The Celts in Britain: everything you need to know

Portrayed by the Romans as savage and uncivilised – and with a supposed penchant for human sacrifice – the Celts had been resident in the British Isles for many centuries prior to the invasion of Emperor Claudius’s forces in AD 43. They were a loose conglomeration of tribes that ruled particular regions and shared ideals and ways of living. Miles Russell reveals the true story of the Celts in Britain – who they were, how they lived, who they fought and whether they really did indulge in human sacrifice...

Iron Age bronze head

Q: Who were the Celts?

These pan-European tribes were seen by the classical world as the ‘enemy at the gates’

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The Greeks called them ‘Keltoi’ or ‘Galatians’, while the Romans knew them as ‘Celtae’ or ‘Gauls’. They were frequently depicted as savage, warlike and dangerous; a very real threat to the survival of Mediterranean culture. Archaeology, however, has shown them to be one of the most important and influential of all ancient civilisations, with their artistic and cultural influence, which spread from Spain to Turkey and Italy to Scotland, still affecting us today.

The ‘Celts’ were not, in fact, a single race, but a series of distinct tribes, albeit bound by common ties of art, custom and religion. Celtic groups existed throughout central Europe, on the fringes of the classical world, from the 4th century BC. For Greece and Rome, they represented the archetypal ‘enemy at the gates’; the ultimate barbarian whose way of life was incomprehensible and completely at odds with their own.

The ‘Celts’ were not, in fact, a single race, but a series of distinct tribes, albeit bound by common ties of art, custom and religion

Given that both the Romans and the Greeks used the word ‘Celt’ in an inconsistent – and frequently quite derogatory – way to cover those who lived beyond ‘civilisation’, it can be difficult to see how the term was originally applied and what precisely it meant.

Matters are not helped by the way in which the word ‘Celtic’ has taken on a more political dimension in recent years, being linked with concepts of Welsh, Scottish, Cornish and Irish independence and self-determination. This, of course, causes further confusion, given that both Britain and Ireland were not considered, by contemporary Roman historians and geographers, to be part of the Celtic world.

If, however, we use the words ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ to cover the distinctive cultural, religious, linguistic and artistic styles common across large swathes of pre-Roman Europe, then it is apparent that not only was Britain part of this greater Celtic inheritance, but also that the Celtic style that developed here represented the final flourish of a rich, varied and dynamic culture. Unfortunately the Celts themselves did not write anything down, so their history and identity can only be pieced together from archaeological excavation, combined with the written testimony of their sworn enemy: the Roman empire.

The distinctive Celtic cross
The distinctive Celtic cross, with a circle around the intersection, remains a clear symbol of the Celtic world. (Image by Getty Images)

Q: How and where did the Celts live?

Most Celts in Britain lived in roundhouses, either clustered together in small farms or enclosed settlements, or within large hillforts. With their conical, thatched roofs and wattle-and-daub walls, roundhouses offered substantial family accommodation, and are usually found together with timber granaries, animal pens and work sheds, all surrounded by ploughed fields and pasture. Farming was the main source of food production. Celtic families or clans belonged to larger tribes, each led by an elite to whom the farmers and food producers pledged their allegiance.

Hillforts

With their substantial banks and ditches that enclosed vast areas of land, hillforts are the most awe-inspiring Celtic features of Britain, with hundreds being constructed between 600 and 100 BC. They were political, economic and religious centres which probably also served as refuges at times of war.

With capacity often exceeding population requirements, large parts of hillforts were given over to storing food. Significant evidence for religious activity can also be found, usually in the form of human burial, animal sacrifice and the widespread deposition of precious metalwork, such as spears, swords and mirrors.

Danebury hillfort
Excavations at Danebury hillfort have revealed a well-ordered interior, with roundhouses and granaries. It is likely that most developed hill orts in Iron Age Britain were organised in a similar way. (Image by Getty Images/Corbis)

We know very little about the ways in which tribes were organised, but some of the larger ones were governed from the hillforts by powerful ruling monarchies. Wealth came from trade or war, with the elite, protected by a warrior class, presumably controlling all key resources and redistribution networks. Other privileged classes would have included artisans (those who made exquisite artefacts), priests/ priestesses and bards. Below these were the farming families and their workers, all of whom would have come to the hillforts to pay tribute to the leaders and fulfill their spiritual and economic obligations. The complex nature of hillfort defences, especially at the entrances, ensured that only those invited to participate could enter in safety, while those who were excluded could not easily force their way in.

Farming

The Celtic way of life was essentially rural and centred upon the farm. Herds were tended and protected, families raised, houses built and pasture maintained, while fields were routinely ploughed and crops harvested. Hunting was a sport for the wealthy, the bulk of the population relying on the fruits of their own agricultural labour. Animals, especially cows, pigs and sheep, were kept within the area of the farm and there were usually large granaries and pits to store grain and other food close at hand, with any surplus being paid to the ruling elite.

Farming communities engaged in trade for exotic items. The Romans tell us that the Celts loved wine and decorative furnishings, but were mainly self-sufficient, producing pottery and metal objects to suit their own need. Feasts were important social occasions – the provision of excess food and drink together with entertainment in the form of story-telling and singing – and essential in order to maintain alliances and fulfil religious and social obligations between clans and family groups. Generally, life was peaceful, although the complex nature of tribal allegiances may sometimes have led to disputes and feuds. These could range from simple acts of raiding, instigated by a handful of warriors seeking prestige, to longer periods of sustained war in which much blood was spilt.

The name ‘Camulodunum’ (Colchester) appeared on the coins of Celtic rulers
The name ‘Camulodunum’ (Colchester) appeared on the coins of Celtic rulers such as Cunobelinus, whom the Romans called ‘Great King of the Britons’. The capital of the Trinovantes tribe, Camulodunum was the main target of the invading Roman army in AD 43, later becoming the first town in the new province.(Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Food

British Celts relied on a number of key cereal crops, notably wheat and barley to make both bread and beer, as well as peas, lentils and locally sourced fruit and berries. The high number of granaries and storage pits found in Celtic settlements suggests that most farming communities produced a substantial grain surplus. Farm livestock, namely pigs, sheep and cattle, were exploited for their meat and, in the case of sheep and cattle, also for milk and cheese. Horse, although an elite, much-treasured animal in Celtic society, also appears to have been eaten on occasion, as were new and exotic foreign imports such as the chicken. Generally speaking, thanks to their outdoor agricultural life, people were relatively healthy. An overreliance upon meat, however, probably did little to help obesity and coronary heart disease. According to the Romans, the Celts also loved beer and wine, which they drank to excess, many feasts degenerating into drunken brawls.

Q: Did the Celts have an egalitarian society?

Whereas Rome was a strongly patriarchal society, in which women were expected to occupy a secondary role, the Celts were more egalitarian, with both men and women able to rule tribes in their own right. At all levels of Celtic society, women appear to have had greater freedom than in Rome, possessing more of a partnership with men when it came to marriage, business, land ownership and the home.

Ironically, the Romans viewed equality between the sexes as evidence of the ‘barbarian’ and deeply primitive nature of the Celts. According to Julius Caesar, husbands and wives shared their wealth; there are certainly just as many rich male burials from the British Iron Age as female. When, in the 3rd century, the Roman empress Julia Domna commented on the independent, free-spirited nature of Celtic women to the (sadly unnamed) wife of Caledonian king Argentocoxus, the British queen replied contemptuously that “we may consort openly with the finest men, but you Roman women let yourselves be debauched in private by the vilest”.

Who were Boudica and Cartimandua?

Two of the most powerful Celtic leaders in Britain were both women, but their lives and relationship with Rome were very different. Boudica was a queen of the Iceni in what is now East Anglia. She and her husband, King Prasutagus, were allies of Rome following the invasion, signing a treaty with the emperor Claudius which supposedly guaranteed the safety of their tribe. With the death of Prasutagus sometime before AD 60, Rome took control of Iceni land and property, treating the queen and her people as slaves. Incensed by this brutal behaviour, Boudica led a rebellion – which defeated a Roman legion and destroyed three Roman towns and their associated villas – before finally being crushed in battle, whereupon she reportedly took her own life.

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni tribe
Boudica, queen of the Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman empire. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Cartimandua was queen of the Brigantes, one of the largest tribes in Britain occupying what is now northern England. She too signed a treaty with Rome and, when Caratacus, leader of the British resistance war came to her for help, she betrayed him to Rome. As a consequence, she found herself at odds with a large anti-Roman faction, led by her husband Venutius. Brought down in a palace coup, Cartimandua fled to the protection of her Mediterranean allies.

Q: Did the Celts really sacrifice humans?

The discovery of well-preserved bodies suggests this was common practice

The sacrifice, or deliberate discard, of precious metal objects, such as spears, swords, helmets and shields, was a common practice within Celtic society. Large numbers of prized artefacts have subsequently been found within the bogs, springs, lakes and rivers of Britain and Western Europe. Animals too seem to have been sacrificed, rather more violently, individual body parts often being reassembled in a curious order within the pits and ditches of Iron Age settlements.

Hadrian's Wall
Following a series of military defeats, the emperor Hadrian visits Britain and sets about establishing the northern limits of his empire by building a substantial wall to keep Romans and ‘barbarians’ apart. (Photo by: Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Mediterranean writers were keen to emphasise that the Celts practiced human sacrifice, something Romans found particularly abhorrent, and suggested that Celtic priests consulted human entrails for messages from the gods. Were it not for the archaeological evidence recovered from the bogs of northwestern Europe, we could explain all this as negative propaganda, examples of the Romans demonising their enemy. However, a variety of prehistoric bodies that have been dredged from the wetlands of Ireland, Denmark and southern Scandinavia have shown that human sacrifice was indeed carried out at times; the broad similarity of injuries recorded suggest that these executions were all part of the same ritual practice.

Comparison of these so-called ‘bog bodies’ has indicated a form of execution which is sometimes referred to as the threefold death. A good example from Britain is that of a young man found preserved in Lindow Moss in Cheshire. Here, the individual had, at some point in the first century AD, been struck violently across the head, before being strangled with a tightly wound cord and having his throat cut. Finally, his lifeless body was deposited face down in the bog.

Celts were also well-known head-hunters, taking the skulls of both honoured ancestors and enemies killed in battle to display them in their homes and to decorate their horses. At both Danebury in England and Ribemont in France, evidence of the decapitation of young men, probably warriors, is clear to see. However, we cannot be sure whether these poor individuals died in combat or were the victims of sacrifice. No less a Roman than Julius Caesar himself described the mass burning to death of criminals within a giant wickerman, although it should be stressed that no archaeological evidence has yet been found for such a practice.

THE BODIES IN THE BOGS: WHO ARE THE DEAD?

Caesar described the sacrifice of criminals and prisoners of war in Celtic society, but the bodies of those killed and deposited into bogs, where the conditions have preserved their remains, suggests that those most frequently sacrificed were of high social standing. The fingers of these poor unfortunates do not have callouses, while their hair and fingernails are often well-trimmed and their skin looked after.

Preservation is, in certain individuals, so good that we can tell what their last meal was. In the case of Lindow Man, his stomach contained traces of mistletoe.

The violence shown in the bog bodies of Europe is often described as ‘overkill’, in that these were more than simple executions. Victims were often stabbed, garroted, strangled or beheaded, then thrown in the bog – sometimes after being cut in half. Perhaps we are studying the mortal remains of kings or leaders whose time was simply up. Perhaps these are the remains of priests whose luck ran out following a natural or agricultural disaster. Sacrificed in order to placate the gods, their bodies were placed away from the settlements, in the watery places that formed the boundaries to tribal lands.

Q: What religion were the Celts?

We know next to nothing about the gods and goddesses of the Celts. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, the Celts had no single pantheon or divine ‘family’ of deities. Gods were apparently specific to particular tribes, or were connected to important features in the landscape, such as a river, spring, forest or mountain. The association of gods with watery places may explain why so many examples of high-status Celtic metalwork have been found in the rivers, streams, lakes and bogs of Britain. Communication with the gods, and control over the sacrifices made to them, was in the hands of a class of priests and priestesses that the Romans called druids. Sadly nothing is really known about the nature of the druids and what their precise role was in Celtic society.

Some British gods were combined with their classical equivalent when Celtic lands were conquered by the pragmatic and deeply superstitious Roman empire. The Romans were only too keen to combine their gods and goddesses with native ones in order to keep the natives happy. Hence we hear of the goddess Sulis, Celtic deity of the hot springs at Bath, who was merged with Minerva, the Roman goddess of healing, in order to create the super-deity ‘Sulis-Minerva’. Elsewhere we find examples of the merging together of Celtic and Roman war gods like ‘Mars-Toutatis’ or ‘Mars-Camulos’.

Gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva from a cult statue in the temple at the Roman baths. Circa 1st-4th century AD. Roman. Found in Somerset, England. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva from a cult statue in the temple at the Roman baths. Circa 1st-4th century AD. Roman. Found in Somerset, England. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Q: What happened to the Celts?

The Celtic way of life didn’t disappear with the dawn of Roman Britain

Celtic Britain was a patchwork of tribes, each with their own traditions, culture and individual identities. Our understanding of these tribes is incomplete, although their names – such as the Atrebates, Durotriges, Catuvellauni and Iceni – were recorded by the Romans. Britain was invaded by the Roman empire in AD 43, the southern half of the island being controlled by Rome until the 5th century. Under Roman jurisdiction, new Mediterranean-style towns flourished; some of the Celtic elite bought in to the Roman way of life, with many developing their farms into more luxurious accommodation. The native British power structure of kings, queens and landowners was largely retained by the new government as a useful way of devolving power to existing leaders, encouraging them to join the Roman-citizenship ‘club’.

The bulk of the rural population, however, were largely unaffected by the arrival of Rome, their way of life continuing in broadly the same way, the only minor changes being the gradual introduction of new artefacts and fashions. In northern England and north Wales, where Roman garrisons were maintained, Roman influence did not extend far from the ‘bubble’ of Mediterranean culture contained within individual military bases. The influence of Celtic Britain, especially in art, can be seen right through the Roman occupation, while the absence of Rome in northern Britain and Ireland meant that Celtic tradition continued unaffected.

After the Romans

Celtic Britain was a valuable asset to Rome, producing significant amounts of grain and beef to feed the military. Its mineral reserves, especially iron, lead, tin, gold and copper, were also successfully exploited. From a social perspective, however, the occupation was a failure, as only a minority of the population adopted a Roman lifestyle. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that little of the Roman way of life survived to influence the later development of England, Scotland and Wales.

By the 5th century AD, eastern Britain was being affected by Germanic (English) forms of art, language and culture brought over by a new wave of migrants, whilst the west was reverting to more ‘Celtic’ influences.

Numerous British kingdoms evolved in the years following the collapse of Roman rule. Some may have been loosely based upon old Celtic tribal identities, others were wholly new, created by powerful warlords. The history of these kingdoms is lost to us, but the chaos that forged them provided us with the heroic King Arthur, whose semi-mythical exploits still resonate today. Real or not, Arthur represents the Celtic ideal: a powerful warrior who fought bravely and died in the heat of battle.

King Arthur
Even if he didn’t actually exist, King Arthur was the embodiment of Celtic ideals. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

It is difficult to answer the question ‘what happened to the Celts?’ because they never really went anywhere. The people – and their art, culture and DNA – were absorbed into other empires, kingdoms and societies. Some areas of Britain, such as what is now Wales, Scotland and Cornwall, remained largely free of Roman influence, while Ireland was never part of the Roman empire. All later helped to reintroduce Celtic art and tradition back into what was once the province of Britannia. Elsewhere, Celtic culture fused with English, Danish and Norman influences to create a distinctive style all of its own.

It is only really within the last few centuries that the term ‘Celtic’ has taken on a more political dimension, being linked with concepts of Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Cornish, Gallician or Breton independence in the face of perceived English, Spanish or French political domination.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Celtic art, culture, language and tradition have been resuscitated and used, not only as symbols of resistance, but also of identity and common ancestry, especially among those descended from emigrant groups in the USA, Canada, South America and Australia.

Although this new form of Celtic identity is far removed from its prehistoric origins, it is surely testament to the powerful nature of this most distinctive and magnificent of ancient civilisations.

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University and the author of 15 books.

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This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed