Domestic Technologies


Houses and Homes

Although we are used to thinking about technology in terms of electronic and mechanical devices, we should also think of such mundane skills and processes as agriculture, architecture, and “home economics” as forms of technology. Such accomplishments as the techniques for storing and selectively breeding particular seed strains or breeding animals represent generations of careful observation and skilled activity. Human life can only be sustained by mastering such fundamental technical issues as producing food, clothing and shelter from available resources, and according to environmental and climactic conditions.

The attested words for the bounded domestic space (the “household”) in several Celtic languages are all related, telling us that they come from a common Proto-Celtic origin and notion of home: Gaulish lissos “court, palace,” Old Welsh llys “court(yard), lord’s manor,” Old Gaelic les “house enclosure, courtyard” (this last term usually associated with the ringfort structure).

The boundedness of these physical structures in the archeological record is clear enough, but early Celtic law systems also reinforce the ideological and legal significance of this space: both Irish and Welsh law express the concept that the household is a legally recognized boundary under the jurisdiction of a the head of the household and any activity in that space has consequences for that person in moral and legal terms. Unsolicited trespass into the bounds is punishable by a fee and “any crime committed in this area […] is automatically considered a crime against the owner of the settlement, too.”

Thus, the physical and symbolic boundaries around households (and probably other kinds of buildings and settlements) had important legal, religious, and social connotations and were given prominence physically: walls, trenches, and so on. Such boundaries may have been rebuilt or renewed in ceremonies periodically or after major violations of their integrity.

Agricultural Production

OxPloughPloughing is a necessary and strenuous task for agriculture, and the soil of central and western Europe is demanding. A unique depiction of Iron Age ploughing with two oxen, carved on stones near Val Camonica, Bedolina, Italy, is shown above. The man following the plough team may be breaking up clods of soil with a hoe. The Iron Age villages of Celtic Europe did not contain a large number of cattle: the farmsteads of central Europe have been estimated as having an average of 5-10 cattle, with one ox for each 3-8 cow. Not every ox may have been fit for ploughing, and the cattle of the British Isles were relatively small (and correspondingly less powerful). Thus, the resources necessary for ploughing fields were not likely to be within the means of the average single household.

CelticPloughIrish and Welsh law allowed for the annual formation of co-operatives between households so that adequate resources (oxen, plough, and manual labour) could be gathered for the ploughing of fields. The fact that the terms for joint ploughing are cognate (Old Gaelic comar, Old Welsh cyfar) supports the idea that they derived from an older Proto-Celtic term, *komarom, and hence practice. These co-operatives were formed afresh each year by contract between heads of households and dissolved after the work was done, independent of any bonds of kinship that might or might not have existed. Each partner could choose which field he wanted worked each day, as long as the work (including moving the animals and equipment) could be done in one day.

These working arrangements correspond roughly to the notion of the so-called “Celtic field,” a pattern of farming which emerged in the Late Bronze Age which has left an imprint throughout Britain, the Netherlands, northern Germany, Sweden and Denmark. Celtic fields

are recognized by their shape, size and pattern. Celtic field systems consist of a large number of adjoining, small, more or less rectangular plots. The individual plots measure from about 20 to 45 m in length and width. These plots are generally bordered by low raised boundaries, which consist of either sandy material or accumulations of stones. (Kooistra and Maas)

The Celtic field seems to consist of as much terrain as could be easily ploughed in a single day. The pre-existing burials and monuments to the dead around these fields were generally not disturbed by agricultural work, suggesting that there was a strong continuity between the people before and after the creation of the fields. Given that cattle were necessary for the work of agriculture, some territory (probably a considerable amount) had to be set aside for pasturage where they could graze and the fields were enriched by the humus they generated.

Some evidence of an early forerunner of the Celtic field system has been found in Ireland, but no solid proof of its use in Gaul has yet been uncovered. Thus, while this territory does not correspond directly to the area occupied and farmed by Celtic-speaking peoples, it does suggest that some agricultural techniques were developed to meet the needs of people who had settled permanently given the soils, environments and climates in this region, at least some of whom were Celts.

CelticFarmToolsMany of the basic farming implements that have been used practically to the present day were made by Celtic smiths out of iron, making these tools suitable for the rough working of the soil. By the 1st century BCE, the continental Celts were using an iron share on their ploughs (numbers 6, 9 and 10 in the illustration to the left), which made the plough more effective and extend the reach of their agricultural efforts.



Class Discussion

What does Palladius, De Re Rustica say about Gaulish techniques for harvesting? Does he sound impressed by this Gaulish innovation? What other Celtic technologies or innovations would this have relied upon? There are surviving depictions of this machinery from ancient Gaul. Look for them and comment.


Audouze and Büchsenschütz, Towns.

Karl, “Neighbourhood.”

—, “Random Coincidences.”

Kooistra and Maas, “The widespread occurrence.”