McCartney's Journeys

Celtic Skills

The Celts Articles


Most people today, when asked about the ancient Celts, will remember them only as warriors. Since no society can endure by following one skill, it is evident that other skills had to exist in the Celtic culture. From the items found at the various sites, we know that the Celts had developed great skill in a number of other areas: working with metals, farming, mining and trading.

Metal Working

The Celts continued to develop the metal working skills of their predecessors. Working in bronze and iron, they made tools and weapons that were superior to those used by other people. They even developed metal shield coverings and chain-link armor. Perhaps their most significant developments were the spoked wheel, seamless metal wheel rims and iron horseshoes. The wheel rims gave their chariots greater speed and smoothness of ride while having less breakage in both normal travel and military conflicts. The horseshoes protected the horse's hooves from injury, thereby allowing greater endurance and speed to the animals. (1)

They added ornamentation to many of the items they made. Decorative scabbards and sword hilts, bridles and trappings for their horses, even ornate chariots were discovered in some of the burial sites. The artistic style improved upon and added to the curvilinear abstractions used by the Urnfield people. The Celts also used stylized representations of animals. This artistic style adapted well to making jewelry to add decoration to their clothing.

Both men and women used beautiful brooches and clasps for their clothing and belts. These brooches were finely worked metal with semi-precious stones set in enameled backgrounds. Often, the women would style their hair using exquisite combs and clips to hold it in place. The penchant for beauty also extended to the cloth they used for their clothing, woven in intricate colorful patterns.


Of course, all of these metalworkers and artisans had to eat. The Celts, like most people of their time, were an agricultural people. In fact, they developed the first organized farming communities with large farm areas around towns that afforded the farmers protection from any raiding parties.

They practiced mixed farming, combining planting and husbandry. A farm would maintain some livestock, which could include cows, sheep, pigs, goats and, possibly, some chickens, while also planting a variety of crops. The most common crops were wheat, barley, oats, rye and peas. (2)

These farmers were not satisfied to just plant and then trust nature to bring in a good crop. The Celtic quest for knowledge and their innovative spirit led them to experiment with crop rotation to prevent depletion of nutrients in the soil and fertilization to replace those nutrients that were lost. (3)

The need for farm tools combined with the skills working with metals and their inquisitive and inventive nature led to the development of new forms of tools that were very advanced for the times. They made iron plows that were, according to Pliny, the Classic Roman historian, far superior to those made by the Romans. They developed a mechanized harvester; a wooden cart with blades mounted on the sides. As oxen pushed the cart, the blades cut the crops which were pushed up a ramp and dumped into the cart. Curiously, the harvester was re-invented many centuries later by another Celt, a Scot named John McCormack.(4)

They also developed clippers for shearing the wool from the sheep. Until electric powered shears came along in the early twentieth century, the shears used by sheep ranchers in the United States and Australia showed very little change from those used by the Celts over two thousand years ago. Also found in burial sites were chisels and a safety pin. (5)

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In the year 1734, the body of a man was found in a salt mine near Halstatt, Austria. The man had died in a tunnel collapse many centuries before. The natural preservative characteristics of the salt kept the body in near perfect condition.

About one hundred years after the discovery of the body, when archaeology was just beginning to be recognized as a scientific study, Georg Ramsauer, the managing director of the mine, became interested in the fledgling science. Though self-taught, he followed all of the proper procedures, excavating and documenting over one hundred graves that were part of an extensive Celtic cemetery.

The Celts had mined salt in the Austrian mountains near what is now Salzburg (which means Salt Town) and Halstatt (hal is the Celtic word for salt) for many centuries. Ramsauer's cemetery discovery and additional finds in the mines have given us samples of pickaxes and shovels used in the mines. Beside the tools, leather bags for hauling the salt and hard-hats have been found that date back to the eighth century BC.

The helmets are made of hardened leather. The leather was soaked in water to make it more pliable. It was then shaped and rubbed with salt. After it dried, the leather was hardened to some degree, but not hard enough to provide much protection. The helmet was painted with a shellac or lacquer. Four or five coats of the lacquer would make the leather quite hard. This same technique was used in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to make helmets for firefighters. (Again, we see the inventiveness of the early Celts providing methods and technology to modern man.)

Because salt is a natural preservative, it was widely used by the contemporaries of the early Celts. The salt that they mined in Austria was a major trade product for the Celts.

The Celts also mined iron, tin and copper. Tin and copper are the two elements needed to make bronze which, prior to the use of iron, was made into weapons and tools.


Celtic expansion was a result of their extensive commerce with other people. The Greeks called them Keltoi, Barbarians, yet they traded regularly with the Celts, exchanging wine for salt and tools. Even though the Romans hated the Celts for sacking Rome, they too traded with them. Roman records indicate that the Celts were considered fair and honest tradesmen.

The Celts used both barter and coinage in their commerce. It is believed that the first Celtic coins were minted in Transylvania, Rumania. Many of these minted coins are considered works of art and are highly prized by museums and collectors. Evidence of a mint which produced silver and gold coins was found in Manching, Germany. The coins were stored in rooms securely locked by lock mechanisms made by Celtic workmen in Manching. (6)

We know the Celts expanded as far west as Ireland. The question is "How far east did they travel?" Since trading villages have been found in Persia, we have an eastern boundary. Or do we? Chinese silk has been found in Celtic burial sites. Perhaps they roamed as far as the western boundaries of China.

Many Celtic towns were built along trade routes. Some of them grew and prospered and became the foundations of modern cities such as Budapest, Basel, Orleans, Paris and London.


  1. Kevin Duffy; Who Were The Celts?; Heritage Books, Inc., 1996/Barnes & Noble, 1999; p 11
  2. Duffy: pp 44, 45
  3. Duffy: p 12
  4. Duffy: p 13
  5. Duffy: p 35
  6. Duffy: p 43

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