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Celts - How do you define a people?

PostPosted: Tue May 13, 2008 11:29 pm
by Nerva
So what 'is' a Celt? How do you define a Celtic people? Language? Apperance? Social activities?

Re: Celts - How do you define a people?

PostPosted: Wed May 14, 2008 10:17 am
by Billy
Oh God.

Do you know, this is probably the single most controversial point in Irish archaeology.
If you think Roman ireland was a can of worms....

Sorry for the length of this. It will be massive. Please bear with me.

There has been debate running for years on this one, and there is no real consensus now. It's tied up with a wide range of subjects, including history, archaeology, medieval studies, classical studies, linguistics, nationalism and postmodern ideas of colonialism and ethnic identity.

To return to the original question, what is a Celt, the main problem is that scholars of each of the above subjects would respond differently.

Archaeologists might describe a Celt, or Celtic culture, as deriving from the Hallstatt an La Tene archaeological horizons of Austria and Switzerland. They seem to share a similar art style, which is probably the single most unifying and undeniable aspect of 'Celtic' culture. Lentoid swirls, vine scrolls, triskeles, peltas, all of these elements are found in La Tene art, from Ireland to Czech Republic, from Germany to Spain. They are a good indicator of the extent of influence of the cultural development first identified at Lake Neuchatel, and identified as La Tene Celtic.
Other elements associated with this culture, but which varies massively from region to region, is the use of long iron swords, chariots, helmets and mail, certain deities or religious practices, head hunting, roundhouses and hillforts, and warrior burials.
It is tis huge variety that lead some archaeologists to doubt the idea of a single cultural group as the Celts, and that the huge numbers of peoples, tribes and states once identified as Celts would never have thought of themselves as a single ethnic or cultural grouping in the past.

Historians and classicists would describe Celts as the enemies of Rome living in western and parts of eastern europe, and even spreading as far as Asia Minor. hey are the Keltoi who attacked Delphoi, they are the Gauls of France, they are the Britons of Bouddica's revolt. They are the fierce, bellicose, proud people of the reports of Dio Cassius, Caesar, Pliny and Diodorus Siculus. They are the soldiers of Vercingetorix, Druids and Galatians. Like much of history, they are depicted by a people who did not necessarily understand them, or had reasons for portraying them in a certain light.

out of time. to be continued....

Re: Celts - How do you define a people?

PostPosted: Wed May 14, 2008 10:45 am
by Billy
Lingusits define Celts as people who speak a certain branch of Indo-European.

In the past, this language branch included Goidelic, Brythonic, Gaulish, Lepontic, Ligurian, Iberian and many other variants. Inscriptions, placenames, historical documents and second hand accounts all portray enough of these languages for us to identify them as being related. In modern times, it includes those who speak Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh and Breton, and can be extended to those who have revived Cornish.

Strictly speaking, this definition of Celtic is indisputable, since the language group is called Celtic. The controversy surrounds how it picked up the label Celtic, and how does that relate to the above descriptions of historical and archaeological evidence.
Did people receive the language we call celtic with the arrival of, or contact with, people using La Tene art, and a possible associated culture? Does it represent the movement of, or cultural dominance of, people we identify as Celts. Or can the language be de-coupled from the art and culture, and seen as simply a language that was common in parts of europe at the time. It is also worth questioning as to when it arrived in places like Ireland. Did the language arrive with the first traces of Hallstatt in around 600-500 BC, or La Tene in 300 BC? Did the language arrive earlier, in the late Bronze age, when we know Ireland had extensive contacts with many european countries, including Britan, France, Spain and Denmark. If the language did arrive with La Tene people, how many of them came, and what influence did they exert? And did they speak Brythonic or Goidelic Celtic?

One of the problems in a country like Ireland, so often portrayed as the last bastion of the Celts in Europe, is that there is no solid evidence for a widespread migration of La Tene people into the country. We do not find sudden horizons of La tene occupation, burial and infrastructure.
What we do find is a gradual trickle of high status metalworking that is obviously in the La tene style, yet much of it is idiosyncratically Irish. We find cremations with little or no grave goods, quite unlike the chariot burials and cemeteries of Switzerland, Gaul or even Northern England. We don't find oppida, or hillforts in the British and Gaulish style. We find no ceramic, la tene or otherwise. we find barely any evidence of occupation, and yet we find ample evidence of religious, political or ritual sites like Tara, Rathcroghan, and Eamhain Macha.

And, biggest head wreck of all, we find very little evidence for any substantial la Tene presence in the bottom third of the country.

What does this all mean?

Re: Celts - How do you define a people?

PostPosted: Wed May 14, 2008 11:03 am
by Billy
Well, to return to the original list of definitions, we look to how medievalists define as Celts, or more importantly, look to evidence in medieval Irish and Welsh texts for evidence of the past. In certain instances, they can be valuable sources for pseudo history, mythology, religious beliefs or political scenarios. perhaps Kenneth Jackson's description of the Ulster Cycle as a 'Window on the Iron Age' is an overstatement, but to dismiss the vernacular texts as not having any relevance to interpreting prehistoric Ireland is at best overcautious, and at worst foolish arrogance.

These texts occasionally correlate to ideas we have of 'Celtic' culture from classical descriptions, such as taking heads, chariot warfare and warrior elites. It also introduces a wide range of political scenarios, origin legends and religious beliefs that are likely to have had roots in the reality of Iron age Ireland, some of which conform to what earlier scholars have proposed as being Celtic in nature.

So, to recap, we have art, archaeology, history, medieval studies and linguistics, all vying for position on the definition of a Celt, and presenting both correlating and contradictory evidence.

Where does the idea of nationalism and post colonial identity come in?

Re: Celts - How do you define a people?

PostPosted: Wed May 14, 2008 11:22 am
by RecycledViking
Ooh! Celts in Ireland! A favorite topic of mine. Billy explained this brilliantly (as I was typing my own response, but I shall gladly concede to a better explanation!), go rabh maith aige. I wrote a paper on the 'Celts in Ireland' (or not!) for my archaeology course at UCC (first honours!) and I'd like to just add a few more "hmm makes you think" points.
In addition to the lack of evidence in the archaeological for an invasion (which shows up clearly with the Anglo-Normans, etc.) there is evidence for the repeated construction of ritual sites and houses in wood. If Ireland was supposed to be overrun by conquerors at this point, why were the same wooden structures built the same way nine times in nearly four hundred years (at Navan Fort Site B)?
Also of interest is an iron sword found in the Shannon by Athlone. While iron is associated with the continental 'Celtic' people (and why this is called 'the Iron Age') the shape of the sword is similar to the indigenous bronze Gündligen sword. Most interesting is that the edges of the sword were cold-hammered to increase hardness, which was a bronze-working technique. Combined with the linguistic evidence that words for bronze-working became words for iron-working (according to Gabriel Cooney and Eoin Grogan in Emania 9) I think this is a pretty good sign that local, indigenous bronzesmiths were experimenting with iron on their own.
Finally, the concept that the so-termed Celtic languages could have only gotten to Ireland, Britain, etc. through an invasion is, in my opinion, just a remnant of that 19th c. "facts-be-damned" mashing together of evidence that put us into this Celtic mess. Until quite recently it was vastly easier to travel by boat than by land. The Irish Sea, English Channel, and Bay of Biscay would have been catalysts of interaction and trade. Is it that hard to believe that the 'Celtic' languages are so similar because the cultures would have adopted each other's languages, and eventually the Indo-European one (proto-Celtic) from the continent became the dominant lingo for communication?

Some great sources for information on the Iron Age in Ireland:
Champion, T.C. “The European Iron Age: assessing the state of the art.” Scottish Archaeological Review 4 (1987): 98-107.
Collis, John. "Celtic Myths." Antiquity 71 (1997): 195-201.
Cooney, Gabriel and Eoin Grogan. "An Archaeological Solution to the 'Irish' Problem?" Emania 9 (1991): 33-43.
James, Simon. The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.*
Ó Donnabháin, Barra. “An Appalling Vista? The Celts and the Archaeology of Later Prehistoric Ireland.” In New Agendas in Prehistory: Papers in commemoration of Liz Anderson, edited by A. Desmond, G. Johnson, M. McCarthy, J. Sheehan, and E. Shee Twohig, 189–196. Wordwell Books, 2000.
O'Kelly, Michael J. Early Ireland: An Introduction to Irish Prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Raftery, Barry. Pagan Celtic Ireland: The Enigma of the Irish Iron Age. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1994.
Waddell, John. "The Question of the Celticization of Ireland." Emania, no 9. (1991): 5-16.
Waddell, John. “Celts, Celticisation and the Irish Bronze Age.” In Ireland in the Bronze Age. Proceedings of the Dublin Conference, edited by John Waddell and E. Shee Twohig, 158-169. Dublin, Stationary Office, 1995.
Waddell, John. The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. Galway: Galway University Press Ltd., 1998.
*I like this book a lot, but a lot of people don't. Apologies if you try it and dislike it.

I hope this helps, Nerva, but it will probably give you a headache ;)

Re: Celts - How do you define a people?

PostPosted: Wed May 14, 2008 11:28 am
by Billy
Part 4

In recent decades, there has been a growth in what can only be described as Celto-Skepticism. Certain scholars, the best known being Simon James, have addressed the accepted wisdom of a single Celtic Culture sweeping from Turkey to Ireland. He sees the origins of the Celt in a much more recent time.
James proposed that the celt, as many understand the term, to be an invention of C17th and C18th romantic and nationalists writers and scholars. They revived the term Celt from the old Greek term Keltoi, and used it to describe the La Tene and Hallstatt cultures, and the inheritors of this art style.

James proposed that the creation of a Celtic identity was a reaction to the cultural dominance of Anglo Saxon cultural indentification in the newly formed political entity that was Britain, and that identifying with Celts was a way for others in that union, e.g. the Irish, Welsh and Scottish, to assert an identity that was not Anglo Saxon, and had a separate history and set of cultural influences than the English.

In a way, James is right. The celtic identity that emerged has certainly allowed people from other countries in the western Islands of europe (in what was then the British Isles) to assert an identity for themselves that is not defined by Anglo-Saxonism, or perhaps more accurately, as a reaction to the dominance of Anglo Saxon culture over the British identity.

James and others like him propose that people in the Iron Age would not have seen themselves as a single culture, and certainly speakers of celtic and those who made la tene art, ranging from Galway to the Bospherous would not have identified themselves as a single people. This makes sense. Irish history shows us that the Irish rarely united in the past, and in the early medieval period are likely to have seen themselves as a single political unit. Certainly it is likely that they would have seen themselves as separate from the Welsh, or the Cornish. To think that they all chummied up together and proclaimed themselves as the united Celts is unrealistic. James, therefore, sees the idea of Celts in the past as being outdated, and that inreality people may have shared certain cultural traits, but the notion that there was a single Celtic identity is misleading.

Now, in fairness, this is true to a certain extent. But in another view, the idea of the Celt is useful. Take, for example, American Indians. I know of no period in history before modern times when all the tribes of North america would have seen themselves as a single people. They fought amongst themselves, spoke a variety of different languages, and believed in many different religions. They may have formed political alliances, in the same way that Vercingetorix have united many celtic tribes against Caesar, but I doubt that Indians ever saw themselves as one single people before they were devestated by European contact, and forced to share the same fate in reservations. Perhaps the idea of the Native American as an identity is modern, but does it change our definition of what a Native American is?

In this same way, perhaps self identifying as Celts, as opposed to the descendants of Gauls, Brythons or Gaels, is recent, but does it change what a Celt is? is it an easy label that allows us to compartmentalise easily? Is it a nuanced and widely varied term that should be treated with caution, or abandoned altogh=ether in favour of more precise but fragmented terms?

I don't really know. The whole thing is waaaay to complicated to arrive at a single answer.

Especially when the evidence for widespread celtic culture in Ireland is so unclear.

Re: Celts - How do you define a people?

PostPosted: Wed May 14, 2008 11:55 pm
by Nerva
Wow :shock:

That's a lot to digest. Thank you both for such an incitful contribution (that's my shorthand for I need to revise my thinking on the subject ;) )

Re: Celts - How do you define a people?

PostPosted: Thu May 15, 2008 12:06 am
by Nerva
I've just re-read your contributions and I'm still reeling :shock: It would take me a lifetime to respomd and ask questions that make sense. Billy, are you comming to BoA? I know Annie is, so a long debate around the camp fire is in store ;)

Thank you both again


Re: Celts - How do you define a people?

PostPosted: Thu May 15, 2008 4:08 pm
by Nerva
The earliest reference that I have read is Caesars Bellum Gallica or Gallic Wars. Many times the words Celt and Gaul are interchanged, implying they mean the same thing. However, Caesar does clearly divide Gaul into 3 distinct provinces, Belgica (modern day low countries), Aquitaine (modern day south western France, the rest of the country. Caesar also describes these three areas as having peoples with similar but distinct cultures. Specifically he refers to the people of 'Gaul', the central province as Celtic throughout his writings, however, the terms is used more loosely to describe the peoples of Belgica and Aquitaine.

Caesar does make a clear distinction between the Gaul’s/Celts and the Germans however. He tells us that the Celts had a more advanced civilisation with urban centres. The tribes were groups on larger clan line rather than on any one specific family. He also tells us they farmed and kept animals. The Germans he describes as being more primitive, making no attempt at either farming or animal husbandry.

So, even in Caesars day, there were peoples spread across large areas of land that exhibited similar social and linguistic characteristics.

Re: Celts - How do you define a people?

PostPosted: Thu May 15, 2008 6:31 pm
by RecycledViking
There's an important quote from Caesar that I forgot about:
(from Caesar's Second Invasion of Britain (54BC) De Bello Gallico 5.12 & 14, trans. Philip Freeman)
"The interior parts of Britain are inhabited by tribes which by their own tradition are indigenous to the island while on the coastal sections are tribes which had crossed over from the land of the Belgae seeking booty. ...Of all the tribes of Britain, those inhabiting the wholly maritime land of Cantium [Kent [Shane?]] are most civilized, differing little from the Gauls. Most of those in the interior do not sow wheat, but live on milk and meat, clothing themselves in animal skins..."
A good indication that there was a clear distinction between Celts/Gauls and the indigenous British (and assumedly Irish) in Caesar's time.