Celtic Weapons Art
Swords, Scabbards, Shields, Helmets, Decorated Phalerae.

Pin it

Sword with Three Mounts, La Tene Style

For a review of Celtic culture,
see Hallstatt Culture (800-450 BCE)
and La Tene Culture (450-50 BCE)

Celtic Weapons Art


Horse/Chariot Fittings

The Celts were successful traders
and used their control of waterways
like the River Danube to acquire
expertise in the iron trade, from
which sprang their unique mastery
of blacksmithery and metalwork.
In particular it was their skill in
the forge and in their use of
chisels, hammers and other tools
(essential in the design and
manufacture of weaponry), that
led to the Celts' reputation as
master craftsmen and metallurgical
artists. In their decoration and
ornamentation of their swords,
scabbards, shields, and helmets,
Celtic metalworkers were greatly
influenced by artists from the
Black Sea, Etruria and Ancient

For information about the art,
civilization, culture and heritage
of the ancient keltoi tribes in Europe,
Britain and Ireland, see:
Iron Age
Celtic Art: Early Style
Celtic Art: Waldalgesheim Style
Celtic Art: Coins/Coinage
Celtic Art: Late European
Celtic Sculpture, Carving
Turoe Stone Celtic Monument
Celtic Metalwork
Broighter Collar
Petrie Crown
Gundestrup Cauldron
Celtic Art: in Britain/Ireland

Celtic Swords

Most early commentators noted that the Celts had an unusual manner of fighting. Their chief weapon was a heavy, long-bladed sword, which they wielded with devastating efficiency. This type of weapon seems to have been developed to counteract the phalanx, the robust military formation that was favoured by the Greeks and other Mediterranean armies. Celtic warriors attempted to breach this solid mass of soldiers by making a ferocious frontal assault. Powerful weapons were essential if this kind of approach was to succeed and, judging by the rapid progress made during the period of Celtic expansion in the 4th century B.C., the tactic was effective for a time. Nonetheless, there were drawbacks. The initial onslaught often resulted in high casualties and, if it failed, the impctus of the attack could peter out very quickly.

For information about early
ecclesiastical artifacts made
for the early Christian church
in Ireland, see these resources:
Celtic-Style Christian Art
Ardagh Chalice
Derrynaflavan Chalice
Tully Lough Cross
Moylough Belt Shrine
Celtic Jewellery Art

For facts and information about the
evolution of painting & sculpture
in Munster, Leinster, Connacht and
Ulster, see: History of Irish art.
For a list of sites of significant
cultural and artistic interest, see:
Archeological Monuments Ireland.
For more details please see:
Architectural Monuments Ireland.

For a list of dates see:
History of Art Timeline. For details
of the evolution of artworks from
the Stone Age epoch, please see:
Prehistoric Art Timeline.

Many ancient sources confirm this, reporting how the Celts could become totally disheartened, if they did not achieve an immediate breakthrough. In addition, the weight of the sword made it cumbersome to use, which proved a great disadvantage in hand-to-hand fighting.

In design terms, the size of the blade made a substantial hilt essential, and it was in this area that most of the decoration was concentrated. Handles could he inlaid with precious materials, such as ivory and amber, or else could be fashioned into the shape of a stylized human figure. The latter provided a remarkably functional alternative. The torso of the figure acted as the handgrip, secured on either side by projecting arms and legs, while the pommel was formed out of a fearsome head with bulging eyes. Bearing in mind the symbolic importance which Celtic warriors attached to the human head, it is quite possible that this motif was included as a kind of talisman. The starkest figures can be found on swords dating back to the 2nd century BCE. Later examples were often influenced by provincial Roman art. On these, the head is sometimes shown with hair, and the facial expression is generally more bland and naturalistic.

Celtic Scabbards

By and large, scabbards offered greater scope for decoration and the range of options was considerable. The best-known individual example is the proto-Celtic scabbard from grave 994 at Hallstatt. The images on this - soldiers, horsemen, and figures turning a wheel - have a narrative quality that is unusual in Celtic art. The stylized dragons at the chape (or point), however, are much more typical. In true Celtic fashion, they almost seem to slither up the edge of the scabbard.

For the history & development
of Celtic Designs, in particular
the iconography, zoomorphs
and decorative art motifs
employed by the ancient Celts,
in metalwork, ceramics and other
artworks please see:
Celtic Interlace Designs
Celtic Knots Designs
Celtic Crosses Designs
Celtic Spirals Designs


Plant forms and stylized animals proved to be the most popular motifs throughout the La Tene era. During the Waldalgesheim period, in particular, craftsmen demonstrated a preference for flowing tendril patterns, running the full length of the scabbard. These were usually created with the aid of compasses. The tendril designs were often enlivened with faint hints of animal forms. On a French scabbard discovered at Cernon-sur-Coole, eagle-eyed observers can discern a series of rudimentary bird heads. These consist of nothing more than a slit-like eye and a rapacious beak, which curves round sharply, merging with the line of the tendril.

Dragon pairs (S-shaped forms placed back to back) also figured on many scabbard patterns, dating back as far as the 4th century BCE. Examples have been found throughout Celtic Europe, although the greatest concentrations were produced in Hungary and Switzerland. No fewer than six scabbards of this kind were discovered at the cemetery of Kosd, near Budapest. Some of these had been ritually damaged, before being cast onto the funeral pyre. In general, Swiss designs were less ostentatious and were frequently restricted to the area around the mouth of the scabbard. In addition to the usual methods of incising and hatching, their armourers also employed chagrinage or ring-punched decoration.

Similar designs can be observed on the surviving remnants of Celtic spears. These weapons were widely used at the start of the La Tene era and were invariably present in the earliest warrior graves. Indeed, the Gaesatae, one of the most warlike of the Celtic factions, are thought to have gained their name from the gaesum, a Gaulish throwing spear. In later periods, though, the influence of the weapon gradually began to diminish.

Celtic Shields

Archaeologists have come across two distinct classes of arms and armour at Celtic sites. There are the functional items, often bearing the scars of battle, which were interred in warriors' graves. In addition, there are much more attractive articles, lavishly decorated and clearly never intended for practical use. These ceremonial pieces were placed in the graves of chieftains or other figures of exalted rank. Alternatively, they were donated to the gods as a form of sacrifice. Many of these items have been retrieved from rivers and lakes, where they were deliberately discarded. From an archaeological point of view, the advantage of this practice is that the artifacts have often survived in remarkably good condition. This is in marked contrast to the process of ritual damage, where objects were bent or broken prior to the sacrifice.

The splendour of much of this weaponry derives partly from the Celtic taste for ostentation, a fact that is confirmed in several classical sources, and partly from their reverential attitude to arms and armour. The finest pieces were thought to have distinctive personalities of their own. Reflecting this, the weapons of Celtic legend were often given names and had special powers attributed to them. Most people will have heard of King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, but this is only one example among many. In the early Irish epic, the Tain Bo Cuailnge, Fergus Mac Roth wielded a mighty sword called Cladcholg, which was powerful enough to slice through hilltops. Similarly, another character in the tale owned a shield called Ochain. This shrieked aloud whenever its master was in danger, and caused all the other shields in Ulster to scream in unison with it. Stories of this kind would have been familiar to many Celtic chieftains, who would doubtless have given personal names to their own weapons.

The shields used by Celtic warriors were quite different from their Mediterranean counterparts. The latter were normally round or curved, whilst the Celts preferred to use long, flat shields with a protruding central section. This could either take the form of a circular boss or a slender, rib-shaped umbo. The purpose of the cavity was to provide the warrior with a more comfortable handgrip which, in turn, offered greater manoeuvrability. The drawback, however, was that the boss could endanger the wearer. In early La Tene models, it was only held in place by two nails, which could be pushed dangerously close to the warrior's hand, if the protrusion was struck with any force. In time, this led to the enlargement of the boss, so that the nails could be located further away from the hand or, alternatively, to the creation of a combined boss and rib cavity.

On most ceremonial items, the decoration was focused on this important central section. Craftsmen delighted in adding swirling La Tene designs to the circular boss, studding it with pieces of red glass or enamel. In a few instances, only the central boss has survived, suggesting that it may originally have been fixed onto a wooden or leather shield.

The most elaborate designs exploited the combination of the mid-rib and the boss. This is illustrated most persuasively on two British shields, which were dredged out of the River Witham and the River Thames. In both cases, the ends of the rib have been enlarged to form two extra bosses. These are purely ornamental, serving no practical purpose. On the Witham shield, the bosses were created with a mixture of delicate repousse work and engraving. This was at its finest on the edges of the outer roundels, where the artist conjured up a subtle evocation of two long-snouted beasts, in the ambiguous manner which the Celts admired so much. The Witham shield has also attracted attention for another reason. Tiny rivet holes indicate that it once bore an entirely different design, which was removed by a later owner. The original pattern was a primitive representation of a boar with spindly, stilt-like legs. This was apt, since the boar was a conventional war symbol, but it is equally clear why the new owner replaced it with the sinuous elegance of the current design. The change is also interesting, because it confirms that Celtic warlords liked to personalize their equipment, just as the knights of a later age would do through the medium of heraldry.

On the Battersea shield, the same format has been taken a stage further. The mid-rib has effectively disappeared and the three roundels have expanded to cover much of the shield surface. The boss surrounding the handgrip - the only functional element in the design - forms just a small part of the central roundel. Around it, the craftsman has constructed a fluid, curvilinear pattern, consisting mostly of interlocking S-shapes and spirals. This theme is continued in the coloured enamel inlays, which feature a number of tiny swastikas. These rotate in a clockwise direction and can be classed as angular spirals. Apart from their obvious elegance, spirals also offered artists the opportunity to create playful hints of figuration. If you look at the shield from different angles, faces seem to appear. In the central roundel, for example, it is possible to make out stylized birds' heads, while the spirals which connect the roundels have been interpreted either as bulls with extravagantly curved horns or men with flowing moustaches.

Celtic War Helmets

There is no doubt that the Battersea shield was conceived purely as a luxury item. Originally, it was gilded and, almost certainly, it was deposited in the Thames as a votive offering. This trend was echoed in the production of helmets, where the use of precious materials and showy designs was even more widespread. The most lavish Celtic helmets were those created in the 'jockey-cap' format. These were inspired by Etruscan or Italian models and date back to around the 4th century BCE. In most cases, thcy consist of a hemispherical cap, a hinged cheek-flap, a neck-guard, and a fitting at the top for a plume or crest. Bands of decoration cover the entire surface, which may also be studded with pieces of coral or coloured glass.

The most spectacular example is the Agris helmet, which was discovered in a grotto near Angouleme in 1981. The crown itself is iron, but the attachments are made of bronze, covered in gold leaf, and the rivets are silver. The bands of dccoration have a transitional flavour, blending elements from the Early and Waldalgesheim Styles. Geometric patterns nestle alongside running palmette and lotus motifs. The sinuous decoration on the one surviving cheek-piece is particularly interesting, as it appears to represent a horned serpent. This was a conventional chthonian symbol, which implies that the grotto may have been revered as an entrance to the Celtic Otherworld.

The style of this piece is not far removed from another French helmet of similar date, which was discovered at Amfreville-sous-les-Monts. In this case, the helmet was retrieved from the dried-out bed of a tributary of the Seine, which suggests that it may have been used as a traditional votive offering. Here, only the central band is covered in gold leaf, though its pattern is considerably more refined than the Agris model. It consists of a linked arrangement of triskeles (three-coiled spirals), interspersed with elongated S-curves, The outer bands feature openwork decoration, inlaid with nuggets of coloured glass.

Another notable jockey-cap helmet was discovered in 1895, in a tomb complex at Canosa di Puglia. Despite its Italian location, this, too, was probably made in Gaul and perhaps belonged to a Celtic mercenary. In this case, there is no gold leaf at all. Instead, the openwork design of lyres and S-curves is set with pieces of coral. Comparisons have often been drawn between this and the painted decoration on the Prunay vase, which dates from the same period.

In other Gaulish helmets, the surface design was generally less ornate, but the overall shape was often more elaborate. This is particularly true of the lofty, pointed helmets, which have been discovered in the Marne region. Several historians have noted the similarity between their distinctive silhouette and contemporary Persian helmets, suggesting that the influence may have been transmitted through Italy, but it is equally possible that the style developed independently in Gaul. The two most celebrated examples come from warrior graves at Berru and La Gorge Meillet. In both cases, the decoration takes the form of incised motifs, such as swastikas and palmettes, and vacant discs which probably once contained pieces of coral. Although not as lavish as the 'jockey-caps', these helmets were certainly produced for figures of high standing. The warrior at La Gorge Meillet was interred with full military regalia and an Otherworld feast. The remains of his charioteer were buried above him.

Across the Channel, the nearest equivalent is the Waterloo Bridge helmet, which was discovered in the River Thames. This is considerably later, dating from around the 1st century BCE, and it displays a sparse, asymmetrical pattern of winding tendrils. Its most interesting features are the horns, which are studded with ornamental rivets. Horns symbolized virility and aggression, making them the ideal adornment for a war helmet.

Celtic War Trumpets

Classical authors often commented on the terrible din which Celtic warriors made when they went into battle. Much of this was accomplished through a combination of shouts, boasts and taunts, but the Celts also made use of ear-shattering war horns. Writers such as Polybhls and Diodorus Siculus described the instrument as a carnyx, a Greek word for an animal-headed trumpet. Depictions of it can be found on the Roman arch at Orange, in the south of France, where it was pictured along with other items of local booty. More interestingly, it is also shown on one of the plates of the Gundestrup Cauldron. There, the instruments are carried aloft by a group of warriors. Each one consists of a long-stemmed horn, crowned by the head of an open-mouthed boar. The latter was a traditional symbol of war and, fittingly, several of the warriors on the cauldron were portrayed with boar-crests on their helmets.

Findings of an actual carnyx are rare. Sir Joseph Banks, the famous naturalist, owned one but destroyed it accidentally, in an ill-advised attempt to analyse its metal. Fortunately, however, substantial remains of another carnyx were unearthed by peat-cutters at Deskford in Scotland. This example is made of beaten bronze and probably dates from the 1st century CE. At the time of its discovery in 1874, the boar's head still retained its enamelled eyes and movable wooden tongue, though these have since disappeared.

Celtic Horse Fittings and Equipment

Horses and chariots played an integral role in the martial activities of the Celts. Accordingly, warrior chieftains took pains to deck them out with the kind of finery that would set off their own ceremonial gear. Horse-bits, harness mounts and terrets (chariot rings) were all adorned with the full repertoire of Celtic motifs. Many examples of these have been found in the cart or chariot burials, which date back as far as the Hallstatt period. In these, persons of high rank were interred along with the vehicle. In most cases, the chariot was dismantled and, on rare occasions, the owner's horses were sacrificed and placed inside the grave.

There are enormous regional variations in the style of decoration employed on these accoutrements. Some of the most sumptuous chariot graves were discovered in the Marne region in France, where there was a pronounced taste for openwork phalerae (bronze discs), decorated with enamel. The example from the tomb at Cuperly (4th century BCE.), meticulously designed with the aid of compasses, is particularly fine. Phalerae were normally used as harness fittings, although they might occasionally be fixed to a warrior's armour.

The items found at the chariot grave of Mezek in Bulgaria, could hardly be more different. These include a range of yoke mounts, terrets and linchpins, which are prime examples of the Plastic Style. Knobbed protruberances jut out at every angle, hinting at swollen-cheeked faces and bulging eyes.

In Britain, by contrast, the preference was for brightly coloured enamel mounts, which made use of the latest champleve techniques. Here, the principal finds were made at Polden Hill in Somerset, where a sizeable hoard of mounts and fittings was uncovered by a ploughman in 1803, and at Stanton in Norfolk. A few items relate specifically to horses. Depictions of the animal are surprisingly rare, but one of the most charming is a tiny chariot mount, which was discovered at Melsonby in Yorkshire, among a hoard of artefacts buried by the Brigantes. The horse's face is conveyed by a few simple curves, an example of Celtic stylization at its finest. More unusual still is the bronze pony cap, which was extracted from a bog at Torrs in Scotland. The cap once belonged to the novelist, Sir Walter Scott, and it features a repousse design with spiral and bird's head motifs.

• For more about the history of Irish culture, see: Visual Arts in Ireland.
• For more about painters and sculptors, see: Famous Irish Artists.
• For information about the cultural history of Iron Age Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more on the history of Celtic weaponry and metalworking, see: Homepage.

© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.