ancient history / art / FlashbackFriday / Prehistory

FlashbackFriday: Who were the Celts?

I thought for this week’s flashback I would put up this micro-essay I wrote in 2002 on the concept the “Celtic Myth” – an ongoing debate on the existence of a people known as the Celts. 


Reference to the “Celts” first appears in Iron Age Greek texts. It was during the Iron Age that the Celts (also called Gauls and Galatians) seem to become feared “barbarians” – essentially peoples who live beyond Greek and Roman urban areas. This term appears to have been used by the Greeks and Romans to describe any peoples that were not Greek or Roman, throughout the whole of continental Europe. Although considered under one term, we know from archaeological evidence that these peoples were not all one culture but had their own cultures, art and possibly language. The Celtic language that we refer to today was given the name by 17th century linguist Edward Lhuyd, but there is no evidence for linking the language to any past Celtic languages, nor the speakers of modern Celtic to any ancient cultures known as the Celts. 

Assumptions are often drawn about the Celts: that they are one homogeneous people with one culture, art and language; that the people referred to as Celts in modern times have a link to the ancient Celts; and that the ancient Celts inhabited the same areas that the modern Celts are believed to. These assumptions and the questions that arise around them about the existence of the Celts have become known as the “Celtic Myth”.


Celtic Myth by John Howe - beautiful, but not quite what I'm talking about

Celtic Myth by John Howe – beautiful, but not quite what I’m talking about

In his 1997 paper, Collis referred to the “Celtic Myth” – a questioning of the existence of the ancient Celts which has become a hot topic for debate in recent Iron Age studies (1). It is not in question that there were people occupying Northern areas of Europe (previously believed to be Celtic), but it is in doubt whether they can in fact be classified as Celtic, and what would be the criteria for a group to be considered Celtic? (2). It is certain that there were people living in these areas – notably the “Hallstatt culture” and the “La Tene” culture – but it is not quite clear if these people can be categorised as Celts. The Megaws (3) (4) claim that this concern over the existence of the Celts is more to do with recent re-defining of the English Identity. James points out that they are not wrong to raise the issue of the impact of wider social, cultural and political processes on archaeologists, but have overstated the political charges of the “Celtic question” (5). The “Celtic question”, over who and where the Celts really were can best be answered by assessing both the “conventional and alternative” histories of the Celts (6).

The conventional history of the Celts has been built up over many years by scholars of the Iron Age who have used various sources (archaeology, classical documents and linguistics) to support a “loosely knit barbarian nation” (7) with a wide spread material culture which especially includes La Tene/”early Celtic” artwork and some similar burial rites. It would seem that there were groups of peoples called Keltoi by the Greeks (their southern neighbours) and according to Caesar there were those (peoples of central and southern Gaul) who called themselves Celts (8). Traditionally it has often been thought that the term Keltoi (Greek) or Galli (Latin) was used as a term of contempt for an outsider group (9). The first known source on these Celtic peoples were the classical authors and this is where the term Celt first came from (10). From this and the study of the material culture belonging to European groups it was established that there were two distinct groups. Firstly, the Hallstatt, who formed principalities and traded with the Greeks and the Etruscans and were violently destroyed around 500BC (11). Another group, warrior like and migratory, grew up across Europe in the 5th century and, it has also been speculated, this new group – the La Tene, up heaved the Hallstatt peoples (12) (13). The conventional history of the Celts then has these peoples moving into the far reaches of Europe, from Britain to Turkey, and in most places the Celts fell to “Romanization”, only reasserting themselves at the end of the Roman Empire, and leading to a rediscovery of Celtic heritage in the 18th century (14). This view has been challenged in recent years, leading to questions about the what makes someone a Celt and whether the groups previously seen as Celtic are as homogeneous as thought.

What is commonly known as Celtic art is largely the art of the La Tene culture

What is commonly known as Celtic art is largely the art of the La Tene culture

It was of little help that the archaeological discovery of the Celts took place at the same time as European Romanticism and the emergence of nationalism, and as such was looked at with some bias and often used to certain, maybe political, ends (15). James noted that there have been several assumptions made in the past about Celtic history: that the modern peoples known as Celts are simply the descendants of the ancient peoples known as Celts; that all of the peoples known as ancient Celts were alike; and that the modern and ancient Celts are similar (16). Many scholars have found problems with the widely accepted conventional history of the Celts, from all of the three main sources on them: classical documentation, archaeological evidence (or rather its interpretation) and linguistics. Collis and many other scholars accept that “there was some group in the past who were labelled Celts, that we all have multiple identities which can vary according to context, or as seen from within or without.”  (17). One of the main concerns is the classical authors from which the name “Celt” is derived, with quite good reason due to the often incomplete and bias picture that is painted of the Celts (18). Collis points out that the definition of a Celt was blurred, with some of the authors (Martial, Sidonius, Apollinaris and Trogus Pompeiius, for example) considered themselves to be Celts. And Fairgrove tells us that Caesar tended to refer to anyone north of the Rhine as Germanic and anyone south as Celtic, which is a rather simplistic view. Collis also adds that in general the sources were contradictory, especially in their use of the various terms for Celts, and in the geography, not just of Celtic land but of Europe, making it difficult to truly define the territory of the people referred to in the texts as Celtic.

The Megaws believe the “essential indicator” for the presence of the ancient Celts is the La Tene art, however this is open to interpretation. Collis sees that the link between the La Tene and their art to the Celts is questionable and the adoption of the art does not mean an adoption of the culture it supposedly, but does not necessarily, represents. There are differences within the culture, such as burial rites, that would lead us to believe that there was no homogeneous group, loosely knit or not. Art can easily be transported either as a style or as a product.

One of the most contested arguments within the “Celtic question” is the use of linguistics as a criterion for being Celtic, this is especially contested in the existence of Celts in the British Isles. It is true in ancient times as it is in modern times that many people can share a language but be from different cultures, in the case of the British Isles it seems the main reason behind its promotion as Celtic is the “Celtic” languages found in some parts. It has been noted by several authors (for example, Collis and James (19)) that the Celtic languages in Britain where named so by Lluyd in the 1700s and it is only from this point that there seems to be the development of a Celto-British history, which Collis attributes to a revival of druidism and “Celtomania”. It still remains that the classical authors never referred to the equally “barbarian” peoples of Britain as Celts and much evidence relies on the similarities noted between tribal names in Britain as on the continent.

Celtic art: The Wandsworth Shield, La Tene

Celtic art: The Wandsworth Shield, La Tene

In conclusion, it must be remembered that the question is not whether the people of the Hallstatt and La Tene cultures existed but were they Celts and what is the acceptable criterion by which to judge a group Celtic? The Megaws have previously stated that the Celts “frequently seem to exist within a telescoped mythical past”, this is really in reference to the various pieces of misinformation out there about the Celts as comic strip characters, the druidic users of Stonehenge, and the “noble savages”. But it does go to demonstrate that there has been a tendency for stories and myths to build up around the Celts and their “factual” history, which can be little more than the acceptance of one interpretation over another.

The answer to whether we are just studying a Celtic myth is not definite. As with all archaeology we will never know the truth, and all that can be made are informed guesses. What we need to identify to answer this question is who the Celts were – which depends on the criteria. For example if we are to use the classical texts then the British, according to this are not Celts. If we use archaeologically identified material cultures, it is possible the people may not all be speaking the same language, or vice versa. As there is no steadfast criterion, it would seem the best thing to do is look for likely alternatives as well as conventional histories. The peoples of the Hallstatt and the La Tene were not necessarily homogeneous groups but lots of smaller ones, all or some of which may have been Celtic, according to one of the possible criteria’s, such as being mentioned in classical texts. It is wrong to say that we are studying a myth as that would imply the people themselves do not exist, rather it is likely that they do not necessarily exist in a way that we belief. Whether or not the La Tene are Celtic depends on a criteria that is by no means certain, but that does not mean that they are not Celtic.



(1) Collis, J.R.  1997.  “Celtic Myths”.  Antiquity 71, 195-201.

(2) Collis, J.R.  1997.  “Celtic Myths”.  Antiquity 71, 195-7

(3) Megaw, J.V.S. and Megaw, M.R.  1996.  “Ancient Celts and modern ethnicity.”  Antiquity 70, 175-81.

(4) Megaw, M.R. and Megaw, J.V.S.  2000.  The Ancient Celts: The First European Community.  In Evans, G., Martin, B., and Wooding, J.M.  (Eds) Origins and Revivals: Proceedings of the First Australian Conference of Celtic Studies.  Sydney.  University of Sydney.

(5) James, S.  1998.  “Celts, politics and motivations in archaeology.”  Antiquity 72, 200-10.

(6) James, S.  2000.  “Simon James’s Ancient Celts Page”. (17/03/02)

(7) Powell, T.G.E. 1958 (1963 edition).  The Celts.  London.  Thames and Hudson.

(8) Collis, J.R.  1997.  “Celtic Myths”.  Antiquity 71, 195-201.

(9) Megaw, J.V.S. and Megaw, M.R.  1996.  “Ancient Celts and modern ethnicity.”  Antiquity 70, 175-81.

(10) O’Miadhachain, S., Nolan, G.  And Wash, J.  1994.  “The Celts”.  Who were the Celts?  (17/03/02).

(11) James, S.  2000.  “Simon James’s Ancient Celts Page”. (17/03/02)

(12) Hubert, H.  1934 (1987 edition).  The Rise of the Celts.  London. Constable.

(13) James, S.  1993.  Exploring the World of the Celts.  London.  Thames and Hudson.

(14) James, S.  2000.  “Simon James’s Ancient Celts Page”. (17/03/02)

(15) Megaw, J.V.S. and Megaw, M.R.  1998.  “The Mechanism of (Celtic) dreams?: A partial response to our critics.”  Antiquity 72. No276.  432-435.

(16) James, S.  2000.  “Simon James’s Ancient Celts Page”. (17/03/02)

(17) Collis, J.R.  1997.  “Celtic Myths”.  Antiquity 71, 195-201.

(18) Fairgrove, R.  “What we don’t know about the ancient Celts”. (17/03/02).

(19) James, S.  1999.  The Atlantic Celts: Ancient people or modern invention.  London.  British Museum Press.


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