Celts
500 BC
c. 500 - The spread of La Tene Celtic customs and goods is seen throughout Britain.  The Celts actually
originated in Central Europe.  It looks like it was a gradual influx into Britain, through trade.  There is no
evidence of invasion.  The intellectual class are called Druids (lit.: The hidden people) and this culture flourished
for about 1000 years. Click here if you are interested in learning about the
languages of the Celts.

c. Fourth Century BC - Age of the earliest Iron Age, major, intact, burial found in England to date.  It is in
Wetwang, Yorkshire and was found in a medieval manor.  It includes a chariot, complete with decorated pieces
of horse harness, parts of a wheel and a female Celtic aristocrat.  The chariot was of wood, about 5 feet square,
with iron bindings and tires and bronze bits and rein rings.  The wheels had about a 35" diameter.  It is believed
the burial rite is unique to this part of Yorkshire and the mainland of Europe.

c. 150 - Around this time Oppida stared to be built throughout the Celtic world, including Britain.  These were
fortified government centers for each tribal state; essentially a form of urban center.

c. 100 - Cornwall is an active iron age village at this time.  It has stone courtyard houses which interlocked and
shared underground chambers.

c. 55 - Julius Caesar invades Britain for the first time.

June 25, 2003 - The Herald, in Glasgow Scotland, publishes an article on the results of DNA testing across
Britain.  It looks like the Anglo-Saxons did not push out the Celts to the "Celtic Fringe".  Instead, they
intermingled with the population.  The seeming predominance of the Angles and Saxons over the Celts may
have more to do with better archiving than better weapons.

September 2006  - A research team at Oxford, led by Professor Bryan Sykes, has produced research
indicating that a majority of Britons are descended from Celts from Spain who came over about 5000 BC.  This
confirms the origin story (some say myth) of ancient Scotland which states that the Scottish people lived in Spain
before settling Scotland.  This was stated in The Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, following the Scottish War of
Independence against England.  For images and more detail please see our
Neolithic page.
Hairstyles of the Age
According to Diodorus,
Celtic warriors smeared
their long hair thick with
lime and drew it back from
their forehead.  However,
sculptural evidence implies
this was not the only style
popular with Celtic men*.  
Of course, no one bothers to
mention the women.  
Figures.
*There has been additional information
on hairstyles since I first wrote this.  In
Jan 2006 it was announced that a bog
body from 2300 years ago was
discovered with a resin based hair gel
imported from France.  This fashionista
has been dubbed Clonycavan Man.
Daily Life

Obviously daily life was different for the different classes.  Most people lived in small farming communities with
communal grazing ground and dairying.

Noble youth might have been given as "hostages" to ensure bonds between the tribes.  These "hostages" were
more like long-term exchange students.  By taking part of family life in other tribes, it strengthened alliances
among the tribe and allowed for some uniformity between them. Raising foster children and strategic marriages
were also used for the same purpose.

According to Aristotle, the Celts exposed their children to cold weather without clothing to toughen them up and
obesity in men was dealt with harshly.  Generally the men preferred male company, and bothered little with
women.  

Rules of hospitality were strictly adhered to.  It included offering a stranger food and drink before finding out
about the person's business.

Home meals were served by the youngest of the grown up children, both boys and girls (presumably grown up
enough to handle serving).  However, boys were not allowed to address their fathers in public or even be seen
with them until they had entered military service.

This was slightly different in some tribes, like the Caledonii of Scotland, who lived communally and raised
children communally as well.

Many British/Celtic sites had grain storage, which would be lined with "basketry", used for a few years and then
become a garbage pit.  Here's the thing:  I keep seeing references to corn storage.  I'm very confused since I
thought corn/maize was native to the Americas and brought over after colonization.  However, I report what I
read from credible sources and will continue to look into this.  Please feel free to contact me (see the About Us
page) if you have any insights into this statement of fact.  
*Update 25 Feb 2006:  a Canadian reader
contacted me and explained the corn situation.  As an American, I assumed corn to mean corn on the
cob/sweet corn, as it is predominately called in North America.  When British sources reference corn, it
is a generic term for grain (oats, wheat, etc).  They will use the term maize for what North American's call
corn.  A big thanks to Dorothy Wilson!

According to Poseidonius, the elite wore mustaches, but shaved their cheeks to visually distinguish themselves
from the masses.
Political Organization
Generally, the Celts lived in territories and kingdoms, using hill-top forts as their bases
of power. The Celtic world was made up of many small kingdoms.  A king could be
one of 3 ranks: he could oversee 1 kingdom, several or a province and was elected by
the noble families of the area.  Each province had a royal seat.

Druids, blacksmiths and poets were among the most highly regarded in this society.  
The aristocracy was made up of the warriors who went out into battle.  As you will see
from the Brehon law, the rest of the population were little more than slaves to their
hierarchy.

An interesting note is in Ireland, the kings were symbolically married to the territorial
nature goddess.
Celtic Women
Women had more rights than in Greek or even Roman societies.  
They were noted for their fierce tempers and promiscuity, both of
which were acceptable culturally.

Women had legal rights in marriage; the bride's dowry was matched
by the husband and this became a joint account of sorts.  If one
spouse died, the survivor inherited everything.  However, the
husband still had the right of life and death over his whole family,
including this wife. Women also had the right of inheritance from their
parents.

If you believe Suetonius Paulinus, there were times where there were
more women in battle than men, although I have not yet seen
reference of any woman beyond the Queen attending a Feast.  
Generally women were on the battlefield in a support capacity.

Women did have the right to lead their tribes, enter contracts and
lead armies; although these rights obviously did not apply to the
masses.  Women frequently did engage in business, regardless of
class.
Brehon Law
Every tuath had its own law code, but this one
from Ireland is fairly standard:
  • a peasant had no legal identity beyond
    the kingdom where he lived
  • artists and learned individuals were
    exempt from the above rule
  • those who were bound to their kingdom
    like this were not free and in fact
    worked for the king
  • families owned land, not individuals
  • wealth was measured in cattle and
    determined a person's status
  • penalties for crimes were paid in cattle,
    and scaled to the status of the victim
  • there seems to be no death penalty, but
    exile was possible
The Celts as Warriors
So much has been written about the Celts as warrior tribes, it deserves its own section:

Did the ancient Celts paint themselves blue like the Scottish in Braveheart?
Yes.  They would typically go into battle painted with blue woad dye.

What did the Celts wear into battle?
The ancient writer Strabo describes their "military uniform".  The average warrior would
go into battle naked, with gold torcs around their necks and bracelets on their wrists and
arms.  In fact torcs were only worn by men, never women after the very early parts of the
La Tene period. Those of higher rank added heavily dyed clothing, which was flecked
with gold.

What did the Celts use in battle?
The weapons most often carried were a sword, which was fastened on the right, and a
spear. The exception to the sword worn on the right were the Parisii tribe in Yorkshire,
who wore their swords over their back and drew it over their shoulders. Some warriors
used throwing clubs, slings and the bow and arrow.  

They did use decorated shields of leather and wood, and some wore helmets.  The
umbo of the shield (which is the name for the raised center of a shield) could be leather,
bronze covered or even iron.  There has even been evidence of a few tunics of mail, but
that was extremely rare.  The sheathes for the swords were heavily decorated; some
tribes even gave their sheathes anthropomorphic designs (human-like traits).

There are no references to chariot battles in Caesar's campaigns until he reaches the
Pretanic Isles.  He notes the extreme deftness and agility with which the charioteers
handled their chariots.  The chariots were a platform on wheels of iron which were
almost 3' in diameter.  This was linked by a bar and yolk to 2 horses or ponies.  The only
sides were 2 small wood hoops on both the right and the left of the platform.  Pausanias
describes a trimarcisia of a noble and 2 attendants.

The Celts had special training for its warriors - from the stories of Cuchulainn we know
that there were at least 27 combat maneuvers that were taught.  Names of these acts
have come down to us today as the Apple Feat, the Leap Over Poison and the Noise
Feat of Nine.

Where there are traditions among the soldiers?
All warriors had an initiation by mounting his "chariot", a cart pulled by 2 horses before
proceeding into battle.  The heads of his enemies, which he decapitated in battle, were
brought back as prove of his accomplishments.  Afterward, came the feast.
The Feast
Like most cultures, food plays a central role in society.  The Feast refers to a formal social gathering, where the men sat in a circle
with the leader in the central position.  Beside him sat the host, and from there people sit in order of distinction/importance on
either side of the leader.  Each attendee had a 2 member entourage.  One, the shield man, who stood behind his master and a
spear man.  The spear men ate together in the same room, but in another area.

When eating inside, people would sit on the floor and if the feast was outside, they would sit on hay or skins

The food was divided in a ritualized way.  The first part is the "hero's portion", where the beast is cut and divided according to
status.  When the hindquarters were served, the thigh went to the bravest hero.  If multiple men claimed this piece, they would
fight for it to the death.  Others describe the leg of pork going to the king, the haunch to the queen and the head to a charioteer.
So if the Celts went into battle buck naked, did they bother with clothes at all?
Strabo, who tells us about the Celts' lack of apparel in battle also tells us about their regular attire.  Men wore pants, which could be
either tight or loose if they were servants or workers.  The aristocracy wore a tunic (leine) to the knees, or longer, which was belted.
 Women's leines went to the ankles and were also belted.  Over this was a wool, rectangular cloak fastened with a brooch.  Very
early on the leine did not have sleeves.  Leather shoes and sandals were in use as well.
Iron Age/Celtic Settlements

During this time it is more common to find settlements enclosed and more defensible.  Some new buildings included
wheelhouses, crannogs (Scottish lake homes) and souterrains (underground storehouses).
Sacrificial Victims

  • Clonycavan Man - besides his excessive use of hair gel, there are other things we can learn from him.  He was found in an Irish bog,
    yet he was wearing hair gel made of vegetable oil mixed with pine resin from trees found in Spain and SW France. This shows us that he
    had be well off to afford imported cosmetics - and that this was an option for wealthy locals in Ireland.  His hair was all on top of his
    head, in a style similar to a mohawk.  Unfortunately this style, even with resin, was not protection from the axe which hit him in the head
    three times. He was then disemboweled before he was tossed into the bog
  • Oldcroghan Man - was found with Clonycavan man.  The most unique feature of this man was the fact he was 6'6" (2 meters) which
    makes him the tallest Iron Age body yet discovered.  He had a defensive injury on his arm but was finished off with a stab to the chest.  
    He was then decapitated and his body cut in half before he went into the bog.