The Celts

The Celts were a group of peoples that occupied lands across much of western Europe, who gradually infiltrated Britain over the course of the centuries between about 500 and 100 BC. The first recorded encounter of the Celts comes from northern Italy around 400 BC, when the Greeks called the barbarian peoples of central Europe Keltoi.

The European Iron Age is normally divided into two periods:

  • Hallstatt culture (circa 750 BC - 450 BC)
  • La Tène culture (circa 450 BC to the Roman period)

(Note: Celt is a modern English word first used in 1707 by Edward Lhuyd)

Hallstatt Culture

The earliest known stage of Celtic culture is called the Hallstatt, which developed from the Urnfield culture of the Late Bronze Age across much of central Europe. The culture appeared to be mainly centred around Austria, but with two distinct zones spreading out - the Eastern Zone (Slovakia, western Hungary, western Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and the Czech Republic) and a Western Zone (southern Germany, Switzerland, northern Italy and eastern France). Although the groups were independent of one another, they were interconnected by a vast trading network and salt was the key commodity.  

The culture name comes from an excavation in 1846 of a large prehistoric cemetery near Hallstatt, a salt-mining region of Salzkammergat (Austria), by Johann Georg Ramsauer (1795–1874). Large quantities of salt were mined and exported throughout the entire region, controlled via the trade routes along the Danube. As their wealth increased, so did an advanced iron-making industry in the region, whose iron ploughs, tools and weapons gave Hallstatt people a technological edge over other tribes.

La Tène Culture

La Tène developed from the earlier Halstatt culture, during the late Iron Age (from 450 BCE to the Roman conquest in the 1st century BCE). It was named after the site of La Tène on the north side of Neuenburgersee (Switzerland), where a large number of artefacts were found by Hansli Kopp in 1857, including several rows of wooden piles that reached about 50 cm into the water and about forty iron swords. Over 2,500 objects have been excavated in La Tène:

  • 166 swords (most without traces of wear)
  • 270 lanceheads
  • 22 shield bosses
  • 385 brooches
  • Tools, and parts of chariots
  • Numerous human and animal bones

In Britain, the Iron Age is typically divided into three periods, with the invasion by the Romans under the Emperor Claudius in AD 43 as end of the British Iron Age:

  • Early (circa 800 BC - 400 BC)
  • Middle (circa 400 BC - 120 BC)
  • Late (circa 120 BC - AD 43)

The Druids

The Druids were thought to be priests or wisemen who believed in many different pagan gods and who performed religious rituals in Iron Age Britain and France. However it was the Greeks and Romans who wrote about their encounters with the Druids and so the information may not be entirely accurate, as Archaeologists rarely find evidence for priests in the Iron Age. Julius Caesar said that Druids were one of the two most important social groups in the region, along with the equites, or nobles, adding that there were exempt from military service and from the payment of taxes.

Little is really know of the Druid way of life; Pliny the elder in his great work of 37 books Natural History (published circa AD 77–79), wrote:

They (the Druids) call the mistletoe by a name meaning the all-healing. Having made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, whose horns are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe, the priest ascends the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and it is received by others in a white cloak. They then kill the victims, praying the God will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has granted it. They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, imparts fertility to barren animals, and that it is an antidote for all poisons. Such are the religious feelings that are entertained towards trifling things by so many people.

Greco-Roman writers frequently state that the druids practiced animal and even human sacrifice. Some archaeologists have suggested a link between this and the Iron Age Bog Bodies, interpreting the fact that mistletoe pollen was found in the stomach of Lindow Man as evidence.

Anglesey is often associated with the Druids, based upon an account by the Roman author Tacitus, who wrote of the Roman conquest of Anglesey:

On the beach stood the adverse array [of Britons], a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with disheveled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames. The next step was to install a garrison among the conquered population, and to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults; for they considered it a pious duty to slake the altars with captive blood and to consult their deities by means of human entrails." (Translated by John Jackson, published by William Heinemann, 1951).

Note: Today's interpretation of Druids dressed in white gowns and worshipping at Stonehenge has no connection to the Iron Age Druids, for no images of them exists and the religion of Stonehenge ended well before the Iron Age began.

Bog Bodies

A bog body is human remains that has been naturally mummified within a peat bog, where the low temperatures, lack of oxygen and very high acidity combine to preserve and tan their skin and internal organs, while making their bones flexible. Although the oldest bog body found (on 10th August 2011) is Cash el Man, who dates to 2000 BCE during the Bronze Age, the majority of bog bodies date to the Iron Age and have been found in Northern European (Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Ireland). Many of these Iron Age bodies share a number of similarities around the cause of death, suggesting a widespread cultural tradition of deliberate murder and legends from Ireland tell of the ritual killing of failed kings during the local Celtic feasts of Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa or Samhain (Halloween).

Tollund Man


Tollund Man is the mummified man who lived during the 4 BCE and was found on 6th May 1950 on the Jutland Peninsula (Denmark), buried under a 2m peat bog which preserved his body. He wore only a pointed skin cap made from  sheepskin, fastened with a  hide thong chin strap and a hide belt.

Around his neck was a noose made of plaited animal hide drawn tight and trailing down his back. It is thought that this human sacrifice, rather than executed criminal, because of the careful arrangement of his body in a fetal position

( Sven Rosborn - Public Domain )

Lindow Man (Pete Marsh)


Lindow Man is the mummified man discovered in a peat bog at Lindow Moss (North West England), who lived between 2 BCE and 119 CE. He was was found on 1st August 1984 by commercial peat-cutters and was completely naked.

There has been speculation over the ritualistic nature of his death, but after a last meal of charred bread, Lindow Man was strangled, hit on the head and his throat cut.

 

Other Bog Bodies


  • Gallagh Man - Found in County Galway (Ireland) in 1821, he was killed sometime between 470 and 120 BC. The man of around 25 years old at death was found naked, but draped in a skin cape and he was anchored to the peat with two long wooden stakes Around his neck was a band of willow rods likely used to strangle him.
  • Grauballe Man - mummified man discovered in a peat bog at near to the village of Grauballe in Jutland (Denmark), who lived around 3 BCE. He was was found on 26th April 1952 by a team of peat diggers without any artefacts or evidence of clothing.He was most likely killed by having his throat slit open and then his corpse was then deposited in the bog'
  • Oldcroghan Man - Old Croghan man is believed to have died between 362 BCE and 175 BCE. He died a gruesome death, through many cuts and stabs before his body was dismembered. His torso was the only part of him recovered from an Irish bog in June 2003
  • Rendswühren Man - Found near Kiel, Germany in 1871, he was discovered by a self-taught German scholar named Johanna Mestorf—who coined the word Moorleiche (bog body). He was around 40 - 50 years old at death, which was likely from a blow to his head. Near his body were the remnants of a woollen cloak and a skin cape.
  • Weerdinge Men - Found in Drenthe, The Netherlands in 1904, the "Weerdinge couple" were originally thought to be a man and a woman, but now confirmed as two males. One of bodies suffered a large chest wound, and his intestines spilled out when he was laid in his grave.
  • Yde Girl - mummified girl discovered in a peat bog Stijfveen peat bog near the village of Yde (Netherlands). Carbon-14 tests show that Yde Girl died between 54 BCE and 128 CE at an approximate age of 16 years and had suffered from a spine condition known as scoliosis. She was found on 12th May 1897. She was found with a woollen band, made in a braiding technique known as sprang, wrapped around the neck, suggesting she was executed. 

 


Iron Age People

Princess/Ice Maiden Ukok of Siberian

In 1993 Natalia Polosmak discovered the 400 BC wooden coffin of a girl in sacred burial mounds (kurgans) and preserved in the permafrost of the Altai Mountains, in a border region close to frontiers of Russia with Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. Nearby were found the remains of two warriors and six horses saddled and bridled, that were probably first killed and then buried with her. The results of the MRI analysis suggest she died from brest cancer, although she also suffered from an infection of the bone or bone marrow, and had other injuries which may have been caused by falling from a horse.

Other grave goods included artefacts made from gold, bronze and felt, a small container of cannabis (possibly to cope with the pain of the cancer) and a meal of sheep and horse meat. A 'cosmetics bag' lay inside her coffin next to her left hip and contained a face brush made from horse hair and a fragment of an 'eyeliner pencil' that was made from iron rings, inside which was vivianite (hydrated iron phosphate mineral) to give a deep blue-green colour on the skin.   

The girl was around 25 years at death, stood around 1.65m tall and with her head was completely shaved, she wore an elaborate human and horse hair wig. She was dressed in a long shirt made from Chinese silk, a long and wide woollen skirt and had long felt sleeve boots. Most strikingly were the highly detailed tattoo's that adorned her left arm, leading the media to nick-name her 'Princess Ukok'. The tattoo's were of a mythological creature - a deer with a griffon's beak and a Capricorn's antlers and a spotted panther, along with the head of a deer on her wrist and another small marking on her hand.

However in late 2015, a new DNA analysis conductioned by the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Novosibirsk State University indicates that the remains were male and not female. 

Vercingetorix

Vercingetorix (circa 82 BC – 46 BC) became king of the Arverni tribe at the oppidum Bibracte. He quickly established an alliance with other Gallic tribes and took command of their combined all forces to flight against the Romans.After an initial defeat at Noviodunum Biturigum, he won the Battle of Gergovia, in which 46 centurions and 700 legionaries died and more than 6,000 people were injured, resulting in Julius Caesar's Roman legions withdrawing.

Later, Caesar's force of 60,000 men, besieged Vercingetorix and his army at the stronghold of Alesia, near present-day Dijon. After months of stand-off, the inhabitants of Alesia, who had given refuge to Vercingetorix, were expelled from the town. Starving, they beseeched the Romans to take them in as slaves, but the Romans refused any mercy and they were left to die of hunger between the two armies.

On 2nd October 52 BC, a massive relieve force of 250,000 warriors came to support Vercingetorix, but a lack of communication between the celtic armies meant they were not able to coordinate their efforts. The combined celtic attack nearly broke the seige, however leading from the front Caesar eventually defeated the tribes and Vercingetorix was forced to surrender and allowed himself to be given up to the Romans.

Vercingetorix was held prisoner for five years. In 46 BC, as part of Caesar's triumph, he was paraded through the streets of Rome and then executed by strangulation on Caesar's orders.

Vercingetorix is primarily known through the Gallic war diaries of Julius Caesar "Commentarii de Bello Gallico" who described him as "a man of boundless energy, he terrorized waverers with the rigours of an iron discipline." Vercingetorix is a French national hero and celebrated with a fanciful in 19th century statue in Alesia, near the village of Alise-Sainte-Reine. 

( Siren-Com - Public Domain)

   

Cassivellaunus

Cassivellaunus was a tribal chief who led the defence against Julius Caesar's second expedition to Britain in 54 BC. His tribe (Catuvellauni) ruled the territory described as beginning some 75 miles from the sea and on the far side of the Thames (in the present day counties of Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire; possibly centred at St Albans) and were considered one of the most powerful Belgic tribes in Iron Age Britain. Cassivellaunus himself, is only known from the Gallic war diaries of Julius Caesar "Commentarii de Bello Gallico" and Dio Cassius' later derivative account of Caesar's invasions of 55 and 54 BC.

Caesar wrote that Cassivellaunus had been at war with many other British tribes and had over thrown king Imanuentius of the Trinovantes, the most powerful tribe in Britain at the time. The king's son, Mandubracius, escaped with his life and fled to Gaul to plea with Caesar, asking for his protection. Caesar gathered a force of five legions, along with two-thousand cavalry and sailed to Britain. Caesar advanced to the Thames and crossed into Catuvellauni territory. During the skirmish Cassivellaunus dismissed most of his army, instead relying on his local knowledge of the woods and the speed of his 4,000 chariots.

Five British tribes (the Ancalites, the Bibroci, the Cassi, the Cenimagni and the Segontiaci) disgruntled with their treatment from the Catuvellauni, revealed the location of Cassivellaunus's stronghold, thought to be in marshlands at Wheathampstead (possibly near the Devil's Dyke with its defensive ditch and adjoining settlement).

The Roman army layed siege to Cassivellaunus' Belgic Oppidum (Belgium settlement), but he managed to get a message to the kings of Kent ( Carvilius, Cingetorix, Segovax and Taximagulus) asking them to attack the Roman navel camp on the coast. This attack failed and the Roman army captured a chieftain called Lugotorix. On hearing of the defeat and rampage of his territories, Cassivellaunus surrendered to Caesar.

<< Stone monument in Devil's Dyke

Dramatic, but unrealitic image of Cassivellaunus holding the Battersea Shield and wearing the horned Battersea helmet

(image provenance / © unknown)

The terms of the treaty were mediated by Commius - chief of the Atrebates tribe and Caesar's Gallic ally. Mandubracius was restored to the king of the Trinovantes and Cassivellaunus agreed not to wage war against him. Caesar returned to Gaul to put down a rebellion in the province, where a poor harvest had caused much unrest. The Roman legions did not return to Britain for another 97 years.

Cassivellaunus name in Brythonic, Cassiuellaunos, comes from Proto-Celtic cassi- “passion, love, hate” (alternately, “long hair”, or “bronze”)  uelna-mon- “leader, sovereign”. He also appears in British legend as Cassibelanus, one of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s kings of Britain and in the Mabinogion, the Brut y Brenhinedd and the Welsh Triads as Caswallawn, son of Beli Mawr. Geoffrey (c. 1100 – c. 1155) was a Welsh cleric and helped British history and the popularity of tales of King Arthur.

The Warrior Queen

Boudicca (known in Welsh as Buddug) was queen of the British Iceni tribe, a Celtic tribe who where based mainly in modern day Norfolk (East Anglia) who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire around 60 or 61AD. The primary sources of the story of Boudicca are the Roman historians, Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 CE) and Cassius Dio (150-235 CE). Dio said that she was "possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women" and that she was tall, with hair described as reddish-brown hanging below her waist. She wore a large golden necklace/torc, a many-coloured tunic and a thick cloak fastened by a brooch.

Boudicca married Prasutagus who was the king of the Iceni tribe. In 47 AD Prasutagus was given a grant by the Romans, but the Romans then redefined this as a loan; this allowed him to rule as a nominally independent ally of Rome. Prasutagus left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Roman emperor Nero in his will; however Roman law did not allow royal inheritance to be passed to daughters. When he died in 59 AD, Prasutagus's will was ignored and the Romans confiscated the property of the leading tribesmen. Boudicca was flogged, her daughters were raped, as the Roman financiers (including Seneca the Younger) called in their loans. The Icenian chiefs were deprived of their hereditary estates and Prasutagus relatives were treated like slaves.

While the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paullinus was leading a campaign in Anglesey (North Wales) against the Druids, the Iceni rebelled. Members of other tribes joined Boudicca, as she first attacked the city of Camulodunum (modern Colchester) the former Trinovantian capital and, at that time, a Roman colonia. Her huge celt army massacred the two hundred troops, the inhabitants and destroyed the settlement.

Later  Boudicca's 100,000 strong force sacked the Legio IX Hispana, burning Londinium (London) and again massacring the inhabitants, before moving onto destroying Verulamium (modern St. Albans). In the three settlements destroyed by Boudicca, around seventy or eighty thousand people are said to have been killed.

At the Battle of Watling Street (somewhere in the West Midlands), Suetonius took a stand in a narrow pass with a wood behind him to take on the 230,000 rebel force. Although the Romans were heavily outnumbered, the lack of manoeuvrability and open-field tactics of the celt forces, put them at a disadvantage to the Romans, who were skilled at open combat due to their superior equipment and discipline.

The Romans used volleys of pila (heavy javelins) to slaugther thousands of celts who rushed towards them. Next the Romans advanced in a wedge formation, while the rebels attempted to disperse, but were blocked by the presence of their own families, whom they had stationed in a ring of wagons at the edge of the battlefield. Tacitus wrote "according to one report almost eighty thousand Britons fell" compared with only four hundred Romans and that rather than being captured, Boudicca poisoned herself after the battle.

Forgotten for centuries after the Middle Ages, Italian scholar  Polydore Vergil  reintroduce Boudicca into British knowledge as "Voadicea" in 1534 after rediscovery of the works of Tacitus. During the Victorian era  Boudicca's deeds took on legendary proportions as Queen Victoria came to be seen as Boudicca's "namesake".

A bronze statue of Boudicca with her daughters (right) in her war chariot was commissioned by Prince Albert and created by Thomas Thornycroft. It was completed in 1905 and stands next to Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

A legend says that Boudicca final battle took place at Broad Ford (in the valley between Kings Cross and St Pancras stations in London) and that she was buried between platforms 9 and 10 in King's Cross station.

This British television film released in 2003 movie (directed by Bill Anderson) starred  Alex Kingston, Steven Waddington and  Emily Blunt, interprets the Iceni revolt against the Roman Empire. 

 

Boudicca's Legacy

 

Bronze statue of Boudicca with her daughters (London)

 

 


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