The Iron Age

​Iron blade objects and tools became the norm in the Iron Age. The ancestors of Estonians had, in fact, already seen and used the first iron items in the Bronze Age; the oldest known iron object in Estonia, an awl, was unearthed at the Iru fortified settlement and has been dated to 700–500 BC.

​The Estonian Iron Age is divided into shorter periods, characterised by different antiquities and material cultures. There are no signs that the people inhabiting the Estonian territory changed during that time – they cultivated their land and raised cattle. Private land ownership in central settlement areas had already been established at the start of the Iron Age. This is confirmed by still-visible stone fences, as well as by huge stone mounds in the middle of fields.

​Remains of fields and stone graves have survived from the beginning of the Pre-Roman Iron Age (500 BC –50 AD) on northern Estonian limestone plateaus. As in the earlier era, the main crop was barley, and the most important domestic animals were oxen. There are only a few traces of settlements – people lived on small isolated farms. In the early Pre-Roman Iron Age, the dead were mostly buried in the stone-cist graves established in the Early Bronze Age. On the other hand, a new type of grave appeared in coastal areas in northern Estonia, on the mainland of western Estonia and on Saaremaa Island – the early tarand graves. These are stone graves where the border of the burial area was marked by a quadrangular kerb or wall of stones, and the tarand in the middle was filled with stones. The length and width of the oldest, untidily heaped graves was generally about two metres, the shape was irregular and they were placed side by side like a honeycomb. In addition to stone-cist graves and early tarand graves, the dead were also buried in stone mounds having a diameter of 5–15 m, which are called cairn graves.

​Compared with the preceding era, the Roman Iron Age (50 – 450 AD) in Estonia has provided an abundance of antiquities and finds. Large and mighty tarand graves emerged, which consisted of many regular stone chambers. Previously, stone graves had only been built in coastal areas, whereas now they were set up in inland areas as well. The first cremations were carried out in the Roman Iron Age. Substantially burnt human remains were thrown into tarand graves, together with a large amount of jewellery, which was often also burnt or deliberately broken. Tarand graves were collective graves, where the remains and various items of different people got mixed between the stones. Tarand graves contained no tools or weapons. The Roman Iron Age was a period of continuing development, when individual farm holdings expanded and the population increased. The material culture shows close contacts with the Baltic tribes living in the south. Jewellery worn in Estonia at that time, or the original items upon which the jewellery was modelled, also originated with tribes in the south-eastern area of the Baltic Sea. The territory of the Baltic tribes became a significant centre that mediated the transport of amber to Roman areas. The Roman Iron Age was truly ‘iron’ – evidence of iron production in Estonia has been found during archaeological excavations.

​The period of stable development in the Roman Iron Age came to an end with the Migration Period (450–600). The collapse of the Roman Empire and the migration of peoples radically altered the circumstances in southern, central and western Europe. The impact of the confusing times reached northern parts of Europe as well. Burials in tarand graves in Estonia ended, and burial customs became more diverse; the dead, cremated or not, were placed in stone graves and in underground graves. Inhabitants in the coastal areas of western and north-western Estonia re-established relations with the Scandinavians, evidenced by fine Scandinavian jewellery found in graves. Weapons were left among the grave offerings and the first strongholds were built. In eastern and south-eastern Estonia, which was a part of the same cultural region as the Baltic-Finnic areas beyond Lake Peipsi, the dead were buried in sand barrows, called long barrows because of their characteristic shape.

​In ancient Estonia, the Migration Period stands out for the large number of treasures, containing weapons, tools and jewellery. These were probably not riches abandoned somewhere in a farmhouse, but instead offerings placed in bogs and bodies of water. Offerings dating from the Middle Iron Age have been found in all Baltic Sea countries.

​The Pre-Viking Era (600–800) has provided far fewer antiquities and finds than the Roman Iron Age, Migration Period or the subsequent eras. The pollen found in bog peat and lake sediments shows that the human impact on nature had considerably decreased by the 6th century. At some point during the later Migration Period, the Estonian population must have suffered a major disaster that impacted the size of the population.

​More strongholds were built during the Pre-Viking Era. Some of them (e.g. Iru near Tallinn, Tartu and Rõuge in Võru County) gradually became centres of power, inhabited by the elite of the area. Large villages sprang up near the strongholds, where, along with land cultivation, the inhabitants were involved in handicraft production and trading. The cremated dead were still buried in stone graves and long-barrows. Close contacts with Baltic tribes continued, although the Scandinavian impact emerged in the material culture. This was not surprising, as at that time the Scandinavians took to sailing eastwards across the Baltic Sea, following trade routes along the eastern European rivers and establishing colonies in the area of present-day Russia.

​The Viking period in Estonia, as elsewhere in northern Europe, lasted from 800 to 1050 AD. The Pre-Viking Era settlement and power structures, with strongholds and adjacent villages, flourished in the Viking era. Most of the population lived on individual farms and cultivated permanent fields. Contacts with the Scandinavians became closer, as confirmed by numerous Arabian silver coins found among the Estonian treasures of that time, brought by Scandinavian merchants from central Asia. Silver jewellery was no longer rare. There were some burials without cremation. These were mainly wealthy men who were buried together with their weapons and tools; cremation and burials in stone graves were still common as well.

​The beginning of the Late Iron Age, the 11th century, was a time of radical changes in the Estonian settlement pattern. The existing stronghold–settlement system collapsed, and most of the old strongholds all over the country were abandoned and replaced by new and more powerful ones. A large number of new farmsteads and villages were set up, and the Viking-era farms and villages became deserted. The main settlement units during the Late Iron Age were villages with several households, the village field being divided into segments between the farms, with pastures and slash-and-burn lands that were jointly used. The population and the area of fields almost all over Estonia increased. The relocation of settlements mostly occurred within the boundaries of the existing settlement units: houses and strongholds changed location, not the fields. More antiquities from the Late Iron Age have been found than from any other earlier period. In addition to about 50 Late Iron Age strongholds, there are hundreds of ancient village sites, treasure finds, remains of fields, and stone and burial graves. Many objects of various kinds were buried together with the dead.

​Agriculture and material culture changed too: new land cultivation tools were employed, winter rye and pig farming were increasingly popular, and new jewellery replaced the old. In Saaremaa and eastern Estonia, iron was melted from local bog iron ore on an almost industrial scale. The coastal inhabitants, primarily from Saaremaa Island, took part, with their own boats, in the Baltic Sea trade and occasionally even went on pillaging raids. A number of phenomena emerged during the Late Iron Age in Estonia which unite that era with the Middle Ages. Moreover, during the Late Iron Age, a settlement pattern emerged and numerous elements of material and spiritual culture took root that survived until the traditional Estonian peasant society disappeared in the 19th century. By the end of the Iron Age, an administrative division had developed, with ancient parishes and counties, in which we can already recognise the borders of today’s Estonia.

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