The Iron Age

History of Estonia between 500 BC - 1207

The Pre-Roman Iron Age began in Estonia about 500 BC and lasted until the middle of the 1st century AD. The oldest iron items were imported, although since the 1st century iron was smelted from local marsh and lake ore. Settlement sites were located mostly in places that offered natural protection. Fortresses were built, although used temporarily. The appearance of square Celtic fields surrounded by enclosures in Estonia date from the Pre-Roman Iron Age. The majority of stones with man-made indents, which presumably were connected with magic designed to increase crop fertility, date from this period. A new type of grave, quadrangular burial mounds began to develop. Burial traditions show the clear beginning of social stratification.

The Roman Iron Age in Estonia is roughly dated to between 50 and 450 AD, the era that was affected by the influence of the Roman Empire. In material culture this is reflected by a few Roman coins, some jewellery and artefacts. The abundance of iron artefacts in Southern Estonia speaks of closer mainland ties with southern areas while the islands of western and northern Estonia communicated with their neighbors mainly by sea. By the end of the period three clearly defined tribal dialectical areas: Northern Estonia, Southern Estonia, and Western Estonia including the islands had emerged, the population of each having formed its own understanding of identity.

The name of Estonia occurs first in a form of Aestii in the 1st century AD by Tacitus; however, it might have indicated Baltic tribes living in the area. In the Northern Sagas (9th century) the term started to be used to indicate the Estonians.

In the 1st centuries AD political and administrative subdivisions began to emerge in Estonia. Two larger subdivisions appeared: the parish (kihelkond) and the county (maakond). The parish consisted of several villages. Nearly all parishes had at least one fortress. The defense of the local area was directed by the highest official, the parish elder. The county was composed of several parishes, also headed by an elder.

Varbola Stronghold was one of the largest circular rampart fortresses and trading centers built in Estonia, Harju County (Harria in Latin) at the time.

In the 11th century the Scandinavians are frequently chronicled as combating the Vikings from the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. With the rise of Christianity, centralized authority in Scandinavia and Germany eventually led to the Baltic crusades. The east Baltic world was transformed by military conquest: first the Livs, Letts and Estonians, then the Prussians and the Finns underwent defeat, baptism, military occupation and sometimes extermination by groups of Germans, Danes and Swedes.

Reference: Wikipedia

Popular sites founded between 500 BC and 1207 in Estonia

Rõuge Stronghold Hill

The ancient hill fort of Rõuge was used for defensive purposes between 6th and 11th centuries. Archaeologists have also excavated an Iron Age settlement near the hill. You can visit on the hill by following the hiking trail.
Founded: 500 AD | Location: Rõuge, Estonia

Varbola Stronghold

The Varbola Stronghold was the largest circular rampart fortress and trading centre in Estonia in the 10th-12th centuries. The first record of Varbola is written by Henry of Livonia, who mentions the Castrum Warbole being besieged in 1211 for several days by Mstislav the Bold of Novgorod. The conflict was resolved with a payment of seven hundred Marks. During the Livonian crusade Livonian Brothers of the Sword invaded th ...
Founded: 10th-12th centuries | Location: Märjamaa, Estonia

Lõhavere Hill Fort

Lõhavere was an ancient hill fort of Lembitu, the legendary chief of Estonians. It was used in defensive purposes about 20 years in the 12th and 13th centuries. Lembitu was killed in the battle of Madise (St. Matthew’s) day in 1217 by German crusaders and Latgalian allies. Towering in the middle of the forest, the hill of the fort with it's naturally deep slopes leaves an imposing impression even today. ...
Founded: 12th-13th centuries | Location: Suure-Jaani, Estonia

Featured Historic Landmarks, Sites & Buildings

Historic Site of the week

Broch of Gurness

The Broch of Gurness is an Iron Age broch village. Settlement here began sometime between 500 and 200 BC. At the centre of the settlement is a stone tower or broch, which once probably reached a height of around 10 metres. Its interior is divided into sections by upright slabs. The tower features two skins of drystone walls, with stone-floored galleries in between. These are accessed by steps. Stone ledges suggest that there was once an upper storey with a timber floor. The roof would have been thatched, surrounded by a wall walk linked by stairs to the ground floor. The broch features two hearths and a subterranean stone cistern with steps leading down into it. It is thought to have some religious significance, relating to an Iron Age cult of the underground.

The remains of the central tower are up to 3.6 metres high, and the stone walls are up to 4.1 metres thick. The tower was likely inhabited by the principal family or clan of the area but also served as a last resort for the village in case of an attack.

The broch continued to be inhabited while it began to collapse and the original structures were altered. The cistern was filled in and the interior was repartitioned. The ruin visible today reflects this secondary phase of the broch's use.

The site is surrounded by three ditches cut out of the rock with stone ramparts, encircling an area of around 45 metres diameter. The remains of numerous small stone dwellings with small yards and sheds can be found between the inner ditch and the tower. These were built after the tower, but were a part of the settlement's initial conception. A 'main street' connects the outer entrance to the broch. The settlement is the best-preserved of all broch villages.

Pieces of a Roman amphora dating to before 60 AD were found here, lending weight to the record that a 'King of Orkney' submitted to Emperor Claudius at Colchester in 43 AD.

At some point after 100 AD the broch was abandoned and the ditches filled in. It is thought that settlement at the broch continued into the 5th century AD, the period known as Pictish times. By that time the broch was not used anymore and some of its stones were reused to build smaller dwellings on top of the earlier buildings. Until about the 8th century, the site was just a single farmstead.

In the 9th century, a Norse woman was buried at the site in a stone-lined grave with two bronze brooches and a sickle and knife made from iron. Other finds suggest that Norse men were buried here too.