Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Tag: Diodorus

How The Celts Lived

Last time, I introduced the Celts and who they were.*

I explained that there were three phases of Celtic settlement in Britain, beginning in around 500-450 BC (perhaps earlier in Scotland), with settlers from France and the Low countries, continuing around 250 BC, and then a third phase, in around 100 BC, of Belgic peoples settling in southern Britain.

This time I’m taking a look at how they lived, although, given the paucity of the sources, it’s sometimes necessary to look at those still living in Europe, in order to build up an adequate picture.

Firstly, what kind of housing did they have?

According to Polybus [1] the people who settled in Cisalpine (the Roman side of the Alps) Gaul lived in scattered villages without walls. Their houses were probably wooden, which could easily be burned down and destroyed.

Gaulish houses were usually thatched and dome-like, and built of planks and willow supports. Some had an outer facing of mud, while others were covered with oak shingles, or straw mixed with earth. The Bretons built similar houses of reeds and wood. The Caledonii still had neither fortified walls, nor towns, as late as the second century of the Christian era.

A Pre-Roman Gaulish House

In wartime, the Gauls used to take refuge in the fortified camps known to Caesar as ‘Oppida’. The oppida of the Bretons were nothing more than retrenched camps defended by a ditch and a mound of earth with a stockade, within which they erected temporary huts. The Belgian people who inhabited the Ardennes Forest used to take special precautions in times of war by weaving the branches of thorny bushes into a mesh of thorns, so that invaders would find all paths blocked. In certain places, they would retreat with their families to small islands in swamps deep in the forest, having first driven stakes into the ground along potential paths. The oppida of Gaul were towns which could also offer shelter to the inhabitants of neighbouring areas but which also had a permanent population themselves.

Caesar described the walls of Gaulish fortifications: solid beams were laid out on the ground about two feet apart; they were joined by transverse struts, and the cavity thus formed was filled with earth. Large stones were used to face the front. A second layer was then added, and so on until the desired height was reached. These interwoven layers of stone and wood had major military advantages as the stone was a protection against fire, and the wood against the danger of the battering ram.

The Gauls described by Polybus were not familiar with the idea of furniture and their beds were apparently nothing more than grass.

Posidonius, [2] quoted by Athenus, [3] noted that at mealtimes the Celts used to sit on bales of hay around low circular tables of wood. They used neither spoons nor forks; they simply grabbed chunks of meat and tore them apart. Their dishes were made of silver, copper, or earthenware. Their goblets were of earthenware or silver.

A Belgic bronze tankard was found in Trawsfynydd in Wales, and has been dated to the mid-first century AD. Its base was made of turned wood. Two more tankards were found at Shapwick Heath in Somerset, and one was recovered from the River Thames, at Kew. Belgic wrought iron ‘fire dogs’, would have been used to spit-roast meat at feasts, and examples have been found at Great Chesterford, Essex and Capel Garmon, North Wales.

Fire dogs - BBC.CO.UK

Fire dogs – BBC.CO.UK

Dairy products were much used among the Gauls. (The remains of vast cheese-making installations have been found at Mont Beuvray- also known as Bibracte.) [4]

The Calednoii and the Maeatae apparently made no use at all in their diet of the abundant stocks of fish in the waters of their region.

For their daily sustenance, the Bretons used to shell the oldest ears of cereal in their barns. Some of their tribes were so lacking in industry that although they had plenty of milk, they never made cheese from it. Others lived off bark and roots, and devised a type of food which was so filling that a very small amount was enough to serve as a meal. The fore-runner of the breakfast bar, perhaps? (More about farming in a later episode.)

The standard drink of the Gauls was at one time a beer made from grain. This drink was called ‘corma’. The guests all drank out of the same goblet, which was passed round by a servant.

In the first century BC, wine brought from Italy was the drink of the rich. Some Gauls would lie down on their shields, and, in exchange for wine or money, would allow their throats to be cut, as long as the wine or the money should go to their descendants after their death.

The Celts held ceremonial dinners; the guests sat in a circle, and the man who was the most distinguished in terms of military prowess, birth, or wealth, sat in the middle of the assembled company. The master of the household sat next to him, and the others sat on either side, their position depending on their rank.

So, as they sat there, what would they have been wearing?

It would seem that many of the Celtic tribes were comparatively sophisticated in their dress. Diodorus [5] described the Gauls as having worn tunics and trousers, with striped sashes over their shoulders. Pliny [6] suggested that the Gauls were the inventors of checked cloth; they extracted a purple dye from the bilberry, scarlet from the hyacinth, and colours from various other plants.

The Aedui chief Dumnorix, Museum of Celtic Civilization, Bibracte

The Celts of the La Tène culture had highly developed weaving and dyeing techniques. The men wore close-fitting trousers and pullovers, while the women wore freely-flowing cloaks of the same material.

In Ireland, the men liked to wear woollen cloaks, pinned together at the neck by a brooch. Trousers were worn only by the poor, noblemen preferring ‘Léine’, knee-length linen tunics.

The Celts wore sandals, which left much of the upper foot exposed. These sandals were tied up with leather.

Some Celtic tribes, however, seem to have been quite unaware of the use of clothes. In the second century AD, the inhabitants of Northern Brittany went completely naked. Some Gaulish tribes also were in the habit of undressing completely before battle.

When they were clothed, though, did they wear any other adornments?

Strabo [7] said of the Celts: “to the frankness and high spiritedness of their temperament must be added the traits of childish boastfulness and love of decoration. They wear ornaments of gold, torcs on their necks, and bracelets on their arms and wrists.”

These torcs were heavy rings of solid gold, richly decorated, and with a finger-sized opening at the front. Gerhard Herm points out in The Celts, that they must have been put on with great difficulty, being too small to push over the head, and yet too thick to bend open. Perhaps the most famous of the Celtic torcs were discovered at Snettisham in Norfolk between 1948 and 1968. The largest was 20cm in diameter and made of electrum. It was dated to the mid-first century BC

A more delicate (Bronze) torc

Besides jewellery, the Celts also used the tattoo as a form of personal adornment. Caesar wrote that all the Bretons used to dye their bodies with pastel, thus turning their bodies a bright blue colour, which made them look particularly horrible in battle. It is possibly from the addiction to his habit that the dark-age Picts acquired their name, ‘painted men’.

A brief note on hygiene: Personal hygiene among the Celts cannot have been overly sophisticated. They did, however, make soap from tallow or ash. This was, according to Pliny, a Gaulish invention. In order to preserve the freshness of their complexions, the Celtic women used beer foam. The cleaning of teeth, among the Celtiberians (the Celts who invaded Greece) was done with urine, stored for a long time in special tanks.

Next time: The role of Members of the Community
* Read the first in this series, Who Were the Celts?

[1] Polybus, or Polybius, was a Greek historian who was born between 210 and 205 BC, in Arcadia. He wrote a general history of his time, and died around 125 BC
[2] Posidonius, or Poseidonius, was a Syrian born historian. He was a Stoic philosopher, and emphasised the interrelation of all things in the universe.
[3] Athenus, or Athenaeus, was a Greek writer born in Egypt. He wrote in the end of the second century and the third century AD
[4] The world of the Celts – G.Dottin
[5] Diodorus (Sicilus) of Sicily was a Greek historian who used literary sources with little judgement of his own, but for certain periods he provides the best evidence available.
[6] Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was born in Northern Italy and wrote 37 books of natural history. The eruption of Pompeii claimed his life.
[7] Strabo was a Greek geographer, who lived from about 58 BC – AD 25. Lloyd Laing (1979) attributes this translation to S. Piggot (1970)

Further reading:
The Celts – Gerhard Herm
Pagan Celtic Britain – Anne Ross
Celtic Britain – Lloyd Laing
The World of the Celts – G Dottin

(all images are in the public domain unless otherwise attributed)

This article first appeared on the EHFA Blog 29th July 2016

Who Were the Celts?

I had cause, a few years ago, to try to find out about the slightly mythical Celts. Who were they, where did they really come from, what do we actually know about them and how they lived? In this, the first of a series, I will attempt to answer the first question – Who were they?

The Celts in Europe
The origin of these peoples seems to lie partially in the inhabitants of north-Alpine Europe. The people here are known to archaeologists as the ‘Urnfield People’ because of their burial rites. They cremated their dead, and buried the ashes in cemeteries known as ‘Urnfields’. Their culture is spread from about 1300-700 BC and there is evidence to suggest that they spoke a recognisably Celtic language.

Between 700 and 600 BC, there seems to have been a partial change in burial rite in central Europe, connected with the iron-using ‘Halstatt’ culture. The graves which gave their name to this phase were found at Halstatt in the Salzkammergut in Austria. (Painting of grave goods shown above – image Public Domain) Much of the wealth of these people came from salt mines and saline springs; salt was a much valued commodity, and could be traded for rich articles associated with burials. The burial rite changed in that the bodies were laid out un-burnt on four-wheeled chariots, and covered by an earthen mound.

Model of a Halstatt Grave Barrow – image under Commons Licence – author Wolfgang Sauber

In about 500 BC, further changes apparently took pace. The centre of Celtic power moved to the Middle Rhine. At burials, the bodies were now laid out in the light, two-wheeled chariots which were to become typical Celtic vehicles of war. This second, and most typically Celtic phase, is known as ‘La Tène’. The name was taken from the discovery of a (presumably ritual) deposit of metalwork in the lake at La Tène (The Shallows) on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The La Tène culture brought with it a glorious new art style.

Bronze fitting – image reproduced under Commons Licence – author BastienM

From about 450 BC, movement and expansion of these barbarian people can be traced. It seems that bands of these people made their way down into the Italic peninsula, over-running Etruria, [1] settling there and further south, and, in 390 BC, pushing into Rome. Others went further east, into Asia Minor (Turkey), and in 279 BC they made an unsuccessful attack on Delphi.

The Classics tell us that the Celts were organised into tribes. The Greeks and Romans make comments on their social organisation, and some of their habits and customs, and much of this information can be regarded as genuine.

After the fatal attack on Delphi, it would seem that the Celtic retreat commenced, although a few Celts remained in the east for many centuries.

The Celts in Britain
There is archaeological evidence to suggest that there were Celts of Halstatt ancestry in north-eastern Scotland as early as 600 BC and settlements of people of Halstatt origin from France and the Low Countries would appear to have taken place about 500-450 BC. The initial settlement of these people occurred on the east coast of Yorkshire, and in the south and east. These Halstatt derived cultures are grouped by archaeologists under Britain Iron Age A. [2] *

Bronze Halstatt tool, possibly a razor

Although elements of the La Tène culture were present from the first, the next movement into Britain seems to have taken place about 250 BC. These settlers came across to the east and south coasts, and spread to the south and west. It was these people who introduced the two-wheeled war chariots and, of course, the La Tène art style. It is not known however whether it was these people or their Halstatt predecessors who introduced the Druidic priesthood to preside over religious rites. These, and other bearers of La Tène derived cultures, are contained within the British Iron Age B.

The third phase of Celtic settlements is contained within British Iron Age C. It consists of the influx of Belgic peoples who settled in southern Britain. This movement can be dated to around 100 BC. These people may have introduced the art of enamelling, and brought over the gods and cult symbols from Gaul. It would appear that it was the hostility of this group of people towards the Romans, that was the main reason for Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC. Between this date and Claudius’ conquest in AD 43, further Belgic settlements took place.

The famous Snettisham (Norfolk) Great Torc, 1st C BC – Under Commons Licence – author Ealdgyth

The south soon settled down to Roman rule, although the north put up opposition, and in the years between the two Roman invasions there was a great deal of movement to the north by those anxious to escape the Roman domination.

Scottish versions of the Iron Age A cultures of England were present, and trade relations show some connection between southern Scotland and the Iron Age C (Belgic) area of southern England. After the establishment of Roman rule, restless tribes beyond Hadrian’s Wall put up resistance, especially the Maeatae, and the Caledonii, who were the fore-runners of the historical Picts. [3] (Information on Celtic settlement in Scotland was and remains, for the time being, somewhat confused.)

Certain Celtic Peoples
Information about which Celtic tribes settled where is confused, because for much of the Celtic era, the results of archaeology and history cannot be made to coincide. More is known about certain tribes than others. The La Tène culture was certainly important and, as we have seen, was known for its art. Yet these people were masters of many other techniques. Not only could they inlay metals, but long before the invention of the necessary rolling equipment, they were also capable of producing the finest iron. They even seem to have mastered the art of casting soft iron, a technique once thought to have been perfected only in the nineteenth-century. They could boil ornamental glass, coloured and white, and they knew how to enamel. They could cover copper objects with tin, and may have been the first people in the world to silver them with mercury. They devoted much care to the manufacture of weapons. the chain-mail of Celtic princes could have stood comparison with those of the high middle ages, if stone representations have been correctly interpreted.

Ornamental gold mounts on bowl – Commons Licence – author Rosemania

The Celts of Gaul were apparently most hospitable people, never locking their doors, and always welcoming passers-by. The Gauls were known to Caesar as ‘Galli’ and to the Greeks as ‘Galatae’.

On the other hand, the Cisalpine (on this side, i.e. the Roman side of the Alps) and Transalpine Gauls (across the Alps, i.e. the other side) used to cut off the heads of defeated enemies and hang them up, like trophies, outside their houses. [4] The Gauls were described by Diodorus [5] thus:

“They are very tall in stature. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so; they bleach it, washing it in lime and combing it back from the foreheads. Some of them are clean-shaven, but others, especially those of high rank, shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth.”

According also to Diodorus, the Transalpine Gauls were men of few words who spoke in riddles, leaving most of their meaning hidden, and he thought them intelligent and capable of learning. Yet Strabo [6] found these same Transalpines simple-minded and limited. Much of what we can learn about the Celts is, of course, subject to such opinion.

Overview map of the Hallstatt (yellow) and La Tène (green) cultures. After Atlas of the Celtic World, by John Haywood; London Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2001, pp. 30-37. By Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, Commons Licence

[1] Etruria – a former region of Italy between the Tiber, the Apennines, and the River Magra. The Etruscans were a superior intellectual Aryan race originating from Asia Minor. Although they settled in Italy, they were different from and far more advanced than their Italian neighbours. They spoke a strange language, all traces of which have unfortunately been lost.
[2] More on these groupings can be found in Pagan Celtic Britain – Anne Ross p39
[3] Generally regarded to be Celts – they could merely have been Picti – the painted people (more of which in the next part of this series) or they could have been Pictones, a conquering aristocracy from Pictavia, or Poitou. Anne Ross believes they originated form the Caledonii Op cit p41
[4] Diodorus says that they preserved the heads in wooden boxes.
[5] Diodorus (Sicilus) of Sicily was a Greek historian. His 40 books were a universal history from mythical beginnings to the time of Caesar. He used varied literary sources with little judgement of his own, and often without regard to exact chronology. For certain periods, though, he provides the best evidence available.
[6] Strabo was a Greek geographer. He lived from about 58 BC-25 AD. He spent his life in travel and study. His Geographica in 17 books included in Book 4 a study of Gaul, Britain and Ireland, although the countries he travelled through were not described with equal accuracy and fullness. (Below – Strabo’s map of Europe – Public Domain)

Further reading:
The Celts – Gerhard Herm
Celtic Britain – Lloyd Laing
The World of the Celts – G Dottin
*The classification of the Iron Age is, according to archaeologist and author Louise Turner, in a state of ‘flux’ at the moment. For more information visit Here

This article first appeared on the EHFA Blog Site on July 1st, 2016