Book 1, Chapter 2, Pre 55 BC – The Early Britons – Continued
The Britons were rather tall in stature, being half a foot taller than the Gauls, who were superior in height to the Romans, but Strabo asserts that the young Britons whom he saw at Rome, though tall, were not well proportioned, but were rather ungainly, especially in the lower limbs. This may have been only the assertion of national pique, or of conscious mental superiority, for it is certain that this British race possessed great physical strength and prowess, and caused the Roman veterans, accustomed as they were to sharp conflicts, much hard work, and many severe struggles, before they could subjugate the Britons.
They wore their hair long, and like most barbarous or semi savage tribes, sought to render their personal appearance terrible to their adversaries by the use of woad, (Isatis tinctoria) which gave their bodies a blue colour. The Romans supposed that the juice of this plant was used merely as a stain or paint, externally applied, but it is evident that the process known in modern times as “tattooing” was extensively practised among the early Britons. The skin was punctured, to represent animals, fish, stars, and other objects, and the juice of the plant was then rubbed over the surface, and into the punctures, thus fixing the outline.
The inland tribes appear to have dispensed with costume or to have wrapped themselves in skins in the winter, but those near the southern coast gradually adopted the fabrics imported from Gaul. They possessed articles of personal adornment, such as finger nags, metal collars, beads, bracelets and earrings. Specimens of these, in gold, silver, and bronze, have been found in Wiltshire and other parts of England, interred with the remains of the dead is harrows or tumuli, which are, undoubtedly, of breastplate, Roman origin. A fine specimen of a gorget, breastplate, shaped like a half moon, was found Mold, in Flintshire, and is now in the British Museum. Evidently the art of working in metals not only understood, but had been brought a high degree of perfection. Cinerary urns, drinking cups, and other vessels, have been discovered in the barrows, and it is certain that the ns were renowned for their cleverness in basket work, specimens of which were eagerly purchased even in voluptuous Rome.
Small coasting boats were made of osiers, covered with skins and capable of easy transport from place to place, and these were probably not unlike the coracles used by the Welsh fishermen in the present day. Besides these, there were rough and primitive canoes, remains of which are occasionally discovered in the beds of rivers and in fen districts, in a remarkable state of preservation. One of these, now in the National Museum, is thirty five feet long, twenty two inches deep, and fifty four inches wide at the centre. It seems to have been made out of the trunk of a tree, which was partly hollowed by fire, and then finished by a stone or bronze edge. Various implements and weapons have been disinterred, such as stone hammers with handles of deer’s horn, flint arrow heads and javelin heads, and hatchet shaped instruments made of bronze, and commonly termed celts.
The dwellings were chiefly formed of reeds or timber, and were usually constructed in groups upon an elevation, or in a forest, to guard against sudden attack. Caesar says, “What they call a town is a tract of woody country, surrounded by a vallum and a ditch,” and Strabo confirms this, “The forests of the Britons are their cities, for when they have inclosed a very large circuit with felled trees, they build within it houses for themselves, and hovels for their cattle. These buildings are very slight, and not designed for permanence.” The northern tribes retained their nomadic character for two hundred and fifty years after the first landing of Julius Caesar, and therefore had no permanent residences. They were chiefly dependent upon their flocks and herds and upon the produce of the chase, being unacquainted with agriculture, while the more southern tribes, in addition, tilled the ground. Milk was a chief article of diet, but the Britons do not appear to have used it excepting in its original form. Corn was housed in the ear, mostly in subterranean places, and was threshed as it was needed. Hares, geese, and hens were prohibited as food, probably by the Druids, for some religious scruples, now unknown.
Chapter 2, The Early Britons
Personal Appearance Dress Food and Dwellings
Categories: Book 1