This book is set in the late Iron Age. John is an ordinary boy who helps out on his parents farm in 20th century England. One misty morning after getting the cows onto their pasture, he takes a stroll up the hill behind his house called The Knolls to the remains of the Iron Age hillfort. He knows there’s a chalk pit up there and tries not to fall into it, but fall he does and in a flash of light he finds himself transported back 2000 years in time.
The first people he meets are a brother and sister very similar to him in age. They introduce themselves as Morva and Rik and urge him to get inside the hillfort before the enemy tribe, the Iceni, attack. Although their accent is funny he can understand them, and they him, which is lucky.
From the beginning there is plenty of action, with the battle, a kidnapping of the three children thrown in for good measure, and then a visit by Romans headed by Julius Caesar himself, there is plenty to capture children’s imagination and to build discussions and activities on.
Being an outsider from our time John gets to compare the lives of the people in the Iron Age to today and thinks about the differences in clothing, houses, food, beds, and even religion, comparing a visit to the sacred oak tree in the forest favourably to spending a sleepy afternoon on a pew in chapel back home. The description of the role of the druid is quite interesting and could be built on to get more of an idea of what they did.
As usual there are a few issues we have with the accuracy of some of the events and the author’s portrayal of the Iron Age. The tribe, a hitherto unknown one called the Cretaci, are shown to have two settlements, one at the foot of The Knolls which is the main settlement and one in the hillfort, which they retreat to in times of danger. This gives you a great way in to talking about the possible function of hillforts, but be aware that this is only one possible interpretation and that some were permanently occupied whereas others were probably just used as regular meeting places.
The depiction of Iron Age people as smelly, dirty and dressed in shapeless sacking is laughably wrong. People in the late Iron Age took great care over their appearance and were well known for their high quality, patterned woollen clothes, cloaks in particular. Rich people in the Iron Age wore plenty of gold, silver and bronze jewellery, and had shears, razors and mirrors to help them look after their hair and, for men, moustaches.The smith gives bronze brooches with red enamel to children to wear on shapeless sacking is the most unrealistic moment.
Although the tribe are shown as farmers, bringing goats into the settlement at night, they are still portrayed as relying on hunted meat, which is unrealistic at this point. It was the agricultural, and mineral, wealth of Britain that the Romans wanted to exploit, and so the appearance of Julius Caesar in this book is a good way in to exploring the reasons behind the Roman invasion and why some tribes might have welcomed Roman rule while others fought it. That the Cretaci had never before heard of Romans is also unbelievable as many Britons went as mercenaries to fight against them for the Gauls in what is now France.
The battle between the Cretaci and the Iceni was lacking in chariots, which are mentioned by Caesar in his account of his visit to Britain, and by Tacitus in his Annals, specifically when referring to the Iceni queen, Boudicca. A woman, possibly a queen, was buried with a wonderfully decorated chariot in Wetwang, East Riding of Yorkshire. Find out more about it from the British Museum’s Teaching History in 100 Objects.
Boudicca is referred to in this book but her name is not mentioned. One of the Cretaci complains that the Iceni were peaceful until a woman took over as queen. If Boudicca was queen in 55 or 54 BC (when Julius Caesar visited) she was a pretty old war leader by the time of her rebellion in AD 60/61! Anyway, a good opportunity to explore some of the tribes of Britain.
So far this is the only book set in Iron Age Britain that we’ve found. It would be a good one to use if you are doing an in depth study of hillforts, but keep in mind its limitations which we have outlined here. It is 115 pages long but the text is pretty large and could probably be tackled by most Year 4s and older.