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Celts

There is a continuity of culture, however weak and reticulate, that runs from the Mesopotamian core and Indo-European tribes of Europe, to the early post-Ice Age Celts of Britain. There were, subsequently, historical connections with the Mediterranean culture of Rome, the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans that would blend into a Euro-British culture that, in the 19th century, would create a global empire.

Though Britain had been populated by early humans, the last Ice Age blanketed the islands with an ice sheet that extended down from the north as far as the Thames and Bristol Channel, effectively driving out all human (and most other) life with just a sub-arctic tundra remaining.

People return

Following the last Ice Age the first people to return and occupy Britain were of Celtic stock, a group of people defined more by their culture and language than their biology. It was during the Iron Age that the culture of the Celts reached its peak, but they left no written record.[7] What we know of these early Celts has been filtered through the pens and minds of the Greco-Roman historians and the Christian culture that came to Britain from Rome after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to the Christian faith.

Celtic culture was passed on by oral tradition so today we learn about these founding Britons by other means. For some British the Celts represent the true resilient and proud founding stock of the nation that was later subject to a series of occupations by different European peoples – first the Romans, then waves of Germanic people, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Picts, Vikings and Normans.

Across Europe Celtic people succumbed to the might of the Roman empire. In Britain only small pockets of the original founding Celts remained, their languages intact, in parts of Devon and Cornwall, the Isle of Man, parts of Ireland and Britain’s north. It is these regions that have experienced a cultural continuity extending over about 3,000 years.

Celts in Europe

Celts in Europe

This map shows: the core Hallstatt territory, expansion before 500 BCE (yellow) Maximum Celtic expansion by the 270s BCE (blue-green) Lusitanian area of Iberia, ‘Celticity’ uncertain (pale blue-green) The boundaries of the six commonly-recognized ‘Celtic nations’, which remained Celtic speaking throughout the Middle Ages (viz. Brittany, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland – pale green) Areas that remain Celtic-speaking today (dark green)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Agriculture & metalwork

During the British Neolithic, which lasted from about 6,000–4,000 BCE, agricultural practices passed from Europe’s Mediterranean region to the islands of the continent’s north-west. This probably arrived from two directions: brought across the English Channel by Germanic peoples and up the European Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula and low countries.

Agricultural knowledge and technology was followed by the great ages of metal and metalwork; bronze (the British Bronze Age lasted from about 4,500 to 2000 BCE), then the much stronger iron (the British Iron Age lasting from about 1,000 BC into the period of Roman Britain from about 43-410 CE).

Celtic origins

The geographic origins of these classical Celtic peoples in Britain and their linguistic associations are all a matter of academic debate although we believe that they were the first people in recorded history to live north of the Alps.

Genetic evidence suggests that Celts peoples arrived in Britain by two routes, one a southern route round the Mediterranean and Spain, up the Atlantic coast to Normandy, Cornwall, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, the other across the English Channel from western Europe. This hypothesis is supported by the existence of two Celtic language groups, Brythonic and Goidelic. The ‘racial’ constitution of the people is uncertain, what held them together was a common social structure, religion and material culture.

Probably in about 1,000 BC the western European classical Celts, sometimes called the ‘First Europeans’, started to migrate from their population centre in Switzerland and SW Germany . Here they had formed a distinctive Iron Age ethno-linguistic group and culture centred around the headwaters of the Danube (named after the Celtic goddess Danu), Rhine (Rhenus – Celtic word for seaway), Rhône (first recorded as Rhodanus, ro-great, Danu, the Celtic goddess). This Celtic territorial expansion was greatest in the third century BCE, before the advance of Imperial Rome: Celtic influence had spread from Ireland in the west across Europe to Turkey in the east, and from Belgium in the north to Cadiz, Spain in the south (settling the Iberian peninsula from about the ninth century BC) and across the Alps into the Po valley which runs across the north of the Italian peninsula below the Apennines. Settlements have even been found in Poland, Russia and the Ukraine.[1]

Evidence for the Danube centre of origin comes from ancient writings, the Celtic names, especially place names within the region, and from archaeology.

Archaeology

Archaeologists have identified two major periods of Celtic culture emanating from the West European centre: firstly, a Bronze Age Tumulus culture (1550-1250 BC) and later Urnfield culture (c. 1,200-700 BC) and Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age Hallstatt culture (1,200– 475 BC). These cultures were followed by a distinct second period, Iron Age La Téne culture.

The Hallstatt culture employed iron smelting and worked with other metals, and was trading with the Mediterranean world. Artefacts from Greece, Etruria and Carthage have been found in burial chambers beneath barrows (soil mounds) which contain bodies laid on highly decorated 4-wheeled wagons and chariots.

The Swiss La Téne culture lasted from about c. 500-100 BC, the Roman conquest, and had new decorative art forms and fast two-wheeled chariots. Pastoral and agricultural farming was now well developed with irrigation systems as along the Po valley. In the west the La Tène culture was, essentially, what was known in Roman texts as Gaul and it reached Ireland in about the third or second century BC.[2]

Ironwork allowed the production of advanced metalwork including weaponry, which no doubt assisted their expansion but they had also adopted sophisticated farming practices.

Written sources

Celtic religion forbade written records. Even so, about 500 Celtic inscriptions have been found using the Etruscan, Greek, Phonoecian and Roman alphabets. The Celts waged a 400 year battle with Rome, Livy’s History of Rome recording encounters, but some 300 years after the events themselves. Penetrating to northern Italy Celtic forces were met by Simplicius in 387 BCE at the Battle of Alia.

First written accounts of encounters between the classical world and the ‘Keltoi’ are those of Grecian merchant-explorers of the sixth century BC who established trading agreements with them. Roman historians distinguished numerous tribal groups in Europe, the 30 or so in Britain being skilled in flint-knapping and using end-scrapers for animal skins and burins for working wood and engraving.

What little has been written about Celtic life, myth and legend has come to us through the largely unsympathetic pens and minds of Greco-Roman chroniclers (mostly Tacitus’s Germania and Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars) and later Christian monks. Most productive of the latter were Irish bards who wrote down the Celtic oral tradition in manuscripts now housed in Irish and, to a lesser extent, Welsh monasteries. Among the better known epic stories are the legend of King Arthur and the romance of Tristan and Isolde.

Language

Neolithic farmers brought with them Indo-European languages. The Atlantic Celts appear to have been a large tribal grouping of Gauls who occupied the region between northern Spain and the line of the Seine-Marne in Northern France. As they controlled the bulk of the Atlantic coast, they dominated trade links with Cornwall, Wales and Ireland to their north. This seems to be the original introduction mechanism of Celtic languages such as Cornish, Welsh and Gaelic which supplanting the previous languages in those countries.[Cunliffe] Once introduced Celtic branched into two separate forms, the Goidelic and Brythonic. For a more detailed account of the origins of ‘Celtic’ and the English language in general see Linguistics.

Social structure & law

Celts lived in tribes ruled by kings, sometimes one king to several tribes. Some idea of Celtic society can be gained from surviving Celtic legal systems notably the Brehon Laws, a system of civil law relating to compensation payments for harm done to persons or property as well as the regulation of property, inheritance (including land) and contracts. It was a system that reflected a strongly hierarchical society, reinforcing social status, and its associated rights and duties. There are close parallels with the Vedic Laws of Manu in India, the Irish sharing many perceptions of the world and cosmology with the Vedic writers.[6]

Hallstatt Celts were ruled by wealthy kings who lived in large fortresses and were buried in elaborate tombs (barrows) along with chariots, jewellery and personal goods and food to assist them in the afterlife. In the late Hallstatt period it is clear that a lively trade had developed with the Mediterranean, especially Greece and Etruria based around the Greek trading colony at Marseilles near the mouth of the Rhone.

Society was organized into a kind of hierarchical caste system, the menials and workers (sudra and vaishya of Hindu society), warriors (kshatriya) and intellectuals called Druids (Brahmin) who included lawyers, doctors and priests. It was a system similar to that also found in Greek and Roman society.[4] Kings were presumed to defer to Druidical judgments, the Druids themselves having an exalted lifestyle.

Celtic towns existed together with numerous hill-forts and duns, over 3,000 of these being recorded in Britain.

Druids

Druids carried out much of the administration of Celtic society, skilled at astronomy and herbalism they officiated at religious ceremonies, sacrifices and ritual feasts and provided judgments when disputes arose. Though a kind of priestly class their role was not confined to religion.

As the dominant and respected intellectual class of the Celts the Druids fascinated the Romans and Greeks. Greek historian Strabo and Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder both assumed the name ‘Druid’ had a similar meaning to the Greek word drus, or oak ,and that the suffix uid/wid/vid the same meaning as the Sanskrit vid, to know, or as in the Hindu Vedas, ‘knowledge’. Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), who had lived with the Celts in the Po valley, notes in his Naturalis Historia the association of Druids with the oak grove and mistletoe these two plants having special religious significance.

Classical texts only mention the Druids in relation to Gaul and Britain though they were probably more widely dispersed. Roman Emperor Julius Caesar’s British campaigns of 55 and 54 BCE were just part of his wider campaign in Gaul and Germany over the period 58-51 BCE, his Bellum Gallicum, better known as Caesar’s Gallic Wars. He was fascinated by the rituals and beliefs of the religio-philosophic leaders of the Celts who were called the Druids. Famous Roman historian Tacitus writing in about 100 CE was to later leave us a written record of these people. It was claimed by these men that Druidism, though practised on the continent, had originated in Britain and it was in Britain that the Druids still received their vocational training. Druidism had its roots in deep prehistory and, though largely eliminated in Britain with the arrival of Christianity in about 300 CE, in Ireland it persisted well into the first millennium CE.

Caesar noted that the Druids were exempt from taxes and military service but were expected to commit to memory a vast oral history.

As Christianity gradually absorbed Celtic tradition Druids were perceived more as magicians or witch doctors than wise elders. Displacement of Celts from England by the newly-arrived Anglo-Saxons began in about the 5thcentury AD.

Religion

What little we know of Celtic religion comes to us from the literature, archaeological evidence and in some instances to place names. Classical accounts have been reinterpreted, recycled, and no doubt embellished in many ways. The following material from various contemporary sources should be read with this in mind. Though we know little with certainty we can nevertheless get a ‘feel’ for what their lives must have been like. With the Roman occupation of Britain there was a fusion of beliefs as deities took on both Roman and Celtic characteristics and combined names.

Animism

Celts were animistic polytheists, their system of beliefs relating primarily to the natural world, from communication with the spirits (animism) and gods (theism) that inhabited the world’s physical features including the sky, sun, moon, mountains, thunder, lightning, lages, springs and wells, the weather and so on: there were many local differences. The sun especially was represented as a spoked wheel in the Bronze Age and by the Roman period the wheel had become associated with a number of gods. These gods and spirits did not take on human form. Ritual ceremonies and worship was carried out in sacred sites or sanctuaries such as springs, groves, lakes, hilltops and burial sites where special shrines were built. Burial places were also sacred. Offerings would be made at such sites and sometimes in special; storage pits. believing in both reincarnation and the transmigration of souls – although they are best known for the claim that they practised human sacrifice.

Of special concern was their own fertility and that of their crops and livestock. They believed in immortality, that humans had a soul residing in the head, and that all things had a spiritual dimension.

We know the names of 374 Celtic gods and goddesses, most of them being single and local although about 20 were of more general distribution. From both Caesar and the Celtic literature we know that the Celts regarded their gods not as ‘creators’ but as wondrous ‘ancestors’, a character shared with Hindu myth and saga, and the Aboriginal Dreamtime, but their cosmogonies have been lost. Also as in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories the Celtic folk-beliefs relate the origins of various features of nature to the activities of former beings like giants or fairies.

Water

Rivers , lakes and springs provided a special connection with the spirit world and played an important part in religious ritual. Water was a sources of life, health, and food and a connection to another world. At sacred sights offerings of wooden and metal objects, animals and possibly humans were thrown into the water. , many European rivers being named after Celtic goddesses: Marne – Matrona (mother), Severn – Sabrina, Boyne – Boann, Shannon – Siannon, Seine – Sequana. Natural springs, like those at the city of Bath, became sacred sites. Veneration of wells and rivers was also a very strong similar to Hindu tradition (the sacred power of the Ganges).

Astronomy

Druids were especially skilled at astronomy deriving their own calendrical system, the Coligny Calendar: a surviving example found in Gaul and engraved on bronze plates dates back to the first century BC but the system is thought to have been originally computed in about 1,100BC.[6] It shares many characteristics with Vedic calendars indicating an earlier Indo-European history.

The Vedic connection to the Celts (in linguistics, cosmology and numerology) is uncertain, some authorities suggesting the Vedas were derived from Babylonians via Greece at the time of Alexander’s military campaigns, others maintaining that Babylonian culture was strictly non-Indo-European.

Trees & tree worship

Tree worship was a part of Celtic life that persisted in Plant lore (see Plant lore) well into the Anglo-Saxon period. In an oft-quoted passage, Pliny the Elder refers to a Druidical ceremony in Gaul (France) in which the white-robed Druids (known to be literate) called on the moon and climbed a sacred oak (a Valonia Oak, Quercus macrolepis), to cut down mistletoe (a cure for infertility) before sacrificing two white bulls. The oak stands out among the many trees that were worshipped but others mentioned in ancient manuscripts include the ash, (haw)thorn, fruit and nut trees, hazel, alder, elder, holly, and willow.

Animals & hunting

Animals were close to the spirit world , those such as snakes, bears, dogs, horses, stags and birds, were admired for their special non-human qualities. There were hunter gods and stag antlers played a part in ritual.

Celtic dissolution

Following the decline of Romano-British culture Anglo-Saxon settlement began in the 5th century and was associated with a linguistic and cultural segregation that, by the 11th century, could be distinguished as the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons with a northern component in Scotland.

The last centuries before the Roman invasion saw an influx of mixed Germanic-Celtic speaking refugees from Gaul (approximately modern day France and Belgium) known as the Belgae, who were displaced as the Roman Empire expanded around 50 BC. They settled along most of the coastline of Southern Britain between about 200 BC and AD 43, although it is hard to estimate what proportion of the population they formed. A Gaulish tribe known as the Parisii, who had cultural links to the continent, appeared in Northeast England.

– to the settlement of Britain by early Celts living in hillforts and duns,[64] drawn from Britain and Ireland (there are about 3,000 hill forts known in Britain). These pre-Roman Celtic societies were linked to Eurasian overland trade routes. Metals worked by the Celts included tin, lead, iron, silver and gold. Subsequent invasions included those of the Germanic Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians (350 AD on) before the Mediterranean plants and ideas that flowed into Britain during the Roman conquest that began in AD 43 and is taken as the beginning of Britain’s recorded history – to be followed by the Normans and others. What can we glean from the archaeological (genetic and linguistic) record about the relationship between people and plants during these times?

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

As so often in these articles the connections between the world of present-day Australia and Celtic Europe seem remote in both time and relevance. However, it is from them that we have some content of the English language which is now, in effect, the global common language or lingua franca.

Like the early Christians the Druids represented a threat to Roman values and were actively pursued. Druids were spiritual in outlook, Romans materialistic; Druids operated with collective ownership, Roman law was based on private ownership of land vested in the head of the family; Druid women were engaged in political and religious life, Roman women were regarded as the child-bearers and home managers, and a source of pleasure.

Economy

It seems likely that wheeled vehicles used by the Celts used specially constructed roads and that the famous Roman roads were established along existing Celtic tracks. It is well established that long before the Roman occupation of Britain there was trade with the Mediterranean world that included wheat, cattle, gold, silver, iron, leather goods and hides, even hunting dogs.[8] Shipping was relatively sophisticated, the Brehon Laws listing ships constructed for various circumstances: sea-going, coastal, and river. Phoenician and Greek traders were visiting Ireland several centuries BC and early wine amphorae have been found in SW Ireland and archaeological evidence indicates links with overland trade routes across Eurasia.

The La Téne culture used gold, silver, tin, and lead as well as iron, using metals for weaponry and trading jewellery internationally, the Romans a major customer, some of the silver and bronze used in Roman coinage possibly being sources here. Coins were cast in gold, silver and bronze at the end of the fourth century BC following the manner of Greece but ahead of the Romans.

Water mills were used as a source of power and were in general use in Ireland by about 260 CE.

Farming

Archaeological evidence belies the popular idea of Celts as nomadic warmongering barbarians, suggesting instead a people whose economy was based on rural pastoral and agricultural farming that harked back to the Bronze Age.

Celtic farm technology was in several important ways superior to that of the early Romans as they produced the first harvesting machine and the Celtic plough (first pictured in rock carvings in the Val Camonica north of Milan) which had a mobile coulter (an iron knife cutting vertically into the soil), making them far more effective than the Roman swing plough at this time. Early European societies would generally plough the same earth twice, at right angles, as the ploughs did not completely turn the soil. However, the Celts added a coulter which facilitated the full turning of the soil by the following share, which was also made of iron rather than wood. Before the second century BC the iron coulter and share combined with crop rotation, manuring, fertilisation with lime and marl (limey clay), marked a major agricultural transition assisted by more advanced wheeled vehicles like the all-purpose wagon. With land drainage in marshy areas and two oxen yoked to this plough large tracts of land were opened up to crops. Beresford Ellis suggests that by the time of the arrival of the Romans the British landscape would have shown many similarities o what is seen today.[8] Celtic farmers also created the messor (called a vallus by the Romans), a simple harvesting machine lake a large box on wheels with a toothed lower edge that would gather the corn when pushed by an ox. Iron tools like scythes, sickles, forks, spades, axes and billhooks were now becoming more efficiently designed especially through the use of shaft holes rather than socketing. By the first century BC most of today’s basic hand-tools had been created, at least in general form, by Celtic craftsman.[9]

Over Europe the Celts grew various forms of wheat, notably emmer, spelt, and bread. Hand-turned millstones were used and the flour stored in granaries, grain and vegetables often being stored in sealed pits. Oats, barley and rye were widely grown along with fibre plants hemp, and flax for both linen and oil. Millet was grown mainly in Gaul (western Europe where an early Celtic dialect was spoken) and Cisalpine Gaul (land of the Gauls lying to the south and east of the alps) and panicum in the Po valley. Legumes like peas, beans and lentils were also grown along with a wide variety of fruits and berries. From the sixth century BC wines were imported to northern Europe from Etruscan and Greek sources in the south.

Pastoral farming was based around sheep, cattle and pigs: small goat-like sheep, for wool and milk rather than meat, producing dark, coarse wool which by Roman times was exported from Britain to Rome; cattle (the most abundant domestic animal) were small Celtic Shorthorn bred to produce oxen as draught animals for wagons and ploughs and as a source of milk and meat while bulls, admired for their enormous strength and ferocity, played a key role in Celtic society featuring in sacrificial rituals and Celtic art and mythology; pigs and boars, second to cattle in abundance, also featured in Celtic epics, myths and art; horses and dogs were used mostly for hunting and warfare and later for pulling the plough, but donkeys and mules only appear in the archaeological record after contact with Roman culture; chickens and cats were part of farm life but Caesar remarks that ‘Hares, fowl, and geese they think it unlawful to eat, but rear them for pleasure and amusement’[cited in BE p. 104] Salt was used in the preservation of meats, and salted pork was exported from Gaul to the Italian peninsula.

Media gallery

This six-part BBC documentary series on the Celts provides a full European background. Just the first of the series is listed here, the others are readily downloaded from Youtube.

The Celts – BBC Series, Episodes 1-6 – In the Beginning

FilmRise Document’s – 2014 – 51:18

Barry Cunliffe: Who Were the Celts?

BYU Department of Anthropology – 2014 – 1:45:04

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First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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