Celtic weapons

Diodorus Siculus has given us a comprehensive description of Celtic armour and weapons: 'For arms they have man-sized shields decorated in a manner peculiar to them. Some of these have projecting figures in bronze, skilfully wrought not only for decoration but also for protection. They wear bronze helmets with large projecting figures which give the wearer the appearance of enormous size. In some cases horns are attached so as to form one piece, in others the foreparts of birds or quadrupeds worked in relief. . . . Some of them have iron breastplates, wrought in chain, while others are satisfied with the arms Nature has given them and fight naked. Instead of the short sword they carry long swords held by a chain of iron or bronze and hanging along their right flank. Some of them have gold - or silver -plated belts round their tunics. They brandish spears which are called lanciae and which have iron heads a cubit in length and even more, and a little less than two palms in breadth: for their swords are not shorter than the spears of others, and the heads of their spears are longer than the swords of others. Some of these are forged straight, others are twisted and have a spiral form for their whole length, so that the blow may not only cut the flesh but also tear it in pieces and so that the withdrawal of the spear may lacerate the wound.'


Pausanias says that the Celts had no other defensive armour than their national shields and, according to Livy, their shields were oblong and long, commensurate with their bodies. One disadvantage of wooden shields was that they might be pierced, and, in some battles, it is reported that several shields were pierced by one spear and locked together. Again so many spears became stuck in the shields that they were too heavy to carry. Boudica, exhorting her troops before battle, scorned the Roman helmets, breastplates and greaves, saying that the Britons believed that their shields gave greater protection than did the whole suits of mail of the Romans.

The archaeological evidence for Celtic shields is widespread both from graves such as those mentioned in chapter 3 and from votive deposits, but because they were largely made from

Oval Shields

Fig 16. Ccltic shields: I. oval shield with binding strip and midrib; 2. oval shield with strip boss and midrib; 3. oval shield with round ccntral boss.

Prehistory Wood Shield

Fig. 17. Are de Triomphe, Orange (Vauclusc. France); details of shields.

Fig 16. Ccltic shields: I. oval shield with binding strip and midrib; 2. oval shield with strip boss and midrib; 3. oval shield with round ccntral boss.

perishable materials (wood, leather, wiekerwork) it is most often the metal parts that alone survive—the iron boss at the centre of the shield, the occasional metal binding or hand grip (fig. 16). Thus we lack any sense of the decoration described by Diodorus and of the variety of applied designs that must have added to the individuality of the shields, except for the Witham shield, where there are traces of the figure of a boar that had been fixed to the front of the shield, and for the representations on the arch at Orange (fig. 17). Shields were often made up of several planks of wood forming long ovals or sometimes elongated hexagons in shape. Several wooden shields were thrown, as part of a ritual deposit, into the waters of the Lac de Neuchatcl in Switzerland at a place known as La Tene. The shields measure about 1.1 metres (3 feet 7 inches) long and 0.6 metres (2 feet) broad at the middle and comprised three planks butted together. A central hole, which contained the hand grip, was covered by a hollowed wooden boss, which was itself kept in position by a strip of iron

Fig. 17. Are de Triomphe, Orange (Vauclusc. France); details of shields.

Battersea Shield

Fig. 19. Shield from the river Thames at Battersea, London; detail of the central boss. This elaborate piece is the bronze cover for a wooden or leather shield and is one of the most accomplished pieces of British Celtic art; it belongs to the first half of the first century AD.

Fig. 18. Police riot shields of today are of similar size and used in a similar fashion to those of the Celts.

Fig. 19. Shield from the river Thames at Battersea, London; detail of the central boss. This elaborate piece is the bronze cover for a wooden or leather shield and is one of the most accomplished pieces of British Celtic art; it belongs to the first half of the first century AD.

Clonoura Shield
Kig. 20. Distance slab commemorating the completion of part of the Antoninc Wall. Bridgcncss (West Lothian); this panel, which is to the side of the central inscription, shows defeated barbarians, sword, spears and shields with round bosses.

riveted on either side of the boss.

A line of warriors bearing brightly decorated shields must have been a frightening sight. To give an impression of the protection that they would have provided we illustrate the use of shields of not dissimilar size overlapping one with another—modern police riot shields (tig. IS). The shapes of the various parts that made up a shield altered over the centuries, and on the continent it is possible to group the various types of boss, for example, into chronological classes. In Britain several surviving shields are very much more elaborate than are continental examples, and these were perhaps parade pieces, diplomatic gifts or sumptuous objects with a religious significance. The central boss of the shield from the river Thames at Battersea is an example of such rich decoration (fig. 19).

Roman memorial stones in England and commemorative slabs on the Antonine Wall in Scotland illustrate several defeated Celts with their weapons lying beside them; in several cases particular attention has been given to the depiction of the distinctively Celtic hairstyle. Such grave slabs have been found at Chester, Hexham and Cirencester. At Wroxeter the naked warrior bears a sword and an oval shield with a long midrib. The slab from Bridgcness (West Lothian) shows defeated warriors with their swords, shields and spears (fig. 20). The shields presumably illustrate the type current in the mid second century AD in the north; they are shown as rectangular with round bosses. A wooden shield with its leather cover still surviving was found in Littleton Bog, Clonoura, County Tippcrary, Ireland; the boss too is covered by leather (fig. 21).


The Celtic sword was good for a cut, says Polybius, but not for a thrust; he also implies that after the first cutting blow the edges became blunt and the blade so bent that unless the warrior had time to straighten the blade with his foot he could not deliver a second blow. The archaeological evidence shows, however, that some swordsmiths at least were producing weapons of a very high order, and indeed some arc marked by the maker's own sign (fig. 22). Tacitus describes the British swords as long and unsuited to fighting in a confined space or at close quarters; here they could not swing their long swords. Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes how they raised their swords aloft and smote—throwing the whole weight of their bodies into the blows and delivering blows as if they intended to cut to pieces all that opposed them.

Celtic Shield Tene

Fig. 21. Clonoura (County Tippcrary, Ireland): both sides of a shield made of wooden planks covered wilh leather.

Fir. 22. Swords and scabbards from La Tene. Lac de Ncuchalel (Switzerland), showing a maker's mark in the shape of a boar, and decoration at the mouth of a scabbard.

Fig. 21. Clonoura (County Tippcrary, Ireland): both sides of a shield made of wooden planks covered wilh leather.

Fir. 22. Swords and scabbards from La Tene. Lac de Ncuchalel (Switzerland), showing a maker's mark in the shape of a boar, and decoration at the mouth of a scabbard.

Tene Culture Celtic Warriors

FiR. 23. Swords and scabbards from La Tine. Lac dc Ncuchatcl (Switzerland).

Several broad groups of swords and scabbards have been identified on the continent and in Britain, largely by the length of the sword and the decoration of the scabbard; although scabbards might be thought to provide limited opportunity for decoration, the mouth of the scabbard (that part where it was attached by a strap or chain to the sword belt) (fig. 23) and the tip (often strengthened by an additional binding or chapc) offered considerable scope for the Celtic craftsman. In length the sword from La Gorge Meillet measured 0.74 metres (2 feet 5 inches). Later examples, like those illustrated with their respective scabbards from La Tene (fig. 23), are 0.66 metres (2 feet 2 inches) and 0.68 metres (2 feet 3 inches); Stead has shown from a detailed study that the earlier swords could be used for thrusting as well as cutting, while the later and often narrower swords were more suitable for slashing. The swords of the latest period of Celtic activity on the continent arc longer and wider than such examples, with scabbards with rounded ends and often a laddered decoration. In Britain a wide variety of swords and scabbards has been found and four are illustrated to give an impression of the range (fig. 24); the wooden scabbard from Stanwick (North Yorkshire) is an important reminder of how much perishable material from this period has been lost.


There were two kinds of spear, the broad-bladed spear for thrusting, and the lighter spear or javelin for throwing. Strabo says the Celts carried 'a long shield and spears of like size and the madaris, which is a kind of javelin. The Germans carried spears called in their language frameae with short narrow blades, but so sharp and easy to handle that they were equally useful in fighting at close quarters or at a distance.' Many spearheads and javelin heads survive in a multitude of shapes and sizes, varying from 500 millimetres (19% inches) to 100 millimetres (4 inches) often with traces of their ash shafts in their sockcts (fig. 25). Two complete spears were discovered at La Tene, both nearly 2.5 metres (8 feet 2 inches) long. Spear butts, which were designed to improve the balance of the weapon, have been discovered in many burials.

Fig. 24. Swords and scabbards from Britain: 1. dagger scabbard from Minster Ditch (Oxfordshire), one of the earliest pieces of British Celtic art. dating to about 300 BC; 2, sword and scabbard decoration. Standlakc (Oxfordshire); 3, scabbard and sword, Stanwick (North Yorkshire); 4. scabbard. Mortonhall. Edinburgh. Various scales.

Minster Ditch Dagger
Kig. 25. Spearheads from a burial at Camelon (Stirlingshire. Central Region).


Except among the Italian tribes perhaps, Celtic helmets were comparatively rare, but several are of great magnificence. The helmet from La Gorge Meillet has already been mentioned; it is impressive but impractical. In fourth-century Italy cast bronze helmets with top-knobs, known as 'jockey caps', were fashion able, some of which had check pieces. A uniuue find from a burial at Ciumc§ti in Romania has a helmet which is surmounted by a bronze bird with wings hinged to the body to allow them to flap (fig. 26). This must have been an awesome sight and may be compared with the representation on the Gundcstrup Cauldron (fig. 11). The addition of horns, mentioned by Diodorus, has appeared in many reconstructions of Celtic warriors, but the evidence for them is slight; they are shown on the arch at Orange and on the Gundcstrup Cauldron, but they are not common as representations. Even the most famous helmet, that from the river Thames at Waterloo Bridge, was almost certainly created as a votive deposit rather than mirroring a more practical example.

Bridgeness Slab
Fir. 26. Helmet surmounted by a bird with hinged wings. Ciumctjti (Romania).
Drawings Celtic Warriors
Fig. 27. Helmet from the river Rhine at Mainz (Germany).

like that from the Rhine at Mainz (fig. 27). The flamboyant repousse decoration on the neck guard of a helmet in the British Museum is complemented by studs which would have been infilled with red enamel (fig. 28). The sense of grim military reality of the later stages of Celtic warfare is demonstrated by a helmet from a grave at Giubiasco (Ticino, Switzerland), a sturdy iron bowl with neck guard and cheek pieces (fig. 29).


The use of body armour among the Celtic tribes is confirmed by a small number of archaeological finds and representations, and it is probable that the invention of linked metal rings to form mail was made in a Celtic armoury. We illustrate a fragment of mail with an elaborate bronze stud from the burial at Ciume§ti in Romania (fig. 30). Two methods of manufacture were found in the mail from this burial: in one alternating rows of punched-out rings with loops merely butted together (like bath-plug chains), while, instead of these, the second method employed rings that were riveted together. There arc several fleeting references to more complete breastplates, but these must have been very rare indeed. Marcellus is said to have pierced the breastplate of his Celtic adversary with his lance, and Marius was faced at Vercellae by Cimbri who were reported to be wearing breastplates. Vettius Bolanus, governor of Britain (69-71 AD), took a breastplate from a British king to form part of a trophy.

Flg. 2*. Helmet without known lind spot, now in the British Museum: detail of neckguard. Fig. 29. Helmet from Giubiasco (Tieino. Switzerland).

Celtic Helmets Museum

Archery and slings

Some Celts use bows and slings, says Strabo, and in the context of human sacrifices 'they used to shoot men down with arrows'. In his war against Caesar, Vercingetorix ordered all the archers who could be found (and there was a very large number in Gaul) to be sent to him; in this way he made good his losses at Avaricum. The Gauls, according to Caesar's report, placed archers and light-armed infantry among the calvary to support them if they had to retreat, and on another front they used slings to hurl moulded balls of red-hot clay and incendiary darts.

There is little archaeological evidence for the use of archery in warfare, but iron arrowheads of triangular tanged form have been found on a number of sites and have been studied particularly at A16sia (Cote-d'Or). Slings themselves do not survive, being made of leather, but their importance may be shown in two ways: firstly in the shape of hillfort defences in the first century BC in southern Britain, and secondly in the huge hoards of sling stones that were prepared in readiness for sudden attack. The depth of the defences at Maiden Castle (Dorset) or Danebury (Hampshire) may be related to an increase in the use of the sling in warfare, and Cunliffe has suggested that the complex east entrance at Danebury could have been effectively supervised by slingers on the central hornwork covering a radius of up to 60 metres (65 yards). At Maiden Castle one hoard of 22,260 stones had been prepared beside the eastern gateway; the majority were beach pebbles of approximately 50 grams (13A ounces), but some were specially prepared in clay. Such a hoard is, as Wheeler remarked, 'a vivid token of deliberate and orderly preparation and of civic discipline'.

Celts in perspective

We have tried to give an impression both of one aspect of Celtic society and of the different types of evidence that may be used to build up this picture. But no single picture of the Celtic warrior is possible, for we are viewing a period of five centuries over a wide geographical canvas and with the warriors responding to very different social and political pressures. With the burial of La Gorge Meillet or the stories of single combat and ritually naked warriors, we sense a golden age of a society creating its own pressures and perhaps its own myths; with the decapitated and dejected warriors of the Bridgeness slab we see a society in military defeat. Different weapons and battle strategies were appropriate when the pressure of Rome became increasingly

Celtic Warrior Weapons
Fig. 30. Mail fragment from a liurial at Ciumctjii (Romania).

intense, as the pages of Caesar's Gallic Wars show. While we need not, indeed must not, believe all that we read from classical sources, they give, in conjunction with the archaeological evidence, a unique flavour to our understanding of the warrior tribes at a time when much of Europe was moving from prehistory into history.

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  • Connor
    How the celts held their shield?
    8 years ago

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