The Battersea bronze and enamel shield 350BC :British Museum, London
Pic: Heritage Daily
|A fabulous informative article written by Sue Carter appeared in Heritage Daily recently. We enjoyed it so much, we knew our readers would find it fascinating too.Here is a taster. Enjoy
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).
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.
To read more of this fascinating article by Sue Carter Visit Heritage Daily
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Originally posted 2012-03-07 12:00:22. Republished by Blog Post Promoter