Stav and The Horse in Iron Age Society

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About 6,000 years ago, the peoples living north of the Black Sea in a region between the forest and the steppe began to face dwindling supplies of forest game, such as boar and deer. They began to exploit the steppe-dwelling horses for meat. Archaeological evidence cannot clearly establish whether the horse was domesticated at this time as a source of food, or whether horses remained wild and were hunted. But not long after the peoples of this region began consuming large amounts of horse meat, they also began riding horses.

Horses from this period were buried in ritual graves along with perforated antler tines that appear to be the cheek pieces for a rope bridle. Microscopic analysis of the teeth of these ritually buried horses show wear patterns that are unique to horses that have carried a bit in their mouths. Stephen Budiansky, B.s.,M.s. Author of The Nature of Horses: Exploring Equine Evolution, Intelligence, and Behaviour.

The identity of the people referred to by Mr Budiansky and the circumstances in which they began riding horses are unimportant in the context of this essay. What is important is that from that moment onwards the status of horses in human society changed forever.

No longer were they merely a source of food, but something far more important. They became not only means of transport and instruments of war, but symbols of wealth, power and authority. Indeed it can be argued that the status of the horse increased to such an extent in Middle and Late Iron Age Europe that they were as instrumental in the evolution of Iron Age Society as the production of iron itself!

It is widely accepted by archaeologists and historians that from about the seventh century BC onwards there was a general migration across all parts of Europe.

This is indicated by artefacts of Mediterranean origin, such as pottery from Greece and Etruria found in western sites (1) and weapons and armour such as the Mindelheim sword from central Europe regularly occurring as far west as the British isles (2). The important change during this period from urnfield burials in flat cremation cemeteries to the ritual inhumations of the Hallstatt C and Hallstatt D periods has provided us with a range of articles which indicate that Britain and Europe were ‘part of a common market within which materials and ideas spread freely’ (3)

Some of the most common items found in burial sites across western Europe relate to horses. At the Middle to Late Iron Age Mill Hill inhumation cemetery at Deal, Kent a complete horse skeleton was laid out on exactly the same orientation as humans (4) Horse bits are found in human graves such as at Kings Barrow, Arras, Yorkshire (5) Horse armour is found alongside warriors armour and weapons. Elaborate horse gear is found in the vehicle and chariot burials of the period, such as at Hannogne in the Ardennes and Inglemare on the Seine (6). What is interesting is that these items are often imported as with other grave goods. It appears that all across Europe and the near East the domestication and increased use of horses has paralleled the evolution of Bronze Age and Iron Age culture.

This Buddha in Lotus pose is not believed to have been imported, but is a part of the Iron Age culture in Norway. About 834 CE

There are several explanations as to how this migration occurred. The conventional argument has generally been in favour of various invasions by Celtic warriors from Central Europe, colonising westward and bringing cultural change with them. The fact that the movement of ideas and people occurred so rapidly makes this theory plausible. There are two strands of evidence which may be employed to support this, the archaeological and the literary. The literary evidence is extensive but must be treated with caution, as the popular notion of the Celtic barbarian is ‘second only to that of his Hunnic or Viking successor as the scourge of classical or later Christian civilisation’ (7) Our view is also affected by two groups of monumental sculpture, the nearly contemporary Roman sculptures depicting defeated Celtic barbarians and nineteenth century sculptures such as Boudica in her scythed chariot on the Embankment in London. However the general view does seem to be that the whole Celtic race was madly fond of war and as such warriors and the panoply of war enter on many aspects of Celtic life, art, technology and religion.

The archaeological evidence is also somewhat distorted in that very little battlefield archaeology survives. The majority of artefacts are found in prestige grave sites and are therefore just as likely to be of a ceremonial nature. For this reason it can be argued that such fine weapons and artefacts may have been presented as gifts to the leaders of neighbouring groups rather than taken as the spoils of war. It is also important to note that the growing trade in fine metalwork which was present throughout Europe during this period, enabled the wealthy members of society to acquire such finery. It therefore seems just as likely that migration was due to colonisation, or merging of cultures through trade or advances in technology, as to invasion. What is significant however are the changes in Iron Age society which coincided with this migration, and the emergence of a warrior elite to whom the horse was all important!

It is the Celtic prowess in horsemanship that has made the greatest impression on classical authors. When describing the Gauls, Strabo wrote ‘Although they are all fighters by nature, they are better as cavalry than as infantry….The best of the Roman cavalry is recruited from among them’ (8) Another tribute comes from Plutarch: ‘The Gauls are particularly formidable at fighting on horseback and they are reputed to be excellent in this arm above any other’ (9) Placing accounts such as these alongside the archaeological i.e. the large numbers of burials belonging to the warrior elite goes some way in confirming the importance of the Celtic horseman and his position in Iron Age society. Indeed almost no other group represented in the archaeological and historical evidence from such a wide geographical spectrum commands comparable respect from its peers. This respect may also be sensed in the absence of evidence of grave robbing, although the location of many burials must have been evident (10)

Another generally held view amongst historians concerning the evolution of Iron Age society is the emergence of a social hierarchy during the transition between the Middle and Late Iron Age. The power of individuals appears to have increased at the expense of the community. One such exponent of this theory is Cunliffe who uses a study of hillforts in Southern Britain to good effect. Throughout the sixth and fifth centuries BC a large number of hillforts were abandoned in what appears to be a period of instability. Then around the fourth century BC we see the emergence of a smaller number of ‘developed hillforts’ which were frequently strengthened and enlarged. One of the best example of this is the Danebury site in Hampshire, which along with others provide evidence of structures of various kinds being renewed time and time again on the same plots. These forts are also characterised by having a capacity to store agricultural produce beyond the immediate needs of the resident community, providing a focus for the keeping of livestock, being centres for manufacturing and trade, and also having elaborate defensive features well beyond the actual requirements for defence. (11)

What is of greater importance is that these developed sites appear to have a relatively even spacing, indicating that each may have controlled its own relatively small domain. It appears then, that the role of hillforts in society underwent significant change. From collectively serving many of the functions of the community, they became power bases for the social elite, centres of wealth and martial authority for the warrior classes and their leaders. Generally the more prestigious the site, the more likely we are to find individual enclosures and prestige burials. But what is more important in the context of this essay is that the more prestigious the burial the more likely we are to find horse remains and elaborately decorated horse gear.

One specific way in which members of the elite exerted their will was through the creation and retention of a comitatus, an elite band of horsemen. These men could be bound by a sacred oath to their master and rewarded with gifts from abroad for loyal service. These warriors could be called the first knights or equites (12) and could be used to acquire territory and wealth, as well as defend seats of power. They brought a new order to Iron Age society and gave a people already intrinsically warlike something to aspire to. Caesars commentaries from Gaul provide further evidence, Dumnorix the Aeduan was said to have ‘maintained at his own expense a considerable force of cavalry, which he kept in attendance upon him’ (13) Tacitus refers to individual leaders in Germany who employed a loyal body of horsemen: Both prestige and power depend upon being continually attended by a large train of picked young warriors, which is a distinction in peace and a protection in war. and it is not only in a chiefs own nation that the superior number and quality of his retainers brings him glory and renown. Neighbouring states honour them also, courting them with embassies and complementing them with presents. Very often the mere reputation of such men will virtually decide the issue of war. (14)

What makes the idea of these bands of horsemen appealing is the archaeological evidence already discussed. Returning to Cunliffe’s excavations at Danebury which have provided the richest source of data. When analysing the proportion of principle animal bones found at the site it was discovered that the number of horse bones found doubled between the fourth and first centuries BC, whereas the number of other animal bones remains constant. In addition to this the majority of the horse fittings can be dated to the later period. Thus it can be shown that as the status of hillforts changed, the use of horses increased. Therefore the disruption to the existing settlement pattern of the Middle Iron Age as shown by the hillfort excavations could well have been caused by the emergence or intrusion of these warrior groups.

‘If any one thing symbolised the power of potential rulers and the leaders of commitates it was the horse. Not only did the horseman represent power, but also the horse itself may have been ritually significant in its own right’ (15) There are many examples in literature of horses being associated with power and kingship. To find an example in the Celtic tradition we need only to look in the Irish vernacular literature wherein the man/horse relationship was fundamental to the concept of kingship (16) The literary evidence relating to the nature of kingship has been brought together by Simms (17) One idea which constantly recurs in this study is that of ‘Sacral Kingship’ not just power invested in an individual but a union of the forces of man and the natural world. We can draw a parallel here with Celtic society where the horse was by far the most revered member of the animal kingdom and is most likely to have represented nature in such a union. The fundamental theory is that right order in society can only flourish under the rule of the right king. The peaceful succession of property from father to son, the due fulfilment of contracts, security from outside attack, fertility in man and beast, increase in crops, clement weather, absence of disease, are all secured if the land herself, or the local goddess of sovereignty, is married to a true King. (18)

What is important in relation to this concept is that it was the horse which was often used to embody the ‘goddess of sovereignty’ drawing further parallels with the Celtic horse goddess Epona, whose name is believed to come from the translation Epomeduos, from the Indo-European Ekwo meaning horse and medha meaning ritual intoxication. Though practices always change with time, nearly all the investitures described by Simms included acts linking King and animal. Probably the most extreme example is Giraldus Cambrensis’ twelfth century account of a ceremony performed in Tir Conaill: There is in the northern and farther part of Ulster, namely in Kenelcunill [Tir Conaill], a certain people which is accustomed to consecrate its King with a rite altogether outlandish and abominable. When the whole people of that land has been gathered together in one place, a white mare is brought forward into the middle of the assembly. He who is to be inaugurated, not as chief, but as beast, not as king, but as outlaw, embraces the animal before all, professing himself to be a beast also. The mare is then killed immediately, cut up in pieces and boiled in water. A bath is prepared for the man afterwards in the same water. He sits in the bath surrounded by all his people, and all, he and they, eat of the meat of the mare which is brought to them. He quaffs and drinks of the broth in which he is bathed, not in any cup, or using his hand, but just dipping his mouth into it round and about him. When this unrighteous rite has been carried out, his Kingship and dominion have been conferred. (19) Although this is probably not a contemporary Iron Age account, this particular event, if real may be derived from oral tradition dating to any time before the twelfth century AD. What it represents is the association between horses and leadership originating from the Celtic tradition and surviving in cultures such as Ireland for centuries afterwards. Early coins for instance from across western Europe consistently feature a leaders head on one side and a horse or horse drawn chariot on the other.

There is little doubt then, that horses held a higher status in Iron Age society than other animals. This reverence can still be seen today in chalk monuments across ritual landscapes. As Iron Age society evolved so the horse became increasingly important. Some of the first items produced in iron were horse bits and weapons developed for use on horseback. They enabled the development of chariots which gave armies speed and mobility. Horses gave the technically advanced groups the means to acquire wealth and expand. Wealth and expansion brought an explosion of trade and culturation. They were instrumental in the creation of a social hierarchy and were the symbols of power for Iron Age Kings. In any examination of Iron Age evolution the role of the horse cannot be ignored.


(1) J.Collis. The European Iron Age. (London 1984) p.69

(2) Ibid p.74

(3) B.Cunliffe. Iron Age Britain. (London 1995) p.23

(4) K.Parfitt. Iron Age burials from Mill Hill, Deal. (London 1995)

(5) D. Harding. The Iron Age in Lowland Britain. (London 1974) p.74

(6) A. Duval. Regional groups in western France, in S. Macready and F.H Thompson. Cross Channel trade between Gaul and Britain in the pre-Roman Iron Age (London 1984) p.83

(7) J.N.G. and W.F. Ritchie. The army, weapons and fighting, in M.J. Green The Celtic World. (London 1996) p.38

(8) Strabo Geography. Translated by H. L. Jones (Loeb classical library 1923) IV.4.2

(9) Plutarch Marcellus. 6

(10) J.N.G. and W.F. Ritchie Op.cit p.46

(11) B. Cunliffe Op.cit p.49

(12) J.Collis Op.cit p.66

(13) Caeser (and Hirtius) The Conquest of Gaul, translated by S.A. Handford, revised by J. Gardner (Penquin Classics 1982) I.18

(14) Tacitus Germania. 13 published c. AD98

(15) J.Creighton. Coins and Power in Late Iron Age Britain. (Cambridge 2000) p.22

(16) Ibid p.22

(17) K. Simms. From Kings to Warlords: The changing Political Structure of Gaelic Ireland in the later Middle Ages. (Suffolk 1987)

(18) Ibid p.21

(19) Giraldus Cambrensis, quoted in Simms Ibid p.21-22


S. James & V. Rigby. Britain and the Celtic Iron Age. (London 1997)

M. J. Green. The Celtic World. (London 1995)

J. Creighton. Coins and Power in Late Iron Age Britain. (Cambridge 2000)

S. Macready and F.H. Thompson. Cross-Channel Trade Between Gaul and Britain. (London 1984)

J. Collis. The European Iron Age. (London 1984)

B. Cunliffe. Iron Age Britain. (London 1995)

D. Hill and M. Jesson. The Iron age and its Hill-Forts. (Southampton 1971)

D. W. Harding. The Iron Age in Lowland