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Ancient Celtic Craftsmen and Artisans, Part II

Ancient, Celtic Craftsmen and Artisans, Part II

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at Celtic craftsmen and artisans, with Part II. (Click here for Part I.)

Last time we saw how Celtic craftsmen were skilled at making a wide variety of weapons, jewelry, coinage, utensils, wagons, and metalwork items. Everywhere on the continent, and only later in Ireland, the Celts were experts at making coins. Much of Celtic craft was due to the skill of the smith.

The Celtic Smith

What value did Celtic society place on the metalworker, the smith? In the minds of most Celts, these craftsmen must have had some Otherworldly knowledge. For how else could they have come by skills so magical and mysterious as to produce such amazing artifacts? Thus, we find that Celtic society accorded the Celtic smith a social value equal to those in the intellectual class, nearly equal to the druid.

The Gods of the Smith

In Ireland, the gods of the smith were Goibhniu, Luchta, and Credhne. From Peter Beresford Ellis: “In the famous battle between the children of Danu and the gods of the Underworld, the Fomorii, each of the gods made a different part of the weapons: Goibhniu made the blade, Luchta the shaft, and Credhne the rivets. Goibhniu’s weapons were always accurate and inflicted a fatal wound. Curiously enough, he was also made host of the Otherworld feast in which he provided a special ale and those who drank of it became immortal.”

Glass and Ceramics

The Celtic artisans knew the secrets of making glass and ceramic. They made colored beads for jewelry and even glass animals. In Wallertheim, Germany, archaeologists unearthed a miniature colored glass dog from the 2nd century BC. How did they do it? By spinning a rod with semi-molten ribbons of different-colored glass.


The Kirkburn Sword

The Kirkburn Sword

In 1987, at Kirkburn, Yorkshire, archaeologists uncovered an unusually intricate example of Celtic craftsmanship—a sword. Dated from the third century BC, it was crafted from over seventy elements. The blade alone was 22.4 inches long. The pommel was five-inches long and carved from horn. The rest was composed of iron, bronze, and engraved enamel. The entire sword displays an excellence of Celtic craftsmanship.

Skill With Mirrors and Pottery

Were the early peoples able to stand before mirrors and admire themselves? Aye, because Celtic craftsmen were experts in creating mirrors of highly polished bronze. The backsides of these mirrors were often engraved with intricate designs.

On the continent, especially, Celtic potters knew advanced techniques such as the potter’s wheel and kilns with bellows to provide oxygen. Thus, they could fire their clay and control its colors. They often stamped animal designs on the clay or painted cross-hatched patterns with red, white, or black bands. By adding graphite to the clay, they could even create a metallic look.

Yet, in the use of pottery, the Irish differed. They preferred, instead, to employ brass bowls, intricately designed, or carved wooden containers. These required more work, but they would endure hard daily use.


Replica of an Ancient Celtic Axe. (The “swastika-like” symbol is actually an ancient symbol of peace that the Naziis adopted. Forever after, its meaning was then perverted.)

Lathes, Axes, Fabrics, and Leather

With lathes, the Celts created wooden handles for tools and perfectly round wooden bowls. When they combined the skill of their woodworkers with their metalworking expertise, the Celts produced axes. With such tools, the Celts of Ireland were able to fell the great forests that once covered the island.

Celtic craft extended to making saws, adzes, metal-bound buckets, and barrels. They were skilled at making linen cloth and fabrics such as wool cloaks and skirts. What colors might have adorned such clothing? The best guess today is checked patterns and tartans. Besides clothing, the Celts were expert leather workers, able to create leather belts, sandals, and shoes. They even made shoes using a combination of wood and leather.

Thus, when high-minded Romans like Polybius looked down upon the “barbaric”, “simple”, and “artless” Celts, they knew not whereof they spoke.

The sources for this post were The Celts, by Peter Beresford Ellis and The Course of Irish History, by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.

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Ancient Celtic Craftsmen and Artisans, Part I

Ancient, Celtic Craftsmen and Artisans, Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at Celtic craftsmen and artisans. How advanced were they? Why did the Romans denigrate their expertise? What kinds of artifacts were they proficient at making?

Once Again, the Romans Look Down on the Celts

Like so much of Celtic culture, the Romans looked down on the sophistication and expertise of Celtic craftsmen. Polybius says of the Po valley Celts: “Their lives were very simple,  and they had no knowledge whatsoever of any art or science.” As we’ll soon see, he couldn’t have been more wrong.


A Torc, Worn Around the Neck

Celtic Craftsmen Avoided the Human Form

The Celts of Europe were, indeed, skilled and technically proficient in making a wide variety of weapons, jewelry, coinage, utensils, wagons, and fantastic metalwork items. Yet, they followed their own system of design and usually avoided the depiction of human figures,  a standard feature of Roman and Greek art. Instead, the Celts favored geometric patterns, often incorporating into their work chevrons with V-shapes, or interlocking circles, or parallel lines. They also portrayed animals, gods, and goddesses.

What happened when they did depict a human face? They became surreal and Otherwordly.

When the Celts of the continent began trading with the Etruscans of the Italian peninsula, the Greeks, and the Phoenicians, their art incorporated some, but not all, of these new cultures. They produced weapons and intricate harnesses for their steeds. For personal use, they created brass mirrors, combs, and jewelry.

The Richness of Celtic Coins


Celtic Coin–Woman on Horse

On the continent, Celtic artisans were experts at producing coins. Indeed, Peter Beresford Ellis tells us: “…the Insubrean Celts of the Po valley were minting their own coins some fifty years before Rome started to do so.” Think about that, Polybius.

In every part of the Celtic world except Ireland coins were in wide use. Coinage developed in Ireland only after St. Patrick brought the Celts Christianity. Instead, the Irish traded using livestock, slaves, foodstuffs, and sometimes gold and silver rings.

How did the Celts make coins? First, they constructed a mold of hardened, burned clay. They made each coin in the same mold to ensure an equal weight. Into this cast they poured molten gold, silver, or bronze. The smith would then remove the coin and stamp it on both sides with a hammer. What was on the stamp? By the second century BC, the images of famous Celtic kings or rulers appeared on one side of the coin. On the reverse side, one might see a geometric pattern or an animal, often a horse, sometimes with chariot. Boars, lions, bears, and other animals also were prominent.

What Was the Value of Celtic Currency?

By the eighth century in Ireland, the unit of currency had changed from being based on the cumal, or woman slave, to the cow, as befits a cattle-based society. Peter Beresford Ellis again: “A full-grown cow or ox was the general standard of value not only in Ireland but throughout the Celtic world.” They called this basic unit a séd, or one milk cow.

Thus we see Celtic craftsmen skilled at a wide variety of crafts and arts.

Next time, we’ll continue our look at Celtic craftsmen with Part II, looking at the smith and his gods, and at their ability to make glass, ceramics, swords, mirrors, pottery, lathes, axes, fabrics, and leather.

The sources for this post were The Celts, by Peter Beresford Ellis and The Course of Irish History, by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.