Gwyn the deerhound showed characteristic disdain when he was invited to become the 18th volunteer in the BBC’s dramatic series ‘Surviving the Iron Age’, filmed at Castell Henllys Iron Age Fort in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. The series, which was broadcast last summer, followed the exploits of the group as they tried to experience Iron Age life in the reconstructed roundhouses at the fort.
Gwyn could not be persuaded to give up the comforts of the 21st century though, so a compromise was reached. He agreed to hang around during the day looking distinguished, so long as he could return to the comfort of his own sofa at night. Deerhounds are a large and ancient breed, trained in the past to chase and bring down deer. Ferocious as this may sound; deerhounds in reality are sensitive by nature and are graceful gentle giants. However, as sight hounds, they will chase anything that moves irrespective of where they are and despite any commands given by the owner.
Distinguished, maybe, but could Gwyn really be the descendant of prehistoric canine aristocrats? Early documentary sources refer to large hounds bred to chase deer and in Scotland inscribed stones have been found depicting such dogs accompanied by mounted hunters. An early example of these, the Hilton of Cadboll Stone is thought to date to the eighth century AD and shows a royal deer hunt led by a queen. Earlier still, there is evidence of hunting dogs from the Roman period in Britain. At Newstead Roman fort in Roxburghshire a beaker dating to around the first century AD was discovered depicting a fierce, hound-like dog leaping to bring down a deer. Also at Newstead fort an intaglio or engraved gem (usually from a finger ring) was found detailing a graceful leaping hound very similar to a deerhound.
The remains of the earliest known dogs to have lived in Britain have been discovered by archaeologists at cave sites such as Gough’s Cave in Somerset, dating back towards the end of the last Ice Age around fifteen thousand years ago in the Old Stone Age. Archaeologists excavating a site called Star Carr in Yorkshire between 1949 and 1951 found bone evidence of dogs dating to around 9,500 years ago during the Middle Stone Age. It was almost certainly related to the wolf judging by the results of tooth analysis, although not quite so large. Its presence with humans at Star Carr and at other sites would suggest that the dog was the first animal to be domesticated by humans.
This early relationship might have originated from wolves scavenging around the kill sites and camps of hunter-gatherers, before their later cousins achieved a more symbiotic relationship by providing hunting and tracking skills beyond the ability of their masters. Doubtless they would also have been very important as watchdogs. By the end of the Middle Stone Age, around 6,000 years ago, and on through the New Stone Age, the inhabitants of Britain began to adopt a more settled way of life, herding livestock and growing a small amount of crops with less reliance on hunting and gathering. By 2,200BC Bronze Age Britain had a largely agrarian landscape with the emphasis on raising livestock. This might have encouraged farmers to breed into their dogs different characteristics from those previously needed. Dogs would have played an important role in the control and herding of sheep and cattle, and guarding them from the wolves that still prowled the wilder British countryside.
By the Iron Age, from around 700 BC, dogs appear to be used in different ways. The Iron Age is the first period in our history to be documented (albeit patchily and frustratingly vaguely) by contemporary writers from the Mediterranean world. One such commentator on the delights of Britain was Strabo, a Greek historian and geographer from Amaseia who lived from around 44 BC to AD 23. He described hunting dogs as an export to the continent from Iron Age Britain over 2000 years ago. He wrote that Britain:
“produces corn, cattle, gold, silver and iron. These things are exported, along with hides, slaves and dogs suitable for hunting. The Gauls, however, use both these and their own native dogs for warfare also.”
The link between dogs and the Iron Age nobility might be seen at Danebury Hill, a hillfort in Hampshire where dogs (together with other animals and humans) appear to have been used as ritual offerings within pits previously employed for the storage of grain. The grain, packed tightly and sealed in the pit, was almost certainly seed grain and would have represented future security from hunger or amassed wealth for its owner. The opening of the pit after some months would have been fraught with uncertainty and it is likely that a ritual was performed for the procedure with entreaties to the Celtic deities into whose care the valuable grain had been committed. The sacrifices were perhaps offered in thanks to certain deities after grain was successfully recovered from the pits.
By the end of the Iron Age, it is clear that while most dogs were being bred and worked on the farm, some had a higher status linked to the Celtic aristocracy. The name of one of the most famous Iron Age chieftains of all, Cunobelinus, (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline), translates as the “Hound of Belinos” (a Celtic deity).
It is quite possible that Gwyn’s ancestors were the hunting dogs of the Celts although it is difficult to trace the origin of specific breeds. If large dogs similar to Deerhounds were bred for hunting in the Iron Age, it is easy to see how they would have enhanced, through their size, grace and bravery, the status of the aristocracy of the time. One wonders also whether the Celts would have faced the same challenges as 21st-century Deerhound owners, hoarsely and vainly shouting commands to a rapidly disappearing and seemingly deaf dog intent on chasing anything that moves. I wonder what “COME BACK” would have sounded like in the Iron Age.
Phil Bennett (Published in abridged form in The Guardian Weekend, January 2002)