ancient, history, roman

Continental trade in Britain before the Romans

This article is going to investigate the possibility there was trade with the continent prior to the Roman invasion and any evidence that may indicate this.  

There was considerable amount of contact and trade with continent in Iron Age Britain from the 7th century bC onwards, right through to the Roman Invasion of 43AD. This article will look at periods of the Iron Age in which there was trade going both ways across the channel and the evidence that indicates this.  

Bronze/Iron Age Warrior


We know that there had been some contact with the continent, earlier during the Bronze Age, with people migrating from teh continent into the British Isles. Evidence such as the Amesbury Archer shows this, as that particular person came from the Alps region of France and Switzerland. This would show that there was contact from a very early period in British history, but we don’t see any evidence for significant overseas trade until the Iron Age.  

Hallstatt Culture  

The Hallstatt culture is characterised by the appearance of a horse riding aristocracy, using long bladed bronze swords and often burying their dead in timber built tombs. Thier richness in Europe came from salt mines and metallurgy. They are specifically known for producing swords and the winged chape.  

Hallstatt Swords

 During this period we know that the ethnic groups were still trading using barter. The Greeks traded with the Hallstatt tribes, trading items such as attic cups, bronze drinking vessels and wine in exchange for salt and iron. In Britain evidence for trade with the continent at this period has been the discovery od swords and winged chapes. there were basically two types of sword produced; The Mindelhiem found exclusively in central and northern Europe and the Gundlingen type which is more common and found widespread over the continent and Britain.  

La Tene Culture  

With the La Tene culture, the celts came of age and marked a major cultural presence in Europe. Through La Tene, European people saw themselves as important, powerful and something to be feared. Thier spread across the continent and their impressive presence made them a force to be reckoned with. From Germany and Eastern Europe they spread southward into the Balkans and Italy, and westward into France and Iberia. Before the La Tene culture of the Celts was finally destroyed by the Roman conquest and culture, some elements had travelled beyond the continent into the British Isles. Ireland remained (at least no evidence suggests) untouched by the Romans.  

The La Tene culture appeared around the early part of the Iron Age and is characterized by curvilinear art displayed on all manner of items, such as weapons, jewellery and pottery. These items are found in abundance in Northern Europe, including Britain and Ireland. Though the British finds do have slight variations to those found on the continent.  

La Tene Mirror

In the past it was thought that both the Hallstatt and La Tene objects were brought here as a result of invasion and warfare. Now archaeologists believe these items arrived here as a result of contact with the continent through trade and diplomatic relations.  

Once thought to signal invaders from the continent, these finds are now interpreted as diplomatic gifts between warrior elites on both sides of the channel. Cunliffe 1981, London, Iron Age Communities in Britain.  

It is now considered taht the practice of La Tene culture and the use of goods were as a direct result of continental imports or emulation through contact and not invasion.  

The Belgae  

This was probably the most important contact from the continent during the Iron Age for the local Britons. Trade with Gaul was at its most significant, the Channel was no longer just the barrier between Britain and the Continent, it had become a trade highway. We know that trade between Britain and Europe been going on as early as the Palaeolithic period, with some interruptions during the Bronze and early Iron Age.  

Iron Age Skirmish

Previous assumptions that innovations in technology were a result of war and invasion are now attributed too less violent actions as trade and Kingship links. Though it is this point in the Iron Age that there is some written evidence that a significant group of Europeans did invade Britain, the Belgae.  

Julius Caesar wrote, The inland regions of Britain are inhabitated by people whom the Britons themselves claim, according to oral tradition, are indigenous. The coastal areas belong to people who once crossed from Belgium in search of booty and war, almost all of these inhabitants are called by the same national; names as those of the states they originally came from. After waging war they remained in Britain and began top farm the land. Population density is high, and their dwellings are very like those of the Gauls.  

The names of the tribes Caesar talks about can be found in Gaul, such as the Parisi, Brigantes and the Atrebates, It was also around this time, 2nd century, which Gallo-Belgic coins start to appear in this country.  

When the first coins were minted in Britain, circa 80 BC, they were cast of bronze and based on coins on Massilia (Marseilles) which had the head of Apollo on one side and a butting bull on the other. On the earliest coins in the series the origin of the prototype can be clearly seen as each batch of coins, but led to successive copies the design quickly deteriorated and by 40 BC consisted of just a few lines and circles. MAny of the copies still have  the casting sprue that linked all the coins in the mould. The early coins are known as the Thurrock Type and are mostly found in Kent, the territory of the Cantii.  

Celtic Coins

The use of coins suggests a monetary economy, which in turns does suggest that trade did exist. We have to assume that trade went on at a local and national level. Yet at the same time this is good evidence that overseas trade existed, as coins appeared on the continent first. This was as a result of trade contact with Greece and the Mediterranean. If trade existed with the Mediterranean region and the rest of Europe, then we can rightly assume that trade existed with Britain and Europe.  

Other finds which link these tribes are cremation burials found in Aylesford, Kent, which displayed burial rites and funerary of Gaulish style. The chariot burials in which disassembled 2 wheeled chariots covered the remains of mean and women, who had prestige goods buried with them, these would have been local nobility. These burials have close parallels with the La Tene burials throughout Northern Europe. The problem with these finds are that they don’t prove mass migration or invasion.  

It is considered that even during this period it wa probably a result of higher and more significant trade relations with the continent. Warrior elites may have married local nobility, with the females tribe possibly adopting the practices of these warriors. It would also suggest that this would also mean that there may be more significant trade and contact overseas as a result of intermarrying.  

Pre Roman Invasion  

We know that prior to the Roman invasion there was significant trade with the continent. Items have been found that suggest trade in goods such as wine and olive oil was being carried out. Amphorae have been found in Southern Britain to suggest this. Sites such as Calleva Atrebatum  (Silchester) have shown that pre Roman Oppidas of the Iron Age did carry out trade with the continent. We know taht  as a result of Roman expansion into Gaul, Roman merchants took advantage of the trades routes used by the Gaul tribes, Dressel amphorae were found in Hengistbury Head and Poole Harbour.  

Roman Infantry

For many decades the Amoricans and the Veneti had established a lucrative trade between Gaul and Britain, carrying cargoes of wine, amber, fine pottery, glass and other luxury goods to British ports in Southern Britain. These were exchanged for tin, which was the principal export along with cattle, hide and hunting dogs. It is probable that the established trade routes used by these tribes were the routes used by Caesar to invade Britain in 55BC.  

We have to assume that the british Isles had well established contacts with Gaul and some contact with the Romans. the reason for this assumption is  the Atrebatean King Commius was osted by Cunobelin, King of the Catuvelauni. He fled to Gaul and sought help from Caesar. We should assume that he fled to a tribe he had earlier contact with, most likely through trade and diplomatic, who in turn were friendly with the Romans.There is evidence that some trade existed right through the Iron Age, this is in the form of archaeological evidence and in the later part of the period written evidence from Julius Caesar. Though to what extent and how much trade existed is really unknown, we know that Britain traded in tin with the continent and the Mediterranean. We have written evidence from Diodorus Siculus (8thBC), who gives us a detailed description of the trade. 

The tin was mined, beaten into squares and carried to the Island of Ictis, which was joined to the main land at high tide. The tin was shipped from there to Morlaix (France). From Morlaix it was carried across france on packhorse to Marseilles. The tin was loaded on ships for the last stage of the journey to Phoenicia. 

Ictis have been identified as St. Micheal Mount in Cornwall. 

The later Roman Writer, Avienus, quoted from a sixth century BC nautical log from Massilia as describing the trade between Tartessos (Biblical Tarhish) and the people of South western Britain, Ireland and Brittany. Egyptian faience beads have been found in Neolithic tombs. 

There may been a period during the IronAge in which trade decreased or even stopped for a time, but to assume that there was no trade during this period would be wrong. Trade existed in other parts of the continent and between North Africa and Europe, so  we should assume that trade did exist between British ethnic groups and Europe. 

Further Reading 

Caesar against the Celts; Ramon L Jimenez, Spellmount Publishing 

The Britons; Christopher Synder, Blackwell Publishing 

Iron Age Hillforts of England and Wales; James Dyer, Shire Books 

Problems of the Iron Age in Southern Britain; S.S Frere, London Institute of Archaeology 

Iron Age Communities in Britain; Barry Cunliffe, BCA 

The coins of the Coritani; D.F Allen, LOndon 

Iron Age sites in Central Southern England; Barry Cunliffe, CBA


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