The Celts in Ancient Britain

This post is part of my ancient Britain series, so in keeping with my other titles of Old Dry Bones and Cold Wet Stones, I should clearly call this post something clever like “Celts – The Known Unknowns” but I decided to Leave Well Enough Alone.

OK, back to my subject. Before the Romans spread across Europe, almost everyone lived in villages of more or less related folk; clans or tribal groups mostly at war with the next tribe over the hill. Linguists labels like Germanic, Nordic, Slavic, or Celtic had no real meaning. There was only one’s clan and the outsiders. And so things were for thousands of years.

warrior priest skull
A Celtic king or priest found with the crown in-situ

The ancient Celts called themselves by their tribal names: the Boli, the Picts, the Brittanni, the Belgae, the Senones, and hundreds of others. The people we call Celts would no more have considered themselves Celtic than Native Americans would call themselves Indians rather than Navajo, or Mohawk, or Pawnee, or whatever tribe they lived in.

The British Museum is hosting a special exhibition on the Celts, the most widespread bronze age culture in Europe long before the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and the Roman Empire even existed. They have a you tube video here . And the British Museum in cooperation with Google has put some of the highlights of the exhibition online for free here .

Traditional research says that Europeans are a mixture of three (or four) major ancestral populations – indigenous hunters, Middle Eastern farmers, and a population that arrived during the Bronze Age in Europe. I suspect that statement should read “a population that brought Europe into the Bronze Age.” But the Celts weren’t a race. In Richard Dawson’s famous phrase they spread through memes not by genes; by ideas, by language, by art and technology, by acculturation, not by reproduction or by replacing existing peoples.

So this post is about artifacts and language. Place names especially can tell us a lot. As recently as 200 years ago over half of the inhabitants of northern Scotland, northern and western Ireland, and almost all of Wales and Brittany still spoke a Celtic language. Since the Greeks and Romans wrote things down while the Celts memorized things and told them aloud, the Greeks and Romans provide most of our knowledge about the ancient world: even the word Celtic comes from a Greek word (Keltoi). And while much of what they wrote down about others probably wasn’t worth the papyrus it was written on,  it sounds like they got some things right. Virgil mentions Gauls wearing golden torques in the Aeneid, and Livy notes that 1471 gold torques were part of the loot taken from the Boli by the Romans. Herodotus says the pre-Celtic Ligurians after whom are named the Ligurian Alps were still living above Marseilles in his time, circa 450 B.C. Herodotus placed the Celts outside the Pillars of Hercules, that is, along the Atlantic sea-coast of Europe, west of Gibraltar, and across the Pyrenees from Greece. During his time, the British Isles were known as the “Tin Isles”.

He also said that in Spain, there lived a king named Arganthonios: the arganto element in the word is the Celtic word for silver.  Since Arganthonios died before the Greeks colonized Corsica in 564 B.C., it follows that at least some Celts were in Spain considerably before that date.  Pliny’s “Catalogue of Spanish Cities” contains many Celtic towns and place names that terminate in the suffix briga, the equivalent of the German burg (meaning hill fort).  In France, place names usually end in magu, meaning plain or field, which would indicate that in Gaul the Celts lived an agricultural life; while in Iberia, military matters were more important. The great European wilderness, the Hercynian Forest, which stretched from France, through Germany, to the Carpathians carries a Celtic name.  Etymology derives Hercynia from the Aryan word ‘perpu’  for oak tree.

 Before I try to describe the exhibits, an aside about collections: Our London guide once told me that if I wanted to see outstanding objects stolen from all around the world, I should visit the Louvre, but if I wanted to see rescued from all around the world, I should visit the British Museum. The French make the same statement with the names of the institutions reversed. So the Greeks weren’t the only ones whose truths may not be the same as yours and mine.

Found in the Thames
Found in the Thames

Sometimes physical evidence makes up for the bias in written accounts, and this is exhibit of things the Celts left behind that have survived the centuries. And since the Celt were the first master metal smiths in Europe, they left some pretty cool stuff behind. Celtic art and artifacts fall into two main groups known as La Tene and Hallstatt style, but  much like the Celtic languages, their art shows more diversity than commonality.

Nevertheless, I tracked them pretty easily west into the copper and tin mines of Wales by the Atlantic Ocean,  east through Germany to the silver mines of Bohemia, and south to the gold mines in Brittany in France, and I’m not a scholar, just a nosy tourist. Apparently, everywhere there were mines and metalworking, there are Celtic artifacts. I haven’t gone north into the Viking lands yet, mostly because it is mid November and dark and cold up north, but the physical evidence is rather hard to ignore, as in the curvilinear patterns carved into dragon-ships or the horned helmet above.

The Glauberg Prince
The Glauberg Prince

Celtic art is hard to describe, but easy to recognize when you see it. This life-sized statue called “The Glauberg Prince” from Germany is the first artifact in the exhibit.

The things that look like Micky Mouse ears may have been a headdress or they may have been his hair since the Celts used tree sap and lime in their hair, and combed it back to make themselves look larger and more fearsome. Surviving Celtic statues are rare, but they had another one from Germany, a doubled faced figure also wearing the distinctive Celtic torc around his neck, and there is another one in the Prague Museum called the “Celtic Hero ” shown below.

The Celtic Hero
The Celtic Hero

There were some exhibits of pottery showing the distinctive Celtic swirls and triskeles, but most of the exhibits were metalwork: Jewelry like torcs and the brooches that held their clothing in place,  highly decorated bronze mirrors, and a complete reconstruction of a chariot with brass fittings that was built to be pulled by two ponies like the one at Wetwang Slack.

Especially interesting are the sacrificial items like the famous Gundestrup cauldron and Battersea shield shown below. The cauldron was deliberately broken and buried in a peat bog without ever being used.

The Horned God
The Horned God

Dated to around 100 BC, each panel is different and shows a different God or hero on the inside and the outside and seems to tell a story like the Bayeux Tapestry. There is even an engraving of a female deity on the inside bottom where is couldn’t be seen if there was anything in it.


The Battersea Shield was purely for show, too thin to offer any protection
The Battersea Shield was purely for show, too thin to offer any protection

The Battersea shield apparently was never intended to be used either – it was too thin to stop a sword or spear, and was thrown into the Thames as a sacrifice to a water spirit.

War “The whole race is war mad, high spirited, and quick for battle” Strabo said about 17 AD. Well, maybe they were, but it is just as likely that Strabo fell for some Celtic propaganda – The Celts apparently believed in psychological warfare and “Winning Through Intimidation” long ago. While there are plenty of swords, shields, and helmets, the most amazing war artifact is called a carnyx – a Celtic war horn or “talking stick”. You can see one starting at 13 minutes into the YouTube video and hear it at 14 minutes 45 seconds. It made a sound that scared a lot of Roman centurions into turning around and running for their lives.

Dupplin cross

After the Roman times, Celtic Christian art dominates the displays. There were illustrated books and bibles that preserved literacy in Ireland (where writing was the new technology) when the rest of Europe collapsed in barbarism after the fall of Rome. There are reproductions of the Duplin and St John’s carved stone High Crosses from Scotland from around 800 AD. The exhibition also included some interesting work from the so-called “Celtic Revival” during Victorian Times, These are pure fantasy art, but in the Celtic spirit of “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, I’ll end with this:

Pictish Warrior Any Resemblance to Truth is Purely a Coincinence
Pictish Warrior Any Resemblance to Truth is Purely a Coincidence.





Cold Wet Stones

There are hundreds of standing stones and circles all across Europe, but henges seem to be unique to the British Isles. A henge is a circular ditch with a steep bank on the outside of the ditch – an odd structure, really – like putting a moat inside a castle wall. They wouldn’t be of much military use, unless you were trying to keep something in rather than keeping something out, much like the animal exhibits at a modern zoo. Most henges don’t have a stone circle inside them; apparently the henges came first then the stone circles were added later, making it even more difficult to get the stones into place.

We visited two henges with stone circles so far: the very famous one at Stonehenge and the very large one at Avebury Circle about twenty miles away.  At Stonehenge, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed the henge (the ditch and bank) if I hadn’t just come from Avebury where the deep ditch and steep bank are a major feature of the landscape.

When, Why, and How. Science gives us approximate dates of construction of about four thousand years ago. No one knows why people built any of them. I’ve read some quite complex arguments for and against several theories: an ancient astronomical observatory, a solar and/or a lunar calendar, a place for healing the living, a place for meeting with the dead, and so on.  Several sound good, but there isn’t a shred of evidence that they were ever used for any of these things, although they certainly could have been.

I think trying to figure out why the ancients built their stone works is as hopeless as trying to figure out Christianity from the ruins of  Glastonbury Abbey.

And trying to figure out how they built them is probably worse – I wrote up the standard theory in my Stonehenge post and the BBC has a couple of nice videos here.  At 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the second video (half way down the page) is a sanitized CGI of the stones popping up like mushrooms without showing any of the effort, sweat, or blood of actually shaping, hauling, and raising the stones.

Technically, we could probably build Stonehenge today with ten ton cranes, big backhoes, and modern freighters to ferry the stones across from Wales, but we’d never get it funded even if we were silly enough to try. It would have taken hundreds of men, women, and children working for years with stone age technology, and I think anyone who has ever been involved in politics can see why that wouldn’t work at all. Lets consider just the small problem of ferrying the stones over a hundred miles across the sea from Wales on boats.

A re

We know what their boats were like. Over hundreds of years wood rots away, making it difficult to recover wooden artifacts from ancient building or burial sites. But being underwater preserves the shapes of wood by excluding oxygen, although it makes the wood very soft and crumbly. This reconstruction made with traditional tools and planks sewn together is based on the Ferriby boats of four thousand years ago.  At about fifty foot long and able to carry animals as well as people, these were the state of the art boats used for crossing the sea then. Are you really going to put those stones in that boat ?

Examining the site layout raises more questions than it answers. The two sites are different from other standing stones that I’ve visited and quite different from each other. Avebury has four entrances roughly aligned to the cardinal points and the stones are spaced quite widely apart,  maybe forty feet between stones.  Stonehenge has only two entrances – one aligned due south and one northeast, the stones are closely packed – maybe five or six feet between them – and you could fit ten Stonehenge sized circles into the Avebury Circle. The “feel” or “vibe”of Avebury and Stonehenge is also very different.

Avebury is pastoral – The placement of the rocks look almost natural. I visualize shepherds sharing a bota of wine, kids goofing around on the banks, and animals grazing on grass and wildflowers on just a normal day. Perhaps it would be dressed up with some bunting or tables of goods for sale, and a throng of people milling about on a fair or a market day. Maybe some couples dancing to pipes and drums. A bazaar.

Stonehenge is formal – no goofing off or milling about allowed here. I was immediately aware of the huge effort required to shape and place the rocks here. This is a place for serious ceremonies led by an old testament style high priest or an armored warrior king on very special days only. If there were animals, they’d be penned and intended for sacrifice. If there were flowers, they would be in vases or on an altar. Chants, call and response, processions and bass drums would fit right in. A cathedral.

I saw both of them on the same beautiful weekend, they were surrounded by the same blue skies, green fields, and grazing sheep, but the difference is not subtle. There is a sense of age and power in  both places, but Avebury “feels” calm while Stonehenge “feels” tense. It’s like the difference between Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. English fails me, but I’ll bet there is a nice long German word that means what I’m trying to say. If anyone knows of such, please let me know in the comments or email.

Since the stones themselves won’t answer our questions, we can do what archaeologists do and see if the bones will tell us anything in the next post.

Old Dry Bones

History in Britain goes back continuously until the end of the last ice age the “Younger Dryas” of around ten thousand years ago. Britain was inhabited by Neanderthals before that, but it apparently got really cold really fast: scientists tell us that temperatures dropped 15 degrees Celsius in a decade. At its coldest, sea level was about 300 feet lower than it is today, and most of Britain was covered in ice over a mile thick.

Everything in red is now underwater
Everything in red is now underwater

Once things started to thaw out, the glaciers melted, and both sea and land levels started rising. The seas rose from all the melt water added to the oceans, and the land rose since the weight of all that ice had compressed the underlying lands. It got warmer and wetter than modern Britain just as fast as it had frozen over; eventually there was a tsunami and a flood like those described in Noah’s Ark or Plato’s Atlantis, depending on which flood myth you prefer.

But until about eight thousand years ago, the British Isles were still connected to Europe by a huge marshy plain we call Doggerland (now under the North Sea). And  genetically modern people lived in Britain before that.

A stone age cemetery - Aveline's Hole near Cheddar George
A stone age cemetery – Aveline’s Hole near Cheddar George

The Genes Our best evidence of early habitation comes from Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, just about an hour’s drive west from the famous stone circles we toured at Stonehenge and Avebury.

Gough’s Cave held the oldest intact skeleton found so in Britain;  Buried there eight thousand years ago, he is called “Cheddar Man” today. He was exhumed in 1903 when the cave was developed as a tourist attraction. Cheddar man was about five foot eight, with a stocky build and a normally shaped modern skull. With modern clothes, he wouldn’t draw a second glance in line at a grocery store.

Cheddar Gorge is an early Mesolithic burial site: several thousand artifacts have been recovered there:  flint knives from Salisbury plain 45 miles away and pieces of Baltic amber (evidence of travel and perhaps of trade), and tools made from bone, ivory, and antlers, all of which are much harder to work than the flint used for tools by earlier men. And based on bones found in his cave, Cheddar Man may have had a dog (or small wolf).

Cheddar Man became famous for all the wrong reasons, ( He was apparently quite antisocial, a cave dwelling cannibal , in fact) but all the publicity prompted extensive scientific testing: scientists performed radiocarbon dating, trace element bone analysis, and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing on his bones. They also tested a sample of the mtDNA of living residents of Cheddar village, and found a close match in  the headmaster of the local school, Adrian Targett.

So unless this is a million to one coincidence or an accident, the modern Mr. Targett and the ancient Cheddar Man not only lived within a few miles of each other, they shared a common female ancestor – and neither one is a Neanderthal.

The Memes But genes are only one strand of our inheritance: the culture we live in, the technology, knowledge, and ideas we learn are what makes us uniquely human. Richard Dawkins called these ideas Memes (from the Greek word meaning “to imitate”), because ideas spread faster via imitation than genes do via reproduction.

The Amesbury Archer with pottery and metal ware.
The Amesbury Archer with pottery and metal ware.

And from a meme perspective, the most interesting skeletons ever unearthed in Britain were back at Stonehenge. The graves of the man known today as the Amesbury Archer,  and his companion, a younger relative. We know he and his companion were related due to them sharing a rare genetic anomaly in the bones of their feet – whether they were brothers, cousins, or father and son, is unknown.

This is the most well-furnished Early Bronze Age burial in Britain. The grave of the Archer contained about 100 items, about ten times as many objects as any other burial site from this time. We know he was of the Bell Beaker culture – a people who were widespread across Europe during his lifetime – by his grave and by objects placed beside him. The Beaker people buried their dead individually rather than in barrows, and used a distinct style of pottery, barbed flat arrowheads, copper knives, and gold ornaments. He was buried with a specially shaped rock called a cushion stone, used as an anvil by early metalworkers and thus is believed to have been one of the earliest metalworkers in Britain.

Copper knives from 3000 years ago
Copper knives from 3000 years ago

He is called the Amesbury Archer from the large number of arrowheads found in his grave, as though someone had placed his bow and a quiver of arrows in his grave. On his forearm was a black sandstone wrist-guard to protect his arm from the recoil of a bow and he wore an animal hide cloak fastened with a bone pin. His copper knives came from Spain or western France. Both men both wore two gold bands rolled up to secure their hair. These are the oldest gold ornaments found in Britain, dated to about 2,500 BC.

Surprisingly, the Archer was not a native of Britain, although his companion was. Oxygen Isotope Analysis of their teeth enamel show that as a child the Archer lived in a colder climate than that of Britain, perhaps close to the Alps in Switzerland, France, or Germany.

The graves were radiocarbon dated to 2300 BC,  about when the great outer blue stone circle was erected at Stonehenge, and the best dates we have suggest the trilithons at Stonehenge were already in place before he was born.

Unlike Cheddar Man, who died young and poor like most people of his time, the Archer was a wealthy, powerful, and highly skilled man. He could work exotic metals. His mourners gave him the richest burial of his era. He was raised in central Europe but he traveled by boat to the greatest temple in Britain, and he lived to be about forty years old – an old age in the Bronze Age, especially since  he had been disabled for much of his life from a knee injury and bone infection, which would have left him with a limp and in constant pain.

R’yn ni yma o hyd. Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth. R’yn ni yma o hyd. Byddwn yma hyd Ddydd y Farn. –

We’re still here (We’re still standing). Despite everybody and everything, We’re still here (We’re still standing).We’ll be here until the Judgement Day.

roughly translated from the (unofficial) Welsh National Anthem by Dafydd Iwan

Cheddar Man and his people survived a time of rapid climate change and human impact – first as highly efficient hunters then as farmers. The Amesbury Archer survived (and thrived) in a time of massive cultural change – the beginning of the bronze age and the erection of the enormous monuments at Stonehenge and Avebury.

Scientists tell us that Mr Adrian Targett’s young pupils today face a time of both rapid climate change and the biggest cultural shock since the industrial revolution – the beginnings of the electronic age. How will they do?

Well, they come from a very tough people. I personally expect that thousands of years from now one of the decedents of Mr. Tagetts pupils will puzzle out the quote above.