How the Celtic Britons Used the River Thames

The River Thames has always been a fundamental part of the British landscape. This article explores how it was used by the indigenous Britons.

Apr 2, 2024By Rachel Sweeney, MA Art History, BA History & Art History

how celtic britons used river thames


Rivers often act as a lifeline for the people who live near them. They act as a valuable natural resource, a form of transportation, and a space for ritual practice. In Iron Age Britain, the River Thames served as all three for both the Romans and Celtic peoples that used it. The Roman use of the River Thames is well known; they used it as a tool for developing their major settlements at Londinium, Colchester, and Verulamium, etc. The Britons’ use of the Thames, however, is not as widely discussed. For them, the river was an integral part of their everyday life and religious practice.


Who were the Celtic Britons?

Drawing Boadicea Haranguing the Britons, History of England in Three Volumes, 1860, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The phrase “the Celtic Britons” refers to the people living in Britain during the Iron Age who were similar, linguistically and culturally, to the Celtic peoples living on the continent. There is some modern scholarly debate over whether the Britons should be classified as Celtic and whether the continental Celts migrated there, but the general consensus remains that they were a Celtic people. Among the broader culture of the Celtic Britons were a series of tribal communities. These tribes included the Iceni, the Trinovantes, the Brigantes, the Durotriges, and the Catuvellauni, among others. The Iceni and Trinovantes are famed for their role in a revolt, led by the warrior queen Boudica, against the Romans occupying Britain in the 1st century CE. A few of these tribes, particularly the Trinovantes, lived in communities right along the Thames.


The Debate Over the River Thames

Model of the Roman port on the River Thames, Source:


Both the Celtic Britons and the Romans settling Britain utilized the Thames as a vital resource. During the Iron Age the Thames was slower moving, much wider, and far shallower than it is now. Though it did act as a useful tool for the development of Roman Britain, cross-channel trade routes between Britain and the continent that utilized the Thames had been established for centuries before the Roman occupation. Some of the coastal tribes of northern Gaul already had well-founded trade relations with the peoples inhabiting the south coast of Britain, which had developed prior to any Roman intervention in Britain. With the establishment of Roman Britain, the south-east Britons were faced with the introduction of a capitalist, money-based economy centered around land ownership and urban development that they were unused to.


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While many Celtic objects have been found in the Thames, many Roman artifacts have also been found; so many, in fact, that some archaeologists and historians have suggested that there was a shrine halfway across the bridge where people may have thrown in coins and offerings for luck or safe passage. The Thames was a highly attractive resource for the Romans. It allowed them to import goods from the continent and to bring their troops inland on ships, as well as to export local produce and slaves.


We don’t know exactly how “contested” the Thames was between the Celtic tribes, or how contested it was between the Britons and the Romans. Both groups certainly valued it, and there is sufficient evidence to suggest that they both venerated it. It may have been that the various tribes had different or even contradictory understandings of the site, but it does seem that there was a shared understanding of the Thames as a sacred space.


The Role of Rivers in Celtic Mythology

The Riders of the Sidhe, by John Duncan, 1911, Source:


In Celtic belief, natural waters — springs, rivers, lakes, etc — possessed indwelling spirits who must be acknowledged and nurtured. The Thames was no different. The native Britons called the river “Tamesa” or “Tamesis” from the Celtic word “tam,” meaning smooth or wide spreading. The Romans adopted the same name, translating the river’s name to Thamesis. The river was regarded as a living being, an important member of the community, and the lifeblood of the land. Other natural water sources seem to have been regarded similarly in Celtic culture. Archaeologists have determined that lakes were an incredibly important resource because of the number of objects that have been found in them. It is assumed that these objects were deposited as part of a ritual.


Sacrifices to rivers and lakes were considered necessary to appease the spirits and secure the well-being of the surrounding land. Water was also believed to mark a transitional space between the earthly world and the Otherworld, which may be why it was such a popular site of ritual offerings during the Iron Age and before. The Celts believed in the “Sidh,” or the halfway point between this world and the next. Water could have provided a point of access to the Sidh, which may explain the number of votive objects deposited in watery spaces — like coins and small figurines — and the fact that Celtic peoples seemingly “buried” some of their dead in these spaces as well.


Ritual Deposition in the Thames

The Waterloo Helmet, c. 150-50 BCE, Waterloo Bridge, River Thames, Source: The British Museum


Some of the most famous examples of Iron Age Celtic metalwork have come from the River Thames. These objects — most notably the Waterloo Helmet, the Battersea Shield, and the Wandsworth Shield Boss — are military in nature and may have been used before they were deposited in the river. It is unlikely, however, that these objects would have been used in battle. The Waterloo Helmet, for example, is too thin to have been practical for the battlefield.


It is likely these objects would have only been ceremonial in nature or worn as parade gear, making them suitable for deposition in the river as part of a ritual veneration. The nature of objects like these suggests either that they were chosen because they were so exquisite, and therefore likely would have appeased the river god Tamesis, or as part of a “burial” of sorts for the warrior that would have worn them.


Not all objects that were deposited in the Thames were part of ritual practice. Many of the cities that developed alongside the Thames, like Londinium, were bustling, so there would have been frequent traffic on the river either with the passage of ships or of individuals moving over bridges. Accidental losses of objects in the process of regulating the stream and raising its banks would have been a contributing factor, as well as casual losses from passersby.


The overwhelming majority of objects found in the Thames are small items that may have been carried on the person, so we can assume that many may have simply been dropped by accident. Objects like the military parade gear, however, do support that some artifacts were intentionally placed in the Thames.


Did the Celts Bury their Dead in the Thames?

A series of skulls from Ripple Road, Barking, River Thames, Source: Natural History Museum, London


There is also sufficient evidence to support that the Celtic Britons “buried” their dead in the Thames. Water burial, as a practice, is archaeologically invisible. Due to the environmental impact of constantly moving water over a long period of time, a burial could not be accomplished in the water in a traditional sense. During the Iron Age, the most popular forms of burial for elite members of society would have been cremation or inhumation, or an earthly burial. Formal earthly burials would have included several personal artifacts alongside the body that belonged to them. Water burial disrupts this practice, as there is no way to ensure that the personal artifacts of an individual would remain close to their body once it entered the river.


Water burial may have been more suitable for more common members of society. Excarnation, or the removal of flesh and/or organs from the dead before burial, was a practice often reserved for those that may not have had as many earthly possessions with which to be buried. It was also a practice that allowed the body to be “recycled” in a way; in Celtic funerary practice bodies could be circulated and viewed as cultural resources, linking ancestors to the living. Water could have aided in the process of excarnation, as the movement of water could hasten the separation of the body. There are not many intact skeletons from river burials, but the sheer amount of human remains that have been found in the Thames means that this form of burial absolutely occurred.


What is the Point of a Water Burial?

Wandsworth Shield Boss, c. 350-150 CE, Wandsworth, River Thames, Source: The British Museum


The question remains: Why choose a water burial? First, as has been touched upon, a water burial would be suitable for those who did not have many earthly possessions that could furnish their grave. While not necessarily as formal as inhumation, simply floating the deceased’s body down the river could still be a ritualized, funerary practice that included sending one’s weaponry or gear down the river with them. Naturally occurring excarnation achieved by placing a body in the river would also serve the communal good. Curated human remains were used to keep any malign forces at bay to prevent rising water levels from threatening the settlement. It’s possible that many of those who received a water burial in the Thames may have been warriors, not necessarily members of the elite class, but people revered for their contributions. Their remains may have been perceived as a worthwhile sacrifice to secure prosperity and success for the surrounding land.


Another reason for water burial could be due to the role that rivers and other smaller bodies of water held in Celtic religious belief. As mentioned, Celts may have viewed water as a transitional space. Water was valued for its purity and its curative, transformative properties. Water could clean and it could heal, both the land and its people. All these attributes made it a suitable environment for ritual practice, and for facilitating access to the divine. Just as water could be used by the living to transport people and material goods, it could be used by the dead to transport them to the Otherworld.


Iron Spearhead, c. 200-50 BCE, River Thames, Source: The British Museum


Lastly, because of the importance of the environment and surrounding landscape in Celtic belief and cosmology, some may have wished to be laid to rest in the river because of ties to the land. Celtic peoples were originally migratory, and many may not have had the same concept of land ownership that their Roman neighbors did. They did, however, believe that the land and all its rivers, streams, lakes, etc, were the foundation of many of their communities. Each aspect of the natural world possessed a spirit that lived alongside its human inhabitants. To bury an individual in a river was to acknowledge the role that the environment had in sustaining that aspect of the community. The River Thames was the lifeblood of many Brythonic Celtic communities living in Iron Age Britain, and water burial and other practices of venerating the river may have simply been seen as giving back.




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Merrifield, R. and Hall, J. In its depths, what treasures. In J. Clark et. al (Ed.), Londinium and Beyond: Essays on Roman London and its Hinterland for Harvey Sheldon (pp. 121-127). Council for British Archaeology.

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By Rachel SweeneyMA Art History, BA History & Art HistoryRachel holds an MA in Art History, a dual-degree BA in History and Art History, and a certificate in Medieval Studies. Her research so far has focused on Celtic art and early medieval art of Ireland and the British Isles.