The people of Britain began farming about 5,000 years ago during the Neolithic period (New Stone Age). The Bronze and Iron Ages witnessed a number of advances in farming. Iron Age Celtic Britain consisted almost exclusively of settled farming communities who tended their crops and livestock. The earliest written information about Britain records that the Celts of Southern and Eastern Britain were skilled arable farmers.
Strabo wrote that Britain:
The greatest portion of the island is level and woody, although many tracts are hilly. It produces corn, cattle, gold, silver, and iron, which things are brought thence, and also skins, and slaves, and dogs sagacious in hunting; the Kelts use these, as well as their native dogs, for the purposes of war.Strabo, Geography Book 4, Chapter 5 Section 1
Pastoral or Arable Farming
Archaeological evidence indicates that a mixture of pastoral (focused on animals and animal produce) and arable farming (land to grow crops) was practised throughout Britain. The balance between these farming methods in any given area would have been dependent on a number of geographic factors. Highly steep areas are not suitable to grow crops so, it is better to keep the animals that can adjust to the slopes. Soils which are less nutritious and can support only growth of grass, thus works best for pastures. Very cold and wet climate makes it impossible for crops to grow and hence animal farming is a good option for people living in such conditions. Strong winds can destroy crops or even flatten them making their growth difficult. In that case, animals can easily survive and can be a good source of income for farmers.
Fields in Celtic Britain
In the later Iron Age (about 100BC) woodland was cleared at an unprecedented rate and some heavier soils were drained and made into farming land. Most of the land was under management across the south of Britain with very few areas left untouched.
The term ‘Celtic Fields’ refers to a regular system of small square or rectangular fields which are usually bounded by banks or lynchets. They are much smaller than the size of todays fields ranging in size from 2 hectares to 3 hectares. In Britain they can date back as far as the Bronze Age c.2000BC, but they were also used throughout the Iron Age and Roman Periods.
An organised system of land management can be traced in Britain throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The high level of organisation can be seen in the way that the fields and paddocks were laid out in a structured way and on a vast scale. The land around each farm was under the plough and producing a large range of crops very efficiently. The outer field boundaries were either wattle fencing or live hedges. Where the cultivated area extended up the hillsides, over a period of time the soil in each field slipped down the slope, and at the lower boundary it created a terrace called a lynchet bank. Further out from the farm, the surrounding hills and open land was used to graze a variety of animals. The land alongside any rivers was used for meadows, hay making in the summer and water-meadow grazing in the winter. Any area of woodland within reach was used to produce the timber required by pollarding and coppicing.
Celtic Fields of Burderop Down
A good example of the Celtic field system can be found on Burderop Down in Wiltshire. Roman pottery has been recovered from molehills and rabbit burrows suggesting that these fields were in use in the Roman Period. Many ‘Celtic Fields’ have been destroyed by later cultivation, and many of those that had survived in good condition were ploughed up during the Second World War or shortly afterwards.
During the British Iron Age, large tracts of land in Southern and Eastern Britain were used to produce crops and the Celts who lived there were skilled arable farmers.
Pytheas of Massalia visited the Southern coast of Britain around Kent and the Thames in about 322BC. Unfortunately there are no surviving copies of his journal ‘Peritou Okeanou’ (About the Ocean) but later classical writers have quoted his work and they provide us with the earliest written account of Britain. Strabo also repeated what Pytheas reported from Thule which he said was bordering on the frozen zone (perhaps the Shetlands):
be destitute of cultivated fruits, and almost de- prived of the domestic animals; that their food would consist of millet, herbs, fruits, and roots; and that where there was corn and honey they would make drink of these. That having no bright sun, they would thresh their corn, and store it in vast granaries, threshing-floors being useless on account of the rain and want of sun.Strabo, Geography Book 4, Chapter 5, Section 1
The fields were cultivated by either digging by hand, or ploughing using cattle as the motive power. All crops were sown by hand and then raked or harrowed to cover the seed. Various phases of grain processing can now be recognised from the chaff and weed remains and two types of husbandry of grain have now been recognised. One was intensive, probably based on heavy manuring and spade cultivation and produced emmer wheat and barley, and the other was extensive using a plough with little weeding of the crop with barley and rye as the main crops.
What crops were grown in Iron Age Celtic Britain?
Our knowledge of the crops cultivated in the latter part of the first millennium BC comes mainly from carbonised seed, seed accidentally burned and turned into charcoal within the settlement zone.
Several varieties of wheat were grown, and include; Emmer, Einkhorn, Rivet and Spelt. Spelt wheat was introduced around 500BC which is the Middle Iron Age and together with Emmer wheat became the one of the most important crops of the Iron Age. Wheat was grown for the production of bread, and the excess traded out for luxury goods.
Oats, rye and millet are thought to have been introduced to Britain during the Iron Age. Oats were grown mainly for animal feed but were consumed by humans in the poorer areas. Rye is another grain used for baking as bread. Two varieties of barley were grown and one of them, a six-row barley, was used to make malt for the brewing of beer. The barley and rye could also have been made into a kind of porridge, evidence for which has been found in the stomach contents in preserved Iron Age bodies that have been deposited in peat bogs in northern Europe.
Fflax (Linum usitatissimum). was grown probably for both the stem fibres to manufacture into linen and
for the oil which was obtained by crushing the seeds.
The productivity of ancient crops is studied at Butser Iron Age Farm. At this experimental farm it has been shown that good crop yields were probably achieved by the Celtic farmers. Some of these varieties may also have been more nutritious.
Few vegetables were known in Britain prior to the Roman Invasion of the country. However, Celtic beans and fat hen were grown and a kind of primitive parsnip was found in Britain at that time. Herbs would probably have been the main way to get your ‘greens’.
Fat hen (Chenopodium album) can be used when young as a vegetable like spinach for human consumption; the mature can be treated like hay for winter animal fodder and the seeds can be ground up into a flour for bread making.
Grain Storage in Celtic Britain
In some areas small granaries were raised above the ground on four posts but underground pits were more commonly used to store the surpluses of grain. These underground pits were timber-lined and their excavation, at places like Danebury Iron Age Fort, has revealed that offerings to the gods were placed at the bottom of the pits before harvest and possibly after a good harvest. Religion and farming were closely linked in Iron Age Britain. The classical author, Diodorus Siculus, was probably quoting the earlier writer, Posidonius, when he stated:
In reaping their wheat they cut off the ears from the stalk, and house them in pits under ground; then they take and pluck out the grains of just enough of the oldest of them to last for the day, and after they have bruised the wheat make it into bread.Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Book 5, Chapter 21, Paragraph 5
The theory of storing grain in pits is straightforward. Sprouting grain uses up oxygen and gives off carbon dioxide in its normal respiration. If the grain is put inside a sealed container it will quickly use up all the oxygen present. Then it stops growing and becomes dormant until more oxygen is introduced. The storage pit works like that, keeping the grain in a sterile atmosphere. A hole is dug into the rock (usually chalk) sometimes up to two metres in depth and a metre in diameter. It is filled with grain and a seal of moist clay covered by loose soil put on the top. The loose soil keeps the clay moist and stops any penetration by rain. Inside the pit bacteria and fungi have been trapped with the grain but they will not survive if deprived of oxygen which happens as soon as the pit is sealed. Experiments have shown that grain stored in this way will still grow extremely well and is also edible. But, during the Iron Age, the food corn is likely to have been stored in above ground granaries because it was not wise to keep on re-opening the pit. Beans might have been stored in the same way in pits and perhaps other foodstuffs as well. Silage could have been made in these pits; grass piled inside and covered with stones to compress it would soon ‘cure’.
Other system of storage comprised small granaries set on large posts above ground very much like the small buildings set on staddle stones still to be seen in the modern landscape. The primary purpose of these buildings is to allow air circulation all around the structures and secondly to inhibit access to rodents.
While other Iron Age peoples were still employing wood shares to plough their fields the Celts had replaced theirs with iron. Other agricultural tools were also effected and improved such as scythes, spades, sickles, axes, forks and billhooks.
By the first century BC the advanced Belgic tribes of Southern Britain certainly had an improved ard (simple plough) which had an iron ploughshare to move the soil to one side.
Archaeological evidence for the use of the plough in prehistoric Europe is by plow marks preserved in ancient ground surfaces below later earthworks; field banks (lynchets) caused by the movement of soil consequent upon plowing; contemporary illustrations, usually rock carvings, showing the plow teams in action; and the remains of the plows themselves.
The coulter, a sharp knife attached to the plough beam, made a vertical cut through the soil at the same time the share produced the horizontal slice allowing the soil to be turned. The Celtic plough, ingeniously fitted with a mobile coulter, was greatly superior to the Roman swing plough of the same period. The Romans are usually credited with introducing the coulter to Britain but the earliest example of an iron coulter, recorded in northern Europe, was found at the Iron Age fort of Bigbury in Kent. This method ended the need for ‘double ploughing’ which was a common practice in early European societies. Such a plow is depicted on a Celtic rock carving from Val Camonica, North of Milan, Italy which dates to the seventh century BC.
All over the Roman world, people used various types of the light wheelless plough which the Romans called aratruml but here and there they found the Celtic people using the heavy wheeled plough, invented as Pliny says in Raetia, which the Gauls called Caruca.
There has been invented, at a comparatively recent period, in that part of Gaul known as Rhætia, a plough with the addition of two small wheels, and known by the name of “plaumorati.” The extremity of the share in this has the form of a spade: it is only used, however, for sowing in cultivated lands, and upon soils which are nearly fallow.Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 18, Chapter 48, The Various Kinds of Plough
Celtic Harvesting Machine
In the second century AD the Celts were also the first to introduce harvesting machine, the messor, later called vallus by the Romans.
In the vast domains of the provinces of Gaul a large hollow frame, armed with teeth and supported on two wheels, is driven through the standing corn, the beasts being yoked behind it; the result being, that the ears are torn off and fall within the frame.Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 18, Chapter 72 The Harvest
The island of Britain is recorded by the ancient writers as being very populous and therefore it is not surprising that there is evidence of soil depletion dating to the Iron Age. However, according to the Roman reporter, Pliny the Elder, the British farmers invented the practice of manuring the soil with various kinds of mast, loam, and chalk. These chalk pits can be found in Kent and are called Deneholes.
…invented both in Gaul and Britain… Another kind is the white chalk that is used for cleaning silver; it is taken from a considerable depth in the ground, the pits being sunk, in most instances, as much as one hundred feet. These pits are narrow at the mouth, but the shafts enlarge very considerably in the interior, as is the case in mines; it is in Britain more particularly that this chalk is employed. The good effects of it are found to last full eighty years; and there is no instance known of an agriculturist laying it twice on the same land during his life.Pliny, The Natural History, Book 17 The Natural History Of The Cultivated Trees. Chap. 4. (The Eight Kinds Of Earth Boasted Of By The Gauls And Greeks.
Pastoral Farming and Domestic Animals
Undefended settlements have been found in a few upland areas and these are thought to have been summer settlements. The movement with the pastoral herds in the summer continued with the hafody in Wales until relatively recent times. However, most farming communities were settled in lowland areas during the Iron Age.
Of all the Britons the inhabitants of Kent, an entirely maritime district, are by far the most civilised, differing but little from the Gallic manner of life. Of the inlanders most do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh and clothe themselves in skins.Julius Ceasar, Gallic War Book V (Chapter 14)
In many areas hill forts had an associated second enclosure with birch fencing for coralling their cattle and other livestock. In the case of multivalate hillforts the livestock may have been herded in between the inner and outer defences to protect them from warring parties and cattle rustlers. Julius Caesar informs us that when he attacked Cassivellaunus at Bigbury Hill that they found great quantities of cattle there.
From them he learnt that the stronghold of Cassivellaunus was not far from thence, fenced by woods and marshes; and that he had assembled there a considerable quantity of men and cattle. Now the Britons call it a stronghold when they have fortified a thick-set woodland with rampart and trench, and thither it is their custom to collect, to avoid a hostile inroad. For this spot Caesar now started with the legions: he found it thoroughly fortified by nature and by handiwork, but none the less he made a vigorous assault from two sides. The enemy tarried for a space, but did not stand the assault of our troops, and broke away from another side of the stronghold. A great quantity of cattle was found there; and many of the enemy were caught in the act of fleeing and put to death.Julius Caesar, Gallic War Book V (Chapter 21)
Strabo declared that some of the British farmers had no idea of husbandry
some of them, although well supplied with milk, make no cheese; and they have no experience in gardening or other agricultural pursuitsStrabo, Geography Book IV Chapter 5
The comment about cheese may well be a prejudged one but certainly the Celts would have had a lot of milk from cows, goats and sheep. Cattle was king in the Celtic world and a man’s wealth was measured by the number of his herd.
Sheep and Goats
From the number of butchered bones of different animals found, at Danebury, we see that the consumption of meat from sheep overtook that of pig. Butchered sheep bones, dated to this period, indicate that most sheep were not butchered as lambs, for meat. Rather, they were kept alive for wool production and when finally butchered, at a mature age, were prepared as mutton. Mutton and some lamb meat accounted for about a quarter of the total consumption of meat.
The goats were most probably like the Old English Goat and they, like the sheep, were kept for milk, meat and hide.
The Celts kept a domesticated pig which like other domesticated animals of the Iron Age were smaller than its modern counterparts. It may have looked something like a cross between the contemporary Tamworth pig and the ancient wild boar which roamed the woodlands of ancient Britain. The domesticated pig rather than the wild boar would have provided the British Celts with most of their ham, sausages and bacon which together would only have accounted for about one tenth of the total meat consumption.
Geese and Chickens
The Iron Age inhabitants of Britain kept domesticated geese, chickens and hares but, according to Julius Caesar, it was unholy to eat them. The animals may have been associated with deities – chickens with an iron age god akin to Roman Mercury, and hares with an unknown female hare goddess or Ceasar may have incorrectly interpreted what he saw.
They do not regard it lawful to eat the hare, and the cock, and the goose; they, however, breed them for amusement and pleasure.Julius Ceasar, Gallic War Book V (Chapter 12)
The chickens were, in all probability, a type which today we would recognise as the Old English Game
Fowl, the cocks of which are naturally extremely aggressive and have been used for cock fighting
from time immemorial. This might just account for the observation that they were kept `for
pleasure’ (animi causa) and also give an attractive interpretation for small stake built round-houses
which, un-roofed would have made admirable cock pits. The geese were most likely a
domesticated form of the Greylag goose. Again, as the recent Roman history for Caesar recorded,
they make splendid sentinels and could have been kept for pleasure or even peace of mind.
Whatever pleasures these fowl may have offered, there can be little doubt that their ultimate
function was food.