Friday, 23 October 2015

Who were the Celts? Art, Identity and Myth in Ancient Europe

For those of us living in the United Kingdom, a current exhibition at the British Museum, and a recent three-part television documentary, have raised some interesting questions about "Celtic" identity. The exhibition ("Celts - Art and Identity"), to my mind, explores these questions with a degree of subtlety, whereas the BBC documentary ("The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice") seems to me to perpetuate, rather than to challenge, some of the myths that have emerged about "the Celts" over the last few centuries.

To talk of "the Celts" at all (rather than, say, "Celtic art" or "Celtic languages") makes certain pre-suppositions that ought not to remain unchallenged. It is unlikely that anyone living in Europe prior to the late 17th Century AD ever thought of themselves as "Celts." The exhibition does make clear that the term "Keltoi" was first used by Greek writers to refer to people whose culture was very different from their own. As he marched his legions through Gaul, Julius Caesar never thought that he was fighting "the Celts." He referred, instead, to "Gauls," "Belgae" and "Britons," but he recognised that none of these groups were homogeneous, and one of his favourite military strategies was to play one tribe off against another: the Aedui against the Arverni and Sequani in central France; the Trinovantes against the Catuvellauni in southern England; much as later European colonialists would play Tutsi against Hutu in Rwanda, Nuer against Dinka in Sudan.

There are at least two potentially coherent uses of the term "Celtic" in relation to the ancient cultures of Europe. The first is linguistic - people who spoke "Celtic" languages. The idea of a "Celtic" language group is a modern construct, but the surviving Celtic languages (Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, Breton) clearly have more in common with one another than they do with other languages, and it is reasonably clear that most of the people referred to by Caesar as Gauls, Belgae and Britons spoke languages closely related to these. The second is art-historical: there is a style of art, extending from the 4th or 5th Century BC to the 7th or 8th Century AD, which, for want of a better term, has been described as "Celtic." Unsurprisingly, given its focus on the art, the British Museum takes the art-historical definition as its starting point.

The "Battersea Shield," almost certainly made by craftsmen and used by a warrior who spoke a "Celtic" language. Photo: QuartierLatin1968 (licensed under CCA).

It is not safe, however, to assume that all "Celtic" art was produced by people speaking "Celtic" languages. There is a major problem with the vision presented in the documentary series, of a "unified" Celtic culture extending from Portugal in the west to Turkey in the east: it ignores the existence of the Germans. Roman writers, including Caesar and Tacitus, make a clear distinction between "Gauls" and "Germans" (Germani or Alemanni, terms sometimes, but not always, used interchangeably), and linguists certainly distinguish "Celtic" from "Germanic" languages. It is almost certain that some of the masterpieces of "Celtic" art were produced by people who spoke Germanic (and other) languages, but it is not always easy to determine which ones. Let's look at some specific examples from the British Museum exhibition.

The "Lord of Glauberg." Photo: Heinrich Sturzl (licensed under CCA).

The so-called "Lord of Glauberg," a sandstone statue of an elite warrior found in Baden-Wurtenburg, is probably a representation, however stylised, of a real man: a burial found nearby had a torc almost identical to the one depicted on the statue. Glauberg straddles the border between the Celtic (Gaulish) and Germanic-speaking worlds, so was he a Gaul (perhaps married to a German), or a German (perhaps married to a Gaul)? Either way, he might well have been bilingual, and is unlikely to have used either term to describe himself, citing, instead, a tribal name that may well have become lost in the mists of time. Torcs, in themselves, are often seen as indications of "Celtic" identity, but they may well have been worn by people who did not speak "Celtic" languages, and the Glauberg torc (even in art-historical terms) is far from typical of those found in areas where those languages clearly were spoken.

The Glauberg Torc. Photo: Rosemania (licensed under CCA).

Gold torc from Snettisham, Norfolk, a far more typical example of "Celtic" gold-work. Photo: Johnbod (licensed under CCA).

Even more problematic is the Gundestrup Cauldron, a spectacular masterpiece of the silver-smith's art currently on loan to the British Museum from the National Museum of Denmark. The smiths who made it were probably Thracians, and the cauldron was ultimately buried in Denmark: it is very unlikely that "Celtic" languages were spoken either in Thrace or in Denmark, and yet there are several themes in the iconography that suggest a link to the Celtic-speaking world.

The Gundestrup Cauldron. No photograph can truly do justice to this extraordinary artefact. I had seen it before, in the National Museum of Denmark, but would happily have paid the £16 admission for the exhibition just to see this. Photo: Knud Winckelmann (licensed under CCA).

The horned figure depicted here on the cauldron, holding a torc in his right hand, and a serpent in his left, is thought by many specialists to represent the Celtic god, Cernunnos (Germanic speaking people may well have called him by a different name). Photo: Malene Thyssen (licensed under GNU).

These figures on the cauldron are playing carnyxes, musical instruments that are known to have been used by "Celtic" (Gaulish) armies as they entered battle. Photo: Malene Thyssen (licensed under GNU).

For me, the cauldron speaks of the fluidity of cultural identities in the part of Europe that lay beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Tribal groups, some of them speaking languages ancestral to modern Welsh & Breton, others speaking languages ancestral to modern German & Swedish, knew of, and interacted with one another, sometimes fighting, but sometimes also feasting together, trading and intermarrying.

 Bronze carnyx from Tintignac, France. The people who made and used this artefact are likely to have been Celtic-speaking Gauls. Photo: Claude Volette (licensed under CCA).

Celtic and Germanic speaking peoples may have had more in common than has sometimes been supposed, not only in terms of artistic expression, but also of religious practice. Their gods had different names, but many similar attributes, and they demanded human sacrifice, with ritually killed bodies found in bogs from Ireland to Denmark and northern Germany. The documentary presents this as a specific marker of  "Celtic" identity, but it seems to have been a practice shared by "Celts" and "Germans."

The British characters in my novel, An Accidental King, speak the "Celtic" language of pre-Roman Britain, wear "Celtic" jewellery and worship "Celtic" gods, but they see themselves not as "Celts," but rather as Regnenses (in Sussex), Catuvellauni (in the Thames Valley) and Trinovantes (in Essex). Some of them come to see themselves as "Britons," but this is a Roman concept, which, in the novel, seduces some of the native people of our islands, whilst alienating others. This, I imagine, is how things must have been, and it is why I find the vision offered by the British Museum more compelling and convincing than that of the BBC documentary.

The British Museum exhibition "Celts - Art and Identity" runs until 31st January 2016. Advance booking is recommended.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Great post, Mark, which nicely expresses the problems inherent across the whole Pre-Roman Iron Age of Western Europe. I've never seen the Scandinavian cultures as 'Celtic,' and find the inclusion of the Gundestrop cauldron quite an intellectual leap to accommodate - wish I could slot in a visit to London to visit the exhibition, but alas, time and money do not allow. I'll have to wait until a similar exhibition hits Edinburgh in 2016...

  2. Thanks, Louise! I suspect that at least part of the exhibition will ultimately go to Edinburgh, since it was created in partnership with the National Museum of Scotland. The Gundestrup cauldron is quite well-handled - it is not claimed as a "Celtic" artefact as such, but Celtic influences & themes are highlighted.

  3. Good post, Mark. Like Louise, I'm unlikely to get to see the exhibition in London but will make sure to see it in Edinburgh. A few weeks ago, I went to Inverness Museum to a conference about the impact/legacy of the Rome Empire on the Moray Firth area. The main speaker was Fraser Hunter of Nat. Mus. of Scotland and what he mentioned made me hope that the bulk of the exhibits would come north to Edinburgh. Re your topic today, when I started to write my Celtic Fervour Series, I had a huge dilemma over what to 'broadly ' name my indigenous characters and later the same thing happened when it came to naming the series. Naming it the Brigante Fervour Series, or another of the 'Romanised' tribal names of the north like Selgovae etc, was rejected (By CC and friends) because they thought it would make much less impact on the average reader. 'Celtic'- rightly or wrongly - is a more recognisable term.
    I wasn't enamoured of the new 'Celts' series - especially since everything stopped just after Bouddica.

  4. Thanks, Nancy! I'm sure you were right to go for "Celtic Fervour" - a series title is always a marketing device and, as you say, people understand the term (even if they actually misunderstand it) and the characters think of themselves as Brigantes, Selgovae etc. Thanks to wise advice from a friend, the London-based trilogy that I am now working on is now "The Cheapside Tales," rather than "Fors Fortuna." I'll have more to say shortly about the treatment of the Boudiccan Revolt in the Celts" series!

  5. A fabulous post Mark. Having watched Tge Celts, I felt it lingered too much on a few larger-than-life characters and not enough on the tribes themselves. It was too broad a sweep for my liking. A pity, as with a few extra episodes they could have delved deeper. As for my novel, I chose to stick to tribal names too. After all, those are what my characters use to define themselves. I look forward to your views on the Boudiccan revolt!