Celtic Craftsmen and Artisans

The Celtic way of life was essentially rural and centred upon the farm in agricultural and rural communities, raising cattle and harvesting crops. Herds were tended and protected, families raised, houses built and pasture maintained, while fields were routinely ploughed and crops harvested. Most people could also do different everyday crafts. Crafts included woodwork, basket making, making clothes, and making clay pots.

Trade with the Celts

Celtic cultures in western and central Europe had already established trade links with the Mediterranean cultures, and this continued with the Celts. Trade often was based on raw materials such as tin from Britain, amber from the Baltic, and horses from eastern Europe and the Balkans. Celtic resources which were traded included salt, slaves, iron, gold, wool cloth, and furs. These goods were exchanged for wine, silver, luxury manufactured goods (like bronze flagons, fine Greek pottery, and Etruscan bronze kraters), silk, and the precious materials for use in art objects and jewellery.

Cloth and Wool

As a commodity, wool is part of Britain’s history and heritage. Archaeological evidence has shown that as early as 6,000 BC domesticated sheep were being bred with woolly fleeces across Northern Europe. As the sheep naturally shed their fleeces during the hotter months, the wool was initially combed or hand plucked from the sheep, then spun and woven, using basic spinning and weaving tools. It was being woven into cloth in Britain by the Bronze Age, which began in around 1900 BC. Shearing dates back to the Iron Age, around 500 BC.

Cloth would have been traded between local tribes as the Celts were adept at making textiles from wool, linen, bast (a plant fibre), and animal hairs such as those of the badger. Archaeologists have found tools that were used to make the clothes in the round houses of Celtic farmers. Examples include clay weights used on looms and drop spindles. Textiles were woven on vertical looms to form patterns or dyed with natural vegetable dyes (plants and berries) or given decoration using gold thread. The wool cloth material made on the loom would then have been sewn together using a bone or metal needle and wool thread.

The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours

Diodorus Siculus

We have seen that the Celts were skilled in the production of fabrics, and that the British woollen cloak or sagum was the height of fashion in Rome in the second and first centuries BC.

By the time the Romans arrived on our shores in 55 BC, the Ancient Britons had already developed a wool industry and British woven cloth was soon considered to be a luxury item. The Romans established a wool plant in Winchester in 50 AD to further develop the methods of skilled British weavers. The Edict of Diocletian, a summary of of traded goods across the Roman Empire and published in 301 AD, put the British birrus (hooded cape of wool) high on the list of quality and price and British tapetia (wool rug) as first class grades ahead of all others on the list.

Leather working

Leather working was widespread and leather sandals, shoes, belts and other accoutrements have been found throughout the Celtic world. Combinations of wood and leather were also used by the Celtic shoemakers.

Carpentry and Tools

With lathes, the Celts created wooden handles for tools and perfectly round wooden bowls. When they combined the skill of their woodworkers with their metalworking expertise, the Celts produced axes. Celtic craft extended to making saws, adzes, metal-bound buckets, and barrels. 

Woodworking was advanced among all the Celtic peoples, which is not surprising as wood was their environment. Great forests covered all the Celtic lands and once iron had been introduced into their tools the Celts fell to work with a will to fell the forests for constructional work in building their homes, towns and roadways. Celtic carpenters were as skilled as their metalworkers. The great trees were felled with axes and split into planks using wooden wedges. From the early La Tène period some constructional timbers have been recovered up to 12 metres in length along with a variety of woodworking tools. These included small saws and even adzes.

Celtic woodworkers were little different from their Roman counterparts in using mortises and tenons or pegged joints. There are traces of elaborate wooden structures, such as gates to towns, or doors to buildings and so forth. There are even references in some classical works to elaborate wooden bridges being found in Gaul across the rivers.

The Celtic woodworkers also produced an intricate range of portable objects, including metal-bound wooden buckets, or barrels, such as those found at Aylesbury in Britain or Manching in Germany.

Glass and Ceramics

The Celtic artisans knew the secrets of making glass and ceramic. They made coloured beads for jewellery and even glass animals. In Wallertheim, Germany, archaeologists unearthed a miniature colored glass dog from the 2nd century BC.

The Celts had learned how to make glass by the sixth and fifth centuries BC but it is only from the fourth century BC that the first traces of Celtic glass-producing workshops survive. Glass was used chiefly in the production of jewellery and other artefacts, particularly coloured beads and ornaments. Glass animals abound from this period. A fascinating example of how advanced the Celts were in making coloured glass figurines may be seen in the miniature glass dog found in Wallertheim, Germany, dating from the second century BC. The technique used was spinning semi-molten ribbons of variously coloured glass on a rod.

God of Bouray

Glass beads were very popular during this period, as were glass bangles. Several statues and Celtic heads were clearly made with glass eyes, such as the ‘God of Bouray’ at the Archaeological Museum of Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Yvelines, France, dated to the first century AD. The Figure is seated in the lotus position, a torc around the neck, and with a blue and white glass eye – the only one remaining in situ.

Large concentrations of certain bead types in Britain, vastly individual and independent from Continental beads of the same time period, point to local glass working centres within Britain. These sites include Meare Lake Village and Glastonbury Lake Village in Somerset, Culbin Sands in Moray, Glenluce Sands in Wigtownshire, Traprain Law and Newstead in East Lothian, and Wilderspool between Chester and Manchester. However, while these areas do suggest a glass industry all archaeological evidence for production seems to be a small industry in the Isles which may have been influenced by materials and mobile artisans.

The production of glass and enamel in Britain and Ireland had become extremely sophisticated by the first century BC.

Enamelling

Enamelling was also carried out among the Continental Celts. The craftsmen had learned how to fuse the glass on to the surface of copper alloys, creating a true enamel working. They used a variety of colours but the favourite was red. A typical example of this type of work is the late-fourth-century BC bronze helmet from Amfreville-sous-les-Monts, Eure, France, which is stylistically decorated with gold and red enamel. Another example, from a bronze belt chain of the second century BC, is a pendant in the shape of a dragon-type animal, which has red enamel inlays. This was found in Nové Zámky, in the Czech Republic. The enamelling technique would eventually influence the gospel illumination of the Christian period in these areas.

Pottery

On the continent, especially, Celtic potters knew advanced techniques such as the potter’s wheel and kilns with bellows to provide oxygen. Thus, they could fire their clay and control its colours. Vessels are very often elegantly curved in form and may be dark in colour or red with black decoration. Animals were a favourite motif and could be incised, painted, or stamped onto pottery of all kinds. By adding graphite to the clay, they could even create a metallic look. The potter’s wheel was introduced into Britain c.150 BC

Celtic potters had progressed to the use of the wheel from the end of the Hallstatt period. They fired their pots in techinically advanced kilns which were designed to allow oxygen to be introduced; the potter could thus control the colour of the vessel, depending on its clay. By the La Tène period, the potters often stamped their pots with animal designs. Later the pots were painted with bands of red or white or black patterns such as cross hatching. This was done by applying liquid clay before firing. Some Celtic potters added graphite to the clay to achieve a metallic appearance.

The insular Celts tended to make their pots by hand, particularly the north Britons. In fact, both the north Britons and the Irish appeared to produce very little in the way of pottery at all, preferring, it seems, to use intricate metalwork bowls or carved wooden vessels, which were much more labour intensive but durable. The evidence shows that the Celts even used lathes to turn out wooden bowls and tool handles.

Metalworking

The historical tradition of Celtic metalwork begins back in the Irish Bronze Age (c.3500-1100 BCE). Celtic craftsmen produced a range of simple shapes in Bronze, copper and gold, as well as the more intricate torque (torc) shaped items. From c.500 BCE onwards, a new style of Celtic art took hold over, known as La Tene (after the excavations at La Tène close to Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland).

The Stanwick Horse Mask (British Museum, London)

The Stanwick Horse Mask is Celtic bronze horse head mask which was discovered as part of the Stanwick Hoard of North Yorkshire, England. The piece is made from a copper alloy sheet metal mount in the form of a stylised horse’s head. Made to be attached to a wooden object, possibly a bucket.

Ironworking

The name Iron Age comes from the Celts’ discovery and use of iron. How the Celts came by these techniques is impossible to say. It may simply be that they developed them through the process of working other metals. The first peoples to emerge as advanced in such techniques, in the late second millennium BC, were the Indo-European Hittites. Iron ore was abundant in the Anatolian mountains where they had settled, and iron became a valuable metal among the Hittites. It was worked by a few skilled craftsmen. King Anittas received as tribute from the city of Puruskhanda an iron sceptre and an iron throne. Iron swords began to be produced here but not in such quantity as to make a significant difference in warfare. However the Celts, experimenting over many centuries with smelting and forging techniques, probably arrived at their knowledge without outside influence.

In ancient Celtic society, the smiths were accorded a high status. They were considered to rank with the professional intellectuals and were thus part of the intellectual caste of society.

Iron and its ore occurs widely in Britain, both in the form of metallic ‘bog iron’ in wet, peaty bogs and as a variety of ores. The ores occur naturally on the surface over large areas of southern Britain, and new evidence for iron-working is appearing on a regular basis all over the country. The forging (i.e. smithing) of iron seems to have been carried out within the homestead, although the process of smelting – producing metal from the ore – probably took place away from actual settlements.

We know of no large, specialised ‘factory’ sites for iron-working in Early or Middle Iron Age times, although strangely there is something approaching industrial-scale manufacture of bronze objects. A pit of the late second century BC at Gussage All Saints, Dorset, produced fragments of a furnace and crucibles, plus some eight thousand fragments of clay moulds that were used just once to produce harness fittings, such as bridle bits, and small components for carts or wagons.

Coinage

The most abundant evidence we have of the British metalworking tradition is coinage. Driven by the requirements of a booming trade economy, by the turn of the millennium the mintmasters of the British tribes were turning out ever-larger quantities of coins, made to closely controlled standards of weight and composition, and using sophisticated alloying techniques to disguise the effects of debasement.

Bronze Work

Celtic craftsmen were also experts in creating mirrors of highly polished bronze. Bronze mirrors were a speciality export from southern England in the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE. Sumptuously made, the backsides of these mirrors were often engraved with intricate designs and they often had an openwork handle and the back decorated with intricate designs.

The Desborough Mirror

Some of the most outstanding examples of Celtic art may be found in the mirrors, especially as represented by the Desborough, Northamptonshire, bronze mirror, dated to the end of the first century BC.