The people known to us as the Celts, first appeared in Greek texts, around the period of 500 BC. Occupying a position of great strength in many areas of Europe, they were thought of as related, and were frequently written of as warriors, savages, and often in war. Often known as ‘Galatians’, or ‘Gauls’, they were feared and became thought of as barbarians, a world apart from Greek and Roman civilisation. However, archaeology has given us evidence, that they were not, infact, simply a race of warriors, but a civilised group of people, with a varied and vibrant culture.
In this essay I will be discussing the ethnic identity that has been assigned to the ancient Celts, and express my opinions on some of the various factors that contribute to this. Two factors that I shall focus on are material culture, and language. Through these factors I hope to show more about the identity of this incredibly large group of people we associate under the title ‘Celts’ and why they have come to be thought of like this. By not leaving any texts behind, the “non-literate ancient Celts”1 left us with only biased opinions from the Greeks and Romans as to their culture and ways of life.
Without the intervention of archaeology, we would still view them as a collective group of uncivilised warriors. Archaeology, has however, revealed to us a completely different picture, one of a society with an incredibly vibrant culture, a main feature of which was their developed artistic style. The Celts seemed to originate “in the minds of the nineteenth century antiquarians who first assembled prehistoric Celtic ‘culture’ from the fragments of archaeological, linguistic, and art historical knowledge available to them”2.
The Celts are a number of ethnic groups who stretched over many areas of the north and west of Europe, speaking closely related dialects, that have been grouped together in modern times and defined by linguistics as ‘Celtic’. These people formed a “recognisable linguistic, if not cultural group”3 However “Language cannot be used to define population with any precision. “4 Simply because this extremely large group of people spoke the same language, does not mean they felt united as a people. Speaking the same language is not an indicator of a united group of people. The language may simply have spread and been adopted in other areas.
“Unlike the Romans or Greeks, who were fully conscious of their own Identity and culture, there is no evidence that there was, in the pre-roman period, any sense of kinship of ethnicity among the groups of people who spoke what we now regard as Celtic languages”5. It seems that the celtic languages were spoken over wide areas of Europe, so just where do we draw the boundaries? Language was simply one of their bonds. Material culture is one such relic that the Celts themselves have left us behind to identify them with; it is one way in which we can truly appreciate them.
Material culture seems to offer one of the best hopes of identifying the Celts. “During the nineteenth century, the chronological skeleton of Celtic culture in Europe was formed, much of it based on two sites that leant their names to the two major and successive periods or the European later bronze age and iron age, Hallstatt in Austrian, a vast cemetery, and La Tene in Switzerland, where masses of decorative metalwork and other objects were recovered from the drained waters of lake Neuchatel.
It was the study of theses sites that enabled the construction of the first detailed chronologies for the European later Bronze Age and Iron Age. ” 6 La Tene is now used to describe one common style of Celtic art, it is a link throughout the celtic world and it is a style that was clearly in use for a sustained period of time. This style became “widely standardised across the La Tene world during the later fourth and early third centuries B. C. “7 The La Tene style spread across the Celtic realms due to emigration and trade, mainly in the form of metal work.
“The art of the Celts was not ‘art for art’s sake, but was deeply embedded in the context of their economic, social, intellectual and religious life, as well as being influenced by available technology and the range of accessible materials. ” 8. People took the style with them, and because of this it developed so that we have been left with something that we can easily and quickly associate with the Celts, something that seems true throughout the Celtic world. The spread of this style throughout the celtic realms, suggests sharing of skills, trade, and movement, as already stated.