The traditional image is of backward, hostile, bluepainted hordes led by a red-haired fury. Unlike the Celtic sophisticates of the South East, with their wheel-thrown tablewares and imported wines, the Norfolk Iceni were rural primitives. Or were they? Megan Dennis, specialist in Late Iron Age metalwork, pays tribute to the high culture of Boudica’s people.
The Iceni are famous forn two things – Boudica and gold. Little else is known of this society that existed in the shadow-lands between the Iron Age and the Roman periods in Norfolk, Suffolk, and north-east Cambridgeshire. Archaeological evidence seems to suggest they were bumbling and backward compared to their southern neighbours.
New research has revealed evidence for a complex society, fascinating politics, and above all a lively and fast-changing relationship with near neighbours, with the Continent, and with Rome.
Barbarians or sophisticates?
Certainly the pottery was basic. Nor did the Iceni build grand monuments like the hillforts known in other parts of Britain. But if the Iceni were so backward, so removed from trade routes and contact, where did they get the raw materials for their beautiful objects? What the Iceni were good at was working gold and silver into torcs, brooches, bracelets, and coins. But where was the raw material coming from? And how did the Iceni get the knowledge and skills to work precious metals into such beautiful artefacts?
Gold had been in use for thousands of years and is likely to have been recycled from earlier objects. But the Iceni made East Anglia’s first ever silver artefacts. There are no silver deposits in the region and the metal must therefore have been imported.
Torcs, coins, and ornaments
One of the most common types of silver objects made and used by the Iceni was the torc, a large ring worn around the neck like a type of rigid necklace. The designs vary – from a very simple type to a much more ornate item made from many twisted wires and with elaborate terminals decorated with graceful, swooping designs.
The Iceni made a series of silver coins depicting different animals and people important to their society. You can see faces, horses, boars, and more abstract patterns on Icenian coins. Some even have writing on them – the first writing in Britain. The ability to create this beautiful art in such small spaces must not be underestimated.
They also made silver pins, bracelets, brooches, and religious items and used silver as decoration on everyday objects..