Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The ornaments, implements, and weapons of our British ancestors


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We head this article with an engraving of part of the contents of an ancient place of interment—the skeleton of some hunter, perhaps, buried with a stag’s antlers at his feet, the sign of an occupation which he pursued when in this life. These remains were found in Dale Park, near Arundel, in 1810. Our ancient graves, although exhibiting a certain uniformity in their deposits, occasionally seemed to yield some hints of the occupations of their tenants.

In Roman interments, amongst mortuary and other remains, have been found dice, tali, the scrivener’s “stylus,” the moneyer’s little scales, the merchant’s or petty trader’s weights and steelyards, and, though rarely, the warrior’s weapons; whilst from a grave opened under our own inspection—a female’s, doubtless,—a little vase was taken containing a pigment in colour and in material resembling rouge. In another grave was found the share and coulter of a plough, a horse’s bit, iron tires of wheels, and horse trappings.

In the interments generally considered the most ancient in this country—British, Celtic, or whatever they may appropriately be termed—we discover implements, weapons, and a few personal relics of simple forms and of rude materials.

The gold ornaments being an exception to the above we shall refer to them presently.

The stone axe, hammer and adze; the arrow or spear-head; the pebble scarcely if at all fashioned by hand and reserved for the sling; skinning-knives of flint, and flint flakes still more rudely manufactured; bronze celts of various shapes; clay beads; ornaments of amber, bone, and morse-ivory, constitute the chief portion of these remains.

In classing bronze implements amongst those of stone or flint, it will be understood that we do not adopt the hypothesis which some antiquaries contend for, that there existed, in a sort of chronological order, three distinct ages of stone, bronze, and iron. We are convinced that there is evidence—at least in this country—that a rude and savage people might have lived contemporaneously with more civilised tribes, or races, to whom the use of a higher class of manufactured articles was familiar.

This appeared to have been the case with one division of the Jutes, the Eudoses of Tacitus, who lived amid the heaths and sand-hills of the wild shores of West Slieswig, whilst a people of a higher civilisation inhabited the fertile district of the eastern portion.

Respecting the Britons, however, the most ancient inhabitants of England of whom we have any authentic records, we find a people circulating coined money at the same time that their implements of industry or of warfare were composed of stone, bone, and perhaps of bronze. We are not certain, however, when Cæsar spoke of the coinage amongst the Britons, and used the term “ære importato,” whether he alluded to the money itself or to the material of which it was composed as being “imported.” We are informed by the same authority that the Britons used both brass and iron counters (taleæ) of a certain weight as money. It is probable that no part of the British coinage—money stamped or impressed with figures or designs—except these “counters,” was older than the times of the Romans, although a Celto-Gallo money might have circulated amongst them previously. Under the Romans the inscriptions on the British money were in Roman characters, and the designs, being representations of horses, figures, and human heads, exhibit some mechanical skill.

Other examples there are of their money, stamped with designs most rude and confused, as if unskilful hands had attempted imitations from a higher class of types or models.

Undoubtedly bronze if not iron implements have been found in this country deposited contemporaneously with those of bone and flint. The usages of almost every nation prove there ever existed different styles of arms for the various classes of the community. In war the leaders and aristocracy would be supplied with the best weapons of offence and defence which the skill of the age could produce; but their humble followers and the great mass of the other combatants would be armed only with scythes, spears, bows and arrows, and pointed stakes hardened in the fire. So amongst the Celtic tribes, the chief would possess his weapons of bronze or of iron, and his serf or slave be armed only with his stone axe, spear, flint flake, or humble sling. The various tribes who encountered Cæsar, and who on more than one occasion repulsed his legions, can hardly be identified with a people using weapons of the simplest materials and most primitive construction. The weapons of a people capable of offering a successful resistance to the legions of the Roman Empire would imply the use, or partial use, of weapons of a superior manufacture to those discovered in the ancient barrows, and induce us to consider that the construction of these graves and their artificial contents were the results of the labours of an older race of men than the so-called Celto-Britons.

The authenticity of the golden sickles with which the Druids are said to have culled the sacred mistletoe may admit of controversy, yet we must not forget that the Britons were possessed of torques and armillæ of gold, this metal being found at one period in considerable quantities in this country and in Ireland, the extensive tracts of bog and morass in the latter island materially assisting in the preservation of such relics.

Some of the English tumuli exhibit traces of two and even of more interments—a later population having adopted and used the sepulchres of their predecessors.

We have reason to believe that even amongst the Britons double interments took place. Mr. Bateman describes a barrow which he inspected wherein the upper deposit contained two skeletons, an urn, a piece of iron, a horse-bit, and a flint arrow-head; and below this, in a stone cist of another deposit, was an iron knife or dagger with a case of the same material. Amongst instruments of flint at Cardow-lowe, a bronze dagger and an iron knife were found. Indeed, bronze daggers without handles, bearing marks of rivets by which they had probably been attached to wooden hafts, were frequently exhumed in Wiltshire by Sir R. C. Hoare. Some of these instruments were ornamented with lines, angles, and zigzag patterns. Similar relics have been found also in Dorsetshire, Derbyshire, and in Scotland.

Bronze spear-heads have also been deposited with the remains of the population of the so-called age of stone, and gold bucklers have been discovered exhibiting considerable probability that they were worn by the same people. A remarkable story is told relating to one of these ancient interments, which exhibits in a striking view the force of imagination. A woman residing at Mold in Flintshire declared that as she was one night passing an ancient barrow in that neighbourhood, which had the reputation of being haunted, and which was denominated by the peasantry “the hill of the fairies,” she beheld over the spot in question “a figure clothed in a coat of gold which shone like the sun.” This mound, which was composed apparently of pebbles, was shortly afterwards levelled for agricultural uses. In it was a burial-place containing a skeleton, upon which was a breastplate of thin gold ornamented with a peculiar pattern. In another part of the barrow was an urn and some bone ashes. This occurrence took place as lately as October, 1833. The golden corslet is now in the British Museum. In this national repository, in the “Gold Room,” may be seen many costly articles of workmanship in gold, some of which belong to our own country and to the people and periods to which these remarks refer.

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Figure 4 b is an example of a gold armlet dug up with another of the same description in the neighbourhood of Canterbury about two years since, the relics probably of a British grave, no other articles being found—or, at all events, preserved—by the railway labourer who lit upon the discovery. The one engraved weighed 2 oz. 2 dwts.; it exhibits considerable skill in the manufacture.

Figure 2 b represents a solid torc, being an incomplete ring and of lesser antiquity than the specimen No. 1 b. The latter example, also of gold, is in the British Museum. It terminates in two bulbs slightly concave, the sides being decorated with an engrailing.

The ancient Irish kings and chieftains were famed—at least, in song,—for their torcs, gorgets, and collars of gold. Nor is there any reason to discredit the fact. The public museums and private collections in Ireland exhibit many specimens of these ancient ornaments. Some of them, preserved in the Museum at Dublin, are of large size and of elaborate workmanship.

In a tumulus in the county of Clare gold ornaments were found, in the year 1855, of the value of 3000l. The spoils, probably, of some battle-field which the pillagers never returned to recover.

Figure 3 b exhibits a gold collar, one perhaps of the earliest known types. It is called the “funicular,” from the shapes of the cup-like termini. This gorget is peculiarly Celtic: similar examples are frequently found in Ireland, some also in Europe. It was probably worn as a collar round the neck, although some authorities have suggested that it might have been worn on the top of the head with the circular ends behind the ears.

A torc of the purest gold was found, a few years since, at the mouth of a fox’s earth in Needwood Forest. It weighed 1 lb. 1 oz. 7 dwts.

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The graves of Scandinavia and northern Asia exhibit in tumuli scattered over vast and inhospitable steppes many examples of gold ornaments and breastplates. An early population of England, whether Celtic or Gallo-British, known to the Phœnicians long before the advent of Cæsar, were considered as skilful artificers in metals. The instrument denominated a “Celt” was probably of their handicraft, yet from the numbers of these relics accumulated together in certain spots it is by many supposed that they are also of Roman manufacture.

The Romans used bronze extensively, and even fabricated their swords of this material. We are told that, under Æmilius, they owed one of their crowning victories over the Gauls to the superiority of their weapons of bronze over the badly-tempered iron of their invaders. The bronze circular shields, however, some examples of which are exhibited in our national museum, have been found in graves supposed to be British.

Celts of bronze.—Celts, so called from “celtis,” a chisel. These instruments may be classed as “wedge-shaped;” as celts with ridges, celts with stop-ridges, and celts with sockets. Some of the latter have one loop, sometimes a loop on each side. (See examples “C.”) The oldest form is probably the “wedge-shaped,” being a natural imitation of the flint or stone chisel. (Fig 1 c.)

There are numerous examples of celts in the British Museum, and to these we invite attention. The mode of fastening, or of hafting, these instruments is not very perfectly understood. The weapons of the South Sea Islanders give us some idea how rude implements may be supplied with handles either fixed into a solid piece of wood, or placed in a split or cavity and fastened by thongs or some other description of tie. The presence of the loop on the bronze celts (Figs. 4 and 5) obviously suggests its use to assist in giving it greater firmness of hold, and the ridge or socket also indicates the method of inserting the implement in the staff or handle.

The moulds in which these celts have been cast have been discovered with other antiquities, and in some instances with lumps of the prepared metal close by. The moulds were formed of stone or metal, the upper and lower surfaces being constructed to fit together as accurately as possible, presenting an opening through which the metal was poured in.

Considerable discussion has arisen respecting the modes by which the celts were affixed to their handles. The celt of the simple form was probably (Fig. 1 c) inserted into a wooden haft, as in the example given of the stone implement (No. 1 d).

Some of the socketed celts might have been fixed on a crooked stick, with an arm nearly at right angles, and by a thong from the loop or loops strengthened in their position on the staff; or they might have been adapted to their handles, as the socketed lance-heads are in the present day; although by these arrangements they would lose much of their efficiency. It may not be unlikely that one species of the celt, the “socketed,” with one loop only, was supplied with a short wooden staff, and by a leathern thong was attached to a handle like the main stick of a flail. Thus whirled by a combatant, it would be a formidable weapon in a primitive state of warfare.

Spear-heads of bronze, with loops, or rather orifices in the sides, have also been deposited among ancient remains.

The stone implements and weapons found in graves and elsewhere, may be justly considered as amongst objects exhibiting earliest proofs of the handicraft of man.

The wedge with which the savage split wood; the knife, perhaps at first but a flint flake, accidentally splintered, with which he skinned the animals he had taken in the chase, or divided their flesh; the arrow or spear heads, pointed and affixed to their respective shafts or hafts, and with which he had slain his prey, would be among the most primitive instruments fabricated by man. Accordingly we find in or about the most ancient graves, these silent yet eloquent expounders of the manners, habits, and civilisation of a long perished people. The great proportion of these implements are composed of flint; other specimens are of sandstone, jade, ironstone, porphyry, jasper, chalcedony, &c.

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Fig. 3 d is a beautiful example of a chisel of white flint, found in a wood near Canterbury, where there are traces still apparent of ancient entrenchments. Roman remains and British pottery had previously been found on the spot. The length of the implement is 6½ inches, greatest breadth 1¾ inches. We consider this an example of a British war chisel: when hafted, it would present an appearance very similar in appearance to the stone celt in a handle (Fig. 1 d).

Fig. 4 d is an example of a stone implement in the museum at Canterbury.

Fig. 2 d is a specimen of a peculiar shape. It measures 7½ inches in length. It is described as “a stone hammer found at Orebo in Sweden.” Its form seems to indicate it is not of so ancient a period as generally assigned to implements of this description. The same remark might apply to specimen Fig. 8, also at Canterbury, had not a similar maul or hammer, now in the museum at Swansea, been found at Stanmadock, in Gower. The boring of the hole in the centre, and the symmetrical appearance of the relic itself, implies a mechanical skill not often exhibited in these primitive implements.

Fig. 6 d is a very perfect example of the ancient skinning knife, with the lower portion cut away for insertion into a haft. It was picked up from a heap of gravel thrown up during excavations for the Canterbury and Dover Railway, and near the first-named locality.

Fig. 7 d is an example of a flint knife. Figs. 9, 9 represent flint arrow-heads, often found in or near British camps or interments. Figs. 10, 10, 10, are specimens, in bone, of arrow or of bolt heads; the one ornamented with incised lines was found at Woodperry. The exact size is given in the engraving.

Fig. 5 d is an implement of a high antiquity, said to have been found in Gray’s Inn Lane, in conjunction with the bones of the Elephas primigenius. This specimen is similar in form and character to those remarkable implements found at Hoxne, at Kent’s Hole near Torquay, and at Biddenham, in this country, and on the continent at Amiens, St. Acheul, and in the valley of the Somme, the discovery of which, and whose history as connected with the earliest races of man, are now exciting so much interest in the scientific world.

These examples of human handicraft, if wrought by beings similar to ourselves, found in the Post Pleistocene Formation, or Drift, as it is called, awaken the keenest inquiry, and prove to us that not Geology only, but Archæology and Ethnology, in their daily acquisition of new facts, have yet much to learn and much to teach us, of the history of our own race, and of the world on which we live.