Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Mini-series - Weaponry through the ages 1

Celtic Weaponry

Wikimedia Commons
Writing about first century AD northern Britannia in my Celtic Fervour Series of adventures can’t happen without mentioning the weapons used by my Celts, or their Roman enemies. This thought made me think about writing a series of short blog posts about weapons through the ages going forward from my favoured writing era of first century AD.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t sneak in some posts from before this time- if I find the time!

When facing the shining array of Roman equipment, what would the typical Celt in my novels have had to fight with? Would he have looked like this warrior on the left?

Some things may have been fairly similar.

Whether clad or unclad, as some Roman historians would have us believe, the weapons carried would have varied depending on the actual location in Britannia, and the warrior's status. I believe that the completely naked Celt is less likely in northern Britain, if the weather degenerated like it tends to do today. I favour the idea that my Celtic warrior would have worn woollen braccae like the man on the left. He may, however, have forgone the tunic since it might hamper his wielding of weapons, and similarly the wearing of a cloak might have got in the way of swinging a sword leading to the bare-chested warrior. If, as documented by Roman historians, some Celts painted themselves with woad or some form of bluish dye, then it makes sense to show off those patterns on bare torsos.

Since evidence of the wearing of helmets in northern Britain is scarce and Roman and Greek recorded writings state it wasn’t common, I believe the only headgear worn might have been for ceremonial reasons only- perhaps a pre-battle statement by whoever was leading the charge.

Museum of Scotland via Wikimedia Commons
Swords were likely to have been carried by only some of the higher echelons of the tribe, since to own a sword would be to possess a valuable item. The typical sword of the era was likely to have been of the longer variety, perhaps some as long as 27 inches, probably double sided and with a hilt generally made from bone, horn or wood.  Since the use of the small two-wheeled chariot was still a common feature, swords had become longer during the late Iron Age to accommodate the longer stretch to reach an opponent from the chariot. These extremely sharp weapons were carried in a scabbard made from two hinged iron plates hinged which was hung around the waist suspended from a belt of iron links.

Fashioning these swords was a fine skill, the development of a form of steel enhancing the overall capability of the sword wielder as the impact on the enemy was greater and the tougher metal was capable of cutting through chain mail. They were not designed for any stabbing notions and therefore did not have a sharpened point. The slash and cut was what it was intended for. The movements need to use these swords meant that the Celtic warriors needed space to wield the sword and could not easily cluster together like the Romans could with their shorter gladius.

Wikimedia Commons
Celtic spearmen were likely to have been much more plentiful than sword wielders. The spearman would have carried a number of these and would have led the charge, running on foot to barrage the enemy with a volley of fired spears. These javelin types were intended for long range reach and the sheer numbers of spears thrown would have felled the front ranks of the enemy, or would have seriously dented the Roman front line, even if they had huddled in tortoise formations close together to repel an attack. The Celtic thrusting spear had by late first century developed into something resembling a lance with a slimmer leaf shaped head, suitably sized for piercing the lorica hamata (chain mail)-of the Roman auxiliary and for penetrating between the metal plates of the lorica segmentata (plated mail) of the legionary soldier. The spear head was simply fashioned from iron or steel, attached with a riveted pin through a wooden shaft of ash or a similar durable and strong wood. It seems to have been common for some either very brave, or depending on how you view it, very foolhardy Celtic warriors to have run forward after the first volley was fired to collect up the fallen weapons to reuse them. I don’t think scurrying back to a distance far enough off to be able to use them again could have been easy or even all that successful.
'Battersea Shield' Wikimedia Commons

A dagger or a long knife was a likely  possibility and this would have had a sharp point, the shorter blade intended for neck slicing or stabbing motions. A leather sheath, hung from a belt at the waist, would have protected the warrior from inadvertant cuts from the sharp blade.

Slings and sling stones seem to have been used frequently, and very skilfully, and these would have been stored in a pouch suspended from the belt or from a thoing angled across the chest. The bow and arrow does not seem to have been generally used in battle- it was deemed not a worthy weapon since the need to fire at a great range was not an honourable way to kill the enemy and the Celt in battle was a fiercely proud warrior.

The typical Celtic shield may have been small and circular or oval shaped like the one above left, generally hide covered over wooden frame, or made from light wood and painted. The spectacular 'Battersea shield' on the right is possibly from an older era but any shield such as this would have only seen ceremonial use. 

The chariots used might be classified as weapons by some enthusiasts. During the era I write about, they were two-wheeled, they mostly had light strapped sides and they had a flat bed to stand on. They were drawn by a small Celtic horse, or horses, and were manned often by a driver who was accompanied by a dedicated spearman. In battle, the small chariots were used to confront and taunt the enemy front line and to create breaks in the defence wall. After some noisy posturing and skilled taunting, it's thought the driver and spearman would jump from the vehicle to engage in hand to hand combat, the vehicle remaining nearby for a quick getaway. In practice, it seems that the chariots caused a lot of chaos when the horses became disoriented or were injured.

Look out for a snippet of my writing tomorrow - it will have something to do with Celtic Warfare.


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