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Greeks and Romans regarded their Celtic neighbours as barbarians. Sadly for the Celts, their history was written by their conquerors. Archaeology, however, has uncovered evidence of a sophisticated society with a noble ancestry that included fierce warriors and hunters.



Their Early Iron Age ancestors, named after the Austrian village of Halstatt where their remains were found in the 19th Century, have left records of their hunting prowess on weaponry and other metalwork. Many of their bronze bucket like vessels, called situlae, are decorated with armed men and some of the animals they hunted.

 

The 6th century Vace situla from Slovenia, for example, has a frieze of a lion with a wolf's tail, devouring an animal leg, followed by three does and four ibexes. It was found in a grave of a young man who was buried with his spears, helmet and axe. Another beautiful grave offering, the Strettweg Cult Wagon, found in a princely tomb, includes men on horseback and deer with formidable antlers, in what has been called a ritual hunting scene. The wide range of animal bones found on Hallstatt settlements tell us that they hunted bear, wolf, boar, deer, bison, hare, eagle, raven and vulture. An analysis of the human bones confirmed that meat was a major part of the diet of all strata of society.

 

Metal objects from a later site, La Tène in Switzerland, are covered in animal designs influenced by Greek, Italian and Scythian art. Bulls, boars, deer and wolves were favourite subjects for weapons, mounts for vessels, jewellery and free-standing figurines. We cannot tell whether the hunting scenes were of actual or mythical events. However, we do know that hunting was an important source of meat, after domestic pigs and cattle. Almost half of the game bones found on sites in the 5th century onwards were those of red deer followed by hare, wild boar, roe deer, beaver and aurochs. Hunting also provided horn, antlers, fur and hide to make clothing, tools, weapons and ornaments. The bones of water fowl and game birds found in settlements suggest that birds often appeared on the dinner table, and it’s possible that the nobility in this society practised falconry.

 

Roman and Greek writers such as Strabo, Arrian, and even Julius Caesar provide some information on how the descendants of the Halstatt and La Tène cultures hunted. But we also have a vast gallery of rock art which adds flesh to the bones of their stories at the amazing site of Val Camonica in the north of Italy. Later still British bards spun wonderful stories of heroic hunters from Celtic times. We shall return to these later.

by Celine Castelino

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