CELTIC COMMUNITIES: FORT AND FARMSTEAD

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Exterior and interior views of the Iron Age 'Pimperne house' (named after the site of an important archaeological find) which was carefully reconstructed at Butser Hill near Petersfield, Hampshire as part of an experimental recreation of a working farmstead of the Celtic period. These photographs remind us that the phrase 'thatched hut' can be misleading: this is a large, solidly-constructed dwelling of sturdy appearance. We have no idea what the interior arrangements or furnishings were like, since archaeologists have little more than post holes and the traces of hearths to go by. Experience suggests that it is probably a mistake to assume primitive squalor. (Richard Muir)



The oppidum of Entremont, seen from the east. It occupies a dominating position on the edge of the Puyricard plateau between two valleys. Detail is excavations.


Since the Celts left no written record, our only knowledge of the arrangement of their lives and their communities comes from the brief, and perhaps unreliable accounts left by Roman writers, and from the evidence of the spade. There are few clues to any detailed understanding of their society. We know that they were a 'tribal' people; we do not know exactly what their tribal structure was. We are told that they were a society divided by caste into a warrior 'aristocracy', a priestly class, and an underclass of peasants. We know that they practised slavery.


As for their pattern of building, the modern academic view is that a fairly highly organised society of scattered farms and farming hamlets looked towards local 'hill forts’ as the focus of their lives. These 'forts’ present a bewildering range of size, local density, and apparent purpose. Some are only an acre or two in extent, with a simple rampart-and-ditch defence, and traces of a handful of huts. Others enclose within huge multiple rampart systems scores or even hundreds of acres, and traces of up to several hundred huts. There are examples which fall at every point along this range of size. Some may have been villages; some were almost certainly simply refuges for people and their beasts in time of war; and the largest and most densely built-up can only be described as 'towns'— perhaps even as local 'capitals’.


We simply do not know how Celtic 'political’ society worked; so we cannot make intelligent guesses about the comparative frequency of purely military 'forts’, fortified refuges, permanent fortified villages, or massively defended 'royal capitals’. One safe assumption is that the time-smoothed banks and faint traces of post-holes, which today crown almost every skyline in some parts of Britain and continental Europe, give an altogether too primitive impression. The archaeological evidence shows a wide range of construction techniques, some extremely sophisticated. Ramparts which even today survive to a height of 90 feet would then have been much more sharply sloped and sculpted. Some were built up by means of timber lacing, rubble in-fill, and vertical facing walls of dry stone blocks. Some had defended gateways with indirect approaches and outworks which are reminiscent in their sound design of 18th century forts. We find evidence for massive timber gates surmounted by patrol-walks; for multiple stone-faced ramparts, quite possibly spaced according to the effective range of the available missile weapons; for a hierarchy wielding enough authority to stockpile 50,000 large sling-stones in handy positions on the ramparts of a fort, after gathering them from a beach some miles away. Whatever our ignorance of these people, one thing is sure: their chieftains had real authority, and wielded it over a social system wealthy and organised enough to put considerable manpower at their disposal for sustained tasks.


Julius Caesar describes encountering in central and northern Gaul a type of solid defensive wall which he terms murus Gallicus. This can best be described as a skeletal grid of timber beams placed crossways and nailed together, built up in layers, with earth and rubble rammed down into the spaces between the beams at every level. A dry stone wall faced this construction front and back— Sometimes covering the ends of the lateral beams, sometimes leaving them exposed. The core of the wall thus gave good resistance to battering rams, even when the facing had been breached; and the facing and in-fill protected the timber skeleton from fire. This 'Gallic wall' is known to have been at least 12 ft high in some cases.


The Gallic Celts came in contact with Greek settlers in southern France, and it is tantalising to wonder how much this contact affected Celtic defensive engineering. In this area several strongholds have been identified which boasted ramparts of stone construction, rather than of stone-faced earth. The best-known is Entremont, which the Romans described as an oppidum—'town'. Overlooking Aix-en-Provence, this triangular fortress, captured by the Romans in 123 BC, had walls of rough-cut stone blocks defended at intervals of about every 20 yards by towers with solid rubble-packed bases; the walls probably boasted battlements or parapets originally. Britain has not produced evidence of comparable sophistication. There are signs that some British forts were given improved defences at several periods; in about the 3rd century BC there was a general deepening of ditches and heightening of ramparts, and on some southern British sites the 1st century BC saw the raising of additional belts of ramparts and ditches and the construction of sophisticated indirect entranceways.


The settlements which were scattered right across the Celts' geographical range offer just as wide a variety of sizes and designs as the Torts', from isolated farmsteads perhaps supporting one extended family, to quite large villages of up to 40 acres or so—larger than most medieval and many modern villages. There have been several recent experiments in reconstructing, from archaeological evidence, working Iron Age farmsteads. A project on Butser Hill near Petersfield, Hampshire included several different types of living units based on post-hole measurements and surviving fragments of hut fabric. In fields cultivated by hand, or with primitive ploughs drawn by cattle, experimental crops of cereals thought to resemble contemporary grains have been raised. Crops such as spelt and emma were found to average some 1,600 lbs yield per acre even in poor conditions. Breeds of horse, cow, poultry and sheep which approximate ancient strains have been raised on these experimental farms—for instance the agile and hardy St Kilda sheep, a small goat-like creature raised for its wool. Weaving, potting, charcoal-burning and metal-smelting—all necessary to a Celtic community— have been practised on these sites using the reconstructed technology of the period. In the lower strata of Celtic society most men, women and children would have spent the bulk of their lives carrying out these labour-intensive tasks.

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