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That we can write a joint history of the Celts (as opposed to the individual national histories of the Irish, Welsh, Scots, etc.), is a remarkably recent idea.

Around the year 1700, really no-one in Britain or Ireland thought of themselves, or their ancestors, as 'Celtic'. Until that time, ever since the period of the Roman Empire, 'Celtic' had referred only to the Ancient Gauls of France and related Continental peoples.

The concept that the Scots, Welsh, Irish and some other groups in the British Isles may be called 'Celtic' evolved during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. How far is it a rediscovery of a forgotten past reality? Or is it simply a modern invention, imposed on the past?

At the historical roots of all this lie the peoples of the European Iron Age who are regarded as the first Celts. The question some archaeologists are now exploring is: do the modern usages of the term 'Celtic' actually serve to celebrate the antiquity of a people? Or do they obscure the identities of a family of brilliant but actually quite diverse peoples, who would be surprised to discover they are being called 'Celts'?

The central paradox is that, so far as we can tell, in antiquity the only peoples known (to either themselves or their neighbours) as 'Celts' lived entirely on the Continent; the peoples of the British Isles were perceived as being similar to the Celtic Gauls of what is now France, but were thought of as ethnically distinct, certainly by the Romans and probably by the Gauls.

Yet today the only modern peoples called 'Celtic' are the descendants of these island-dwelling 'peoples-distinguished-from-the-Celts' in the past.

The conventional view of 'Celticity' is that, largely due to migration from a Central European Iron Age homeland, much of Continental Europe and the British Isles shared a common package of Celtic language and culture, and that it is the similarities which matter most. All these people spoke related tongues; they were all non-literate, non-urban, and shared many common features of social organization and religious belief (a warrior class, Druidic priesthood), had similar art, etc.

An alternative view is that the similarities exist, but their extent is sometimes more apparent than real; that it is the local identities, and therefore the differences between these people which are important. The idea of a universal 'Celtic cultural package' is seen as dangerously misleading.

For example, not all people called Celts used 'Celtic' (La Tène style) art (e.g. the Celtiberians of Spain did not). Similarly, the sparse evidence about Druids is consistent with the idea that the cult may have been confined to the British Isles and much of Gaul, and may have been unknown among the majority of the Continental Celts in the Iron Age.

Likewise, the societies labelled 'Celtic' seem to have had a far greater variety of social and political organization across time and geography than is usually assumed. Wessex in the fifth century BC, for example, may have had no well-defined nobilty, or any warrior class; while the Aedui of Gaul in Caesar's time were literate, had cities and elaborate constitutional government.

Read More: University of Leicester


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