What did Boudica’s Iceni warriors look like?
Duncan Mackay considers what Boudica’s rebellious troops might really have looked like when they faced up to the Roman legions in Britain in AD60-61
The image beloved of reconstruction artists, of semi-naked people with woad and tattoos and lime-washed hair with porcupine-like spikes, is based on old classical descriptions, but not specifically of the Britons.
If you look at Iron Age coins with heads on them, you get what seems to be an extravagant range of headgear, or perhaps hairstyles. It could be spiky hair or it could be boarskin hoods.
The idea they were simply just lime-washing their hair and running naked into battle with a bit of woad probably needs to be reimagined
In the archaeological record, on the western edge of the Icenian lands, you get sites where they're clearly hunting for fur, pelts, feathers, and wild fowl. A lot of this could be going into paraphernalia.
We can’t make a direct comparison with Native Americans, but we need to consider the idea that they might have been sporting feather cloaks, Mohawk-style haircuts and shaved heads, and perhaps animal skins over their heads.
Wild depictions don’t tell the whole story
We don't have really any contemporary depictions of the Britons.
There were some very wild descriptions in some of the Roman texts that suggest the Britons lived their entire lives in swamps and would spend days underwater. We have no idea really what the Britons would have looked like.
We have to use our imaginations and look at the archaeology. We know they're hunting for pelts and for feathers, and we have these strange depictions on coins that we can't really work out.
More than just woad
If we add it all together, it’s clear that they love display. You only have to look at some of their metalwork: the gold and silver torcs, and the enormous, beautifully decorated bronze shields. They obviously went in for display.
The idea they were simply just lime-washing their hair and running naked into battle with a bit of woad probably needs to be reimagined.
Duncan Mackay is the author of Echolands: A Journey in Search of Boudica. He was speaking with David Musgrove on the HistoryExtra podcast, discussing Boudica's rebellion against the Romans in the Britain. Hear more from this conversation in the full the audio episode.
- Read next | What if Boudica had defeated the Romans?
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine for £21.99 every 6 issues + receive a £10 M&S gift card (use online instore).
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99