Rethinking the Celts

Posted on October 21, 2015


This is a session we filmed at the EAA conference in Glasgow. It raises some interesting concepts about who the Celts were:

Rethinking the Celts

Prof. John Collis, University of Sheffield (retired). Prof.Timothy Taylor, University of Vienna. Dr.Oliver Nakoinz, Christian-Albrechts-Universität

Over the last thirty years there has been a major rethink among prehistoric archaeologists which has seen a fundamental change in how we study the Ancient Celts and the paradigms that lie behind our work (so-called Celtoscepticism). Much of the criticism has been based on an historiographical analysis of Celtic Studies – how the inhabitants of Britain came to be called Celts (starts in the Renaissance), and why Celtic languages and Art came to be labelled as ‘Celtic’, or why southern Germany was considered to be the origin of the Celts, and their spread through Europe dated to the late Iron Age and linked with a ‘La Tène Culture’, or more recently the theory that the origins of the Celts and the language lie on the Atlantic coast. Celtoscepticism has led to new methodologies and interpretations, for instance a rejection that we know, or can know, about the origin and spread of the ethnic Celts using evidence provided by archaeology, art, language, etc. on the grounds that ethnicity, language, genetics and material culture cannot be used as equivalents to one another. In this session we will give a brief overview of the problems with traditional approaches, but mainly we will look at the way in which the new approaches have impacted on various countries across Europe and Asia Minor, and how this might affect national origin myths (e.g. that the early inhabitants of Britain and Ireland were Celts). We also explore new ways in which we can study and interpret the archaeological record replacing the language-based ‘culture-history’ paradigm with paradigms based on other disciplines such as Geography and Anthropology. We will look at new methodologies, for instance replacing the concept of ‘Culture Groups’ with ‘Networks’, to explain cultural and social change, or at different ways of reconstructing social organisation.

Rethinking the Celts: introduction

John Collis

Studies of Iron Age Europe have largely been dominated by interpretations based on usually patchy historical sources or on ethnic origins based on linguistic models (the ‘Culture Historical’ paradigm). From the 1960s in archaeology there has been a shift in the dominant paradigm to anthropological and geographical models, the so-called ‘New’ or ‘Processual’ Archaeology, but under the term ‘Post-Processual’ a range of different approaches has been developed. In Celtic Studies (and other language based disciplines) and in Medieval Archaeology the new approaches (‘Celtoscepticism’) have been slow to be adopted, and even the definition of the Celts is still strongly disputed (linguistic, or archaeological, or an ethnic usage in the Ancient World based on unknown criteria). In this session we will be considering to what extent we can still use terms like
‘Celtic’, and what approaches are replacing the ethnic interpretations of the European Iron Age in understanding the spread of ideas in aspects of the material culture, including ‘Celtic Art’.

Fundamentally flawed logic: the question of ‘Celtic ethnicity’

Raimund Karl

Much of the debate about ‘the Celts’ has focussed on the question of ‘Celtic ethnicity’. While the traditional ‘culture-historical’ view of ‘the Celts’ of the ‘Celtomaniacs’ perceived many of the inhabitants of 1st Millennium BC Europe and Asia Minor as belonging to one ‘Celtic people’, more recent ‘New Celticist’ (Collis 2009, 34-9) approaches have argued against this view. Yet, the ‘New Celticists’ have not abandoned the ‘ethnic paradigm’ either: where the old ‘Celtomaniacs’ argued for a unified, pan- European ‘Celtic ethnos’, the ‘New Celticists’ have argued that the term ‘Celtic’ can only be applied to those who either considered themselves to be ‘Celts’, or were considered to be ‘Celts’ by (roughly contemporary) others (James 1999, 67, 81; Collis 2003, 228). In this paper, it will be argued that both the ‘Celtomaniac’ and the ‘New Celticist’ adherence to an emic, ethnic, essentialist definition of ‘the Celts’ is based on fundamentally flawed logic. Instead of it, and to make any actual progress in improving our understanding of later prehistoric European communities, we need to adopt a purely nominalist, etic definition of the term.

Collis, J.R. 2003. The Celts. Origins, Myths & Inventions. Stroud: Tempus.
Collis, J.R. 2009. Redefining the Celts. In S. Zimmer (ed.), Kelten am Rhein. Akten des 13. Internationalen
Keltologiekongresses, 2. Teil: Philologie, Sprachen und Literaturen, 33-43. Beihefte der Bonner Jahrbücher Band 58, Mainz:
Philipp von Zabern.
James, S. 1999. The Atlantic Celts. Ancient People or Modern Invention? London: British Museum Press.

Celts and Cargo Cult Science

Oliver Nakoinz

When the famous physicist and Nobel price winner Richard Feynman coined the term ‘cargo cult science’ in 1974, he observed a lack of integrity in superficially correct research. This paper will show, that the Celtic paradigm is some kind of cargo cult science. Ethnicity as a paradigm in Iron Age research is seldom questioned. But does is possess the necessary integrity? It appears thatethnicity is woven into a system of key terms: ethnicity, nationalism, race and culture. These components supplied the air of significance, modern science, empiric evidence and historic identification, support each other and circumvent critique. Butassumptions appear to be wrong. The danger is twofold: In the socio-political system ethnic knowledge can be used to suppress minorities and in the scholarly system dubious knowledge becomes established. The Celtic paradigm grew in an
environment as described and persisted as knowledge, which is supposed to be valid.

Modern cultural theory and network theory will be addressed as alternative approaches for the ethnic paradigm. Some of the advantages of a formal analysis culture are, that it does not implicate ethnic or racial interpretations, that it is not restricted to spatially bounded cultures, allows to map nested structures and can represent fuzzy borders. The strength of network approaches is, that they focus on relationships and can map rather complex interaction structures. Although these approaches overcome some of the problems with the ethnic paradigm, we have to be aware, that they are also prone for wrong assumptions.

Culture or social rank? The ‘celtic’ affinities of the northern Iberians

Alexis Gorgues

When dealing with South-West European Late Prehistory, it is usual to observe a mix between a linguistic taxonomy and an archaeological one. Celtiberians are for instance people from the “Indo-European” Hispania, while Iberians belong to a non Indo-European “substrate”. Relying on this paradigm, archaeologists have for a long time looked for the archaeological markers of continental “celticity” in areas where people were supposed to speak a Celtic language, i. e. in the central part of nowadays Spain, while they seem to be more numerous in Eastern Catalonia. In this area, where epigraphy refers only to the use of the Iberian language, swords of La Tène type are for instance to be found, along with shields similar to those known all over Central and Western Europe. Some of these weapons can be displayed together with skull fragments according to a scenography reminding observations made in various parts of Gaul. These elements are often interpreted as the proof of a cultural proximity between northern Iberians and Gauls, sharing the same symbolic practices.

In this paper, we will offer another interpretation of these discoveries. In our opinion, the “international” artefacts –as well as the symbolic practices- have in common to be associated with social elites. They can be thus interpreted as markers of rank, more than as markers of ethnicity or cultural identity. We will then raise a question: why did they choose these specific markers, and not those more usual in the remaining part of the Iberian world?

Urbanisation dynamics in Celtic Europe: from sites to networks

Clara Filet
Over a relatively short period between the 3rd and the 1st century BC, an unprecedented phenomenon of complexification of modality of habitation developed in non-Mediterranean Europe. This was the emergence of large agglomerations which had urban characteristics. This important landmark of the end of the Celtic period on the continent is here considered in the light of a new element: organisation of the sites networks. We no longer consider the town as a simple dot in a map, but as the articulation between different networks (contacts and interactions) of settlements, from the local to inter-cultural scale.

The presented project works to precise the organisation of connections between settlements inside a given territory. To reconstruct past connections, the distribution of exogenous products or material and the structure of the settlement hierarchy are examined and confronted to spatial interactions models, in particular retailer models (ex. Bevan and Wilson 2012). First conceivedby physicists and urban geographers, those applications allow us to identify the relative (economic, political, in size…) importance of each node depending on its position in the network. Their more recent use for archaeological dataset offers promising prospects in the study of complex processes with connected actors.

Studying this system, its implementation and its evolution will help us to better highlight how the first towns’ networks established themselves in relation to each other, and to perceive how far these new agglomerations had a role to play in the territory structuration and the emergence of the first archaic states north of the Alps.

Beyond Celts: Nested identities in Iron Age Europe

Manuel Fernandez-Gotz
A central problem with approaches to Iron Age ethnicity is that, traditionally, researchers have mainly focused their interest on macro-concepts such as ‘Celts’ or ‘Germans’. However, these categories were, to a large extent, constructs from ‘outsiders’ and had little or no significance for past groups and individuals. But there were also smaller groupings which functioned as emic categories, and which often overlapped with political units. Starting with a distinction between ethnic categories, ethnic networks and ethnic communities, this paper argues that we should go beyond the dichotomy between views that only focus on macro-categories without explaining how these came about or, at the other extreme, approaches that restrict themselves solely to the level of households but ignore their integration into broader entities. Thus different nested socio-political and identitary levels can be distinguished within and between Iron Age communities, constituting a practical example of the multidimensional and situational character of identities. Moreover, it is shown that the autonomy in the social, economic and ritual realm does not mean that higher levels of integration did not exist, just as membership of the same group does not invalidate the existence of different experiences of being-in-the-world.

The Last Days of Celts on Middle Danube – New Evidences

Milan Hornak, Andrej Zitnan

Traditionally, the end of Celtic being in Central Europe and on Middle Danube was connected with power struggle between Celts and Dacians lead by king Burebista from south-east and gradual influx of old Germans from the north-west. During the 20th century, archaeologists formed detailed concept of 1st century BCE that was marked by the profound changes in the Celtic society. It seemed there can’t be anything to challenge traditional views.

New excavations conducted between years 2008-2010 and 2013-2014 on Bratislava castle, former acropolis of mighty Celtic oppidum on Middle Danube, brought us new evidences of unprecedented level of interaction between local Celts and Mediterranean civilization. Well preserved remains of Celto-Roman stone architecture, mosaics, poured floors and evidences of direct imports e.g. amphorae, Roman Republican coins or glass – these complex archaeological situations made us reconsider traditional theories.

We are offering a new vision where we see Celts as a flexible society which is constantly changing in order to adopt to new geopolitical and economic realities. We think that Celts were not passive constituents watching from the periphery and blindly following and mimicking Roman culture but we see them as active participants, selecting certain cultural patterns from Roman world while keeping enough of their own cultural traditions. This attitude explains their non-problematic integration into future Roman Empire, which expended its borders to Middle Danube in first century AD.

Herodotus’s peoples: relations of dependence

Timothy Taylor

This paper examines the ethnic concepts of the fifth century BC observer and analyst Herodotus and looks at the way that these have been profoundly oversimplified in the modern application to archaeological cases (typically distorted by modern nationalist agendas). Reading Herodotus carefully reveals a highly nuanced account of identitiy issues, and evidence for a complex chain of vertical and lateral relationships between on-going communities and humans as material items (including slaves). Understanding the range of identity types, defined by custom, language, location, appearance, social status, economic role and so on requires us to move both up and down scale. Upscale, we have what can be termed the Eurasian network, integrating the Old World Iron Age technocomplex at the broadest level, downscale we deal with Limited Interest Groups (LIGs) of varying status and kind that articulated with it. It becomes clear that Herodotus, in attempting to construe a complex diachronic account of Black Sea social formations, used ethnonyms as semiotic markers in a remarkably flexible and contextsensitive manner. It is important to understand what he is discussing before we can understand these terms, even when these appear recurrent. Due to Herodotus’s subsequent authorial influence, implicitly considered the exemplar for all ethnographic descriptors, the issues raised in the case of the use of terms Scythian and Thracian (which Herodotus applied to socio-cultural phenomena about which he had first-hand knowledge) are also relevant in the Celtic case (despite the fact that that impinges
only tangentially on his narrative).

Beyond Ethnicity, Beyond Dacians. Group Identity and Statehood in the Late Iron Age of the Carpathian Basin

Catalin Popa

This paper illustrates that renouncing the traditional view of ethnic groups in the Late Iron Age of the Carpathian Basin can reveal a much more complex picture than previously thought. It is argued that the analysis of the funerary record does not support the existence of large, unitary ethnic units, such as Dacians or Celts. By employing an innovative method which combines current theoretical ideas on identity construction with statistical methods, it is shown that status and regional identities, strongly entangled with each other, played a significant role for the Iron Age inhabitants of the region.

The analysis results to do not clash with our previous knowledge regarding the political development of the area. Instead, they serve to underline the importance that regional and status differences had, in the period from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD, for the political organisation of the Carpathian Basin. The results suggest that the so-called Dacian kingdoms were far from representing the political materialization of an ethnically unitary population. Instead, I propose that the political entities were characterised by a strong identity division between a ruling social strata and the rest of the population. This differentiation manifested itself in numerous areas of life as well as in death and may have its origins in pre-existing regional differences.


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