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THE CELTS: A Very Short Introduction

By Barry Cunliffe, published by Oxford University Press at £6.99. 166pp. A5. ISBN: 0-19-280418-9

Back in 1999 I reviewed a similar small book entitled The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention? by Simon James, an archaeologist based at the British Museum, in which he argued that the very idea of "celticity" was an essentially modern phenomenon born of the nascent nationalisms in France and what we now term the "Celtic Fringe" along the Atlantic seabord during the 18th and early 19th centuries, and that no ancient tribesperson in the British Isles would ever have regarded him or herself as "Celtic". At the time it was obvious that James's book was going to upset quite a few people and over the years since I have read and heard offended bleatings from a number of wounded parties - mostly, it has to be said, neo-pagan Celtic fundamentalists and nationalist politicians from the countries concerned.

What Cunliffe does in this densely packed volume is to present a more detailed overview of the current state of archaeological thinking and knowledge for the interested and intelligent layperson or non-specialist. He argues that the essential feature of the prehistory of the Atlantic seabord, the Celtic languages notwithstanding, is one of the gradual emergence of a cultural unity created by the constant contact of peoples of the region along the coastline and up the river valleys from the later Mesolithic (c5,000 bce) onwards, driven by the need to exchange resources such as tin, gold, copper, amber and other prestige raw materials through a surprisingly sophisticated sea-borne trade. An early precursor to the EU, perhaps.

In respect of the "Celts" themselves there is much to disentangle including understanding what the classical sources really tell us about the pre-Roman peoples of western Europe and about their relationships with the Roman world to their south and east, as well what is known of their tribal wanderings around Europe (which was south and east, not westwards). He also discusses what is currently known of the history and spread of the Celtic group of languages and of the origins and development of the core homelands of the tribes recognised by the Romans as "Celts", ie the Halstatt and La Tène regions of the northern Alpine and south Germany/ eastern France, and their rise to prominence as the controllers of the trade routes between the Baltic and North Sea/Atlantic regions, with their valuable raw materials, and the Mediterranean world to the south.

In effect the Halstatt and La Tène élites channelled raw materials to the south and used their resulting wealth to import the trappings of civilised Mediterranean culture such as wine-drinking to impress each other with their sophistication, which explains their recorded migrations to the south and east in search of the good life instead of to a group of foggy rocks in the Atlantic. Perhaps that's the irony of it all the real Celts were far too bright to come to Britain!

This is probably the best introduction you will find to this complex and emotive subject, and considering how much information Cunliffe packs into its pages it's excellent value for money and highly recommended for the open minded.