Celtic Agriculture in the Iron Age

Updated: Nov 5

There is evidence that suggests

an overly dramatic settlement expansion in the uplands of Scotland around 250BC. This was the same pattern of expansion seen elsewhere in North England and Solway Firth (Inlet of the Irish Sea). Large areas of light forest and long-established grazing sites were rapidly deforested throughout the Isles and some areas, such as marshy, clay soil valleys were being drained and utilized. The British Celts marked this change using the iron share and coulter along with the practice of crop rotation and the application of manure. Upon the arrival of the Romans in Britain, much of the land had already been hedged, fenced, or walled in for fields and crops while other areas had been defined by ditches or smaller woodlands. A total contradiction to Caesar’s comments, Britain was already quite civilized.

Caesar thought of the British Celts more in propaganda terms stating, “many of the inland Britons do not grow corn. They live on milk and flesh and are clothed in skins.” (Ellis 101) Historically, however, the Celtic tribes had surpassed their neighbors and Roman invaders, especially in agricultural terms. While other Iron Age peoples were still employing wood shares to plow their fields the Celts had replaced theirs with iron. Archaeological evidence for the use of the plow in prehistoric Europe is represented in the archaeological database 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 Celtic World 120) Some noted finds include a concentration of rock carvings in the region of Bohuslan in western Sweden, Ards recovered from peat bogs in Donneruplund, Denmark. (Reynolds 3) The Celtic plow, ingeniously fitted with a mobile coulter, was greatly superior to the Roman swing plow of the same period. The coulter, a sharp knife attached to the plow beam, made a vertical cut through the soil at the same time the share produced the horizontal slice allowing the soil to be turned. This method ended the need for ‘double plowing’ 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. (The Celtic World 120) The Celts were also the first to introduce harvesting machine, the messor, later called vallus by the Romans, was a “big box, the edges armed with teeth and supported by two wheels, which moved through the cornfield pushed by an ox rather; the ears of corn were uprooted by the teeth and fell into the box” states Pliny, a Roman author from the first century AD. (Ellis 102) Other agricultural tools were also affected and improved such as scythes, spades, sickles, axes, forks, and billhooks. Such technical advancements empowered the massive expansion and were undoubtedly sparked by the widespread availability of iron that coined the term ‘Iron Age’.

Celtic Animal Husbandry and Meat

Celtic livestock sizes compared to their modern counterparts in black. (Green 7)

The consumption of meat types, both domestic and wild, differed upon region and people alike and the determining factors might include the availability and religious beliefs associated with such animals. Agricultural changes had a definite impact on local fauna. Domestic animals could now enjoy larger open tracts of land while native species decline with the loss of habitat. Due to this, Celtic peoples relied more on domestic meats as hunting become possibly more of a pleasurable pastime. The Celts and Romans both enjoyed a wide variety of dishes derived from almost every part of the animals they consumed. Internal organs, bone marrow, and even blood were undoubtedly used. It is even further possible that early hunters may have eaten the half-digested stomachs of their game. While such dishes were probably wise usage of the complete animal by the Celts, the Romans devised and concocted seemingly more ‘delicacies’ from such parts. Celtic livestock differed greatly from their present counterparts. Celtic animals tended to be much smaller by present terms and utilized in a manner of uses not limited to fare. Livestock and goods produced from the husbandry of these animals are noted in Greek and Roman historical commentaries as trade goods.

Dairy- Dairy was an important part of the ancient Celtic diet. There are several forms of evidence that help support their consumption and use. Recent testing techniques have been developed by Bristol University, which recognizes dairy-based fats preserved on Neolithic pottery vessels. At many Celtic sites, large amounts of calves bones and older heifer bones have been discovered in trash midden heaps which can not only be attributed to the consumption of veal, but also the proof of a dairy producing herd. (Wood 75) The Celtic cow was unable to produce large quantities of milk, though if they compared to their Asian and Balkan cousins then they may very well have produced between 2 to 4 liters. (The Celts 457) Milk would have been richer, sweeter, and more plentiful in the spring and would decrease during the winter months. The Celts found ways to store the excess milk produced during the summer by processing it into butter and cheese.

Cited paper by Jacqui Wood

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