
and creating elaborate ways of moving and experiencing the landscape (Moore 2012: 410).
This paper illustrates that while previous research into oppida has been problematic, renewed research
into British territorial oppida has demonstrated the potential for new theoretical techniques and methods to
understand these settlements and their role in the Late Iron Age. The case study has illustrated the benets
of examining territorial oppida through a multi-scale analysis, which reects both the archaeological
evidence and the social structure of these sites, and through a break from traditional understandings
enables a fuller understanding of these settlements. Further investigation and analysis of territorial oppida,
especially in light of an ever growing archaeological dataset produced by commercial archaeology, may
yet challenge other pre-conceived interpretations of these settlements.
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