Who were the Celts?

Early historical sources

Warriors fighting.
Illustration of warriors fighting. This illustration typifies the classic view of the early Celts as fierce and individual warriors.

Today, Wales is considered a Celtic nation, one of a family of nations and regions along the Atlantic fringes of western Europe. This Celtic identity is widely accepted, contributing powerfully towards a modern national identity. Classical authors first recorded the Celts over 2,500 years ago - but who were the earliest Celts?

The early Celts rarely wrote about themselves. To the Greeks, they were known as Keltoi, Keltai or Galatai and to the Romans Celti, Celtae and Galli.

First mention of the Celts was made by the Greeks authors between 540 and 424BC. But the most valuable insights are provided by Roman authors - as the Roman world was expanding, they came in direct contact with the Celts on their northern borders.

The Classical texts are incomplete, often copied long after the event. The information we have therefore provides, at best, occasional 'snap shot' glimpses of Celts.

Early sources place Celts in western Europe and also occupying land near the headwaters of the Danube river. Their home territories have often been traced to central and eastern France, extending across southern Germany and into the Czech Republic.

The Four tribal regions of Wales

Coin of the Roman Republic
Coin of the Roman Republic showing the head of a Gaul with lime-washed hair. The Roman historian Diodorus Siculus describes this tradition in his writings. Such sources offer brief and possibly distorted 'snap shots' of the Celts.

Interestingly, none of the Classical texts refer to the peoples of Britain and Ireland as Celts; instead, specific tribes and leaders are named during the 1st centuries BC and AD. By the time of the Roman invasion of Britain, four tribal peoples occupied areas of modern day Wales:

  • Ordovices (north-west)
  • Deceangli (north-east)
  • Demetae (south-west)
  • Silures (south-east)

To understand how Celts first came to be associated with Wales, we must turn to the historical development of Celtic linguistics (the study of languages).

Language

Archaeologia Britannica
Edward Lhuyd's Archaeologia Britannica (1707). This pioneering study led to the recognition of two families of Celtic languages.

George Buchanon, a 16th-century scholar, suggested that the peoples of continental Europe had once spoken a related group of Gallic languages. Since modern Welsh, Irish and Scots Gaelic were similar to these ancient languages, the people of Britain, it was argued, originally came from France and Spain.

A pioneering study by Edward Lhuyd in 1707 recognised two families of Celtic languages, P-Celtic or Brythonic (Welsh, Breton, Cornish) and Q-Celtic or Goidelic (Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx). The Brythonic languages were assumed to have come from Gaul (France), whilst the Goidelic languages were given an Iberian (Spain, Portugal) origin.

During the 18th century, people who spoke Celtic languages were seen as Celts. The ancient inhabitants of Wales, were therefore increasingly known as Celts.

The beginnings of a Celtic language

Tracing the beginnings of Celtic languages is difficult. Most agree that they derive from an earlier language known as 'proto-Indo-European'. This probably reached western Europe through the movement of peoples, possibly from Central Asia between 6000 and 2000BC. Unfortunately, there is little agreement over precisely when this occurred and when and how Celtic languages subsequently developed.

On current understanding, Celtic languages have their origins at some time between 6000 and 600BC, with the earliest known inscriptions in a Celtic language being found in Northern Italy and dating to the 6th century BC.

Art and archaeology

Detail of triskele
Detail of triskele, about 11cm (4.3 inches) across, on a plaque from Llyn Cerrig Bach (Anglesey). This notable example of La Tène art is typically interpreted as evidence for a Celtic artistic tradition.

The appearance of a new style of art during the 5th century BC and its later spread across much of Europe has frequently been interpreted by archaeologists as evidence for a common Celtic culture or identity.

Celtic art was recognised and named by British scholars during the mid 19th century. However, it was not until 1910-14 that the earliest objects decorated in this style were traced to a common cultural area of north-east France, southern Germany and the Czech Republic.

It was named the La Tène culture, after an important collection of decorated metalwork discovered at a site on the edge of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The spread of La Tène or Celtic art across Europe, including Britain and Ireland, was for a long time interpreted as invasions by Celtic people.

More recently, British archaeologists have become increasingly dissatisfied with the idea of Celts invading Britain and of a 'Celtic' society sharing language, art, religious belief and identity. There is little conclusive evidence amongst the archaeological remains for large-scale arrivals of a new people from the Continent.

The archaeology of the Iron Age in Britain is suggesting a mosaic of regional societies, each with their own distinctive identity. This is at considerable odds with a uniform Celtic culture.

Archaeologists have also become more critical of their own assumptions when interpreting Iron Age sites. The presence of La Tène art in Wales need not indicate invading Celts, it could equally show the spread of a fashion across many societies or suggest long-distance exchange contacts. At the same time, we now know that much of the later La Tène art is distinctively British in style and largely absent in Continental Europe.

Summary

Debate has surrounded the notion of the Celts since scholars first began to examine it, and this discussion is set to continue.

It is possible that future genetic studies of ancient and modern human DNA may help to inform our understanding of the subject. However, early studies have, so far, tended to produce implausible conclusions from very small numbers of people and using outdated assumptions about linguistics and archaeology.

Background Reading

Christian Celts

Exploring the World of the Celts by S. James. Published by Thames & Hudson (1993).

The Celts: Origins, Myths and Inventions by J. Collis. Tempus Publishing Ltd (2003).

The Ancient Celts by B. Cunliffe. Oxford University Press (1997).

Article Date: 4 May 2007

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Glossary

DNA
Or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a long double-helix molecule that carries the genetic code for a species.

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