Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade: experimenting with woad and its history

Jodi Reeves Eyre, PhD, RPA

Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
We are, apparently, living during a ‘post-truth’ time when alternative facts have just as much impact on some people’s decisions and beliefs as, well, fact facts. The concept of the “alternative fact,” which refers to promoting emotional or biased assertions over facts, has historic precedent. Julius Caesar, when documenting his campaigns in Gaul, noted that:

Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade, which setteth a blewish color vppon them: and it maketh the more terryble to beholde in battell.[1]

Surely if woad were so widely available, there would be decent archaeological evidence for its application. There is one early find at the Iron Age site of Dragonby. The site revealed woad remains, in the form of seeds and pods, as part of a waterlogged assemblage from a late Iron Age pit. The exact purpose of the pit has not been identified.[2] The seeds and pods can be considered circumstantial evidence when it comes to claiming that the plant was introduced for its dye because the material needed for dyeing, the leaves, may not survive nearly as well. The difficulty of finding woad leaves archaeologically means that we can only rely on the indirect evidence of the plant as a possible dye from Dragonby.

As a conqueror displaying his military strength and emphasizing the legitimacy of his triumph, Caesar may have called on Romans’ traditional concepts of fierce barbarians. Blue had negative connotations within Greco-Roman culture, being associated with ghosts, death, and, perhaps worst of all, barbarians.[3] By including such a charged description of ‘blue’ Britons, Caesar set down more than an ethnographic account. He used existing preconceptions for his political advantage. It is doubtful, however, that Caesar conceptualized the lasting legacy his charged description would have on social memory and identity. Even today, it is common to see depictions of ancient Britons painted blue, despite limited botanical-archaeological evidence and possible evidence to the contrary. The image of bluely decorated warriors can be found everywhere from the early 20th century, one example being the National Anthem of the Ancient Britons and another the anachronic depiction in the movie, BraveHeart.[4]

But, why?

Because it’s tradition, apparently. The 1565 translation of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, above, translates the word vitrum as woade (woad, Isatis tinctoria). This translation, by Arthur Goulding, is the earliest I’ve identified. Gillian Carr and several others give other possible translations as being “dye themselves with glazes” or “infect themselves with glass.”[5] So why is vitrum so often translated as woad in this context?

Woad was an important crop for some English abbeys during the medieval period, and a key crop in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[6] What better way to form a defense against an encroaching foreign material than to highlight the cultural importance of its proud, “indigenous” counterpart?

Enter vitrum as woad. Caesar may not have a historical monopoly on shaping a narrative to support a cause. In fact, he may not even have a monopoly on shaping his own narrative to support a cause. Still, just as there is limited evidence regarding the use of woad in ancient Britain, there is limited evidence supporting the reasons behind the historical trend in translating vitrum as woad.

Despite the potential mistranslations and lack of archaeological, textual, and iconographic evidence, people are still interested in the question, “does it work?” Without a recipe or replicable evidence, experimentation depends primarily on how other pigments are made ethnographically or in the past under other conditions and contexts. We know woad is a dye, and we know that it can color the skin and that it can be added to a binder to make a pigment. Some experiments reveal that woad, when compared to our perceptions of its color and use, is a poor choice for corporal decoration in terms of dyeing, tattooing, or staining the body. Want to replicate the results of these studies or develop your own? Carr describes her experiments in her article, and a link to my initial methodology and experimental recipes can be found in the footnotes below. Find out for yourself whether it works by using woad and other pigments and dyes to paint or dye your skin blue.[7]

Sharing research and experimental results is one remedy to the promotion of potentially alternative facts (such as blue Britons) through critical engagement of evidence. The lack of recipes or physical remains is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to encourage the exploration of other materials, methods. The confusing, and possibly sordid, history of woad in Britain also provides an opportunity to explore not only the history of translations of Caesar’s works and how identity and social memory reflect our relationship with plants, but it is also an interesting context in which to explore the use (or misuse) of woad.

[1] Caesar, Julius. The Eyght Bookes of Caius Iulius Cæsar Conteyning His Martiall Exploytes in the Realme of Gallia and the Countries Bordering Vppon the Same Translated Oute of Latin into English by Arthur Goldinge G. (London: Willyam Seres, 1565), http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A17521.0001.001?view=toc, Book V.

[2] Veen, M. Van Der, Hall, A.R. and May, J.  ‘Woad and the Britons painted blue,’ Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 12 (1993), 367-71.

[3] Pastoureau, Michel. Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[4] Gibson, Mel. Braveheart (Warner Bros., 1995).

[5] Lewis, Charlton T.  and Charles Short. “Vī^trum,” A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper; Carr, Gillian. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity in Later Iron Age and Early Roman Britain,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 24, no. 3 ( 2005): 273–92, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.2005.00236.x).

[6] Carr, “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Pyatt,F.B., et al. “Non Isatis Sed Vitrum Or, the Colour of Lindow Man,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 10, no. 1 (1991): 61–73, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.1991.tb00006.x; Thirsk, Joan. “The Agricultural Landscape: Fads and Fashions,” in 1. S. R. J. Woodell, ed., The English Landscape: Past, Present, and Future, Wolfson College Lectures 1983. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

[7]  Carr. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Fish, Pat. Woad and it’s mis-association with Pictish BodyArt, available at: https://www.hippy.com/albion/woad.htm; Reeves Flores, Jodi. Woad is me: Woad as a corporal decoration in Iron Age Britain, (master’s thesis, University of Exeter, 2008), 31-53.

*****

Jodi Reeves Eyre has a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Exeter and served as a CLIR/DLF Fellow on Data Curation in the Sciences and Social Sciences at Arizona State University (2013-2015). She is a member of the Secretariat for the group EXARC, an ICOM affiliated organisation representing archaeological open-air museums, experimental archaeology, ancient technology, and interpretation. Jodi is also a co-founder of Eyre & Israel, LLC, which provides research, editing, and digital curation consulting. Her work promotes the preservation of cultural heritage and explores perceptions about the past and social memory. She has conducted ethnographic research among other archaeologists, woven on models of ancient Greek looms, and painted people blue.

Twitter: @thejodireeves


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *