Celtic Iron Age Chariots

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According to Caesar, the European Celts made wide use of chariots in warfare with a warrior standing behind the seated driver. The Celts extolled virtues in a chariot driver such as turning in a tight circle, backing up straight and leaping over chasms. Caesar also claimed to witness reckless and dangerous feats such as the warrior running along the pole to stand on the yoke of the horses or the driver urging the horses to jump logs and ditches at full speed. The latter, a back and neck-breaking stunt if performed in a farm-cart, might work with a chariot if it had a flexible spring suspension allowing the vehicle to actually lift off the ground. So, what were the chariots like and how were they used?

Rather than use the chariots as an attack vehicle, they were more likely to be used as a mode of delivery to the battle line. Racing up and down between the opposing forces, warriors would bellow out their battle cries and challenges above the roar of the heavy iron rimmed wheels, to intimidate their opposite number before dismounting and advancing on foot to accept an offer of single combat. The chariot driver would then retreat to a safe distance and wait for the return of victorious warrior or make ready for a speedy retreat if things went badly.

Made from sturdy ash wood, apart from the one-piece, iron rimmed wheels, which was probably a Celtic innovation – and hub fittings, chariots had double arched sides with the main frame lashed to the axle and the pole using wet rawhide which shrank tight, pulling joints together securely. Inside the arched sides was a Y shaped rawhide strap suspending an independent platform within the main frame. Leather slings supporting a carriage body were a tried and tested method of suspension and were still widely used in the stagecoaches of the Wild West.

chariotThe wooden spoked wheels were positioned beyond the edge of the body, offering greater stability and better cornering while the hilly, bumpy, boggy and rutted rough terrain made the need for a driver to be seated as he would have had a lower centre of gravity, adding to the overall stability.

The internal platform frame, again made from ash, was suspended from the main frame by leather straps and supported by two underneath battens fastened to the Y straps. A long strip of rawhide made the warp and weft of the platform, on which the warrior would stand, giving just the right amount of give and springiness to counteract a rough ride.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of the Irish Celts ever having used chariots but I am afraid historical accuracy did not prevent me from making extensive use of chariots, as evidenced in the following excerpt from the chapter Claiming Emer in Part Two of my novel, Raiding Cúailnge.

Laeg hopped onto the open front of the chariot, taking the reins in his left hand, his right shoulder against the right forward side arch of ash wood with one foot braced against the opposite arch, his right foot extended onto the pole leading to the yoked ponies. At a nod from Sétanta, he expertly guided the light chariot over the coarse grassed, bumpy plain, rutted with old chariot tracks, to the north of Brúgh na Bóinne and forded the Boann river heading south towards Luglochta Logo, the iron-shod wooden wheels sending up gouts of water on either side of the chariot, drenching Sétanta, who balanced easily on the interwoven strips of rawhide which made up the springy strap work floor.

“Hold on,” shouted Laeg, the cold wind whipping his long hair back as he urged the ponies on and over the first of the horizontal logs which made up the corrugated trackway of oaken beams laid over the boggy ground stretching before them. Sétanta grunted and allowed his knees to bend slightly to counteract the jolting although the rawhide straps supporting the body of the chariot provided a rough suspension.

Illustration: British Museum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel and Transport

Transport options were fairly limited in Iron Age Ireland. There were no paved roads although at its simplest, trackways of single planks laid end to end across boggy surfaces would have been used by single pedestrians. A more stable surface would consist of tightly packed bundles of hazel or birch twigs laid in thick layers across boggy and marshy land. More elaborate were “hurdle” trackways which consisted of woven panels of brushwood placed end to end, over which logs and crude planks were laid sideways.

Excavation in a peat bog in 1994 uncovered the Corlea trackway, the largest trackway of its kind to be uncovered in Europe, extending as it did for more than a kilometre in a NW – SE direction before turning to a SW direction for a further kilometre.

Near the village of Keenagh in County Longford, Ireland, the trackway dates from approx. 148 BCE and consists of packed hazel, birch and oak planks placed lengthways. The upper surface of the

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Photo taken ar Corlea Visitor Centre by author.

trackway was up to four metres in width with planks laid side by side on top of parallel beams and must have been used for wheeled transport.

Hundreds of oak trees would have been felled, trimmed and then labouriously split by pounding in wooden wedges along the natural grain of the wood until the trunk split into two halves, each half being then further split into crude planks. Such a major construction project of the time would have involved hundreds of people and, unlike other bog trackways or “toghers” catering to the needs of local farmers moving animals and goods across country, may have been part of a larger communication

network.

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Photo taken at Corlea visitor Centre by author

Overland journeys were made on foot or on horseback or in heavy 4-wheeled wagons, pulled by oxen.

Despite my inclusion of chariots in my novel, Raiding Cúailnge, no archeological evidence has been found to support the use of chariots inIron Age, Celtic ireland although chariot use was widespread among European Celts.

Light, fast two-wheeled chariots were often decorated with bronze and enamel fittings and were pulled by two horses yoked together and controlled by up to five terret rings through which the reins passed, setting the angle at which the charioteer could pull on the reins.

Chariots were usually open, front and back, with double hooped sides of woven wicker, joined to a flat, springy base of interwoven rawhide strips. The base, upon which the warrior would stand, was suspended within the frame of the body, thus providing a very rough form of suspension, similar to the stage coaches used so much later in the Wild West of the USA.

Wheels had twelve wooden spokes on a fixed axel. The outer part of the wheel was the rim and the wheel itself was fashioned either by using an ash sapling which was bent and shaped until it required the requisite shape or made with six felloes. A felloe was an arc cut from a board of timber with each one abutting its neighbour. Iron was forged into a hoop and put on the wheel while still hot and as it cooled, it contracted and tied all components of the wheel together.

Coracles, small circular boats, designed for rivers and lakes, were made of cow leather stretched over a latticed wooden frame and were powered and steered by a single oarsman standing erect leaving room for one or two people only. Larger, sea-going boats had removable oars and a mast for the sail.