Animals or Artisans: Did Iron Age Britain Equal Roman Beauty?

Alex Rome Griffin | Lancaster University

The word ‘Celts’ can conjure up a variety of mental images, from the powerful, unnatural druids to visions of heroic warriors, resplendent in wode and furs facing down the Romans like Conan the Barbarian. According to Cassius Dio, a Roman Historian who wrote extensively on Rome’s campaigns in Britain, the people of Britannia lived in swamps, existing half-submerged for days, with only their heads above water and eating bark, tree roots and wild fruit. Julius Caesar, who first invaded Britain in 55BC, similarly records that they did not practice agriculture and ate only meat and drank only milk, with no clothes other than animal skins. The Roman perception of the Iron Age inhabitants of Britain was undoubtedly a negative one, more like wild beasts than people and in no way the equal of the louche, urbane men of the mother city. Of course, much of this was political propaganda. Rome needed to ‘other’ their enemy and make it appear that their conquest was tantamount to a mercy mission, presenting the native Britons as savages who needed to be shown the error of their ways and taken under the wing of Roman civilisation.

But what if this was not the case? What if the people of pre-Roman Britain were just as advanced, just as socially complex and just as capable of great feats of knowledge and skill as their Roman counterparts? Doubtlessly the archaeological record shows this; one only needs to look at the scale and complexity of Britain’s many hill forts to understand that great feats of engineering were not a purely Roman preserve (see Figure 1). However, the Roman concept of civilisation was not simply about physical surroundings. Rome saw themselves as ambassadors of culture – even if this culture was meted out at the point of a gladius. Surely the Iron Age Britons could not hope to match Rome’s feats of art, poetry and music? For the latter two, we simply do not know. The Britons likely practised an oral tradition, with stories and myths passed on generationally by word of mouth and recounted time and time again around fires and at feasts, and evidence of Iron Age musicology is ephemeral, to say the least.

Figure 1. British Camp, an Iron Age hill fort located at the top of Herefordshire Beacon in the Malvern Hills.
Figure 1. British Camp, an Iron Age hill fort located at the top of Herefordshire Beacon in the Malvern Hills.

When it comes to art, however, Britain might just have had Rome matched. Extensive investigation into the archaeological record of Iron Age Britain has yielded numerous complex and beautiful objects. From decorated martial equipment to elaborately inlaid mirrors of polished bronze and iron - the latter of which distorted the image of anything reflected in them and may have been used ritualistically. However, one artefact, uncovered quite by accident during dredging in the River Thames in 1857, perfectly encapsulates this. The Battersea Shield, the artefact at the end of this rather grandiose build up, is something of an enigma. It is made from a single sheet of hammered bronze and decorated with elaborate patterns of circles and swirls, commonly seen in La Téne art. The exact use of the shield is open to interpretation. It is possible that the bronze represents the facing for a wooden shield that has long since degraded (wood generally survives well underwater, if the shield was originally backed with wood, it wouldn’t be surprising if traces of it remained). It has also been suggested as a stand-alone object, and if that were the case, then it is unlikely to have any practical use in combat; the bronze is far too thin to ever stop a weapon. If the latter explanation were true, then it is likely that it was a ceremonial piece, meant only for display.

The Battersea Shield
The Battersea Shield

This raises important questions about who exactly would have owned the shield, who were they displaying it to and what was the intended message. To have procured something of this standard, the owner must have been wealthy and well connected. Whilst interpretations of Iron Age power structures have moved beyond the simple equation of wealth equalled status, the message behind the shield smacks of power; both in terms of the owner’s ability to obtain such an object and the clear, if symbolic, combative implications of a piece of martial equipment. Exploring the idea of procurement more, some academics have posited that objects were not necessarily prized for their precious materials, but rather the number of steps taken in order to make them and thus the number of different hands those objects needed to pass through. This demonstrated the interconnectedness of the object’s eventual owner, and it is possible that the ability to tap into a variety of social networks was linked with status and power.

It also cannot escape notice that the object is elaborately decorated, and the distinctive, swirling style of La Téne art has also been suggested to be highly symbolic. It has been posited that the ephemeral nature of the patterns allowed people to make their own meanings in the object and reach their own conclusions on what was represented in the decoration. This essentially allowed the object to connect with everyone who had handled it, and it has been hypothesised that the object may have been conceptualised as having captured, in a sense, the ontologies of all those who touched it. The abstract powers imbued in the object as a result of its complex biography then transferred to its owner.

Further evidence for the mystical power of the object can be found in the context of its eventual burial. The deposition of metal work, especially martial equipment, in lakes, rivers and other bodies of water was common in prehistory. It is possible that metal work was considered ritually important and, in some way powerful, likely because of the complex and lively processes of mining, smelting and forging that were required to create it. It might be posited that finds ended up in waterways as a result of flooding, or simply being washed out of their original context, however the sheer abundance of metal work found in watery contexts has led academics to believe that the selection of water for metal work was deliberate The specific selection of martial equipment for this type of special deposition has also led academics to suggests that weapons of war may have been considered as especially spiritually charged because they had been used, or at least had the ability, to take human life. Water was seen as a liminal medium, with its reflective surface representing the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead, or other non-human realms. Objects were considered to slip between states of life and death as they sank into the depths. It was, in essence, a containment cell for objects too powerful, too dangerous or too ritually loaded to be disposed of by other means. Whilst we do not know what the perceived consequences of improper disposal may have been, we might presume that weapons were considered capable of wreaking some form of havoc unless secured in water. We can only speculate that the Battersea shield was one such dangerous and powerful object and after the owner’s death had to be specially discarded because of what it represented.

The shield will always remain an enigma, and we will never know the full story of either it or its owner. This lack of absolutes has been reflected in this article, and if any of the language seems equivocal, that is because it has to be. Archaeology deals with the scattered, physical remains of past lives, lives that are often evidenced by no more than a flake of flint, or sherd of pottery. Material culture, as demonstrated by the shield, can be deeply vocal, but often in obscure ways and the voices of the past are more emotive than factual. That is why so many questions about the shield’s life, its journey from raw material to ritual deposit, to name but one, can only be the source of speculation. There is something at once disheartening and uplifting about this; we might be sad because we will never sate the full extent of our curiosity, but, privately, it is quite fun to fill in the blank spaces of the past yourself.

Despite this, however, the shield remains a wonderful, beautiful, complex and powerful object which offers a glimpse into how power, status, life, death and religion all combined. When it comes to pre-Roman Iron Age peoples, I think it is safe to say that their culture was just as developed, just as diverse and just as intricate as anything Roman. Barbarians, they were not.


Further Reading:

  • Gosden, C., Crawford, S. and Ulmschneider, K., 2014. Celtic art in Europe. Making connections. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

  • Bradley, R., 1998. The passage of arms. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

  • Bradley, R., 2016. A geography of offerings. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

  • Giles, M., 2012. A forged glamour. Oxford: Windgather Press.

  • Stead, I., 1985. The Battersea shield. London: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Publications.