THE CELTS: Origins, Myths & Inventions
By John Collis, published by Tempus Publishing at £19.99. 256pp. ISBN: 0-7524-2913-2.
Back in the late 1990s I reviewed a small book entitled “The Atlantic Celts – Ancient People of Modern Invention?” by Simon James in which the author introduced to the general reader some of the thinking which has been emerging amongst historians and archaeologists on the knotty problems of who were the Celts, where did they come from and where did the spread do. He came down in favour of Modern Invention. It was revolutionary and was sure to cause outrage amongst certain groups of interested parties. A few months ago, geneticists at Trinity College Dublin announced the result of several years genetic survey of the historic and modern Irish population and dropped a bombshell on the unsuspecting public: the Irish are not Celts. Their findings were not, as far as I know, reported in any Irish newspaper.
Collis's book therefore, published in 2003, is part of a wider, and indeed brutal, wider re-examination of the Celts as a European phenomena going on in academia and is part of a process whose earliest roots go back to WWII when aerial reconnaissance produced photographs which opened up to archaeologists completely new ways of looking at ancient sites generally.
But how to review in the space available a book as complex as this, packed with as much information and as much analysis and discussion of the evidence as it is? Collis starts, appropriately enough, at the beginning with a round up of the original classical sources and a thorough discussion of the problems inherent in them; Greek and Roman writers were thoroughly confused about who and what was a “Celt”. All Gauls were Celts. No Gauls were Celts. Some Gauls were Celts. Some Celts were Gauls. The Celts migrated into central Europe. No they didn't, they crossed the Alps into Italy. Or the Pyrenees into Spain. And so on. When antiquarians of the 17 th and 18 th centuries turned to the classical sources they added their own, frequently nationalistic, agendas to the earlier confusion. Add a few early archaeologists working in a fledgling discipline with no reliable dating system, some early philologists working in the equally fledgling discipline of comparative linguistics and you have a field in which layer upon layer of supposition, hastily classified and interpreted archaeological finds and a lot of wishful thinking are piled up to create an monstrous edifice which went unchallenged for over 200 years. Now it is being challenged.
Collis's study is a highly detailed investigation into all of the threads which have been woven into the “Celtic” tapestry over the centuries. He strips them down, reassesses them, asks how realistic or reasonable their underlying assumptions were, ranging across evidence for Celtic religion (or the religions practiced by the “Celts”, which is not the same thing), the languages they may or may not have spoken, their art and material culture, the archaeological record and the ways it has been interpreted, and the role nationalistic politics have played in creating the idea of the Celts. Lavishly illustrated with maps and supporting diagrams of various sorts, the book pulls together all the conflicting evidence into forms which make it easier to understand and appreciate the complexity of the problems involved. He ends with a concise but useful discussion of the main areas causing controversy today including the new genetic evidence.This is an excellent book and despite the complexity of its subject matter and the evidence he presents, Collis has produced a study which is cogent, thorough and highly readable and which deserves a wide readership amongst pagans of all sorts. This really is 20 quid well spent.