History of England

Lecture: Pre-history and Celtic Britain

Lecture Outline

Paleolithic Sites, Neolithic Revolution

There are several paleolithic sites in Britain, and as your text notes one of the most popular is Kent's Cavern, a hunting camp dating to 12,000 BC. (There's also a lot of information and images, including Virtual Reality movies, at the Stone Pages website.) The term paleolithic (paleo=old, lith=stone) refers to the Old Stone Age, and it's generally assumed that the means of subsistence were hunting, gathering, and scavenging. But there is evidence in some sites of pastoralism, and even advanced metallurgy such as bronze.

Despite this, historians get very excited when discussing the Neolithic (new stone) or Agricultural Revolution, which seems to have taken place in Britain around 4,000 BC. The reason is that this revolution seems to mark a transition to agriculture on the part of people who were already living in Britain, rather than an idea brought in by invaders. And yet little is known about these people prior to the invasions/migrations which began around 900 BC.

Migrations: Who Were the Celts?

There seem to have been numerous migrations into Britain, beginning with a group from northern France who brought a particular pottery style with them. Then, around 700 BC, a settled farming group migrated, settling in Wiltshire. About a hundred years later came the so-called Hallstatt warriors, who may have subjected the farmers to a form of serfdom before Iron Age invaders came around 400 BC. Crickley Hill, Gloucester: 6th or 7th century BC reconstruction

It is with these Iron Age invaders that the story of the Celts begins. The first group, referred to creatively as "Iron Age A", may have been the "Pretani", a word later corrupted by Latin into Britanni, the origin of the name Britain. The Romans mention the use of chariots by this group. Then, around 250 BC, came "Iron Age B" (also called the Marnian migration from the Marne region in France whence they came), a group known for their intricate metal work. Last were the Belgae (~150 BC), the ones who met the Romans in 55 BC and thus were recorded in written documents. They were apparently "in the Hallstatt tradition" (which means they were warriors), but were also agricultural. They created the Celtic squares in Britain. The Celtic square was an agricultural innovation, a square field which was cross-ploughed. Some historians suggest that the cross-ploughing was necessary to help fluff up the soil so it would retain water, implying that this era was an unusually dry one for Britain.

This short clip is from The History Channel's "In Search of History: The Celts". Here Simon James, PhD, discusses Maiden Castle and hill forts.

Link to video


Click here for Audio Part 3All three of these Iron Age invaders are called Celts. The word probably came from the Greek "keltoi", a name the Greeks derived from hearing it in the native British language. Our most cogent source of information on this issue comes from Julius Caesar, invader of Britain. Romans used the term Galli or Galatae to refer to the trans-Alpine invaders of Italy, and yet Caesar used the term Celtae to refer to some groups. His most stubborn opponents were the Belgae on the northeast of the continent, and Caesar said these were the same people as those who had migrated to Britain. Thus the Celts (a word never used by any other ancient writer) were a large group or culture which included many European groups north of the Alps.

Even Caesar never used the term Celtae to refer to the population of Britain, only Belgae. But in the 17th century linguists demonstrated a connection between Welsh, the surviving Gaelic language (from Gallic?) and the speech of the ancient Celts. 19th century Romantics picked up on this notion, declaring the Celts the "original" population of Britain (the "Britons"), and introducing the concept of Celtic folk culture. This usage has been popular ever since, and is seen as a connection (since demonstrated in the 20th century by linguistic studies) between the Celts of Britain and those of northern Europe.

Celtic Culture in Britain

Celtic torc and bracelets

Three elements of Celtic culture in Britain should be emphasized; all were noted by the Romans and are attested to by archeaological finds. The first are the hill forts, like Maiden Castle. These are located in Iron Age A regions, but seem to have been refuges and tribal centers rather than residences. They are surrounded by farmsteads.

Metal ornaments were also endemic in Celtic Britain, especially the torc, a gold neck-ring open in the front. Some were also made of bronze, and they may have indicated social rank. Interestingly, until the late 4th century BC, most torcs are found in women's graves, but later on they are found only in men's graves. What does that imply?

The last element of note concerns the personality and aria-labelledby="button" id="button" values of the Celts. In many ways these aria-labelledby="button" id="button" values were similar to those of the Germanic invaders of Rome (see the next lecture) and the later Anglo-Saxons. Bravery in battle, hospitality toward visitors, feasting, and personal adornment were prized. The Celts themselves may have been large, blond, and fair-skinned (I say "may" because all the Roman reporters describing them were small, dark, Mediterranean types). If they were like the Gauls, they wore long moustaches and trousers, which the Romans (in their togas and skirts) always found fascinating as a fashion statement. Warp-Weighted Loom

In addition to these elements of Celtic culture, it is interesting to look at how the Celtic Britons lived. The Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagan's (near Cardiff in Wales) has recreated an entire Celtic village, complete with walls and dome-like huts made of stone. The photo of the warp-weighted loom demonstrates the technological advancement of the Celtic Britons in terms of woolen cloth production. In weaving, the long, stationary yarns are called the warp. When yarns are weaved in and out of the warp, they create the horizontal threads, or weft (also called woof). The Celts hung their loom from the hut's ceiling, and weighted the warp with stones or bags of dirt. This "warp-weighted" loom kept the warp yarns stretched evenly and made weaving easier and faster. Throughout this course, I will be using woolen cloth production to track technological progress through several eras. Wool will ultimately provide the wealth that will enable Great Britain to take over the world.

Check your Knowledge

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You can take the assessment as many times as you wish, but you need to reclick ALL your answers, even the ones you got right!

1. The term "neolithic" refers to the:
a) New Stone Age.
b) Old Stone Age.
c) the timrefroame of Kent's Cavern.
d) the Iron Age.

2. The history of wool is important because wool would become:
a) forgotten in later years.
b) the reason sheep would die out in Britain.
c) a fabric worn by many people.
d) the source of Britain's great wealth.

3. Cross-ploughed Celtic squares
a) conserved water.
b) were of Paleolithic origin.
c) were brought over by the Romans.
d) did little to help agriculture.

4. Because there is a linguistic connection between the people Caesar called Celtae and the British population:
a) we consider the first Britons to be Gallic in origin.
b) we refer to the early Britons as Celts.
c) the Greeks called them "keltoi".
d) the Romans were able to speak with the inhabitants of Maiden Castle in the local language.

5. Which is the correct order of these peoples' arrival in Britain?
a) Pretani, Marnian, Belgae
b) Iron Age B, Belgae, Pretani
c) Marnian, Iron Age A, Iron Age B
d) Belgae, Pretani, Marnian

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All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.