Warfare in Iron Age Britain – Part 2

The Waterloo Helmet (also known as the Waterloo Bridge Helmet) : Wiki Commons

In Part I the generic make up of the Celtic warrior and his weapons were discussed.

Here we take a closer look at the warrior, his image and the possible alternative underlying meanings of his weaponry, rules governing fighting styles and the socio-economic climate that may have contributed to an increase in inter-tribal warfare.

 All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and as a result their appearance in battle is all the more daunting. They wear their hair long, and shave all their bodies with the exception of their heads and upper lip (Caesar V, 14).

They tattoo their bodies with various designs and pictures of all kinds of animals. This is the reason they do not wear clothes: so they do not cover up the designs on their bodies (Herodian III, 14, 7).

The Iron Age warriors of Britain were described as fighting naked except for the paint and tattoos adorning their bodies, they would wear torques around their necks, and there is some mention of iron hoops around the hips (Herodian III, 14, 7). Whilst it is also believed that fighting naked was seasonal and a ‘semi-ritual encounter’ (Ashbee 1978, 205). The designs and animals painted on the skin were understood to be magical or symbolic thus offering protection of the mystical kind to the warrior (Waite 2011, 37). By fighting naked the warrior is believed to show:

 The ultimate display of courage and virility and, as well, a display of faith in the protection of his gods…. belief in the afterlife and his contempt of fear of death (Waite 2011, 37).

The warriors were known to have used lime to spike their hair and were apparently able to contort their eyes as to try and further frighten the enemy: ‘one eye should recede into the head …. while the other, as large as a cauldron bulges onto the cheek’ (Ashbee 1978, 216). Whether this is just an exaggeration on behalf of the classical writers or if it actually occurred, alas we may never know.

Over time, the Celtic warrior adapted to covering his body and wearing some protective clothing. The Gundestrup Cauldron, dated to between 200 BC and 300AD, depicts Celts wearing short trousers, and by the time of the Roman conquest, it was recorded that: ‘The warrior would wear either a mail shirt or just breeches’ (Waite 2011, 37), demonstrating a marked change not only in warfare but hints at changes in the social and religious aspects of Iron Age life.

One other item of clothing worn by the warrior was a helmet designed to protect the head. A description is given by Diodorus Siculus (60 – 30 BC), a classical writer:

On their heads they wear bronze helmets which possess large projecting figures lending the appearance of enormous stature to the wearer. In some cases horns form one piece of the helmet while in other cases it is relief figures of the fore parts of birds and quadrupeds (Diodorus Siculus V, 30, cited in Cunliffe 2010, 535).

To date ‘only two have been found in Britain: the horned helmet from the Waterloo Bridge and the helmet from the Meryrick Collection’ (Cunliffe 2010, 535), but these were different than those described above, demonstrating a wider variation, and possibly some other designs that are still to be uncovered. Helmets have also been depicted on coins, but most notably on the Gunderstrup Cauldron.

Whether all the helmets were made of bronze is not known, although it can be seen as relatively unlikely. Suggestions have been put forward of possible leather helmets being used (Cunliffe 2010, 535) and this may have been possible if worn by the majority of fighting men reserving the more elaborate ones for those of higher social standing and to be made easily identifiable on the battle field.

The weapons used by the warriors are also sometimes believed to have held ritual and magical properties. Gods were widely evident in all aspects of Iron Age society. There were Gods for water, plants, seasons, animals and in Sacred Groves. For a warrior to depict some symbolism of these Gods on his weaponry would have been just another way of expressing his personal identity, power and status.

The warriors Gods and beliefs were also part of the weapon production process and taking the raw ingredients of iron and transforming them into a weapon was held in high esteem,

In many cultures, ironworking is a mystical and highly-charged process ….the exact character of the transformation of iron-ore into metal items is not understood in terms of the chemical reactions and, often, iron production is imbued with beliefs about the social and ritual meaning of the act of creation (Hingley 2006, 217).

Therefore, with the production of swords, and other weapons, there would have been an element of ritualistic and mystical power attached to the finished product. We know that there is ‘evidence for a smith god in the Roman period’ (Hingley 2006, 216) and therefore highly likely that they existed within Iron Age Britain, with each tribe having their own choice of personal Gods.

The Kirkburn Sword : British Museum

The intricate designs and symbols upon the weapons would also have held specific meaning to the individuals that they were designed for and ‘others see every human intervention in material things as a symbolically constructive act’ (Robb 1998, 330). What the symbols and art work meant, will probably never be known, however, ‘heroes and Holy men were venerated in prehistory, and that, Celtic cult traditions and practices too were highly codified’ (Harding 2007, 261). The patterns and designs skilfully crafted onto the swords, shields and helmets, may have held meanings also to the Britons, for example, religious symbolism as they were often repeated:

Unsupported by written sources from the Celts themselves ….iconography is both ambiguous and potentially misleading. Nonetheless, certain features of Celtic symbolism are sufficiently distinctive to suggest recurrent patterns of religious thought processes (Green 1992, 1).

One of the best known symbols of Celtic art is the horse. Depicted on some Iron Age coins in Britain, the horse was a sign of power and ‘one of the most potent symbols of the ‘Celtic’ world’ (Creighton 1995, 286). Other symbols included circles, dots and crescents, which Creighton (1995, 292) questions may have had a relationship to ‘trance imagery’. If the warriors were able to work themselves up into a frenzy before battle, especially if  undertaking single combat, then the symbolism they carried on their weapons could be believed to have given them extra powers over their opponents, or even ‘may have had specific, perhaps apotropaic, meaning for warriors’ (Aldhouse-Green 1996, 356).

Silver unit, Iceni, “Ecen”, around AD 30-60. Harborough Museum

The Celtic warrior, then, had his own personal image and went into battle with his weapons carrying mystical and magical iconography to assist him in his fighting. The Celtic way of warfare followed specific rules, and these were always adhered to. Opposing sides would face each other over a battlefield, and put forward their representative. The two warriors would fight each other to the cries, cheers and shouts from their supporters, and the warrior would ‘rhythmically beat his shield with his sword or spear and fill the air with war cries’ (Waite 2011, 37).

Adding to the din, trumpeters would sound the carnyx, a war trumpet (Cunliffe 2010, 535) that let out a low, bellowing noise. With several carnyx sounding out and the cries and cheers from the supporters, the din would have been not only deafening but also acted as an encouragement to the combatants. Warfare was a ritualised affair, and controlled in accordance with ritual. The coming of Rome in 43 AD was a seismic shock to this ritualistic idea of warfare, with the Roman military fighting as a professional army, and bypassing these rules and codes.

Carnyx Arverniales : Wiki Commons

When one warrior was killed the opposing armies would either both accept the outcome of the combat and disperse, or there would be an all out battle. One of the most important Celtic rules of fighting was that ‘it was unlawful to desert your clan or noble on the field’ (Waite 2011, 39), and this could result in the total annihilation of the warriors of a tribe. The battle would otherwise cease when there was an outright victory or ‘hostilities would cease at nightfall’ (Cunliffe 2010, 541).

The iconography on the warriors bodies, the symbolism on their weapons and the following of specific rules and times of day, all leads to demonstrating ‘warfare of this kind had a strong symbolic character’ (Cunliffe 1997, 362).

Wherever there was warfare, there were changes to society. In all violent encounters there would be a victor and a loser:

Warfare implies violent confrontation between groups. It is a form of conflict that gives rise to physical aggression and, when it becomes chronic, has major repercussions on social relations (Sastre 2008, 1035).

During the middle to late Iron Age there is evidence of changes to the social structure of Britain. Larger enclosures were replaced by smaller ones with ‘distinct locations now set aside for ritual, burial, elite settlement’ (Hill 1995, 85). The changes occurred on a regional level with the ‘increased permanant clearance of woodland, intensification of land use’ and that ‘the archaeological record becomes generally fuller and more visible’ (Hill 1995, 61, 84).

Although current mapping of the tribal regions of Britain names areas where they held their lands, actual boundaries were fluent:

No firm boundaries actually existed between the different territories and that possession of adjoining lands constantly swung back and forth as the tribes disputed ownership or attempted to expand their realms (Waite 2011, 38).

Minor scuffles over livestock or overzealous young warriors may have been settled via the one-on-one combat method with no battle actually taking place. However, acquiring larger tracts of land for a growing tribal population would have resulted in warfare:

The late Iron Age was apparently the period of development of the larger ‘tribal’ politics, of more established kingship over large populations and tracts of territory (James & Rigby 1997, 74).

Warfare was seen as an essential aspect of Iron Age life, with ‘all craft production, construction activities, and exchange (or warfare?) had to be scheduled within the household’s agricultural year’ (Hill 1995, 60). There are signs of population increase and with this came the requirement for sustenance and thus the need to obtain more land, then to farm it efficiently and effectively, ‘More types of crop came into production, with winter sown varieties becoming more frequent’ (Cunliffe 2004, 113).  Not only were new crops being cultivated, but the poorer soil areas were starting to be farmed as well (James & Rigby 1997), demonstrating a need to use whatever land was available to the population, as it became scarce, and thus fought over.

With an increase in trade and the social structure becoming more hierarchal, stresses upon the land and society resulted in inter-tribal warfare. Boundary ditches were constructed, and a number of them have been dated to the late Iron Age including Grim’s Ditch. It is believed that they were constructed ‘in response to subsistence methods, social structures and population pressures’ (Spratt 1991, 458).

The population pressures and other social issues were soon to be the least of the worries of late Iron Age Celts. With the coming of the Romans in AD 43, and Client Kingdoms being established, the ultimate insult to the Iron Age warrior was that of having his weapons confiscated. With such a high value placed upon them, their forging, the mystical and magical components imbued within the process, and their symbolic and ritualistic meanings, it is of little wonder that warriors like Caratacus chose to fight to the death, rather than loose the items which formed the basis of their whole identity. The closest our society can get to understand this attachment is to look at the Japanese code of Bushido. The sword is their unrelenting soul, and it carries in them the spirits of their ancestors, and the protection of who they are.

With the Iron Age warrior fighting according to rules and rituals, using weapons decorated and imbued with magical and mystical powers of self and ancestors, and backed by his army of untrained followers, he virtually had no chance against the disciplined might of the Roman army. Warfare as the Britons knew it, took on a whole new meaning and the past episodes of tribal warfare to gain land and resources, to feed an ever increasing population, were a thing of the past.

The use of chariots, the decorations of body and weapons, and the magical, mystical and ritualistic meanings behind the warrior went with them to the grave. All we can now do is try to piece together a picture of what warfare in the Iron Age was really like from the artefacts, burials, classical writings and hypothesis that are put forward. The humanistic, emotional and spiritual side will forever evade our grasp, but it cannot be ignored, as it was all part of what made the warrior his peoples’ hero.

Written by Sue Carter

HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Press Releases

Part 1 – Click Here



Aldhouse-Green. A. J. 1996. The Celtic World. Oxford: Routledge.

Ashbee. P. 1978. The Ancient British: A Socio-Archaeological Narrative. Norwich: Geo Abstracts Ltd.

Creighton. J. 1995. Visions of Power: Imagery and Symbols in Late Iron Age Britain. Britannia, Vol. 26 (1995), pp. 285-301.

Cunliffe. B. (Ed.) 1997. The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cunliffe. B. 2004. War Mad But Not of Evil Character, Book of Iron Age Britain. London: Batsford

Cunliffe. B. 2010. Iron Age Communities In Britain. London: Routledge.

Green. M. 1992. Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art. Oxford: Routledge.

Harding. D. W. 2007. The Archaeology of Celtic Art. Sussex: The Psychology Press.

Hill. J. D. 1995. The Pre-Roman Iron Age in Britain and Ireland (ca. 800 B.C. to A. D. 100): An Overview. Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 9, No. 1 (March 1995), pp. 47-98.

Hingley. R. 2006. The Deposition of Iron Objects in Britain During the Later Prehistoric and Roman Periods: Contextual Analysis and the Significance of Iron. Britannia, Vol. 37 (2006), pp. 213-257.

James. S. & Rigby. V. 1997. Britain and the Celtic Iron Age. London: Trustees of the British Museum.

Piggott. S. 1968. An Ancient Briton in North Africa. Antiquity, Vol. XLII, pp. 128-130.

Robb. J. E. 1998. The Archaeology of Symbols. Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 27 (1998), pp. 329-346.

Sastre. I. 2008. Community, Identity, and Conflict: Iron Age Warfare in the Iberian Northwest. Current Anthropology, Vol. 49, No. 6 (December 2008), pp. 1021-1051.

Spratt. D. A. 1991. Recent British Research on Prehistoric Territorial Boundaries. Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 5, No. 4 (December 1991), pp. 439-480.

Waite. J. 2011. Boudica’s Last Stand: Britain’s Revolt Against Rome AD 60-61. Gloucestershire: The History Press.


© Copyright 2012 HeritageDaily - Heritage & Archaeology News
PDF Creator    Send article as PDF