The Warrior In Celtic Society

Celtic society, both before and after the Roman period, has often been described as 'heroic', dominated by a warrior elite whose lives were spent in an environment of perpetual conflict. Rich grave goods, including weapons and armour, together with later myths and legends

RIGHT The richly decorated Deskborough Mirror, with its chased and engraved abstract patterns, is a fine example of Celtic art and metalwork. The plain bronze face would have been highly polished. (Copyright: The British Museum)

Tores were worn by high status nobles and warriors as a sign of their rank. It is probable that the tore also possessed a religious and/or ritual symbolism. This example is made from an alloy of gold, silver and copper and has a diameter of 19.5cms (7/zins). (Copyright: The British Museum)

Celtic Warrior Symbols British Celtic Warrior

This bronze flagon from Lorraine, France, is one of a virtually identical pair, decorated with coral and red enamel. Dated to c. 400 BC, flagons such as these were modelled on far simpler Etruscan jars. Note the allusion to hunting and sport, an indication that such objects were for aristocratic use. (Copyright: The British Museum)

This bronze flagon from Lorraine, France, is one of a virtually identical pair, decorated with coral and red enamel. Dated to c. 400 BC, flagons such as these were modelled on far simpler Etruscan jars. Note the allusion to hunting and sport, an indication that such objects were for aristocratic use. (Copyright: The British Museum)

have reinforced this image. However, in recent years this view has come under increasing criticism from British archaeologists, many of whom now consider that the overwhelming majority of the population of Iron Age Europe was far more concerned with the plough than the sword. This may well be the case, but it is perhaps a little disingenuous to assume that the one necessarily precludes the other. Caesar's commentaries, though doubtless tailored to his own political purposes, reveal a world in which warfare was endemic. Moreover, as we shall see, warfare and conflict played an essential part in the maintenance of the very structure of Celtic society itself.

The structure of society

At the lowest level, Celtic society was made up of extended families or clans that were grouped together to form territorially based tribes. These were usually governed by a king or high chief, often in pairs, although by the mid-lst century BC. some tribes in Gaul were ruled by elected 'magistrates', in many ways comparable to the consuls of the Roman Republic. Magistrates had only limited power. Most decisions were taken, or at least endorsed by a popular assembly of all the free men of the tribe. Real power lay with a smaller council of leading nobles among whom kings and chieftains were chosen.

A child born in Gaul or southern Britain towards the end of the pre-Roman Iron Age grew up in a society that possessed a very clear and strict hierarchy. Caesar was oversimplifying matters, however, when he said that:

'In Gaul there are only two classes of men who are of any account or consideration. The common people are treated almost as slaves . . . The two privileged classes are the Druids and the nobles.'

Although we know very little about the mass of common people through classical texts, they were not slaves. Slavery certainly existed but to a far lesser extent than in the 'civilised' Mediterranean world. Yet,

Plain and decorated tores from a horde discovered at Ipswich. (Copyright: The British Museum)

Gold tore and bracelets from Belgium. Note the serpent motif on the terminals. (Copyright: The British Museum)

Torquote Celt

slave raiding was one of the principal motives for Celtic warfare. The captives were used as a trading commodity in exchange for luxury goods from Greece and Rome.

The Druids formed part of the privileged class known in Ireland as 'men of art', which also included bards, who extolled the warrior hero in song. Artisans, especially blacksmiths and other metalworkers, who manufactured not only everyday tools but also much of the finery -weapons and jewellery - worn by the Celtic nobles to emphasise their wealth and rank, were also regarded as men of art. Polybius wrote of the Gauls in northern Italy:

'Their possessions consist of cattle and gold because these were the only things they could carry about with them everywhere according to circumstance.'

The role of the Celtic noble was to wage war and in so doing increase his personal reputation in the eyes of his peers. Caesar wrote:

'Whenever war breaks out and their services are required . . . they all take the field, surrounded by their retainers and dependants of whom each noble has a greater or smaller number according to his birth and fortune. The possession of such a following is the only criterion of influence and power that they recognise.'

Clientage

This threefold division of Celtic society was therefore interdependent, each part supporting and supported by the other two. Society was held 11

These tores with unusual 'hour glass' terminals were discovered in Orense in northern Spain. (Copyright: The British Museum)

together by a complex web of family ties and other obligations, within which the warrior noble strove to attain wealth and prestige. Wealth came from agriculture, distribution of foreign luxury goods and success in war. From wealth came prestige, renown and power. According to Polybius:

'They treated comradeship as of the greatest importance, those among them being the most feared and most powerful who were thought to have the largest number of attendants and associates.'

Italian wine was exported in amphorae such as this throughout Gaul and beyond. Its redistribution was controlled by local Celtic nobility who enhanced their status by extravagant displays of public generosity. The price paid was said to be one slave per amphora of wine. (Copyright: The British Museum)

Having a large retinue of attendants or clients was a reflection of one's standing in society. Clientage was an agreement of mutual obligation by which the lower ranking would pledge allegiance to the higher in return for security, patronage and employment. Thus, the common people, the unfree, would serve with their labour the free men of the tribe, those entitled to attend the popular assembly. The free men would in turn support the nobility in peace and above all in war. It was an agreement closely bound up with personal honour, and which had dire consequences for any who did not respect their obligations. Clientage could also extend to other tribes and even between tribes themselves: for example, the rival Aedui and Sequani and their respective client tribes in Gaul at the time of

Celtic Goblets The British Museum

Finely worked goblets used in the consumption of highly valued Italian wine. Vessels such as these were based on Etruscan designs; however, Celtic craftsmen would have developed and embellished their work to surpass the originals. (Copyright: The British Museum)

Caesar's campaigns. However, this continual competition for wealth, power and influence gave rise to a hierarchy that was inherently unstable. Freemen could, in the right circumstances, aspire to noble status, while some nobles such as Dumnorix and Orgetorix during the Gallic War had such powerful personal followings that they posed a threat to the stability of the tribe itself.

Clientage was often reinforced by the exchange of hostages or the fostering of children in the household of a patron. In the epic Irish tale Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), which is commonly called 'The Tain', the new-born hero Cuchulainn is given into the care not only of his aunt (the sister of his father the king) but also of the king's closest retainers in order that: 'In this manner he will be formed by all - chariot warrior, prince and sage.'

The legend of King Arthur also tells of how the young prince Arthur was brought up in secret in the household of Sir Ector with his foster brother Cai, a relationship that was often far stronger than ties of blood in Celtic society.

Given the significance of the number seven in Celtic myth, childhood was probably the first seven years of life. Boys reached manhood with, according to their social rank, the right to bear arms at 14, while girls were regarded as eligible for marriage at the same age. For young nobles and sons of freemen who had been fostered, reaching 14 meant it was time to become the client of a famous lord or attempt to attract a following of their own. In Ireland, such warrior retinues were called fianna and in Wales, cantrefs. Junior warriors would have sought to follow experienced warriors whose success would bring a greater chance of wealth and glory. See the diagram on the dynamics of the raid and the relevant section on pp. 14 and 17 for further reference.

Finely worked goblets used in the consumption of highly valued Italian wine. Vessels such as these were based on Etruscan designs; however, Celtic craftsmen would have developed and embellished their work to surpass the originals. (Copyright: The British Museum)

Status

Cattle-reiving, slave raiding and vendettas between clans and tribes formed the basis of a low-intensity warfare that permeated Celtic society.

The presence of the iron frame and fire dogs among grave goods stresses the importance of the feast even after death. The frame would have held the ritual cauldron over the fire. Note the stylised animal heads. Cattle were regarded as a mark of wealth in Celtic society. (Copyright: The British Museum)

Etruscan Leader Dies

The presence of the iron frame and fire dogs among grave goods stresses the importance of the feast even after death. The frame would have held the ritual cauldron over the fire. Note the stylised animal heads. Cattle were regarded as a mark of wealth in Celtic society. (Copyright: The British Museum)

J Mid ,erm-Distant territories

J Long term Mercenary

' activity

Scale of raid

\ raid 3 / raid 2

f The \ ^ I Feast I \

/ Quantity of spoils

/ Prestige \ of leader

The raid was an essential part of the structure of Celtic society and of the warrior's place within it. (After Cunliffe)

The raid was an essential part of the structure of Celtic society and of the warrior's place within it. (After Cunliffe)

Such conflicts provided a starting point for the young warrior, giving him the opportunity to demonstrate his bravery and skill at weapon-handling. But in a society that took personal courage for granted, something more was required in order to establish a reputation.

Celtic warriors served as mercenaries in many armies of the classical period. The best known Celtic mercenaries were those who joined Hannibal in his invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War, and who contributed to his victories against Rome at Lake Trasimene and Cannae. Celts also fought in the armies of Syracuse and the Successor kingdoms that followed the break-up of Alexander's empire in Egypt and the Levant, and later as auxiliaries in the Roman army itself. Clearly, many Celts looked for fame and fortune in the rich, exotic Mediterranean world, in the hope of returning home with their reputations made. Mercenary services also helped to reduce social pressure by removing numbers of young warriors from their tribes at a time when their drive to achieve high status was at its most intense.

This may explain the reference by Polybius to the large group of Celtic mercenaries who came south over the Alps to fight with the Cisalpine Gauls against the Romans at the battle of Telamon. Polybius called them Gaesataewhich is more usually translated as 'spearmen' after the Celtic word gaesum (which means spear). Their organisation and

Cernunnos Gundestrup

The powerful image of Cernunnos (the horned man), was common in Gaul. It suggests a symbolic union between man and the creatures of the wild, in particular the stag, which was widely venerated for its strength and virility. The tore is clearly shown to be a ritual object and it is perhaps significant that the main figure clutches a serpent in its left hand, another symbol of fertility and regeneration. (The National Museum of Denmark)

esprit de corps indicates that such Celtic mercenary warriors formed a distinct group outside the normal social structure of the clan and tribe. The Celtic word geissi (which means bonds, taboos or Sacred rules of conduct) may shed some light here. The spiritual aspects of the warrior's life will be examined in more detail below. It is clear, however, that the custom of the Gaesatae, and on occasions of other Celtic warriors, to appear naked on the field of battle can be interpreted as a ritual action.

To maintain and enhance status required wealth and prestige. Once again, the riches of Greece and Rome offered a solution. Trade with the Mediterranean had a significant impact on the Celtic world. Changes in trading patterns were a factor in the decline of the Halstatt princedoms and the subsequent expansion of La Tene culture. Control of imported luxury goods, especially gold coins and Italian wine, was guaranteed to attract a large following and lay, inevitably, in the hands of the nobility. Warriors and other clients were rewarded with foreign luxuries, the value of which was measured by the influence it could command in being given away. This method of redistributing prestige items to increase status, called potlach, explains the incredulity of Diodorus Siculus when he wrote:

'The Gauls are exceedingly addicted to wine . . . brought into their country by merchants [who] receive an incredible price for it: a slave in exchange for a jar of wine.'

The Roman merchant doubtless believed that he was getting the best of the bargain. But the Celtic noble knew the value of the deal. Slaves were easy to obtain, while dispensing the wine freely would reinforce his standing in the tribe as a man of substance and largesse, whom others would wish to follow and share in his wealth. Poseidonius tells of Lovernius who:

The powerful image of Cernunnos (the horned man), was common in Gaul. It suggests a symbolic union between man and the creatures of the wild, in particular the stag, which was widely venerated for its strength and virility. The tore is clearly shown to be a ritual object and it is perhaps significant that the main figure clutches a serpent in its left hand, another symbol of fertility and regeneration. (The National Museum of Denmark)

Stanwick Yorkshire
Found in a hoard at Stanwick, North Yorkshire, and possibly intended to decorate a chariot, this bronze horse-head mask, formed from simple abstract lines, presents a further example of the reverence in which this particular animal was held by the Celts. (Copyright: The British Museum)

... in an attempt to win popular favour rode across the country in a chariot distributing gold and silver to [those] who followed him. Moreover, he set up a square enclosure one and a half miles on each side within which he filled vats with expensive liquor and prepared so great a quantity of food that for many days all who wished could come and enjoy the feast.'

The feast

Feasts were important social gatherings, usually wild and drunken, sometimes even deadly, and often with ritual significance. A strict ceremonial was observed with regard to precedence and hospitality. Seating was arranged according to rank and prowess. Poseidonius wrote:

' . . . they sit in a circle with the most influential man in the centre whether he be the greatest in warlike skill, nobility of family or wealth. Beside him sits the host and on either side of them the others in order of distinction. Their shield bearers stand behind them while their spearmen are seated on the opposite side and feast in common like their lords.'

Also in attendance were bards, who would celebrate the lineage, bravery and wealth of their patrons. Their songs, however, could either praise or satirise, and fear of losing face in front of their guests encouraged Celtic nobles and warriors to be even more generous than usual. Poseidonius continues with the tale of Lovernius:

A poet who arrived too late met Lovernius and composed a song praising his greatness and lamenting his own late arrival. Lovernius threw a bag of gold to the bard who ran beside his chariot and sang another song saying that the very tracks gave gold and largesse.'

Strangers were allowed to share the meal before being asked their name and business. Everyone had a joint of meat according to their status. Traditionally, the greatest warrior received the choicest cut, the champion's portion of the thigh piece. It was a moment when any other

The boars are probably helmet crests rather than free-standing figures. The wheel was a common symbol of the sun, and it was often worn by the warrior as a protective amulet. Length of left-hand boar: 8.5cms (3Ains). (Copyright: The British Museum)

Scottish Warrior CultureThe Horse Goddess

Stylised horse cut into the chalk at Uffington in Berkshire. Although Epona the horse goddess was not as widely revered in Britain as in Gaul, could this imposing figure symbolise the guardian spirit of the Belgae? (Copyright: The British Museum)

warrior had the right to dispute his position and challenge him. Others sought to reinforce their status in a rough-and-tumble that often escalated into more serious violence. Poseidonius again:

'The Celts sometimes engage in single combat at dinner. Assembling in arms they engage in a mock battle drill and mutual thrust and parry. Sometimes wounds are inflicted, and the irritation caused by this may even lead to the killing of the opponent unless they are held back by their friends . . . When the hindquarters were served up, the bravest hero took the thigh piece; if another man claimed it they stood up and fought in single combat to the death.'

Stylised horse cut into the chalk at Uffington in Berkshire. Although Epona the horse goddess was not as widely revered in Britain as in Gaul, could this imposing figure symbolise the guardian spirit of the Belgae? (Copyright: The British Museum)

The ultimate gesture in this desire for status was the death pact. Poseidonius describes a typical pact made at a feast:

'Others in the presence of the assembly received silver or gold or a certain number of jars of wine and, having taken pledges of the gift and distributed it among their friends and kin, lay stretched out face upwards on their shields. Another standing by cut his throat with his sword.'

The raid

Amidst the drinking, boasting and singing, a warrior might propose to lead a raid and would encourage others to join him, tempting them with the prospect of loot and glory. The number of warriors who agreed to follow was determined by the leader's status. The more volunteers he could recruit, the greater the chance of a successful outcome. A raid that brought spoils for him to distribute among his retinue would enhance his status as a leader. On a future occasion he would be able to attract a larger following, which in turn would have higher expectations of success and loot to be gained. Initially, younger warriors competed with each other but, once they had experienced initial success, they would dare to challenge their elders too. Small-scale raids

Celtiberian Numbers
Silver coin from Slovakia. Both the horse and the wheel were symbols of the sun god in Celtic mythology. (After Duval)
Mythical Celtic Warriors
Detail of a brooch showing a naked warrior. The scabbard suspended on the right from the sword belt can be clearly seen. The sword blade and perhaps also a helmet plume are missing. The style is Hispanic and may represent a Celtiberian warrior. (Copyright: The British Museum)

on neighbouring clans to reive a few head of cattle would grow into inter-tribal conflicts and wider raiding over longer distances. Groups of warriors fighting as mercenaries in foreign armies was a logical step in this process. Once established, the cycle of conflict fed on itself and became essential to the maintenance of the structure of Celtic society.

The Otherworld

Ritual and spiritual belief pervaded all aspects of the warrior's life. The supernatural was all around him: every tree and river, mountain and spring was imbued with its own particular spirit. Trees and watercourses were held to be especially sacred. The most important ceremonies took place within sacred groves of oak trees called drunemeton (oak sanctuary to the Galatae of Asia Minor), while rivers, lakes and bogs across Europe have revealed ritual objects ranging from weapons and jewellery to animal and human sacrifices. Birds and animals held special significance too. Certain creatures were revered by the warrior for specific qualities, such as valour, speed, ferocity and fidelity. Most commonly regarded as revered were the horse, the bull, the wild boar, the raven and the dog. By adopting the symbol, on clothing or armour, and also in appearance, and by invoking the spirit of a particular animal, the warrior believed that he would be granted the same qualities as the revered beast.

The everyday world of men and the Otherworld of the gods and the dead existed side by side. The line dividing one from the other was often blurred and ill defined. Neither was there any firm boundary between human and animal form. The story of the warrior hero who strays unwittingly into the Otherworld while pursuing some enchanted beast is a common theme in Welsh and Irish legend. Linking the two worlds stood the Druids, whose name is cognate with the Celtic word for oak. Known definitely only in Britain and Gaul, it is nevertheless more than likely that an equivalent class existed throughout the Celtic world. The Galatians, for example, had judges who assisted the tribal leaders. Druids enjoyed high status as the guardians of tribal tradition, as administrators of tribal law and as mediators with the gods. Their main role was to interpret and control supernatural forces by means of divination. Caesar wrote:

Early La Tene bronze brooches. Often highly decorated, they acted like a modern safety pin. (Copyright: The British Museum)

Tene Brooch

Statue dating from the 1st century BC. The characteristic mail-shirt, tore and sword-belt of the Celtic warrior are clearly shown. However, the subject's short hair and lack of moustache and beard might suggest a Gaul in Roman service or a Roman officer of a native auxiliary unit. (Musée Calvet, Avignon)

Statue dating from the 1st century BC. The characteristic mail-shirt, tore and sword-belt of the Celtic warrior are clearly shown. However, the subject's short hair and lack of moustache and beard might suggest a Gaul in Roman service or a Roman officer of a native auxiliary unit. (Musée Calvet, Avignon)

'The Druids officiate at the worship of the gods, regulate public and private sacrifice, and rule on all religious questions.'

Druid authority was both spiritual and civil, and extended from individuals to whole tribes. Anyone foolhardy enough to defy or disregard a Druid's ruling was excommunicated, debarred from taking part in sacrifice: according to Caesar the heaviest punishment that could be inflicted on a Gaul. Such individuals were shunned by others as unclean. Druids were almost certainly responsible for the imposition of geissi (taboos) on a warrior and for overseeing the taking of oaths.

APPEARANCE, DRESS AND EQUIPMENT

Appearance

Both on the field of battle and away from it, the Celtic warrior sought to demonstrate his wealth and status in his appearance and by the quality of his dress and equipment. To the Greeks and Romans, more used to darker hair and complexions, fair-haired Celts seemed strange and outlandish. Diodorus Siculus describes them at some length:

'The Gauls are tall of body, with rippling muscles, and white of skin. Their hair is fair, not only by nature but also because of their custom of accentuating it by artificial means. They wash their hair in lime-water then pull it back so that it differs little from a horse's mane. Some of them shave their beard, others let it grow. The nobles shave their cheeks but let their moustache grow until it covers their mouth.'

Despite their reputation for being tall, archaeological remains seem to indicate that the average height for a man was 1.7m (5ft 7ins). The average height for Romans, however, was several centimetres smaller. The reference to lime-washed hair is interesting in the light of the spiritual symbolism of the horse, and such hair was probably worn by warriors who had adopted the animal as their totem, thus invoking the protection of Epona, the horse goddess. Lime-washing had a practical benefit as well, since the process coarsened and stiffened the hair, providing a degree of protection from blows to the head. The disadvantage was that repeated application caused burning to the scalp and the hair to fall out. It was also difficult for the warrior to wear a helmet with lime-washed hair, although it is unlikely that a Celt would have desired or felt the need to do so, believing himself to be adequately protected by his totem.

Warriors in Britain presented an even stranger spectacle due to their habit of painting or tattooing their bodies with woad, a plant from which a deep blue dye was extracted. Similar customs have been observed in many cultures and, as well as indicating social rank, almost invariably have a ritual significance. The individual is again protected and his strength enhanced by the sacred symbolism of the swirling forms 011 his face, arms and torso.

Dress

Diodorus Siculus had this to say about they way the Celts dressed:

Celtic Warrior Wear

'The clothing they wear is striking - tunics which have been dyed and embroidered in various colours, and breeches; they also wear striped cloaks fastened by a brooch on the shoulder, heavy for winter and light for summer, in which are set checks, close together and of various hues.'

From contemporary descriptions and from the fragments of textiles recovered from graves a fair idea may be gained of the clothes worn by the Celtic warrior. Most items were colourful, well made and of wool or linen. The highest status nobles, whose clothes were often embroidered with gold thread, also wore some silk. The reference to close-set, variegated checks brings to mind the tweed or tartan-like designs of a later age. Colours, however bright when new, would fade quickly because of the vegetable dyes used.

Celtic love of display and ornament was emphasised by the jewellery worn by the warrior to announce his wealth and status. Diodorus Siculus again:

This section of the Gundestrup Cauldron portrays both mounted warriors and warriors on foot. None of the latter wear helmets except the figure on the right, seemingly armed with a sword, who appears to be the leader. Helmet crests on this figure and on the horsemen suggest animal totems: boar, raven, stag, bull and horse. The Celtic war horn, the Carnyx, is clearly shown. But what are we to make of the figure on the left? Could it be a representation of rebirth via the symbolism of the cauldron itself, shown here, after death on the battlefield? (The National Museum of Denmark)

'They amass a great quantity of gold which is used for ornament not only by the women but also by the men. They wear bracelets on their wrists and arms, and heavy necklaces of solid gold, rings of great value and even gold corselets.'

Of all the Celtic jewellery, the most impressive in the eyes of Mediterranean commentators was the neck-ring, or 'tore'. To the Romans it characterised the Celtic warrior although it was not unique to the Celts. The tore could be of gold, bronze or iron according to the wealth of the wearer. It is quite possible that it possessed a symbolic significance since not all were made of precious metal. It was almost

Armenia Helmet 9th Century
Bronze helmet from northern Britain. The neck guard and sides would have been richly decorated with enamel or glass. This form influenced Roman styles in the later Republican period. (Copyright: The British Museum)

certainly an indication of rank (the Gauls presented a golden tore to the Emperor Augustus supposedly 45 kg [lOOlbs] in weight), with perhaps in some cases ritual or religious overtones. Many representations of Celtic deities are portrayed wearing the tore.

Arms and equipment

The bearing of arms was the right and duty of every free man in Celtic society and served to differentiate him, immediately and clearly, from the unfree majority. The basic panoply of the Celtic warrior was the spear and shield. To this he could add the sword and, for the nobility or as wealth and status permitted, a helmet and possibly a mail-shirt. Diodorus Siculus provides a detailed description:

'Their arms include man-sized shields decorated according to individual taste. Some of these have projecting figures in bronze skilfully made not only for decoration but also for protection. They wear bronze helmets with large figures, which give the wearer the appearance of enormous size. In some cases horns are attached, in others the foreparts of birds or beasts . . . Some of them have iron breastplates or chainmail while others fight naked. They carry long swords held by a chain of bronze or iron hanging on their right side . . . They brandish spears which have iron heads a cubit or more in length and a little less than two palms in breadth. Some are forged straight, others are twisted so that the blow does not merely cut the flesh but in withdrawing will lacerate the wound.'

The spear was the primary weapon and symbol of the warrior. The Greek writer Strabo commented that the Celtic warrior carried two types of spear: a larger, heavier one for thrusting; and a smaller, lighter javelin that could be both thrown and used at close quarters.

Pausanias, writing of the Galatae, remarked that their only defensive armour were their national shields. From this we may infer that mail-shirts were not worn even by Galatian nobles and that the shape of

Imagen GalataeScottish Warrior Culture

ABOVE LEFT The Witham Shield, recovered from the river of the same name in Lincolnshire is interesting not only because of its ceremonial nature but also because of its offset boss and the very faint outline of a stylised boar, which was originally riveted to the bronze face of the shield. (Copyright: The British Museum)

ABOVE RIGHT Artist's impression of the appearance of the bronze boar riveted to the face of the Witham Shield. It is likely that other Celtic shields were decorated in a similar, though simpler manner, with animal totems painted on. (Copyright: The British Museum)

Northern Celtic Tribes
Bronze Coolus-type helmet from northern France. Note the holes at the side and rear for fastening straps, and also the pattern on the rim and neck-guard. (Copyright: The British Museum)

their shields was distinctive to Greek eyes. According to Livy, Galatian shields were 'long and oblong', a description backed up by archaeological finds.

The sword was the weapon of the high status warrior. To carry one was to display a symbol of status and prestige. For this reason, many swords and scabbards were elaborately decorated with precious metals and stones. Traditional Irish tales speak of gold- and ivory-hilted swords. Archaeological evidence has proved that Celtic swords were of high quality, flexible and with a sharp, strong cutting edge, contradicting Polybius' comments that in battle the blade quickly became so bent that the warrior had to straighten it with his foot. Confusion probably arose over the practice of ritually 'killing' a sword by deliberately bending it as part of a burial ceremony or sacrifice to the gods.

Helmets were a rare sight among Celtic warriors; worn only by those whose wealth and prestige permitted them to flaunt their status. Many helmets were intended more for display than for war, as shown by the discovery of elaborate examples such as the horned Waterloo Helmet and the magnificent specimen from Ciumesti in Romania, found complete with its articulated raven crest. The representation of specific animals and birds reminds lis of the mystic symbolism that such creatures held for the warrior and the supernatural power that they conferred.

Mail-shirts were an even rarer sight on the battlefield than helmets. They were worn only by noble warriors of the very highest status. Remnants of iron mail appear for the first time in graves dating from the early 3rd century BC, and it is believed that it was first invented by Celtic blacksmiths sometime before 300 BC.

Neither the bow nor the sling featured greatly among the weapons of the Celtic warrior, though both were used to some extent in Celtic warfare. For the former, there is very little archaeological evidence, although some iron arrowheads have been discovered at the site of Alesia

This iron leaf-shaped dagger and its sheath would have been elaborately decorated with coloured glass, enamel or perhaps coral. (Copyright: The British Museum)

in Gaul. For the latter, however, there is ample evidence. Vast stockpiles of slingstones have been unearthed within several of the hill-forts in southern Britain, a clear indication that their use was a major factor in the defence of these sites. It has been suggested that the elaborate arrangement of the ramparts at the entrances were specifically designed to maximise the effectiveness of this particular weapon. Nevertheless, the use of the sling is not mentioned in any set-piece battle.

An explanation is not difficult to find, bearing in mind the ethos of the warrior. Both the bow and the sling are missile weapons best employed at a distance from the enemy; they are also weapons of dissuasion. Arrows and slingstones can be directed towards an enemy, even in large volleys or showers, but they will not all find a target. Moreover, anyone can learn to use either weapon; they do not even have to use them particularly accurately to be effective. The Gallic leader Vercingetorix is reported to have called for all the archers who could be found in Gaul to be sent to him to make up for his losses after the siege of Avaricum. The implication here is that, despite the many thousands of warriors who were already fighting with him (according to Caesar over 250,000) these archers were not among them and might not otherwise have been expected to fight. Furthermore, the principal engagements following Avaricum were two other sieges, at Gergovia and the final defeat of the Gauls at Alesia. Vercingetorix used his archers to help defend his strongholds just as slingers defended British hill-forts.

The conclusion that has to be drawn is clear. The Celtic warrior used neither the bow nor the sling because they were not considered to be a warrior's weapons. His goal on the battlefield was to engage the enemy at close quarters with spear and sword, and to measure his prowess against that of his opponent in single combat. To stand off and shoot at him from a distance was unthinkable. Not to know who had vanquished whom, where was the honour in that?

This iron leaf-shaped dagger and its sheath would have been elaborately decorated with coloured glass, enamel or perhaps coral. (Copyright: The British Museum)

LEFT The sword was the weapon of the noble warrior. This unique example from Kirkburn, Yorkshire, has scarlet enamel on the hilt and scabbard, and is a tribute to the workmanship of the Celtic swordsmith. (Copyright: The British Museum)

Chasing Scabbard Process

Bronze dagger sheaths recovered from the Thames. Note the torc-like shape on the tips of these and other examples. (Copyright: The British Museum)

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    What is a Celtic combat warrior ring?
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    What ancient celtic warriors wear?
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