Friday, October 28, 2016

The Celts - Occupations and Leisure Activities

by Annie Whitehead

So far in this series, I’ve looked at the origins of the Celtic People, how they lived and who they were. Now I’m looking at what they did:

While the Celt as a warrior has been the most colourful picture to come down for posterity, warfare was not a full time occupation, and the majority of Celtic people spent most of their time in rural, agricultural pursuits.

The Aedui chief Dumnorix, Museum of Celtic
Civilization, Bibracte

There was a great difference between the Germanic tribes and the Gauls, as the former consumed very little wheat and lived mainly on milk and the flesh of their animals.

Cattle were abundant in Gaul, which can be seen from the fact that during all Caesar’s expedition large amounts of livestock were seized.

The cattle in Britain were of the Celtic Shorthorn variety, first appearing towards the end of the Bronze age. Sheep were small, similar to the Soay breed. Wild animals presented a threat, to crops and to life, with wolves, bears and wild cats all still abundant.

Soay sheep at Cranborne Ancient Technology Centre
Attrib. Simon Barnes, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The cultivation of wheat was quite common among the Transalpine Gauls, and Caesar never had any difficulty feeding his armies on any of his campaigns.  Besides wheat, we know from Pliny that millet was grown, at least in Aquitaine.

In the highlands of the northern British Isles, rain-bearing winds caused many fields to be abandoned during the latter stages of the Bronze age, but iron axes (seventh century BC onwards) enabled the clearing of forests, allowing for the planting of crops.

The Greek writer Hecataeus noted that in the sixth century BC, the people in Britain reaped two harvests a year, of the hardy spelt. Other ‘new’ grains included the Celtic bean, rye, club wheat and chess. Aerial views of Celtic fields are used to make calculations, and at Overton Down in Wiltshire the fields there suggest that the average field could have been ploughed in a day, based on a plough being pulled by two oxen.

But the Celts generally were also accomplished hunters. Those who hunted for pleasure used no nets. The richer Celts would send men to seek out a resting hare. After rousing the hare, they would send their dogs after it. The Celtic dogs were famous; they were extremely savage and fast runners. One dog tracked down the animal by following its scent, while the others stood where the animal was likely to emerge, ready to leap on it for the kill.

Money was put aside every time a kill was made. It was used every year to pay for a sacrifice to the Goddess Artemis, and for a banquet where the dogs appeared covered with flowers.

Caesar observed, though, that it was unlawful to eat hares. Boudicca released one while praying to her goddess before setting out on her anti-Roman campaigns. Hares of course continue to be abundant in Celtic folklore.

Artemis with hind

The Celts used a hand thrown dart when hunting birds. The arrows used in hunting were poisoned with juice from the fruit of a tree.

Fishing was not as popular as hunting, and many tribes took no advantage of the abundance of fish available off their shores.

In terms of industry, there were silver mines in the Pyrenees, and also in Spain. Gaul contained many iron ore mines and the Gauls were experts at working them. There were, however, few of them in the British Isles. The Britons used copper for their coins, and also iron rings of a given weight. The Caledonii wore iron ornaments around their necks, and this was regarded as a sign of great wealth. Copper was to be found in Aquitaine, but the Gauls did not know how to process it properly. Imported copper was used in the British Isles, and tin occurred only in the British Isles.

It’s probable that smiths were not of equal status in Britain. Those who made, for example, the Snettisham Torcs, must have been master craftsmen, while below them there would have been itinerant smiths who set up their forges to repair or make tools as and when required.

Snettisham Hoard Attrib. Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England -
The Snettisham Hoard Uploaded by Victuallers, CC BY 2.0,

The Gauls used coral and enamel for decorative purposes. The finest coral was collected off the southern coast of Gaul. It was used to decorate swords, shields and helmets. The use of coral in the ancient world was found only in those areas under Celtic influence. Pliny says that coral was thought to have certain cultural properties; for example, a branch of coral round the neck of a child was regarded as protections against harm. Objects decorated with coral most probably belong to the end of the Halstatt period and the first part of the La Tène period.*

Philostratus** wrote that the ‘barbarians’ knew how to pour white, black, yellow and red colours on incandescent copper so that they hardened to the consistency of stone, keeping the designs made on the metal. This must have been a reference to the Celts and an enamelling process. The Celts applied enamel to objects such as buttons, clasps and brooches.

Trade between the British Isles and the Roman world increased after Caesar’s expeditions. Initially, luxury wine arrived, but by 15BC ‘rough’ wines were being imported, and by the last decade of the first century BC products such as fish-sauce and tableware came in. The main imports of pottery were Gallo-Belgic imitations of the fine Arretine pottery, which was finished in a rich red gloss.

In Scotland, one fort grew in prosperity under the Roman occupation. At Traprain Law, in East Lothian, finds include distinctive dress-fasteners which were being imitated by local bronze-smiths.

Iron age Hill Fort

‘Cottage industry’ likely included the weaving of baskets, but there are few finds. A basket fragment was found in Stanwick, Yorkshire. More abundant are finds of woven hurdles, with fine examples found in Glastonbury and Meare in Somerset.

Meare also gave up objects such as wooden tubs and cups, wheel hubs and spokes and various wooden tool handles.

Antler was often carved and fashioned into a variety of tools, as well as for making the cheek pieces for bridles.

The Stanwick Horse Mask, La Tene style mount, British, 1st century
By Johnbod - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Life was not all about work. Also found on the Meare site were game counters made from polished pebbles. At Welwyn Garden City, an excavation uncovered glass gaming pieces from a chieftain’s burial. Five dice and a dice box were also found.

A bone flute, found in a burial at Standfordbury, and an iron horn from Ireland, suggest that music played a part in Celtic life, be it in the home, or simply as part of festivals and rituals.

Next time, more on rituals, as we look at the government and social structure of Celtic society, and the Druidic rituals and traditions.

*See the first part of this series for more on these cultures.
** Philostratus was a Greek writer of the second and third centuries. He was born on the island of Lemnos and lived from AD175-249.

[All above images public domain unless otherwise attributed]

See the previous articles in this series
Who Were the Celts?How the Celts LivedThe Celtic Community


Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Aethelred the Unready. It too has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017.

Author Page
Alvar the Kingmaker
To Be A Queen
1066 Turned Upside Down


  1. Thanks for a most enjoyable post! And by the way, I've bought a copy of 1066 from iBooks. I just adore alternative universe fiction! Annie, your books sound great, but I can't find them on iBooks. :( And while I do have a Kindle app on my iPad, I don't like buying online with a card. I avoid it as much as I can.

  2. Thanks so much Sue, I'm really glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you enjoy 1066 TUD - we had a lot of fun putting it together and re-writing history! My other books are available as paperbacks, online from or any bookshop should be able to order them in for you. I'm afraid the e-book version are only available through Kindle at the moment.

  3. The figure in the first picture looks like he's wearing surgical scrubs. Makes me wonder where modern surgeons got their fashion inspiration. :-)

    1. It's not the most fetching of outfits, that's for sure! :)


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