On whatever pretext you stir them up, you will have them ready to face danger, even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage – Strabo, (64 BC – 24 AD).
Almost all of the Gauls are of tall stature, fair and ruddy, terrible for the fierceness of their eyes, fond of quarrelling and of overbearing insolence – Ammianus, (4th Century AD).
The two quotes were written by classical authors describing the Gauls of France as known at the time. Strabo would have been aware of Caesar’s excursion to Britain and possibly have read his account of the people he had been in contact with. Diodorus Siculus (V 21, 3-6) describes Britain as, ‘Inhabited by tribes that are aboriginal, and in their lifestyle preserve the old ways; for they make use of chariots in the wars….’ (Diodorus cited in Ireland 2003).
Due to Britain’s isolation it is possible that many of the ‘old ways’ were still being followed. There are very few eye-witness accounts of the inhabitants of Britain prior to the Roman invasions, and what we do have is from classical writers who believed them to be barbaric, not only in their fighting methods but in other aspects of their culture. Waite (2011) sums it up when he describes Celtic feasting and fighting to the death over the hero’s cut of meat
…. even if your opponent happened to be a blood relative. Whilst this sort of behaviour was deeply rooted in Celtic culture it would only have served to justify the Roman conviction that these people were no more than uncivilized barbarians who were prepared to fight like animals over a piece of meat (Waite 2011, 36).
Unfortunately, classical writing is our only written evidence of the Celtic culture, however, we do have the archaeological evidence to back some of it up.
The main area that is often picked up and portrayed of Celts is that of warfare. But how much do we know, and can understand, from the written and iconographic resources that we have?
Tacitus (cited in Work 1954) tells us that ‘the Britons had established a reputation for bravery and being good fighters’ (Work 1954, 258), and Allcock (cited in Harding 1974) informs that
Our knowledge of Celtic warfare, as derived from the literary records, very largely relates to engagements with the Roman Army, or to Roman attacks upon Iron Age strongholds (Harding 1974, 70).
Of inter-tribal warfare the European Iron Age is well known, but of Britain, little is known as it was ‘considered in isolation and assumed to be different from that of western mainland Europe’ (Hill 1995, 49). The archaeological evidence also suggests that, the once long perceived idea of hill-forts as centres of power, were actually places where older men, women and children could gather and take their cattle etc when trouble was imminent and thus used as places of refuge and not for defending or being defended by attacking neighbouring tribes, also that ‘their roles could differ through space and, on the same site, through time’ (Hill 1995, 68).
With the archaeological record showing marked increases between the middle pre-Roman Iron Age and the late pre-Roman Iron Age, raids and warfare appear to show signs of increasing with, ‘ample evidence of the accoutrements of war – swords, shields, spears, helmets and vehicle parts’ (Cunliffe 2004, 94). Evidence in the increase of inter-tribal warfare is given in the territory that once belonged to the Parisi, ‘Armed conflict was suggested by finds in late Arras Culture graves, and this presumably indicates that the Parisi were at odds with their neighbours’ (Dent 1983, 39).
The British Celt has been described as ‘taller than the Celts and not so yellow-haired, although their bodies were of looser build’ (Strabo cited in Work 1954, 257), and their social structure was one of ‘actually or potentially hierarchically organized around the competitive relations between lineages or clan groups’ (Hill 1995, 73). Mainly living in acceptance of each other, tribes would fight over cattle or land,
The picture which emerges of the Celts and their society is of a restless exuberance loosely contained within a social system based on warrior prowess. Raiding and warfare were the essential mechanisms by which society maintained and reproduced itself (Cunliffe 1997, 363).
Warfare, therefore, was viewed as ‘an element of social control and an expression of domination’ (Sastre 2008, 1021). The British Celtic warrior was considered one of stature, aggression, with barbaric tendencies and ready to act when he believed the need arose. There is, however, another side to these fighting men that may still lay masked behind the personal and emotional side of Iron Age warfare.
The Iron Age was a time of oral histories, which were passed down through the generations and told over fires in feasting halls. The hero’s were held in high esteem and their victories shared by all, and kept alive
The end result of this teaching would be a warrior imbued not only with an ability to fight but also with a strong sense of himself and where he came from – a spiritual being who operated along a ritualized code of conduct (Waite 2011, 36)
He was loyal to his tribe, his leader and knew the code he had to follow into battle, should the need arise. As well as the physical and psychological aspects of the warrior, there were also the tools of his trade – his weapons.
The type to weaponry used by the Iron Age warrior has been discovered through archaeology and
….the majority are from hoards or votive deposits but a small group of burials provides valuable evidence about the way in which the warrior was equipped (Cunliffe 2004, 94).
The main item of weaponry was the sword. Changes have been recorded between the swords of the Bronze Age and those of the Iron Age, indicating a change in fighting methods,
The earlier varieties had tapering blades with long sharp points designed for both thrusting and slashing, whilst the later swords, with their long parallel sided blades, were better adapted for slashing …. the La Tène III slashing sward was designed for fighting on horseback ( Cunliffe 2010, 533).
With the use of chariots and mounted warriors, the need for a better designed slashing sword arose. The designs of which were expertly crafted by specialist smiths.
The swords were richly decorated and specifically made to the needs of its user. The more elaborate a sword the higher the status of its owner, ‘a small number of skilled smiths produced complex and elaborate objects such as swords, cauldrons, torques and shields’ (Hill 1995, 62). Warrior burials have produced some fine examples of swords, showing the importance and symbolism that they carried, however, more examples have been uncovered as votive offerings,
Weapons given individuality by ornamentation and particular marks were possessed of personality, bordering upon magic properties. Hence their committal to the water or the grave as a solemn act not lightly undertaken (Ashbee 1978, 207).
There is also the possibility that certain swords were crafted and designed for the specific role of gift exchange, ‘its primary role was for display as a status signifier rather than for active use in battle’ (Hamilton et al. 2007, 173), with the elaborate designs, imbued with specific iconography, the swords would have been of particular interest to tribal leaders and their hero warriors.
Shields also played a major role in Celtic warfare. The most elaborate one found is the Battersea Shied, recovered from the Thames in 1857.
Shields were either oval or sub-rectangular in shape and protected most of the body when held, they were usually ‘made of leather or wood or a resilient combination of the two’ (Cunliffe 2010, 534). Shields such as the Battersea and Witham examples would not have been used in warfare, but as status symbols, as they were faced in bronze and highly decorated,
The Battersea shield was not made for serious warfare. It is too short to provide sensible protection. The thin metal sheet and the complicated decoration would be easily destroyed if the shield was hit by a sword or spear (The Battersea Shield, n.d.).
Parts of a shield which survive in burials are the metal fittings, which may include the central boss and the binding around the edge. The wood or leather does not preserve and unfortunately any design features that may have been upon them are lost in time.
Spears were another effective weapon incorporated into Iron Age warfare, and they differed in size, from those held in the hand for closer contact as well as the larger, javelin type. Caesar was an eye-witness to the use of spears and the effect they could have upon an army, and Cunliffe (2010) best describes their use,
The spears were thrown in volleys at the beginning of an engagement … for it could not only maim and kill, but, by piercing the shields of the defenders and remaining lodged there, it could greatly encumber the opponent and cause him to throw away his shield …. the prime function of the spear was for use as an artillery weapon in the opening stages of engagement (Cunliffe 2010, 354).
Being used as projectiles from chariots ‘with a dirk and a sheaf of various spears to be hauled from the vehicle when in motion’ (Ashbee 1978, 206), they could have a devastating effect upon the opposing forces. Together with the sword and the shield these were the main weapons in a warrior’s arsenal.
Another weapon used during the Iron Age, although mainly associated with hillforts, was the sling, which was ‘cheap to make, needing only a few thongs of leather and could be used with deadly accuracy’ (Cunliffe 2004, 92). Hoards of pebbles have been found behind ramparts of some hillforts, including Danbury in Hampshire, and Maiden Castle in Dorset ‘where 22,600 beach pebbles [were] found in pit G6’ (Avery 1986, 225). Although firstly believed to have been used only for slings, further investigations have shown the possibility that
The pebbles were placed conveniently to hand for use against an attacking fire party …. being used at close quarters, they would be thrown by the defenders rather than slung (Avery 1986, 225).
This gives the possibility that the pebbles could be used in two different ways, but with the same results – as projectiles for both near and far combat against attacking forces. The way the sling was used could also have differing effects upon its results,
Swung in a vertical plane it could send volleys of stones into the air to rain down on attackers at some distance, while used in a horizontal swing stones could be sent at considerable velocity into a body of troops accurately at head height with devastating effect (Cunliffe 2010, 354).
The slings would not only have been used by the warriors and men defending the hillforts, they could easily have been utilized by the women and children also thus engaging the whole community in the defence of their homes.
One other aspect of British Iron Age warfare, and commented upon by Caesar, was the continued use of chariots. Their utilization in warfare had died out in Europe over time however the British still made use of them. Evidence is supplied by the few chariot burials that have been excavated including those at ‘Garton Slack, Garton Station and Wetwang Slack …. [which were] two wheeled horse-drawn carts or chariots’ (Hill 1995, 65) and ’14 are known, of which six have been excavated under modern archaeological conditions’ (Cunliffe 2004, 95). Around the country metal fittings associated with chariots have been excavated including the site of Llyn Cerrig bog on the Isle of Anglesey (Ashbee 1978, 206).
Chariots and carts were very similar, and of those excavated from burials evidence suggests that they were not all fighting chariots as they would have been too heavy to manoeuvre in the way described by Caesar,
By daily practice and exercise attain to such expertness that they are accustomed, even on a declining and steep place, to check their horses at full speed, and manage and turn them in one instant and run along the pole and stand on the yoke, and then betake themselves with the greatest of celerity to their chariots again (Caesar IV, 33 cited in Ashbee 1978, 206).
In the chariot there would have been the driver and the warrior. They worked together as a team, one with the skills of driving and the other with his warrior tactics.
The chariot was not essentially a vehicle of war, but a vehicle to convey the warrior speedily to the front and away again… could control their teams in full gallop down the steepest of slopes and manoeuvre them abruptly for action (Harding 1974, 71).
Training in the manoeuvrability of the vehicle, as well as maintenance and training of the ponies, would have utilized a lot of the warriors time when not engaged in warfare. Archaeological evidence for the manufacture of chariot parts include elaborate horse bits uncovered in Yorkshire, linch pins from Hertfordshire, native horse gear from Suffolk, harness mounts near Stanwick along with other harness and chariot fittings, and native horse gear from Poldon Hill, Somerset. This illustrates the country wide use of chariots, for ‘Such an equipage would have demanded recurrent maintenance by wrights, harness-makers, grooms and farriers’ (Ashbee 1978, 206), thus requiring specialist trade and craft production.
Iron Age warfare is generally viewed as being aggressive, brutal and undertaken by barbarians brandishing swords, shields and incorporating spears thrown from fast moving chariots. Male prowess and aggressiveness shine through – but is this really what it was all about? Part II (Comins Soon) takes a closer look at the warrior, including attire, image, rules governing fighting and the socio-economic climate that lead to inter-tribal warfare between neighbours.
Written by Sue Carter
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Avery. M. Stoning and Fire at Hillfort Entrances of Southern Britain. World Archaeology, Vol. 18, No. 2, Weaponry and Warfare (Oct., 1986), pp. 216-230.
Cunliffe. B. (Ed.) 1997. The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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