Stories of the Druids Abound, But What is the Hard Archaeological Evidence?
Druid comes from the Old Irish word druí meaning sorcerer. And that is how most people today think of the druids, as mysterious wizards enveloped in the world of magic and ritual. But there is much more to the history of druids than the misconceptions that have been promoted about them since ancient times.
A druid was a Celtic ritual specialist from Britain, Ireland, Gaul (France), and other parts of Europe and Galatia during the Iron Age and possibly earlier in the Bronze Age. Very little is known about the ancient druids as they did not have a written language and written records about them carry a heavy anti-Celtic bias.
Imaginative illustration of 'An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit'. (Public Domain)
Roman Records and Druids in History
The earliest surviving literary evidence of druids comes from the classical world of Greece and Rome. Greco-Roman authors often portray Celtic peoples as uncivilized savages due to a lack of technological development and depicted Rome as a civilizing force. The oldest text mentioning druids comes from Julius Caesar in 50 BC in book VI of Commentary on the Gallic war. He says that the druids sacrificed animals and people by burning them inside a wicker man, despite no actual evidence of this. Other than a single sentence in Caesar’s book, such reports are likely anti-Celtic propaganda used to transmit negative information adding to the image of Celtic people being savages in the eyes of Greco-Roman citizens.
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The Wicker Man of the Druids. (Public Domain)
Caesar also describes how druids were concerned with divine worship and playing an essential role in Gaulish society, acting as both equites (a term meaning horseman which may equate to warrior) and judges. The text also states that druids recognized the authority of a single leader, who would rule until his death, then a successor would be chosen either by a vote or combat - but usually the former. Druids also acted as teachers, training young men to become druids.
Druids, like numerous cultures both prehistoric and modern, were fascinated by the movements of stars and other celestial bodies. This implies that they were still using Neolithic monuments such as Stonehenge to track different astronomical alignments.
Modern druids celebrating rituals at Stonehenge. (sandyraidy/CC BY SA 2.0)
Another Roman writer, Tacitus, also wrote poorly of the druids after the Roman army came across a group on the Isle of Mona in Wales. He says that the druids were hostile and fought against the Romans, which seems like a perfectly logical response to an invading force arriving on your shores. The Romans responded by cutting down their sacred groves, which the druids used as a shrine.
Druids Inciting the Britons to Oppose the Landing of the Romans - from Cassell's History of England, Vol. I - anonymous author and artists. (Public Domain)
Are There Any Druid Artifacts?
There is very little evidence for druids in the archaeological record. Archaeologist and historian Ronald Hutton (University of Bristol) once said that “not one artefact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient druid”. Even the astral symbolism on Late Iron Age swords and the Coligny Calendar cannot be confidently linked with druids. However, if they are druid artifacts, then it is evidence that they were warriors, as Roman sources describe, even if it was just ritual combat. The Coligny Calendar shows the Celtics were concerned with timekeeping and astrological movements.
Coligny Calendar. (Public Domain)
Evidence for Human Sacrifice
Despite the uncertainty of the archaeological record, some researchers have tried to match written accounts of the druids to actual physical evidence. One such archaeologist is Anne Ross, who thinks that she has found evidence for human sacrifice in Celtic society, supporting Roman climes, in the form of bog bodies such as Lindow Man. Roman sources say that bog bodies are the remains of criminals, and their often-violent death supports these claims. Many bog bodies show evidence of ritual killing, by often having been stabbed, bludgeoned, and hanged.
However, the evidence suggests that some bog bodies were not criminals but offerings. Lindow Man, for example, had a good diet, far better than his contemporaries, and had well-groomed nails, indicating a lack of physical work and perhaps a pampered life. Such features suggest that these sacrifices were prechosen for sacrifice at an early age. Perhaps being a sacrifice to the gods was considered a great honor in these cultures?
Reconstruction of the head of Lindow Man. (Fair Use)
Druid Burials Tell Another Side of the Story
In 1988, a burial was excavated at Mill Hill near Deal, Kent and was believed to be the grave of a druid. The burial, known as the Deal Warrior, dates to the Iron Age around 200-150 BC. Grave goods included a sword and shield, and he was wearing a crown in the same style as ones worn by Romano-British priests several centuries later. The crown was too thin to have been much use for protection; it was made of bronze with a broad band around the head, and a thin strip across the top of the head.
This discovery led archaeologists to conclude that he might have been a druid. The inclusion of high-status grave goods shows that druids were important figures in pre-Roman Celtic society. The fact the later priests during the Roman occupation wore a similar style of headdress is evidence of continuity of belief and that druid culture became incorporated into Romano-British society.
Skull of the Deal Warrior with its crown. (Journal of Celtic Studies in Europe and Asia Minor)
A second druid grave was unearthed in Colchester, Essex in 2008. The remains were cremated (possibly to release the druid’s spirit) and were placed into a wood-lined chambered burial. As with the Deal Warrior, the site contained numerous grave goods:
- A cloak pinned with brooches.
- Jet beads.
- Divining rods for fortune-telling.
- A series of surgical instruments
- Iron and copper alloy scalpels.
- A surgical saw.
- Hooks, needles, forceps, and probes.
- A strainer bowl with remnants of daisy tea.
- A board game carefully laid out.
Surgical tools found in the Colchester druid burial. ( Public Domain )
These objects were useful things to the druid when he was alive, so they provide invaluable insights into the role played by druids. The different method of processing the body shows either variation in religious practices in Celtic Britain or that the two individuals held different ranks and thus the burial practices were different.
The surgical kits show that druids were not as uncivilized and primitive as the Romans like to make out, as they mirror medical tools in other parts of the Roman Empire and show that Celts adopted Roman customs. It also shows the druids acted as doctors performing surgeries and used herbal remedies, hence the daisy tea.
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Druids’ Roles in Celtic Society
Druids held many roles in Celtic society. They were healers and doctors, as shown by the presence of surgical instruments in their grave. Druids also served as fortune tellers and astrologers, as suggested by objects such as divining rods and the Coligny Calendar, as well as Roman sources.
However, there was a darker side to druids too, as they engaged in human sacrifice - as evinced by the bog bodies of northern Europe and Roman sources, though the latter is highly biased. Druids were incredibly important, possibly even leading the Celts forward into a Roman-dominated future as the advanced Roman-like surgical instrument suggest.
An Iron Age British spoon, possibly for divination, linked to the druids. (Johnbod/CC BY SA 3.0)
Top Image: Representative image of a cloaked druid in a forest. Source: CC0
By Jack Wilkin