Celts and Romans
The fact that we still think of the Celts, the Huns, the Vandals, the Goths and so on as “barbarians” means that we have all fallen hook, line and sinker for Roman propaganda. We actually owe far more to the so-called “barbarians” than we do to the men in togas.
In the past 30 years, however, the story has begun to change. Archeological discoveries have shed new light on the ancient texts that have survived and this has led to new interpretations of the past. In Roman eyes the Celts may have lacked battle strategy, but their arms and equipment were in no way inferior to the Roman army’s. In fact the Celts had better helmets and better shields.
When the Romans got to Britain they found another technological advance: chariots. It may seem odd to those of us brought up on Ben Hur that the Romans should have been surprised by chariots on the battlefield, but that was the case.
The Romans had chariots, but the Britons made significant design improvements and, as Julius Caesar noted, had thoroughly mastered the art of using them. So how come the Romans built roads and the Celts did not? The answer is simple. The Celts did build roads. The “Romans-were-greatest” version of history made the earlier roads invisible until recently. One of the best preserved iron age roads is at Corlea in Ireland, but it was not until the 1980s that people realised how old it is. It was known locally as “the Danes’ road” and generally assumed to be of the Viking period or later. It was not until the timbers were submitted for tree-ring dating that the truth emerged: they were cut in 148BC.
However, the really startling thing is that wooden roads built the same way and at the same time have been found across Europe, as far away as northern Germany. The Celts, it seems, were sophisticated road builders and the construction of these wooden roads was no mean feat of engineering.
Oak planks were laid on birch runners and they were built broad enough for two carts to pass each other. What’s more, Celtic road building is not necessarily predated by that of the Romans. The first important Roman road was the Appian Way, built in 312BC, but the so-called “Upton Track” in south Wales, a wooden road laid across the mudflats along the Severn estuary, dates back to the 5th century BC.
It is only now that historians are beginning to reassess the sophistication of Celtic science and engineering. From early times the Celts were the iron masters of Europe. A Celtic smith was regarded as a magician, a man who could take a lump of rock and transform it into a magical new substance — a cunningly worked steel blade sharp enough to cut through bronze or ordinary iron.
The Celts’ mastery of metal technology also enabled them to develop sophisticated arable farms. We know they had iron ploughshares in Britain from about the 4th century BC because in a shrine at Frilford on the River Ock, near Abingdon in Oxfordshire — a site that was occupied from about 350BC — an iron ploughshare was found under one of the central pillars where it had been buried, perhaps as a votive offering. It is a fair guess that the temple was one of the first buildings to be erected there and that the iron ploughshare was offered at the time that its foundations were laid.
The Celts’ use of metal even allowed them to invent a harvesting machine. Historians did not believe that it could be true until bas-relief sculptures were discovered that apparently show just such a contraption. It was a sort of comb on wheels that beat off the ears of corn and deposited them in a container rather like the grass box of a lawnmower. A replica was built and tested in the 1980s.
It has been easy to underestimate Celtic technological achievements because so much has vanished or been misunderstood. Of course, it was thoughtless of the Celts not to leave us anything much in the way of written records — they should have known that the lack of books putting forward their own propaganda would weight the evidence firmly in favour of the Romans.
Western society’s enthusiasm since the renaissance for all things Roman has persuaded us to see much of the past through Roman eyes, even when contrary evidence stares us in the face. Once we turn the picture upside-down and look at history from a non-Roman point of view, things start to look very, very different.
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