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THE ATLANTIC CELTS - Ancient People or Modern Invention?

By Simon James, published by the British Museum Press at £6.99. 128pp. ISBN: 0-7141-2165-7

I like books like this. They upset people. Lots of people. They don’t so much shoot sacred cows as nuke them, imprint their shadows indelibly on walls and leave piles of ash all over the carpet.

For whisper it quietly, but it appears that a consensus of opinion has been building in British and Irish archaeology to the effect that the "Celts" never settled in Britain and Ireland in any significant numbers. The old image of pre-Roman Iron Age Britain, which has several waves of invasion by Asterix and pals bringing "Celtic" culture to the benighted Isles, is all cobblers.

In The Atlantic Celts, James explores three aspects of this problem; firstly what the growing body of archaeological evidence which has been built up since the 1940s about the Iron Age in Britain (and to a lesser extent) is now able to tell us about the supposed "Celtic" settlment period, which is essentially that there was little if any significant change since the preceeding Bronze Age; secondly about how the idea of "Celticness" or "Celticity" developed and when and why - which he identifies as being between the very early 18th century and the mid-19th century as a reaction of those on the periphery of the growing English superstate (ie the Welsh and Scots and, after 1800, the Irish) to the theat of political and cultural assimilation into something perceived as "other"; and thirdly, what is now understood and surmised about the British and Irish Iron Ages in the light of all the available information.

What has changed in the past 50 years, apart from the discovery of large quantities of evidence about the life of ordinary Iron Age peoples in Britain and Ireland, is a sea change in the way that anthropologists and other social scientists understand the workings of traditional groups and societies, and a better understanding of how groups perceive themselves ("us") in relation to outsiders regarded as different or threatening ("them"). Out have gone the racist and imperialist ideas about native groups requiring external ("civilised") influences in order for change and development to occur, and in has come the recognition that traditional socities are perfectly capable of generating change internally. Out go mass invasions and migrations of peoples, in come more sophisticated ideas of trade, interchange of ideas and adoption of concepts and ways of doing things from other groups.

What is perhaps disturbing is that this reassessment amongst archaeologists has been going on for several decades, and there has been a stream of books during the 1990s setting out new ideas and evidence but,as James admits, they have singularly failed to reach the attention of the general (and pagan and New Age) public. It appears, in short, to be the Margaret Murray problem all over again. In which case if you read only one book this year, make it this one.