Social Structure and Everyday Life in Ancient Celtic Culture



Social Structureimg_celticsociety.gif
Social structure among the different Celtic groups was very similar from one group to the other. Typically, at least among Irish Celts, communities were set up into Tuath’s; meaning the people. This term later developed into one that described a land area or territory in which the group resided. This term, in modern times, has also come to be known as meaning tribe or clan, though this latest definition is not necessarily accurate. Within a Tauth there would be a head chieftain known as the Ri Tauth. This leader, while elected by the preceding Ri Tauth, was not necessarily of the same blood line however; a fact that distinguishes this system from many others of the world.
Within the Tauth, not only among the Irish Celts but also the Gauls, there consisted a privileged class of people. This class included warriors and druids, which are both discussed below, as well as people with specialized skills such as bards and artisans. Among the Irish Celts this group of people were known as men of art and fit into the Flaiths or Nemedh section in the chart to the right.

Bards, as it would appear, held a similar status as that of the Druids. They also shared similar roles. They did however have a tradition that seems to be their own; it is that of praise-singing. Praise-singing was their way of ‘extolling the virtues of nobility’ (James, 52). It is because of the Bards association with music that we often see them depicted carrying a musical instrument. As there is no native written history of most of Celtic society, all history and information, other than the texts from outside peoples, was passed down through an oral tradition. Part of the Bards similarity with the Druids was their role in continuing this tradition.

Unfortunately, there is little information from textual sources regarding the Daer Ceiles, or free persons. One could assume that while they created the majority of Celtic populations, they were of little interest to the outsiders who give us much of our information about the Celts; hence our lack of textual knowledge about this class of citizens.

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Everyday Life

Through archaeological evidence we know that most Celtic society was predominately rural, concerned with agriculture and domesticated animals.In Celtic farming many different crops were grown, and also varied somewhat depending on the area of Europe inhabited. Millet was a primary crop in Gaul, though not in many other areas of Celtic civilization. In these other areas, such as modern day Britain and Ireland, different varieties of cereals and wheat’s existed. grain_storage.jpg Beans and peas were grown as well as lentil, and flax was also grown for use as linen and possibly for use as oil as well.Celtic peoples also engaged in hunting animals such as birds, deer, rabbits, badgers, and foxes. While hunting was a part of Celtic life, the archaeological record shows us that this was not a significant source of food for Celtic peoples. At excavated settlements the majority of animal remains are from domesticated animals and only a small portion belongs to those left for hunting.

Due to the weather in the regions occupied by Celtic peoples, the growing season was exactly that, a season. They were unable to grow staples such as grains during the winter months and therefore had to develop means of storage in order to supply enough food during the winter months. One way archaeologists believe this was accomplished was through deep pits dug in the ground similar to the image on the left. These types of containers could keep grains fresh for several months or until the clay seal was broken.

Houses have been found to come in two typical forms. In Gaul and most of mainland Europe these houses tended to be rectangular in nature, and though archaeologists have found no discernible reason for a difference, in Britain and Ireland houses were predominately circular, like the reconstruction shown below.
All of the information we have about these houses is still largely speculation however since only a small number of housing excavations have revealed intact housing settlements. More often than not the only remnants of these settlements has been the large ditches that surrounded them for keeping different animals in or out, and the post holes that allow us to determine size and shape of the building itself. It has been postulated that in the rectangular style of housing found that there may have been a second floor and evidence has shown that almost all of the houses found regardless of general shape included some form of hearth near the center.


While we may not have recovered much in the way of housing settlement artifacts, we have gained a significant amount of material related to burial practices of the Ancient Celts, particularly pertaining to the late Hallstatt civilization. Evidence suggests that mortuary rituals were important in showing status differences, though it was not only the elite who were afforded “better” burials. There was also an interesting form burial known as bog bodies. For more information on this topic please read Hannah's page. Archaeological evidence also suggests that places such as Stonehenge, image below, may have been related to burial rituals or practices. For a better understanding of these monuments and places please visit Sara's page on religion, or Teasha's page on monuments.

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"The cardinal teaching of the Druids is that the soul does not perish at death, but passes from one body to another" - Julius Ceasar


“The order of Druids, as described by Caesar, was an old and highly developed institution” (DeWitt, 320). It is because of the oral tradition of the Druids that we must rely on outside sources for text containing information about the Druids. The archaeological record may also provide some insight into this order of people and rituals they may have been involved in. We do know that these people were of a highly respected class within Celtic social stratification and that like Bards and Brehons, anyone could aspire to and become a Druid. Through Roman records and writings, “we are told that the Druids professed to teach some natural science, astronomy, geography, and that they engaged in certain speculations as to the origin of the human race, and the survival of the soul after death” (DeWitt, 321).

We know that the Druids were of a highly respected class in the Celtic stratification system. We also know that in a culture made up of many different tribes, Druids were one of the few institutions that panned across the tribes and was somewhat of a unifying feature of these people. This can be shown through the Druids “annual pan-Gaulish assembly” (Cunliffe, 191).
The term Druid, was derived from an original term meaning strong-knowledge-possessor. It was thought that these specialized professionals were mediators; not so much in “legal” issues, but “between their societies and the mysterious powers of destiny;” they were “learned in the divine nature and familiar with it” (O hOgain, 27). The druids were, indeed, extremely learned in their trade. As there was no system of writing in the Celtic societies, all of the knowledge passed down was done in an oral tradition and the expectation of those striving to become a druid “to memorize a great number of verses, laws, histories, magic formulae and other traditions could sometimes take as long as twenty years to complete” (James, 91).
While druidism was not limited to men, women who chose, or perhaps were chosen, to join the order appear to have been subjected to less formal schooling and it would appear that “spontaneous prophecy was their specialty” (O hOgain, 27).

Another charge of the druids was that of religious sacrifice. “There is ample evidence to suggest that among the commodities sacrificed were human beings” (Cunliffe, 190). Among the God’s to whom sacrifices were made were Taranis, Teutates, and Esus. It was also noted by Lucan that each deity required a different mode of sacrifice; to the three noted above were, respectively, burning, drowning, and hanging (Cunliffe, 191). For further information regarding the different pantheon's of gods during this time period, please refer to Sara's page.

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Celtic warriors were a very proud group. We have attained knowledge of there weapons through uncovered grave sites, and we have also received knowledge of them through the writings of their enemies; the Romans. We have uncovered evidence that “throughout the Late Bronze Age, the principal weapon was the cut and thrust sword, and there is some evidence for round wooden shields with bronze studs and for leather shields. Helmets, shields, and even cuirasses, of sheet bronze are known, but must be regarded as having always been great rarities” (Powell, 121). With the dawning of the Iron Age there was a great improvement in weaponry, especially in the strength of the weapons. It has also been speculated that cavalry as well as the use of the two-wheeled chariot became integral parts of warfare in the early Hallstatt civilization, though the archaeological record is still uncertain if this was the case.warriorartifaacts.jpg

Evolution of Celtic Helmets

Through accounts of battle we have come to learn of several Celtic customs including entering into battle naked, decapitation of enemies, and intertribal warfare that was governed by the Druids. On the subject of intertribal warfare, Posidonius, a Greek philosopher born in Syria, is a great narrator, having witnessed much of this while on his search for “tribes still relatively uncorrupted by civilizing influences” (Freeman, 17). Posidonius is also somewhat authoritative figure on the Celtic practice of enemy decapitation as he did witness the practice but may not have fully understood the reasoning or meanings behind it.

Celtic intertribal warfare was not so much because the tribes were fighting for land or other possessions; it was for honor; honor of the tribe but also honor of the individual fighters involved. During intertribal warfare, it was not uncommon for Druids from both tribes to step in and actually halt the battle if there were too many lives being lost, or the rules of combat were not being obeyed. It was also not uncommon, as Posidonius noted, for a warrior from one tribe to step forward in the middle of battle and challenge the opposing tribe members to a one-on-one fight for all the glory. After one such battle Posidonius noted, “When Gaulish warriors face each other in battle, one will often come forward from his lines and challenge the best man of his opponents to fight him alone. This challenger will show off his weapons and try to strike dear in the hearts of his enemies. If someone accepts the challenge, this warrior in turn will begin boasting of his brave ancestors while he belittles his opponent – all in a mutual attempt to intimidate the other side” (Freeman, 109).
Just as actual warfare was participated in for pride and honor, the weapons used were also decorated in order to show status and honor. Shields and swords were often decorated in the art style of the time, whether it be Hallstatt, La Tene, or another; helmets, if one were to actually use one, were also decorated. For more information (and examples) on the art styles of these ancient European civilizations please read Gregg's page.
Recreation of a Celtic skull engraved with typical Celtic artistic designs. Click image for Celtic Art Page

The Celtic practice of decapitation, or head-hunting as it was commonly referred by outsiders, “made the biggest impression on all Greeks and Romans” because it was not only gruesome, but was “an act that had no parallel in classic battles” (Freeman, 111). Strabo, another historian and philosopher, wrote, “The Gauls practice a custom common to many northern tribes. In battle, they hang the heads of their slain enemies around the necks of their horses, then at home they hang them on pegs in their houses” (Freeman, 111). Powell notes that “it would be hazardous to dismiss this custom amongst the Celts as being merely a desire to collect trophies for the accumulation of m artial prestige. It is more likely that it originated in cult practices to do with fertility, and with bringing the ghost into servitude” (130). We could also infer that this practice may have had something to do with the religious practices of these civilizations though there does not appear to be any archaeological evidence of such as of yet.

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