This post is part of my ancient Britain series, so in keeping with my other titles of Old Dry Bones and Cold Wet Stones, I should clearly call this post something clever like “Celts – The Known Unknowns” but I decided to Leave Well Enough Alone.
OK, back to my subject. Before the Romans spread across Europe, almost everyone lived in villages of more or less related folk; clans or tribal groups mostly at war with the next tribe over the hill. Linguists labels like Germanic, Nordic, Slavic, or Celtic had no real meaning. There was only one’s clan and the outsiders. And so things were for thousands of years.
The ancient Celts called themselves by their tribal names: the Boli, the Picts, the Brittanni, the Belgae, the Senones, and hundreds of others. The people we call Celts would no more have considered themselves Celtic than Native Americans would call themselves Indians rather than Navajo, or Mohawk, or Pawnee, or whatever tribe they lived in.
The British Museum is hosting a special exhibition on the Celts, the most widespread bronze age culture in Europe long before the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and the Roman Empire even existed. They have a you tube video here . And the British Museum in cooperation with Google has put some of the highlights of the exhibition online for free here .
Traditional research says that Europeans are a mixture of three (or four) major ancestral populations – indigenous hunters, Middle Eastern farmers, and a population that arrived during the Bronze Age in Europe. I suspect that statement should read “a population that brought Europe into the Bronze Age.” But the Celts weren’t a race. In Richard Dawson’s famous phrase they spread through memes not by genes; by ideas, by language, by art and technology, by acculturation, not by reproduction or by replacing existing peoples.
So this post is about artifacts and language. Place names especially can tell us a lot. As recently as 200 years ago over half of the inhabitants of northern Scotland, northern and western Ireland, and almost all of Wales and Brittany still spoke a Celtic language. Since the Greeks and Romans wrote things down while the Celts memorized things and told them aloud, the Greeks and Romans provide most of our knowledge about the ancient world: even the word Celtic comes from a Greek word (Keltoi). And while much of what they wrote down about others probably wasn’t worth the papyrus it was written on, it sounds like they got some things right. Virgil mentions Gauls wearing golden torques in the Aeneid, and Livy notes that 1471 gold torques were part of the loot taken from the Boli by the Romans. Herodotus says the pre-Celtic Ligurians after whom are named the Ligurian Alps were still living above Marseilles in his time, circa 450 B.C. Herodotus placed the Celts outside the Pillars of Hercules, that is, along the Atlantic sea-coast of Europe, west of Gibraltar, and across the Pyrenees from Greece. During his time, the British Isles were known as the “Tin Isles”.
He also said that in Spain, there lived a king named Arganthonios: the arganto element in the word is the Celtic word for silver. Since Arganthonios died before the Greeks colonized Corsica in 564 B.C., it follows that at least some Celts were in Spain considerably before that date. Pliny’s “Catalogue of Spanish Cities” contains many Celtic towns and place names that terminate in the suffix briga, the equivalent of the German burg (meaning hill fort). In France, place names usually end in magu, meaning plain or field, which would indicate that in Gaul the Celts lived an agricultural life; while in Iberia, military matters were more important. The great European wilderness, the Hercynian Forest, which stretched from France, through Germany, to the Carpathians carries a Celtic name. Etymology derives Hercynia from the Aryan word ‘perpu’ for oak tree.
Before I try to describe the exhibits, an aside about collections: Our London guide once told me that if I wanted to see outstanding objects stolen from all around the world, I should visit the Louvre, but if I wanted to see rescued from all around the world, I should visit the British Museum. The French make the same statement with the names of the institutions reversed. So the Greeks weren’t the only ones whose truths may not be the same as yours and mine.
Sometimes physical evidence makes up for the bias in written accounts, and this is exhibit of things the Celts left behind that have survived the centuries. And since the Celt were the first master metal smiths in Europe, they left some pretty cool stuff behind. Celtic art and artifacts fall into two main groups known as La Tene and Hallstatt style, but much like the Celtic languages, their art shows more diversity than commonality.
Nevertheless, I tracked them pretty easily west into the copper and tin mines of Wales by the Atlantic Ocean, east through Germany to the silver mines of Bohemia, and south to the gold mines in Brittany in France, and I’m not a scholar, just a nosy tourist. Apparently, everywhere there were mines and metalworking, there are Celtic artifacts. I haven’t gone north into the Viking lands yet, mostly because it is mid November and dark and cold up north, but the physical evidence is rather hard to ignore, as in the curvilinear patterns carved into dragon-ships or the horned helmet above.
Celtic art is hard to describe, but easy to recognize when you see it. This life-sized statue called “The Glauberg Prince” from Germany is the first artifact in the exhibit.
The things that look like Micky Mouse ears may have been a headdress or they may have been his hair since the Celts used tree sap and lime in their hair, and combed it back to make themselves look larger and more fearsome. Surviving Celtic statues are rare, but they had another one from Germany, a doubled faced figure also wearing the distinctive Celtic torc around his neck, and there is another one in the Prague Museum called the “Celtic Hero ” shown below.
There were some exhibits of pottery showing the distinctive Celtic swirls and triskeles, but most of the exhibits were metalwork: Jewelry like torcs and the brooches that held their clothing in place, highly decorated bronze mirrors, and a complete reconstruction of a chariot with brass fittings that was built to be pulled by two ponies like the one at Wetwang Slack.
Especially interesting are the sacrificial items like the famous Gundestrup cauldron and Battersea shield shown below. The cauldron was deliberately broken and buried in a peat bog without ever being used.
Dated to around 100 BC, each panel is different and shows a different God or hero on the inside and the outside and seems to tell a story like the Bayeux Tapestry. There is even an engraving of a female deity on the inside bottom where is couldn’t be seen if there was anything in it.
The Battersea shield apparently was never intended to be used either – it was too thin to stop a sword or spear, and was thrown into the Thames as a sacrifice to a water spirit.
War “The whole race is war mad, high spirited, and quick for battle” Strabo said about 17 AD. Well, maybe they were, but it is just as likely that Strabo fell for some Celtic propaganda – The Celts apparently believed in psychological warfare and “Winning Through Intimidation” long ago. While there are plenty of swords, shields, and helmets, the most amazing war artifact is called a carnyx – a Celtic war horn or “talking stick”. You can see one starting at 13 minutes into the YouTube video and hear it at 14 minutes 45 seconds. It made a sound that scared a lot of Roman centurions into turning around and running for their lives.
After the Roman times, Celtic Christian art dominates the displays. There were illustrated books and bibles that preserved literacy in Ireland (where writing was the new technology) when the rest of Europe collapsed in barbarism after the fall of Rome. There are reproductions of the Duplin and St John’s carved stone High Crosses from Scotland from around 800 AD. The exhibition also included some interesting work from the so-called “Celtic Revival” during Victorian Times, These are pure fantasy art, but in the Celtic spirit of “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, I’ll end with this: