Ariadne Galleries

Heel Spur
Period: La Tène, circa third century BC to first century AD
Culture: Celtic
Material: Bronze and Enamel
Dimensions: 8.8 cm H
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Celtic horse gear was designed to be functional, as well as for display, on the battlefield. Richly ornamented and elaborate horse gear, including bits, bridles, and harnesses are known from the Halstatt Iron Age (circa 1200 BC) to the first century AD, but the use of the spur is not known in the Celtic world until the La Tène Period, around the third century BC. Wooden spurs were used in the Greek world before this time, but it was the simple metal spur, with short goad and simple curved yolk developed by the Celts that was to spread throughout the rest of Europe. An evolved variety called the calcar, was adopted under the Roman Empire, and its use was restricted to high-ranking officials.

The present spur takes the simple form and elaborates on it, creating what is now an intriguing work of art in its own right. The curving yolk, pierced for attachment to the rider’s heel, is enhanced by the addition of two palmettes, which emanate from the base of the goad and fan outwards. The decorative device known as the palmette, formed of radiating petals in the manner of a palm leaf, was introduced to Celtic craftsmen from the Classical repertoire of plant motifs, via trans-Alpine contact with the Mediterranean world. These plant motifs constituted one of the most important stylistic influences in the development of early La Tene art, and the ability of Celtic craftsmen to reinvent and adapt, rather than simply to imitate these Classical models, really forms the essence of the La Tène style. The goad itself is made more unusual by the addition of vibrant red enamel, in a rope pattern encircling the ‘neck’ and in the petals of a floral motif on the uppermost knob. Red glass, probably made in the eastern Mediterranean, was used to embellish Celtic bronze jugs from the fourth century, as well as other objects such as brooches and armour. Enamelling became popular north of the Alps in the later Iron Age, but flourished in Britain in particular from the first century BC into the Roman period, and came to be recognized as a specialist technique of the area.

That this spur features such embellishment suggests it belonged to a military person of high standing. Indeed, the literary and archaeological evidence indicates that high status was accorded to horses in the Celtic world, and horsemen were considered preeminent among the different wings of the army. The existence of spurs in tombs, along with other horse paraphernalia has led scholars to the conclusion that they were worn by cavalry officers. Other contemporary objects also depict spurs, for example, The Gundestrup Cauldron, on which horsemen are shown wearing them. It is interesting to note that, at this stage, stirrups had not been invented, requiring extra skill and control on the part of the rider. It is as horsemen that the Celts gained the admiration of Classical authors, who praised them for their expertise in this field. Strabo, for examples, records that they excelled in cavalry, and that the best of the Roman cavalry was recruited from them. So too, Caesar refers to the Celtic cavalry comprising the highest class of soldiers, and of their essential role on the battlefield.

Further Literature

For the reference to the Celts’ preeminence in cavalry, Strabo, Geography, Book 4.4.2 (Loeb Classical Library volume II, translated by H.L. Jones, 1923)  and Caesar, Gallic War, Book 4.24 (translated by H.J. Edwards, 1917).

On Celtic Horsemanship, M. Green, The Celtic World (London and New York, 1995), pp.44-46.

For the adoption and adaption of Classical plant motifs in Celtic Art, D.W. Harding, The Archaeology of Celtic Art (London and New York, 2007), pp. 42-49.


The K. S. Collection, Cologne, Germany, 1990s.