Woad Warpaint

By Edorix

It is widely believed that the Ancient Britons employed the custom of painting themselves with woad patterns. This article explores all the many and lesser-known contentions behind this popular idea.

According to Caesar, "omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem". This translates to: "All the Britons stain themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour". This passage is the most famous evidence for Ancient British warpaint; but it could scarcely be more controversial.

Firstly, Caesar annoyingly fails to specify whether the Britons dyed their bodies entirely blue or in patterns, and many works have imagined Britons stained entirely blue from head to toe. Fortunately, Caesar is not the only one to mention this British custom: Herodian writes of the Picts in his History, "They also tattoo their bodies with various patterns and pictures of all sorts of animals." There can be no doubt that the Britons did not climb into woad vats and come up blue.

Then there is the issue of whether they wore warpaint or tattoos, which often arises even among the most well-informed scholars. The answer is less explicit than for the previous question, but it seems to be tattoos; Caesar's word inficivnt does not mean "they paint", more like "they stain"; relatively long-term then, if not permanent. Furthermore, during the Stone Age, tribal tattoos were by all accounts a widespread practise, judging from the body of Otzi (the corpse of a Neolithic man preserved in the Alps for five thousand years), and a few bog-body finds support the idea that in parts of Northern Europe this practise persisted into the Iron Age. But more on that below.

But what substance did the Britons use to thus "paint" themselves? The usual response is "woad"; but is this really the case? If challenged, someone familiar with the classical texts will tend to give an offhand reference to Pliny or the above passage from Caesar. But vitrum, the word Caesar uses, does not actually mean "woad", and nor does Pliny's glastum (Indeed, Pliny doesn't even use the term of Briton warriors, but of Gallic women at a certain annual festival. Besides, he knew about woad, isatis, and would have used that word if that was what he was referring to). Glastum, in fact derives from the Proto-Celtic *glasto, which simply means "blue" (or more probably, "blue-green"). "vitrum" means glass.

Kym ni Dhoireann, in his article The Problem of the Woad, traces the earliest translation of vitrum as "woad" back to 1695, in William Camden's Britannia. He points out that this date coincides with the start of the so-called "Indigo Wars", a period of quite fierce competition between merchants of cheaply grown imported indigo, and the local cultivators of the more expensive and time-consuming woad, for a dark blue dye. Camden, a "local", was probably trying to instil some sort of patriotism into woad (although there was no doubt educated guesswork in there too). And, one way or another, his translation rapidly became the accepted version. His idea worked, much better than he could ever have hoped it would; three hundred years later, we still unquestioningly follow his lead.

Woad, he goes on, just doesn't work. Arguments that it is a hallucinogen are false, and it does not work well as a tattoo ink because it is caustic and keeps the wound open. It is an excellent dye for clothing, but does not stain the skin effectively. There is absolutely nothing, he says, in defence of the use of woad as the "paint" of the Britons.

Woad is too dark to show up blue against the skin, and Caesar states specifically that vitrum produced a light blue colour ("caeruleum. . . colorem."). vitrum, in other contexts, is always taken to mean "glass"; to the Romans, transparent glass was not cheap, and the usual kind was a blue-green colour, used for fancy bowls and ornaments. But vitrum, Kym argues, is likely just an indication of the colour, not the substance used; glass, after all, does not stain.

Traces of copper and iron have been found on the body of the famous Lindow Man (an Iron Age body preserved in a bog), either of which can produce a blue-green colour. Without getting into too much chemistry, compounds of Iron III are a blue-green colour (as opposed to Iron II which are red-brown), and copper oxide is similar but lighter. I did some research, but there seem to be no etymological links between the word vitrum and the Proto-Celtic terms for copper (*cuprom) or iron (*isarnom, although whether iron was yet used at the time Proto-Celtic was spoken is unknown). But this proves nothing either way.

Copper pigment would probably have been toxic, as it can well contain arsenic, but the effects would have been slow enough to perhaps not be linked to a cause, according to Kym. Iron pigment would not be toxic, and furthermore Kym has dug up some potential written evidence which could be used in its favour. It is, however, open to interpretation. In the words of the poet Claudius Claudianus: legio [. . .] quae [. . .] ferronque notatas perlegit examines Picto moriente figuras. This translates to "The legion [. . .] which examines shapes marked in iron on the face of the dying Painted One (Pict)." This is normally taken to mean wounds by iron blades; but Kym suggests that it could also refer to an iron tattoo ink. Both Iron III and Copper II give a colour much closer to Caesar's vitrum glass than woad, he asserts.

One of my own theories is that vitrum is in fact a Latin rendering of an Ancient British word, something like *witron. But there is no evidence for the existence of such a word in Gaulish, Ancient British is not actually attested and there are no traces of such a word in later Brythonic languages as far as I know, so this theory is mere speculation.

However, Oudysseos of the Europa Barbarorum II team explained to me the other side of the argument. When I showed him this article in its second draft, he told me this:

"I am well aware of the arguments that have been advanced against woad by tattoo enthusiasts and historical reconstructionists, but the works cited by Ms. Carr and Cartwright-Jones conclusively deal with all the issues raised. Woad is a perfectly good body paint if you know how to prepare it, as she does. The linguistic issues are also dealt with adequately by Carr: not understanding the process, Roman observers called the hard lumps of composted woad vat they saw 'vitrum' because they looked like glass beads.

Of course, woad need not have been the only dye stuff used - other pigments are possible, and the true British markings may have been multi-coloured. We stuck to blue because that is the only one supported by the various literary accounts - and indeed, there are almost certainly ceremonial and ritual aspects that we are ignorant of. Ultimately the question has to remain open."

The old-fashioned view of multiple "Celtic" incursions into Britain from Gaul in the middle and second half of the last millennium BC each with new linguistic and cultural developments which was current in the 1960s has been losing ground steadily ever since to a more modern view of peaceful exchange of ideas and few large-scale movements of people. There were never necessarily, according to this theory, in fact, large numbers of "Celts" in Britain; rather, the Britons adopted some aspects of Celtic culture (and maybe language) over time from small groups who settled in some parts of the Isles, took over the local ruling classes, or simply traded with them. This idea is not far-fetched: the archaeology rather supports the idea of overall continuity in Britain throughout Prehistory. There are examples of culture and language spreading across broad areas with relatively little or overall minor population movement: the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England involved, recent genetic studies have shown, a folk movement amounting to less than a tenth of then population of Britain at that time, and yet their language is now spoken in every city in the world; likewise, just because many Brits today drive Fiats doesn't mean we have been invaded from Italy.

When Caesar arrived in 55 BC, the Britons were essentially indigenous, sharing elements of a European-wide so-called "Celtic" culture. It is impossible to trace the origins of "paint" back to any one culture; it could have been a custom that was current across much of the Palaeolithic world and which for whatever reason survived in some form longer in Britain than elsewhere on the continent; or perhaps the custom developed in Britain in 13,000-odd years between its recolonisation after the Ice Age and Caesar's visits; or perhaps a minor Proto-Indo-European folk movement in the Neolithic brought it with them. The origins of "paint", whatever the case may be, clearly lie much too far back to establish. My best guess would be though that British paint was a development of the apparently universal Stone Age practise of tribal tattooing.

Summary

To briefly sum up the theories I have drawn in this article- and make no mistake, by no means is it definitive- the Ancient British practice of "painting themselves blue" (as my Scottish friend succinctly put it) was a continuation of the Stone Age practise of tribal tattooing, developed and conserved in Britain whereas elsewhere in Europe it had died out. They were painted with patterns, not just stained all over their bodies, it was likely a relatively long-term paint or ink, and the pigment they used was not necessarily woad at all.

Little or nothing is explicit or certain, much of it being speculation and "experimental archaeology" by amateurs. This article does not aim to correct anything, and asks more questions than it answers (none); but I hope that it provides a good example of jumping to conclusions and the reasons for it being forgotten.

References

These were invaluable to me in the original writing (November 2009) of this article:

Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic War.

Kym Ni Dhioreann, The Problem of the Woad.

These were invaluable to me in the second (May 2010) and third (August 2010) rewritings of this article:

Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British.

Bryan Sykes, Blood of the Isles.

Europa Barbarorum II: Pritanoi Preview, in which one of the team members explained to me clearly the reasons behind the choice of woad as the warpaint of the Britons.

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