Butchery And Meateating

Their food consists of a small number of loaves of bread together with a huge amount of meat, either boiled or roasted on charcoal or on spits. They partake of this in a cleanly but leonine fashion, raising up whole limbs in both hands and biting off the meat, while any part which is hard to tear off they cut through with a small dagger which hangs attached to their sword-sheath in its own scabbard.156

There is no doubt that meat and meat products formed a substantial part of the Celtic diet. In addition to meat itself, the marrow could be extracted from the bones, the brain and tongue from the skull, and the bones then boiled for stock. Blood would have been important both for its dietary salt content and pigs' blood for the making of black-pudding, known by the Romans as botellus.

The Celts ate a wide range of meat, including beef, mutton, pork, poultry, venison, horse, hare and

dog meat. Recent studies of Iron Age communities in Gaul show that the type of meat most frequently eaten varied with each settlement. Among the Gauls generally, pork was consistently favoured,158 though there were local preferences for beef at, for instance, Variscourt and Villeneuve (Aisne).— We have to be careful in assessing choice from the bones alone, since of course one ox will provide much more meat than one sheep or a single pig. The optimum time for butchery is when an animal achieves adulthood, which means at 3 to 4 years for beef-cattle and 2 years for a pig or sheep. But there is a great deal of evidence (see pp. 7-11) that the choice was made to utilize the living animal for work, milk or wool and to kill it only when its useful working life was over. Pigs, of course, were the exception: they both were and are raised almost solely for meat, and they would only have been spared longer than their prime culling time if they were needed for breeding. At the late La Tene site of Beauvais (Oise), where the bones were particularly well preserved, pig-bones were especially abundant, thereby making a valid study of killing-trends possible. Most of the pigs here were culled at between 1 and 2 years old. The males were slaughtered earlier than the females, partly because breeding sows would have been valued but also perhaps because the males were more aggressive and therefore troublesome to maintain.160 Other than pigs, animals were generally killed earlier than in middle or old age only in exceptional circumstances: unnecessary males, barren females or surplus young might be culled because they were not contributing to the economy. Gaulish dogs were sometimes killed for food at the optimum time for meat,161 suggesting that they were actually favoured for their flesh and not just eaten at times of food shortage. This happened at the sanctuary of Gournay, but here there could have been a ritual element in the choice of dog meat. Older horses which had been used first as working-animals were eaten, but sometimes on Gaulish sites there is evidence that they, too, were killed young for their food. At Epiais-Rhus in northern France, the skins of the horses were removed (perhaps for use as floor or bed coverings) and the good portions of meat taken.

Figure 2.22 Bronze boar figurine, with elaborately ornamented dorsal ridge, second or first century BC, Lun9ani, Romania. Paul Jenkins.

Sheep were sometimes killed for their meat, at 2 or 3 years old. At Beauvais, some young lambs were culled, but at Hornaing (Nord) they were kept until they were 6 years old, presumably because wool production took precedence over meat provision.162 Most cattle were eventually eaten, even if they had worked first: the cows were sometimes culled younger than oxen, implying that the use of cattle for traction could have been of greater importance than milk. Clearly the cows were not being used to pull

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ploughs here. At Villeneuve-Saint-Germain, for example, some cows were slaughtered quite young.163 The southern British site of Danebury has yielded a huge number of animal bones, making it possible to gain some idea of the meat-eating habits of the community.164 Danebury people ate pork, beef, mutton and horsemeat. Pig bones were not present in large numbers, although pigs were bred on the site: many of the Danebury pigs were despatched as juveniles, with a small proportion of mature sows kept from the pot until their breeding-lives were over. Few of the abundant sheep at Danebury were killed at the time of their optimum meat-yield (2 years), but some were culled at a year, probably after they had been fattened by the spring grass. Most sheep were kept to old age for their wool. Cattle at Danebury were again mostly slaughtered only when they were too old for work. The same was true of horses, which were killed for food when they were no longer useful. Horses were eaten elsewhere in southern Britain, for instance at Ashville (Oxon.), but the practice was comparatively rare this side of the Channel.

The situation elsewhere in the south of England generally reflects the patterns seen at Danebury: sheep were often not killed for meat until they were old; the same was true for cattle, even in the Roman period when there was an increased requirement for beef and hides. Pork was not nearly as popular in pre-Roman Britain as in

Gaul, but pigs steadily increased in Britain through time until, by the Romano-Celtic period, much more pork was consumed. This may have been due, in part, to Roman tastes.166 It is interesting that, despite the fact that pigs were not particularly favoured in the diet of British Iron Age communities, pigs and pork feature strongly in the early Welsh and Irish stories. The hobeu given as presents to Pryderi by Arawn, in the Mabinogi, were so highly prized that they were the

cause of a full-scale war between Dyfed and Gwynedd.167 In Ireland, pork was supreme and carried deep symbolic meanings. Time and again, the 'hero's portion' was the subject of dispute between warriors, each of whom considered the choice cut was his due.168 This tradition of the champion's portion is also described by classical observers of the Celts. Diodorus Siculus has this to say: 'Brave warriors they honour with the finest portions of meat.'169 Diodorus goes on to comment that this Celtic custom had its parallel in the epic tales of Homer.

Figure 2.23 Detail of bull-head terminal, on an iron firedog, first century BC/first century AD, Barton, Cambridgeshire. Paul Jenkins.

There is not a great deal of evidence for the eating of wild animals (chapter 3), though hunting was practised. Venison was probably consumed: mention has already been made of possible deer-ranching. In the early Irish sagas, a haunch of venison was occasionally offered as the champion's joint at the

ritual feast, instead of pork. Of other hunted species, hare was most frequently consumed. Likewise, there is little evidence for fish-eating, though negative data are probably misleading because fish bones are so small and fragile as to be difficult to identify, even when they have survived. But fishing is depicted occasionally at

Val Camonica, and fish-hooks were among the grave-goods found with the sixth century BC Hallstatt

prince at Hochdorf in Germany. Evidence for fish consumption, however, comes both from the vernacular literature and from the classical commentators. In Ireland salmon was eaten: it was sometimes prepared with honey, as we have seen. The classical author Athenaeus says of the fishing practices of the Celts: Those who live beside the rivers or near the Mediterranean or Atlantic eat fish in

addition, baked fish, that is, with the addition of salt, vinegar and cumin.' Butchery techniques, curing and cooking

Gaulish communities had preferences not only as to species, but also as to cut. Sometimes ribs or legs were favoured, sometimes the shoulder, sometimes the head and brain. The heads of animals were frequently split to extract the brain or tongue. During the Iron Age the bones were carefully separated by cutting through the ligaments, often using a sharp knife, but at the late Iron Age site of Beauvais, both knives and choppers were used. Certainly during the Roman period, heavy cleavers were wielded to

separate the carcase into joints by cutting through bones.

Techniques of slaughtering often leave no traces on the bones which survive on Iron Age sites. Often the animal's throat must have been cut, and pigs were probably sometimes bled to death so that their blood could be collected and used separately. At the sanctuary of Gournay, the oxen sacrificed to the

infernal gods were killed by a blow to the nape of the neck, but this represents a highly ritualized slaughter and need not have been the norm. We do not know whether there were specialist butchers on large settlement sites: the probability is that everyone did their own killing and butchering.

After the meat was killed and jointed, it would either have been cooked for immediate consumption or

cured and kept to be eaten later. Meat could be dried, smoked or salted. Strabo mentions the salting of

pork by the Gauls.176 This meat-curing was probably carried out during the late autumn, after surplus

animals had been culled.

Cooking was mainly by means of spit-roasting or boiling, though some pork was grilled. Diodorus comments on Celtic cooking practices: 'Beside them are hearths blazing with fire, with cauldrons and

spits containing large pieces of meat.' The Irish and Welsh stories frequently allude to cauldrons, and the Irish god, the Daghdha, had an enormous cauldron in which whole oxen, sheep and pigs were 180

boiled. Cooking utensils are sometimes attested archaeologically, most frequently in the form of cauldrons. The massive vessels at, for instance, Llyn Fawr (Mid Glam.) and Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey, were found in religious contexts and were probably used for ritual feasting.181 The Danebury excavators discovered iron hooks for suspending a cauldron over the fire (figure 2.24), two iron spits for skewering

meat, and the remains of joints of beef and pork. The curious fleshhook decorated with swans found

at Dunaverney in Co. Antrim was undoubtedly designed for spearing pieces of meat as they boiled in the cauldron (figure 2.25).

Figure 2.24 Iron hooks for suspension of a cauldron over a cooking-fire, from the Danebury Iron Age hillfort, Hampshire. By courtesy of the Danebury Trust.

The useful carcase

After an animal had been slaughtered and its meat consumed, the inedible parts of its body were put to good use. The hide or pelt could be used for clothing; the bones made into needles, combs and a host of other tools; the gut could be made into containers and its sinews into rope or string.

Figure 2.25 Bronze 'flesh-fork' ornamented with swans and crows, seventh century BC, Dunaverney, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. Length: 60.7cm. Paul Jenkins.

Hides and pelts

The production of leather and fur, like wool, was not influenced by an animal's age or sex. Leather was an important commodity in Celtic life. Strabo184 refers to the export of hides from Britain to the Roman Empire. Cattle hides must have been in the greatest demand: leather was used for containers, shoes, clothing, saddles and harness, fish-net floats and boats. Originally the river coracles of Wales and the Irish sea-going curraghs were made of hides mounted upon a wooden framework. Pliny185 refers to the Britons using boats of osier covered with stitched hides. Julius Caesar186 alludes to the use, among the Veneti of northwest Gaul, of leather sails. Rawhide was utilized for the manufacture of rope, slings and

187 188 whips. Pigskin was sometimes used as well as cattle leather; the early Irish stories tell of pigskin jackets worn by charioteers.189 Dogskins were prepared at Villeneuve.190 Cu Chulainn's charioteer Laeg, described in the Tain Bo Cuailnge', wore a 'skin-soft tunic of stitched deer's leather, light as a breath'.191 Once the Roman army was established in Celtic territory, it made increased demands for hides, not only for armour, footwear and harness, but also for making leather tents. Cattle were probably herded in ranch-like enclosures, perhaps sometimes primarily for their hides. In any case, once an ox or cow reached the end of its useful life, it would be slaughtered, eaten and its hide used. Cu Chulainn wore a 'heroic deep battle-belt of stiff, tough tanned leather from the choicest parts of the hides of seven yearlings . . . and a dark apron of well-softened black leather from the choicest parts of the hides of four


There is evidence of tanning at some sites such as Villeneuve (Aisne). Before the Roman period, it was done by means of smoke and oils. There is no pre-Roman evidence for vegetable tanning, which requires pits for long soaking.194 Leather is occasionally preserved, usually because of its immersion in a waterlogged deposit. The Danish

Iron Age bog-body, Tollund Man, wore a leather cap and girdle.195 In the Roman period, shoes and other leather items are found in such contexts as wells. The Roman fort of Vindolanda in north Britain produced a great deal of evidence for leatherworking.196 One of the most remarkable early Iron Age finds is at Hallstatt in Austria, where hide objects used by the salt miners in the mid-first millennium BC were preserved by the salt itself. Bags and shoes survived, and a splendid cowhide hod, with the hair still attached, was used for carrying salt (or the salt miner's lunch); it closely resembles a modern duffle-bag.197

Although pelts of wild and domestic beasts were utilized (figure 3.8), there is comparatively little evidence for the use of the wild, hunted species. However, Diodorus Siculus states that 'their custom is

to sleep on the ground upon the skins of wild animals'. The 'Tain' refers to the use of skin coverings as bedclothes: a charioteer asks 'put the skin covering under my head and let me sleep for a while'.199 Bears must have been hunted for their thick pelts, but almost the only archaeological evidence consists of the late Iron Age chieftain buried at Welwyn in Hertfordshire, who lay on a bearskin. The Hallstatt prince interred at Hochdorf was laid on a bronze couch, on a bed of horsehair, wool and badgerskin, the fibres of which were preserved embedded in the metal.200 Fox fur was used to make an armlet for Lindow Man, who was ritually murdered by strangulation and buried in a marshy pool in Cheshire

sometime between the fourth century BC and the first century AD. Dog pelts were used, for instance

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at Villeneuve and at Beauvais, and we have the evidence of Diodorus Siculus to the effect that the Celts sat on the 'skins of wolves or dogs' when dining.

Bone, horn and gut

Bone assumed a lesser importance in metal-using societies than in the Neolithic and earlier times. But it was none the less used for small artefacts, like needles or toggles. Bone and antler were made into combs for plucking and carding wool. Weaving-shuttles, spindle-whorls and musical pipes could also be fashioned from bone.204 It was a useful resource since it was present anyway in the food debris and did not have to be specially obtained.

Horn casings were made into drinking-horns and spoons. The horn was softened by immersion in boiling water and the outer keratinous sheath then removed from the useless bony core, which was discarded. Pliny refers to the 'northern barbarians' using aurochs horn for drinking-vessels; and Caesar

90s mentions the same practice among the Germanic tribes. On some British sites, goats may have been kept for their horns: horn-cores are sometimes found chopped from the skull.206

There is evidence of horn-working in Roman London, where horns were hacked off the head with a cleaver.207

Figure 2.26 Bronze goat figurine, with exaggerated horns, Romano-British, Dumbuck, Dumbartonshire, Scotland. Maximum height: 6.1cm. Reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland.

Gut was used for making containers, for instance for sausage or black-pudding; for making bow-208

strings and fishing-lines. Even the lowliest part of the animal was found to have a role to play in the economic aspect of Celtic life.

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