THE ANCIENT CELTS
By Barry Cunliffe, published by Penguin at £14.99. 324pp. ISBN: 0-14-025422-6
The more I read books like this, the more obvious it becomes that the vast majority of pagans are completely out of touch with developments in archaeology and archaeological thinking over the past 50-odd years. Pick up any of the dozens of books about the "celts" and matters "celtic" which are written for a pagan readership and you take a trip into the intellectual past if no other.
In recent decades a consensus has developed in British and Irish archaeology which has concluded that “Celts” never reached these islands in any significant numbers. The archaeological and literary evidence for their migrations from their homelands in north east France and the Rhineland and southern Germany shows that they headed south into Italy and east and south east into central Europe and down into the Balkans, with only limited expansion westwards towards the Atlantic seaboard. That Celtic languages spread so far across Europe is interpreted as evidence for a lingua franca of trade and commerce, the occasional discovery of “celtic” prestige items such as the Battersea shield as evidence of the exchange of gifts between chieftains rather than of mass migrations of peoples. The few prestige warrior burials found in East Yorkshire are today recognised as being anomolous rather than typical and as evidence for the arrival of a small warrior élite which settled in that area, and not as evidence for large-scale migrations of entire tribes. We no longer paint half the globe pink and pretend that it's “British”, yet we continue to insist on drawing “migration routes” on maps of Europe on the basis of outmoded ideas and insisting that “Celts woz ‘ere”. It just won't do.
Besides which, the mere fact that a group of people moved from point A to point B through territory C does not mean that the whole of territory C adopted the culture of that tribe, nor indeed that it was settled to any significant degree by its people. We must also bear in mind that many tribal wanderings and inter-tribal conflicts seem to have led to annihilation of the vanquished (or mass enslavement if they were defeated by the Romans), thus ensuring that the “Celtic” population of Europe was seriously reduced from time to time in much the same way as later Germanic tribes slaughtered their enemies to the last child and goat.
Much then has changed in our understanding of western European prehistory in the past couple of generations. To re-evaluate the past, as is being done in the case of the Celts, to come to a more sophisticated understanding of it should not present problems except for those who cling to old certainties like a child to a comfort blanket. This is not to denigrate the achievements of these tribes, but we do need to understand what they actually did and not what we think they ought to have done. We owe them the respect of trying to really understand who they were, how they thought and what they achieved instead of pinning all our own fantasies and hang-ups upon them.
The Ancient Celts is an excellent book for anyone who has a genuine interest in the Celts and their origins and culture.