Iron Age England

Director Jason Rubin’s very first “in” to the play was Power, and from there, Iron Age England. He chose 800 BC as the world of the play not only because that’s when the original Leir is said to have reigned, but because of the nature of that world: it was a time of discovery, when people based their entire universe off of gods they couldn’t see, when violence and brute strength determined a person’s worth. These concepts tied in to the plays biggest themes: power, man’s purpose in the universe, identity, a dependance on and fascination with nature, religion and ritual.

While in London, I stopped by the British Museum to browse the Iron Age exhibit, which has a fantastic selection of artifacts and insights into the world. Some particularly illuminating facts from the website about life in Iron Age society:

  • The Iron Age British religion did not need images of their gods in human or animal form.
  • Britons did not worship in temples or special religious buildings. Rather, the evidence shows they worshipped on the farm or out in the landscape.
  • Many discovered Iron Age artifacts are thought to have been offerings to gods, spirits or ancestors. Rivers, lakes and bogs were the sites of offerings of weapons; animals and everyday objects such as pots, querns and tools were offered at houses and farmyards, while offerings of torcs or chariot harnesses were made at land away from farms. Humans could be offered as well. Many of these rites were probably carried out by Druids, the special priests in Britain and France at the end of the Iron Age.
  • Iron Age Britain has often been considered a particularly warlike period because of the many hillforts and weapons. 
  • The finest examples of British La Tène or Early Celtic art are often weapons, such as the Kirkburn sword or Battersea shield. La Tène is a style of decoration using abstract curving patterns, which spread rapidly from western Europe from around 450 BC. Few objects used in daily life were ever decorated with these designs. Instead it was reserved for metal objects such as torcs, sword scabbards or mirrors. 
    The splendor and expense of these weapons, and the metal parts of the chariots used by their owners, show the importance attached to being a warrior in the Iron Age.
  • Many warriors might have been aristocrats, chiefs or kings. The few outstanding objects, such as the Great Torc from Snettisham, were probably signs of their owners’ great rank and power. But not every Iron Age society was so hierarchical. In many, the leading members of most families may have had the status of a warrior and owned fine swords.
  • I also noticed a lot of circle imagery while sifting through Iron Age artifacts and pictures — the circular settlements and hillforts, the spiral designs on shields and swords, the simple, round houses. We are using a lot of circle imagery in our Lear production, and although ours is for more metaphorical, thematic purposes, it’s pretty amazing that we can find traces of it all the way back in 800 BC. 

These facts reveal a lot of parallels between Leir’s 800 BC world and our interpretation of Lear’s kingdom: a dependance on ritual and nature; a materialism, a desire for excess and extravagance, as evidenced by the intricate care taken to craft the Iron Age weaponry; a strict hierarchical system, relying heavily on physical strength and power.

I took photos while at the museum, but between my grainy iPhone camera and the glare from the display glass, they didn’t turn out ideally. Luckily, I found most of my favorite pieces on the Museum’s online gallery. The captions are taken from the website’s artifact descriptions.

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