Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Celts: Fact or Fiction?

by Rob Godfrey

If you ask the average person: ’who were the Celts?’ they might come up with a description of ‘ancient peoples’ of Western Europe; if from Britain they might mention the Scottish, Irish, Cornish and Bretons as living descendants of ‘Celtic’ ancestors. Someone is bound to mention that they probably had red hair too. Druids often get a mention here, along with so-called Celtic crosses (actually much later Christian artefacts) and perhaps a little about their dress sense (mostly Woad paint!) and quarrelsome nature.

Unfortunately the term ‘Celtic’ has been used to describe many different peoples and cultures over many different ages and locations. Try Googling ‘Celtic’ and you will more than likely be confronted with facts and figures of a particular Scottish football club. Clearly it means many different things to different people. This brief article will try to explain away some of the fuzzier associations and perhaps give a more specific answer to the original question.

History is written by the victors*

In our case the first written records of Celtic people have come to us from Greek and Roman sources. The Greeks referred to peoples beyond their northern borders as ‘Keltoi’, which roughly translates into barbarian. This fitted in nicely with the Roman attitude to the uncivilised (non-Romanised) living beyond their borders. The typical inhabitants were variously described by Romans as superstitious, violent, hot-headed, proud but lacking the finer characteristics of the citizens of Rome. In part the Romans came to justify their imperialistic conquests as bringing civilisation to these ‘savages’.
It did not help that these so-called barbarians had no tradition of writing and seldom built in stone; the written and architectural evidence remaining seemed to confirm the Roman view that little of value was produced before they took control. When reading Roman accounts of their dealings with the Celts a little scepticism is required; there is often a fine line between fact and propaganda.

The truth is out there

Well, more precisely, the truth is under our feet. The more archaeologists have unearthed, the more tangible evidence of sophisticated societies occupying much of Central and Western Europe that pre-date the Roman conquests emerges to challenge the Roman version.

History as taught to me at school seemed to be a rather uninspiring set of facts and dates: In August 55 BC Julius Caesar first landed in Britain, In 1066 AD the Normans invaded, the Great Fire of London happened in September 1666, The Declaration of Independence was adopted by the US Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. But of course all these events didn’t just happen in a vacuum; human History is surely a continuous and unbelievably complex process of cause and effect.

One convenient system used to give some order to pre-historic processes is the division into ‘Ages’. So we have the Stone, followed by the Bronze and lastly the Iron Age. Each name indicates the materials used to make tools and artefacts.

Unfortunately these ‘Ages’ occurred at different times in different localities and tended to overlap to a greater or lesser degree. Some areas even seemed to have skipped ages completely (part of Africa never going through a Bronze Age). In Britain use of Bronze begin around 2100 BC and continued until Iron became available around 750-700 BC (there is much discussion about these dates). Of course this does not mean that everyone overnight discarded their Bronze tools and weapons, but Iron became increasingly available and because it could take a harder edge and was more durable it gradually superseded bronze as the material of choice.

So prior to the Roman expansion into Central and Western Europe people had access to not only iron and steel but bronze (an alloy of tin and copper) as well as gold and silver. There have been some spectacular finds from this period that show just how sophisticated the metalworkers were (see 1 & 2 below). These are not simple implements used to cut down trees or harvest crops; these are fine works of art.

Considering just how much time the creation of these artefacts must have taken (not to mention the time taken beforehand to learn the skills to make them) leads you to the inescapable conclusion that these must have been settled societies. No community can have individuals engaged in these full-time, non-essential activities unless there are sufficient and reliable surpluses of resources, year after year.

Not only does the quality of the unearthed artefacts indicate a settled, sophisticated society but also the variety of sources of them show that long distance trade existed right across mainland Europe, including the Atlantic coast and the British Isles. For example, it is well established that tin was a major export of south west Britain to the whole of Western Europe for many centuries before the arrival of the Romans. Wine from the Mediterranean countries was widely consumed throughout western and central Europe (including southern Britain and Ireland).

Cultural Centres and the spread of ideas

Two centres of culture that widely influenced the rest of Europe are the Hallstatt and La Tène (see 3 & 4 below). The Hallstatt territory (800-600 BC) centred across modern day Switzerland and the La Tène culture (450-50 BC) further to the west. Varying degrees of similarity of these cultures were adopted and shared right across Europe from the Atlantic Isles in the west as far as Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) in the east.

It’s not a great leap of logic to assume that ideas and goods travelled then much as they do today, which is by copying, exchange and theft (with or without the use of violence). The existence of extensive trade routes provided the means for widely separated peoples to come into contact with new ideas and adopt them to their local circumstances.

The Celts in Northern England

My particular focus of interest is the lives of people living in Wharfedale in northern England around 500 BC. This is due to the simple fact that I live here and the area is particularly rich in rock-carvings and ancient earthworks about which little is as yet known. I have called them Celts rather than the long-winded British Iron Ages people, but of course they would never refer to themselves as Celts. As far as is known this area was inhabited by a loose confederation known (at least to the Romans) as the Brigantes. Their territory occupied a swathe of northern England coast to coast, from the River Mersey to the Humber in the south and a line running from the Solway Firth to the Tweed in the North. Much of the north-south axis is dominated by hills and (at the time) marshy river valleys; as a result settlements were small and quite widely scattered.
One key resource was mining and various metals and precious stones have been mined and quarried almost continuously from pre-historic to modern times (see 5 below).

Here are some examples of the stone-carvings found on the moors above the Wharfedale valley:

The Badger Stone

The Swastika Stone

Hanging Stones

Much research has been undertaken to try and accurately date these carvings. It’s not an easy task as erosion inevitably degrades the stone and most have been exposed and buried/overgrown at varying times since they were carved. However, knowing when they were carved does not answer the question of why or what for?

Knowing that there was a major east-west trade route running along the southern edge of the valley at the time (see 6 below) we can be certain that the inhabitants of this fairly remote valley had knowledge of their cousins on the continent and would have been exposed to some of the cultural ideas and goods of that area. There is some argument about whether there were different strands of languages (Continental and Insular Celtic) but it is highly likely that passing traders would have been understood.

Local lives

The roundhouse is the quintessential dwelling place of the era. As it was built entirely from locally available materials (the majority of which were biodegradable) the remains are usually restricted to circles of post holes or circular stone walls. Wharfedale has a long tradition of building with stone and remains of stone-sided roundhouses have been found at Green Slack Crag on Ilkley Moor. The flat valley floor was not yet drained and was mostly swamp; yet a rich source of fish and waterfowl no doubt.

Another typical (and I must say very appealing) Celtic dwelling was the crannog; here is a roundhouse built on a platform raised over water. Again the construction materials were biodegradable and any remains of those built alongside rivers usually being destroyed as valleys were drained, etc. Nearly all evidence of past crannog sites have been found on lake shores. Several modern reconstructions have been built across Europe (see link 7 below).

Roundhouses could be large enough for a whole family to eat and sleep within and may have been shared with livestock in colder weather (probably none too fragrant but providing extra warmth).

What was on the menu?

Much detailed evidence of diets is coming to light as analysis of the contents of cooking pots and even the remains stomach contents found in bodies buried in peat (accidentally or otherwise). Here’s a (not exhaustive) list:

Meat from domesticated (pigs, sheep and cattle) and wild animals.
Dairy products
Fish, Fowl
Cereals (Barley, Wheat, Oats and Rye) as bread and porridge.
Beans (Broad & Field), Peas, Vetch
Acorns, Hazel Nuts
Beer/Ale (non-hop), Meads, Teas (fruit & herb based)
None of the following:
Tomatoes, Potatoes, Aubergines, Peppers, Chillis, Squash (all these are from the as yet undiscovered New World).
Mediterranean Herbs, Grapes, Plums, Figs, Sour Cherries, Pears, Apricots, Peaches, Oranges and Lemons may have been available to people nearer to southern Europe, but for the most they had to wait for the Romans to bring them.

Many of these crops and the rearing of animals, require long term settlement and stability. The work involved to clear virgin forests and establish fields for annual cereal crops is immense; it cannot be achieved or sustained by nomadic or hunter gatherers.

By today’s standards a much simpler diet then. But of course everything would have been either Free Range or Organic!

There is disagreement as to whether fish formed part of the diet. It does seem odd if this presumably abundant natural resource was not exploited though. Eric Cowling uncovered many flints and evidence of long term visits/occupation (near modern day Leathley) that at the time was on the shore of a shallow lake covering the whole of the lower Wharfe valley. Dogs were also commonly kept and anyone who has fed them raw carcasses (for example, fish or small mammals) will know that nothing is left uneaten. So you don’t necessarily find fish remains where people have caught them.

What’s in your wardrobe?

Some remarkably intact bodies from this period have been discovered in peat bogs across Europe. As well as providing evidence of diet these burials have also enabled the analysis of the clothing that sometimes has been amazingly preserved. Wool seems to have been used in abundance, from light shirts/smocks to heavy cloaks (waterproofed with animal fats). What has been revealed is that the Celts were fond of vibrant colours (see 8 below). Certainly these rich colours could have been produced in Wharfedale from plants indigenous to the area (e.g. Woad, Madder and Weld). One myth that seems to have been disproved is that Woad was used to paint the body; it seems it is woefully inadequate for this purpose.

As well as making use of a range of colours, different weaving techniques and patterns were employed. Put this knowledge together with the availability of metals, minerals/precious stones (for beads and brooches, etc) and you have the ingredients for a range of fashion accessories. It’s a universal human trait to adorn the body; the more settled and prosperous a society the more sophisticated this adornment becomes. No doubt Wharfedale was not the Paris of the day, but perhaps La Tène was.

What can we say about the inhabitants of Wharfedale?

At the time in question (500BC) there were long-established settlements in northern England occupied by people who shared many aspects of their culture with their continental cousins. Unlike the descriptions often recorded by the Romans, these people spoke a common language, dressed in richly coloured clothes and ate a fairly broad, nutritious diet. They knew of and used the wheel (wagons and chariots); travelled and traded widely. The various tribes may have resorted to violence to resolve conflicts but the society as a whole was stable and productive enough to support specialised craft workers capable of producing highly sophisticated works of art. There must also have been an appreciative audience for these works.

The social structure of this society is harder to deduce. The tradition of passing on stories via song and the spoken verse not surprisingly says little about the day to day bureaucracy or social strata. The religious side of people’s lives seems even more uncertain and is often speculative at best. Concrete evidence of the influence of Druids on the lives of the average Celt is almost completely lacking.

However, it would appear that the Roman’s did not introduce civilisation to an ignorant set of barbarians, more that they replaced a viable, flourishing one with their own (more or less at the point of the sword). Were there ‘Celts’ anywhere? Well, probably not. Are there people alive today who have inherited some of the cultural traditions and languages of people living over 2000 years ago, probably yes.

Rob Godfrey’s website

Author of the Historical Fiction set in the year 500BC: Year of the Celt: Imbolc
Amazon US
Amazon UK

*A quote often attributed to Winston Churchill, but not everyone agrees on this.
1. Iron Age Jewellery: http://www.lessingimages.com/search.asp?a=L&lc=20202020443F&ln=Schweizer+Nationalmuseum%2C+Zurich%2C+Switzerland&p=1
2. Grave Goods: http://www.waa.ox.ac.uk/XDB/tours/europe5.asp
3. Hallstatt Culture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hallstatt_culture
4. La Tène Culture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_T%C3%A8ne_culture
5. Examples of minerals from the Yorkshire Dales: http://www.pbase.com/hajar/yorkshire_minerals
6.COWLING Eric T., ROMBALDS WAY The authoritative work on the stones, artefacts and remains on Ilkley and surrounding moors. William Walker & Sons 1946
7. Crannogs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crannog
8. Huldremose woman’s clothes:


  1. Very interesting and I'll come back read it more thoroughly. I'm working on a novel now that starts in the area of the Salisbury Plain in 3rd C. BC and connects the Celts with the Greeks of Macedonia. First person narrative using some bardic verse in place of some chapters.

    1. Keep us posted, Wynn...I am fascinated to hear of someone writing a novel set in the later prehistory of Salisbury Plain. Most novels set there are, not unsurprisingly, about the building of Stonehenge, though mine (STONE LORD and MOON LORD) take place in around 1900 B.C., in what is sometimes known as Wessex I, when you first see traces of what seems to be an early 'heroic society' appearing in the area (ie Bush Barrow chieftain with his golden-hilted dagger, gold breastplate and his lightning-mace.) The Greek angle intrigues, as certainly by the mid-bronze age trade WAS going on between Wessex and Mycenae...mostly British goods going outwards (they liked our spacer beads in their necklaces!)

  2. Your novel sounds interesting Wynn, I'm fascinated by all things pre-Roman.

    I should have mentioned that the Swastika stone image above is a modern replica that sits next to the (much eroded) original.

  3. Very interesting. Dispels a lot of supposition about the celts. Will be interested to read Rob Godfreys book.

  4. This was a wonderful article. I've always been interested in Celtic history, particularly Ireland and Scotland, but this gave me a deeper understanding. Thanks.

  5. Great article! There's a lot of atrocious stuff on 'celts' out there (red-headed 'noble savage' types dancing around standing stones while being 'in tune' with Mother Earth and so on!) and it's a delight to read an article that strips away the 'fluff.' Just purchased the book.

  6. While my focus is on the Picts, I love reading/learning about anything in pre-Roman Britain. Thank you for this information and details. Will find the book.

  7. There's a (relatively) new non-fiction book out which has some fascinating insights: Barry Cunliffe - Celtic from the West.

    1. Barry Cunliffe is an inspiring writer and researcher, I have read much of his work.

  8. Very interesting article, Rob. I, too, am fascinated by all periods of Celtic history, though my novels are centred on the era around AD 71-84. The geographical area you like to write about is not so different, though, from mine. The first two books of my Celtic Fervour series are set mainly in Brigantian areas when the Roman Empire was building many of the forts archaeologists are now finding more and more evidence of. As you say above, though, written evidence for what the Celts were like is scant.

  9. Fresh and new subject matter, and a terrifically informative overview in just one essay. The carved stone photos are compelling indeed. I've read Rob's novel, "Imbolc: Year of the Celt" and his research and love of the natural world shine through.