Symbolism

Archaeology and Artifacts

While the symbology speaks for itself in some of these ancient examples of archaeology, they will ultimately always remain a bit of a mystery. They are wonderful marvels and places to commune with our ancestors that may have used them. As we have previously discussed, these ancient structures that often dot what was once a Celtic landscape may or may not have had any relation to Druids or even the Celts. Most theories are all speculation and the discussion is ongoing as to if the knowledge of their symbolism was passed down to the Celts upon inhabiting the land and if so, to what extent did the Celts use these structures? Some of the structures built later such as ring forts were undoubtedly used by the Irish, Scottish and Britons alike. Here is a short list of a few of the most famous structures, monuments and artifacts.


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Image source: Desiree Marie Photography

Standing Stones

Standing Stones are thought to have been built approximately between 4000 and 1500 BCE. Many standing stones are in some minimum capacity aligned with the sun and moon or certain rare celestial naturally occurring events. Archeologist’s best guess is they were tied into some sort of ritual celebrations ranging from the death of a clan member, seasonal changes and gatherings to simply a magical space to meditate and convene with the dead, spirits or deities in the Otherworld. One interesting theory is that the stones were said to be renowned and important men or women of their ancient societies turned into stones by Druids themselves or some ancient way of magic. If you wished to gain the wisdom of those elders, you could sleep by them in an attempt to gain their knowledge or the answer to a question. In more modern times, they were and are still undoubtedly used as meeting places to celebrate the various seasonal celebrations.

• Stonehenge: Wiltshire, England
•Avebury: Wiltshire, England
•The Merry Maidens: Penwith, England
•Lough Gur Stone Circle: Limerick, Ireland
•Ballynoe Stone Circle: Down, Ireland
•Beltany Stone Circle: Donegal, Ireland
•Drumskinny Stone Circle: Fermanagh, Ireland
•Beaghmore: Tyrone, Ireland
•Ring of Brodgar: Orkney, Scotland
•Standing Stones of Stenness: Orkney, Scotland
•Callanish Stones: Isle of Lewis, Scotland
•Loanhead of Daviot Stone Circle: Aberdeenshire, Scotland

“As to funeral rites, the earliest age is called the Age of Burning: because all of the dead were consumed by fire, and over their ashes were raised standing stones.” -Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla (1178-1241)

“The common people believe these obelisks to be men, transformed into stones by the magic of the Druids. The erect stones of which we speak, are the monuments of dead persons, whose ashes or bones are often found near them; sometimes in urns, and sometimes in stone-coffins wherein scales, hammers, pieces of weapons and other things have been often found (likely to take with them to the Otherworld), some of them very finely gilt or polished. Dogs also have been found buried with their masters.” -John Toland, A Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning (1670-1722)

“This temple (Callanish Stones) stands astronomically, denoting the twelve signs of the zodiac and the four principal winds, sub-divided each into four others; by which, and the nineteen stones on each side the avenue betokening the cycle of nineteen years (aligns with a rare 18.6 year lunar phenomenon) I can prove it to have been dedicated principally to the sun; but subordinately to the seasons and the elements, particularly to the sea and the winds, as appears by the rudder in the middle.” -John Toland, A Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning (1670-1722)

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Image source: Public domain

Dolmens

Dolmens are thought to have been built approximately between 4000 – 3000 BCE. These structures were thought to be portals to the Otherworld. Bodies of the deceased may have been passed under them or placed in them for a certain period of time. They may have also been spaces to meditate and convene with ancestors or gods and goddesses. Dolmens appear all across Europe from Asia to France and even in Africa.

• Lanyon Quoit: Cornwall, England
•Arthur’s Stone: Herefordshire, England
•Hell Stone: Dorset, England
•Kit’s Coty HouseL Kent, England
•Pentre Ifan: Pembrokeshire, Wales
•Poulnabrone Dolmen: Clare, Ireland
•Brownshill Portal Tomb: Carlow, Ireland
•Proleek Dolmen: Dundalk, Ireland
•Kilclooney Dolmen: Donegal, Ireland
•Ballykeel Dolmen: Ballykeel, Ireland
•Eyre Point Dolmen: Isle of Raasay, Scotland
•Haylie/Haco’s Tomb: North Ayrshire, Scotland

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Image source: Desiree Marie Photography

Chambered Cairn or Passage Grave

Chambered cairns are thought to have been built approximately between 4000 – 2500 BCE. This is most commonly believed to be another type of passage grave, possibly permanently but at least temporarily for the deceased. Many theories exist surrounding the meaning and usage of these mounds. The first is that a deceased member of a tribe was put inside the mound temporarily and involved in a ritual dressing before being put in the ground at another location or being burned. If they were burnt, their ashes and bones may have been scattered inside the tomb so that all members of the tribe were in essence, together. There have been bones found in some burial mounds like that of Newgrange and none in others. Graves have also been found suggesting the bodies were burned and then ashes collected and buried elsewhere. A final theory is that they were used to temporarily house criminals before their ultimate death or criminals were laid to rest there as an offering to their deities or the land. In more modern medievel times they may have been used to light great fires on top of them as to be more easily seen by the entirety of the tribe during their seasonal celebrations when great bonfires were lit.

•Newgrange: Meath, Ireland
•Maeshowe: Orkney, Scotland
•Unstan: Orkney, Scotland
•Midhowe: Orkney, Scotland
•Barpa Langass: Isle of North Uist, Scotland
•Nether Largie Cairns: Scotland
•Clava Cairns: Inverness, Scotland
•Severn-Cotswold Tomb: Wales
•Barclodiad-y-Gawres: Wales
•Uley Long Barrow: Gloucestershire, England
•Wayland’s Smithy: Oxfordshire, England
•Willy Howe: Yorkshire, England

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Image source: Desiree Marie Photography

Kistvaen or Stone Cists

Kistvaens or cistvaens are thought to have been built approximately between 2500 – 1500 BCE. They are formed from flat stone slabs in a box-like shape and usually had a lid that covered it or it has since been covered by a tumulus or mound of dirt. They are typically found next to other archaeological structures, mostly chambered cairns or rock piles but also near standing stones as well. They were steeped in legend and called “Druid altars” in the time of Celtic antiquity and romantic revival. These structures are not typically identified by name despite commonly appearing near standing stones and other stone piles, so it’s challenging to give a list of renowned ones. Up until the 18th century in Scotland, people commonly buried their dead in stone cists due to the shortage of timber.

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Image source: Wiki- West Lothian Archaeological Trust

Ringforts

Ringforts were built up until approx. 1000 CE and are particularly prevalent in Ireland. There are about 45,000 ringforts in Ireland alone. Ringforts were enclosed circular protective forts with stone walls of about two meters or more high. There likely would have been a ditch dug around them, making them even harder to climb up. They provided a very successful defensive system. With a similar goal in mind, there is also a long history of crannog use in Scotland and Ireland where houses were built on a body of water. One central walkway or bridge was the only easy access point.

• Tara: Meath, Ireland
•Hill of Ward/Tlachtga: Meath, Ireland
•Rathcroghan: Roscommon, Ireland
•Cahercommaun: Clare, Ireland
•Dun Aonghasa: Galway, Ireland
•Lisnagade: Down, Ireland
•Grianan of Aileach: Donegal, Ireland
•Mooghaun: Clare, Ireland
•Sandel: Londonderry, Ireland
•Castle Wore: Cornwall, England
•Kelly Rounds: Cornwall, England
•Ringwall von Burg: Saxony, Germany

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Image source: Public domain

Carvings

Celtic artwork is very striking and unique whether it’s a carving, pottery or a weapon. Celtic art and style is broken up into roughly four distinct groups with unique and slightly different artistic features in each of those time periods. As highlighted earlier, there is the Hallstatt culture dating from 800 BCE to 500 BCE, the La Tene culture dating from 500 BCE to 500 CE after Roman Conquest, the Post-Roman British Isles from around 500 CE to 1800 CE and the Celtic Revival from 1800 CE to the present. Many of the artwork or carvings that are renowned to be Celtic were again, actually the indigenous Europeans who may or may not have had some relation to the later identifiable Celtic culture. Famously, the Pictish stones as they are known, seem to have a mixture of both Pagan and Christian influence.

•Newgrange: Meath, Ireland
•Stone Head wearing torc: Mscecke Zehrovice, Czech Republic
•The Statue of Tarasque de Noves: Noves, France
•The Glauberg Prince: Hesse, Germany
•Pillars of Roquepertuse: Velaux, France
•Kilduncan Stone: Fife, Scotland
•Hilton of Cadboll Stone: Easter Ross, Scotland
•St. Madoes Pictish Stone: Perth, Scotland
•Fowlis Wester Sculptured Stone: Perth, Scotland
•Aberlemno Stones: Aberlemno, Scotland
•Mullamast Stone: Kildare, Ireland
•Nigg Stone: Nigg, Scotland
•Ulbster Stone: Thurso, Scotland
•Maiden Stone: Aberdeenshire, Scotland

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Image source: Desiree Marie Photography

Artifacts

Artifacts provide some of the best evidence for Celtic lifestyle and skill. We know that for their time, their methods and skill for crafting was like none other the world or Europe had seen. Some of their jewelry and weaponry were so articulate, ornate and detailed, it’s hard to imagine such capabilities were possible given the tools they had available. We assume based on mythology, that trades like blacksmithing were considered a magical craft and these individuals were highly prized and valuable in their communities.

•The Battersea Shield: Chelsea Bridge, England
•The Witham Shield: River Witham, England
•Wittenham Sword: River Thames, England
•The Desborough Mirror: Northamptonshire, England
•Basse Yutz Flaggons: Basse Yutz, France
•Gundestrup Cauldron: Himmerland, Denmark
•Hochdorf Cauldron: Hochdorf, Germany
•Vix Torc: Burgundy, France
•Hochdorf Dagger: Wurttemberg, Germany
•The Great Torc: Snettisham, Norfolk
•Tara Brooch: Dublin, Ireland
•Pillars of Roquepertuse: France

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Image source: Public domain

Bog Bodies

Bog bodies are bodies of ancient people that have been well preserved due to the high acid, low oxygen level of peat bogs frequently found in Ireland and Scotland. Peat is a wetland made of deposits of dead plant material, often mosses, that have been historically used as fuel. As more peat is harvested, more bodies have been discovered. They give a uniquely accurate view into the past based on what is found in their stomachs, the condition of their bodies, their cause of death as well as any jewelry or clothes they were wearing.

•Lindow Man: Cheshire, England
•Clonycavan Man: Meath, Ireland
•Croghan Man: Offaly, Ireland
•Uchter Moor Woman
•Gallagh Man: Galway, Ireland
•Baronstown West Man: Kildare, Ireland
•Worsley Man: Manchester, England
•Amcotts Moor Woman: Lincolnshire, England
•Stoneyisland Man: Galway, Ireland
•Derrymaquirk Woman: Roscommon, Ireland
•Cashel Man: Laois, Ireland
•Cladh Hallan: South Uist, Scotland (only place in Great Britain where prehistoric mummies have been discovered)

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Image source: Wiki- Public domain

Famous Burials

In addition to bog bodies or individual burials, very elaborate grave sites have been uncovered that include an array of goods both common place as well as unique and valuable.

•Colchester Druid: Essex, England
•Folly Lane: St. Albans, England
•Vix: Burgundy, France
•Hochdorf: Eberdingen, Germany
•Celtic Princess: Heuneburg, Germany

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Image source: Public domain

Sacred Sites

I encourage my readers to research various genuine Celtic holy sites in addition to the ancient monuments that may or may not have been related to the Druids. At some point in our lives, it may be crucial for our spiritual journey to visit at least a few of these sites and feel the power, in person, of the ancient landscape where Druids genuinely practiced and experience the energy it has to offer.

•Anglesay: Wales, UK
•Hayling Island: Hampshire, England
•Uffington Horse: Oxfordshire, England
•Fortingall Yew: Perthshire, Scotland
•Holy Island: Clare, Ireland

For more information check out The Archaeology of Celtic Art by D.W. Harding or The Archaeology of Celtic Britain and Ireland by Lloyd Laing!


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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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