There was a time when models of Celtic society, mostly derived from classical sources, served as a blueprint for Iron Age communities from Shetland to the Mediterranean. This is no longer the case. Indeed, the Celts have lately become the subject of much academic angst, as archaeologists have sought to distance themselves from the outmoded culture-histories that once underpinned much of British and European prehistory.
Even worse, the Celts have been hijacked by a motley collection of modern institutions and organisations. For instance, a recent publication by the Council of Europe describes the prehistoric Europe of the Celts as "a shifting mosaic of regional identities bound ... by a common interest in trade and enterprise". This proto-European Union vision is unlikely to be shared by those who prefer their Celts as nature-loving denizens of a timeless prehistoric idyll.
At the root of this malleability of meaning lies the vagueness with which the Celts have been defined. Speakers of early Celtic languages, for example, may not have corresponded with the makers of what we call Celtic art, and none of these people need have thought of themselves as Celts or adhered to any common culture or identity. The term has been argued by some to be "so abused as to be useless".
In The Ancient Celts Barry Cunliffe, professor of European archaeology at Oxford and one of Britain's most prolific and distinguished prehistorians, attempts to lay bare the archaeological reality of the Celts. Refreshingly, the author is well aware of academic distrust of all things Celtic, and so begins his text with a brief critical review that shows that the modern use of the Celts "as a metaphor for the European ideal" is quite in keeping with past practice. In fact, such expedient distortions of history have a lengthy pedigree, as Cunliffe neatly demonstrates with a series of images that include a 16th-century drawing of Boudicca, looking for all the world like Elizabeth I, and the archaeological dabblings of Napoleon III.
Much of the book sets out the archaeological background to the Celts as experienced and described by the classical world. Although the classical sources treat the Celts as an identifiable ethnic group, the term seems even then to have been rather vague. Caesar, in the first century bc, tells us that the Celts were simply one of three peoples in what is now France. His contemporary, Strabo, suggests that it was maybe the proximity of these people to a much earlier Greek colony, at Marseilles, that had led to their name being adopted as a handy collective term for any northern troublemakers. Despite this liberal application, however, no classical author ever referred to Celts in Britain or Ireland; so much for the Celtic fringe. Acknowledging the problems of definition, Cunliffe casts his net widely, including in his discussion all peoples who seem to have spoken languages that we would now class as Celtic, and who otherwise indulged in the Celtic milieu of art, metalwork, burial custom and the rest.
Although taking a rather trusting line on classical descriptions of folk movements and migrations, there is no attempt here to suggest Celts were a single ethnic group, with a homeland whence they spread and conquered. Cultural change is instead seen as primarily a feature of the economic and social systems within which these societies functioned. Thus the spread of La Tene metalwork, for example, so often thought to denote the travels of Celtic invaders, is seen here as feeding the demand from elite groups across Europe for new and exotic products with which to display their wealth and status.
Cunliffe sees Iron Age Europe predominantly in terms of the interactions between a series of economically defined zones. At the core of the system were the urban civilisations of the Mediterranean, while to the north and west were societies that Cunliffe sees as increasingly peripheral. Such an approach clearly runs the risk of projecting modern socio-political perceptions on to the past, and it is arguable to what extent Cunliffe's core and periphery reflect prehistoric perceptions. According to Caesar, for example, the Druids, traditionally a central institution of the Celtic world, originated in Britain and spread south to Gaul, that is from periphery to core.
Cunliffe draws attention to aspects of Celtic societies that were alien and seemingly barbaric to classical observers, such as the highly ritualised nature of warfare. One manifestation of this, often depicted in classical representations of Celtic warriors, was the use of the animal-headed war trumpets, known as carnyxes. A recently made working replica of one such carnyx, from Deskford in Aberdeenshire, has shown that the instrument was probably played much like a didgeridoo, issuing a deep rasping noise presumably intended to unsettle the enemy amid the din and disorder of battle. The intended effect was probably not unlike that of the bagpipes that led Highland regiments into more recent conflicts.
In another passage, Cunliffe describes a spectacular iron helmet found in a grave at Ciumesti in modern Romania. Atop squats a large and cumbersome bronze bird, complete with movable wings that would have flapped and rattled alarmingly as the wearer moved around (perhaps even more disquieting than the massed ranks of didgeridoo players). This is clearly not the most practical piece of headgear for serious combat, and again serves to demonstrate the Celtic penchant for display and symbolism that permeated all aspects of daily life and, indeed, death.
With "Celts" in the title, as the author acknowledges, this book should have little trouble attracting an audience, and Cunliffe writes with more than enough verve to keep the non-specialist on board throughout. The book is peppered with more than 200 illustrations, and makes good use of the numerous colour plates to present striking, but not over-familiar, images of the Celts. Distribution maps are wisely collected at the end, as an appendix for the more than usually dedicated.
Ian Armit is an inspector of ancient monuments with Historic Scotland.
The Ancient Celts
Author - Barry Cunliffe
ISBN - 0 19 815010 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 324