Age of the Celts
(600 BCE - 50 AD)
of Wales were developing along tribal lines by the time the advent of iron
ushered in a new cultural change. The Ordovices in the north east and the
Silures in the south east are but two of these early tribes, the names of
which are not their own but those given them by late Roman invaders.
earliest iron artefact in Wales is a sword dating to about 600 BCE, but by
400 BCE iron was being smelted and crafted into tools all over the British
of Wales developed regional styles of working iron, gold, and other
metals, following the exquisite western European style known as La Tene
(after the village of La Tene in Switzerland). At the same time as iron
was introduced to Britain a new crop of settlers arrived from northern
the Celts, whose cultural influence cannot be overstated. Traditional
history has viewed the Celts as fierce conquerors who swept away the
vestiges of earlier cultures and took complete control of Welsh society.
balanced and likely theory is that the actual number of Celtic newcomers
was low, and though they managed to dominate the culture of the earlier
inhabitants of Wales, they did so without changing the overall physical or
racial characteristics. So the Welsh of today are more likely to owe their
physiognomy, if not their culture, to the Beaker People rather than the
The Iron Age is the age of the Celt in Britain. Over the 500 or so years
leading up to the first Roman invasion a Celtic culture established itself
throughout the British Isles. Who were these Celts? The Celts as we know
them today exist largely in the magnificence of their art and the words of
the Romans who fought them.
with the reports of the Romans is that they were a mix of reportage and
political propaganda. It was politically expedient for the Celtic peoples
to be coloured as barbarians and the Romans as a great civilizing force.
And history written by the winners is always suspect.
they come from? What we do know is that the people we call Celts gradually
infiltrated England and Wales over the course of the centuries between
about 500 and 100 B.C. There was probably never an organized Celtic
invasion; for one thing the Celts were so fragmented and given to fighting
among themselves that the idea of a concerted invasion would have been
were a group of peoples loosely tied by similar language, religion, and
cultural expression. They were not centrally governed, and quite as happy
to fight each other as any non-Celt. They were warriors, living for the
glories of battle and plunder. They were also the people who brought iron
working to Britain.
family life. The basic unit of Celtic life was the clan, a sort of
extended family. The term "family" is a bit misleading, for by
all accounts the Celts practiced a peculiar form of child rearing; they
didn't rear them, they farmed them out. Children were actually raised by
foster parents. The foster father was often the brother of the
birth-mother. Clans were bound together very loosely with other clans into
tribes, each of which had its own social structure and customs, and
possibly its own local gods.
The Celts lived in huts of arched timber with walls of wicker and roofs of
thatch. The huts were generally gathered in loose hamlets. In several
places each tribe had its own coinage system.
The Celts were farmers when they weren't fighting. One of the interesting
innovations that they brought to Britain was the iron plough. Earlier
ploughs had been awkward affairs, basically a stick with a pointed end
harnessed behind two oxen. They were suitable only for ploughing the light
iron ploughs constituted an agricultural revolution all by themselves, for
they made it possible for the first time to cultivate the rich valley and
lowland soils. They came with a price, though. It generally required a
team of eight oxen to pull the plough, so to avoid the difficulty of
turning that large a team, Celtic fields tended to be long and narrow, a
pattern that can still be seen in some parts of the country today.
of women. Celtic lands were owned communally, and wealth seems to have
been based largely on the size of cattle herd owned. The lot of women was
a good deal better than in most societies of that time. They were
technically equal to men, owned property, and could choose their own
husbands. They could also be war leaders, as Boudicca (Boadicea) later
There was a
written Celtic language, but it developed well into Christian times, so
for much of Celtic history they relied on oral transmission of culture,
primarily through the efforts of bards and poets. These arts were
tremendously important to the Celts, and much of what we know of their
traditions comes to us today through the old tales and poems that were
handed down for generations before eventually being written down.
Another area where oral traditions were important was in the training of
Druids. There has been a lot of nonsense written about Druids, but they were
a curious lot; a sort of super-class of priests, political advisors,
teachers, healers, and arbitrators. They had their own universities, where
traditional knowledge was passed on by rote. They had the right to speak
ahead of the king in council, and may have held more authority than the
as ambassadors in time of war, they composed verse and upheld the law.
They were a sort of glue holding together Celtic culture. The Isle of
Anglesey seems to have been held in special esteem by the Celtic-Welsh
From what we know of the Celts from Roman commentators, who are,
remember, witnesses with an axe to grind, they held many of their
religious ceremonies in woodland groves and near sacred water, such as
wells and springs. The Romans speak of human sacrifice as being a part of
we do know, the Celts revered human heads. Celtic warriors would cut off
the heads of their enemies in battle and display them as trophies. They
mounted heads in doorposts and hung them from their belts. This might seem
barbaric to us, but to the Celt the seat of spiritual power was the head,
so by taking the head of a vanquished foe they were appropriating that
power for themselves. It was a kind of bloody religious observance.
Celts at War. The Celts loved war. If one wasn't happening they'd be
sure to start one. They were scrappers from the word go. They arrayed
themselves as fiercely as possible, sometimes charging into battle fully
naked, dyed blue from head to toe, and screaming like banshees to terrify
tremendous pride in their appearance in battle, if we can judge by the
elaborately embellished weapons and paraphernalia they used. Golden
shields and breastplates shared pride of place with ornamented helmets and
were great users of light chariots in warfare. From this chariot, drawn by
two horses, they would throw spears at an enemy before dismounting to have
a go with heavy slashing swords.
had a habit of dragging families and baggage along to their battles,
forming a great milling mass of encumbrances, which sometimes cost them a
victory, as Queen Boudicca would later discover to her dismay. As
mentioned, they beheaded their opponents in battle and it was considered a
sign of prowess and social standing to have a goodly number of heads to
problem with the Celts was that they couldn't stop fighting among
themselves long enough to put up a unified front. Each tribe was out for
itself, and in the long run this cost them control of Britain.
physical makeup of the Welsh people owes more to the Beaker People, Welsh
culture is largely a Celtic one. The warlike Celts, with their reverence
for martial heroism, left an indelible mark on the folk tales and cultural
myths of Wales, myths which grew through time into the mass of legends we
know as the Mabinogion.