History

Daily Life of Ancient Celts

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There is archaeological evidence to suggest that Celts lived in close proximity in villages but also on individual small homesteads and farms. Each village or homestead likely would have had its own defensive embankment, ring fort or palisade for protection on high ground. There are over 45,000 ring forts in Ireland alone. The Celtic world was very decentralized and loosely attached amongst themselves compared to other neighboring cultures like Rome and Greece. However, at least a dozen Celtic towns possessed high stone walls rivaling those of Rome. The longest were around 5km. Their homes would have been made of some variation of stone, wood, branches, grasses, moss or thatch with waterproof clay and probably animal dung to hold it together. This method is known as wattle and daub. Their homes began in a circular pattern and eventually evolved to be rectangular, both designs likely having some significant spiritual symbolism. They varied greatly in size, some as small as 15 square feet while others were 50 feet long. There would have been a central area for a fire, iron firedog and a means to release smoke incorporated into the structure of their homes. They likely each had a small kitchen, main area for eating and sleeping area with very few furnishings. Some may have also had a bread oven, drying racks for grain and smoked meat, cauldron in the hearth for cooking, storage are (likely underground) and a smithing and workshop area. Beds were simple pallets of skins and furs with grass or moss stuffed under them. They did not use chairs and instead squatted or sat on cushions and furs around low wooden tables. They had pens and pastures for animals and often brought them inside in the winter for warmth.

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4th century BCE bronze jug

The pottery ranged from crude to fine quality depending on their wealth, skill of their local artisans or trade relationships. The same was true for their common household tools that also ranged from crude to detailed. A majority of Celts may have had an understanding on how to make the basic smithing items by themselves but uniquely talented craftsmen were highly valued. Smithing was particularly seen as a magical profession. The Celtic territories contained tin, lead, iron, silver and gold which were readily used, as well as traded among neighboring civilizations or clans. Rare stones like jade were frequently traded, especially with the Greeks. There is archaeological evidence to suggest Celtic territories were linked by a large trade network facilitated by an extensive road and waterway system, most likely the first in Europe. The Celts are thought to be responsible for the first well made roads which actually served to aid the Romans in their vast European conquest some years later. Their trading endeavors may have included the vast majority of European nations and beyond, including Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The skull of an African Barbary Ape was found in Ireland during excavations of the Navan Fort in County Armagh. It was placed there approx. 2,300 years ago and was likely a pet. They were adept woodworkers and made ships of wood and animal skins on the coastline where boats were useful. They produced fine chariots and wagons. There was an established monetary system and countless Celtic coins have been unearthed of various minting and designs. Many academics suggest that despite the belief they were frequently warring with one another, they had to be largely peaceful amongst themselves in order for such large trading endeavors to be possible. There is archaeological proof of ancient tree farms used for housing wood as well as other various mass produced crops.


terracotta wine 100 bce
1st century BCE terracotta wine amphora traded by Romans

The Celts brewed their own mead, beer and ale as well as imported wine from the Mediterranean and preferred their alcohol strong. The Romans were commonly offended when they received wine at social events that was not diluted with water and thought it was naive because wine at that time was thick and tainted with many impurities. It is rumored that many clans had to ban wine altogether because too many of their members were in a constant stupor. The main dish at their meals was usually meat, either boiled or roasted on a spit. The best warrior or honored guest was rewarded with the choicest part of the meat that was prepared and this was a great honor and caused many rivalries. If this person or multiple people were not determined before hand by the chieftain or king, they would often engage in single combat to determine the winner. In most instances, this was probably a mock battle but in older days, it may have resulted in death. They mostly ate boar and deer but also bear, fish and other sea life as well as typical agriculturally raised animals. No part of the animals were wasted and every part of the animal was utilized including the fur, skins, horns and bones. It was somewhat taboo to eat birds or rabbits and likely a few others. Grains, seeds, vegetables and legumes as well as porridges were all staples in the Celtic diet as well. Bees were domesticated and honey was used to sweeten their mead and food. Milk was a sacred and important drink as well as a critical source for nutrition. Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, geese, ducks, dogs and horses were kept. Geese, ducks and dogs were most likely seen as companion pets. Horses were used to travel or hunt and pull wagons as well as pull chariots in wartime. Chickens were introduced later as a food source with the occupation of Rome and cock fighting became a common past time.

Many aspects of daily life were symbolic to the Celts such as trees, water, herbs, animals, geometric shapes, spirals and other artwork associated with a particular meaning. We have evidence they celebrated quarterly seasonal celebrations based around agricultural life. These undoubtedly tied in with nature’s natural cycles of decay and renewal. Historians are fairly certain they did not build most ancient monuments they are associated with such as standing stones, dolmens and burial mounds. We do however have reason to believe they may have used them in their rituals and celebrations and they may have been descendants to some extent of the builders themselves. We see a close relationship with and respect for nature illustrated through animal totemism and their mythology. We can to some extent assume they did not see themselves as hugely superior to every other animal by the frequent and integral role animals played in mythology. It’s not improbable to think that they looked to animals as not only friendly companions but allies against some of the visible and invisible enemies that beset them. As far as education, there are first hand accounts of schools and references to children being sent away to a specific druid or famiky ,or a certain amount of years to learn a skill or trade. Children would have probably been taught under oak trees or sacred groves, where their rituals also may have taken place. Everything from science, geography, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, religion, philosophy, and law may have been studied as we infer the Druids had some knowledge on these subjects. They were renowned for their knowledge and skills and fulfilled any number of service trade positions common today such as teachers, counselors and judges. For their time, Celtic schools were sought after and valued throughout Europe according to Caesar. Reading and writing was a very rare skill. If Celts did have to write something down, they may have used Greek letters. They created and used the most accurate calendar of the time period, and arguably more accurate than the current Gregorian calendar known as the Coligny Calendar.


“The Celts place food before their guests, putting grass for their seats, and they serve it up on wooden tables raised a very little above the ground: and their food consists of a few loaves, and a good deal of meat brought up floating in water, and roasted on the coals or on spits. And they eat their meat in a cleanly manner enough, but like lions, taking up whole joints in both their hands, and gnawing them; and if there is any part which they cannot easily tear away, they cut it off with a small sword which they have in a sheath in a private depository. And those who live near the rivers eat fish also, and so do those who live near the Mediterranean sea, or near the Atlantic ocean; and they eat it roasted with salt and vinegar and cumin seed: and cumin seed they also throw into their wine. But they use no oil, on account of its scarcity; and because they are not used to it, it seems disagreeable to them. But when many of them sup together, they all sit in a circle; and the bravest sits in the middle, like the leader of a chorus; because he is superior to the rest either in his military skill, or in birth, or in riches: and the man who gives the entertainment sits next to him; and then on each side the rest of the guests sit in regular order, according as each is eminent or distinguished for anything. And their armour-bearers, bearing their large oblong shields, stand behind; and their spear-bearers sit down opposite in a circle, and feast in the same manner as their masters. And those who act as cup-bearers and bring round the wine, bring it round in jars made either of earthenware or of silver, like ordinary casks in shape. And their platters on which they serve up the meat are also made of the same material; but some have bronze platters, and some have wooden or plaited baskets. And the liquor which is drunk is, among the rich, wine brought from Italy or from the country about Marseilles; and this is drunk unmixed, but sometimes a little water is mixed with it. But among the poorer classes what is drunk is a beer made of wheat prepared with honey, and oftener still without any honey; and they call it corma. And they all drink it out of the same cup, in small portions, not drinking more than a ladle at a time; but they take frequent turns: and a slave carries the liquor round, beginning at the right hand and going on to the left; and this is the way in which they are waited on, and in which they worship the gods, always turning towards the right hand.” -Posidonius (Greek, 135 – 51 BCE)

“The Celts sometimes have single combats at their entertainments. For being collected in arms, they go through the exercise, and make feints at, and sometimes they even go so far as to wound one another. And being irritated by this, if the bystanders do not stop them, they will proceed even to kill one another. But in olden times, there was a custom that a hind quarter of pork was put on the table, and the bravest man took it; and if any one else laid claim to it, then the two rose up to fight till one of them was slain. ” -Posidonius (Greek, 135 – 51 BCE) 

“They lived in open villages, and without any permanent buildings. As they made their beds of straw and leaves, and fed on meat and followed no pursuits but those of war and agriculture, they lived simple lives without being acquainted with any science or art whatever. Each man’s property, moreover, consisted in cattle and gold; as they were the only things that could be easily carried with them, when they wandered from place to place, and changed their dwelling as their fancy directed. They made a great point however, of friendship: for the man who had the largest number of clients or companions in his wanderings was looked upon as the most formidable and powerful member of the tribe.” -Polybius (Greek, 205 – 125 BCE)

“The influence of this state is by far the most considerable of any of the countries on the whole sea coast, because the Veneti both have a very great number of ships, with which they have been accustomed to sail to Britain, and [thus] excel the rest in their knowledge and experience of nautical affairs; and as only a few ports lie scattered along that stormy and open sea, of which they are in possession, they hold as tributaries almost all those who are accustomed to traffic in that sea.” -Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“Moreover, even as to working cattle, in which the Gauls take the greatest pleasure, and which they procure at a great price.” -Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“For their ships were built and equipped after this manner. The keels were somewhat flatter than those of our ships, whereby they could more easily encounter the shallows and the ebbing of the tide: the prows were raised very high, and, in like manner the sterns were adapted to the force of the waves and storms [which they were formed to sustain]. The ships were built wholly of oak, and designed to endure any force and violence whatever; the benches which were made of planks a foot in breadth, were fastened by iron spikes of the thickness of a man’s thumb; the anchors were secured fast by iron chains instead of cables, and for sails they used skins and thin dressed leather. These [were used] either through their lack of canvas and their ignorance of its application, or for this reason, which is more probable, that they thought that such storms of the ocean, and such violent gales of wind could not be resisted by sails, nor ships of such great burden be conveniently enough managed by them. The encounter of our fleet with these ships was of such a nature that our fleet excelled in speed alone, and the plying of the oars; other things, considering the nature of the place [and] the violence of the storms, were more suitable and better adapted on their side; for neither could our ships injure theirs with their beaks (so great was their strength), nor on account of their height was a weapon easily cast up to them; and for the same reason they were less readily locked in by rocks. To this was added, that whenever a storm began to rage and they ran before the wind, they both could weather the storm more easily and heave to securely in the shallows, and when left by the tide feared nothing from rocks and shelves: the risk of all which things was much to be dreaded by our ships.” -Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“But this is usually the form of all the Gaulish walls. Straight beams, connected lengthwise and two feet distant from each other at equal intervals, are placed together on the ground; these are mortised on the inside, and covered with plenty of earth. But the intervals which we have mentioned, are closed up in front by large stones. These being thus laid and cemented together, another row is added above, in such a manner, that the same interval may be observed, and that the beams may not touch one another, but equal spaces intervening, each row of beams is kept firmly in its place by a row of stones. In this manner the whole wall is consolidated, until the regular height of the wall be completed. This work, with respect to appearance and variety, is not unsightly, owing to the alternate rows of beams and stones, which preserve their order in right lines; and, besides, it possesses great advantages as regards utility and the defense of cities; for the stone protects it from fire, and the wood from the battering ram, since it [the wood] being mortised in the inside with rows of beams, generally forty feet each in length, can neither be broken through nor torn asunder.” -Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“The inhabitants of Britain who dwell about the promontory known as Belerium [now Cornwall] are especially hospitable to strangers and have adopted a civilized manner of life because of their intercourse with merchants of other peoples. They are the ones who work the tin, treating the bed which bears it in an ingenious manner. This bed, being like rock, contains earthy seams and in them the workers quarry the ore, which they then melt down and cleanse of its impurities. Then they work the tin into pieces the size of knuckle-bones and convey it to an island which lies off Britain and is called Ictis [The Isle of Wight]; for at the time of ebb-tide the space between this island and the mainland becomes dry and they can take the tin in large quantities over to the island on their wagons. (And a peculiar thing happens in the case of the neighbouring islands which lie between Europe and Britain, for at flood-tide the passages between them and the mainland run full and they have the appearance of islands, but at ebb-tide the sea recedes and leaves dry a large space, and at that time they look like peninsulas.) On the island of Ictis the merchants purchase the tin of the natives and carry it from there across the Strait to Galatia or Gaul; and finally, making their way on foot through Gaul for some thirty days, they bring their wares on horseback to the mouth of the river Rhone.” -Diodorus Siculus (Greek, 90 – 20 BCE)


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“Tin also occurs in many regions of Iberia, not found, however, on the surface of the earth, as certain writers continually repeat in their histories, but dug out of the ground and smelted in the same manner as silver and gold. For there are many mines of tin in the country above Lusitania and on the islets which lie off Iberia out in the ocean and are called because of that fact the Cassiterides [modern Scilly Isles]. And tin is brought in large quantities also from the island of Britain to the opposite Gaul, where it is taken by merchants on horses through the interior of Celtica both to the Massalians and to the city of Narbo, as it is called. This city is a colony of the Romans, and because of its convenient situation it possesses the finest market to be found in those regions.” -Diodorus Siculus (Greek, 90 – 20 BCE)

“As to their manners, they are very cruel towards their enemies and other malefactors, but very courteous and civil to strangers; for to all such, from what place soever they come, they readily and freely entertain them, and strive who shall perform the greatest office of kindness and respect. Those who are attended upon by strangers they commend and esteem them as friends of the gods. They live upon all sorts of flesh in great plenty, and their drink is made of honey, their country abounding therewith: but they buy wine jdso ‘of the merchants that traffic thither.” -Diodorus (Greek, 1st century BCE)

“They inhabit a rough and barren country, and live a toilsome and troublesome life in their daily labour for their common sustenance; for the country being mountainous and full of woods, some are employed all day long in cutting down trees, being furnished with strong and great hatchets for that purpose. The husbandman’s business for the most part lies in hewing and breaking rocks, the soil is so very rough and craggy; for there is not a clod of earth they can dig up without a stone; and though they continually thus conflict so many hardships, yet custom has turned it to a second nature; and after all their labour and toil, they reap but very little fruit, scarce sufficient to supply their necessities. Daily toil therefore, and scarcity of food, is the reason they are so lean, and nothing but sinews. The women share in these laborious tasks as much as the men : these people hunt often, and take many wild beasts, by which they supply the want of bread. Being therefore accustomed to range the snowy mountains, and climb the rough and craggy hills, their bodies are very strong and brawny. Some of them for want of corn and other fruits, drink water; and feed upon locusts and wild beasts, and cram their bellies with such herbs as the land there produces; their country being altogether a stranger to those desirable deities, Ceres and Bacchus.” -Diodorus (Greek, 1st century BCE)

“Of those that border upon them, the most civilized nations are the Vaccæi, who every year divide the lands among them, and then till and plough it, and after the harvest, distribute the fruits, allotting to every one their share; and therefore it is death to steal, or under-handedly to convey away any thing from the husbandman.” -Diodorus (Greek, 1st century BCE)

“The Gauls are exceedingly fond of wine and sate themselves with the unmixed wine imported by merchants; their desire makes them drink it greedily and when they become drunk they fall into a stupor or a madness. And therefore many Italian merchants with their customary greed look on the Gallic love of wine as their own godsend. They transport the wine by boat on the navigable rivers and by wagon through the plains and receive in return for it an incredibly large price: for one amphora of wine they receive in return a slave, a servant in exchange for a drink.” -Diodorus (Greek, 1st century BCE)

“Most of them, even to the present time, sleep on the ground, and eat their meals seated on beds of straw. Food they have in very great quantities, along with milk and flesh of all sorts, but particularly the flesh of hogs, both fresh and salted. Their hogs run wild, and they are of exceptional height, boldness, and swiftness; at any rate, it is dangerous for one unfamiliar with their ways to approach them, and likewise, also, for a wolf. As for their houses, which are large and dome-shaped, they make them of planks and wicker, throwing up over them quantities of thatch. And their flocks of sheep and herds of swine are so very large that they supply an abundance of the “sagi” and the salt-meat, not only to Rome, but to most parts of Italy as well. The greater number of their governments used to be aristocratic although in the olden time only one leader was chosen, annually; and so, likewise, for war, only one man was declared general by the common people.But now they give heed, for the most part, to the commands of the Romans. There is a procedure that takes place in their assemblies which is peculiar to them: if a man disturbs the speaker and heckles him, the sergeant-at‑arms approaches him with drawn sword, and with a threat commands him to be silent; if he does not stop, the sergeant-at‑arms does the same thing a second time, and also a third time, but at last cuts off enough of the man’s “sagus” to make it useless for the future. But as for their custom relating to the men and the women (I mean the fact that their tasks have been exchanged, in a manner opposite to what obtains among us), it is one which they share in common with many other barbarian peoples.” –Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)

“[Cæsar] gained two or three victories over the Britons, although he had transported over only two legions of his army, and brought away hostages and slaves and much other booty. At the present time, however, some of the princes there have, by their embassies and solicitations, obtained the friendship of Augustus Cæsar, dedicated their offerings in the Capitol, and brought the whole island into intimate union with the Romans. They pay but moderate duties both on the imports and exports from Celtica; which are ivory bracelets and necklaces, amber, vessels of glass, and small wares; so that the island scarcely needs a garrison, for at the least it would require one legion and some cavalry to enforce tribute from them; and the total expenditure for the army would be equal to the revenue collected; for if a tribute were levied, of necessity the imposts must be diminished, and at the same time some danger would be incurred if force were to be employed.” -Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)

“But Cæsar easily gained the victory, not however by means of his beaks (for their ships were constructed of solid wood), but whenever their ships were borne near to his by the wind, the Romans tore the sails by means of scythes fixed on long handles: for the sails [of their ships] are made of leather to resist the violence of the winds, and managed by chains instead of cables. They construct their vessels with broad bottoms and high poops and prows, on account of the tides. They are built of the wood of the oak, of which there is abundance. On this account, instead of fitting the planks close together, they leave interstices between them; these they fill with sea-weed to prevent tile wood from drying up in dock for want of moisture; for the sea-weed is damp by nature, but the oak dry and arid.” -Strabo (Greek, 64 BCE – 24 CE)


4-5th century BCE
5th century BCE gold ring

“The mode of getting in the harvest varies considerably. In the vast domains of the provinces of Gaul a large hollow frame, armed with teeth and supported on two wheels, is driven through the standing grain, the beasts being yoked behind it; the result being that the ears are torn off and fall within the frame. In other countries the stalks are cut with the sickle in the middle, and the ears are separated by the aid of paddle-forks. In some places, again, the corn is torn up by the roots; and it is asserted by those who adopt this plan, that it is as good as a light turning up for the ground, whereas, in reality, they deprive it of its juices. There are differences in other respects also: in places where they thatch their houses with straw, they keep the longest stalks for that purpose; and where hay is scarce, they employ the straw for litter. The straw of panic is never used for thatching, and that of millet is mostly burnt; barley-straw, however, is always preserved, as being the most agreeable of all as a food for oxen. In the Gaulish provinces panic and millet are gathered, ear by ear, with the aid of a comb carried in the hand.” -Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)

“The thick, fleecy wool has been esteemed for the manufacture of carpets from the very earliest times; it is quite clear, from what we read in Homer, that they were in use in his time. The Gauls embroider them in a different manner from that which is practised by the Parthians. Wool is compressed also for making a felt, which, if soaked in vinegar, is capable of resisting even iron; and, what is still more, after having gone through the last process, wool will even resist fire; the refuse, too, when taken out of the vat of the scourer, is used for making mattresses, an invention, I fancy, of the Gauls. At all events, it is by Gallic names that we distinguish the different sort of mattresses at the present day.” -Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)

“There is another method, which has been invented both in Gaul and Britain, of enriching earth by the [use of] marl [loose spoil of clay and lime]. This soil is looked upon as containing a greater amount of fertilizing properties, and acts as a fat in relation to the earth […] The Aedui and the Pictones have rendered their lands remarkably fertile by the aid of limestone, which is also found to be particularly beneficial to the olive and the vine.” -Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)

“Caratacus, a barbarian chieftain who was captured and brought to Rome and later pardoned by Claudius, wandered about the city after his liberation; and after beholding its splendor and its magnitude he exclaimed: ‘And can you, then, who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?’” –Dio Cassiuss (Roman, 1st century)

“But among the Galatians, it is the custom to place on the tables a great number of loaves broken indiscriminately, and meat just taken out of the cauldrons, which no one touches without first waiting for the king to see whether he touches anything of what is served up before him.” -Phylarchus (Greek, 3rd century)

“Ariamnes the Galatian, being an exceedingly rich man, gave notice that be would give all the Galatians a banquet every year; and that he did so, managing in this manner: He divided the country, measuring it by convenient stages along the roads; and at these stages he erected, tents of stakes and rushes and osiers, each containing about four hundred men, or somewhat more, according as the district required, and with reference to the number that might be expected to throng in from the villages and towns adjacent to the stage in question. And there he placed huge cauldrons, full of every sort of meat; and he had the cauldrons made in the preceding year before he was to give the feast, sending for artisans from other cities. And he caused many victims to be slain — numbers of oxen, and pigs, and sheep, and other animals — every day; and he caused casks of wine to be prepared, and a great quantity of grain. And not only,” he continues, “did all the Galatians who came from the villages and cities enjoy themselves, but even all the strangers who happened to be passing by were not allowed to escape by the slaves who stood around, but were pressed to come in and partake of what had been prepared.” -Phylarchus (Greek, 3rd century)

“In the more level parts of Gaul the following apparatus is in use for harvesting, which eliminates manual labour to such an extent that an ox can perform the entire task of harvesting. A cart or carriage is constructed furnished with two small wheels. On this carriage is mounted a square box made of planks, with the top larger in size than the bottom. The height of this cart-box is smaller in front than in the back. Here are fixed many small teeth, curved backwards, not so thickly set, so that the grain can get between them, and arranged in such a way that the heads of grain may enter above. Behind this cart are two small tongues or shafts, as if the animal were harnessed in a chair. Here the ox is fastened, his head towards the machine, by means of a yoke and chains. And when everything is ready, he begins to push the cart forward, into the grain. Thus every head of grain is caught between the teeth and torn from its stalk – which is left standing – and falls into the box. The machine is generally about the height of an ordinary small ox that propels it from behind. Thus after a few tries and in a very short space of time, the entire harvest is finished.” -Palladius, (Roman, 4th century)

“A vigorous tribe lives here, proud, spirited, energetic, skillful. On all the ridge trade is carried on: the sea froths far and wide with their famous ships and they cut through the swell of the beast haunted ocean.” -Avienus (Roman, 4th century)

For more information, check out The Celtic World by Barry Cunliffe or Britain Begins by Barry Cunliffe!


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Isla MacKinnon

Writer and Herbalist

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A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.

 

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