The return of the Celtic cowboys

Two millennia ago, across the chalklands, moors and hills of southern England, cowboys rode the trail.

Well, sort of, anyway. Isotopic research on two archaeological sites in the region of Wessex has put the lie to the assumption of most historians that Iron Age people led sedentary lives, rarely venturing more than 20 kilometres from home.

Analysis of carbon, nitrogen and sulfur isotopes derived from animal remains unearthed at Suddern Farm and Danebury hillfort, both in the county of Hampshire, has found that a small but significant number of people and their animals travelled over hundreds of kilometres.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that at least some herds of cattle were reared in one area, and then driven across the landscape to settlements late in their lives.

The research, by a team led by Derek Hamilton of the University of Glasgow, Scotland, has led to the revival of a long discredited term, and the occupation it describes: Celtic cowboys.

The label was first coined in 1958 by eminent British archaeologist Stuart Piggott. He used it to epitomise what his research suggested was a pivotal cultural divide between the Iron Age north and south of England.

To Piggott, the people of the south were all settled and stable. The people of the north, in contrast, were a rambunctious rabble, semi-nomadic and constantly raiding each other’s herds.

By 1992, there was ample evidence that cereal cropping was common in the north during the period – a clear marker of settled life – and the term was discarded.

It was reintroduced, cautiously, in 2004 by an archaeologist, Barry Cunliffe, who suggested that earthwork evidence down south in Wessex indicated that cattle herders had used a patchwork of enclosures to manage their animals. However, the notion of a land of stay-at-home family groups remained dominant.

That picture may now have to be significantly modified following the evidence found by Hamilton and his colleagues. They began by piggy-backing off an ongoing project to radio-carbon date animal remains from the Suddern Farm site, adding tests for carbon, nitrogen and sulfur isotopes as well.

The logic was elegant. Different areas of land, different soils, and the different plants that grow on them all possess unique isotope signatures that are gradually absorbed into the bones and teeth of the animals that feed on them.

The isotopes are absorbed sequentially, providing in effect a chemical travel diary. Sometimes, however, the writing in the diary can get a bit blurred. If livestock are moved back and forth across a range multiple times – seasonally in pursuit of food, for instance – the isotopic intake would rather average out, providing an indeterminant result.

The researchers tested bones and teeth from 71 cows, sheep and horses found buried – often as complete skeletons. All the burials took place between 400 and 200 BCE.

The results showed three distinct groups.

The majority of the animals returned readings that indicated they lived their entire lives within five kilometres of where they ended up.

Some of the cows and horses (and one sheep) returned very different profiles. A few had very clear-cut chapters in their isotopic diaries, leading the researchers to suggest they had been reared in one spot and then herded to another. Evidence from one cow, they note, indicated it “was reared from as near as 150–200 km from the sites, in South Wales”.

The third group had mixed signatures, indicating that at lengthy intervals they had travelled back and forth between the settlement and distant pastures. Horses featured prominently in this group – still the favoured transport, of course, of cowboys around the world.

Altogether around 20% of the animals tested had lived substantial parts of their lives a long way distant from Suddern Farm and Danebury. Although further testing is needed to wholly confirm, Hamilton and colleagues assume that a small but significant part of the human population must have travelled with them, in sharp contrast to their sedentary neighbours.

And that, they add, may have been an important cultural driver.

“While the proportion of mobile individuals could remain relatively small, with this increased scale in their spheres of interaction, these ‘Celtic cowboys’ have far greater possibilities for contact between different groups, thus expanding the complexity of their network of relations,” they write.

The research is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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